Category Archives: Image [&] Narrative

Image [&] Narrative #11: The Mode of the Mainstream and the Graphic Novel in Flanders (Part IV) by Charlotte Pylyser

In this final instalment of our exploration of the Flemish comics scene, we will have a look at the final sphere out of the three spheres which we have introduced in the course of this series. After the USA-oriented sphere and the Franco-Belgian sphere, this post will look at some cultural praxes typical of the graphic novel sphere. In an earlier post we concluded that fans of both the USA-oriented sphere and the Franco-Belgian sphere lacked agency after the understanding of the term in the context of Henry Jenkins’s conception of participatory culture. This post will once again call on Jenkins’s ideas about fans and their culture, but in addition to the acts of cultural participation which they are involved in, it will also look at the notions which he posits as underlying the discursive construction of fan culture

As was the case with the previous spheres, the basis of our investigation in this post is rather empirical, examining an event that unites object, audience and creator. In the case of the graphic novel, we will look at the book fair.

As we have mentioned, the Flemish graphic novel is absent at events in Flanders where one might expect it to pop up. It’s not at the Fantasy, Animation, Comics, Toys and Space convention in Ghent. It is not particularly present at the largest comics festival in Flanders either. It does have a place at the largest book fair in Flanders, however. In fact, one of the youngest (and most recently debuted) graphic novel authors was featured quite heavily in the promotion of this years’ Antwerp Book Fair. She was given a prominent spot at the booth of the distributor, appeared in interviews and in a promotional video made by the Flemish Public Broadcaster to “show Flanders to the world and the world to Flanders” (Fans of Flanders). Her debut Verdwaald (2013) [Lost] displays many characteristics typical of the contemporary Flemish graphic novel: it is a product of higher art education and is therefore very graphic and tabular in nature, it is subsidised by the Flemish Literature Fund and comes in a slightly irregular book format. The narrative is associative and, taking a cue from visual arts/illustration, often relies on the reader’s taking in of tableau-like double spreads. Like the protagonist’s meandering thoughts, our eye may lose itself in these lush pages. The need for this work to be considered in a more international graphic novel context is signalled by the fact that the book was not published by one of two designated graphic novel publishers in Flanders, but by a Dutch publisher of graphic novels: Oog & Blik. More important, however, is the connection which Verdwaald establishes with the genre of autobiography, a genre to which many (but certainly not all) graphic novels belong and which has arguably shaped the face of the graphic novel, especially in mainstream cultural discourse. Verdwaald is a semi-autobiographical story about the sense of abandonment which the author felt in her childhood and as such fits perfectly in the context of the book fair which, in the case of the Antwerp Book Fair, is a celebration not so much of books, but of their authors.

If the object and the social fan experience were central to the F.A.C.T.S. convention and the Strip Turnhout Festival, the Antwerp Book Fair is the grounds for the culmination of the author subject into a full-on personality culture (that is not to say that all authors enjoy being at the fair or are affirmed at it, indeed, one could argue that the fair also embodies the exploitation of the author subject by the cultural industries puts them in a rather precarious position). This is evident in many of the seemingly more participatory activities that are organised during the fair. Amongst the reading sessions, knitting and cookery workshops in which the author is always on a different level than his receptive audience, which precludes true participation, one activity stands out that, although parodic in intent, is reflective of the sort of interaction that occurs most often between authors and their readers at the fair. In collaboration with Flanders’ largest culture website, readers can visit so-called book doctors, authors whose vast area of expertise in literature and culture is at the service of readers’ small and large problems. At once appropriating and mocking the power and authority which the town doctor held in (rural) Flanders in past decades, the book doctors prescribe reading recommendations to their reader-patients: Stefan Zweig’s autobiography The World of Yesterday against an overload of impulses, David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet against a lack of time to read, Pippi Longstocking for a girl that is afraid of making mistakes. The authoritative interpretation of the author figure at the fair is also present in the way in which graphic novel authors interact with their readers, particularly in a small, but significant difference between the practice of signing books when compared with the sort of signing that can be seen at F.A.C.T.S. and Strip Turnhout. In contrast with artists at these latter events, authors at the book fair do not habitually take requests from their readers. They will of course dedicate a book to the person who asks for a signature, but the graphic component of their signature is most often up to them. Creators at F.A.C.T.S. were far more likely to draw at the request of the reader and would often inquire as to what it was they wanted to see. Clearly, the collective production system and the serial nature of comics when compared to graphic novels plays an important role in this constellation. Comic book readers are devoted to characters and franchises and know them intimately. As Jenkins has shown in Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture, these fans may have a have a sense of agency and ownership over the materials with which they interact (we have shown that this agency is limited in the Flemish realm). Readers of graphic novels (in Flanders and arguably abroad) are always at a remove of the author’s creativity and imagination. None of Jenkins participatory characteristics [1] really applies to them and the interaction between author and signature-seeker somewhat echoes the distribution of power as we have seen it in the case of the fan who spends enormous amounts of money and time on the signature of a personality in his subculture. Our final question will then be what this lack of participation and deference to the author mean in terms of agency.

