Blog Post

Surface is Profound: Notes on Comic Book Matter(s)


girl with dragon paperbackUnlike most traditional prose books, which can be printed or transmitted through different channels, physical or not, while still remaining more or less, though not completely, the same books, comic books engage with the publication formats in which they are printed in a way that transcends the mere "sociology of texts" (Mackenzie 1999). Form is meaning in comics not only because certain elements such as graphic design or publication format are embedded in social structures and defined by them, but because the ontology of comics texts is defined by form [1]

Undoubtedly this comparison can be refuted in different degrees by literary scholars, philologists, historians of the book, bibliographers, medievalists, sociologists of texts and readers, but even if it were agreed that there are as many texts of the same book as there are editions and that some editions are more authorised than others, the general reader of news, prose or even poetry is likely to consider that the book's text exists independently of its physical presence. 

dragon tattoo kindle photo from engadget.comA traveller in an airport is likely to buy a paperback of, say, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and assume it is, for the purpose of reading as entertainment, the same text of the novel than the one included in other dozens of different editions in the English speaking world, and even in those translated to other languages. A reader may still be attracted to a prose paperback for its graphic design, type of paper, etc., but these qualities are generally perceived as "extra-literary" (thou shall not judge a book by its cover etc.).

In general, contemporary prose books, especially popular fiction of the "best-seller" type, are bought to be read, and once they've been read many readers feel no need to keep them as objects. Prose text of the type published in best-seller paperback format tends to be, generally, what graphic designer Craig Mod (2010) calls "formless content"; text that makes almost no use of graphic images on its inside pages, and whose graphic layout can be easily modified without major semantic loss.

little nemo spread by boing boingcomixology

But comic books, as forms of periodical popular fiction, on the other hand, can be said to be definite content, making profuse use of word and image combinations. In comics, graphic layout has been clearly defined from the start by the author(s), making it very hard to represent in different formats without jeopardising their essential structure. In the case of largely formless content such as the average inside prose page, what counts is the written word itself, and the physical format in which it is presented does not really matter very much (in terms of transmission of content/meaning) because its fate will very possibly be the leftovers public library in a tourists' hotel or a charity shop in the high street [2]

Whilst the history of comics is also the history of their destruction and abandonment in humid dark attics, comic book readers of today are hyper-aware of comic books' fragility as objects and the role that publication format plays in the narrative process.  In other words, the 'surface' of the comics page, its covers and binding, are also what semioticians called profound structure: story and discourse, form and content, time and place are merged into one complex textual structure which is visible and often tangible to the reader.  

comic book shop photo from Murphy's blog

Even though a different case would have to be made for newspaper comic strips and their collected editions, comic books are not comparable to the copy of a "classic" or best-seller paperback. As a matter of fact, it is still rare to find graphic novels (square-bound book-length comics or collected volumes of comics) in airport bookshops, and in general, since the first comics shops opened in the late 1960s[3], comics have found its niche market in specialised shops[4]

The hypothetical airport paperback reader in this example is of course a reader, but it is not necessarily a book collector. The intention behind purchasing a book to read during a flight is accessing the data contained in it, not necessarily the experience of printed material or its acquisition as part of a collection. In this case, as long as it is possible to handle while sitting on an airplane seat, little matters if the text is read on a gadget's screen, or a paperback [5]. Similarly to many "literary" novels, the figure of the collector and the act of collecting are recurrent motifs in the stories told in the language of comics, and defines to a certain degree the physical qualities of the publications in which these stories reach the reader. 

In relation to comic book culture, Tony Venezia referenced Walter Benjamin's work during his presentation at the 2010 Leeds Comics Forum, discussing "book collecting as a form of practical memory." As multiple types of texts and publications, comics have always-already been embedded in the practice of collecting, and are therefore cultural objects possessed by the memory of their own history as artefacts. It is this self-consciousness of their material self, along the visual and therefore superficial structure of their essence as texts, what makes comics so problematic to merely migrate to digital form. 

msu cartoon research library

[1] Concrete poetry comes to mind, and so does a book like Jacques Derrida's Glas (1974), but as different printed editions of these works across languages and countries prove, comics can add layers to the already loaded topology of page layout and editorial and graphic book design.

[2] It should be clarified that format in prose fiction paperbacks "does not matter very much" in the same way that it matters in comic books, illustrated books, art/coffee table books and other "collectible" publications where the rarity (for example limited, signed and numbered editions) of the copy is taken into account or where the physicality of the publication plays an active role in its textual performance (for example 'pop-up' books or children's 'activity' books that seek a 'sensuous' interaction with them). In the case of paperbacks targeted to the mainstream market, 'format' matters due to mainly international copyright and marketing concerns. See for instance C. Max Magee, "Judging Books by Their Covers: U.S. Vs. U.K." (03 March 2010; accessed 23 November 2010).  

My point with the airport bestseller example is that, arguably, even without its cover, as long as we had all the pages of prose, the novel would be considered "complete" regardless of the size of the paper, font type, etc. This, it must be said, does not apply to all books whose main text is written. The way "books as objects" mean varies from book to book. In the case of comics, I argue there is a different 'sociology' of the publication as carrier of meaning. Miha Kovac uses the example of Anna Karenina: "stored on a CD-ROM or in MP-3 format, [Leo Tolstoy's novel Anna Karenina] is still a book and as such a cultural good. (2008-11)" Needless to say, while a comic book version of Anna Karenina may still be "a comic book" on a CD-ROM, it certainly would stop being one if in MP3 format. Moreover, a comic book version of Anna Karenina would no longer be Leo Tolstoy's novel, in any format. For more of my take on form and content in comics, see "Content and Form Aren't Equal: A Discussion with Ernesto Priego" (Adams 2010; accessed 23 November 2010). 

