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  • Why Comics Are and Are Not Picture Books:Introduction
  • Charles Hatfield (bio) and Craig Svonkin (bio)

Children's Picturebooks: The Art of Visual Storytelling (2012), by Martin Salisbury and Morag Styles, is the most recent and among the best of richly illustrated textbooks treating the aesthetics, history, and industry of the picture book. It has this to say about comics:

The growth of interest in graphic novels in recent years has had considerable impact on children's picturebooks. In some instances, the boundaries between these and sequential "comic strip" art have become blurred: the use of multiple framed images and speech bubbles for four- to seven-year-olds is increasingly commonplace. Shaun Tan's The Arrival . . . has been particularly influential as it is wordless, sequential and difficult to pin down in terms of target audience. Such crossover books can cause problems for booksellers, who are often confused about where to place them.


A quotation from Tan follows, arguing that "[t]he artist's responsibility lies first and foremost with the work itself," not with how the work may get slotted into market genres (99). Certainly The Arrival (2007), a boundary-blurring book if there ever was one, makes a good case: it impresses in ways that have little to do with how many slots it can fill. Unfortunately, Salisbury and Styles have nothing else to say about comics—or rather they say nothing else that they recognize as being related to comics, though they do mention such comics-flavored picture books as Raymond Briggs's The Snowman (1978), Shirley Hughes's Up and Up (1979), and Quentin Blake's Clown (1996), and do note the "postmodern" work [End Page 429] of David Wiesner as well, which, with its use of complex, multipanel layouts, fairly cries out for a comics-informed reading. In other words, they cite relevant examples, but don't make the connection. If comics have had considerable impact on picture books, their impact on picture book scholarship, it seems, remains considerably less.

This does not mean that scholars of the picture book have been wholly silent on the question of comics. A number of major studies—including Perry Nodelman's Words about Pictures (1988) and Nathalie op de Beeck's Suspended Animation (2010)—have taken note of the aesthetics or reading demands of the comics form. Maria Nikolajeva and Carole Scott's How Picturebooks Work (2001) identifies comics as a distinct idiom from which picture books may borrow. If these studies engage comics only very briefly, still they acknowledge a challenge implicit in the form—and on a more substantial level than such earlier studies as Joseph Schwarcz's Ways of the Illustrator (1982), which glancingly mentions comics but without recognizing any kinship or challenge to picture books. One less well-known but prescient study, Amy Spaulding's The Page as a Stage Set: Storyboard Picture Books (1995), connects to comics via the concept of the storyboard; however, as its title suggests, it gives precedence to theater, likening picture books by Briggs, Maurice Sendak, and others to drama performed on stage. More recent studies presage a growing awareness of comics vis-à-vis picture books in both social-historical and aesthetic terms. In particular, op de Beeck reveals a keen understanding of comics as well as animation and cinema; indeed, her project situates the modern picture book among the emergent media forms of the early twentieth century, comics included.

Despite these instances of recognition, comics remains (here we deliberately use "comics" as a mass noun) an outlier in picture book studies. If Salisbury and Styles skirt around comics—if Children's Picturebooks, despite its many other strengths, represents a lost opportunity on that point—it is hardly unique. The "considerable impact" of comics on the aesthetics and marketing of picture books has not produced a comparable impact on the academic literature, which has yet to respond to the call "for picture book theory that will fully engage comic art" in all its complexity, including its multivocality, "its tolerance for visual fragmentation and radical text/image interplay" (Hatfield, "Narrative" 97). The following symposium, Why Comics Are and Are Not Picture Books, seeks to change that.

This symposium derives from...


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pp. 429-435
Launched on MUSE
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