In our third post we suggested that in Flanders the combination of the absence of participatory characteristics and fannish mania is what disempowers fans. Looking back, connecting these two elements was perhaps a step too far in that the degree of enthusiasm and devotion is in itself not an indicator of agency or non-agency in the fan paradigm, participation is. In Textual Poachers, Jenkins speaks at length about the mania in question and seems to consider it more of a construct than a reality, emphasising that it is merely “other”. His assertion that fan culture is vilified because it “muddies those boundaries treating popular texts as if they merited the same degree of attention and appreciation of canonical texts” (Jenkins 17) also seems somewhat paradigm-stretching, however. I would suggest, based on the preceding paragraphs, that it is the mode of attention and appreciation that is at stake here rather than the degree (Jenkins’ acknowledgement of the existence of different art worlds after the concept of Howard S. Becker suggests this as well). This change in mode characterises the graphic novel sphere in Flanders. It is a mode, shared by the modern novel, which is dispassionate and non-participatory (in the sense of Jenkins) and therefore very much not a fan mode (or, for that matter, an experimental mode). It is not particularly social, nor does it involve much sharing. It does not, in contrast with the fans, share an aversion of institutions or authority, instead embracing the possibility for pre-selection which the latter offer. It is perhaps summed up best in the word didactic and it seems to me that whether or not a form of agency is present in it would require a move away from the material (content, text, characters, narratives, style, play, humour etc.) and towards the superstructure of a culture. A next step in understanding the Flemish graphic novel sphere would then have to involve the apparently infrequently asked question as to what it means not simply to absorb, but to practice mainstream culture in Flanders. The choice of name for the government-sponsored “Fans of Flanders” website certainly fascinates in this regard.

Works Cited

Jenkins, Henry. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge, 2013.

Jenkins, Henry et al. Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. Cambridge (MA): MIT Press, 2009.

“Fans of Flanders.” Fans of Flanders. Flemish Public Broadcaster, n.d. Web. 17 Nov. 2013.

Charlotte Pylyser is a PhD student at the Catholic University of Leuven. She operates from a literary studies and cultural studies background and her research concerns the Flemish graphic novel in particular and issues of culture and context with regard to comics in general.

She sits on the editorial board of Image [&] Narrative.

To read other instalments of the Image [&] Narrative column on Comics Forum, click here.

[1] –

Play — the capacity to experiment with your surroundings as a form of problem-solving;

Performance — the ability to adopt alternative identities for the purpose of improvisation and discovery;

Simulation — the ability to interpret and construct dynamic models of real world processes;

Appropriation — the ability to meaningfully sample and remix media content;

Multitasking — the ability to scan one’s environment and shift focus as needed to salient details.

Distributed Cognition — the ability to interact meaningfully with tools that expand mental capacities;

Collective Intelligence — the ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with others toward a common goal;

Judgment — the ability to evaluate the reliability and credibility of different information sources

Transmedia Navigation — the ability to follow the flow of stories and information across multiple modalities

Networking — the ability to search for, synthesize, and disseminate information

Negotiation — the ability to travel across diverse communities, discerning and respecting multiple perspectives, and grasping and following alternative norms.

(Jenkins et al. 4)

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Posted by on 2014/01/14 in Image [&] Narrative


Comics Forum Online: Year Two Review and Comics Forum 2013 Call for Papers

The Comics Forum website is two years old today! Following on from last year’s round up of articles, in this post I’ll be providing a review of all the pieces we’ve published this year, and launching the Comics Forum 2013 call for papers.

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Image [&] Narrative #9: The Changing Face of the Comics Convention – Some Reflections about Comics Culture on the Occasion of the Montreal Comiccon by Charlotte Pylyser

In this installment of the Image [&] Narrative series I propose to put the argument I have been developing in my previous posts on hold for a moment to have a look at a related phenomenon that has become an increasingly high-profile part of the study of comics culture: the changing face of the comics convention.[1] I have opted to approach this very interesting but quite sensitive question with a blend of empirical observation and interpretation in the hope of generating useful insights and food for thought rather than providing an exhaustive critique or model – it certainly has proven to be an interesting exercise to think about what we could consider an ongoing controversy (that manifests itself not only amongst fans, but also along a varied fan-scholar continuum) in a speculative manner. The next installment in the series will pick up where my third post left off.

