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Introduction: Graphic Narrative

From: MFS Modern Fiction Studies
Volume 52, Number 4, Winter 2006
pp. 767-782 | 10.1353/mfs.2007.0002

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The explosion of creative practice in the field of graphic narrative—which we may define as narrative work in the medium of comics—is one with which the academy is just catching up. We are only beginning to learn to pay attention in a sophisticated way to graphic narrative. (And while this special issue largely focuses on long-form work—"graphic narrative" is the term we prefer to "graphic novel," which can be a misnomer—we understand graphic narrative to encompass a range of types of narrative work in comics.) Graphic narrative, through its most basic composition in frames and gutters—in which it is able to gesture at the pacing and rhythm of reading and looking through the various structures of each individual page—calls a reader's attention visually and spatially to the act, process, and duration of interpretation. Graphic narrative does the work of narration at least in part through drawing—making the question of style legible—so it is a form that also always refuses a problematic transparency, through an explicit awareness of its own surfaces. Because of this foregrounding of the work of the hand, graphic narrative is an autographic form in which the mark of handwriting is an important part of the rich extra-semantic information a reader receives. And graphic narrative offers an intricately layered narrative language—the language of comics—that comprises the verbal, the visual, and the way these two representational modes interact on a page.

This special issue of Modern Fiction Studies—the first special issue in the broad field of modern and contemporary narrative devoted entirely to the form of graphic narrative—demonstrates the viability of graphic narrative for serious academic inquiry, and also reveals what it does differently from the kinds of narratives with which we have more typically been engaged. It is no longer necessary to prove the worthiness and literary potential of the medium of comics (which has always contended with much denigration). Comic strips like Winsor McCay's Little Nemo in Slumberland (1905–1913; 1924–1926), George Herriman's Krazy Kat (1913–1944), and later long-form works like Art Spiegelman's Maus: A Survivor's Tale (1986; 1991) have, as with many other comics works before, in between, and since, demonstrated clearly how moving and impressive comics can be. In our current moment, in which an array of new literary and popular genres aim to further the conversation on the vital and multilayered work of narrative, graphic narrative has become part of an expanding literary field, absorbing and redirecting the ideological, formal, and creative energies of contemporary fiction. Our work is now to explore what the form can tell us about the project of narrative representation itself. What do we gain from works that are, in their very structure and grammar, cross-discursive: composed in words and images, written and drawn?

Here, we are interested in investigating the language of comics. It may be helpful at the outset to describe in general terms around what this issue is invested in developing a critical conversation. To start with, Scott McCloud's landmark treatise Understanding Comics (1993), a book theorizing comics in the medium of comics, helpfully reminds us that "comics" is "used with a singular verb" (20). Art Spiegelman, the author of Maus, arguably the world's most famous comics work—and the work that introduced comics to the academy—defined comics in a recent talk as "a medium using words and pictures for reproduction" ("Interview" n.p.). Although there is not a significant tradition before the twentieth century that accounts for the specific manifestation of today's book-length graphic narratives, there are yet important historical precedents. In the sixteenth century, the swarming images in Brueghel's paintings suggested that a single image could yet be narrative, and so implied, even without directly representing, the mixture of word and image that appeared in later cross-discursive work. The "sister arts" tradition in the eighteenth century, building on analogies and points of resemblance between word and image (deriving from Horace; ut pictura poesis, "as is painting, so is poetry") laid the groundwork for investigations of relations between word and image, and their correlates time and...

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