A thesis exploring comic books and graphic novels as a literary medium.
Louis J. Prosperi
August 13, 1998
COMIC BOOKS AND GRAPHIC NOVELS:
THE UNDISCOVERED MEDIUM
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Introduction And Thesis
Though commonly thought of as funny books meant only for children, comic books, and more specifically
graphic novels, are in fact a legitimate narrative and literary medium capable of withstanding the same sort of
scrutiny and criticism as other narrative forms, and are worthy of the same sort of praise afforded to other forms of
literature, be they novels, short stories, plays or poetry.
The idea that comic books, or graphic novels as they are sometimes referred to, are a form of literature is not a
new one. In an article in Publisher’s Weekly, Martin Pedersen notes “In 1990, Art Spiegelman won the Pulitzer
Prize for Maus, signaling to the publishing mainstream what aficionados of the graphic novel have long known;
comics are a medium capable of exploring themes every bit as serious as those studied by an prose novel” (n.d.).
According to Beth Levine, Spiegelman feels that graphic novels aren’t just another genre, but a separate medium of
artistic expression (45).
In his book Comics and Sequential Art, comic book artist and writer Will Eisner points out that comic book
artists have been developing the craft of interplay between words and images for over 50 years comic, and that in
doing so have achieved a successful cross-breeding of image and prose (8). In the above mentioned Publisher’s
Weekly article, Pedersen quotes Eisner: “I think comics became literature in the late ‘60s in San Francisco, with the
emergence of the underground comics. There, for the first time, cartoonists like Spiegelman and Crumb began using
comics as social protest. And they used it in a manner which I regard as a basic function of literature.” (n.d.)
Despite these and other testaments to the legitimacy of the comic book medium, it has gone virtually unnoticed
and undiscovered in America. In Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, author Scott McCloud notes that at one
time or another virtually all great media, including written work, music, video, theatre, visual art and film, have
received critical examination in and of themselves, but for comics, with the exception of Eisner’s Comics and
Sequential Art, this attention has been rare (6).
Purpose and Method
The purpose of this paper is to examine the comic book medium as a legitimate narrative and literary form, one
that is a unique result of the combination of its two primary elements, words and pictures, and to demonstrate that
this medium is capable of sustaining the same sorts of literary analysis and criticism as other forms of literature.
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To examine the comic book medium for this purpose, I shall begin with defining the term ‘comics’ and looking
at comics as a form of reading. Following this is a discussion concerning the form and structure of comics, including
the vocabulary of the medium, the specific manner in which the elements of that vocabulary interact, and the mental
process of reading comics. This concludes with an examination of how narrative, in particular specific elements of
narrative, are manifested in comics.
Following this description and discussion of the comics medium, I will apply a variety of critical approaches to
literature to a select number of comic works to demonstrate their ability to sustain the same sorts of scrutiny and
examination as other forms of literature and art.
Comics As A Narrative And Literary Medium
If comics are in fact a narrative and literary medium as I suggest, they must be capable of being read, or
experienced. Before exploring comics as a form of reading and the vocabulary of this medium, it’s first necessary to
define some terms that will be used throughout this paper.
The first step in understanding comics as a narrative and literary medium is to establish a working definition for
what is meant by the terms ‘comic books’ and ‘graphic novels,’ and ‘comics.’ Peter Scott Prescott suggests that
comic books are not simply illustrated books, but instead are books containing a narrative that’s advanced by both
words and pictures (71). According to Paul Levitz, then executive vice-president of DC Comics, a graphic novel is
“an original, self-contained story, told in the comic book format” (Levine 45). Writing in Publisher’s Weekly,
George Beahm states that “Handled with skill, the graphic novel is an ideal format that brings together the best of
two worlds – the power of the word and the power of art” (22).
While the above definitions are accurate, they don’t define the medium as much as they do physical books.
What is needed is a definition of the medium of comic books. Scott McCloud suggests that the art form – the
medium – known as comics is a vessel that can hold any number of ideas and images. The content of those images
and ideas is, of course, up to creators, who all have varying tastes. The trick, according to McCloud, is to never
mistake the message for the messenger, or medium (6).
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Eisner refers to this medium as “sequential art,” and describes it as “an art and literary form that deals with the
arrangement of pictures or images and words to narrate a story or dramatize an idea” (5). Seeking a more formal
definition, Scott McCloud defines the term ‘comics’ to mean, “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate
sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer” (9).
For purposes of this paper, I will use terms ‘comics’ and ‘sequential art,’ as defined by McCloud and Eisner
respectively, when referring to the medium, and the phrases ‘comic books’ and ‘graphic novels’ when referring to
specific stories and books employing the medium of comics.
Comics As A Form Of Reading
Comics, be they regular comic books or graphic novels, are meant to be read in much the same way that novels,
poems and short stories are read. And though the idea of reading a comic book might not seem to be the same as
reading a novel, given the presence of pictures, in some ways, it may be considered a more genuine form of reading
than that normally associated with straight prose. Will Eisner, when discussing the idea of comics as a form of
reading, insists that “comics communicate in a ‘language’ that relies on a visual experience common to both creator
and audience. Modern readers can be expected to have an easy understanding of the image-word mix and the
traditional deciphering of text. Comics can be called ‘reading’ in a wider sense that that term is commonly applied”
(7). To support this claim, he states:
Tom Wolf, writing in the Harvard Educational Review (August 1977) summarized it this
For the last hundred years, the subject of reading has been connected quite directly to the
subject of literacy… learning to read… has meant learning to read words… But … reading has
gradually come under closer scrutiny. Recent research has shown that the reading of words is but a
subset of a much more general human activity which includes symbol decoding, information
integration and organization… Indeed, reading – in the most general sense – can be thought of as a
form of perceptual activity; but there are many others – the readers of pictures, maps, circuit
diagrams, musical notes… (7-8).
The Vocabulary Of Comics
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Having defined comics as a form of reading, it then becomes important to discuss briefly the language of this
medium, and its vocabulary. According to Scott McCloud, “Words, pictures and other icons are the vocabulary of
the language called comics” (47). While we understand the use of the terms ‘words’ and ‘pictures,’ the last term,
‘icons,’ requires some further discussion. Here McCloud uses the term ‘icons’ to refer to the mass of symbols of
differing types used in comics.