As I visited the Montreal comics convention which took place just last September, I could not help but notice that many of the outrageous(ly creative) costumes on display on the convention floor were proudly flaunted by female participants.

Image & Narrative 9.1

Interestingly, the majority of these costumes paid homage to products of popular culture other than (superhero) comics. There was the obligatory princess Leia costume, there were horror-inspired costumes and many manga-inspired outfits. I saw a great a number of steampunk goggles parading by as their owners rushed to find a good viewing spot at one of the many conferences held by their favourite TV or movie stars. Comic book dealers were trying to convey their interest in our business with all their might.

Image & Narrative 9.2

But money seemed to flow towards accessories: leather bracelets to complete a mediaeval look, half-eaten zombie brains for those who favoured the horror genre, cute stuffed animal familiars for kids and adults alike…

Image & Narrative 9.3

Most of all I was struck by the many spectators that had come to enjoy the show. Unassuming, uncostumed people of all kinds that were looking for interesting sights and whose desires were readily fulfilled by the costumed participants who seemed to know exactly what their role was in all of this. At times stretching the practice of the photo-opportunity far beyond its usual structured and paid limits all the way to voyeurism, this exchange seemed both liberating and perverse. The same ambiguity arguably applies to the presence of Oxfam at the convention.

Image & Narrative 9.4

Has the comics convention become a place where our collective worries and concerns share the same relevance as the DC Universe Reboot? Is it ok for us to dress up issues of (social) injustice in a sparkly wig and matching cape? Liberating or denigrating? I experienced a clever culmination of the above trends as a man in a Where’s Waldo? costume waited until everyone was seated in anticipation of the arrival of Sir Patrick Stewart (Star Trek’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard) to stand up and stand out in an ironic rendition of the game associated with his chosen costume. This man was performing. And before I realised it I had snapped a picture of his performance.

Image & Narrative 9.5

None of the trends described above (the increased presence of women and the focus on elements of popular culture that are not comics, which translate into a different (precarious) economic status for the comic book dealers at the event, the increased prevalence of the spectator-performer dynamic and the insertion of issues that concern the public at large into the space of the comics convention) are exclusive to the Montreal Comiccon and I am certainly not the first one to note a change of tone in the goings-on at comics conventions, but it seems to me that my observations at (my snapshots of) the Montreal Comiccon can serve as the basis for an exploration of the evolution which the American comics convention has undergone since its emergence in the 1970s, a photo-opportunity of a different kind. This evolution is characterised by a movement away from the centrality of the act of collecting and the building of a form of community through the sharing of expertise to that of the value question (Can I find that one rare book which will complete my collection? Which comic would be a good investment?) and further towards networked (costumed) performance. I must add that just as it would be inaccurate to claim that the comics convention has always been completely walled off from other elements of popular culture, it would be a stretch to posit that one could not find costumed participants (or women for that matter) at 1970s or 1980s comiccons.[2] But at present we see significantly more of these things, and, more importantly, we see them differently. Indeed, underlying our quantitative observation arguably lies a fundamental change of the participation paradigm, a change of mode. The comics convention is no longer just a celebration of fandom(s). The Hollywood entertainment industry has opened up and expanded the comiccon as a showcase and a publicity venue for popular culture at large, amplifying and preparing the space of the comics convention for the fetish of the spectator’s gaze which is inherent in the focus on performance that is typical of networked costuming. Needless to say that the rise of this practice goes hand in hand with and is sustained by technological evolutions and cybercultural infrastructures that allow easier and cheaper ways of documentation (digital cameras, cell phone cameras) and render the dissemination of said documentation more accessible (social media, internet fora). What I aim to do in the remainder of this short text is to open a speculative avenue of reflection on the topic of the gaze through the lens of one of the most visible changes in the comiccon landscape: the emergence of women on the scene.

Traditionally a very male-dominated culture, the American comic book culture, out of which the comics convention has grown, was notorious for its lack of appeal to and inclusion of women. That is not to say that Woman was entirely absent from the culture, indeed, she might be said to have fulfilled a key role in functioning as a symbol for the exercise in boundary policing that seems to have animated the comic book culture for a long time. While the position of women within comics culture (the representation of women in comic books, the role of women in the industry etc.) is too complex a matter to fully dive into at present, I would like to propose the idea of distance as a unifying characteristic of the interaction between the comic book culture of the 1970s through to (at least) the 1990s and womankind. As a figure of longing women were awarded value on the condition that they remained absent, a pattern that can easily be expanded to include comic book culture’s relationship with legitimate readership and culture more generally. Now that women have physically entered the space of comic book culture by attending comics conventions en masse I would like to explore what has become of the Woman figure. What is her place (function, role) in comics discourse and in the structures underlying comics culture?

