Form, Function, Fiction:
Text and Image in the Comics Narratives of
Winsor McCay, Art Spiegelman, and Chris Ware

A Dissertation Proposal
© 1996, 2006 Gene Kannenberg, Jr.

[ Selected Bibliography || Research Links ]

NOTE: I defended this dissertation at the University of Connecticut's Department of English on May 6, 2002.  While the final dissertation took a slightly different form than this prospectus, the general shape of the argument was still the same. The dissertation is available via interlibrary loan, or you may order a copy from UMI.  Note also that selections from each chapter have been published in the following places:
From Chapter One: "Graphic Text, Graphic Context: Interpreting Custom Fonts and Hands in Contemporary Comics."  Illuminating Letters: Typography and Literary Interpretation , ed. Paul Gutjahr and Megan Benton.  Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001. 163-92.  [ read editors' introduction ]

From Chapter Two: "Proving 'Silas' an Artist: Winsor McCay's Formal Experiments in Comics and Animation." International Journal of Comic Art 1.1 (Spring/Summer 1999): 57-75.

From Chapter Three: "'I Looked Just Like Rudolph Valentino': Identity and Authority in Maus."  The Graphic Novel[Proceedings of the Second International Conference on the Graphic Novel, KU Leuven, Belgium, May 2000.]  Symbolae Facultatis Litterarum Lovaniensis - Series D - Volume 13.  Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2001. 79-89.  [212 pp.  ISBN 90-5867-109-7 (paper).]

From Chapter Four: "The Comics of Chris Ware: Text, Image, and Visual Narrative Strategies." The Language of Comics: Word and Image , ed. Robin Varnum and Christina Gibbons (University Press of Mississippi, 2002): 174-97. Rpt. in A Comics Studies Reader, ed. Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester (University Press of Mississippi, 2009): 306-324.

Please see my CV for a complete list of my publications, conference participation, and other professional activities. 

Importance and Aims of the Study

Literary studies have traditionally (although not exclusively) engaged word-based texts as their primary realm of discussion. Art history (particularly in the study of illuminated medieval manuscripts and postmodern image/text compositions) and newer disciplines such as film theory and cultural studies have served to widen critical attention in order to address the image as communicative tool; yet literary studies have not embraced the study of images, let alone the more problematic hybrid form of text/image combination. This dissertation brings the attention of literary studies onto this hybrid form through an examination of the comics[1] medium--a medium in which the narrative possibilities inherent in word/image combinations is taken as a given, but a medium which traditionally has been ignored by the academy. By focusing on the works of Winsor McCay, Art Spiegelman, and Chris Ware, this dissertation will demonstrate how the interpretive strategies for text/image relationships already in use by the academy can be augmented and refined by a willingness to examine, critically, the medium of comics.

It does so by examining the ways in which these three noted cartoonists manipulate their medium to demonstrate its particular strength: the creation of thematically complex narratives through the strategic juxtaposition of text and image in sequential form. The comics text thus offers the potential for dynamic narratives, as opposed to the more static single-image narrative painting. The work of McCay, Spiegelman, and Ware demonstrates that comics can indeed be a source for sophisticated narrative expression; each assertively challenges preconceptions about the medium, its potential, and its value.

Careful readings of significant texts by these creators will reveal how the dialectic between text and image functions within a comics narrative, illuminating the study of other text/image relationships as well. The form-intensive critical methods of comics scholars Scott McCloud, Will Eisner, and R. C. Harvey will of course prove beneficial in these readings; but even more important will be methodologies suggested by the semiotic theories of Roland Barthes and Umberto Eco, studies in iconology such as those of W.J.T. Mitchell, and other critics who have explored text/image relationships from the perspectives of literary studies (Benjamin), art history (Camille), and film theory (Eisenstein, Monaco). In addition, discussions of each artist's self- positioning within popular American culture and prevailing artistic trends, informed by J. Hillis Miller's work in cultural studies, will delineate a cultural context for their work; this methodology will demonstrate how the social, economic, and political situations of each artist inform--and are in turn altered by--their comics art.