According to McCloud, icons are images used to represent a person, place, thing, or idea. They can be symbols
that represent concepts, ideas, and philosophies, as well as icons of the practical realm such as language, science and
communication. Finally, there are the icons we call pictures, images designed to actually resemble their subjects
And just as there are different types of icons, so too are there differences in the level of meaning between these
different types. Non-pictorial icons, such as letters and numbers have a meaning that is fixed and absolute. Their
appearance doesn’t affect their meaning because they represent invisible ideas. In the case of pictures, however,
meaning is more variable and fluid based on appearance, and they differ from “real-life” appearance to varying
degrees. Lastly, there are words, which are “totally abstract icons that bear no resemblance at all to their subject”
Beyond the types of icons described above, comics also employ another type of icon, one that plays an
important role in the mental process by which we read comics. This type of icon is called the ‘panel’ or ‘frame.’ The
various shapes called panels or frames hold in their borders all the icons that add up to the vocabulary of comics, but
are at the same time one of comics’ most important icons (McCloud 98). Panel shapes can vary considerably, and
while differences of shape don’t necessarily affect the specific “meanings” of those panels, they can affect the
reading experience nonetheless (McCloud 99). As Will Eisner puts it “In addition to its primary function as a frame
in which to place objects and actions, the panel border itself can be used as part of the non-verbal ‘language’ of
sequential art” (44).
The Interaction Of Words And Pictures
If words, pictures and other icons are the vocabulary of comics, then it is from the interaction of words and
pictures (which includes other icons such as the panel) that the language of comics derives its ‘grammar.’ As Eisner
puts it, “In its most economical scale, comics employ a series of repetitive images and recognizable symbols. When
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these are used again and again to convey similar ideas, they become a language – a literary form if you will. And it
is this disciplined application that creates the ‘grammar’ of sequential art” (8).
Though there are many different types of icons used in comics, comics primarily deal with two major
communicating devices, words and pictures. This separation is somewhat arbitrary, as both are derived from a single
origin, and it is in the skillful deployment of both words and pictures that the expressive potential of the medium we
call comics lies (Eisner 13). However, in order for us to fully understand the ways in which words and pictures
combine in comics, we must first briefly explore the unique characteristics of each.
Eisner describes words as being made up of letters, which are themselves symbols devised of images which
originate out of familiar forms, objects, postures and recognizable phenomena. And as their employment becomes
more sophisticated, they become simplified and abstract. In comic art, the addition of style and the subtle application
of weight, emphasis and delineation to words combine to evoke both beauty and message. In addition, when written
in a singular style, letters of a written alphabet also contribute to meaning, in a manner not unlike the spoken word
which is affected by changes of inflection and sound level (14).
One specific example of how the sort of emphasis Eisner describes is employed in comics involves what Scott
McCloud refers to as “one of the most widely used, most complex and most versatile of comics’ many icons is the
…word balloon” (134). According to Eisner, the words inside a balloon, usually dialogue, but also narration, are
meant to be heard inside the reader’s head. In this case emphasis is applied by use of bold face lettering, which is not
only used in the service of sound, but also to ‘telegraph’ the message to the reader. The reader should be able to get
the thrust of the message from the bold-face words alone (152).
Eisner summarizes the significance of words and their use in this way:
It is here that the expressive potential of the comic artist is in the sharpest focus. After all, it is
the art of graphic story-telling. The codification becomes, in the hands of the artist, an alphabet
with which to make an encompassing statement that weaves an entire tapestry of emotional
By the skilled manipulation of this seemingly amorphic structure and an understanding of the
anatomy of expression, the cartoonist can begin to undertake the exposition of stories that involve
deeper meanings and deal with the completeness of human experience (16).
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But where words and pictures do share certain characteristics and origins, there are differences between the two,
specifically in the type of information each communicates. McCloud points out these differences by noting that
words, or writing, are perceived information, and it takes time and specialized knowledge to decode the abstract
language of symbols, while pictures are received information. The reader needs no formal education to ‘Get the
Message,’ the message is instantaneous (49).
Eisner breaks down images as either ‘visuals’ or ‘illustrations.’ He defines a ‘visual’ as “a series or sequence of
images that replaces a descriptive passage told only in words” (127 – 128). Conversely, he states that “An
‘illustration’ reinforces (or decorates) a descriptive passage. It simply repeats the text” (128). Of the two, Eisner
feels that “It is the ‘visual’ that functions as the purest form of sequential art because it seeks to employ a mix of
letters and images as a language in dealing with narration” (128).
There are a virtually unlimited number of ways in which words and pictures can interact and combine in comics
(McCloud 152). According to McCloud, the relationship between the two is often a balance of sorts. He notes that
“When pictures carry the weight of clarity in a scene, they free the words to explore a wider area” (157), while “if
the words lock in the ‘meaning’ of a sequence, then the pictures can really take off” (159). “Generally speaking, the
more is said in words, the more the pictures are freed up to go exploring and vice versa” (155).
McCloud outlines a number of distinct categories of word/picture combinations, the first of which is what he
refers to as ‘word specific’ combinations, where pictures illustrate, but don’t significantly add, to largely complete
text. The next is ‘picture specific’ combinations where words do little more than add a soundtrack to a visually told
sequence. ‘Duo-specific’ combinations are those in which the words and pictures send essentially the same message.
Another type is the ‘additive combination’ where words amplify or elaborate on an image or vice versa. ‘Parallel
combinations’ are those in which words and pictures seem to follow very different courses – without intersecting,
while ‘montages’ are described as situations where words are treated as integral parts of the picture. But perhaps the
most common type of word/picture combination is what McCloud refers to as ‘Interdependent,’ combinations in
which words and pictures go hand in hand to convey an idea that neither could convey alone (152 – 155).
The Mental Process Of Reading Comics
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Thus far we have examined comics as a form of reading, and have discussed both the ‘vocabulary’ and
‘grammar’ of comics. With these elements in place we have an understanding of the language of comics and how it
can be used as a narrative medium, but before we move on to describe the elements of narrative and how they are
manifested in comics, it’s important that we first look at the way in which the vocabulary and grammar of comics
are interpreted by the reader. This is what we might call the mental process of reading comics. Understanding this
process requires that we understand not only the means by which we process the words and pictures of comics, but
also the role we as readers play in how comics communicate to us.
