Category Archives: Image [&] Narrative

Image [&] Narrative #6: Refining/Defining Modes of Fan Practice: Expansion and Control (Part III) by Charlotte Pylyser

In this third installment of our exploration of the Flemish graphic novel scene, we turn towards the Franco-Belgian cultural sphere, which we have previously characterised as restrained, closed, object-oriented, and relatively disconnected from the Flemish graphic novel phenomenon. As was the case for our analysis of the USA-oriented sphere, the focus of our investigation lies here on the space carved out for a cultural object through the cultural praxes and audiences associated with it.

Refining/Defining Modes of Fan Practice: Expansion and Control (Part III)

As we have shown, the USA-oriented part of the Flemish comics culture is characterised by a social inclination, which, however, is still at quite a remove from the emancipated prosumer concept as propagated by Henry Jenkins. As the few hallmarks of participatory culture that are present in the USA-oriented sphere (performance, transmedia navigation) are largely absent in the Franco-Belgian sphere (with the possible exception of a form of mentorship), one might conjecture that particular space to be infused with even less agency than the USA-oriented one. However, such a jump in reasoning would fail to do justice to the radical difference in mode that exists between both spheres and the various ways in which the concept of agency can be filled in. As was the case in our first article, a comparison between the mechanisms, assumptions and attitudes underlying both spheres will set us on a path towards better understanding.

If we continue to focus on the praxes of the adult comics culture (as opposed to children’s comics culture), we see that the comic book casts its shadow over the Franco-Belgian sphere in a more top-down (traditional) manner, with fans being focused on the (often sequential) acquisition and collection of the object, in certain cases to the extent that the object becomes an obsession – various stereotypical depictions of comic book fans apply. Many of these depictions emphasise the element of isolation associated with this particular mode of fan practice. And yet, to make a distinction between our USA-oriented sphere and the Franco-Belgian sphere based on the distinction of the social versus the individual would be to simplify our question to an unacceptable degree. At Strip Turnhout (the festival at which we have observed the complex of cultural praxes designated here by the term “Franco-Belgian sphere”) an exchange between fans can certainly be witnessed. As is the case for many traditional comic book stores, the festival is a locus for the exchange of expertise and the sharing of experiences, either related to the collection process (Where can one find interesting sellers?) or the sharing of aesthetic or other pleasures and judgements regarding comic books (Where does one find like minds? What might these people enjoy, what other recommendations might they have so I can broaden my experience?). Always, however, reference is made to the object (or a model thereof) and meaning appears to be created in a one-on-one relationship with this object fed by the ritual of searching, inquiring, resonating, acquiring and collecting. While this focus on the thing might indeed work (as we have suggested in the introduction to this piece) as a constraining mechanism it also appears to be the great equaliser in the environment that I have witnessed. As opposed to the F.A.C.T.S. convention where the larger cultural assumptions connected with a popular mass media form such as the comic book as well as the consumerist overlay of the cultural practices in question (queuing up for an expensive autograph) streamline the event and in a sense collar its attendees, the Strip Turnhout festival mainly features buyers and sellers that are fans first and foremost. The (not-for-profit) festival lacks (escapes) the top-down hierarchy typical of the economic anchoring of the F.A.C.T.S. convention.

A number of consequences follow from these observations. With regard to the difference between (Flemish) social and material fans we can now posit that the distinction we have previously made points towards a difference in the nature of the relationship between fan and object more than to a disavowal of either the social or material/object aspect of comics culture altogether. We could say that both the Cosplayer at F.A.C.T.S. and the Hergé fan who receives tips from another fan about a rare item are attempting to expand their experience of something they enjoy. And both use social cultural practices in order to achieve that expansion. It does not seem like the difference between the spheres is a simple matter of degree, such as would be the case if one were to posit that the social element is more prominent or more important for the USA-sphere and the object is primordial in the Franco-Belgian sphere. Neither does it seem correct to assert that while the object lies at the basis of the cultural praxes witnessed in the USA-sphere, it is dissolved in the social expansion typical of that sphere or that the social expansion present in the Franco-Belgian sphere is itself obliterated in moving single-mindedly towards the goal of the object. Rather, I would maintain that the USA-sphere fan praxes bring out and share what is in the object and in doing so are constrained by the contextual nature of the object, while Franco-Belgian practices are bound to take in what is shared about the object in terms of what the object is. The principle of selection that seems to be implied in the latter attitude is then a different way of conceiving of the agency which eludes the USA-sphere fans (an effective agency in their case). Considering the prevalence of obsessive ritual over grounded selection at the Strip Turnhout festival it would be a stretch to claim that the fans in this sphere attain a form of agency either, however.