As self-professed authentic comics fans bemoan what they consider the impending implosion of the comic book convention – and it is certainly true that changing trends in comics convention practices have made it hard for comic book vendors to turn a profit at conventions these days – it is often apparent that they are ill at ease with the presence of outsiders (women, performers, non-fans) at these events.[3] In a linear, metaphorical reading of events, some might consider this phenomenon the proverbial growing pain of a neurotic adolescent male culture which is maturing into a functioning part of society (culture), but I do not necessarily find that metaphor inspiring, nor its implied teleology accurate. Instead, I would like to offer a short interpretation of the Woman figure in contemporary comics culture, a culture which continues to struggle with boundaries, but this time finds itself wrapped up in a discourse of survival rather than longing. This brief exercise will show how the Woman figure of today can fulfill a role that runs parallel to her function in earlier comics culture, arguably that of the ultimate threat.

What turns Woman into a threat seems to me to be the way in which she can function as a missing link between economy and performance, the essential constituents of the showcase mode which we have identified as underlying the new comics convention trends and which is a cause for concern within comic book culture (as it is suspected of threatening its (financial) survival). However, I would argue that the more fundamental problem that women pose with regard to comics culture today is of a different order: they are subverting the mode in which comics culture has always related to others (and women in particular), that of keeping distance, thereby threatening the very identity of comics culture.

My interpretation, which is admittedly fairly condensed, relies on the reconstruction and deconstruction of an associative structure with regard to women at comics conventions:

Starting out firmly within the context of the convention concept, there are at least two elements that allow the contemporary comics convention to be connected to the notion of the exposition (such as the game industry E3 Expo that is held in LA every year; not all expos are alike of course, but my focus here is on expos that have traditionally attracted a male audience). One element is fairly straightforward: the convention and the expo are held in the same space, the other is more fundamental: the showcase element which characterises contemporary comiccons is shared by the expo. Now that a connection is established between both events we can turn our attention to the women that are present in both environments. With regard to the women present at the comiccon and the expo it is possible to posit a double link as well: on a physical level women at conventions and women at expos often resemble one another, donning costumes, playing off of their sexuality, even striking the same sort of poses (admittedly expo workers have a tendency to instrumentalise their sexuality in a more manifest way than comiccon attendees tend to). They also, however, both work as gaze-chasers, performing a role in order to attract the spectator’s attention. Here we must of course differentiate between the motives and circumstances of female conference participants and promotional expo workers. Promotional workers are engaged to work, they are not participants, the most obvious echo of this situation lies in the way money flows at expos. Women receive money for their work, (male) visitors pay for tickets or are invited. The economic disparity in this situation ensures the activation of the distance concept which we have pinpointed as typical of (but of course not exclusive to) comics culture.

With regard to the female performers at comics conventions, the interpretive structure which I have mapped out has three consequences. Not only does the associative dynamic allow economic motives (generalised as bad motives) to sneak their way into the image comics culture might form of these women, it also finalises a parallel between Hollywood (the cultural mainstream which comics culture also tends to have a tumultuous relationship with) and the Woman figure in that Woman also comes to represent an interlinking of showcase and economy. Last but most definitely not least the whole structure shows how, in contrast with the promotional workers who remain economically separated from the men whose gaze they are trying to catch , the presence of women at comics conventions breaks with the dynamic of distance. In freely giving what in the past the practice of longing revolved around (the connection with this past pattern puts female costumed performers in a position that cannot be taken up by male costumed performers ) , the female costumed convention goers subvert one of the core certainties of comics culture, they fracture the distance which seems to be an integral element of the positioning exercise of comics culture. These women then find themselves at the centre of an evolution that is often considered as bringing about radical change.

Of course this sentiment of change stands in stark contrast with the conservative responses which we have shown it to elicit. We might in fact conclude that on a certain level not much (or at least not everything, as is often implied by anxious comics fans) has changed for American comics culture as the distancing reflex which has informed it for such a long time remains an active (though not unchallenged) reality that is connected intimately with claims of authenticity.


Grossman, Lev. “San Diego Comic-Con, Day Zero: Has the Nerd Bubble Burst?” July 20th 2011. On line. October 20th 2012.

– “The Guy Who Hates Comic-Con Goes to Comic-Con, Part I.” July 20th 2010a. On line. October 20th 2012.

