Conducted by Pedro Moura
One of the things I try to keep up with is comics scholarship, and I am happy to see that it is becoming increasingly difficult. Around March and April this year, I had the chance of reading Karin Kukkonen’s more theoretical book, Contemporary Comics Storytelling (University of Nebraska Press), as well as her introductory-level Studying Comics and Graphic Novels (Wiley-Blackwell). Usually, in order to accompany my reviews on scholarly books and also to help introduce or divulge comics studies to Portuguese-speaking audiences (mainly in Portugal and Brazil), I interview the authors, focusing on the books themselves, but sometimes expanding the theme. This interview was conducted via email mid-April in English. It was only previously published in Portuguese, so this is the first time its original English version is made available.
Pedro Moura: I would like to start by asking you how you see comics’ relationship with literature. I do understand that you do not subsume the former in the latter, but you do argue, in both books, that the analytical tools and methods of literary studies are quite fruitful in the study of comics. Do you also feel that literary studies in themselves have much to gain by integrating comics in its case studies’ corpora?
Karin Kukkonen: Insofar as comics engage with the cultural conversation of their day, explore ways of thinking otherwise and experiment with complex modes of storytelling — in other words, insofar as they do what in my opinion literature does — I would even say that comics form part of the larger cultural activity we call literature. Perhaps that is not an incontroversial take on literature or, indeed, on comics. In any case, comics have gained a place in the curricula of literary studies. I think literary studies have much to gain from engaging with comics, seeing as visual literacy becomes more and more important and as comics allow one to connect with current debates about the intersections of visual, verbal, and digital media — think of the “convergence culture” of films, books, and comics around the same story — which go beyond the written word.
PM: Continuing from the last question, as of course, comics’ ask for a compulsory transdisciplinary study — then again, what doesn’t, these days? — whether films studies, art history, visual semiotics, etc. Would you argue for a disciplinary integration of comics in literary departments, or would you just claim that, for you, it makes sense looking at them as literature? Or would it be preferable, in the best possible world, to actually have separate departments for comics exclusively? In other words, what is your dream scenario on comic studies for the future? (No need too be realistic here!)
KK: Interesting question. I suppose my ideal state of comics studies would not have to do with institutions, but with attitudes. As soon as comics are taken as worthy of serious attention across disciplines, as soon as scholars cannot anymore dismiss the classics in comics (think Watchmen, Maus, etc.), I think comics studies would be in a good place. We’d need to move from the attitude toward comics as a curiosity to an attitude toward comics as objects of sustained scholarly inquiry, at least as far as academia is concerned. With respect to some genres of comics, such as autobiographical comics, such a shift is within reach. Taking comics as a whole, however, I suspect it is much harder to come by than a Department of Comics Studies.
PM: What do you think the role of cognitive literature and cultural studies have been in the last few years, and in relation to comics in particular? Do you feel that it allows you to bring together several strands of inquiry in a coherent vision (body-mind; world-building between authors and reader; the text’s social inscription in genres, styles, etc., and the reader’s inferences of the same; all the multimodality nature of comics; and so on)?
KK: The cognitive study of comics is in its infancy, but already it becomes clear, I think, that comics and cognition inspire many different kinds of inquiry. Charles Forceville takes up cognitive metaphor theory and looks at the multimodal nature of comics. Neil Cohn follows a cognitive linguistic approach and works towards a syntax for what he calls the “visual language” of comics. My own approach is more interested in comics as a mode of thinking (in a literary manner) than in comics as a language, and hence, I pursue a model of analysis that draws on cognition more generally, including embodied engagements, readerly inferences, etc. I’m trying to approach the reading of comics as a holistic experience that includes both cognitive and cultural aspects. Comics and cognition form a rich field of convergence and much exciting work can be done here.
PM: I think your case studies were very intelligently chosen to uphold your work. But I was positively surprised by the fact that you chose comic-book series. Now, we will both agree, I’m sure, that there is no dichotomy whatsoever between “comic books” and “graphic novels” (self-standing books of comics), but more often than not, thematic, cultural studies-related approaches chose graphic novels to engage with (being the usual suspects Maus, Persepolis, Fun Home, etc.), whereas comics-related studies come from more author-centred, genre-related, or historical perspectives. Was this choice dictated by a perception of yours of an unbalance between these “fields”?
