[Guest post by Barbara Postema]

quotes1Is including several panels from a comic one is discussing into an essay the same as quoting? Certainly, it is providing visual evidence for the analysis and reading one is giving: If I am interpreting panels in a comic in a certain way, I will incorporate those panels for my readers, so they can decide whether they agree with me or not. Due to the visual nature of the comics panels, they do not blend into the textual fabric of an essay in the way a verbal quote would, nor do we place these panels in quotation marks. They set themselves apart from the flow of our argument by their very form, and don’t need the punctuation marks to flag them as sources. When we quote text from comics, we transcribe the words into our own text, this time using quotation marks: the visual aspect of the text in comics is abandoned, since we don’t quote that text within its speech balloon or caption. Sometimes the practice of transcribing from speech balloons offers its own problems: should I keep the all caps font of the source text? Do I retain the bolded words or the multiple exclamation marks?

So while we probably all agree that it is important to include images-as-quotes from the comics we’re discussing, the practice of quoting from comics in comics scholarship is somewhat ad hoc, as we improvise citation formatting and Works Cited information as seems appropriate. Art history or film studies may offer models, but are not the same as including material from comics. One question I often struggle with is how much context to include: will I use a single panel to illustrate my point, or the tier the panel comes from, or even the entire page? In part the answer depends on the point I am making: when discussing sequentiality, a series of actions—then the tier or the page would be a better choice. But if our writing is for publication, then the choice between a panel or a page will often be determined by other considerations as well: will the publisher be willing to include illustrations? Will they want permission for using the panels from the artists who drew them or the copyright holders? How likely are the copyright holders to give permission for the use of a panel as opposed to a page, and will they charge a fee?

quotes2There are longstanding traditions for quoting text within academic discourse. So far, there has been no question of having to ask permission for such use, or to pay for it. Of course you quote Toni Morrison in an essay about her novels, and of course you quote Žižek if you engage his ideas. Perhaps such citing is free because the practice predates copyright laws, but then, copyright laws also specifically address and protect this kind of usage through their “fair use” clauses. A problem with comics scholarship is that many of us, and more specifically our publishers, are leery of exercising that right, for fear we might be sued. Thus, at the request of my publisher, I wrote to the cartoonists I discuss and quote, and asked for permission to reprint from their comics, in some cases a single panel and in others a full page. I had many nice exchanges with the artists. Sometimes they were flattered I was discussing their work or they were interested in my study. In other cases they seemed annoyed that I bothered them over such a trifle. And that last reaction stuck with me, because even when we were having a nice correspondence, I did feel that I was wasting these cartoonists’ time (as well as my own): under fair use, I did not need their permission to use a few of their panels. In fact, by asking for that permission, perhaps I was even eroding the right of fair use itself.

In publishing on comics, should the decision about quoting or not be dependent on whether we can get permission for the images?

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)

7 responses »

  1. Great post, Barbara, and I’m really looking forward to your book! I helped to organize and moderated a whole roundtable on the topic of your post at the Popular Culture Association back in 2000 (I believe the other panelists were Amy Nyberg, Charles Hatfield, Rusty Witek, and UP Mississippi’s Seetha Srinivasan), and at that time I put together a web resource laying out some of the relevant issues (at least for scholars in the USA – laws and rights differ from country to country). The page is still archived here:


    The information there is now over a decade old, and some of it may no longer be relevant, but it might still be of some interest. Sad to think that thirteen years later we still need to fight the same battles over and over again…

  2. Barbara says:

    Thanks for the link, Gene. It is sad that the same battles keep popping up, but this is also the result of new publishers (and authors, I guess) taking on publishing comics theory. If nothing else, it does show the field is expanding.

  3. These are important and sticky questions, Barbara, and I agree with you that the fair use issue has not been fully hammered out in this field. I second Gene’s lament that it is taking so long to work this out, too. Most of the journals I have published with are comfortable seeing the use of a few panels from a given work as fair use, recognizing that they represent a very small percentage of the whole work, but one journal (one, needless to say, that hadn’t yet published very much on comics) insisted on having me acquire permissions from the publishers at my expense. This was not a heartening experience.

    • Barbara says:

      Thanks, Adrielle. Were you in fact asked to pay fees, upon seeking permissions?
      Often the wording of the request makes a difference, like making clear up front that the use is not commercial but academic, and that you/the publisher don’t have funds to pay for permissions. But again, it is unfortunate that there doesn’t appear to be a generally accepted standard for this.

      • Yep, but just by one very large (general) press. The other two presses were comics publishers, and were quite gracious. I think we made the academic context clear, but I suspect the larger press saw the panels as a reproduction of a work of art (like a self-contained drawing or painting). Which, smile, they are in a way…and yet, not. Which is what makes this question so difficult…

  4. I had an experience similar to yours when I was working on my book. I had some great correspondence with artists about using their work, and upon reflection, I am struck by your idea that you were “eroding the right of fair use itself.” Better to apologize afterward than ask for permission?

    But I have a question about a point you made in the post. You said that when we use comics panels in our scholarship, we don’t put quotation marks around them. I wonder if you could write more about that. You’re right of course, and in some ways academia fetishizes the quotation mark as one of the mightiest of punctuation marks. If we use it properly, we are good people, morally and ethically upstanding. If we use them incorrectly or if we forget to put them in, then we are risking our reputations as trustworthy scholars and perhaps even our very existence in academia.

    Thanks for a great post, Barbara!

  5. Barbara says:

    Thanks, Frank!
    About those quotation marks: in the piece Gene linked to in his comment, one of the preliminary questions is whether a panel included in a scholarly article is a quotation or an illustration. This depends on how those panels are used and discussed in the article. If someone is really doing a close reading and discussing details of the panel in depth, then the included panel is a quotation. If they are only there as embellishment, like the images accompanying my own post, then they’re illustration. You say academia fetishizes quotation marks: they become a mark of our diligence as scholars. This is because unmarked quotes are subsumed by our own text and it’s hard to tell where our text ends and the quoted scholar’s starts. This is not a problem with quoting comics panels, which are automatically marked as someone else’s in our text. The exception being of course a study like Scott McCloud’s, which is itself in comics form. Then we need to think of another method to mark quotes. I think that in _Understanding Comics_ any “quoted” panels are marked by accompanying copyright information but nothing else–perhaps another reason for why academics often complain that McCloud’s work isn’t scholarly enough…

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