Readings, and Related Inspirations

Initial Term Paper Exploration


The following is a bunch of thoughts for where I think I want my final paper to go for this course. I would appreciate any feedback you all may have, positive or negative. I would also appreciate essays/books you think I may need to read, or other comics you think I should maybe check out (unless it’s Jimmy Corrigan. I’m not going to touch that one).


I will be looking at the structure of the comic novel and how it functions in relation to a particular narrative. The specific structural entity I will be focusing on is what is called the gutter – the space between comic panels which requires the reader/viewer to create meaning in order to continue the continuity of the narration from panel to panel. The gutter is unique to the comic medium and requires more audience production than any other medium.

Parts of the paper:

1. Definition of terms necessary for reading about comics

2. Literary Review – much of the literature concerning comics is repetitive. A lot of people are saying the same thing over and over in different ways, using different examples to illustrate the same points.

  • I will be adding to the debate by taking this repetition to the next level. According to Charles Hatfield’s 2010 article “Indiscipline, or, The Condition of Comic Studies,” the author complains that we are still presenting comics “as if the field were almost brand-new” (5), even though comics have been a part of mainstream entertainment for over 80 years (Superman debuted in 1938).
  • Instead of repeating what everyone else has said, I plan to continue the argument in a new way, which I will illustrate below

3. The Literature Debate – Much of the conversation I mentioned above is about whether or not comics should, or will ever be considered ‘literature’. I will argue that comics are not, and should not, be considered literature based on claims made by other scholars. I plan to propose that comics get their own unique space in textual discourse, and that comics scholars leave the debate over literature to text-only novels.

4. Major Argument/How My Paper will be Different:

  • Instead of illustrating how panels, frames, gutters, etc work in comics as a genre, I will argue that different narratives can, and do, direct the way in which gutters can be utilized. I will argue that particular narratives can construct meanings from gutters that cannot be understood without also understanding the narrative where they are applied.
  • I will focus on Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and how it can illustrate more ways for gutters to create meaning (using semiotic terms for clarity), than what Scott McCloud introduces in his 1994 book, Understanding Comics. Simultaneously, I will argue that, while comics should not be lumped in with literature, they can absolutely be considered ‘literary’, though we should use discretion when applying this term, as the entire medium is not worthy of this merit.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the comics medium, let me include a few pages here to illustrate what I will be showing in the paper.

Out of Preludes and Noctures - Issue Title: 24 Hours

This particular page is from the first volume of Sandman, and takes place in a diner: an everyday establishment that exists on this plane, in this reality. The characters are unaware that something supernatural is about to take place in this very diner. They are unaware of their placement in the narrative so far. Thus, the artists, Mike Dringenburg and Sam Keith, have decided to create this page as any traditional comic would be set up. The panels are rather standard size, square, and the gutters are white and empty.

Also from Preludes & Nocturnes

The page below, another page out of Volume One, is a completely different set-up. The panels are not standardly square, and the gutters, while literally there, are red. In the narrative, the main character, the Sandman, is remembering a moment that happens earlier in the narrative, but from his point of view (the narrative perspective shifts often in this book). There are several important techniques in play here: The panels are curved to mimic the fact that the Sandman is trapped in a convex dome in the basement of a Nazi cult building. The red is arguably mirroring the inner part of the eye, doubly a mirror for the shape of his prison and the shape of the eye. The fact that the speech bubble is black is also important to the character in that whenever the Sandman speaks, his speech bubble is formatted this way. While the speech bubbles are not necessarily important to my argument, the space the Sandman occupies while narrating this memory sequence is important to the presentation of the page. It is both signifying the importance of space, time, and story arch in the narrative, and is allowing the reader to create meaning about the character of the Sandman and his importance within the larger narrative.

This last one is another of many ways in which the gutter is manipulated.

