The Humble Doodle: Graphic Novels and the Question of Urgency*

Frank Möller

“Reproducibility – distraction – politicization” (Benjamin, 2008: 57)


Abstract: Inspired by Art Spiegelman's graphic investigation and contextualization of 9/11 and Joe Sacco's drawn journalistic accounts of the human catastrophe inPalestine, the Bosnian War and the US military action in Iraq, this essay explores the reader's subject trajectories when reading comics. The theoretical point ofdeparture is Walter Benjamin's idea of the distracted expert, decoupled here from film and connected with comics. This notion is linked to the reading of comics because with respect to comics, every reader is an expert reader, albeit usually a distracted one. The essay then loosely connects comics with the theory of security because both security and comics require audience participation, the one torender decision-making feasible, the other to make story-lines possible. Furthermore, both security and comics are intimately related with the concept of urgency. In order to understand comics and graphic novels it is suggested that analytical attention be devoted to the reader.



1 The humble doodle

This essay is inspired by reading Art Spiegelman’s graphic investigation and contextualization of 9/11 (Spiegelman, 2004) and Joe Sacco’s graphic journalistic accounts of the human catastrophe in Palestine (Sacco, 2003), the Bosnian War (Sacco, 2000, 2004, 2005) and the US military action in Iraq (Sacco, 2006). Thus, I do not present a reading of Spiegelman’s and Sacco’s graphic novels but, rather, discuss on a rather generic level selected questions emanating from their work. In particular, I explore the reader’s subject trajectories when reading comics and this issue, I would claim, is relevant for the whole genre of sequential art. My theoretical point of departure is Walter Benjamin’s idea of the distracted expert, decoupled here from film and connected with comics. This notion is linked to the reading of comics because with respect to comics, every reader is an expert reader, albeit usually a distracted one. I then loosely connect comics with the theory of security because both security and comics require audience participation, the one to render decision-making feasible, the other to make story-lines possible. Furthermore, both security and comics are intimately related with the concept of urgency. In order to grasp analytically the “humble doodle” I suggest that attention be devoted to a fairly unknown and often ignored subject commonly known as the reader.[1]


Visual representations are frequently intended to trigger political action in response to the conditions depicted but they may fail to do so. With the benefit of hindsight it is occasionally suggested that visual representations did indeed trigger political activity but such assessments are often what David Perlmutter calls “first-person assumptions of effects” (1999: 205) based on scant evidence. Several reasons for the failure to mobilize political action by means of visual representation can be identified, for example, processes of habituation and desensitization in the course of which that what shocked the readers when seen for the first time increasingly fails to impress them when seen again (and again and again) (Zelizer, 1998).


Responding to academic theory’s alleged lack of immediacy, Henry Jenkins has called our attention to comics. According to Jenkins, comics “simplify [...] the abstract categories of political debate and cultural work” but they also “give them an urgency that academic theory lacks.” Urgency derived from “vivid and emotionally compelling images” (Jenkins, 2006: 95) can, perhaps, help mobilize political action. Graphic artists have a variety of means at their disposal with which to communicate a sense of urgency to their readers including depth cues, frame size and shape, graphic contrast, exaggerated poses and expressions, specific drawing techniques, breaking the panel frames, and diagonals (McCloud, 2006: 45-46). In Scott McCloud’s understanding, a sense of urgency is linked to contrast, dynamism, and graphic excitement and, thus, to drawing techniques. In the present essay, urgency is connected to a feeling or awareness on the part of the readers that “something” has to be done about what is being depicted in comics and this “something” has to be done soon. Urgency refers to a sense of pressing importance and, as will be argued below, also to a sense of being or becoming involved in the construction of the story-line. This “becoming involved” makes it difficult for the reader to assume the position of a passive, neutral, disinterested, and observant reader/viewer (if such a position is at all possible); to some extent, the reader becomes the story-teller. As such, he or she is responsible for the story thus told.


If comics convey a sense of urgency, then they – like other forms of visual culture[2] – can be linked to the theory of security in the sense that the articulation of security is also often said to imply an appeal to urgency. As will be argued below, comics can be linked to security also in the sense that both involve the audience, the one with respect to story-telling, the other with regard to decision-making. Furthermore, comics can be linked to security theory in the sense that both the superhero stories and Realist approaches to security focus on power as their central theme.[3] Both are to some extent power fantasies written mainly by and appealing primarily to men: the muscular anatomy of the classical superheroes – by far the most popular comic characters – symbolically parallels Realism’s fascination with ever increasing weapons arsenals, including nuclear weapons; the invincibility of the superheroes serves as the implicit model after which military security policy is often being tailored. Likewise, both terrorism and the “war against terrorism” are to some extent power fantasies. Finally, the celebration, in new comics, of “everyday heroes” such as “firefighters, cops, and emergency workers” (Jenkins, 2006: 72) parallels the celebration of these occupations in both photographic projects (Meyerowitz, 2006) and policy manifestations revolving around the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center.




2 No funny stories


“The one thing that comics ain’t the way I do them is fun.” (Spiegelman, in Hignite, 2006: 60)


Based on an understanding of comics as “sequential art” (Eisner, 2006) or “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence” (McCloud, 1993: 9) there is neither an obvious nor a necessary connection between comics and funny stories. Indeed, the one thing the work of such graphic artists as Art Spiegelman (2003; 2004) is not is funny. Presumably, the equation of comics with funny stories is one of the reasons for the lack of scholarly interest in comics. Comics, it is often said in a rather elitist fashion, serve entertainment and amusement and appeal to the masses; therefore, they are not serious art; therefore, they are not worthy of scholarly attention. Such an assessment is indicative of scholarly ignorance of the ways comics help their readers make sense of the world. While appearing to reduce complexity, comics, like visual culture in general (see MacDougall, 1998), in fact often represent complexity in a comprehensible manner; they co-represent a plurality of narratives rather than reducing this plurality to one master narrative. Neglecting comics because of their alleged triviality would also show both an inappropriate understanding of comics and insufficient knowledge of the development of visual culture and its sources. Within the culture from which they emerge,


the marginal status of comics is paradoxical: because they are fringe media, they have more space for experimentation than most mainstream products; but because they are a feeder system for the rest of the entertainment world, those experiments are closely monitored and may have enormous influence (Jenkins, 2006: 73).


