Critical Takes: Narrative Structure in Comics, by Barbara Postema

by Derek Royal

Narrative Structure in Comics, by Barbara Postema (RIT 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 (reviewed here in October 2013), Karin Kukkonen’s Contemporary Comics Storytelling (reviewed April of this year), and Neil Cohn’s The Visual Language of Comics explore, in one way or another, how comics work and how they function as a narrative-based medium. Another recent contribution to this discussion comes from Barbara Postema. In her recent study, Narrative Structure in Comics — the first in RIT Press’ new Comics Studies Monograph Series — Postema examines the formal and material specificities of the medium, and, as she points out in the book’s introduction, sets out to answer a number of questions related to comics’ narrativity: “What types of signification are evoked in comics discourse? How does the material form in which a comic exists…affect its signification? How do text-image relations alter perceptions of comics as a visual form…? And by what means do comics engage their readers?” (xii-xiii). What follows is a series of arguments and selected close readings that successfully addresses all of these questions and leaves the reader with a deeper understanding of the medium as a (primarily) visual narrative system.

Narrative Structure in Comics is divided into five primary sections, each building upon the previous and all arranged in a cogent and cohesive manner. In the first chapter, Postema explores meaning-making through panel construction, focusing on iconic arrangement, visual economy, semantic coding, and temporal evocation. Next, she discusses the relationship between and among individual panels, the function of frames and gutters, Postemaand the taxonomy of layouts. This last topic is most useful in that Postema maps out six distinct ways in which artists utilize layout: panels framed by frames and separated by blank space, one single panel on a page, several panels on a page, frameless panels, the use of grids, and inserts or insets. Chapter 3 follows up with an analysis of action as a function of sequencing in strips, through mise en page, and in terms of panel series (referencing Groensteen’s concept of tressage, or braiding).

The last two sections are natural extensions of the previous. In her fourth chapter Postema investigates the possible relationships between image and text — in many ways, although sometimes downplayed, building upon Scott McCloud’s word-picture dynamics in Understanding Comics. And in Chapter 5, she delves into the formal processes of narration in comics, e.g., showing versus telling, Roland Barthes’s understanding of cardinal and catalytic functions, the weaving and braiding of images (again, à la Groensteen), and the significance of gaps. The latter is of particular importance, in that fissures and blank spaces, according to Postema, sit at the heart of comics.

Indeed, if one were to use one word to distill most of Narrative Structure in Comics, it would be “gaps.” The author suggests as much early on, when she announces that her study “takes the concept of the gap as a signifying unit in the sequence and theorizes how its function can be expanded upon, how it can be understood to operate at all levels of comics signification” (xviii). If you attempted to note every instance of “gap,” or some variation of the concept, within the text, you’d find it quite a formidable task. Postema’s analyses are largely based on gaps between panels, temporal gaps within and between frames, semantic gaps in sequencing, gaps of meaning within iconography, gaps embedded in the text-image dynamic, gaps as a narrating strategy, the cognitive closure of gaps, and even the absence of gaps. In fact, the very last subsection of the text (and before the appendixes) is cleverly titled “Mind the Gap.” Given the overwhelming theoretical emphasis placed on gaps within comics studies — e.g., in terms of gutters, absences, and breaks — it is not surprising that Postema constructs her project around this very scaffolding.

Yet, while Narrative Structure in Comics is a strong work, it is not without its weaknesses or limitations. One of these thin spots appears through Postema’s choice of examples. Like the vast majority of scholarly texts devoted to comics, especially those written within a literary and language studies context, this book greatly underutilizes — and, arguably, undervalues — mainstream comics…especially superhero titles. This is one of the nagging characteristics of comics studies within the academy, and it’s rare to find a balanced or substantive assessment of the mainstream by those in literature and language studies. (Notable exceptions to this are Marco Arnaudo’s Myth of the Superhero, reviewed here in December 2013, and Terrence R. Wandtke’s The Meaning of Superhero Comic Books, outstanding examples of serious mainstream engagement by literary scholars.) But Postema, to her credit, does tell us in her introduction that she privileges alternative or small-press comics to those published through the Marvel and DC Comics or in popular newspaper strips, so at least she is up front with her preferences and tells us what to expect (unlike most literary scholars who, for whatever reason, choose to neglect the Big Two with any explanation or context). And there are occasions where she uses a couple of these titles, such as The Amazing Spider-Man and Peanuts, strategically.

But most of her examples are pulled from the kind of “literary” comics that most instructors use in the classroom. And with these, Postema doesn’t fall into the trap of using primarily what could be considered — and what I have referred to elsewhere as — the “usual suspects” of comics commonly used in the classroom, e.g., Maus, Fun Home, Persepolis, and Blankets. Indeed, and again to her credit, Postema uses works that haven’t received enough serious critical attention, such as Jason Lute’s Jar of Fools, Sara Varon’s Sweater Weather, Jessica Abel’s La Perdida, Chester Brown’s The Playboy, and Jason Little’s Shutterbug Follies. (In fact, Postema uses a lot of Jason Little references in her text, and images from Shutterbug Follies even grace the cover.)

Another potential limitation is how Postema doesn’t often consider her subject matter from a creator’s perspective. At times she makes an assessment from a purely critical angle —  after all, her subject/professional position is that of a literary scholar — but in doing so, she misses out on understanding comics as a process. For example, in discussing Will Eisner’s means of storytelling, she mentions his reliance on a script, and then describes it as an “unfortunate slippage towards logocentrism” (101). She does this a couple of other times in the text — particularly when considering the writings of Eisner and McCloud, two artists who have also written as theorists  — “slipping” herself when not considering the creative logistics involved.

However, these points are relatively minor, and the text as a whole doesn’t suffer as a consequence. In fact, Narrative Structure in Comics would serve as a valuable introduction to anyone interested comics, their formal properties, and how they tell stories. This is the kind of book that could possibly be used as a textbook for college courses. But I gather that this is not the kind of audience or function that Postema and her publisher are targeting. While her book could be used as a textbook, it doesn’t read like one (which might include more examples and exercises, a more extensive bibliography, and topics for further discussion). Also, the two appendixes in the back — one on comics terminology and another on a history of comics — are sorely truncated, not substantive enough for the purposes of instruction. (Indeed, the author sums up comics history in a mere five pages, an unfortunate brevity that I hope will be addressed in a subsequent edition.)

In a way, I wish that this book had been framed as more of a classroom text. Those are certainly needed. But even presented as it is, Postema’s book would make a much better textbook for a comics studies course than would Kukkonen’s recent Studying Comics and Graphic Novels, a thin and wanting text intentionally written for the classroom. Still, as Henry James reminds us, we must grant the author her donnée. And in this case, that idea is a pointed critical study. By those standards, Postema’s Narrative Structure in Comics is a solid maiden voyage for RIT Press’ Comics Studies Monograph Series.

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Be sure to read Postema’s Narrative Structure in Comics as well as similar critical works:

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