Review of: Robert S. Petersen. Comics, Manga, and Graphic Novels

Review of: Robert S. Petersen. Comics, Manga, and Graphic Novels. A History of Graphic Narratives. Oxford etc.: Praeger, 2011. 274 Pages, $ 44.

Druckfassung (pdf)

“[W]hat has this to do with comics?” Robert Petersen’s students often ask, as he reports in his preface (xii). Such inquiries are brought forth by Petersen’s inclusion of rock paintings 25’500 years old, the Egyptian pallet of Narmer, Sandro Botticelli’s illustration of Dante’s Divine Comedy, Japanese prints of the Nara period (710-794 C.E.), William Blake’s illuminated poetry, and Heinrich Hoffmann’s Struwwelpeter – just to name a few – to delineate the history of the graphic narrative. What all of these have in common, according to Petersen, is their ability to narrate by means of images; they are “graphic narratives” (xiv). The term – coined by David Kunzle and elaborated on by Hillary Chute and Marianne DeKoven in an attempt to suggest an alternative to the term ‘comics’ – is selected by Petersen because it encompasses historical and contemporary as well as established and marginal phenomena.

The historical overview is set off by a chapter on “The Language of Graphic Narratives”, whereby Petersen treats pre-literate and early literate societies in Africa, Australia, North America, the Middle East and Europe. He compares single-frame narrative art, which can be monoscenic, panoramic, progressive, synoptic or continuous (11-16), to multiple-frame narrative art. Towards the end of the chapter, oral cultures are addressed. At first sight, it may seem that orally told narratives escape the bounds of the definition of graphic narrative, but Petersen focuses on “picture recitation” (a topic obviously dear to him, as it is already addressed in the Preface) which describes the traditional dissemination of stories whereby a storyteller performs a narrative, sometimes with the aid of drawings (18-19).

Chapter Two is titled “Popular Prints and Caricature” and discusses the notion of the mass media and their audience in ninth- to fourteenth-century China, as well as Medieval and Renaissance Europe. At the center of interest lie those publications intended to entertain, rather than educate an audience. Although Petersen does not spell out the definition of ‘popular print’ or ‘caricature’ and to what extent they differ from other publications of the respective eras, his account of how audiences’ desire for both religious and secular entertainment was satisfied by the innovative creations of resourceful individuals is very comprehensive. Defining elements of graphic narratives like the combination of text and picture are taken into consideration alongside other facets like the differences between contemporary and Renaissance caricature and printing technology.

In Chapter Three, the geographical boundaries are stretched further to include graphic narratives in Japan. On approximately seven pages, Petersen manages to outline the history, production and reception of popular prints in Japan starting with the Nara period (710-794 C.E.) and concluding with the late eighteenth century (37-44). On just a few pages more, early graphic narratives in Britain, Switzerland and Germany are delineated. William Hogarth’s work, often considered one of the direct predecessors of contemporary comics, is analyzed in detail. Here, Petersen exhibits exemplary skill in expounding the work’s narrative qualities and in drawing attention to the numerous details easily overlooked but hugely important to the narrative impact of the engraving (44-46).

What is perhaps most intriguing in this section is the detailed history of the speech bubble. Even though medieval illuminations and broadsheets with their combined use of text and picture are included in many historical analyses of comics’ precursors, Petersen goes one step further and focuses specifically on “emanata” (49). By this, he means “bubbles, animal tails, wispy smoke, explosions, vomit, or banners blowing in the wind” (49) intended to convey visual forms of speech. These were hugely popular from the Middle Ages up to 1820, when they quietly disappeared from pictures and only featured below the text until the late nineteenth century (49).

In the fourth chapter, Petersen sketches the graphic narrative as it appears in the fine arts of the era more or less corresponding to the Victorian age. William Blake’s illuminations are discussed alongside paintings by artists who were productive around the turn of the century, like Odilon Redon, Wassily Kandinsky, Max Ernst, Frans Masereel etc. The latter two are at the center of Petersen’s examination of how artists accomplished the feat of narrating without the exploitation of words. This is all the more striking when one considers that “[a]s modern art continued to grow evermore abstract, narrative works became evermore arcane and rare” (61). Thus, finding art that could be pigeonholed as narrative poses a major problem. Petersen has taken this into account and remarks that most of what could at least rudimentarily be thought of as narrative is “concerned not with conveying a coherent new story, but with creating the impression of a story that was half-remembered, just out of reach of recollection” (66). While the decision to include works that do not immediately strike the observer as narrative is certainly a debatable one, one has to concede that Petersen argues convincingly. What makes such a choice worthwhile is that it opens up a wider variety of historical and methodological approaches to comics and comics studies.