To put it bluntly, then, understanding visual culture and anticipating its future developments requires understanding comics. In addition, the marginal status of comics enables graphic artists to represent what cannot be represented in other, more established forms of visual culture thus contributing to the plurality and diversification of views on a variety of issues including issues related to peace, war, and terrorism. Comics, as McCloud enthusiastically puts it, “like other minority forms, are vital to diversifying our perceptions of our world” (2000: 19).


Adding plurality and diversification to the established reservoir of what is normally considered as knowledge is important in both the discipline of International Relations where difference is still often said to be a problem rather than an asset (see Inayatullah and Blaney, 2004) and in the practice of international relations where policies of regime change and military intervention are often aiming to eliminate difference, currently primarily with reference to the liberal-democratic peace proposition. The importance of plurality is also being stressed in cultural studies where one of the challenges is said to be living with, rather than by reducing difference (Couldry, 2000) and in literary theory where the need to live pragmatically with difference was recognized already some time ago (Huyssen, 1995). Thus, if comics can help diversify our perceptions of the world, then the social sciences in general and International Relations in particular would seem to be well advised to take them more seriously than can hitherto be observed regardless of the cultural and discursive turn since the mid-1990s that (with notable exceptions[4]) resulted in equating culture with norms and values and discourse with spoken and written texts. Before focusing on the characteristics of comics, some brief – and necessarily insufficient – remarks on Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Tower may help illustrate the potentialities of comics as to diversifying our perceptions of the world including our perceptions of terrorism.




In the Shadow of No Towers


In this complex and deeply unnerving graphic novel, written between September 11, 2001and August 31, 2003, Spiegelman does not primarily thematize the attacks of September 11 but rather his personal reaction and the political response to the attacks. His personal response cannot be separated from his parents’ history as Holocaust survivors and his socialization as the son of Holocaust survivors – his parents had taught him, among other things, “to always keep my bags packed” (Spiegelman, 2004, preface, “THE SKY IS FALLING!”). Spiegelman translated the meeting of world history and personal history into comics in his highly acclaimed Maus (Spiegelman, 2003) and revisits it here in several panels establishing parallels between the Holocaust and the aftermath of 9/11:


I remember my father trying to describe what the smoke of Auschwitz smelled like.


... The closest he got was telling me it was ... ‘indescribable.’


[- - -]


... That’s exactly what the air in Lower Manhattan smelled like after Sept. 11! (4-panel sequence from panel 3)



From The Shadow of No Towers


Spiegelman testifies to his own brainlessness and the standstill of time immediately after the attacks (“a totally reasonable response to current events” [panel 2]), his paranoid and narcissistic search for a suitable self-representation (with or without beard), his ultimate identification, as a “rootless cosmopolitan,” with the city of New York (“I FINALLYUNDERSTAND WHY SOME JEWS DIDN’T LEAVE BERLIN RIGHT AFTER KRISTALLNACHT!” [panel 4]), and his continuing fall, in the winter of 2002, “through the holes in his head, though he no longer knows which holes were made by Arab terrorists way back in 2001, and which ones were always there” (panel 6), referring to himself as “he” rather than “I.”


According to Spiegelman, “RAMPAGING REPUBLICAN ELEPHANTS” and “DIMWITTED DEMOCRATIC DONKEYS” (panel 5) used the attacks for their own agenda (preface) before returning to business as usual in light of the upcoming 2004 Republican Presidential Convention. He depicts himself as being “EQUALLY TERRORIZED BY AL-QAEDA AND BY HIS OWN GOVERNMENT...” (panel 2), criticizes “the Bush cabal” for hijacking the highjackings of September 11 and “reduc[ing] it all to a war recruitment poster” (preface) and shows the Vice President as a bloodthirsty individual cutting, with a Stanley knife such as those used by the highjackers of September 11, the throat of an eagle pondering “WHY DO THEY HATE US? WHY???”(panel 4). Furthermore, he articulates his surprise at the extent to which the 9/11 attacks affected different parts of the country differently: not only was New York clearly separated from the rest of the country but lower Manhattan was also separated from the rest of New York; personal, unmediated experience – Spiegelman shows his concern for his son Dash and his daughter Nadja immediately after the planes hit the Twin Towers – differed from televisually mediated experience.


People exposed to the September 11 attacks were – and still are – in search of strategies with which to cope with the assaults and the resulting trauma. Reading poetry seems to have been one way; direct communication with one another, revolving around photographic documentation of the attacks and the aftermath but unmediated by political voices, seems to have been another way, a liberating moment reaffirming the community (Möller, 2007: 193). Spiegelman, in the book’s second part, opts for a different path: he looks for refuge and solace in the comic characters and funny stories from the late 19th and early 20th century. By so doing, he positions himself in a different ideational context and iconographic tradition than the Bush administration with its emphasis on “out West.” While some critics have argued that Spiegelman’s own drawings pale beside the genre’s classics, such criticism is primarily a convenient way not to engage with the substance of Spiegelman’s work which indeed can neither be summarized in a couple of sentences nor adequately translated into words at all; otherwise, Spiegelman would have written a book rather than a comic. Writing in The Guardian, Aili McConnon (2004) has rightly observed that the book “is not an organic narrative [...] and that is to the point”: it represents what David Campbell has called the “aporia at the heart of September 11 which makes simplistic narrativization unequal to the task of understanding” (Campbell, 2002: paragraph 5). It represents the non-reducibility of the event to one single narrative, its ambiguities and pain but also its political exploitation as well as its commercialization and commodification by, in rapper El-P’s words, “people coming in” as opposed to the “people who actually experienced [9/11]” (quoted in Thrill, 2004).