In describing the manner in which we read comics, Eisner suggests that the format of comic books, that of a
montage of words and images, requires the reader to exercise both visual and verbal interpretive skills. The regimens
of art (e.g. perspective, symmetry, brush stroke) and the regimens of literature (e.g. grammar, plot, syntax) become
superimposed upon each other, and the reading of a comic book is an act of both aesthetic perception and
intellectual pursuit. Eisner goes on to suggest that the psychological process involved in viewing a word and image
are analogous, and that the structures of illustration and prose are similar (8).
However, as Eisner points out, this process is largely dependent on the comprehension of the reader. He
suggests that comprehension of an image requires a commonality of experience which demands the sequential artist
develop an understanding of the reader’s life experience if his message is to be understood. This interaction has to
develop because the artist is evoking images stored in the minds of both parties (13). Continuing, Eisner states that
“The success or failure of this method of communicating depends upon the ease with which the reader recognized
the meaning and emotional impact of the image… the style and appropriateness of technique become part of the
image and what it is trying to say” (14).
Comics as a medium make use of a series or sequence of images and words, and the process by which these
series or sequences are communicated to the reader is vital to an understanding of how we read comics. According
The fundamental function of comic art to communicate ideas and/or stories by means of
words and pictures involves the movement of certain images (such as people and things) through
space. To deal with the ‘capture’ or encapsulation of these events in the flow of the narrative, they
must be broken up into sequenced segments… called panels or frames” (38).
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In visual narration the task of author/artist is to record a continued flow of experience and
show it as it may be seen from the reader’s eyes. This is done by arbitrarily breaking up the flow
of an uninterrupted experience into segments of ‘frozen’ scenes and enclosing them by a frame or
This is not entirely unlike the way in which we perceive the world around us. Scott McCloud notes that “All of
us perceive the world as a whole through the experience of our senses. Yet our senses can only reveal a world that is
fragmented and incomplete. Our perception of reality is an act of faith, based on mere fragments” (62). But though
we are only able to observe fragments of our world at any one time, we still are able to ‘see’ the whole world before
us. McCloud refers to this phenomenon of observing the parts but perceiving the whole as closure (63).
But while closure occurs not only in everyday life as well as in other media, comics are “a medium of
communication and expression which uses closure like no other… a medium where the audience is a willing and
conscious collaborator and closure is the agent of change, time, and motion” (McCloud 65).
As noted above, comics use panels or frames to record a continued flow of experience and show it as it may be
seen from the reader’s eyes (Eisner 39). But between the panels of a comic book lies a space called “the gutter.” It is
in the limbo of the gutter that the reader’s imagination takes two separate images and transforms them into a single
idea. Nothing is seen between the two panels, but experience tells the reader that something must be there. The
panels used in comics fracture both time and space, and offer a jagged, staccato rhythm of unconnected moments,
but closure allows the reader to connect these moments and mentally construct a continuous, unified reality
Within the medium of comics, it is closure that most actively engages the reader’s imagination. This is not the
case with traditional prose writing. As Eisner puts it, “There is a kind of privacy which the reader of a traditional
prose work enjoys in the process of translating a descriptive passage into a visual image in his mind” (140). Eisner
further notes that in writing employing words alone, the author directs the reader’s imagination. But where Eisner
suggests that “In comics the imagining is done for the reader,” and that “An image drawn becomes a precise
statement that brooks little or no further interpretation” (Eisner 122), I would suggest that the reader’s imagination is
merely shifted away from that of visualizing a scene in his mind, to bringing that scene to life in his mind by
connecting the images that comprise that scene on the comics page through closure.
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This element of reader participation is another key to understanding the process by which we read comics. As
McCloud puts it, “Every act committed to paper by the comics artist is aided and abetted by a silent accomplice. An
equal partner in crime known as the reader” (68). He also points out that participation is a powerful force in nearly
any medium, citing filmmakers who long ago realized the importance of allowing viewers to use their imaginations.
But whereas film makes use of audiences’ imaginations only occasionally, comics use it far more often. From the
tossing of a baseball to the destruction of a planet, it is the reader’s deliberate, voluntary closure that is comics’
primary means of simulating time and motion. Closure in comics fosters a silent, secret agreement between the
creator and his audience, an intimacy surpassed only by the written word (69).
According to McCloud, the comics creator asks his reader to join him in a silent dance of the seen and the
unseen, of the visible and the invisible, and no other art form gives so much to its audience while at the same time
asking so much from them. It is for this reason that McCloud feels it is a mistake to think of comics as merely a
hybrid of graphic arts and prose fiction. As he puts it, “What happens between these panels is a kind of magic only
comics can create” (92).
Narrative In Comics
Now that we’ve identified the vocabulary and grammar of comics and have examined the role those elements
play in our reading of comics, we have a good basis for a discussion concerning narrative in comics, specifically
how certain narrative elements are employed in comics.
All four of what might be thought of as the primary elements of narrative are present in virtually all stories told
in the comics medium. Among these are what James L. Potter refers to as the basic elements of the subject matter of
narrative, namely character, setting and action (27), as well as point of view, the means by which the first three are
portrayed to the reader.
Of the first three, certainly character and setting are present in comics, since without characters and a setting
there can be no story. Most often, characters and settings in comics are not too dissimilar from their counterparts in
other literary forms, such as novels and short stories. There are both protagonists and antagonists, and those
characters are often given clear motivations and in-depth characterizations. Similarly, settings range from vague and
sparsely detailed to those rich in detail and which exhibit great depth. But far more relevant to our discussion is the
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manner in which characters and setting are portrayed in comics, specifically the manner in which the vocabulary and
grammar of comics work to portray these elements.
Characters and settings are brought to life through three primary means in comics: the actions characters take
within the setting of a given story, the mental and emotional states they display, and the way in which those actions
are presented to the reader, or more simply stated, the story’s point of view. The discussion that follows focuses on
the nature of actions and how action is portrayed in comics, the portrayal of emotion in comics, and the specific
ways in which point of view is employed in comics.
The portrayal of action in any medium, whether that action be something as simple as tossing a ball up and
down or as complex as breaking into and robbing a bank, involves several factors, and primary among them is the
passage of time. Without the passage of time there can be no action. This is especially true in comics according to
Will Eisner, who considers the ability to convey time as being critical to the success of a visual narrative (26).