In the next and final episode to this series we will turn to the question of the graphic novel sphere (how does this space function with regard to agency?) and attempt to wrap up some loose ends. A closer examination of the notion of the fan will be invaluable in this context.

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.


Posted by on 2012/08/17 in Image [&] Narrative


Image [&] Narrative #5: Graphic Poetry: An (im)possible form? by Steven Surdiacourt

Between the 4th and the 30th of May the organization Leuven Stript organized a comic exhibition in the local public library, simply entitled Graphic Poem. For the exhibition Leuven Stript selected 30 comic artists and 30 poets (some of which are quite well known in the low countries), paired them up and invited them to create 30 different graphic poems. I honestly found the exhibition to be rather disappointing: only a few of the presented works actually succeeded in integrating words and images into a larger textual whole that could positively be identified as a poem. To be more precise: the lyric quality of the exhibited pieces was mainly (not to say only) guaranteed by the words (which took on an unmistakable poetic form), while the images either illustrated distinct verses or stanzas or provided a setting for the enunciation of those words. In the end and despite the objections the organizers would certainly make, the exhibited texts seemed mainly to belong to the genre of the illustrated poem, rather than to the supposedly more ambitious form of the graphic poem.

Instead of dwelling on the qualities and flaws of the individual poems showed in the exhibition, I would like to write down some thoughts on the very concept of graphic poetry. I am convinced that these reflections on the possibility and form of graphic poetry could teach us a lot about the functioning of comics as a medium. My post will focus, as most of my texts do, on the formal dimension of the matter and leave aside (for now at least) the important [1] socio-cultural aspects.

The logical first step in the description of any (new) form is to delineate the research object by forging a working definition. In this particular case one could note, for example, that graphic poetry is not to be confused with forms of visual or concrete poetry; that it is a form of poetry that deploys the graphic devices of a comic book (panels, captions and speech balloons); that it requires an intricate play with words and images (in which the images are not merely illustrations of the words) etcetera, etcetera. The danger of this kind of formal, descriptive definition is that it tends to (pre)shape the very phenomenon that needs to be described. For that reason, I want to opt for a starting point in the form of a relational definition (or better: hypothesis). This hypothesis sounds as follows: ‘graphic poetry is to the graphic novel, what poetry is to prose.’ Although the distinction between poetry and prose is far from clear-cut, this proposition (which will most likely have to be revised) has some advantages. The first (and main) advantage is that is describes the graphic poem as part of a larger ‘literary’ system. It asserts, more particularly, the inextricable link between the graphic poem and the graphic novel.[2] The absence of a formal description allows me, secondly, to approach the problem from a different angle, to surprise the phenomenon from behind.

Poetry in the Gutter

My argumentation will indeed proceed with an outflanking maneuver by focusing on some striking parallels between the structure of poetic language and the structure of comics.

In “Narrativity and Segmentivity, or, Poetry in the Gutter” Brian McHale (2010) argues in favor of “a sufficiently capacious [narrative, SS] theory” (McHale 2010, 27), a theory that should be able to describe the interaction between narrative and non-narrative forms of organization in different storytelling media. The main part of the article is dedicated to the description of one particular form of non-narrative organization (segementivity) that “organizes both [albeit in different form, SS] poetic texts and ‘sequential visual art’” (McHale 2010, 44). This particular form of organization, this segmentivity is defined as “the ability to make meaning by selecting, deploying, and combining segments” (Rachel Blau DuPlessis quoted in McHale 2010, 28). It’s not merely their gapped nature that connects poetic texts and graphic narratives, but also their shared capacity to play off “segments of one kind or scale […] against segments of another kind or different in scale” (McHale 2010, 28). The best known example of this kind of poetic configuration is obviously the enjambement, a trope in which the grammatical unit of the sentence (measure) is disrupted by the unit of the verse (countermeasure). A similar textual device is used in comics to create or maintain tension by the interruption of the action (measure) at the end of the end of the right hand page (countermeasure).