4 An artful dance between words and images


Comics usually include written texts but they cannot be reduced to them. Comics also contain drawings but they cannot be reduced to drawings, either. Text and drawings co-constitute comics. The “intellectual stereoscopic effect” of words supporting images and images supporting words, described by Peter Gilgen (2003: 56) in connection with film, can also be identified with regard to comics. However, there may also be tension between words and images and descriptions of the word-image relationship in comics as an “emulsion” (Brunetti, 2006: 7) may overlook the tension between words and images. Comics are constituted by a hybrid and unique form of image-word relationship (words and thoughts in balloons within images), “an artful and sophisticated dance between words and pictures” (McCloud 2006: 128; capitalization omitted) that is alleged to distinguish comics from other forms of visual culture. It thus does not make much sense to reduce comics to either words or images or to argue for the superiority as to story-telling of one over the other: images and words work together in the orchestration of graphic stories.


It is precisely the distinction between words and images that collapses when we are dealing with comics: while comics involve “a kind of writing and a kind of drawing, it is neither and yet both simultaneously” (Brunetti 2006: 7), “neither purely verbal nor just pictorial, but both one and the other at once, bridg[ing] the word/image gap” (Carrier, 2000: 28). It is ultimately something new and different. Like any new tool it engenders, in graphic artist Gary Panter’s words, “a new type of thinking” (in Hignite, 2006: 100). Comics can be understood as zones of indistinction: even seemingly straightforward and one dimensional graphic stories, appearing to operate firmly within established modes of representing, for example, self and other, can always be read in a variety of ways, including ways that both effectively undermine the artist’s intentions and subvert the very modes that the story seems to uphold. Comics, thus, are zones of ambivalence, blurring and obscuring conceptual categories and thus challenging both the preference traditionally given in Western thought to clear distinctions, for example between “East” and “West,” “us” and “them,” “good” and “evil” (Agathangelou and Ling, 2004) and the separations conventionally applied in art history between “image” and “word” (Foucault, 1983: 32) and between “artist” and “reader/viewer.”



5 A sense of urgency


Many images have failed to convey a sense of urgency and to trigger political actions in response to the conditions depicted (see Perlmutter, 1999). Photographs, for example, are said to depend on an already existing political consciousness in order to reveal details to the politically trained view (Benjamin, 1963a: 58). While the potentialities of photography to motivate political action are neither as great as they are often said to be nor as limited as they are frequently accused of being, comics are said to be specifically suitable vehicles with which to convey a sense of urgency (Jenkins, 2006) and motivate political action.


As such, comics can be linked to the theory of security in the sense that both comics and security articulations appeal to urgency. Indeed, one of the main purposes of the use of the word security in a political context is to convey a sense of immediacy, i.e. that something has to be done now because tomorrow it can or will be too late. However, the word “security” does not only serve as an attention-gaining signifier. In their language orientated approach to the study of security, Barry Buzan, Ole Wæver, and Jaap de Wilde define as securitization a situation in which “by means of an argument about the priority and urgency of an existential threat the securitizing actor has managed to break free of procedures or rules he or she would otherwise be bound by” (1998: 25). Focusing on the articulation of security suggests studying the dynamics that is released by uttering the word security in a political context. It is the word security that matters, not the object that is being referred to as a threat (or that is being constructed, by so doing, as a threat in the first place). In this approach, the question of whether or not someone or something referred to as a threat to security “really” is such a threat does not matter.


The approach suggested by Wæver and associates is ambitious because, first, security is equated with existential threats. Secondly, using the word security is said to imply “claim[ing] a right to handle the issue through extraordinary means, to break the normal political rules of the game” and to do so now (Buzan, Wæver, and de Wilde, 1998: 24). (Thus, the securitization approach ignores the possibility that the articulation of security may help mobilize those “ordinary” means that are possible within the “normal political rules of the game” but that would not have been mobilized had the word security not been used.) Thirdly and most importantly in the present context, in order to qualify as securitization the audience has to indicate some degree of acceptance of the representation of a person, an object, a condition, or a development as an existential threat to the group that indeed requires extraordinary means to deal with it. Security thus becomes an inter-subjective discursive process involving, and co-constructed by, speakers and audiences.


Without reducing terrorism to a speech act, Anat Biletzki has argued that the same logic can be found underlying the language and the articulation of terrorism. The use of the word “terrorism” is a more extreme variant of the use of the word “security.” According to Biletzki, the word “terrorism” appeals to “the un-ordinariness of its object of description” and represents terrorism as “exceptional, unacceptable, and (supposedly) inexplicable human warring activity” thus differentiating regular from exceptional violence and legitimizing, with respect to the latter, as well as excusing “decisions and behaviors which would otherwise be censured (or, at best, censored)” (Biletzki, 2005: 17-18).[5]


Although speech acts claim validity, they are negotiated between speakers and audiences: arguments are presented by securitizing actors/speakers and accepted or rejected by the audience that by so doing either confirms the threat scenario and the proposed counter-measures or not.[6] Processes and practices of securitization can be interrupted and resisted at any point[7] although both the different power positions from which people speak and the dynamics triggered by the articulation of security put some limits to the audience’s involvement. Still, in Wæver’s approach security policy becomes to some extent audience participation policy. The audience becomes involved in decision-making to an extent that cannot normally be observed in security theory and policy cultivating a culture of experts and diminishing the audience’s role to acclamation, tacit acceptance, or acquiescence. The other side of the coin is that the audience, to the extent that it doesbecome involved in decision-making also becomes co-responsible for security policy. It is not possible any longer to hide behind decision-makers and delegate decision-making (and the responsibility for it and its consequences) to the alleged experts. This is so even if the audience prefers to remain silent, exposed to and perhaps overwhelmed by “the shrill voice of rhetoric, using and abusing the semantic icon of terrorism” (Biletzki, 2005: 23).[8]


The possibilities to securitize by means of images are limited: securitization requires unequivocal threat designations that images, due to their inherent surplus of meaning, fail to deliver (Möller, 2007). The possibilities to securitize by means of comics are equally limited. In a world obsessed with security, a more important issue would seem to be the extent to which comics can contribute to desecuritize social relations and to offer visual space beyond, and unaffected by, governmental control.[9] Spiegelman’s and Sacco’s work shows that such desecuritization is possible by interrupting standard discursive patterns, visualizing alternatives and emphasizing complexity thus refusing to operate within, confirm and reproduce already existing discursive formations and security policies built upon these formations. Desecuritization, like securitization, requires audience approval and it is for this reason that attention should be directed to the reader of comics, the distracted expert.




