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:
- Metafiction is more prevalent within comics than other narrative art forms (for perhaps contingent historical reasons, but perhaps not).
- Comics lend themselves to metafiction more easily than, or in ways different from, other artistic media.
- There is something special or different about metafictional comics, as compared to metafiction within other artistic media.
- 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.