This structural similarity makes comics an interesting medium for the adaptation of poetic texts (and that despite the striking differences in the cultural appreciation of these media). While a single drawing has to focus on the illustration of a single verse, stanza or poetic image, the comic has the means to recreate the sense of rhythmic segmentation of the poetic text. In the third part of David B.’s autobiographical masterpiece L’Ascension du Haut-Mal (1996-2003), for example, the reader discovers an adaptation of the (first stanza of) the famous sonnet El Desdichado by Gérard de Nerval. Every single verse of the first stanza is reproduced in a caption at the top of a single panel. The segmentation of the comic strip thus mirrors the segmentation of the poetic text in verses. The case of Martin Rowson’s (narrativized) comic adaptation of The Waste Land (1990), the example McHale uses, is certainly more complex. McHale notes after an analysis of the first section of the book that “Rowson often segments his version in different places than Eliot does; he re-segments The Waste Land, filling in where Eliot left gaps, and opening gaps where Eliot’s text was continuous and unsegmented” (McHale 2010, 45). He then concludes that “one version is not homologous with the other. But the two versions are analogous: Rowson’s comic-book is gappy just as The Wasteland is gappy, though sometimes in different places” (McHale 2010, 46).

Both examples also show that the principle of segmentation does not only affect the images, but also the text of graphic narratives. As every comic book reader knows, the words in comics are usually printed inside a graphic container of one kind or another (a panel, a caption or a speech balloon); the text is boxed (or ballooned). And it is precisely this practice of graphically isolating parts of the textual discourse that introduces a sense of rhythmic segmentation, that sometimes does and sometimes doesn’t coincide with the segmentation of the images. This form of textual segmentation can obviously be used to generate a poetic effect. One of the more appealing ‘poems’ in the Graphic Poem exhibition, for example, consisted of a full page drawing (with one or two inserted panels, if I remember well) and a text distributed among a series of connected speech balloons. The chain of speech balloons did not only infuse the text with the sense of rhythmic structuration characteristic for poetry, but did also (and quite interestingly) lead the reader’s eyes over the graphic surface of the page. A similar effect can be found in one of Nicolas Mahler’s hilarious Kratochvil comics. Kratochvil was published as a daily comic in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung between November 2011 and January 2012. Every installment has exactly the same structure: it consists of six panels of equal size, organized in three tiers of two panels each. The comic is a parody on the Romantic ideal of a free life in unspoiled nature.[3] In the installment I want to discuss (Mahler 2010, 31) poetry itself (as part of that Romantic ideal) is targeted. The reader sees five (more or less) identical panels in which Kratochvil stands next to a tree. Only in the one but last panel something happens as Kratochvil kicks the tree. The accompanying text reads: “baum/du seltsames gehölz//du knorriger gesell/stehst überall herum//kann dich nich mehr sehen/baum” (Mahler 2010, 31) (tree/you peculiar bush//you grumpy companion/stand about everywhere//can’t stand you any longer/tree [a half-hearted attempt at translation by me]). It is the segmentation of the text by the panel frames (/ marks the end of the panel, // the end of the tier) in combination with the (ab)use of the poetic register (including a conspicuous anthropomorphism) that signals the poetic nature of the text.