6 The distracted expert reader


Is it possible to be distracted and critical at the same time? Walter Benjamin answered this question in the affirmative. By linking the activity of the expert to the idea of distraction and by separating this idea from the prevalent notion of passivity Benjamin did at least two things: first, he developed an understanding of the expert that is both under theorized in his own work and highly problematic. Indeed, Benjamin’s “sense of an active, intervening, competent, and critical expert solving problems by habit” (Schwartz, 2001: 421, emphasis added) is difficult to maintain in the light of psychological studies conducted at that time. These studies strongly emphasized the relationship between problem-solving and concentration, the dangers inherent in a habit-based approach to problem-solving, and the importance of distinguishing between voluntary (active) and involuntary (passive) perception, ignored by Benjamin.[10]


Secondly and more importantly in the present context, by applying the idea of distraction also to the viewing of film, Benjamin suggested a counter-approach to the bourgeois habit of awestruck, highly concentrated, and intimidated contemplation in the presence of a work of art and thus an alternative to “the passive approach of the participant in ritual art and the bourgeois cult of art” (Schwartz, 2001: 401). Rather than “being absorbed and immobilized” (Schwartz, 2001: 420) by the work of art, Benjamin suggested that the distracted viewer absorbs and manipulates it by, in David Simpson’s words, “assimilat[ing] art as part of ordinary life, a tool for living and living with, a familiar item that is not set aside for fetishistic contemplation but is simply ‘there’ for us all, all of the time” (2006: 69). The best place for such a casual and quotidian attitude to art, emphasizing art’s everydayness, is the cinema where, according to Benjamin (1963b: 33) “critical and enjoying attitudes coincide.” Benjamin was close to Siegfried Kracauer who saw the masses’ distraction as a necessary and legitimate albeit non-revolutionary response to the hardship and alienation of industrial work and as refusal to adapt to bourgeois standards of high culture. Kracauer assigned to distraction a positive function as to the masses’ cultural emancipation, i.e. finding their own culture rather than emulating others’. However, Benjamin also deviated from Kracauer by suggesting that, in Schwartz’s words, “film has the potential to school a form of active apprehension” that can grasp and act upon “the uncritically unitary effect of the work of art, representing a false totality” (2001: 420). Thus,


if the externality of distraction and leisure serves a critical and compensatory function in Kracauer’s analysis (...), then for Benjamin the relation between production and leisure has taken a dialectical swing that makes them complementary in a different, and now affirmative, way (Schwartz, 2001: 420).


While Benjamin’s main focus was on film, the combination of the expert with the state of distraction appears to be useful also, and perhaps especially, when applied to comics – despite their recent decline “familiar item[s]” (Simpson, 2006: 69) par excellence. After all, based on the common – if false – equation of comics with funny stories, reading comics is often supposed to be fun serving the reader’s enjoyment, enchantment, amusement, distraction, recreation, and relaxation. And with respect to comics every reader is an expert or, in Benjamin’s terms, a “semi-expert” (1963b: 28). Indeed, every kid knows, at some point, how to read comics. The correct reading of comics does not seem to require special training or theorizing (Carrier (2002: 2). Or does it?


There are at least three elements that would suggest considering comics as especially suitable vehicles with which to interrogate Benjamin’s ideas. First, in contrast to film that consists of a series of still images following one another in so rapid a succession that the single image cannot be consciously seen, comics – like photographs – are slow media requiring slow looking (Bal, 2007: 113). Each panel requires time to be deciphered, especially because words and drawings produce meaning in communication with one another but can only be grasped successively. Secondly, the readers can decide upon the pace with which they wish to read comics; they do not have to follow the decisions of a film director as to the pace of the story and can interrupt the flow of images/panels at any time. (The readers can also decide upon the order in which they want to read the comics. If they chose to read it in an order other than that intended by the artist – for example, from right to left, from the bottom to the top thus violating standard Western reading practices, or in arbitrary order starting, perhaps, with the last panel – then they will read a story that differs from that intended by the artist and also from that read by their co-readers.) Thirdly, there is the space between the panels (the “gutter”) the importance of which as a place for interpretation, contemplation, involvement, or interruption – or, in Michel Foucault’s terms commenting on what he calls “the calm sand of the page” of an illustrated book (“the small space running above the words and below the drawings”), “designation, nomination, description, classification” (1983: 28) – can hardly be overemphasized (more on which below).


As such, the reader of graphic novels can be understood in terms of Benjamin’s (or, for that matter, Schwartz’s) “active, intervening, competent and critical expert” (Schwartz, 2001: 421). In fact, comics could not be read without such an expert/reader: the reader’s expertise is indeed required to make sense of comics. The readers get involved in problem-solving and story-telling to an extent that cannot usually be observed in other forms of visual culture transforming the reader into a story-teller, and this involvement directly follows from the characteristic feature of comics as sequential art and the equally characteristic (although not universal) element of space between panels that is anything but empty. Reading space means co-constructing meaning.