– “The Guy Who Hates Comic-Con: Oh My God Shut Up About Comic-Con.” July 26th 2010b. On line. October 20th 2012.

Johnston, Rich. ““Hey! Quasi-Pretty-NOT-Hot-Girl, You Are More Pathetic Than The REAL Nerds” – Tony Harris (UPDATE).” Bleeding Cool. November 13th 2012. On line. January 10th 2012.

Charlotte Pylyser is a PhD student at the Catholic University of Leuven. She operates from a literary studies and cultural studies background and her research concerns the Flemish graphic novel in particular and issues of culture and context with regard to comics in general.

She sits on the editorial board of Image [&] Narrative.

[1] – An earlier version of this article was published in French on the Délinéaire blog of the NT2 Research Lab for Hypermedia Works (Université du Québec à Montreal). This text can be found here.

[2] – Since their very beginnings comics conventions have welcomed sci-fi and fantasy fandoms into their space. One of the first guests of the San Diego Comic-Con (1970 edition) was in fact Ray Bradbury.

[3] – The series of articles on the 2010 San Diego Comic-con which Lev Grossman has written for the digital edition of Time Magazine forms a pertinent example of this type of discourse. The Time book critic and technology writer starts off his observations by noting that “Comic-Con is spiritually toxic” (Grossman 2010a, his emphasis) and finishes his thoughts by claiming that “Comic-Con is hurting nerd culture, in a broad, systemic and probably permanent way” (Grossman 2010b). Grossman repeats his concerns in his 2011 series of articles on Comic-Con, stressing the fact that he is reporting on “the spectacle of the subculture that kept me alive when I was an alienated 13-year-old being mainstreamed and dumbed-down and sold off for parts [the subculture is sold off for parts, not the 13-year-old boy]” (Grossman 2011). More recently, Tony Harris has sparked a fiery internet debate about women at comics conventions by accusing the majority of the female cosplayers at comiccons of being inauthentic fans whose interest in costumed performance revolves primarily around receiving male attention (Johnston). As is illustrated by some of the quite heavy criticism of his opinions, many of the assumptions made by Harris in his post are not so straightforwardly shared by other comics fans who wonder: “why should we be imposing some kind of ThoughtCrime on cosplayers, when we could just celebrate the fact that aspects from the comics industry [are] spreading through mainstream culture in uncontrollable, unexpected ways – rather than being simply ignored” and question why his accusations are exclusively aimed at women (Johnston).

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Posted by on 2013/01/22 in Image [&] Narrative


Image [&] Narrative #8: Tying ends together: surface and storyworld in comics by Steven Surdiacourt

The twin concepts ‘sujet’ and ‘fabula’, ‘story’ and ‘discourse’, ‘histoire’ and ‘récit’ have become anchors of our understanding of storytelling. More than that, the interaction between a ‘what’ and a ‘how’ has commonly been recognised as the conceptual core that defines any narrative, independently of its medial form. Seymour Chatman (1990: 9), for instance, has defended the idea that “what makes Narrative unique among the text-types is its ‘chrono-logic’, its doubly temporal logic.” In recent narrative theory, the validity of this distinction is nevertheless regularly questioned (see, for instance, Pier 2003), sometimes resulting in the rejection of the concepts as dated relics of a structuralist narratology. I will not linger over the general details of this criticism here, but rather focus on the applicability of the introduced concepts to graphic narratives.

Responding to Chatman’s reflections on the fundamental character of the ‘chrono-logic’, Martin Schüwer (2008) writes in Wie Comics erzählen that the distinction between story and discourse can be quite problematic for comics. The main reason for this, he argues, is the “inextricability of the material form and the content of the drawing in comics” (Schüwer 2008, 23 [my translation]), the impossibility of separating the signified from the signifier. For Schüwer, this inextricably raises questions such as: “Should we consider the caricatural style of Charles M. Schulz’ Peanuts as a mere feature of the discourse and imagine that Charly [sic] Brown and Lucy actually look quite differently in the recounted world?” (Schüwer 2008: 23 [my translation]). Since the story/discourse dichotomy seems unable to account for certain essential aspects of the medium, Schüwer decides to restrict its use to the analysis of the (double) temporal structure of comics.