In addition, there are other factors contributing to the portrayal of action, including motion and sound. It is these
three factors, time, motion and sound, which allow the reader to perceive the actions being taken by characters in
stories. Explaining the role of these elements in comics, Eisner writes:
The phenomenon of duration and its experience – commonly referred to as ‘time’ – is a
dimension integral to sequential art. In the universe of human consciousness time combines with
space and sound in a setting of interdependence wherein conceptions, actions, motions, and
movement have a meaning and are measured by our perception of their relationship to each other”
A comic becomes ‘real’ when time and timing is factored into the creation. In music or other
forms of auditory communication where rhythm or ‘beat’ is achieved, this is done with actual
lengths of time. In graphics the experience is conveyed by the use of illusions and symbols and
their arrangement (26).
Understanding how the passage of time is portrayed in comics is important, if not essential, to understanding the
portrayal of motion and sound. As Scott McCloud explains it, “Time and space in the world of comics are closely
linked. As a result, so too are the issues of time and motion” (105). Each panel of a comic portrays a single moment
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in time. Between those frozen moments – between the panels – closure allows the reader’s mind to fill in the
intervening moments, thus creating the illusion of time and motion (94). And just as pictures and the intervals
between them create the illusion of time through closure, words introduce time by representing that which can only
exist in time – sound (95).
Sound breaks down into two subsets: word balloons and sound effects, both of which add to the duration of a
panel, partially through the nature of sound itself but also by introducing issues of action and reaction (McCloud
116). McCloud describes the word balloon as “the most widely-used, most complex and most versatile of comics
many icons” (134). He then goes on to describe how over the past several years, comics artists and creators have
struggled with dozens of variations in their desperate attempts to depict sound in a strictly visual medium. Variations
in balloon shape are many and new ones are being invented every day, while inside those balloons, symbols are
constantly being appropriated or even invented to cover the non-verbal (such as ZZZZZ, @#*!@?!, …, etc.), and
even the variations of lettering styles, both in and out of the balloons, speak of an ongoing struggle to capture the
very essence of sound (134).
Motion also breaks down into two subsets. The first type is panel-to-panel closure, while the other type is
motion within frames (McCloud 116). Just as a single panel can represent a span of time through sound, a single
panel can represent a span of time through pictures (McCloud 110). This is achieved most often by use of icons
known as motion lines which attempt to represent the paths of moving objects through space (McCloud 111), but
there are also other methods by which this can be accomplished. One such method is known as the polyptych, where
a moving figure of figures is imposed over a contiguous background (McCloud 115).
In addition to the portrayal of actions, the portrayal of emotions in comics is also important in how characters
are portrayed in comics, is accomplished through the use of both words and pictures. In the case of words, a
character’s dialog, along with the way the words are emphasized and the style of the word balloon which holds the
dialog, can go a long way towards conveying the character’s emotions to the reader.
But emotion, as well as other meaning, can also be portrayed through the use of pictures. This can take many
forms including the use of unique or unusual panel shapes, as well as the style used in the illustrations. When
discussing the ability of pictures to convey emotion, Scott McCloud says “The idea that a picture can evoke an
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emotional or sensual response in the viewer is vital to the art of comics” (121). Even something as mundane as a
simple line can be used to convey emotion. McCloud insists that all lines carry with them an expressive potential.
Through change of direction a line may go from being passive and timeless – to proud and strong – to dynamic and
changing. By its shape, a line can appear to be unwelcoming and severe – or warm and gentle – or rational and
conservative. Lastly, a line’s character may imply it to be savage and deadly – or weak and unstable – or honest and
direct. According to McCloud, even the most bland ‘expressionless’ lines on earth can’t help but characterize their
subject in some way (124 – 125).
This use of simple shapes and lines to convey meaning and emotion extends to the very frames and panels
depicted in a given story. Eisner describes this idea:
The frame’s shape (or absence of one) can become part of the story itself. It can be used to
convey something of the dimension of sound and emotional climate in which the action occurs, as
well as contributing to the atmosphere of the page as a whole. The intent of the frame here is not
so much to provide a stage as to heighten the reader’s involvement with the narrative. … In
addition to adding a secondary intellectual level to the narrative, it tries to deal with other sensory
But the ability of art to convey meaning, even in the simple form of lines, is not restricted only to pictures, but
also extends to other types of icons and symbols. In addition, the means by which meaning is conveyed by different
types of icons often crosses between the visible world of pictures and invisible world of symbols. An example of
this idea can be seen in the human face as it is depicted in comics. Though the cartoon face is an abstraction, it is
based on visual data. Some indicators of emotion, such as the familiar sweat bead, are also visually based. But while
one or a few sweat beads might be considered visually based, if a face were to be encircled by a ring of sweat beads,
its use would have drifted out of its visual context, and what was a picture changes form and becomes a symbol.
Point of View
Beyond action and emotion, another interesting narrative element in comics is point of view. Like action and
emotion, point of view in comics is also a result of the unique vocabulary and grammar of comics, as well as the
mental processes by which comics are read.
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According to James L. Potter in Elements of Literature, “When we identify the point of view of a story, we
identify the narrator” (28). But whereas in most other literary forms such as novels and short stories the author has
only words with which to tell his story, the comics creator has both words and pictures at his disposal, and both play
a role in defining a story’s point of view. As described previously, words and pictures can combine in a virtually
unlimited number of combinations, each of which allows for a slightly different point of view.
When we consider the combinations of words and pictures and their relationship to point of view in comics, it’s
important to note that the ‘words’ to which we refer are most often narration as opposed to dialog or sound effects.
In terms of point of view, the latter two, dialog and sound effects, are best thought of as part of the picture, while the
former use of words, that of narration, are outside of the picture. It is the relationship between narration and pictures
that forms point of view in comics.
When narration is used (and it often isn’t), it most often adopts a style similar to third-person point of view,
though the specific type of third-person, limited or omniscient, varies widely. Sometimes the narration will takes us
into the minds and feelings of the characters, while other times the narration only serves to tell the reader what is
Like narration, pictures also most often adopt a third-person point of view as well, and again the specific type of
third-person point of view varies. When the omniscient point of view is employed, the reader most often sees the
thoughts and feelings of the characters in the form of thought balloons, a specific type of word balloon that is used
to show the character’s thoughts. When narration is present, this is the most common point of view seen. Third-
person limited, or subjective, is very rarely employed by pictures in comics, as artists must often use images and
icons to portray the emotions of characters.
