My interest in comics from an academic standpoint is how language codes function. Mostly I examine how dialogue is structured and how characters build their relationships and identities through their talk. This approach blends tenets of conversation analysis, discourse analysis, and pragmatics. (For an example of this kind of research, see my article on The Rawhide Kid in the journal ImageTexT.)

One methodological concern for analysts who do similar work is this: how is the language in the comic best prepared for analysis? To analyze dialogue, we can create a transcript to account for typical features of conversation. For grammatical analysis, we can track the relative distribution of features–for example, comparing simple past tense verbs with past perfect verbs (‘walked’ vs ‘had walked’). In most cases, linguists need to examine 100% of the language in the comic to make sure that whatever analysis they’re doing is complete. In some cases, only a sample of the language is needed, but that requires asking the right research question and setting parameters effectively.

Web comics present an interesting challenge. Some web comics, like Penny Arcade, are structured in a familiar three-panel or four-panel strip.  All the language is present: it is visible, it is easily accessed. However, many web comics feature alt text, language that pops up when the reader mouses over the image.

Scenes from a Multiverse is one such comic that uses alt text (a.k.a., easter egg). Without the alt text, the comic itself is ostensibly complete. However, the alt text adds a dimension to the comic. It might extend the humor, it might extend the narrative action, it might twist the perspective, and it might provide editorial commentary by the author.

Hidden Comic from Amazing Super Powers

Hidden Comic from Amazing Super Powers

Similar to the notion of alt text is the hidden comic. A hidden comic is one that appears either when the reader mouses over it or, in the case of Amazing Super Powers, appears when the reader clicks on an icon. As a typical comic strip, ASP usually comprises three panels, but just to the right of the comic strip, there is a large question mark icon, visible only when a mouse/cursor hovers over it. Clicking on the question mark opens a new web page, giving the reader an ‘extra’ panel, extending the strip in often surprising and humorous ways.

Comics scholars who are working in web comics have to manage the alt text and, in some cases, the hidden comic. We need to account for the ‘extra’ comic material in our analyses. I’m not sure yet how to do this. In extracting dialogue from a web comic for analysis, I feel comfortable creating a transcription in the style of conversation analysis. How should I include the alt text? Should it be offset from the ‘main’ comic, using spacing and indention to demarcate it entirely? Should it be formatted as if it were part of the ‘main’ comic and noted as alt text only if necessary?

I think these questions are in some ways related to Roy Cook’s earlier series, “When are two comics the same comic?” If one reader sees only the ‘main’ web comic but another reader sees both the ‘main’ comic and the alt text and the hidden comic, are they reading the same comic?

About Frank Bramlett

Until June 2014, I am a visiting lecturer in the English Department at Stockholm University, where I offer seminars in Sociolinguistics; Language and Gender; and Language and Comics; among others. For Fall 2014, I will return to the English Department at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

6 responses »

  1. roytcook says:

    Nice topic. I had to think about this a bit before figuring out what I wanted to say in response, ’cause I also think that there are some difficult issues lurking hereabouts.

    First, I like your suggestion that this ties in with my previous posts on comic identity conditions. I think that there is something uniquely interesting here that isn’t evident in the examples I talked about. Here we not only have to decide whether the two comics (one with alt text, one without) are the same or different, but we also have to decide which is primary. In short, is the non-alt text comic the canonical one, so that the alt-text becomes supplementary material (that might enrich one’s experience but is not necessary for a full experience of the artwork), or is the alt-text comic the canonical one (so that many readers who miss the alt-text are only experiencing an incomplete and impoverished version of the work)?

    Another thing that strikes me (this is implicit in the original post, I think, but deserves emphasizing): Alt-text really does constitute a new function for text within comics. Comic theorists typically identify a very few ways that text can function within a comic:

    Speech/Word Balloons
    Sound Effects
    Narration
    In-panel Text (e.g. storefront signs).
    Titles

    Alt-text seems like a new category, with its own set of uses and functions that are worthy of study (needless to say, alt-text typically functions more like narration than any of the others, but I think it is nevertheless distinct and worth examining independently).

    Thus, this provides a nice example of something that webcomics do that cannot be reproduced in print comics. So webcomics really are (or at least can be) more than merely print comics projected on a screen.

    A similar phenomenon that is worth thinking about is this: Some webcomics allow readers to post comments directly into the art (text that only becomes visible when scrolled over). If this can also be counted as part of the comic (or at a minimum, as part of one of the comics) present on the screen, then this sort of thing also provides us with a prety fascinating kind of interactive comic.

  2. Roy,
    You’re articulating my suggested point better than I did. I really am suggesting that (some) web comics actually fall into a unique category, achieving the art form in ways that other modes don’t or perhaps can’t.

    Your question of the canon remains an important one, and it deserves a much longer answer than what we can provide here. As much as I like to avoid the question of authorial intent, I think it’s crucial here. From the artist’s perspective, perhaps the comic+alt text is the canonical one; whereas for the reader, the comic that is read (comic+/-alt text) is the canonical one. I hadn’t expected to use mathematical notations for this response, but there you go. The comic, plus or minus the alt text, is the reader’s “original” experience, and it stands as canonical for her or him.

    My central question had to do with the role of the analyst. How should comics scholars treat comics+alt text? I think we have our work cut out for us!

  3. roytcook says:

    Wow. The more I think about this, the more I come to think that it is both a very important question and a very, very, very, hard one.

    One thing that struck me is whether there is any connection between this issue and the “are motion comics really comics?” debate. I know at least a few people who think that motion comics aren’t comics. If they are, however, then their ‘movie-like’ characteristics mean that they will function differently from traditional comics in important ways. I wonder if the role of alt text in webcomics could be fruitfully compared to the of animation in motion comics? I am not sure – it’s just something to think about.

  4. roytcook says:

    I don’t really know enough about them to give a ‘best of’ (or, depending on one’s views, ‘worst of’) list. One of the best known is the twelve episode motion comic adaptation of Watchmen, released in the lead-up to the film version.

    Personally, I haven’t liked the few I have looked at – finding them distracting as comics, but ‘not quite’ films. But that perhaps doesn’t detract from their theoretical interest.

  5. Christine says:

    Hi Frank,
    Thanks for this article; I really enjoyed it! It also chimed with some questions I’ve had about blog comments in web comics (I’m not an official comics scholar, rather a PhD student who enjoys web comics, but recently I’ve been musing on how they interact with different aspects of my work). Often, readers will start debates which clarify some of the action in the panels, and the artist will respond, adding more detail. In addition, sometimes artists create a comic which responds to previous comments from readers, making blog comments an essential part of understanding the process. Reading blog comments, I think, can extend the comic experience — but is this part of the actual comic?
    Regarding the alt text and canonicity: I think this artist’s scene exemplifies some of the issues you raise, suggesting three possible reading experiences (http://www.bitemecomic.com/?p=582). Here, alt text clarifies a visual reference to a canonical piece of French art, but doesn’t give the title, so the joke requires a reader familiar both with Delacroix’s ‘Liberty Leading the People’ and with alt-texts for full comprehension — of course, it could also encompass readers familiar with Coldplay’s Viva la Vida album. Citing this full experience would get tricky, but I think the multiplicity of the experience emphasizes the importance of the alt-text — and maybe suggests the term multiple readers’ comics as opposed to the canonical comic.John Reppion and Leah Moore’s ‘The Thrill Electric’ extends some of these issues around alt-texts in a motion comic format — they make great use of alt-scenes.

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