Critical Takes: Contemporary Comics Storytelling, by Karin Kukkonen

by Derek Royal

Contemporary Comics Storytelling, by Karin Kukkonen (University of Nebraska Press)

Over the past year there have been a number of studies focusing specifically on the formal properties of comics or the ways in which their stories are told. Texts such as Thierry Groensteen’s Comics and Narration (University Press of Mississippi) — reviewed here back in October — and Barbara Postema’s Narrative Structure in Comics (RIT Press) have taken a more narratological or even semiotic approach to their analyses. Yet, while such studies have contributed greatly to our understanding of how comics function, they have nonetheless marginalized the reader as an active participant in the process. Or so posits Karin Kukkonen in her recent study, Contemporary Comics Storytelling (University of Nebraska Press). Hers is a cognitive approach to comics, one that privileges the operations of meaning-making over semiotic study, the pragmatics of reading over text/image systems. As she states clearly in her introduction, “At stake is not a vocabulary or grammar of comics storytelling but rather a pragmatic account KukkonenCCSof how comics awaken their readers’ imagination” (7). By combining traditional hermeneutics, rhetorical analysis, and plenty of close readings, Kukkonen sets out “not only [to] connect cognitive and humanistic approaches” in her critical analysis, but demonstrates how comics studies can “participate in larger discussions of intertextuality, the scope and nature of mimesis, and questions of ethnics” (8).

Contemporary Comics Storytelling is structured into four sections. The first introduces her understanding of the reading process and how comics can be approached cognitively. Here she builds from Umberto Eco’s semiotic study of Steve Canyon, and then uses the same strip to demonstrate how comics activate various mental processes within the reader. She succinctly encapsulates this in what she calls her “six basic theses on comics storytelling”: that readers pick up clues and make inferences from what they read, that these clues emanate from both text and image, that readers use this information to construct mental models, that these models are built upon the mise en page, that meaning-making is largely a rhetorical process, and that mental models and storyworlds are based on the various intentions readers ascribe to characters (35-36).

Next, she utilizes three distinct comic-book series to demonstrate the parameters of her cognitive readings. In “Textual Traditions in Comics,” Kukkonen focuses on intertexuality and genre — specifically, the folk or fairy tale, and by using Bill Willingham’s Fables as her prime example — to show how comics evoke (or confound) certain expectations and understandings of convention-driven storytelling. The topic of her third chapter is storyworld creation, and here Kukkonen employs Alan Moore’s Tom Strong narratives and their self-reflexive engagements with the superhero genre. Finally, she explores the ethical implications of storytelling through her use of Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Rizzo’s 100 Bullets, discussing the creation of fictional minds through the moral choices that characters make.

The strength of Kukkonen’s project is basically twofold. First and foremost, her emphasis on cognition is relatively unexplored within comics studies, so Kukkonen’s privileging of reader imagination and the meaning-making process is a most welcome contribution. While she is well aware of the usefulness of formal narratological studies, she pulls from a variety of scholars — e.g., David Herman, Lisa Zunshine, and Frederick Luis Aldama — who have successfully wedded narrative and cognitive approaches (although not necessarily within the realm of comics studies). Second, her work benefits from discussions of comics that have, by and large, received little attention within the academy. When thumbing through many scholarly studies of comics, it’s fairly easy to discern a de facto canon of “serious” or literary comics — that is, comics that usually fall within an English professor’s understanding of “literature” — as these same titles are referenced over and over again…and to the exclusion of equally deserving titles and creators. (These are the texts that I have facetiously referenced as “the usual suspects,” a syllabus-building phenomenon I have discussed many times before in various Comics Alternative podcast episodes and blog reviews.) And although it’s not unheard of for scholars to reference Fables or 100 Bullets, it’s nice to see Kukkonen pull examples from these titles and not retread discussions on MausBlankets, Jimmy Corrigan, or Fun Home. The worst that you could accuse her of is her primary focus on Vertigo or DC-related titles (Tom Strong, published through America’s Best Comics, was an imprint of DC’s WildStorm division). But even then, the author is fairly democratic in her coverage. Perhaps more significantly, her use of serialized titles, and not self-contained graphic novels, provides an added dimension to cognitive readings.

This second point, the utilization of titles not common to academic analysis, is worth underscoring because it highlights a weakness, or a temptation, that Kukkonen succumbs to in a contemporaneous project. Just one month before the publication of Contemporary Comics Storytelling, she released through Wiley-Blackwell a text specifically devoted to classroom use, Studying Comics and Graphic Novels. In that book, a very brief introduction to comics studies, she references heavily those “canonical” texts that scholars seem to privilege, giving little attention to more popular or mainstream (and more varied) forms of comics storytelling. Even that book’s appendix, “More Comics and Graphic Novels to Read,” provides little in the way of genre depth or diversity. What Kukkonen got right in Contemporary Comics Storytelling, she largely missed in her classroom handbook. That’s unfortunate.

It is clear to see, though, where Kukkonen’s intellectual energies were more successfully channeled. Contemporary Comics Storytelling is a rigorously researched work, pulling from a variety of theoretical approaches and critical commentary. You can tell that this book springs from the dissertation she completed in 2010 while at Tampere University, “Storytelling Beyond Postmodernism: Fables and the Fairy Tale.” The text is rich in citations and endnotes — although these references in no way hinder the reading process — and Kukkonen provides an extensive bibliography of multi-disciplinary sources. Despite the few editorial glitches and authorial errors that appear — e.g., cited work not listed in the bibliography, and misnaming noted superhero comics scholar, Peter Coogan, as “Steve” — Contemporary Comics Storytelling is a welcome addition to comics scholarship and a useful study for anyone interested in the ways we engage with visual narrative.

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Be sure to read Contemporary Comics Storytelling as well as other critical works mentioned in this review:

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