In instances where narration is not used, the point of view most often adopted is that of third-person limited. In
this style, the reader sees events happening as they occur in the story through the pictures and associated dialog (and
occasionally other icons). Very often the ‘scene’ of the story will shift from character to character, but regardless of
the character around whom the events of the story happen, the reader has only the pictures with which to perceive
But because comics employ both words and pictures, and the possible interactions between words and pictures
are so numerous, it is not uncommon that the narration and pictures in a given story will employ different points of
view. For example, while it is fairly common that the narration in a comics story will be in first-person point of
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view, it is quite rare that pictures assume a first-person view. More often in this case the reader sees the world as
immediately surrounding the narrator, that which is within the narrator’s line of sight. Similar to the point of view
used in films that feature a voice-over type of narration, this mismatch of words and pictures results in what might
be called a ‘split’ point of view, and is only possible due to the unique nature of the vocabulary and grammar of the
medium we know as comics.
Critical Approaches To Comics
The previous discussion examined the medium of comics, illustrating its unique nature, and demonstrating that
it is more than merely the mixing of words and pictures, but that in fact the unique manner in which words and
pictures combine in comics results in not just a unique literary genre, but a literary and narrative medium unlike any
other, one that is capable of “exploring themes every bit as serious as those studied by any prose novel” (Pedersen
But if comics are in fact a literary medium, then they should be able to hold up to the same sort of scrutiny and
examination as other literary forms such as novels, short stories, poetry and drama. In this section I shall apply a
number of critical literary approaches to a number of comics in an effort to show that comics are indeed capable of
sustaining the same sorts of literary analysis as other forms of literature. This is not to say that all comics are works
of literature, no more than all novels, short stories or poems should be considered literature. Rather, my goal is to
prove that as a medium, comics are worthy of being considered literature.
What follows are four critical analyses of comic works, each based on an established critical approach to
literature as described in A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature. These include two of the traditional
approaches to literature, specifically the Moral-Philosophical approach and the Historical-Biographical approach, as
well as the Exponential approach and the Mythological-Archetypal approach. Each of the analyses that follow begin
with a short explanation of the specific approach being employed, including any special consideration required in
applying these approaches to a form with which they were not intended to be used, and more specifically, to a
visual-based medium like comics.
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The first two approaches are both among those known as the traditional approaches. When employing these
types of approaches, the first step is to determine what literary genre the work to be discussed falls under. Having
determined the genre, the next step is to determine what the work says on the level of paraphrasable content (Guerin
11). Following the brief explanation of the specific approach being used, each of the two analyses employing
traditional approaches includes a brief discussion of each work’s genre and paraphrasable content. When defining
the genre of the works analyzed using the traditional approaches, rather than considering comics to be a single
genre, I shall define the works in terms of the traditional literary genres of novel and short story.
Green Lantern/Green Arrow: A Historical-Biographical Approach
The historical-biographical approach “sees a literary work chiefly, if not exclusively, as a reflection of its
author’s life and times or the life and times of the characters in the work” (Guerin 5). There are few works in comics
that have so poignantly reflected the life and times of both their author and their characters as the Green
Lantern/Green Arrow series of 1970 – 1971.
Genre and Paraphrasable Content
Each of the issues in the series is most similar to the short story in terms of form and genre, but taken as a
whole, the series is in essence a braided anthology, where each of the stories involves the same characters and
premise, and each is in turn a part of a larger story-arc.
The series involved two primary characters, after whom the series is named, the superheroes Green Lantern and
Green Arrow. The series takes the form of a journey across America (and ultimately across the galaxy) in which the
two main characters seek to learn about the problems plaguing America, including racism, overpopulation,
pollution, and even drug addiction. The three panel scene on page 6 of Green Lantern/Green Arrow #76 (see
Appendix 1) conveys the key message upon which the entire series is based. Though these specific panels have
racism as their primary message, they are also representative of Green Lantern’s ignorance of all the problems the
two will confront during the course of the series. While he’s been out saving the galaxy from alien threats, there are
problems right at home that he is unaware of, and all but powerless to stop.
The story begins when Green Lantern, an intergalactic cop in the employ of an group of omnipotent and aloof
beings know as the Guardians of the Universe, learns the difference between upholding the law, and doing what is
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right. During a confrontation with a slumlord intent on destroying an apartment building regardless of the impact it
will have on the building’s residents, Green Lantern’s patience is exhausted and he turns to violence. He is
immediately chastised by the Guardians who seek to punish Green Lantern for this inexcusable act. It is then that
Green Arrow confronts both Green Lantern and the Guardians and asks them to join him on a search for America
and the causes of the problems it faces. Joined by one of the Guardians, they “set out together, moving through cities
and villages and the majesty of the wilderness… searching for a special kind of truth… searching for themselves”
(O’Neil, GL/GA #1 23).
A Historical-Biographical Approach to Green Lantern/Green Arrow
While in some ways they are superhero stories like so many others, the stories that make up the Green
Lantern/Green Arrow series of 1970 and 1971 were more of a social statement and protest than traditional superhero
comic book fare. The series addressed a number of social issues of the times, including racism (“No Evil Shall
Escape My Sight” GL/GA#1), the state of the Criminal justice system (“Even an Immortal Can Die” GL/GA#3),
overpopulation (“Death By My Destiny” GL/GA#3), pollution and ecological consequences of technology (“…and
through Him Save a World” GL/GA#7), and even drug abuse and addiction in America (“Snowbirds Don’t Fly” and
“They Say It’ll Kill Me… but They Won’t Say When” GL/GA#5 & 6).
Many of the stories dealt with these issues by confronting the main characters, Green Lantern and Green Arrow,
with situations and circumstances involving these issues that were far beyond their control. Even their fantastic
powers and abilities were impotent against the types of problems they were facing, such as the ravages of industrial
pollution or extreme overpopulation. This is especially true in the two-part story dealing with drug-addiction.
Acknowledging the significant message of this story, writer Denny O’Neil introduces the story in this way
Some say the following story should not be told… there will be those who argue that such
events have no place in an entertainment magazine – perhaps they are right! But we don’t think so
– because we’ve seen these noble creatures, human beings, wrecked…made less than
animals…plunged into hells of agonies! We’ve seen it – and we’re angry…and this is our protest!
(GL/GA#5 Chap. 2 1)
In this story, the problem is much closer to home, as Green Arrow’s ward and sidekick Speedy is revealed to be
addicted to drugs. O’Neil describes it in this way “For a moment he refused to believe it! Seeing his ward about to
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plunge a needle into his arm, Green Arrow stood stunned, striving to comprehend! And now, he erupts into hot
Fury!” (O’Neil GL/GA#6 1) And even after he kicks Speedy out of his home, he refuses to acknowledge any
possible guilt or blame for Speedy turning to drugs, a gesture symbolic of the attitude adopted by so many adults
who learned that their sons and daughters had become addicted to drugs.
Though other comics had tried to make social statements, none lasted as long as Green Lantern/Green Arrow. It
lasted thirteen issues as compared to other attempts of social relevance that lasted no longer than six issues. In DC
Comics: Sixty Years of the World’s Favorite Comic Book Heroes, Les Daniels writes that “in longevity as well as
impact, Green Lantern/Green Arrow was the most significant comic book of its type. It dealt with issues from
feminism to pollution, and even took the sometimes sanctimonious Green Arrow down a peg when it was revealed
that his young side kick Speedy had become a drug addict” (155).
Commenting on the social relevance of the series, O’Neil states that “Although Green Lantern/Green Arrow
was published in 1970 and 1971, the stories belong to the previous decade” (Introduction) For O’Neil, the series was
“an opportunity to stop lurking on the edges of the social movements I admired and participate by dramatizing their
concerns” (Introduction). But his goal in writing the series wasn’t to solve the issues of the day. Rather,
We would dramatize issues. We would not resolve them… Still, I cherished the notion that
the stories might be socially useful: I could hope they might awaken youngsters, eight- or nine-
year olds, to the worlds’ dilemmas and these children, given such an early start, might be able to
find solutions in their maturity (Introduction).
O’Neil also recalls that “It was a little late to be a real hippie, born a bit too early, but we were in a rebellious
generation and there was real political concern” (Daniels 154). “It was superheroes questioning themselves in
fictional stories for the first time, says O’Neil. It was a bad thing to do. Of course, there was a difficulty inherent in
the approach, because confronting a superhero with racism meant he would be obligated to admit defeat” (Daniels
DC Comics editor Roger Slifer remembers first encountering the series in this way: “Just when I had grown a
bit tired at the “traditional” superheroes, just when I was looking for a link with the ‘real’ world, an understandable
interpretation of the chaotic events of (1960s) sixties appeared on the newsstands in the form of Green
Lantern/Green Arrow” (Editorial). The series questioned the world around it, and everything was open to new
examination, including the culture, the values, all of the pre-existing assumptions. This questioning of the status quo
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included issues such as whether or not those in authority could be corrupted (remember, this is pre-Watergate), and
examination of the population explosion as well as the problems of drug addiction in America, of parent-child
relationships, and even ecological damage (Editorial).
Beyond the fact that these stories featured stirring writing and stunning art and were prime examples of comics
at their best, they were also a reflection of the times in which they were published.
Watchmen: A Moral-Philosophical Approach
The moral-philosophical approach is based on the idea that “the larger function of literature is to teach
morality” (Guerin 8-9). When employing this type of approach, the moral or philosophical teaching is the important
thing to keep in mind. The key to this approach is “ascertaining and stating what is taught. If the work is in any
degree significant or intelligible, the meaning will be there” (Guerin 9). This is most certainly the case in Alan
Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen. In describing Watchmen, Les Daniels writes that “In its moral of structural
complexity, Watchmen is the equivalent of a novel, and it remains a major event in the evolution of comic books”
Genre and Paraphrasable Content
In terms of genre, Watchmen is the equivalent of a novel; in this case it is a graphic novel comprised of twelve
chapters. Though originally published as a monthly comic book, upon reading it becomes clear that from its first
panel through to its last, Watchmen was conceived, written and illustrated as a single story.
Watchmen takes place in a world that until 1959 closely resembled our own, with the exception of a small
group of costumed adventurers who fought crime during the 1940s and 1950s. In 1959, an experiment at a
government research facility transformed a young scientist into that world’s first true super-human. With powers
and abilities of immeasurable strength, Dr. Manhattan, as he was christened, became the lynchpin of American
foreign policy, allowing the United States to achieve victory in the war in Vietnam, and firmly grasp the mantle of
being the most powerful nation on earth. But while the presence of Dr. Manhattan ensured no foreign power dare
directly confront the US, the Cold War raged on with a fury, stopping the nuclear clock that represents how far the
world is from the brink of nuclear war at a mere five seconds to midnight.
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At the same time, the first generation of costumed heroes retired, only to be replaced a new generation of
costumed adventurers in the 1960s and 1970s, among them Dr. Manhattan, until social pressures and a nation-wide
police strike forced the government to outlaw vigilantism, forcing this new generation of heroes into retirement. It is
at this point that the story told in Watchmen takes place.
The story takes place in 1985, and follows the efforts of a masked vigilante named Rorschach, who is still
active having defied the government ban, in discovering who is behind the murder of a fellow vigilante named The
Comedian. Thinking that The Comedian’s murder is part of a plot to kill masked vigilantes, Rorschach begins to
contact his former associates to warn them. But even as these past associates insist that Rorschach’s theory are little
more than paranoia, other former heroes, as well as their associates, are attacked or assaulted in some way, a direct
result of which is the self-imposed exile of Dr. Manhattan from the earth. As the world looms closer and closer to
the brink of nuclear war in the wake of Dr. Manhattan’s disappearance, Rorschach becomes the next ‘mask’ to fall
after being set-up and captured by the police. It is only when Nite Owl, another retired adventurer and a former ally
of Rorschach's frees Rorschach from prison that they learn the truth. While trying to seek help from another former
hero named Ozymandias, Rorschach and Nite Owl discover that all that has transpired has been planned and
executed by Ozymandias as part of a terrible plan to save the world from itself. The climax of the story arrives with
a mysterious cataclysm that decimates New York, but so shocks the world that it prevents an imminent nuclear war.
Upon seeing the results of the cataclysm, the surviving heroes, except Rorschach, agree to remain silent in hopes of
ensuring that the strategic sacrifice of so many millions will have its intended effect (Daniels 197). But when
Rorschach refuses to remain silent, he is killed to prevent him from telling the world the truth.
A Moral-Philosophical Approach To Watchmen
There are several lessons and morals taught in the pages of Watchmen, but among the most prominent are those
concerning the consequences of vigilantism and of the employment of power.
The first of these, the consequences of vigilantism, is fundamental to the entire series. As described by Les
Daniels, Watchmen is “a comic book that called into question the basic assumptions on which the superhero genre is
formulated” (196). The heroes of Watchmen are not the same as those of traditional comic books. They are far more
human and, therefore, far more flawed. They have extreme personalities, extreme political views, and see it as their
right to take the law into their own hands. Unlike the heroes of traditional comics, the presence of these heroes in
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their world has had grave consequences, consequences that lead the world to the brink of disaster. Nowhere is this
more true that in the case of Dr. Manhattan. “The initial premise of Watchmen was a world in which superheroes
had consequences,” writer Alan Moore explains. “Dr. Manhattan shows up and the whole world changes” (Daniels
196). Though this lesson is especially poignant when taken in context of superhero comic books, it also speaks to the
dangers of hero worship of any kind, even the sort we practice with sports figures and media personalities.
The other lesson of Watchmen, that of the consequences of the employment of power, are seen primarily in the
extremes to which Ozymandias goes to save the world from itself. The costs of his plan, which in reality amounts to
little more than an elaborate hoax, are enormous. And while it is clear that Ozymandias sees the costs as justified, in
the end who is he to judge? What is an acceptable cost in terms of human lives of preventing a possible nuclear war?
Who is anyone to choose the fate of mankind, even if his aim is the salvation of the world? These questions are all
raised in Watchmen. They are the heart of the lessons it shares with its readers. As Les Daniels notes, “The ethical
dilemmas posed by Watchmen’s climax remain intact, as do its questions about the merit of employing of might”
The Exponential Approach
The Exponential approach concerns itself with “recognizing patterns of images and symbols that lead us to a
constantly deepening appreciation of the literature” (Guerin 152). This is based on the idea that the reader will be
concerned in identifying the themes of a given work and the methods by which those themes can be followed. These
themes, however, are most often portrayed through use of symbols and images, and so in order to fully appreciate
the work, the reader must learn to recognize the symbols and images which embody the themes they wish to follow.
Perhaps even more important is the ability of the reader to recognize not only isolated instances of these symbols
and images, but also how these instances are woven into patterns (Guerin 151). These patterns are sometimes called
motifs, and what is referred to here as the exponential approach is really the tracing of these motifs, and might also
be called the ‘symbolic’ approach (Guerin 152).
Symbols and Images in Comics
In the traditional application of the exponential approach, the symbols and images sought are literary in nature.
That is, they are identified in the work as words or phrases, or, in some cases, names of specific individuals
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associated with the given symbol. In the medium of comics, symbols and images can be found in both words as well
as pictures. Given the highly visual nature of comics, it is far more often the case that such symbols and images are
found among the pictures and illustrations of a given comic than in its words. Such is the case with the following
analysis of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen.
Exponents and Motifs in Watchmen
There are extensive examples of motifs and exponents in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, ranging
from the minor and subtle to the pervasive and significant. There are two primary types of motifs used in Watchmen,
those that appear within a single chapter, and those that run through the entire novel.
The first type of motifs, those seen primarily to a single chapter or episode, we might refer to as ‘episodic
motifs.’ Nearly every chapter of Watchmen features an episodic motif, though some are more significant and
pervasive than others. In some instances these motifs remain confined to the chapter in which they are prominent,
while others are occasionally seen elsewhere in the story. Let’s examine one of each type.
An example of an episodic motif that remains confined to one chapter is seen in “Chapter IV: Watchmaker.”
This chapter deals with the life of Dr. Manhattan, one of the central and key figures in the story. Through flashback
and exposition, told from Dr. Manhattan’s unique perception of ‘simultaneous time,’ the reader learns how this
being came to be, and of the significant events of his life. One such event, a trip to Coney Island with a woman
named Janey Slater, serves as a motif that runs throughout the chapter that takes the form of an old worn photograph
of Jon Osterman, Dr. Manhattan’s original name, and Janey Slater taken during their trip to Coney Island. This motif
is first seen on the cover page of Chapter IV, but is seen extensively throughout the entire chapter. The significance
of this image is that it represents the event that precipitated Osterman’s unwitting transformation into Dr.
Manhattan. During this trip to Coney Island, Janey Slater’s watch breaks. Osterman keeps the watch in his jacket
pocket, which he accidentally leaves in an experiment chamber. While retrieving the watch, Osterman becomes
trapped in the chamber, and is subjected to the experiment that ultimately transforms him into Dr. Manhattan.
During the course of the chapter, as the key events of Dr. Manhattan’s life are presented to the reader, this motif, the
photograph, is seen frequently and consistently, symbolizing the importance and significance of this single moment
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The other type of episodic motif employed in Watchmen is one that appears primarily in a single chapter, but
that is also seen elsewhere in the entire series. An example of this type of episodic motif is seen in “Chapter IX: The
Darkness of Mere Being.” Like “Watchmaker” portrayed the life of Dr. Manhattan, “The Darkness of Mere Being”
deals with the life of Laurie Juspeczyk, also known as the Silk Spectre, again through exposition and flashback. The
motif in this case is an image of a bottle of Nostalgia perfume, falling through space, spilling its contents as it falls.
The significance of this image within the context of the chapter is that it represents how when Laurie looks back at
the past events of her life, the benefit of hindsight allows her to uncover secrets that she might have preferred remain
secrets. Specifically, she learns that her father was really Eddie Blake, a masked adventurer who went by the code
name The Comedian. What makes this revelation so significant is that Blake once raped Laurie’s mother, an act for
which Laurie was never able to forgive him. Like the photograph in “Watchmaker”, this motif is seen several times
through this chapter, symbolic of the truths of her past that come spilling out as Laurie examines her life.
Beyond its significance within this chapter, however, the Nostalgia motif is also seen elsewhere in the series,
though in a slightly different representation. The Nostalgia logo and name are seen in many different places and at
many different times throughout the series, in such places as product advertisements and billboards (Moore Chap III
7) and television commercials (Moore Chap VII 14). In some instances, the motif is seen not only in the form of an
image, but also in word balloons (Moore Chap VII 14), and even in the supplemental text that appears at the end of
each chapter (Moore Chap VI 29). When seen throughout the series, this motif represents the desire for a return to
the past, when the world wasn’t in the precarious position it is during the series.
The other type of motifs or exponents found in Watchmen are those which run throughout the entire series. The
most prominent of these, which not coincidentally is also the first and last images seen in the series, is that of a
smiley-face button with a small blood stain over its right eye. This image, either the image itself or a variation of it,
is seen in nearly every chapter. Beyond its appearance in the first and last panels of the story, this image is also seen
extensively throughout Chapters I and II (where it is also used as an episodic motif), as well as in other places, such
as in a pair of goggles on the title page of Chapter VII “A Brother to Dragons” (Moore Chap VII 1), on the surface
of Mars in Chapter IX (Moore Chap IX 27), and in a radar screen on the title page of Chapter X “Two Riders Were
Approaching…” (Moore Chap X 1).
The image has two meanings within the context of the story. The first is that it represents a clock face (which is
also one of the representations of this motif seen in the series), in specific the nuclear clock that represents how far
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the world is from the brink of nuclear war. This is a constant theme in the story, and is one that pivotal in
understanding the state of the world as presented in the story. This motif also represents the death of The Comedian,
in particular, the search for the answer to the question ‘Who killed The Comedian?’ This question is paramount in
importance throughout the series, as it is the death of The Comedian that serves as the impetus for the entire story.
The Use Of Myth And Archetypes In Batman: The Dark Knight Returns
The mythological-archetypal approach concerns itself with identifying “those mysterious artifacts built into
certain literary ‘forms’ which elicit, with almost uncanny force, dramatic and universal human reactions” (Guerin
116). The goal of this approach is to discover how it is that certain literary works create a kind of reality that illicits
a perennial response from its readers, even while other seemingly equally well constructed works leave the reader
cold (Guerin 116). The point of this type of approach is to identify elements of myth, as well as mythological
archetypes, within a given work, in this case, Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.
One of the most prominent mythological symbols found in Dark Knight is that of darkness, specifically the
color black, which symbolizes chaos and mystery, which it nearly always does in myth (Guerin 119). Mystery
surrounds the character of Batman in this story, who is all but constantly cloaked in blackness and darkness. As
often as not, Batman is seen only in shadows, a figure in black, a creature of the night. This Batman is not a hero to
be idolized or publicized, but instead one to be feared. Writing about the treatment of Batman in Dark Knight, Les
Daniels writes that (Frank) Miller felt that superheroes had become too humanized in recent years, and saw Batman
as a “god of vengeance”, and wanted to restore some of the mythic power he felt had been lost in the character
The character of Batman also represents the classic Hero archetype within this story. Specifically, he is a hero
on a quest to save his world, in this case Gotham City, and himself. During this journey, the Batman, like mythic
heroes before him, faces a number of ‘monsters’ that he must defeat in order to save his world, and to ensure his
own salvation. These ‘monsters’ include the villain Two-Face in “Book One: The Dark Knight Returns” (Miller
Book One 47), the Mutant Gang and its leader in “Book Two: The Dark Knight Triumphant” (Miller Book Two 46),
the Joker in “Book Three: Hunt The Dark Knight” (Miller Book Three 47) and finally Superman in “Book Four: The
Dark Knight Falls” (Miller Book Four 44).
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Beyond these monsters, the Batman must also battle the creature within him, that which drives him to return to
crimefighting after a ten-year retirement. Only by allowing Batman to ‘die’ can he confront and defeat the monster
within him and ultimately save himself and his world. In this the Batman also takes on the hero archetype of the
Sacrificial Scapegoat, who “must die in order to atone for the people’s sins and restore the land to fruitfulness”
There are still other elements of myth to be found within Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. In his introduction
to the collected edition of Dark Knight, Alan Moore notes that “The importance of myth and legend as a subtext to
Dark Knight can’t really be overstated, shining as it does from every page” (Introduction). Citing specific examples,
Moore points to
The familiar Batman origin sequence with the tiny bat fluttering in through an open window
to inspire a musing Bruce Wayne becomes something far more religious and apocalyptic under
Miller’s handling; the bat itself transformed into a gigantic and ominous chimera straight out of
the darkest European tables. The later scenes of the Batman on horseback, evoking everything
from the chivalry of the Round Table to the arrival in town of Clint Eastwood, serve to further
demonstrate this mythic quality, as does Miller’s startling portrayal of Batman’s old acquaintance
Superman: The Superman we see here is an earthbound god whose presence is announced only by
the wind of his passing, or the destruction left in his wake (Introduction).
In these ways and more, the use of mythological and archetypal images and themes within the pages of Frank
Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns serves to define the character of Batman as a mythic hero of the modern
I began this paper with the purpose of exploring the comic book medium as a legitimate narrative and literary
form, one that is a unique result of the combination of its two primary elements, words and pictures, and to
demonstrate that this medium is capable of withstanding the same sorts of literary analysis and criticism as other
forms of literature.
Through a careful examination into the language of comics and the manner in which that language
communicates to the reader, I have endeavored to demonstrate that the medium of comics is far more than merely
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the mixing of words and pictures, but that, in fact, the unique manner in which words and pictures combine in
comics results in not just a unique literary genre, but a literary and narrative medium unlike any other. Further, by
placing a number of comic works under the scrutiny of literary criticism, I’ve tried to demonstrate that the medium
we call comics is capable of exploring themes and ideas just as serious as, and in a manner that is just as legitimate
as other forms of literature.
But will comics ever truly escape from the long-ago worn out label of being picture books for children? What
does the future of comics hold for its audience? Will Eisner suggests that the future of the medium lies in the hands
of those who believe that “the application of sequential art, with its interweaving of words and pictures, could
provide a dimension of communication that contributes – hopefully on a level never before attained – to the body of
literature that concerns itself with the examination of human experience” (142).
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