KK: For Contemporary Comics Storytelling, I chose the comics that I perceived to be engaging in a reflection of the state of play after postmodernism and carving out a twenty-first century response to the dominant mode of thinking of the previous decades. This is to say that I thought these comic books are as important, and considerable, a literary phenomenon as the more established autobiographical comics you mention. Focusing on an author-centred or genre-related set of comics would have been too limiting for the case about comics that I wanted to make. In Studying Comics and Graphic Novels, on the other hand, the “usual suspects” of Maus, Fun Home, etc. are included, because they are so central to comics studies as it stands today, and because they are featured on curricula so frequently.
PM: Moreover, I also think that that usual choice I’m referring to leads to an effect of considering that the most complex storytelling techniques can only be found in “alternative,” “independent,” or “beyond genre” texts, but you engage with these series precisely to show that within the so-called North American mainstream forms one can find equally complex forms. Is there a need still to argue against this idea of difference?
KK: Indeed. How many sustained analyses of 100 Bullets — as compared to Maus, say — are you aware of? If there is a canon of comics texts in the process of formation, I think we need to make sure that not only the autobiographical and alternative genres are well represented, because mainstream comics also give rise to complex, challenging and captivating works.
PM: It is very telling that you do address some of the possible criticisms against sexism and nihilism in some of the texts you deal with (especially 100 Bullets, I gather), but is it possible from a strictly cognitive narratology point of view (if one can argue there is one) to address a text without referring to those aspects?
KK: This is a difficult question. I don’t think any approach of criticism is ideology-free, even if it does not thematize ideological questions directly, as for example Marxist or gender-studies approaches do. Cognitive narratology is one of those approaches that does not thematize ideology. But it becomes most interesting and most salient, I think, when you combine the tools of cognitive narratology with questions of ideology, as I attempt to do with the analysis of the master narrative in Tom Strong or the move back to virtue ethics in 100 Bullets.
PM: Due to the “particular problem or set of interpretative challenges” — your words in Contemporary Comics Storytelling, p. 177 — that you use on the books, you have to suspend a more profound research on other aspects of these titles, such as their specific historical, editorial, or even authorial contexts (although you do point out a myriad of important lines of inquiry). One of those suspended issues, in my view, is serialization (although on page 160 you speak of a “continuing-consciousness frame” and “dynamic development,” and you deal with it in Studying). Do you think that the serial nature of these titles, the fact that at least one of the ways these series can be read, one instalment per month (usually) and throughout long years, creates a certain relationship and expectancy with these stories that tints the way they’re read? And do you think that whoever reads them “in one go,” through the trade collections of even absolute editions, misses out on an important part of its pleasures? Or is it just a different relationship with the storyworlds and its characters? I am sorry if this is a confusing question, or too many aspects at the same time, but is there a difference how we read cognitively a comic book depending on the format? How should one go about studying such a difference?
KK: Serialization is becoming a topic for scholars in film studies and literary studies, and, I think, serious attention to the relationship between publication formats and narrative effects is overdue in comics studies, as well. With the questions you outline above, you have an entire research project right there, Pedro. In terms of method, one could think of a long-term empirical study in which half of the participants reads the comic books over a longer period of time and the other half reads the trade paperback in one go. Questionnaires, interviews with the readers, and discussion in reading groups (the kind of work that is already being done in the study of comics in pedagogy), in combination with a cognitive narratological analysis of the story arcs, could yield really interesting results here.
PM: One of the points that I most enjoyed in your book, and that I agree with fully, is your discussion about the emotional response to alternative scenarios. I don’t want to go too much into the “identification” theory, but I agree that there are emotional ties with the characters. Within the many multiverse versions that can pop up across the genre, we can accept changes in uniforms, roles or even event orders or choices, but for some reason there are obstacles in accepting changes in moral or emotional positioning. Could you comment on this dimension?
