- Mixed Media: Writing Hypertext about Comics
Forum on Hypertext Scholarship
AQ as Web-Zine: Responses to AQ’s Experimental Online Issue
My contribution to the American Quarterly hypertext project uses visual analysis and a structure of multiple threads to interpret the American newspaper comic strip at the turn of the century. The essay presents an argument composed of three separate but intertwined theses concerning the economic, cultural, and formal contexts that informed the development of the comic strip. “The Business of the Strips” discusses the material context of comics production, with the ultimate goal of showing that comic artists transformed their visions of comics creation as they confronted their role in an economy of reproduction. “The Culture of Business in the Strips” discusses the participation of the strips in a broader urban market culture and in, more specifically, an ongoing contradiction between a vision of the market as the bottom line of reality and a vision of the market as a place of fantasy and wish-fulfillment. “Spectatorship in the Comics” addresses one particular formal aspect of the comic strip: the use of the panel to manipulate perspective and the reader’s eye. I argue that early comics drew their approach to perspective, framing, and picture space from notions of theatrical spectatorship associated with class. This classed tradition of spectatorship was ultimately transformed but not destroyed as artists gravitated toward the use of sequential panels. In all three threads, my goal is to show early comic strip artists using the imaginative materials of their genre to work through vital cultural conflicts. Hypertext helps me work toward that goal. [End Page 254]
I could conceivably have presented the three central theses of the essay as three consecutive sections in a traditional linear composition published in print form. I would argue, however, that the medium of hypertext allows me to represent more accurately the nature of the relationships among these theses and the primary materials they attempt to describe. More specifically, hypertext allows me to do justice to the density of the cultural weave in the comic strips I interpret. The various contrasting discourses and contexts that inform the creation of a cultural product can reinforce each other, highlight each other through conflict, and reveal things together that they never could apart. Much of this complex interplay is necessarily lost when an analysis pulls discursive strands apart in order to see them more clearly. With hypertext I can recover some of this interplay by placing a single image in the context of multiple interpretations. I can provide links from an illustration to all the passages in my text that address it so that all of my interpretations coexist on the same page. Rather than simply serving as means toward a single rhetorical end, a hypertextually annotated primary source has the potential to become a meeting place where different analytical threads can rub against and play off of each other. My hope is that the reader will be able to use my analyses to tease individual contextual threads out of an image, tying these threads to broader historical narratives without losing sight of the image’s thickly layered whole.
I have tried to build into my illustrations a form of interactivity that will facilitate this way of reading. In many images the hypertextual annotations are represented as graphical layers superimposed on the comic. These multiple layers can be turned on and off by the reader as he or she focuses on individual elements in a picture or tries to conceive of the whole. I am hoping that the palimpsest structure made possible by the digital medium will help highlight the elaborate choreography of visual and textual strategies used by these artists to confront their problems of cultural imagination.
There is also another sense in which hypertext is an especially appropriate medium for discussing the emergence of the comic strip. In the case of both hypertext and the comics, technological and social developments have opened new formal terrain to the exploration of authors. Working in a new genre, comics both made use of existing formal conventions and transformed them. Hypertext offers a similar opportunity. Unfortunately...