7 Readers’ subject trajectories[11]


Rather than reproducing the bourgeois habit of passive contemplation in the presence of a work of art, the expert comic reader – i.e. every comic reader – is an active reader in the sense that he or she is distractedly yet “willing[ly] and conscious[ly]” (McCloud, 1993: 65; capitalization omitted) involved in the construction of meaning through a process that McCloud calls “closure” – “OBSERVING THE PARTS BUT PERCEIVING THE WHOLE” (1993: 63) – by means of which the space between the panels is bridged, successive panels are linked to one another, and a meaningful story-line is produced. Closure is glue with which to connect separate moments into a seemingly coherent narrative and the “gutter” is the place where “HUMAN IMAGINATION TAKES TWO SEPARATE IMAGESAND TRANSFORMS THEM INTO A SINGLE IDEA” (McCloud, 1993: 66).


To be sure, closure can be found underlying a plethora of daily activities; the “gutter” is everywhere. Conversations, novels, photographs,[12] films, and television, too, are inconceivable without closure: Foucault’s “calm sand of the page” can be found also between photographs and captions, between the photographs in a photography monograph or photo essay, between a painting exhibited in a museum and the plate located on the wall next to the painting, between the parts of the present essay, between the lines of written texts, between the words of a written text (e.g. the hyphens in the quotation that opened this essay that left completely unclear the relationship between the words), between paragraphs, between letters, and so on. Comics, however, arguably rely and are dependent on the “gutter” like no other genre. This is another way of saying that comics involve the reader like no other visual medium and they do so to an extent that the readers might find rather unnerving (if they were indeed aware of it) because involvement implies responsibility. In any case, David Carrier’s definition according to which “what defines the image sequence in the true comic is that successive scenes are close together and in an easily read order” (2000: 55) would seem to reflect an exceedingly narrow approach to comics and his appreciation, later in the book, for very complex graphic novels such as those drawn/written by Spiegelman would seem to be in contradistinction to his own definition (2000: 110).


Contrary to a common sense approach to comics, then, comics only seem to be easy; they are “deceptively simple” (Brunetti, 2006: 9; emphasis added). Far from being reducible to “an art form meant for children” (Carrier, 2000: 62), the illiterate and the semi-literate, reading comics is highly complex, socially and culturally conditioned work reflecting special training (that, however, is frequently experienced as fun rather than training) and requiring a plethora of qualifications that have to be fulfilled before it is at all possible to read comics. These qualifications include, but cannot be limited to, the capability to relate words to images, and images and words to sound (translated from an audible into a visual perception, for example, ♫ or BANG!); to decipher different speech frames (balloons) and panel border designs and assign to them, among other things, emotional connotations; to understand adequately facial expressions and body language; to distinguish from one another thoughts, speech, and author’s explanatory comments; to read time and the pace of the depicted action, for example, to grasp that different events that are depicted and read successively are actually taking place simultaneously (indicated by the frequent use of the words “meanwhile” and “elsewhere” connecting action to action); the capability to understand that words and images might operate on different planes, the one, for example, “relaying dialogue that ALL can hear,” the other “showing information [...] that only SOME know about” (McCloud, 2006: 43); and so on.


To be sure, the readers are guided and manipulated by the artists who have many means at their disposal with which to influence, among other things, the degree of closure that the readers have to apply in order to make sense of a given sequence of panels (see Eisner, 2006: 38-99).[13] Regarding facial expressions, for example, such familiar emotions as sternness, indignation, anger, rage, disdain, aversion, disgust, revulsion, concern, anxiety, fear, terror, satisfaction, amusement, joy, laughter, dejection, melancholy, sadness, grief, alertness, wonder, surprise, and shock can be clearly drawn and differentiated from one another. Mixing emotional primaries, such expressions as outrage, caged animal, cruelty, betrayal, horror, pain, empathy, desperation, devastation, faint hope, amazement, and disappointment can also be clearly drawn (see McCloud 2006: 84-85). Some of these expressions are universally recognizable while others are not.


Whatever sequence the artist chooses, he or she guides the reader to consider the panels as a whole and to construct some sort of relationship between them[14] – guidance which the reader is happy to follow because otherwise he or she would not have opened the pages of a graphic novel in the first place. Thus there is a kind of implicit deal or “unwritten contract” (McCloud, 2006: 33) between artist and reader to the effect that the reader completes the story-line. This does not necessarily mean that the reader constructs the story that the artist had in mind. As evidenced during the Danish cartoon crisis, interpretations of comics vary across space and over time. Reading comics is socially and culturally conditioned and this narrows the range of interpretative options available to any given reader when reading comics. In any case, when reading the deceptively empty space between the panels, the reader is responsible for the completion of the story-line that the artist can only hint at or sketch; the reader becomes a collaborator, a story-teller and co-artist. Thus, the space between the panels is a space for the reader’s involvement, his or her inevitable participation and co-construction of meaning. Indeed, as McCloud (2000: 39) puts it:


The partnership between creator and reader in comics is far more intimate andactive than cinema, while comics’ symbolic static images may cut straight to the heart without the continual mediation of prose’s authorial voice.


It would seem that comics, more than other forms of visual culture, are audience participation media, assigning to the reader a degree of involvement and, with it, responsibility that is irreconcilable with the idea of passively consuming comics. Reading comics means actively collaborating in their construction and this is one reason for comics’ capability to convey a sense of urgency: the reader can neither withdraw into the comfortable position of a distanced, passive, disinterested recipient/consumer[15] nor assign to the artist sole responsibility for that what is to be seen – and for that what is not to be seen but only imagined by the reader – in sequential art. That it is not real but only imagined does neither make it less real nor more inconsequential for the reader. Just the opposite: the neutral spectator becomes an implicated spectator, the eyewitness becomes an accomplice.[16]





8 Emotional involvement


To become emotionally involved in a story by constructing an intimate relationship with the story’s protagonists would appear to be a precondition for a sense of urgency emanating from comics, perceived by the reader in the process of reading it. While this can probably be said with respect to all kinds of cultural forms and genres,[17] comics offer at least two techniques that, working together, help achieve the perception of urgency by emotionally involving the reader. First, balloons contain speech but they also contain thoughts: thoughts become words but these words are “audible” only to the reader (Carrier, 2000: 30). While speech addresses both other comic characters and the reader, thoughts are meant exclusively for, and can only be read by, the reader thus establishing an intimate relationship between the thinking character and the reader. Thoughts, expressed in written words, give the reader both access to that what is normally inaccessible in, for example, photography (and, for that matter, in real life) and a position superior to that of the other characters to whom the thinking character’s thoughts must remain opaque: “The word balloon [better, perhaps: the thought balloon, FM], by externalizing thoughts, makes visible the (fictional!) inner world of represented figures, externalizing their inner lives, making them transparent to the readers” (Carrier, 2000: 73). These close bonds between the reader and the protagonist(s) help the former identify and take sides with the latter. The privileged access to the thoughts of a graphic novel’s character renders it difficult for the reader to maintain a position of emotional detachment vis-à-vis the protagonist(s) and to keep a neutral, disinterested position.