Context of the Study

William Nericcio has recently advocated the study of comics as a potential focus which could help unite textual and visual studies:
Word-based criticism might thus accept the challenge to analyze the complicity of images and word, even if that critical project begins with the comic book itself. Now, more than ever, the time seems right for the critical community to confront the innovative space of graphic narrative: to understand it as both epitome of and reaction against an age obsessed with `moving' pictures. (Nericcio 106)
Indeed, the medium of comics presents a unique opportunity for literary studies to examine in detail the complicity of--and tension between--text and image in the creation of narrative. Unfortunately, academic studies have traditionally dismissed comics as potential critical fodder. Maria Porges' remark stands as typical for its uninformed dismissal of the comics form: "What makes image-text [art] different from [comic books] is the ambiguous relationship between its words and pictures, the tension on which their `stairway to a third image' is built" (8). The refusal to acknowledge the possibility for ambiguity in the comics form demonstrates not an informed conclusion but rather an uninformed opinion. Others recognize the possibility but again fail to participate. In "The Rhetoric of the Image" Roland Barthes makes passing references to the combinative possibilities of word and image in comic strips, but he chooses advertising illustration as his extended example. Even Umberto Eco, whose "The Myth of Superman" remains an insightful look at mainstream superhero comics narratives of the 1960s, has failed to return to comics for interpretive fodder in his recent work on "open images" ( Open Work [1989]) or serial narrative (Limits [1990]).

This academic disdain finds its roots in how the medium has been viewed socially. Comic books often have come under scrutiny because their critics felt they harmed their presumably juvenile and adolescent audiences. While critics were usually concerned with content, the medium was faulted as well, for limiting imagination through the presentation of narrative via illustration. Education journals in the 1940s debated the link between reading comic books and a decline in literacy. Continuing this argument in the 1950s, psychologist Fredric Wertham (author of the popular, influential, but deeply flawed Seduction of the Innocent) argued that comic books' mixture of image and text harmed a child's reading ability, regardless of content, and in fact led to juvenile delinquency. Televised United States Senate hearings in 1954 brought the issue firmly into the public view. More recently such attacks have dissipated, due no doubt to an increased awareness of visual literacy; in addition, television and video games have become the main sources of visual stimulation for children and thus fodder for critics.

Current cultural developments aside, the comics medium has been stigmatized by its association with children and "childish" themes. Traditionally, when comic books have been studied by the academy at all, they have generally fallen under the broad aegis of Popular Culture studies (cf. McAllister 1989), which tends to focus on comic books as mere commodities or naive reflections of their current cultural surroundings[2] Study of the material's actual content--not to mention the inherent properties of the medium--has for the most part been left to "fan" literature.

Meanwhile, art history and cultural studies have examined the text/image relationships in narrative painting, advertising, or other media in which it is recognized that the conjunction of words and pictures presents an interpretive situation rife with possibility. Much of this criticism takes as an example Mark Twain's famous quip concerning Guido Reni's painting "Beatrice Cenci the Day Before Her Execution" (that without knowledge of the title [text], the image would lose its drama and power), but few critics beside comics scholar M. Thomas Inge extend these discussion to note further that Twain himself worked quite closely with some illustrators for his own novels (Edward Windsor Kemble for Huckleberry Finn, Daniel Carter Beard for A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court). Twain was convinced of the vital relationship between his prose and the illustrations that accompanied it (Inge 133-35); while illustrations, especially in the nineteenth century, were once considered integral parts of prose narratives, the practice--and, consequently, their critical emphasis--has fallen from favor. Studies created within the comics community, however, have begun to address the medium in a critical fashion. Works like Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics (1993), Will Eisner's Comics and Sequential Art (1985) and Graphic Storytelling (1996), and R.C. Harvey's The Art of the Funnies (1994) and The Art of the Comic Book (1996) recognize (to limited extents) the debt which comics owes to both literary and visual art traditions. Unfortunately, these studies do not arise from within the academy, and they ignore almost completely those theoretical examinations of text/image relationships which the academy has thus far produced.

What these studies can offer, though, is a beginning point of reference for academic inquiry. As each of these studies discusses, the images in comics do not simply illustrate the text, but dramatize, characterize, and convey narrative content across the space of the page. The key to defining comics, according to McCloud, is prioritizing the juxtaposition of images; R.C. Harvey perceives an analogous relationship in his defining criteria for comics, the "verbal/visual blend"--the juxtaposition of word and image. Compare Michael Camille's description of the illuminated manuscript: "Once the manuscript page becomes a matrix of visual signs and is no longer one of flowing linear speech, the stage is set not only for supplementation and annotation but also for disagreement and juxtaposition--what the scholastics called disputatio " (Camille 21). A similar principle should apply to comics criticism: to juxtapose comics not simply with comics-specific modes of criticism, but with academic modes which explore text/image relationships from other angles. Through analyzing comics narratives which demonstrate an awareness of--and a willingness to experiment with--the medium's possibilities and limitations, this dissertation will provide an opportunity to juxtapose ambitious comics narratives and theoretically informed academic inquiry regarding text/image relationships, leading to a broader understanding of both.

Chapter 1. Introduction: Comics Inquiry as Juxtaposition

This chapter will establish the dissertation's conceptual basis by surveying the connections between traditional comics scholarship and academic inquiry into text/image relationships. In Understanding Comics, the work on comics theory which most closely approaches an academic stance, Scott McCloud attempts to quantify various types of word/image combinations commonly found in comics panels, as well as the types of transitions possible between panels themselves. Unfortunately, his attempt at taxonomy remains divorced from the larger interpretive issues which could inform it, among them questions of literal vs. figurative language, semiotic [signifier/signified] concerns, or Leonardo da Vinci's paragone ("war of signs") between text and image.

McCloud's study has been heralded within the comics community as an empowering force, enabling critics to perform detailed, complex formal analysis of comics with medium-specific terminology; but while it does begin to build a critical vocabulary for criticism, Understanding Comics (along with similar efforts by Eisner and Harvey) does not build upon or espouse the broader cultural and intellectual framework that lies at the heart of academic text/image inquiry. These academic approaches to the situation (as outlined above) will also be introduced in this first chapter, in order to determine the common ground between academic and comics- specific word/image criticism, and to begin to demonstrate that the academic community will benefit from an examination of comics texts.

Brief comics examples from a wide range of creators will be used throughout this introductory section, as will the Bayeaux Tapestry, narrative paintings, and other common academic examples of text/image relationships. This scheme will allow the dissertation to demonstrate the benefits of comics-informed criticism to the larger academic community; in action; in addition, these examples will anticipate the more detailed analytic and cultural inquiry to follow in the dissertation.

Chapter 2. Winsor McCay: Comics as Visual Playground

Marked by a bold approach to page design and dramatic content, Winsor McCay's newspaper strips (including Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend [1904] and Little Nemo in Slumberland [1905-1911]) are all the more impressive for their early place within the chronology of the medium. By the early twentieth century, the comic strip had formalized its conventions (successive panels; sound conventions such as balloons for speech and thought); many early strips never tested these formal boundaries. McCay's stylized character design, careful architectural detail, and sophisticated use of color marked his strips as more carefully crafted than others. These tendencies, along with McCay's narrative preoccupation with the dream-state, led him to explore the narrative possibilities of comics.

The fluid, ambiguous nature of dreaming found a perfect match in McCay's elaborate panel sequences. As is evident from even his earliest efforts, including the surreal Little Sammy Sneeze (1905), McCay's interest resided in pushing the boundaries of the comics form, often literally: characters would be trapped within burning-edged panels, or attempt to break through the borders of the panels which contained them, blurring the accepted semiotic value of the common structural components of comics. McCay also experimented endlessly with repeated images, often meticulously re-creating the same scene panel after panel, with only slight variations which gradually developed into themes. His interest in incremental narrative would eventually manifest itself to a more extended degree in his hand-drawn animated films, among the earliest in that form as well. McCay's experiments with the comics medium grew to mature form in Little Nemo in Slumberland, in which McCay regularly employed innovative page designs and conceptual spaces: tall, vertical panels to crop images untraditionally; characters whose size altered in relation to their surroundings; buildings constructed upside-down; shifting aerial perspectives imagined before the use of airborne motion-picture cameras; title letters which become props for the characters. This visual flair, however, was always employed in service to the narrative: the strips' graphic design echoed, contextualized, or otherwise supplemented their narrative content.

