When I first learned about found poetry, I was taught that we could encounter poetry anywhere we went. Any text could be considered poetry even if it weren’t meant to be seen as such. Later on, I learned that found poetry is also poetry that is cobbled together from other kinds of texts. There is even poetry constructed out of the speech of Donald Rumsfeld, former U.S. Secretary of Defense.

Likewise, everyday objects that weren’t meant to be art can be transformed into art, one very famous example being a urinal ‘made into’ a fountain.

Now that I’m living in Sweden, I see lots of textually-based objects around me that I don’t understand, especially newspapers, magazines, various informational signs, and advertisements.  This mostly has to do with the fact that I simply don’t have the linguistic resources to make sense of them. This limitation, though, has become a tool that I use for other purposes. For me, if I can’t focus on the content and successfully figure it out, then it’s easier to focus on the form. In this case, I’ve been seeing elements of comics where I don’t think I necessarily noticed them before. This is especially true for advertisements. That is to say, I have noticed elements of comics used in advertisements, and I’ve noticed that advertisements take on a ‘flavor’ of comics as a result.

Ads as single-panel comics.

The first advertisement below is a single-panel comic without question. In some sense, it’s an ‘action comic’ because of the speed lines and the steam coming out of the cups, among other reasons. Interestingly, there are other advertisements behind the one we see, strategically angled so that the viewer sees the corners of the ad and knows that there may be other, similar ads like this one to come.

On the streets of Gothenburg

Blend of non-comics conventions with comics conventions.

Whatever this next ad is for, it is designed to be read as a traditional text, left-to-right as Swedish is read, and starting at the top reading down the page. However, the interaction here between the verbal and visual elements prevents this from being a traditional written text. Further, there are comics-specific elements here, including the speech balloons. [Careful readers may spot a word – många – in the image that looks like ‘manga.’ However, the diacritic above the first ‘a’ indicates that this is the Swedish word meaning ‘many,’ not the Japanese word meaning ‘comic.’]

Ostermalm neighborhood in Stockholm

Ads with images arranged sequentially.

While there are precious few indications of comics in this ad, I think we can safely mention two. The first is the panel division. The panel on the left is a dog and a human, and the panel on the right is the dog sitting alone on a rock. The other indication that this might be a found comic is that it most resembles photo comics.

On the T-bana (subway/metro/tube) in Stockholm

Comics scholars often debate the history of comics: what makes a protocomic, what makes a ‘modern’ comic. When did comic art ‘really’ start? My question in this post is about ubiquity: are comics and especially comics conventions so commonplace now that their impact is felt even in places and times where the primary effort is meant to convey something besides comics?

Do found comics qualify as a ‘legitimate’ (!?) genre, arising out of occasional and/or accidental use comics conventions? If so, where do you see found comics?

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.

2 responses »

  1. Barbara Postema says:

    Interesting question, Frank!
    I have two responses to this, more questions really.
    The first is about the nature of “found art.” I have a sense that found art tends to be subversive in some way, either of its sources, or of traditional art. Your example of Duchamp’s “Fountain” can be seen as a statement against the elitism of the art world, while the poems based on Donald Rumsfeld’s speeches subvert his original expressions. Is this kind of subversion essential to found art, and does it apply to found comics, or at least your examples of them?
    Secondly, I think elements of comics vocabulary, or perhaps comics apparatus, are getting more ubiquitous. I see a lot of advertising using speech balloons, for example, often divorced from any other comic-y elements like cartoon-style drawings or use of sequential panels. A series of ads on Toronto’s public transit show photos of all kinds of garbage addressing the public directly with speech balloons. One example is a banana peel on a subway seat with a speech balloons saying “I don’t belong here.” As you say, is that a comic? It certainly uses some of the conventions. But does that turn it into an actual comic? Or does it mean that comics’ visual vocabulary is starting to cross over or become mainstream? And if so, what does that mean for the status of comics?

  2. Barbara,

    I’m glad you asked the question about subversion. To be honest, I don’t know whether I’m seeing subversive discourse because I don’t know any Swedish. I think that because my examples are best seen as advertisements (in the capitalist, consumerist sense of attempting to sell things or services) that they are not particularly subversive. And that raises a good question, doesn’t it? Comics conventions being used to make money is quite ironic, given the reported poor health of comic book sales generally speaking.

    Your second point I think is a good one. I don’t think that advertisements (as in my examples) or public service announcements (as in your example of the talking banana peel) count as comics. Instead, I think that they may count as found comics. (They can be ‘read’ as comics, just as Rumsfeld’s speeches can be ‘read’ as poetry, but this is clearly different from their primary purpose.)

    Of course, the opposite is not true. Just because an advertisement isn’t a comic doesn’t mean that a comic can’t be an advertisement. In other words, a comic can function as an advertisement, but I’m not sure that an advertisement can function as a comic. I think that an advertisement can contain comics elements (i.e., conventions) to a greater or lesser degree.

    If comics conventions are becoming more common, or are appearing across multiple genres and domains, then does this signal a sea-change in the way that comics are viewed among the general populace of non-comics readers?

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