The structural segmentation of graphic narratives by and of itself remains nevertheless a quite unstable base for the comparison with poetry. As McHale correctly points out, segmentivity is not an exclusive feature of comics or poetry. The narrative structure of (some kinds of) film is, for instance, strongly determined by the process of selecting and aligning different shots. But what does connect poetry and comics is a particular kind of segmentation, or better: the particular way in which segments are deployed and combined. In comics and in poetry the different segments co-exist in space and this spatial co-existence [4] enables connections between different segments that go beyond the purely sequential. The different segments of a poetic text, for instance, are not merely parts of the textual thread that leads the reader from the first word to the last, but do also constitute a network of meaning in which they refer to each other by virtue of their form and/or content. The best known examples of this kind of reference are undoubtedly rhyme (which is an essentially spatial trope) and its graphic counterparts visual rhyme and braiding. This spatial structure finally appeals to another kind of reading that crosses the reader’s horizontal decoding of the text. Roland Barthes points to these different kinds of reading when he notes in S/Z that “just as rhyme (notably) structures the poem according to the expectation and desire for recurrence [retour] [5], so the hermeneutic terms [6] structure the enigma according to the expectation and desire for its solution” (Barthes 1974 [1970], 75). The often capricious reading trajectory of a comic book (or a verse novel or any other kind of narrative poetry) could then be understood as the result of a difficult negotiation by the reader between the desire to move on, to discover how the story ends and the desire to go back and explore the texture of meaning woven by and through the text.

Graphic Poems

After this significant detour we find, with McHale (2010, 46), “that comics appear to be more akin to poetry, even to prestigious avant-garde poetry, than we might have supposed.” In this perspective, one of the major difficulties for the (still to establish) genre of ‘graphic poetry’ seems to be the necessity to formally demarcate itself from a language that is already (and structurally) defined by a feature (spatial segmentivity) that is central to our understanding of (traditional) poetry. I will not attempt to list the different features (because I am honestly not (yet) able to) that could differentiate graphic poems from graphic narratives, but I do want to stress that the mere absence or ‘weakness’ of a certain narrative drive couldn’t be conclusive. (Literary) Poems on the one hand do often have some kind of narrative quality and non-narrative texts on the other hand are not necessarily poems (think of descriptions, recipes and lists). Martin tom Dieck’s La Fm (1999, 2003 & 2004), for instance, couldn’t be characterized as poetry despite the text’s striking lack of narrative organization. In the end, what and how graphic poetry can be (if it can be at all) remains to be imagined, and drawn of course.


David B. (1998) L’Ascension du Haut Mal 3. Paris: L’Association.

Roland Barthes (1974 [1970]) S/Z. An Essay. Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Hill and Wang.

Pierre Fresnault-Deruelle (1976) “Du linéaire au tabulaire.” In: Communications 24 (24), 7-23.

Nicolas Mahler (2010) Planet Kratochvil. Zürich: Edition Moderne.

Brian McHale (2010) “Narrativity and Segmentivity, or, Poetry in the Gutter.” In: Intermediality and Storytelling. Marina Grishakova & Marie-Laure Ryan (eds.). Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 27-48.

Martin Rowson (1990) The Waste Land. New York: Harper and Row.

Martin tom Dieck (1999) “La FM” In: Comix 2000. Paris: L’Association, 1785-1789.

__ (2003) “La FM (2)” In: Strapazin 73, 29-33.

__ (2004) “La FM (3)” In: Strapazin 75, 17-21.

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.

[1] – The choice for pairing up comic artists and poets in the Graphic Poem exhibition, for instance, does not only have practical (the artist knows how to draw and the poet how to write), but also socio-cultural reasons. The very collaboration of artists that have acquired a certain position in their respective fields contributes to the legitimation of this relatively new form. This strategy of cultural legitimation is interestingly opposite to the one that should reinforce the graphic novel’s cultural credentials by promoting the literary model of the single, ‘complete’ author. Do finally note that the collaborative dimension of the project is explicitly thematized on the poster and flyer announcing the exhibition.

[2] – The use of an English term (‘graphic poem’) in a Dutch language context (the Leuven Stript exhibition) emphasizes the relation with that other English concept (‘graphic novel’) that has gained currency by now.

[3] – The series starts when Krachotvil, a factory employee and an adept of civilization in all its forms (including air pollution), finds himself lost in a forest only populated by the occasional bird and worm.

[4] – This spatial co-existence is often referred to as tabularity (see Fresnault-Deruelle 1974). I prefer to distinguish between ‘structure’ (in contrast to ‘sequence’) to refer to the spatial dimension of the text and ‘tabularity’ (in contrast to ‘linearity’) to refer to the strategy of reading two or more images ‘simultaneously’.