Given artistic leeways like full-page designs and the ability to create and publish several strips for brief try-out periods (freedoms which today's space-inhibited, syndicate-bound comic- strip creators cannot enjoy), McCay commanded his medium to an extent which would not be matched for almost a generation, until the heyday of George Herriman's Krazy Kat . McCay proved that comic strips can achieve not only popular acclaim but also genuine artistic expression. His innovations would provide inspiration for generations to follow.

Chapter 3. Art Spiegelman: Comics as Stylistic Laboratory

Best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning, two-volume graphic novel Maus: A Survivor's Tale (1986, 1991), Art Spiegelman has enjoyed a long career as a comic-book artist, from his work as an "underground," counter-culture cartoonist in the late 1960s-early 1970s in New York and San Francisco to his co-founding of two innovative comics anthology series (Arcade in 1975 with Bill Griffith, and Raw in 1981 with Francoise Mouly). As befits his underground credentials, Spiegelman practices a form of comics storytelling which lies outside the experience of the traditional juvenile audience of mainstream comic books. Drawing his inspiration from non-mainstream comics artists (McCay, Harvey Kurtzman) and eschewing traditional genre material (super-heroes, science fiction, horror) except to mock it, Spiegelman's themes are adult and his style eclectic, altering radically from project to project. What unifies Spiegelman's broad body of work is his seeming inability to produce work which looks like generic comics.

Working in turns with mock-woodblock, collage, minimalism, and highly rendered "funny animal" styles, Spiegelman's early work shows an obsession with attempting to match thematic content with appropriate visual form. His salvos against the banality of television ("As the Mind Reels," intermixing traditional panel shapes with television screen shaped- and hued panels) or the high- art/pop-art dichotomy (the mini-comic book Two Fisted Painters ) show him addressing cultural issues with appropriate iconic signifiers.

Experimental and extreme, Spiegelman's shorter works reveal a developing artistic sensibility which has found its pinnacle in his ground-breaking work Maus, a long-form autobiography which recounts the story both of his parents' survival in Nazi death camps and of Spiegelman's own struggle to understand his relationship with his father. Originally serialized a serialized narrative, the first volume of Maus was published in book form and sold in bookstores rather than comic-book specialty stores. It caused a media sensation and also a great deal of confusion; one infamous review began, "Maus is not a comic book." Spiegelman's formal experimentation, honed in his earlier work, lies at the heart of the longer Maus: Jews are portrayed as mice, Nazis as cats; time runs in parallel sequences; sketch pads become panels. Yet the book's deceptively simple graphic style allowed anyone, even those readers who did not follow the comics market (let alone the avant garde underground), to read and admire this ambitious work. Rising from the underground to the limelight with his Pulitzer Prize, Spiegelman proved that it was possible for comics to achieve recognition because of significant artistic achievement, not simply their usual status as nostalgic collectibles. His publishing endeavors and his popular achievements opened doors for younger creators to follow.

Chapter 4. Chris Ware: Comics as Narrative Machine

Chris Ware's sophisticated narratives combine text and image in untraditional fashions. Like Spiegelman, Ware owes a profound debt to the past. Both his narrative voice and his design sense show the influence of late 1930s/early 1940s comic books, animated cartoons, and magazine advertisements, lending an air of nostalgia to his creations. Thematically, however, Ware's work often comments on the pains which clinging to the past can produce: feelings of desperation, confusion, and loss. These narratives grow thematically out of the advances in subject matter which Spiegelman and earlier underground cartoonists achieved for the medium. Ware's chosen mode of publication--through the comic-book specialty-store market, by a small, alternative publisher--owes a similar debt to the underground comics, which were distributed on street corners and through drug-paraphernalia shops rather than via traditional newsstands.