With Chapter Five, titled “Humor Magazines”, Petersen has arrived at a point that seems to function as watershed in two ways: On the formal level, more illustrations are included. On the content level, a distinction between the precursors for comics directed at adults and “Illustrated Children’s Literature” (83) is made for the first time. This is worth mentioning as most comics histories do not identify a clear boundary between the two. Petersen’s later chapters will also build on this difference.

With the focus of Chapter Six placed firmly on the U.S. yellow press, this chronological overview has reached the point in time where comics began to inhabit that place in the press that was to be theirs for many decades to come: The popular newspapers. By identifying yellow journalism as “the marketing juggernaut of the 20th century” (96), Petersen shows remarkable clairvoyance as to the importance of this medium. The introduction of a new coloring technique for comics (so-called benday dots) and the growing competition between newspapers and the ensuing tug-of-war for artists is discussed in much detail alongside the launch of the comics industry’s practice of continuing a strip even after the original artist had quit the strip. Most importantly though, Petersen declares the late nineteenth century to be the era of the formal re-introduction of the speech bubble (97), with the emphasis on re-introduction. Most comics histories ignore or neglect the role emanata played in earlier centuries. As a result of this, Richard F. Outcault’s Yellow Kid is often erroneously hailed as the first comic strip to feature speech bubbles as we know them today. Thanks to Petersen’s meticulous unfurling of the history of the graphic narrative, continuities such as the one observable in the speech bubble become visible.

Chapter Seven documents how the upsurge of graphic narratives’ presence in newspapers coincided with the distribution of Western comics, e.g. Punch magazine, to India, China and Japan. Various numbers of pages are dedicated to the economic, military and social aspects of the respective histories of the graphic narrative in these countries, commencing as early as the seventeenth century. Reading these accounts in close conjunction with each other and with Western histories of the graphic narrative, a tendency seems to emerge: All over the world and throughout history, cartoonists and caricaturists often figured at the very front of movements that were outspokenly critical of repressive governments. The reason for this may be that writing was rather unequivocal and that the criticism inherent in it was often palpably obvious, which could be detrimental to the creator, especially when brought before court. Pictures, on the contrary, could at least in theory be argued to depict something other than criticism, as long as the explicit statement was superimposed over an implicit message. Thus, visual narrative can be employed as “a secret code, a subcultural language that facilitates the production of subversive narratives” (Mieke Bal, “Visual Narrativity”: 631). This does not imply that images cannot be a colossally effective means of influencing the public. Unfortunately, however, Petersen does not follow up this line of argument, even though it presents itself in this chapter in such a vivid fashion.

Approximately halfway through the book, two of comics’ paramount features are introduced: “The Superhero and the Comic Book”. Petersen’s subsequent account of the rise of the caped vigilantes and the medium that championed them is one of the most complete and conscientiously researched ones in contemporary scholarly publication. It commences with the role of the pulp magazines, which were of no negligible importance for the advent of the superhero. Next, it describes in diligent detail Superman’s predecessor’s characters, adventures, appearance, equipment, etc., all of which serve to render evident that the invention of Superman was not an isolated two-man feat but that it had grown out of the popular culture of the time. The best argument to support this claim can be found in the no less than eight pages in this chapter that are filled before the first mention of Superman. Usually, comics history books either commence with Superman or feature a paragraph or two delineating the comic book history before the appearance of Superman, but none are as historically exhaustive as this one. Furthermore, the chapter outlines the passage from pulp fiction to comic books in a neat, chronologically ordered way, making an allowance for graphic style, publication details, changes in artists, syndicate history, the evolution of the skin–tight suit and sweatshops in the Golden Age of comics.