[5] – It has to be noted that the meaning of the English word ‘recurrence’ is somewhat narrower than that of the French original. ‘Retour’ seems to refer both to the recurrence of formal elements and to the action (by the reader) of going back to what he/she has already read.

[6] – Roland Barthes describes the hermeneutic code as “all those units whose function it is to articulate in various ways a question, its response, and the variety of chance events which can either formulate the question or delay its answer; or even, constitute an enigma and lead to its solution” (Barthes (1974 [1970], 17).


Posted by on 2012/06/21 in Image [&] Narrative


Image [&] Narrative #4: Blacks and blanks. On ‘empty’ panels by Steven Surdiacourt

Few things are more fascinating in comics than those panels in which nothing is shown; panels left blank or, on the contrary, saturated with black (or any other colour, for that matter); panels in which the subtle distinction of the line gives way to an (almost) undifferentiated monochrome. These (seemingly) empty panels do not only continue to intrigue (and delight) all readers from 7 to 77, but have also attracted the attention of many a theorist.

In Bande Dessinée et Narration (2011) for instance, the book in which Thierry Groensteen picks up the thread of his earlier reflections (Groensteen 1999), the temporary interruption of the narrative flow is a key element of the argumentation and helps, paradoxically, to describe the narrational structure of graphic narratives. To spare myself the laborious (and often frustrating) task of translating French phrases into understandable English, the reflections in this post will mostly be based on ‘The Monstrator, the Recitant and the Shadow of the Narrator’ (2010), an earlier article in which Groensteen summarizes his position.

Strongly influenced by André Gaudreault’s (1988) reflections on film narration, Groensteen distinguishes three fundamental narratorial instances that shape the story in graphic narratives. There is the monstrator, “the instance responsible for the putting into drawing [mise en dessin] of the story” (Groensteen 2010, 4); the recitant, the instance ‘responsible’ for the textual ennunciation and finally the narrator, “the ultimate authority that is responsible for the selection and organisation of all the information that makes up the storytelling” (Groensteen 2010, 14). In line with the theory of filmic narration (Gaudreault 1988; Chatman 1990) Groensteen’s narrator is an impersonal, covert instance; an organisational principle that coordinates the functioning of monstrator and recitant and thus ensures the coherence of the story.

In a section on the interaction of the recitant and the monstrator Groensteen touches upon the phenomenon of ‘empty’ panels. He writes (and I’ll have to quote at some length):

One might be tempted to believe that, whereas the recitant can choose to speak or to remain silent according to the needs of the moment, in principle the monstrator, however, can never remain in the background. Indeed, from the moment that the monstrator underplays its role, the image-based part of the storytelling breaks off and narrative continuity collapses. Nonetheless, it is possible for the monstrator to remain silent. […] The monstrator is also backgrounded when it produces a blind image, a frame that is entirely white, or black, so as to signal the loss of consciousness and, by association, of sight (the character falls asleep, faints, or is knocked out), or a refusal to show the surrounding world. (Groensteen 2010, 11)

The possibility to (temporarily) suppress one of the narrational ‘tracks’ in graphic narratives without disrupting the narrative sequence is truly interesting. But, unlike Groensteen’s description, the use of an ‘empty’ or ‘blind’ panel does not necessarily suspend the graphic continuity. In fact, Groensteen confuses two fundamentally different uses of the same graphic technique. It is however important, as I will show, to distinguish ‘empty’ panels that show that there is nothing to see from ‘empty’ panels that do not show at all.

In the first (and largest) category the ‘blind’ panels (re)present an event in the story world (an intradiegetic event); in most cases, as Groensteen notes, the loss of consciousness or sight of one or several of the protagonists. The graphic narration is not interrupted in this case, but the monstrator – to use Groensteen’s terminology – continues to show from an internal or an external perspective what there is to see, namely nothing. This also means that the adjective “empty” can only refer to the graphic surface of the panel, to the absence of a drawing and not to its (diegetic) contents. That these panels are not really empty becomes particularly clear in those cases where the depiction of a pair of bright eyes in an otherwise black panel signals the presence of a character.