Influences aside, Ware's formal preoccupations serve to establish the originality of his voice. Perhaps his most radical experiment in comics form came in his early "Thrilling Adventure Stories" (1991), published in Spiegelman's anthology, Raw. This tale's deceptively simple visual narrative (a typical superhero vs. mad scientist adventure) is juxtaposed with a textual narrative (a first-person childhood reminiscence) which is broken up and grafted into the visual narrative via blocks of narration, speech balloons, sound effects, and textual portions of the mise-en-scéne ; thus Ware creates parallel sequential narratives in which the verbal and visual contents of each panel develop a system of sliding signification, with images and themes moving in and out of rapport.

This six-page tale deconstructs notions of comics creation, signification, and reading practices, while also introducing thematic and visual motifs which continue to inform Ware's creative output. His on-going series Acme Novelty Library continues to showcase Ware's fascination with comics form and technique, especially with regard to creating pages and narratives which lead the reader down highly convoluted yet intricately structured machine-like panel layouts. The physical format of each issue varies, defying publishing and marketing tradition, and the densely packed parody of editorial and advertisement pages create a fictional space (usually) wholly separate from each issue's comics content. Ware rotates his roster of stories, from the emotionally charged family nurturing drama of "Quimbies the Mouse," to the even more surreal world of the masochistic potato-headed creature, to the more realistic (and all the more horrific) atemporal tales of "Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth." All of these tales are composed of brief vignettes which often differ stylistically from each other; each installment works as both a narrative advance and a meditation on comics form, often utilizing multiple tiny panels and an intricate network of arrows and labels to create the impression of a printed circuit or other machine. One cannot read Ware's work without being continually reminded of its nature as comics.

Conclusion: Comics qua Comics

Summarizing the formal achievements of McCay, Spiegelman, and Ware, the Conclusion will reiterate the benefits of applying traditional academic as well as comics-specific critical methodology to the medium of comics, with the aim of both expanding the potential of academic text/image criticism and attracting further critical attention to this medium.

Availability of Materials

In examining these artists in light of their situation within popular culture and comics history, I will refer extensively to the several published histories of the medium, for both comic books and comic strips, and to periodical reviews, such as those found in The Comics Journal and other comics industry sources, which provide a range of alternative viewpoints to my own. The work of Art Spiegelman in particular, whose work has reached a broad audience, has been analyzed from numerous viewpoints (as comics, as literature, as autobiography, as Holocaust memoir), and as such has generated a wealth of secondary criticism. Most of my research needs can met by the Homer Babbidge Library, aided in great part by its Interlibrary Loan department; I have augmented my research with works which cannot be supplied by this library through my own collection of reference materials, as well as through my contacts with other comics scholars with whom I have met and corresponded at professional conferences and via the Internet. 
[1] The term comics began as a plural form, describing the contents of newspaper pages containing numerous comic strips; today it is used ambiguously as a label for the medium. For one detailed and influential definition, see Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics. The term's unfortunate and misleading association with "humor" has led some scholars to seek an alternative label: for example, comics pioneer Will Eisner suggests the descriptive label sequential art in his seminal Comics & Sequential Art (eventually leading to the unwieldy graphic sequential narrative ); Art Spiegelman offers commix (to connote the medium's co-mixing of words and pictures) in "Commix: An Idiosyncratic Historical and Aesthetic Overview." As this critical debate has not been settled, and comics is the still the term most immediately recognizable, I will use it as a singular form to refer to the medium in this dissertation. Return
[2] However, recent studies such as those of Barker, Inge, Sabin, and Witek demonstrate a new willingness on the part of the academy to examine the medium, utilizing approaches much more sophisticated than past attempts at comics criticism. Apart from necessary, periodic close readings of their chosen texts, however, these studies do not engage the inherent formal properties of the medium with the tools which the academy already uses to examine text/image relationships, primarily because literary studies have embraced no comics-specific interpretive apparatus. Witek provides the best synthesis of formal interpretation vs. literary and historical significance to date. Return

Selected Bibliography

Note: I won't be updating this bibliography, but feel free to let me know if you have any sugestions.
Gene Kannenberg, Jr.
Last Updated: 7 February 2006