Secondly, narrators/protagonists often address the reader directly by establishing, unmediated by a camera, eye contact by means of which the emotional bond between protagonist and reader is strengthened and the reader becomes even stronger involved in the story.[18] Curiously enough, this bond can also be established when the protagonist is depicted in a highly schematic manner and only seems to look directly at the reader. For example, McCloud’s eyes are, most of the time, hidden behind impenetrable glasses or reduced to dots (see McCloud, 2000: 98).[19] Likewise, Joe Sacco’s eyes are invisibly hidden behind glasses while he uses a huge palette of expressions when drawing his protagonists’ eyes. Here, the aim seems to be the reader’s identification with the protagonists and their stories, not with Sacco the journalist, observer, narrator. Without ridiculing the character, facial expressions are used to some extent to compensate for the lack of vocal inflection and modulation, used in conversation to express the intensity of feelings. The reader can either create direct eye contact with the protagonist and by so doing construct an I-You relationship or read the protagonist’s thoughts and words. It is not possible to do both at the same time but both strengthen the emotional bonds between reader and protagonist.




9 Empathy and abstraction


Finally, why is it that readers empathize with drawn characters that consist mainly or exclusively of lines expressing emotions and feelings in a rather schematic way, bare of individuality and everything that is normally considered as a precondition for a reader’s emotional attachment? Why is it, in other words, that readers can identify with such icons as ☺ and ☻ which reduce human beings to just dots and lines? Why is it that readers find it more difficult to identify with real victims of real suffering seemingly depicted realistically in, for example, documentary film and photographs? Does an increase in abstraction correlate positively with empathy? Does empathy correlate with (a sense of) urgency? Does a sense of urgency correlate with political action?


While I cannot hope to even start answering these questions in this essay, some preliminary observations are possible all the same. According to McCloud, “some of the most emotionally complex comics in history have featured protagonists with a limited palette of expressions,” for example Spiegelman’s Maus or Chris Ware’s brilliant Jimmy Corrigan. McCloud holds that these characters’ “breadth and depth” result from both the interplay between expressions, story, and text and the reader’s willingness (resulting, perhaps, from the emotional bond established between character and reader mentioned above) and capability to “fill in the blanks emotionally” (2006: 100; emphasis and capitalization omitted).


Elsewhere, McCloud suggests a more interesting and more paradoxical explanation by establishing a correlation between different degrees of abstraction and different degrees of identification. The photograph and the realistic picture, on the one hand, are resemblances of real people who can clearly and unmistakably be identified but, paradoxically, readers might find it rather difficult to identify with them. Symbols or icons, on the other hand, are abstractions, simplifying that what they depict by reducing it to only a few characteristic and immediately and universally recognizable features such as, in the case of human beings, ☺ or even ∞ (which might in one context be read as a mathematical operator but in another context as a pair of eyes). Paradoxically again, readers might find it relatively easy, not only to recognize them as (icons representing) human faces but also to identify and empathize with the human beings thus depicted. This is so not in spite of the degree of abstraction but rather because of it. Abstraction enables the readers to perceive themselves in the drawn symbol and to not only observe the comics but to “become it” (McCloud, 1993: 36). Merging with its characters, the distinction separating the comic characters from the readers disappears.


On the basis of this interpretation it may be said that Sacco’s realistic depiction of Radovan Karadzic (Sacco, 2005: 45-65) may enable the reader to assume a comfortable position of detachment: “That’s clearly not me, couldn’t be me; thus I have got nothing to do with this guy and I am not responsible for his actions.” Spiegelman’s highly abstract characters inMaus (2003) and Ware’s highly schematic drawings in Jimmy Corrigan (2000) may, in contrast, make such a position impossible and help the reader assume a position of involvement and identification: “That’s not me, or is it? At least, it could be me, therefore itis me.” Indeed, it has been argued that Jimmy Corrigan “functions as something of a blank slate on whom other characters [such as readers, FM] pin their emotional weakness, insecurity, and cruelty” (Hignite, 2006: 228). It is a process of amalgamation based on the rather abstract and symbolic depiction of, and the reader’s somewhat unclear position in relation to, a comic character that, ultimately, could be himself or herself.




10 Conclusion


In this essay it is argued that graphic novels often convey a sense of urgency that both academic theory and other forms of visual culture find it difficult to convey. It is argued that comics convey this feeling of urgency to the reader because the reader becomes involved in the construction of the story-line to an extent that cannot normally be observed in other genres of visual culture, and with involvement comes responsibility rendering a passive, observant consumer position vis-à-vis the graphic novel’s story and protagonists impossible. This involvement takes place in the “gutter” through a process that McCloud calls “closure.”


The position of comics within visual culture is paradoxical: they are marginal media but they have enormous influence on the development of more popular forms of visual culture such as film. As a genre, comics are experimental but at the same time they are conservative: although some comics radically break with established conventions and forms of representation (Spiegelman, 2003) most comics heavily rely on “genre formulas” (Jenkins, 2006: 73) thus regularly confirming rather than subverting these formulas and the accompanying rules of interpretation. (And the artists are, more often than not, well advised to stick to the established formulas if they want to be commercially and economically successful.)