To substantiate his argumentation, Schüwer refers to Jens Balzer’s (2002) essay ‘Der Horizont bei Herriman. Zeit und Zeichen zwischen Zeitzeichen und Zeichenzeit’. Analysing a remarkable Sunday page of Krazy Kat, Balzer (whose train of thought is not always easy to follow) sets out to demonstrate the inseparability of signifier and signified in graphic narratives. The page Balzer discusses, depicts yet another day in Coconio County, presenting the obligatory love-triangle constituted by Ignatz Mouse, the brick and Krazy Kat. Yet in this particular story the main protagonist seems to be the horizon line. Balzer focusses on the shifting functions of this line throughout the story. It appears firstly as the conventional representation of the horizon and activates as such a three-dimensional interpretation of the space, it appears also as the horizontal demarcation of a two-dimensional space through which Krazy tickles Igantz’s feet and, finally, as a wire that can be cut or ‘hewed’ and used to tie down Krazy. What is more, the introduction of every new ‘perspective’ does not simply trigger a retrospective revision of the nature of the line. The new function is rather added to the already established one(s) so that, in the end, the horizon line takes on it various shapes simultaneously in the different panels of this minimal story. In spite of the obvious semiotic instability of the line (and its fourteenfold (re-)appearance on the segmented page), the text insists on the identity (or oneness) of the line. In the first four panels, the line is referred to as “the same”, “a continuation” or an “immutable filiform demarcation.” The text, arguably, refers to the graphic surface of the story, where the line remains a line, an identical (or at least similar) graphic mark on the page, despite its multiple functions.

George Herriman’s notoriously unstable world might not be the most reliable base for a general reflection on the narrative organisation of comics, but I do think that this particular strip provides an interesting starting point for the exploration of the mechanisms of graphic representation. What is at stake here, I would suggest, is not the distinction between story and discourse. Schüwer’s problem is not so much caused by the postulation of two different narrative dimensions (which seems to go against his view of the relation between signified and signified) but by his understanding of the relation between those levels. His argument is based on a traditional (read: structuralist) conception in which the story provides the raw material for a particular narrative representation (or discourse) and thus logically precedes this representation (which is, in turn, understood as a distortion of the original story.) Richard Walsh (2007: 52-68) has convincingly challenged this view and has argued instead that the story is not an objective reality that exists independently of a particular narrative representation, but is an interpretative construction by the reader based on the discourse, the only textual reality to which (s)he has access. In his view, the discourse or sujet logically precedes the story and the story or fabula functions as “an interpretative exercise in establishing representational coherence only as a means to the end of this perceptibility” (Walsh 2007: 67) or, in other words, as “the reader’s working version” (Walsh 2007: 68). The story or fabula is then “how we understand sujet per se, and how we understand its contingency (potentially, its unreliability), not in relation to facts or sources, and usually not in comparison with other versions, but with respect to its own disposition of values.” (Walsh 2007: 67). If the story is “a distillate” (Walsh 2007: 66) of the discourse, Schüwer’s question about the appearance of Charlie Brown and Lucy obviously loses its pertinence. The constructivist view of the story also dissipates Balzer’s concern that the uncertain status of the line would be fitted in a linear logic by a narrative approach, that its interesting complexity would be reduced. Since the story, as Walsh emphasizes, is a construction based on the proper disposition of the discourse (and not on a comparison with some external reality), the uncertain status of the line would count as an ‘event’ (albeit a not so common one) in the story. And Balzer’s own effort to describe what is going on in the discussed Sunday page is in itself already a (public) act of interpretative construction.

While the endorsement of this different view on the relation between story and discourse accords with the intuition that the most readers have no difficulty to articulate what is happing in a particular comic (even in a complex one), it doesn’t help to explain the particularity of the discussed Krazy Kat story. Caran d’Ache’s Lettre de Napoléon à Murat (available here) offers a similar but less complex example which helps to grasp said particularity. It presents an even more minimal story in which both Napoleon and General Joachim Murat briefly figure (Napoleon appears in the first five panels, Murat in the very last one). The main part of the text is, however, devoted to the depiction of the adventures of an anonymous courier, carrying a letter from Napoleon to Murat. The journey of the courier (which is quite stirring) reaches its climax in a series of three panels near the end of the text, in which his horse is brutally dismembered by an explosion and, all is well that ends well (at least for the moment), neatly tied back together. What is remarkable about this passage is the temporary breach in the iconic regime of the story: the peculiar revival of the horse is only possible because of its graphic rendering in a style that is known as fil de fer or iron wire. Said otherwise, the two halves of the horse can only be knotted together because the horse is from the beginning on a line or a wire. (Just try to imagine a cinematic equivalent of the described scene.) In these particular panels the continuity of the story seems determined more by a logic of the line than by a pre-determined logic of action. As in the Krazy Kat example, where the line ceases to be a stable spatio-temporal coordinate determining the space in which the action could take place, the line partly liberates itself from its figurative function and brings into play its materiality.