In Ray Fawkes’ One Soul (2011), for example, a black panel represents the death of one of the eighteen protagonists the story follows simultaneously. The black panel does not represent the ending of that particular narrative thread, it is rather the narration of an ending (or an absence); the continuous affirmation (page after page) of that protagonist’s (and, further in the book, of the other protagonists’) death. The diegetic function of the ‘empty’ panels is reaffirmed in the last pages of the book, in which the black comes to symbolize an eternal and universal soul.

Although this first category seems, narratologicaly speaking, rather banal, its use often has a remarkable effect on the level of the artifact.[1] Tim Enthoven, for example, uses the black panel in his graphic novel binnenskamers [2] (2011) to continue the graphic narration on another level. In this graphic novel most panels are drawn as transparent, three dimensional volumes (and not as the more common two dimensional windows) in which the protagonist (Tim) lives. This graphic device effectively conveys Tim’s feeling of isolation. The (seemingly) consequent external perspective of the graphic narration positions the reader as a kind of voyeur, on the outside looking in. Because of this external position, the reader’s view is blocked by the darkness in the room when the protagonist turns off the light. In this case the blackness of the panel thus literally represents the darkness inside the room (external perspective) and not the protagonist’s loss of sight (internal perspective). On the level of the graphic artifact the darkening of the room hides the convergence lines and strangely flattens the three dimensional volume. The flattening, in turn, initiates an intriguing shadow play, in which the otherwise rigid outlines of the cubicle become elastic and graphically support the verbal narration which conveys the protagonist’s thoughts, feelings and fantasies (internal perspective).

The ‘blind’ panels of the second category on the other hand do represent an interruption of the graphic narration. In this case there is (supposedly) something to show but the monstrator refuses to/is not willing to/is not able to … depict it. In this category the panels are both graphically and diegetically empty. The most famous example of this particular use of the ‘empty’ panel – an example Groensteen (2010, 11-12) also discusses – is the fourth page of Gustave Doré’s (1854) Histoire pittoresque, dramatique et caricaturale de la Sainte Russie: d’après les chroniqueurs et historiens Nestor, Nikan, Sylvestre, Karamsin, Ségu, etc. On the page in question the reader discovers a series of five empty frames and a narratorial text (at the bottom of the page) explaining why the panels have been left blank. The narrator writes that this chapter of his history of Russia consists of a series of “equally colourless events” and that he, in order not to annoy his reader so early in his book, had decided to leave those out. His editor, the narrator continues, did however insist that he would leave the necessary space, “to prove that a skillful historian can soften everything without leaving anything out” (Groensteen 2010, 11). It has to be noted, firstly, that the nature of the ‘empty’ panels is revealed by the accompanying text. It is thus only by reading the text that the reader realizes that the graphic narration has been interrupted. This particular page shows, secondly, that Groensteen’s narrational model neglects an interesting (and important) narrational level. Although the monstrator is ‘silenced’ in this part of the story, another (graphic) instance seems to delimit the diegetic space by drawing the panels. This suggests, to my sense, that the fundamental narrator in comics might be an overt instance (instead of a covert instance) (cf. Surdiacourt 2012) It is precisely the simultaneous inactivity of the monstrator and the activity of the fundamental narrator that creates the self-conscious atmosphere of this page, by showing that nothing is shown.


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

Gustave Doré (1854) Histoire pittoresque, dramatique et caricaturale de la Sainte Russie : d’après les chroniqueurs et historiens Nestor, Nikan, Sylvestre, Karamsin, Ségu, etc. Paris: Bry.

Tim Enthoven (2011) binnenskamers. Antwerpen/Amsterdam: Bries/De Harmonie.

Ray Fawkes (2011) One Soul. Portland: Oni Press.

André Gaudreault (1999) Du littéraire au filmique. Système du récit. Paris/Québec: Armand Collin/Nota Bene.

Thierry Groensteen (2011) Bande dessinée et narration. Système de la bande dessinée 2. Paris : PUF.

Thierry Groensteen (2010) “The Monstrator, the Recitant and the Shadow of the Narrator.” In: European Comic Art 3 (1): 1-21.

Steven Surdiacourt (forthcoming (2012) “Can You Hear Me Drawing? ‘Voice’ and the Graphic Novel.” In: Sibylle Baumbach, Beatrice Michaelis & Ansgar Nünning: Travelling concepts and metaphors in the humanities. Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier.

Ed Tan (1996) Emotion and the Structure of Narrative Film. Film as an Emotion Machine. Mahwah: Erlbaum.

Ed Tan (2000) “Emotion, Art and the Humanities.” In: M. Lewis and J.M. Haviland-Jones (Eds.), Handbook of Emotions, 2nd. Ed., pp. 116-136. New York : Guilford 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.

[1] – The conceptual pair ‘story effect’ and ‘artifact effect’ was inspired by Ed Tan’s (1996 & 2000) distinction between ‘fiction emotion’ and ‘artifact emotion’.

[2] – The title could be loosely translated as inside.

You can read read other editions of our Image [&] Narrative column here.


Posted by on 2012/05/25 in Image [&] Narrative


Comics Forum Online: Year One Review and Comics Forum 2012 Call for Papers

One year ago today, launched with this introductory post. Today I’m pleased to present a look back at the past year of articles by major comics scholars from around the world, and a look ahead to what’s coming next for Comics Forum, including our annual conference.

Read the rest of this entry »


Image [&] Narrative #3: The thin line between boring and interesting by Greice Schneider

In the last few years I’ve been conducting research on boredom and everyday life in contemporary graphic narratives. In my last article for Comics Forum, I discussed boredom on the perspective of production – specifically about a tendency of comics artists to agonize about the struggle of their métier (and why this tendency is maybe stronger in the comics medium). What I propose in the following posts is to continue this discussion, but this time looking at the side of the reader and the dynamics of boredom and interest specific to the experience of reading comics. Of course I’m not assuming here that these works are necessarily “boring”(even though the subject is becoming a dangerous cliché)- but many of them bring into play a number of strategies that can arouse boredom as a desired effect on the reader. My intention is not to write an elegy of boring comics, but to propose a poetics of boredom, one that contemplates the specificities of the comics medium.

The first thing that has to be done in order to avoid misunderstandings is to refine the concept of boredom and interest, and that is what I’ll try to address in this post. What does it mean to say something is “boring”? Is it possible to say that something boring is interesting without falling into a contradiction? In which ways? This apparent paradox can benefit from distinguishing the different levels at which the same term can be used. On one level, the pair interesting and boring imply an evaluation, a judgment of taste, a response of approval or disapproval, pleasure or displeasure. This meaning implies a subjective verdict that may vary according to a number of criteria (historical, cultural, psychological etc). On another level, boredom can be taken as an aesthetic category: it can become a source of interest. The purpose here is to focus on this conception, but without losing sight of the crucial interaction between both dimensions. [1]

Taken as a subject, boredom is central in the work of many “alternative” authors, but it is Seth who best materializes it into his discourse as an author. Admittedly “interested in things that are boring” (Seth) – to the point of making it a constant subject in his interviews – the author is a prime example of this trend of approaching everyday life with a melancholic mood so familiar in the comics field after the 90s. But more than that, Seth is also one of the authors that best grasps the ambiguous and slippery nature of boredom, something clear when he says his work “teeters” on the “edge of boredom” (Seth, “Drawn Together: Seth and the Newspaper. Interview with Amy Stupavsky”). Rather than downplaying his own work, such a declaration just confirms a deliberate attempt to achieve a state of what he calls “sublime boredom” that he describes as “kind of like a hypnagogic state” (Seth, “Conversations with Seth, Attention Revisited. Interview with Kathleen Dunley”).