[3] According to Michael Dean, "Bud Plant, who would eventually own a chain of seven stores and his own distribution company, opened his first used-comics-and-paperbacks store in San Jos, Calif., in 1968 at the age of 16," and it is estimated that by 1974 "there were no more than 30 comics specialty shops throughout the United States and Canada, with another 100 stores that featured comics along with other wares such as books or records." A direct system that would replace newsstand distribution would not develop fully until after 1979. (The Comics Journal #277, July 2006).

[4] James Sime, a comics blogger for Comic Book Resources, thinks that "the comic industry is going to convert these non-comic reading faithless and we're going to do it by going guerrilla", and he thinks one of the best "guerrilla locations" is indeed the airport (another one is the British pub). Notice Sime does not suggest that airport bookshops should sell comics too, but that airports should have comic book shops: "Comics stores at the airport. That's a million-dollar idea, my friends," he conludes. "The Comic Pimp", Issue 5, Comic Book Resources, (October 10 2003; accessed 23 November 2010).  The distribution and sale of comic books through specialised shops is known as the "direct market." For a critical history of the negative consequences of this distribution channel, see Michael Dean, Gary Groth and Dirk Deppey, "A Comics Journal History of the Direct Market", The Comics Journal #277, July 2006.  

[5] As anyone who has ever taken a plane knows, pieces of equipment that may interfere with a airplane's communication devices, such as portable videogame consoles, mp3 players and laptops, have to be switched off during take-off and landing. Before the flight mode was invented, mobile phones had to be kept switched off during the whole flight. So far, no printed book has had any of these inconveniences. 



NB: Images on this post were borrowed under Academic Fair Use for educational purposes. If you are the copyright owner of these images and are not pleased about their being here, please leave a comment and I will be happy to remove them. Thank you.




In light of everything you're saying it seems as though the major comics publishers' fairly aggressive drive towards digital formats in recent years may in fact be pretty deeply wrongheaded; many comics readers just don't *want* digital versions, they want the (fetish) object itself. As you argue, comics provide a fairly clear case where the medium is the message, where reading Superman or Chris Ware on your iPod is just not the same thing.

At the same time I wonder, though, whether your treatment here pays too little attention to the "disposable" pole of the disposable-collectable aesthetic axis in comics; while the "ideal" comics reader is of course the one who buys two copies of every issue, one to read and the other to go immediately into permanent climate-controlled storage, it isn't clear to me that the "collecting" reader is quite so hegemonic in reality. Many people are still reading and tossing, whether under the bed or into the trash.

One of the biggest current threats to the comics market, additionally, is the thriving online torrent community, which distributes a huge portion of the historical and contemporary archive of comics in an immaterial format that is digital, immortal, and free. There are undoubtedly still "collectors" among torrent-style readers, amassing countless gigabytes of comics on their hard drives -- but the relationship between form and content in the torrent context is quite different than with traditional comic book readership, and not to be overlooked.


Hello Gerry,

Thanks very much for your kind and thoughtful response. You touch on at least three important points. One thing my research has not done is actual audience/reception/reader demographic sentiment studies. I am not sure it is that readers of printed comics do not *want* digital formats.  have no data to back up any general claims, so I can't really prove this, but the point I'd make is that printed comics and the reading phenomenology they impose or call for is still a big referent when printed comic book readers and creators deal with digital material.

In my thesis I argue what you have referred to in your last paragraph, that indeed digital formats dissociate printed comics texts from their original context of reception (as it happens with most material that was not born digital). My larger point is that physical materiality has been key in the development of the comics language as a communicative means, and that therefore any such dissociation implies a loss that many marketers and publishers want to ignore. 

You're right I am not considering in this post either those readers who read and toss, especially in cultures in which comics are indeed not thought of as valuable objects (Mexican historietas, for example, have always been seen as disposable material, even by those who do like them, buy them and read them periodically). I believe this was an important element in the development of a comic book collecting culture obsessed with preservation: the more fragile and susceptible to destruction the comic book culture, the more obsessive the collecting and preservation culture around it. Had comics not been burned nationwide in the US in the 1940s and 1950s, we might have never had something like CGC

Like you, I believe the 'thriving online [comics] torrent community' needs to be studied more thoroughly, and though I can of course see how it has become a 'threat', I also think, from the point of view of comics scholarship, that until better institutional digital comics archives and libraries are developed, scholarship will continue to rely to a great extent in amateur, illegal digital repositories. I'd just like to comment I do not think these digital formats are, as you say, 'immaterial'. Digital files and the hardware required to read them create new ways of materiality, though a different materiality to the one created by print.

Finally, the illegal torrents sites and the files obtained through them are not 'immortal'. Digital repositories, especially those of the illegal kind, are extremely unstable and fragile: think of HTML Comics, which was shut down recently by the FBI. Albeit an illegal platform, HTML Comics offered a unique research and pedagogical American comic book resources, and it disappeared form one day to the next. If you were, like I was, doing research on the site, its shutting-down was a catastrophe. (Something similar happened to Zuda Comics: one day it was there in all its online, legal, 'free' glory; the next day it wasn't, because DC Comics changed their minds).

I definitely agree that I need to develop furhter the main points I argued in my post, and I really appreciate you taking the time to read it and make these valuable comments.