Comics studies

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Comics studies is an academic field that focuses on comics. Although comics and graphic novels have been generally dismissed as less relevant pop culture texts, scholars in fields such as semiotics and composition studies are now re-considering comics and graphic novels as complex texts deserving of serious scholarly study.

Theorizing comics[edit]

Although there has been the occasional investigation of comics as a valid art form, specifically in David Kunzle’s The Early Comic Strip; Narrative Strips and Picture Stories in the European Broadsheet from c.1450 to 1825, Gilbert SeldesThe 7 Lively Arts and Martin Sheridan’s Classic Comics and Their Creators, contemporary anglophone comics studies in North America can be said to have burst onto the academic scene with both Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art in 1985 and Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics in 1993. Comics studies also can trace its roots back to the work of post-structuralist semioticians such as Roland Barthes, particularly his Image—Music—Text.

More recently, analysis of comics have begun to be undertaken by cognitive scientists, the most prominent being Neil Cohn, who has used tools from linguistics to detail the theoretical structure of comics' underlying "visual language," and has also used psychological experimentation from cognitive neuroscience to test these theories in actual comprehension. This work has suggested similarities between the way that the brain processes language and the way it processes sequential images.[1] Cohn's theories are not universally accepted with other scholars like Thierry Groensteen, Hannah Miodrag, and Barbara Postema offering alternative understandings.[citation needed]

Defining comics[edit]

"Comics ... are sometimes four-legged and sometimes two-legged and sometimes fly and sometimes don't ... to employ a metaphor as mixed as the medium itself, defining comics entails cutting a Gordian-knotted enigma wrapped in a mystery ..."

R. C. Harvey, 2001[2]
Photo of a middle-aged man in glasses
Cartoonist and comics theorist Scott McCloud

Similar to the problems of defining literature and film,[3] no consensus has been reached on a definition of the comics medium,[4] and attempted definitions and descriptions have fallen prey to numerous exceptions.[5] Theorists such as Töpffer,[6] R. C. Harvey, Will Eisner,[7] David Carrier,[8] Alain Rey,[4] and Lawrence Grove emphasize the combination of text and images,[9] though there are prominent examples of pantomime comics throughout its history.[5] Other critics, such as Thierry Groensteen[9] and Scott McCloud, have emphasized the primacy of sequences of images.[10] Towards the close of the 20th century, different cultures' discoveries of each other's comics traditions, the rediscovery of forgotten early comics forms, and the rise of new forms made defining comics a more complicated task.[11]

Composition studies[edit]

In the field of Composition Studies, an interest in comics and graphic novels is growing, partially due to the work of comics theorists but also due to Composition Studies’ growing focus on multimodality and visual rhetoric. Composition studies theorists are looking at comics as sophisticated texts, and sites of complex literacy.

Gunther Kress defines multimodality as "the use of several semiotic modes in the design of a semiotic product or event, together with the particular way in which these mode are combined"[12] or, more simply as "any text whose meanings are realized through more than one semiotic code".[13] Kristie S. Fleckenstein sees the relationship between image and text as "mutually constitutive, mutually infused"—a relationship she names "imageword". Fleckenstein sees "imageword" as offering "a double vision of writing-reading based on [the] fusion of image and word, a double vision of literacy".[14] Dale Jacobs sees the reading of comics as a form of "multimodal literacy or multiliteracy, rather than as a debased form of print literacy".[15] According to Jacobs, comics can help educators to move "toward attending to multimodal literacies" that "shift our focus from print only to multiple modalities".[16] He encourages educators to embrace a pedagogy that will give students skills to effectively negotiate these multiple modalities.

Educational institutions[edit]

Comics studies is becoming increasingly more common at academic institutions across the world. Some notable examples include: University of Florida,[17] University of Toronto at Mississauga, and University of California Santa Cruz[citation needed], among others. West Liberty University is currently the only university offering a four-year undergraduate literature degree in comics studies.[18] In Britain, growing interest in comics has led to the establishment of a Centre for Comics Studies at the University of Dundee in Scotland.[19] Beside formal programs and degrees, it is common to see individual courses dedicated to comics and graphic novels in many educational institutions.[20]


Since 2000 many new scholarly journals have appeared dedicated to comics studies. Three of the most important peer refereed journals in English are: Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, Studies in Comics, and European Comic Art. Other journals include: ImageTexT, a peer reviewed, open access journal that began in the spring of 2004 and is based at the University of Florida, Image and Narrative, SANE journal: Sequential Art Narrative in Education out of the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and the International Journal of Comic Art.


Although presentations dedicated to comics are commonplace at conferences in many fields, entire conferences dedicated to this subject are becoming more common. There have been conferences at Georgetown, Ohio State, and Bowling Green State and there is a yearly conference at University of Florida.[21] Additionally, there is an annual Michigan State University Comics Forum, which brings together academics and professionals working in the industry. The International Comics Arts Forum (ICAF), begun in 1995 at Georgetown University by Guy Spielmann and Tristan Fonlladosa, is an annual academic conference distinguished by its international focus and scholarly rigor[22] The German Gesellschaft für Comicforschung (ComFor - Society for Comics Studies) has organized yearly academic conferences since 2006.[23] The Comics Arts Conference has met regularly since 1992 in conjunction with San Diego Comic-Con International and WonderCon.[24] Another important conference is the annual International Graphic Novels and Comics Conference held since 2010 organized by British academics. This conference has been held in conjunction with the longer running International Bande Dessinée Society conference.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Cohn, Neil. 2013. The Visual Language of Comics: Introduction to the Structure and Cognition of Sequential Images. London: Bloomsbury.
  2. ^ Harvey 2001, p. 76.
  3. ^ Groensteen 2012, pp. 128—129.
  4. ^ a b Groensteen 2012, p. 124.
  5. ^ a b Groensteen 2012, p. 126.
  6. ^ Thomas 2010, p. 158.
  7. ^ Beaty 2012, p. 65.
  8. ^ Groensteen 2012, pp. 126, 131.
  9. ^ a b Grove 2010, pp. 17–19.
  10. ^ Thomas 2010, pp. 157, 170.
  11. ^ Groensteen 2012, p. 112–113.
  12. ^ Kress, Gunther and Theo Van Leeuwen (2001). Multimodal Discourse: The Modes and Media of Contemporary Communication. Arnold Publishers. p. 20. 
  13. ^ Kress, Gunther and Theo van Leeuwen (2006). Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design (2nd Ed ed.). Routledge. p. 177. 
  14. ^ Fleckenstein, Kristie (2003). Embodied Literacies: Imageword and a Poetics of Teaching. Southern Illinois University Press. p. 2. 
  15. ^ Jacobs, Dale. "Marvelling at The Man Called Nova: Comics as Sponsors of Multimodal Literacy". The Journal of the Conference on College Composition and Communication. 59(2): 182. 
  16. ^ Jacobs, Dale. "Marvelling at The Man Called Nova: Comics as Sponsors of Multimodal Literacy". The Journal of the Conference on College Composition and Communication. 59(2): 201. 
  17. ^ "UF | Comics Studies | Studying Comics at UF". 2007-04-04. Retrieved 2009-11-23. 
  18. ^
  19. ^ "University of Dundee | Comics Studies |". 2009-03-26. Retrieved 2013-10-09. 
  20. ^ "UF | Comics Studies | Teaching Comics". 2007-04-09. Retrieved 2009-11-23. 
  21. ^ "Comics Conference". 
  22. ^ "The History of ICAF". .
  23. ^ "Gesellschaft für Comicforschung". Retrieved 2010-10-22. 
  24. ^ The Comics Arts Conference and Public Humanities.

Works cited[edit]

External links[edit]