It is often said that comics are not a ‘transparent medium’, or that comics are somehow ‘inherently ironic’ (e.g. Ole Frahm, “Weird Signs: Aesthetics of Comics as a Parody,” IJOCA 2.1, Spring 2000). The thought seems to be that we are incapable of reading comics without being aware that the narrative we are reading is a comic, and as a result, we are incapable of interpreting the comic as a straightforward narrative (or, at the very least, any comic is legitimately interpretable as a metafictional commentary on the comic art form itself. For a good example of this line of thought, see Charles Hatfield’s responses to my very first PPP post here. Such thoughts regarding the inherently metafictional nature of the comics art form are a recurring theme in Hatfield’s writing on comics, although he is far from alone!)

Now, the metafictional potential of comics is something I get very excited about. I think there is something very important, and very unique, about metacomics, and I am actually working on a monograph on metafiction in The Sensational She-Hulk. So I do not doubt that metafiction occurs frequently in comics, or that it is important and worthy of serious academic scrutiny. What I do have doubts about, however, is whether there is something inherently metafictional about the comics medium itself. There are a number of distinct claims regarding metafiction within comics that we might be interested in defending:

  1. Metafiction is more prevalent within comics than other narrative art forms (for perhaps contingent historical reasons, but perhaps not).
  2. Comics lend themselves to metafiction more easily than, or in ways different from, other artistic media.
  3. There is something special or different about metafictional comics, as compared to metafiction within other artistic media.
  4. The comic art form is inherently metafictional (i.e. all comics are metacomics, or at the very least, can be legitimately interpreted as metafictional).

Now, I find all of (1), (2), and (3) plausible. There is a simple story one can tell here: The unique word-picture mix that is typical of comics led to the development of a multitude of (purely) conventional formal storytelling tools within comics (e.g. balloons, panel borders, trails, SFX, motion lines, etc.) These conventional elements are, in virtue of their conventionality, ripe for non-conventional manipulation. As a result, metafiction is both extremely prevalent within comics, and extremely important for understanding how these conventional elements function.

That being said, it seems to me that many comics scholars tend to assert, and attempt to argue for, something more along the lines of (4). But this seems, to me, to be over-reaching. Just because metafiction is particularly prevalent, and in addition is of particular interest to scholars, readers, and fans, does not mean that all comics are metafictional. Put in stronger terms, it just seems that some comics are obviously not metafictional, and as a result any interpretation that reads them as such is wrong. For example, it just seems wrong to me to interpret (most of) Will Eisner’s PS army instructional comics as making any sort of metafictional commentary on comics as an art form. But perhaps I am missing something here.

About roytcook

Roy T Cook is associate professor of philosophy at the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities. He works in the philosophy of logic, the philosophy of mathematics, and the aesthetics of comics. He is the co-editor (with Aaron Meskin) of The Art of Comics: A Philosophical Approach (Wiley-Blackwell 2012)

8 responses »

  1. Barbara Postema says:

    An interesting topic, Roy, and I look forward to reading your more thorough exploration in your book on She-Hulk. I think you are right in choosing options 1-3, rather than 4, since as you say, it is so easy to point to examples of comics that are clearly not metafictional. But comics do invite metafictionality, raise it very easily, so the form clearly always has it as a potential. I would connect that again to the participation of the reader, that has come up on this blog before. Readers of comics are more involved (perhaps less–or differently–immersed) and so a more overt connection between the text, its source, and its readers seems natural.

  2. This is a wonderful post, Roy.

    I would be interested in hearing more about the way that metafictionality is bound up with ‘medium’ versus ‘genre.’ Your comment about the manipulation of conventions in a non-conventional way touches on both very clearly.

    I read a little bit of science fiction and fantasy, and both of these genres have well-established conventions, which scholars and fans argue about all the time. What’s SF? What’s the difference between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ SF? Is it completely (or partially) a matter of strict adherence to conventions?

    In fantasy fiction, the use of conventional ‘races’ is very common: elves, trolls, goblins, fairies, etc. When these conventions get used in non-conventional ways, do we find ourselves confronted with fantasy meta-fiction (meta-fantasy)?

    And what of the medium? The works of SF and fantasy are largely produced for print medium (and in on-line forms that often mimic the print form). Is it more difficult for writers of fiction to create metafiction than it is for comics artists to do so?

    One last question I have is this: your post uses the term metafiction, but what if we use the term metacomic instead? Comics about comics rather than comics about fiction. Are Will Eisner’s PS comics more successfully metacomics than metafiction?

    • Roy, I was going to ask if you wouldn’t mind clarifying your use the term “metafiction” here, broadly speaking? (though I like Frank’s question about the potential differences between metacomics and metafiction even more). If we are talking about metafiction primarily in the sense of the text calling attention to itself, I think a persuasive case could be made for a version of #4 based on the material circumstances surrounding comics production as well as the medium’s history of readerly interaction (in the U.S).

      • roytcook says:

        Qiana,

        For the clarification (or principled lack thereof), see my response to Frank. At any rate, I think the term “metafiction” in general is used in a uniformly sloppy way, and I think that the term “metacomic” has inherited that sloppiness. So clearly some further work is required here.

        With regard to the material circumstances and readerly interaction ‘forcing’ a metafictional interpretation on (all!) comics, I just don’t see it. Note that metafiction can’t be merely a text calling attention to itself (after all, if this is all it took then I could make all texts metafiction merely by printing them in bright pink ink on gaudy paper). Rather, for something to be metafiction it needs to be the case that the text calls attention to its status as a text (or something along those lines). I agree that things like the material circumstances and the history of readerly interaction, as you put it, makes it both very natural and very fruitful to interpret many, or even perhaps most, comics as metafictional (that is, I think 1 – 3 above are clearly true). But I just don’t see how this could make it the case that all comics are metafictional (or, even weaker, how this could imply that all comics can be or should be interpreted that way).

        Here is another way of putting the worry. Clearly, we can understand the terms “metafiction” and “metacomic” as more or less broad, depending on how we define them. Now, on a rather narrow reading of “metafiction” (e.g. “x is a metafiction if and only if x overtly and intentionally draws attention to its own status as a created, fictional artefact”), where many texts in general are clearly not metafiction, claims 1 – 3 still seem plausible. But in order to make claim 4 plausible – so my worry goes – we need to broaden the notion of metafiction so widely that it becomes of questionable theoretical use. After all, distinguishing metafiction as a species of fiction is only interesting if at least some texts are not metafiction (i.e. being a metafiction was supposed to be something special). But any reading of “metafiction” that would support 4 – that is, any reading that would make it plausible that all comics are, and must be, metafiction – threatens to make the concept so broad as to imply that any fictional text whatsoever is metafiction. But then “metafiction” is just a synonym for “fiction”, and we aren’t saying anything new or intestesting.

        Basically, I just find it implausible that any considerations – material, historical, formal, whatever – could make it impossible to create a comic that is not, and should not be read as, metafictional.

        Sorry that this sounds a bit confrontational. I have recently been getting kind of worked up over this issue. Please take it in the spirit it is intended: enthusiastic, collaborative questing for the truth!

    • roytcook says:

      Frank,

      Your query about ‘medium’ versus ‘genre’ is important, I think. One very straightforward means (but obviously not the only one!) for generating metafiction is by breaking or otherwise subverting various conventions, presumably in order to comment on or highlight those very conventions (and their conventionality). Thus, any medium (narrative or otherwise) that has a substantial generic structure will be ripe for metafictional manipulation, since the conventions tied up in a particular genre itself can be manipulated. But I think one of the reasons that comics are special, in this sense, is that the formal nature of comics – that is, the rules that make something a comic rather than something else – are themselves tied up with conventions (the use of balloons for speech and thought, and the fact that we use particular kinds of balloon for each, is but one example of such a convention, since we could have just as easily used any one of dozens of other speech-or-thought-representing tools to serve the same purpose) – perhaps more deeply than any other art form. As a result, comics are ripe for metafictional manipulation in and of themselves, independent of the conventionality of particular genres within comics.

      Also, I think that the “metafiction” versus “metacomic” question points to some important issues that haven’t been worked out sufficiently. Most of the time, when people talk about metacomics, I think they just mean any metafiction presented in the comics medium. But this doesn’t get at the issue of “scope” you raise. Some definitions of metafiction are wider or narrower than others. For example, if I am remembering correctly, Patricia Waugh defines metafiction as something like fiction that intentionally draws attention to its own fictionality, implying that metafiction must, in some sense, be a work of fiction about itself. But then in her subsequent book-length discussion she seems to admit examples with much wider scope (i.e. fiction about fictionality in general, rather than fiction strictly about that very fiction). I think there is definitely some unclarity here that could benefit from closer scrutiny.

      • Billy Proctor says:

        I think all comics have the potential to be interpreted as meta-fiction. I cannot agree with Roy – not confrontational here, Roy, just engaging in the debate – that if someone reads or interprets comics as metafictional then they are ‘wrong’. Readers all possess different heteroglossic and textual knowledges and competences – ‘differently knowing audiences’, according to Linda Hutcheon – and it would be erroneous to try and lock down meaning here. Many post-Watchmen/ Dark Knight Returns comics did bring attention to itself as a text for me examples including: Flex Mentallo, Astro City, Animal Man, The Filth, Top Ten, Deadpool, Alan Moore’s run on Supreme, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, The Invisibles, Planetary, Supergod…readers may agree or disagree or have examples of their own. I would say that all comics have the potential for metatextuality – the interpretation lies entirely in the hands of the reader and we cannot claim that this is ‘wrong’. Who are we to act as gatekeepers of interpretation? (Once again, Roy, this is in the spirit of debate and discussion and non-confrontational).

  3. Billy Proctor says:

    Some very interesting points here Roy! At the moment, I have been re-reading Alan Moore’s ‘Watchmen’, Warren Ellis’ ‘Planetary’, and Grant Morrison’s ‘Flex Mentallo’. My reading position has shifted – or is constantly shifting – as I continue to plough through comic book history and commentary (whether academic, mainstream or ‘amateur’) and I have to say that I very much read metatexually. I cannot understand how anyone can grasp the nuances and intricacies of ‘Watchmen’ without this knowledge. I first read ‘Watchmen’ some years ago and have periodically returned to it annually. My first thoughts were ‘Meh! It ain’t all that!’. But as I become more and more competent in detecting tropes, idioms and archetypes, I find that my reading has become more rewarding, more ‘complete’. Sure, a reader can dip into these texts, but for my money, and in my humble opinion, of course, once ones ‘metatextual competences’ become more and more complex, the text offers up some rich and intricate pathways of understanding. How can one really understand Frank Miller’s success in ‘The Dark Knight Returns’ without a metatexual awareness of the many faces and characteristics of the Batman’s long history? Geoff Klock’s book, ‘How to Read Superhero Comics and Why’ is an excellent investiagtion into the revisionary superhero narrative and its metatexual awareness of tradition. As a final thought, I would say – crudely paraphrasing George Orwell – ‘All texts are metatextual; but some are more metatexual than others’.

    • roytcook says:

      I certainly agree that many (perhaps even most) post-Watchmen/Dark Knight comics can (and perhaps should) be read using metafictional strategies. And I certainly also think any text CAN be read metatextually. But I still am not convinced that every text should be read that way (or, perhaps better, can legitimately be read that way).

      It’s important to note that plurality – that there are many different legitimate interpretations for a single work, depending on, among other factors, what the reader brings to the work – doesn’t necessarily entail any sort of rabid, anything-goes approach. Just because different readers can legitimately bring different things to a work and get different readings, it doesn’t follow that we can just bring anything willy-nilly to a work and expect to get a coherent or legitimate reading. In short, many interpretations being right, correct, or legitimate isn’t incompatible with some readings just being wrong.

      Take Action Comics #1. Interpreting this text as a meta-commentary on the history of superhero comics is wrong (and incoherent). Of course, a reader unaware of a few critical details in this history (such as: the fact that there was no such history when Action Comics #1 came out, the publication date of Action Comics #1, etc.) could, of course, read it this way. But this would not, in any significant sense, be a legitimate reading, I would think.

      Now, this example doens’t show that we can’t read Action Comics #1 as metafictional in some other way. But it does how that some (metaficitonal) interpretations of some works just don’t work. But then, I still just don’t see any solid reasons for thinking that every comic can be interpreted as metafiction in a legitimate way – i.e. in a way that works (at least, no reasons as solid as those that underlie the weaker claim that many comics are, and should be read as, metafiction).

      Most of the arguments seem to come down to something like: Many comics should be read as metafiction, and all comics could be read that way, so all comics should be read that way. But that’s just an invalid argument.

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