[Guest post by Barbara Postema]
Is 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?
There 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?