The only demerit of this chapter, apart from the complete lack of illustrations, is its curtailed treatment of “American Comics and Cinema” (148). Petersen sets out to sketch “the means and apparatus for reception [which] are not equal or comparable beyond some elements of composition and narrative transitions” (149). He is saying, thus, that comics differ from film in more than one aspect, but fails to enumerate them in the remaining two and a half pages of the subchapter. Instead, he focuses on the work by Will Eisner, who, albeit an exceptionally gifted writer, artist and businessman, does not constitute the best example for this phenomenon. Petersen altogether ignores that comics and film differ in the degree of the recipient’s active engagement, the use of senses and the availability of the image.

Chapter Nine all but skips the period of World War II and moves unswervingly to “Mainstream American Comics, Post-World War II”. While, certainly, the period is not known as the most radically influential one for comics, it is nonetheless surprising that Petersen quite eclectically disregards the fact that many American superheroes entered a fictional representation of the war on the side of the Allied forces and that when the war ended, they found themselves a) out of work and b) confronted with comparatively menial tasks. It is for this reason that the paradigm shift from superhero to crime, romance and horror comics, which is well documented in this chapter, occurred. The emergence and manifestation of these new genres (155-157), the ensuing “Anticomics Crusades” (159-162), Silver Age comics (162-166), and the advent of the direct sales system (166-169) are again well-documented and discussed in a detailed fashion.

At this point, I would like to dwell on a sentence in this chapter that is striking for its incongruity with other versions of comics’ history. Petersen writes: “[T]he chief impact of the code on the market was not just the killing off of EC and a few other competitors; the code simply made it harder for upstart publishers to enter the market” (164, my emphasis). The first emphasis has been added because the “chief impact of the code” is generally agreed to be the onerous censorship of anything even remotely related to factual contemporary culture and society, the subsequent shift of comics’ content and the return to the fantastic narrative, i.e. superhero comics, and not the difficulty posed for new publishers. The second italicized part is a gross understatement, as not “a few” but most other competitors went out of business in the wake of the Code’s establishment. As the former deviation is concerned, the return of the superhero during the Silver Age of comics is formidably attested (162-166), but without any explanation as to the background of this shift.

Discussing the events of the late Silver Age, Petersen turns to comics that featured “more challenging material” (168). He lists Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman – usually referred to as ‘revisionist comics’ for their tendency to subvert the established modes of storytelling and superhero depiction – but does not mention the work that is often claimed to have inaugurated mature topics to comic books: Art Spiegelman’s Maus.

In the next chapter, the period immediately following World War II is addressed again, but this time with a different geographical focus, namely Asia. Whereas manga’s publication history, etymology, readership, relation to film, fandom, as well as address of different gender and age groups may be necessary for a thorough understanding of Japanese graphic narratives, the exhaustive elucidation of several manga plots is redundant, especially in comparison to the scarcity of plot-information pervading the discussion of the most influential Western comics, e.g. Maus, Watchmen, Sandman etc. Detail, which is usually welcome in a history of any medial phenomenon, superabounds here. Given this amount of detail, it is all the more astonishing that Petersen makes use of the phrase “the manga way” (185) without elaborating further on what this entails for him.

“Post-World War II Art Graphic Narratives” contains what other comics’ histories hardly ever contain: The creations of the art avant-garde and their relationship to and attitude towards comics. Works by prominent cartoonists (Ad Reinhardt, Saul Steinberg), abstract expressionists (Wassily Kandinsky, Jackson Pollock), pop artists (Richard Hamilton, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein) and graffiti artists (Jean-Michel Basquiat) are analyzed for their influence on comics and the use they made of them. The approach is by no means new but Petersen imbues it with a fresh twist by aptly sketching the love-hate-relationship between the two worlds. He concludes the chapter by outlining how not only the view of the comics page’s intrinsic value has changed due to the intermingling of high and low art but also how artists nowadays approach their artwork with an entirely new awareness of its artistic nature (204).

One of the first sentences of Chapter Twelve starts with a statement that, if true, would have made Fredric Wertham beam with accomplishment: “[C]omics were banished from the mainstream” (205). Petersen’s own elaborations in Chapter Nine make it clear that not all comics, and not only comics were prohibited after the implementation of the code (161). In fact, the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution would not have permitted the prohibition of publications due to the notion of freedom of speech. Thus, although this was still a violation of sorts, only the content of certain comic books was censored. The effect was that, whereas most comic books did not receive the seal of approval, they were not effectively forbidden.