This short lapse does not seem to cause any significant problems for the understanding of the story, it doesn’t even seem to interrupt the narrative continuity. But it does challenge the accepted Platonic notion of mimesis and demands a more complex understanding of the act of reading graphic narratives. The acceptance of a definition of mimesis in dual terms (such as the one advance by Aristotle (see Halliwell 151-176)), as the metaphorical act of seeing a represented world in a crafted object (Halliwell 2002: 189-193) allows for a better understanding of the role of the medial surface in the construction and experience of graphic narratives. It entails a view of the readerly experience not as the unearthing of a virtual narrative by the penetration of its medial surface, as Chatman (1978: 27) phrased it, but as a form of reading in and with the graphic surface, in which the “appreciation of both medium and ‘object’ of the material artifact [sic] and the imagined world that it represents, coalesce in a complex state of awareness.” (Halliwell 2002: 181-182).

Works Cited

Jens Balzer (2002) “Der Horizont bei Herriman. Zeit und Zeichen zwischen Zeitzeichen und Zeichenzeit.” In: Michael Hein et al. (eds.) Ästhetik des Comic. Berlin: Erich Schmidt Verlag, pp. 143-152.

Seymour Chatman (1978) Story and Discourse. Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film. Ithace: Cornell University Press.

Seymour Chatman (1990) Coming to Terms. The Rhetoric of Narrative Fiction in Film. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Stephen Halliwell (2002) The Aesthetics of Mimesis. Ancient Texts and Modern Problems. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

John Pier (2003) “On the Semiotic Parameters of Narrative. A Critique of Story and Discourse.” In: Tom Kindt & Harald Müller (eds.) What is Narratology? Questions and Answers Regarding the Status of a Theory. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, pp. 78-83.

Martin Schüwer (2008) Wie Comics erzählen. Grundriss einer intermedialen Erzähltheorie der grafischen Literatur. WVT: Trier.

Richard Walsh (2007) The Rhetoric of Fictionality. Columbus: Ohio State University Press.

Steven Surdiacourt is a doctoral fellow of FWO-Flanders at the University of Leuven (Belgium). His PhD research is devoted to the description of storytelling in graphic narratives. He is a member of the editorial board of Image [&] Narrative.

Read more editions of our Image [&] Narrative column here.

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Posted by on 2012/12/27 in Image [&] Narrative


Image [&] Narrative #7: How Lint became a comic strip opera. Interview with Walter Hus by Greice Schneider

Walter Hus (1959) is a composer and pianist. Toured the international scenes in the eighties with the group Maximalist!, and created music for theatre and dance (De Keersmaeker, Vandekeybus, Needcompany…). After his Maximalist! years Hus wrote an oeuvre of operas, concertos, symphonies, string quartets, songs and piano music as well as music for theatre, dance and film (Deruddere, Greenaway, Krüger..). In recent years Hus has been exploring the computer-controlled automatic Decap organs.

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A “comic strip opera”. It was under such intriguing label that I watched a few months ago, a concert based on Lint, by Chris Ware, in Brussels. The spectacle is not really an opera in the traditional sense. It actually consists on a sort of soundtrack performed live – by Spectra Ensemble under Filip Rathé and singer Angélique Willkie – while the book is projected in a wide screen. The man behind such intriguing project is Belgian composer Walter Hus. After being involved in areas so distinct as dance, theatre, films and videogames, Hus decided to explore the potential connections between comics and music, something that Ware has frequently stressed in his interviews.

Let’s start from the beginning. How did you decide to work with comics, and why Chris Ware?

I’m not a real comics reader. I was when I was younger, but I used to read things like Tintin or Suske & Wiske. I was completely crazy for it at that time. When I grew older I’ve never accepted that comics could be considered art. At a certain point my wife became very ill and my whole life came to a standstill. A friend of mine dropped a pile of comic strips for my wife, and while I was also sitting there I looked at them myself and I got Jimmy Corrigan. I was impressed. This was beyond everything I’ve seen up to now. There were things that couldn’t absolutely be done in any other way, opening narrative possibilities that were completely new for me, possibilities of coexistence of several layers, something I was already very intrigued about. What called my attention was the use of counterpoint. In counterpoint, you have something not only linearly going from A to B but also, in the moment itself, with different lines that are independent, which is something very musical. The music of Bach, for instance, is essentially contrapuntal. It sounds beautiful as one, but you can listen to all the separate lines. You have a vertical reading and a horizontal reading, which is typically musical. Towards the centuries there were attempts to incorporate counterpoint, for example, in books containing three stories evolving at the same time, or books that can be opened in whatever point. But with Jimmy Corrigan, I found the perfect adaptation of this principle, going beyond the possibilities.

And how was the project born?