“It’s like when you’re watching a very boring movie and drifting in and out of sleep and that’s the kind of perfect sublime boredom. It’s interesting but boring at the same time. So much of the comics I’m doing, I’m trying to achieve that actual state” (Seth, “Conversations with Seth, Attention Revisited. Interview with Kathleen Dunley”)

In the back cover of the first edition of the Anthology of Graphic Fiction (“Several Years Ago I Had a Fever…”) (featuring many of the alternative authors that address states of ennui and alienation), we find a very revealing comic page in which Seth describes his experience reading old comic books (as opposed to the more sophisticated “graphic fiction” from the anthology’s title). Under distinct contexts, the very same comics awaken in him two opposite responses. When he was sick in bad, looking for something to kill time, those stories seemed “interesting”, “lively and charming”. Later, when he was well, they were “horribly tiresome”, “uninteresting” and “dull”. What is particularly remarkable is that the same property that amused him in one context (stories with “few minor variations” and characters “defined by a single personality trait”), puts him off in another circumstance. Predictability, first described as a ‘fascinating quality’, makes him yawn later. Seth attributes these varied responses to different regimes of attention – in fever, “drifting through various states of consciousness” made him more open to appreciate those comics. The author concludes that “there’s a thin line between boring and interesting” (“Several Years Ago I Had a Fever…”).

This small intriguing example reminds us that the question of boredom and interest cannot be treated as something intrinsic to the text, isolated from the experience of the reader and the variety of different possible responses. This “optimal point of interest” is subjective and will depend on a negotiation between the text’s “demands” and a set of cultural, psychological conditions in which the reader finds himself. What is interesting in a given situation can suddenly become extremely boring. Patricia Spacks highlights this influence of selective reading: according to the cultural environment – geographical, temporal and even gender differences – distinct aspects of the text can arouse interest and gain meaning. To consider something boring or interesting relies heavily upon which aspects one choose to pay attention to while reading (160). Spacks examines oscillations of cultural interest by analyzing books acclaimed with enthusiasm in the time of their release but that nowadays are considered dull, reminding us of Seth’s experience.

The ambiguity that defines the concept of boredom could be replicated in cultural objects, basically divided according to what one decides to do when bored. That leaves two (loose) types: on the one hand, objects designed for killing time and distracting from boredom and, on the other hand, those that pose more challenges to our patience and encourage the endurance of boredom. Needless to say such separation should not be taken hierarchically (in the form of high versus low culture).

In that sense, it is possible to accept boredom as a deliberate aesthetic response (like Seth admittedly seeks to achieve) rather than an inadequacy in the reading process. In other words, rather than being a disengagement originated by a failed interpretation, boredom could be aroused by the successful triggering of the text’s potential. The ambiguous dialectics that orchestrate the dynamics of attention and distraction can inform a number of aesthetic choices such as speed (slow, fast), variety (repetition, difference) or level of complexity (minimalism, excess). In forthcoming posts, I will develop some of these strategies, in a poetics of boredom proper of comics storytelling.


Ngai, Sianne. “Merely Interesting.” Critical Inquiry 34.4 (2008): 777–817. Print.

Seth. “Boring Can Be Interesting: An Interview with Seth. Interview with Jonathan Messinger.” Time Out Chicago 10 June 2009. Web. 17 Apr. 2012.

—. “Conversations with Seth, Attention Revisited. Interview with Kathleen Dunley.” The Comics Grid 5 May 2011. Web. 9 June 2011.

—. “Drawn Together: Seth and the Newspaper. Interview with Amy Stupavsky.” The Newspaper 7 Jan. 2010.

—. “Several Years Ago I Had a Fever…” An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, & True Stories. Ivan Brunetti. Ed. Ivan Brunetti. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006. backcover. Print.

Spacks, Patricia. Boredom : the Literary History of a State of Mind. Chicago (Ill.): University of Chicago Press, 1995. Print.

Svendsen, Lars Fr H. A Philosophy of Boredom. London: London Reaktion Books 2005, 2005. Print.

Greice Schneider is currently conducting PhD research 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 Greice’s last article for Comics Forum.

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

[1] – History only reaffirms the intimacy between both concepts. Boring and interesting appeared and were spread at the same time – in the late eighteenth century, with Romanticism, when “the demand arises for life to be interesting, with the general claim that the self must realize itself” (Svendsen 28).

1 Comment

Posted by on 2012/04/20 in Image [&] Narrative

%d bloggers like this: