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Review of Studying Comics and Graphic Novels

By Derek Parker Royal
Karin Kukkonen. Studying Comics and Graphic Novels. Malden, MA: Wylie-Blackwell, 2013. viii + 182 pp. $105.00 hardback. $32.95 paperback.

As instructors are increasingly using comics in the classroom—and especially as more college programs are devoting entire courses to comics studies—the need for a textbook introducing the medium becomes more pronounced. Over the past several years there have been a few works that have attempted to fill this textbook gap by providing broad overviews of the various facets of the nascent discipline. In their edited collection, A Comics Studies Reader (2009), Jeet Heer and Kent Worchester pull together previously published essays that would ideally serve as supplementary texts covering the history, craft, as well as cultural and aesthetic contexts of comics. In Caped Crusaders 101 (2006), Jeffery Kahan and Stanley Stewart create a more focused textbook that uses comics, specifically superhero comics, as a way of structuring a freshman composition course. And in perhaps the most comprehensive comics textbook to date, The Power of Comics (2009), Randy Duncan and Matthew J. Smith attempt to cover the broad spectrum of classroom potential when it comes to comics: e.g., the history of medium, notable creators, aesthetic and formal considerations, genre divisions, the process of creation, discussions of the industry, comic-book fandom, and ideological concerns. While ambitious in their own ways, each of these texts is not without its problems. The Comics Studies Reader comprises almost arbitrary—and at times, perhaps too specialized—essay choices that may not serve effectively in an introductory comics classroom. Kahan and Stewart's work reads less as a composition guide and more as an excuse to discuss comics under an assumption of pedagogy. And Duncan and Smith's The Power of Comics, for all of its breadth, is an unbalanced offering of chapters and perspectives, some more successful than others, with several that would be tangential or even superfluous in the classroom.

Into this mix comes Karin Kukkonen with her recent textbook, Studying Comics and Graphic Novels. Hers is a relatively condensed introduction to comics studies, a text of modest length that covers only a few salient aspects of the medium. Indeed, Kukkonen's work stands in direct contrast to The Power of Comics, which takes a shotgun approach to comics studies. The former is a more targeted attempt at classroom usage, with Kukkonen picking and choosing her métier. The text is divided into six main chapters. The first is a brief overview of the process of reading comics, understanding the mise en page and the dynamics of entering a text's storyworld. Next, Kukkonen provides a quick overview of narratological concerns, discussing the function of the narrator and highlighting such concepts as focalization, point of view, and the distinctions between story and discourse. Her third chapter is the only one specifically to focus on genre, using this sole attempt to explore autobiographical comics. She devotes her fourth chapter to comics and adaptation, limiting herself to the adaptation of classic literary texts. Her last two sections are devoted to a quick history of the medium and to various critical approaches through which readers could approach comics (e.g., semiotics, narratology, historical criticism, cultural studies). Each chapter is structured as one might expect in a textbook: a general discussion, punctuated with supplementary commentary in the form of "sidebar" boxes of information, and then followed by a reference list, texts for further reading, and suggestive classroom activities. Kukkonen ends her book with an appendix of comics and graphic novels for further reading and a glossary of key terms discussed in the text.

The author states in the introduction that she is specifically taking a cognitive approach to her survey, "one that draws on insights from the cognitive sciences and the neurosciences into how our minds and bodies work together. It uses the cognitive approach as a point of departure for considering different aspects of comics, their connection to other media, and their place in culture" (1-2). As it turns out, this both is and is not the case. While there are some parts that foreground such a cognitive approach—one of the best examples of this comes in the first chapter, where Kukkonen discusses immersion into a comic's storyworld—the majority of the text is not necessarily, or at least not overtly, framed by cognitive theory and reads in a more or less critically neutral manner. This actually works to Kukkonen's benefit, since a theoretically biased textbook may be seen as suspect, or at least limiting, by some instructors. This being the case, it is unclear why the author makes this assertion at the outset, although perhaps it could be explained by the fact that Kukkonen also published another book, Contemporary Comics Storytelling, at around the time that Studying Comics and Graphic Novels was released, which employed a discernable cognitive lens. (Indeed, if readers are interested in what cognitive narrative approaches to comics may look like, they would do well to turn to Contemporary Comics Storytelling, which uses such fascinating series as Fables, Tom Strong, and 100 Bullets to explore this critical method.)

One of the most striking aspects of Studying Comics and Graphic Novels is its brevity. On the one hand, its conciseness works in the textbook's favor. Instructors who want to use an introductory or supplemental book to accompany their primary texts, the comics themselves, might actually prefer a shorter textbook that does not require too much of the class's time and energy—which is arguably the case with Duncan and Smith's The Power of Comics. Kukkonen's brief overview on how to read a comics page (chapter 1) and the basics of comics as narrative (chapter 2) are good examples of brief and useful introductions. However, there are parts of the text where concision works against its intended purposes. For example, the chapter on adaptation could have benefited from a broader understanding of how adaptation actually functions in comics—and here, Kukkonen would have done well to adopt Linda Hutcheon's eclectic insights in A Theory of Adaptation (2006)—instead of limiting herself to just comics that revisit classic works of literature, such as those found in the Classics Illustrated series and the works of Martin Rowson. In fact, her use of R. Sikoryak's "The Crypt of Brontë" from Masterpiece Comics (2009) in the adaption chapter should have demanded a discussion of parody as well as other, more subtle, forms of adaptation in comics.

Another section that could have benefited by more thorough analysis is chapter 5, "Comics and Their History." This is, by far, the weakest part of the text. Kukkonen begins this chapter with a discussion of comics' beginnings—taking issue with analyses that focus on the Bayeux tapestry or murals of ancient Egypt—and then quickly moves onto early twentieth-century American newspapers. She does provide a succinct rendering of early newspaper strips and the rise of the comic book as comics' primary delivery system, and she devotes a brief section of this chapter to Fredric Wertham, the 1954 Senate hearings, and the ensuing Comics Code (although not providing enough detail in places and being unclear that the Comics Magazine Association of America was expressly created as a reaction to congressional inquiry). But she completely ignores historically significant moments such as the rise of Marvel in the early 1960s, mainstream publishers' struggles in the 1970s, the growth of alternative comics during the 1980s, the impact of the direct market during the 1980s and 1990s, and the state of the industry after the turn of the century. In fact, Kukkonen skips from censorship in the 1950s to a digressive section on comics and popular culture, and then onto the underground comix movement. And even her discussion of underground comix is conspicuously thin. Perhaps one should not expect a more expansive coverage of comics history in such a concise textbook, but if an author intends to present a useful history of comics, she should be prepared to provide a more complete coverage of its defining events, however skeletal.

Perhaps one reason for the incomplete history is due to the author's lack of familiarity with mainstream comics in general, and superhero titles in particular. This paucity of knowledge—if, in fact, this is the case—comes out in other ways in the text. Outside of a few key events in superhero comics, such as Action Comics #1 (1938) and DC's Crisis on Infinite Earths (1985), Kukkonen seems to ignore superhero comics completely. Indeed, her appendix of "More Comics and Graphic Novels to Read" includes only four—arguably five, if you include Planetary—mainstream superhero titles from DC, and surprisingly (or shockingly?) nothing at all from Marvel. Where, one may ask, are Squadron Supreme (1971)—much like Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's Watchmen (1986), quoted often in the text, a commentary on the superhero genre—or highly influential narrative arcs such as Secret Wars (1984-1985) or Civil War (2006-2007), just to name a few? The only superhero title that she discusses with any kind of authority is Watchmen, and that, one could argue, is a postmodern critique of the superhero genre that positions itself outside of the mainstream. By continually coming back to Watchmen as the example of superhero comics, and to the exclusion of other more obvious mainstream examples, Kukkonen is (perhaps inadvertently) demonstrating a scant awareness of superhero comics—a genre that has gone a long way in defining comic-book history—that limits not only her history, but her entire project.

The author's genre biases are perhaps most pronounced in the type of comics she chooses to use as illustrative examples to the concepts she introduces. Her chapter on autobiographical comics is the only part of the book specifically devoted to a particular genre or type of narrative. Not only is there no sustained discussion of superhero titles; there is no substantive mentioning of other genres that have, at different times, significantly defined the comics industry, past or present. (The one exception to this is her brief mentioning of horror and EC Comics, but that is merely to set up the context of self-censorship in the mid-1950s.) Her privileging of autobiographical comics betrays her academic background and biases. Anyone who teaches in secondary and higher education, and has a knowledge of the kind of comics taught in those classrooms, knows that autobiographical graphic novels are perhaps the most popular means of introducing students to comics. So in many ways, it makes sense that Kukkonen would devote an entire chapter on this kind of narrative, to the exclusion of other types of comics. Also, there is nothing wrong with writing within an academic mindset, especially if the textbook that you are writing is intended for use within the academy. Still, such an overt privileging of autobiographical comics, especially in a text that purports to introduce the larger scope of comics, appears lopsided, prejudiced, and incomplete. In fact, this sense of genre bias manifests itself elsewhere in Studying Comics and Graphic Novels. Of the titles that Kukkonen uses as illustrative examples of her arguments, texts such as Maus (1986, 1991), Fun Home (2006), and Blankets (2003) garner the most notable attention. (Although, to her credit, the author does pull from Vertigo titles such as Sandman [1989-1996] and V for Vendetta [1989] to illustrate some of her points.) One could arguably call these books, and similar titles that are used frequently in the classroom, the "usual suspects" of comics studies, the common books that instructors turn to, time and again, as examples of comics worth literary consideration. While it makes sense to bring in a discussion of these "canonical" comics texts, it would have been useful to deemphasize the frequently taught and introduce more lesser-known titles, as she does at one point in her discussion of another Vertigo title, Warren Ellis's Desolation Jones (2006). Academicians do a grave disservice to the medium by focusing only on the most popular syllabus choices and limiting student exposure to other, equally deserving, comics.

Still, Kukkonen's Studying Comics and Graphic Novels is a step in the right direction when it comes to a comics studies textbook. Its initial chapters are useful starting points for students unfamiliar with comics, and even for those with little experience in literary textual analysis. And perhaps the strongest parts of the book are the author's close readings of various comics texts. Indeed, Kukkonen excels when it comes to in-depth visual analysis, demonstrating by example the richness that readers can pull from sequential art, whether it be a newspaper strip, an online comic, an ongoing comic-book series, or an original graphic novel. Her discussions of Sandman, Desolation Jones, Nancy Butler's adaptation of Sense and Sensibility (2010), and Winsor McCay's Little Nemo in Slumberland (1905-1926) truly stand out as exercises in close textual explication.

The question remains: Is Studying Comics and Graphic Novels a thorough enough textbook to use in a classroom devoted to comics studies? Parts of it are, but there are significant gaps in its presentation—e.g., the aforementioned bias toward autobiography, the scanty and even faulty coverage of comics history, an implied lack of understanding or awareness of certain genres, such as superhero comics, and its seriously limited list of recommended readings—that would warrant caution against course adoption. Kukkonen's writing works best when demonstrating by example and through her own thorough readings of specific titles. This is one of the reasons why her other work from 2013, Contemporary Comics Storytelling, stands out as the more successful of the two. But if teachers and comics aficionados are looking for a concise yet wide-ranging introductory text on comics studies, then they may need to wait a little longer. Perhaps in a future edition, Kukkonen can fill in the gaps that mar the present text and revise her analyses to be not only more inclusive, but perhaps more importantly, more judicious and comprehensive.

Works Cited

Duncan, Randy, and Matthew J. Smith, eds. The Power of Comics: History, Form, and Culture. New York: Continuum, 2009. Print.

Heer, Jeet, and Kent Worcester, eds. A Comics Studies Reader. Jackson, MS: UP of Mississippi, 2009. Print.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Adaptation. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Kahan, Jeffrey, and Stanley Stewart. Caped Crusaders 101: Composition through Comic Books. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2006. Print.

Kukkonen, Karin. Studying Comics and Graphic Novels. Malden, MA: Wylie-Blackwell, 2013. Print.

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