At a certain point I got a commission for the Spectra Ensemble and I could do whatever I wanted. I first proposed to work around Jimmy Corrigan. I have taken a portion of it, around 40 pages, and I made a sort of soundtrack, underlying the story’s psychological mood. After this first project, the Spectra Ensemble said they wanted to go on with the work. And I also wanted to go on, but Jimmy Corrigan is very long. Doing 40 pages was already too long, I couldn’t imagine doing the whole book. And also, I must admit, after a year, this guy, Jimmy Corrigan, got under my skin. He’s so depressive that I had a hard time of convincing myself to do it. At a certain point, I met Chris in New York, for an exhibition of the original drawings of Lint. I found the length of it just perfect. It’s only 66 pages, and it has this fantastic principle of one page per year. I could already imagine making 60 pieces of music, which is more conceivable, every page with its own little composition. I proposed that to the orchestra and they went along with everything. Very soon I started to abandon the principle of composing page by page and I tried to over bridge longer periods of the life of Lint, in a large breathing. But I never went synchronously. I tried to make my own counterpoint, not linked to his counterpoint.

What were the biggest challenges you have faced when working with comics constraints? It’s very different to read a book and to see it projected in a big screen. Jacques Samson made a good point when he said that the spectacle transforms the reader into a spectator.

Yes, it’s not the same when you’re looking at the screen or reading a book. With the book, you can look closer, you can turn it over, you can even use your magnifying glass. You can also spend as much time as you want. First, the dimension is different: the spectacle was performed in a big theater, with a huge projection. It’s immense, and you have to find your way in the scheme. And also the time, which is a very big problem, very hard to resolve. It was me who had to decide on the time the viewers have, which is very hard to find and you’re always frustrated. It’s either too slow and you’re finished already or too fast and you miss something. With Jimmy Corrigan I had a speaker reciting the text, using the same principle as when you are reading for the kids at night. And Chris absolutely loved the music and absolutely hated the voice over. He thinks the voice over is something that broke my music down. It turned my music into wallpaper. He respected the music so much that he didn’t want it to be annihilated by any other voice.

This is a very intriguing point. How did you deal with the problem of duration, how did you decide much time devote to each page?

This is a very hard problem. Each of these pages is like a machine. You can look at them for very long time, but you can also read fast. I think a lot of people do this: you have a first reading, then you go back and reread. Even in the day of the performance I discovered new things. Chris didn’t want to make a heavy thing out of it. He always advised me to accept the fact that you don’t understand things. I found a medium length (a minute, a minute and half per page). I was working together with a dramaturgist and we have often rehearsed the timing together. I tried to reach an average possibility of reading to give the spectator the possibility to grab something (and if you want to read completely you can always buy the book). It was very interesting to hear after the performance the reaction of the people. Each person discovered their own strategy and their own reading experience.

This freedom of wandering through the pages is indeed an important part of reading comics, but that must have been tricky when combining it with music. Were you at any point tempted to guide the audience on where to look at, or to emphasize certain elements?

In the beginning I started with something completely different, in a very risky business. I started to edit the pages, working together with a film editor. We showed an excerpt in Paris for an event at the Centre Pompidou, and it was very much appreciated by the public, who was taken by the hand. But Chris didn’t like it at all. He conceives his pages like that and he wants this feeling of being lost on the page and then finding your own direction. I’m very happy I finally didn’t go in that direction because, in the end, I would have been much busier with editing the film than writing my music. I finally decided to drop this idea, and I got much more freedom. I’m happy for his remark because he saved my skin.

But the public is still guided by the voice over. Some dialogues are transformed into lyrics, performed by singer Angélique Willkie.

Yes, what I’ve done then was to use voice. I thought it was absolutely necessary to have a human element that was like the transfer object between the public and what’s seen in the screen. In the theater context, to leave only the images and the music playing it would mean to abandon he spectator. I didn’t appreciate it. I felt the need for this person, responsible for transference. And I did this also because my music asks for it and because I discovered so beautiful lyrics inside the comics. It’s a completely different kind of lyrics than you hear in normal songs, but still very everyday language. So I’ve left pages without dialogues, pages with dialogues. I’ve adapted different principles in each page. Sometimes little phrases from the page. You stress something, but you leave the freedom for the people to read the rest. If they see that something has been already said, they can concentrate on the rest.

Greice Schneider recently finished a PhD on boredom and everyday life in contemporary graphic narratives at K.U. Leuven, in Belgium. She is a founding member and a member of the editorial board of The Comics Grid. She is on the editorial board of Image [&] Narrative.

Click here to read previous instalments of the Image [&] Narrative column.

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Posted by on 2012/11/26 in Image [&] Narrative

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