KK: It’s interesting, isn’t it, how we happily accept immortal characters in the thirty-first century riding dragons and yet how difficult we find it to suspend our emotional assessment of their actions. Current theories of emotions as embodied appraisals, as ways of making sense of interpersonal relationships and relationships between us and our environment, underline the importance of emotions in our everyday reasoning and meaning-making. In literature, these processes seem to carry over into alternative, fictional scenarios, and it makes a lot of sense, I think, that already Aristotle put emotions — pity and fear — at the centre of his theory of plot and audience engagement.
PM: Despite all those suspended critical angles, I believe that you engaged with these texts because they ellicit pleasure from you. So, a little on the personal side, and believing that your tastes are quite wide-ranging and cosmopolitan, is there something special for you on these titles, or even the format of comic books?
KK: You are quite right; I chose these titles, mostly, because I enjoyed reading them. I like the ways in which each of them challenges you to think in unexpected ways, and how they create rich and sustained narratives, and — let’s face it — all three comics are simply gorgeous to look at, too.
PM: What was your purpose with Studying Comics and Graphic Novels? Although there is a growing bibliography on comics studies and also introductory-level books, did you feel a direct, condensed approach was lacking?
KK: Studying Comics and Graphic Novels is designed for literature classes in particular. It starts with close-reading comics, and then moves to larger narrative structures, in order to give students the analytical tools they need. In my experience, students very quickly jump to larger thematic discussions of comics, because they don’t know how to read a panel or a page, and I wanted to ground them in the specifics. I think this in particular has been lacking in introductory books on comcis. The other chapters of the book then address autobiographical comics, comics adaptations of literary classics, and the history of comics (through the debates around their cultural value).
PM: In this other book, your choices are incredibly varied, even if from English-language sources, but I guess accessibility and its specific readership had to be considered. Was that dictated in any way by external factors? Do you explore other traditions, languages, and even styles in your classes?
KK: For the textbook, I stuck largely to English-language sources, because that is what the students would be able to read. In the “Further Reading” sections and with some of my examples, I point towards the strong traditions of comics studies in France and Germany. In my classes, I introduce students to some of the theoretical texts from these traditions, and sometimes the comics, too. Recently, I discussed for example the Judith Forest scandal in my course on metafiction. Even though the key materials in the textbook are from the English-language tradition, I would always encourage students to keep an open mind.
PM: I also ask this because I am particularly interested in “experimental” strands of comics (stuff like Richard McGuire’s Here to Abstract Comics to the Frémok or La Cinquième Couche crowd). Do you think that it would be also important to try out some of the tools you discuss in both books in more complicated texts, some of which are non-narrative? Do you address them as well?
KK: I don’t really discuss any non-narrative comics in the textbook, though that might make for a very interesting chapter, too. Perhaps if there ever is a second edition!
PM: From what I gather, this was something that you’ve built throughout classes, right?
KK: Yes, when I started teaching comics in 2008, very little had been published besides Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, so I decided to write my own teaching materials. Out of those teaching materials, then, I developed the textbook.
PM: Imagining that you work with students interested in critical work on comics, more than comics-creation, can you share some of your impressions or experiences with students? is there resistance against certain approaches? A particular focus on some sort of comics? A general interest in comics’ history and diversity?
KK: Well, students always want to see their favourite comic on the syllabus. This is quite understandable, since comics are reading matter that its readers are heavily invested in (emotionally). By giving students the option to write their assignments on the basis of a comic of their choice, and by having them write their own version of comics history in the session on that topic, I try to meet them halfway and have them bring the comics they care about into the discussion.
PM: One last question, a little off thread… But you do engage with this briefly in your writings. The role of imagination is huge in Alan Moore, and crosses his whole oeuvre, and it gains a full body with his notion of an “Idea Space.” Do you think that this is too mistic of a notion to engage with academically?
KK: Not at all. In particular, psychology and neuroscience have made a lot of progress in investigating the imagination recently (and in understanding how central it is to human thinking). Cognitive approaches to comics should follow hard on their heels, and, I think, Alan Moore’s work would be a brilliant place to start this project.
Be sure to get your copies of Kukkonen’s books, as well as some of the other books mentioned in this interview: