Reading Between the Panels: Comics and Critical Theory

November 9, 2015 | Tom Sewel.

How do we read comics? How are the ways in which we read comics changing? For most of their history, the ways in which we have read and talked about comics has been left to comics fandoms to decide. While this has produced a passionate proliferation of reading approaches, it has meant that critical rigour has only very rarely been brought to bear on this uniquely multi-modal narrative form. With the academy’s relatively recent acceptance of comics as literature, this public conversation is now seeing a seismic shift.

Image by Sam Howzit:

As a second-year PhD student studying comics and literary theory in the English Department of the University of Calgary, I am lucky to be part of a faculty that has a strong cadre of comics scholars. My research looks at the intersection of comics with the critical theory of giants such as Michel Foucault and the joint writing of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. Where Foucault discusses how power relations are embodied in the institutions of the everyday world, I demonstrate how these power relations are exemplified and subverted in comics stories. [1] Deleuze and Guattari’s theory of the rhizome offers a fresh perspective on the often non-linear way that the elements of the comics page work together to generate meaning. [2]

Meanwhile, comics creators often take the ideas of critical theory arising from academic discourse and incorporate them into the structure and substance of their stories. My reading of writers like Warren Ellis and Ales Kot traces how they test the possibilities of the comics form in radically innovative ways and how they revitalize the genre’s politically destabilizing roots.

Of course, such readings become important only as part of a broader conversation about how we engage with comics. Moreover, the study of comics is capturing the attention of a new generation of students who feel alienated by traditional literatures. As the popular quotation says: “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire” and comics consistently show that they are capable of kindling the flame of critical inquiry. [3]

Many academics are working to improve public critical engagement with comics using reading approaches that are far from uniform. At the Calgary Expo in April 2015, I presented on the thematic parallels between Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen and Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s Pax Americana. My PhD supervisor, Dr. Bart Beaty, has published a string of books looking at comics as literary texts and has risen to international importance as a voice for comics scholarship. Our Calgary colleague Nick Sousanis has just published “Unflattening”, his PhD dissertation written entirely in comics form. My fellow PhD student Tom Miller runs the Giant Box of Comics blog where he is currently 250-something days into a commitment to review one comic per day, looking at the last 40 years of comics history. With such driven and talented people pushing the discipline in different directions, this is an exciting moment for the study of comics.

About Tom

Tom is a Scot currently studying for a PhD in English Literature at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, looking at comics and critical theory. He is co-chair of this year’s Free Exchange Graduate Conference. He is interested in not being eaten by bears.

Edited by Louise Adams, Vicki Madden, and Tess Goodman.


[1] See Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison for more on power relations.

[2] The rhizome is introduced in Deleuze and Guattari’s 1987 A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia and this text remains the best introduction to the concept for those interested.

[3] This quotation’s exact source seems to be unknown, although it is often misattributed to William Butler Yeats and is likely inspired by Plutarch.

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