From Preludes & NocturesHere the narrative is not as important as in the others, though this is not always the case for this type of page layout. It is the case here because this is the first page in an issue and so just providing set-up. On the page, we see the outside of an asylum. This facade doubles as a full-page illustration and a backdrop for the other four panels. Here we can see the outside of the asylum and the inside, from various angles. In this way, the reader is given the setting, and the setting is not removed as the temporal shift in narration occurs. This is unique to comics, though not as widely used in more traditional comics. Because of the nature of the medium, comics are able to present more than one space at a time to the reader, and the reader can view more than one time at a time. As the eye moves from the top panel to the bottom panel, it creates continuity in the story, but is constantly reminded that the outside of the asylum remains unchanged as time moves on inside. Manipulating the page this way, the created mood is arguably creepier, and the asylum setting remains still and dark in all of the places except where the action in the panels takes place.

The above three pages are here for illustrative purposes so you can see what I’m working toward. I plan to use Barthes to incorporate semiotic terminology in order to clarify the ideas as much as possible to as broad an audience as possible. I will also rely on an article by Jason Dittmer from 2010 called “Comic Book Visualities: A Methodical Manifesto on Geography Montage and Narration” because he talks quite a lot about how the page works to probe “both sense of place and role of place in defining literary characters” (223). I also plan on reading Theirry Groensteen’s book, which I have, but haven’t dug into yet. He also discusses gutters in some depth.

I would appreciate any feedback, particularly on clarity of presentation here.


6 thoughts on “Initial Term Paper Exploration

  1. I haven’t read Dittmer’s book, yet the title suggest the avenue of thought I have. I would begin with an exploration of montage, which is the the filmaker’s technique for advancing the narration through time. I think there is a parallel in comics.

  2. I really love the ideas you are exploring through this project. I’ll admit that I’ve only ever read one graphic novel (Maus). While I enjoyed it, I questioned whether it fell within the classification of “literature.” I couldn’t quite make it “fit,” but I couldn’t put my finger on why. I knew it had more to do with the fact it relies so strongly on visual images to build the narrative. The issue of multiple representation of time/space that you are exploring makes it all so much clearer to me now. And I think your approach of exploring and defining spatial representations (panels, frames, gutters) that are distinct within genres is really interesting.

    I’m trying to think of helpful comments/feedback, but I know so little about this area of research, I’m afraid anything I say will be irrelevant!

    I guess the one thing I’d be interested to know is if/how visual patterns are used within these genres. Coming from a technical communication/digital layout background, I’ve always been kind of interested in how designers use patterns to create familiarity for users. For example, when we pull up a webpage, we generally expect the search bar to be located on the top right; we expect a “home” button to appear on the top far left of the menu bar; we can usually find links to a site map located at the bottom of pages for large organizations…

    Do comic-book genres have visual patterns like these that show up again and again? Are these visual cues the same among different comic books within the same genre? How are these patterns used to create a sense of familiarity among comic book readers?

    Not sure if that helps at all, but I am really looking forward to hearing more about your project!

  3. Pingback: 7 Days New « portlantia

  4. Valerie, I came across this today in my inbox:

    Marvel Comics available through iTunes for your iPhone, iTouch, or iPad.

    I thought this quote was particularly interesting:

    “You’ll experience Marvel’s greatest series and stories like never before, with your choice of guided view (an animated, panel-by-panel path through the comic), or by using regular device controls to zoom and pan your way through pages of sizzling story and amazing artwork!”

    I know you aren’t looking a the digital side for your term paper… but it might be something to keep in mind for future research if you continue looking at comics–especially since digital mediums offer the reader more “control” moving through and “into” the narrative.

    I thought it was pretty cool! Or does it “ruin” the essence of the comic book? I dunno. Either way, it’d be an interesting exploration.

  5. Wow, Larissa, thanks! I’m going to have to look into this. The ‘page turn’ is considered the ultimate gutter experience, actually. But the idea is that pages are designed to a certain layout so that the reader can often make connections between panels by whole-page glance. This could be a really interesting conversation to get into. For the future.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s