The other weakness of this chapter is that it allots a meager three pages to a characterization of the U.S. underground comics movement. This is far from sufficient if one seeks to learn about the impact comix had on mainstream comics culture, i.e. how mainstream publishers eventually realized the potential of alternative imprints, resulting in e.g. DC’s Vertigo imprint, how autobiographical works were rendered fit for wider publication, how the slackening in the code’s severity was partially due to the subversive work of the underground and how its practice of self–publication spurred the accomplishment of creators’ rights to full ownership of their creations. A thorough account of the alternative comics scene and the above listed circumstances would, in fact, warrant a chapter of its own. Although it, too, is on the short side, much more prowess is shown in the subchapter dedicated to European comics, Bande Dessinées (214-217), as it includes various artists, publication details, drawing style and historical background.

The final chapter “Digital Comics” concludes the history of the graphic narrative by outlining how new media have brought about new forms of comics. Eschewing the somewhat pamphletic style Scott McCloud employs in his Reinventing Comics, Petersen provides an overview of how the digital age has enabled the “seamless integration of drawing and photography” (228), coloring innovations, adjustable speech bubbles and, hence, more flexibility, especially for translations and motion comics of e.g. Watchmen (228-229). It is also laudable that Petersen does not stop short of the latest developments but attends to the introduction of the e–reader (Kindle, iPod, iPad) and the seemingly relentless growth of the appertaining market.

Throughout this book, clusters of facts that make for interesting information but are not indispensable to the understanding of the main text, have been boxed in highlighted, gray areas. Employing this solution, Petersen has managed to include marginal data into the book without overloading the core text or cluttering the page margins with footnotes.

As illustrations are concerned, manifest visual examples are often withheld from the reader, even in cases where an image might be crucial to the understanding of the argument. In fact, Chapters Eight, Ten, and Thirteen do away with pictures altogether. In Chapter Seven, Western readers might find themselves at a loss when it comes to imagining historical Asian graphic narrative, which is why visual aids would certainly have been helpful in this chapter. Presumably, however, the shortage of illustrations is not Petersen’s choice, but arises from the difficulty inherent in obtaining permission for the reproduction of copyrighted material.

There is a notable inclination of Petersen’s towards description which is exhibited in his illustrative portrayal of phenomena which have found nomination in the circles of comics scholars, but which he refrains from using. ‘Revisionist comics’ is such a term, as are ‘ret-con’, ‘comix’ and ‘fandom’ (these terms are circumscribed on pages 168, 171, 210 and 232-233). While describing such terms certainly facilitates reading for people not well-versed in comics argot, it may also complicate matters unnecessarily.

The work is chronologically structured, although that is for the reader to figure out. Neither the exposition of a hypothesis, main argument or goal, nor the overall historical and geographical scope, nor a brief enumeration of core elements is provided. The introduction resembles a definition or concept analysis rather than an introduction proper. That the immense historical and geographical scope of this work is not elaborated on is quite surprising, especially given that it constitutes one of the most comprehensive accounts that have been published to this day. However, if one considers the subtitle “A History of Graphic Narratives”, further elaboration on the approach could be argued to be superfluous.

Formally, what is clearly missing from this work is a bibliography. The reader is obliged to find a work or an author/writer/illustrator in the index (255-274), then search the respective page in the main text, hoping that a footnote will lead to the “Notes” section (239-250), where the bibliographical information is provided (with the notable exception of articles, where only the relevant page number but not the full extent of the article is indicated). As Petersen’s sources are concerned, it is sometimes not entirely clear who/what they are. For instance on page 159, facts and figures about the number of comics in print before and after the implementation of the comics code in 1954 are given, but no source is provided.

Apart from these formal drawbacks and a few minor inconsistencies, Petersen’s Comics, Manga, and Graphic Novels: A History of Graphic Narratives is exactly that: A very comprehensive and highly recommendable account of the various manifestations of the graphic narrative across time and cultures.

Stephanie Hoppeler, Bern, 2011

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