Comics are paradoxical also in the sense that within the culture from they emerge they may exhibit progressive features. However, their dependence on this very culture limits their comprehensibility across cultural boundaries, thus ultimately confirming rather than altering these very boundaries (as testified in the Danish cartoon crisis). In comics “word balloons and narrative sequence present the story transparently, making the meaning of the depicted action obvious to everyone in the culture” (Carrier, 2000: 85; emphasis added). Finally, comics are paradoxical in the sense that while the classical superhero stories seem to support a traditional, Realist understanding of security policy in terms of power maximization, more sophisticated graphic novels call such an understanding into question. By showing that power maximization does not necessarily result in security, they support the idea that the demilitarization and desecuritization of the social relations between and among groups of people may actually result in (a sense of) security. Bearing these paradoxical features of comics in mind it can still be said that the possibilities of comics and graphic novels are endless. Unfortunately, “the potential of comics tocommunicate ideas – maybe it’s greatest promise – is, to date, just its best-kept secret” (McCloud, 2000: 53).





Agathangelou, Anna M. and L.H.M. Ling, 2004. “The House of IR: From Family Power Politics to the Poisies of Worldism,” International Studies Review, Vol. 6, Issue 4, pp. 21-49.


Bal, Mieke, 2007. “The Pain of Images,” in Mark Reinhardt, Holly Edwards, and Erina Duganne (eds.), Beautiful Suffering: Photography and the Traffic in Pain. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, pp. 93–115.


Benjamin, Walter, 1963a. “Kleine Geschichte der Photographie,” in Benjamin, Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, pp. 45-64.


Benjamin, Walter, 1963b. “Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit,” in Benjamin, Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, pp. 7-44.


Benjamin, Walter, 2008. “Theory of Distraction,” in Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media, edited by Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty, and Thomas Y. Levin. Cambridge and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, pp. 56-57.


Biletzki, Anat, 2005. “The Language of Terrorism,” in Alberto Valiente Thoresen (ed.),New Directions in Peace Research: Non-violent Strategies for Confronting Global Terrorism and for Promoting Peaceful Social Change. Tromsø: Centre for Peace Studies, pp. 13-25.


Brunetti, Ivan, ed., 2006. An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, & True Stories. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.


Buzan, Barry and Ole Wæver, 2003. Regions and Powers: The Structure of International Security. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Buzan, Barry, Ole Wæver and Jaap de Wilde, 1998. Security: A New Framework for Analysis. Boulder and London: Lynne Rienner.


Campbell, David, 2002. “Time Is Broken: The Return of the Past in the Response to September 11”, Theory and Event, Vol. 4, No. 5,


Carrier, David, 2000. The Aesthetics of Comics. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press.


Couldry, Nick, 2000. Inside Culture: Re-imagining the Method of Cultural Studies. London: Sage.


Eisner, Will, 2006. Comics and Sequential Art: Principles & Practice of the World’s Most Popular Art Form. Paramus: Poorhouse Press.


Foucault, Michel, 1983. This Is Not a Pipe. With Illustrations and Letters by René Magritte. Translated and edited by James Harkness. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press.


Gilgen, Peter, 2003. “History after Film,” in Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht and Michael Marrinan (eds.), Mapping Benjamin: The Work of Art in the Digital Age. Stanford: Stanford University Press, pp. 53-62.


Harker, Christopher, 2007. “‘A Close and Unbreachable Distance’: Witnessing Everything and Nothing,” ACME, Vol. 6, No. 2, pp. 51-72.


Hignite, Todd, 2006. In the Studio: Visits with Contemporary Cartoonists. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.


Hirsch, Marianne, 1997. Family Frames: Photography, Narrative and Postmemory. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press.


Huyssen, Andreas, 1995. Twilight Memories: Marking Time in a Culture of Amnesia. New York and London: Routledge.


Inayatullah, Naeem and David L. Blaney, 2004. International Relations and the Problem of Difference. New York and London: Routledge.


Jenkins, Henry, 2006. “Captain America Sheds His Mighty Tears: Comics and September 11,” in Daniel J. Sherman and Terry Nardin (eds.), Terror, Culture, Politics: Rethinking 9/11. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, pp. 69-102.


MacDougall, David, 1998. Transcultural Cinema. Edited and with an introduction by Lucien Taylor. Princeton: Princeton University Press.


McCloud, Scott, 1993. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: Harper Perennial.


McCloud, Scott, 2000. Reinventing Comics: How Imagination and Technology Are Revolutionizing an Art Form. New York: HarperCollins.


McCloud, Scott, 2006. Making Comics: Storytelling Secrets of Comics, Manga and Graphic Novels. New York: HarperCollins.


McConnon, Aili, 2000. “The glowing bones,” The Guardian, September 11, 2004,,3858,5012235-99939,00.html.


Meyerowitz, Joel, 2006. Aftermath. London: Phaidon.


Moore, Alan and Eddie Campbell, 2006. From Hell. Marietta: Top Shelf.


Möller, Frank, 2007. “Photographic Interventions in Post-9/11 Security Policy,” Security Dialogue, Vol. 38, No. 2, pp. 179-196.


Möller, Frank, 2008. “The Implicated Spectator - from Manet to Botero,” in Matti Hyvärinen and Lisa Muszynski, eds., Terror and the Arts: Artistic, Literary, and Political Interpretations of Violence from Dostoyevsky to Abu Ghraib. New York: Palgrave, pp. 25-40.


Perlmutter, David D., 1999. Visions of War: Picturing Warfare from the Stone Age to the Cyber Age. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.


Sacco, Joe, 2000. Safe Area Goražde: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992-95. Seattle: Fantagraphics Books.


Sacco, Joe, 2003. Palestine. London: Jonathan Cape.


Sacco, Joe, 2004. The Fixer: A Story from Sarajevo. London: Jonathan Cape.


Sacco, Joe, 2005. War’s End: Profiles from Bosnia 1995-96. Montreal: Drawn and Quarterly.


Sacco, Joe, 2006. “Trauma on Loan.” The Guardian, January 20, 2006,


Schwartz, Frederic J., 2001. “The Eye of the Expert: Walter Benjamin and the Avant Garde,” Art History, Vol. 24, No. 3: 401-444.


Shapiro, Michael J., 2007. “The New Violent Cartography,” Security Dialogue, Vol. 38, No. 3, pp. 291-313.


Simpson, David, 2006. 9/11: The Culture of Commemoration. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.


Sontag, Susan, 2003. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.


Spiegelman, Art, 2003. The Complete Maus. London: Penguin.


Spiegelman, Art, 2004. In the Shadow of No Towers. New York: Pantheon.


Thrill, Scott, 2004. “‘In the Shadow of No Towers’ by Art Spiegelman,”,


Ware, Chris, 2000. Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth. New York: Pantheon.


Zelizer, Barbie, 1998. Remembering to Forget: Holocaust Memory through the Camera’s Eye. Chicago and London: The University Press of Chicago.



* This Article is about to be published in:

Dana Arieli-Horowitz (Editor), Art and Terror, Jerusalem: Hebrew University Press, 2008




[1] Earlier versions of this essay were presented at the ECPR General Conference in Pisa, September 6-8, 2007, at the meeting of the Nordic Network for Visual Social Science, Through the Image: Using the Visual to Investigate, Analyze, Create and Present, Hässelby Castle, Stockholm,October 24–26, 2007, and at the 49th ISA Convention, San Francisco,March 26–29, 2008. The term “the humble doodle” is Brunetti’s (2006: 7).

[2] The difference between graphic novels and other forms of visual culture is not categorical; rather, it is one of degrees reflecting different degrees of audience participation (see below).

[3] It must be noted, however, that the superheroes stories of the 1930s and 1940s were part of the progressive, anti-racist, and anti-fascist cultural movement in the United States. Opposing, among other things, slum conditions and corruption at home, Superman, in the early issues, fought “to defend and protect the ‘oppressed’” and was moved to the right only in the 1950s under the influence of “anti-comics crusades” fighting, after the establishment in 1954 of the Comics Code Authority, the allegedly damaging influence of comics on the American youth (Jenkins, 2006: 72).

[4] For example, the ISA (International Studies Association) 2008 Convention in San Francisco featured an innovative panel titled “Frivolous Entertainment or Potent Tool of Communication? The Role of Cartoons and Graphic Novels in a Global Age.”

[5] Wæver et al. (1998: 28) emphasize that the word security can be replaced by other words because “it is implicitly assumed that when we talk of this issue we are by definition in the area of urgency” (1998: 28) – for example, in the Netherlands – dikes; in New Orleans – levees; in Greece – forest fires.

[6] Buzan and Wæver later erased inter-subjectivity from their approach and included power political rather than democratizing ingredients. Now securitization is – fairly traditionally – connected with “visible outcomes such as war, mass expulsions, arms races, large-scale refugee movements, and other emergency measures” (2003: 73).

[7] For example, when the FBI intelligence-gathering after 9/11 “extended even to surveillance of people’s library borrowing” many librarians and booksellers resisted to become part of this ingredient of the “war on terror” (Shapiro, 2007: 302).

[8] From Wæver’s point of view, language (including “semantic icons”) cannot be abused because it does not refer to some truth or reality outside of language. Rather than reflecting reality, language constructs it.

[9] Wæver et al. (1998: 29) argue that “desecuritization is the optimal long-range option” since it moves desecuritized issues back “into the ordinary public sphere.”

[10] According to Schwartz (2001: 423), “Benjamin makes the involuntary attention that is the assumed state of the consumer [...] decisive as a model for voluntary action, thinking revolution on the model of leisure activity.”

[11] The term “subject trajectories” rather than “subject positions” is used by Christopher Harker (2007: 64) in order to emphasize that subject performances “are permanently being reinterpreted, and thus re-constituted.” See also note xvii of the present essay.

[12] For example, regarding photographic portraits of Holocaust survivors, oscillating between life and death, Marianne Hirsch (1997: 21) writes that “[t]he viewer fills in what the picture leaves out: the horror of looking is not necessarily in the image but in the story the viewer provides to fill in what has been omitted.”

[13] Alan Moore, in From Hell, provides a comprehensive appendix including, among other things, meticulous references in order to separate invention for story purposes from depictions based on evidence. The appendix helps contextualize and connect with one another the panels and chapters and thus guides the reader’s imagination. However, there is no guarantee that the reader actually reads the rather complex appendix, a ”monstrosity” according to Moore, prolonging the reading experience considerably and requiring rather cumbersome parallel readings of the work’s main body and the appendix. See Moore and Campbell (2006: Appendix 1, pp. 1-42, p. 10 for the quotation). Moore and Campbell’s is neither a funny nor an easily readable story.

[14] Even panel sequences with “no logical relation between panelswhatsoever” may be connected by the reader in such a manner that a seemingly logical story-line emerges (McCloud, 1993: 72). Carrier (2000: 51) criticizes this interpretation as “[n]arrowly correct” yet “misleading as a general characterization of this synthesis.” McCloud, however, does not seem to have intended it as a general characterization but rather as a characterization of only one (out of six) categories (“non-sequitur”) of panel-to-panel transitions in comics and as an indicator of the ultimate potential of comics.

[15] In particular with respect to images of war, famine and other forms of human suffering it has been argued that such a position does not at all exist and if it existed, it would be morally untenable. In other words, by viewing such images the beholder becomes inevitably involved (see Möller, 2008).

[16] Carrier (2000: 79) suggests that the “differences between synthesizing pictures and synthesizing texts are perhaps matters of degree.” While written texts are also constructed in part by the reader by, for example, assigning meaning to sequences of letters that are usually referred to as words and by bridging the narrative gaps between sentences and chapters, these gaps are necessarily (i.e. due to the structural characteristics of comics) bigger in comics. The work to be performed by the reader, therefore, is more demanding and his or her involvement is stronger.

[17] With respect to videotape, see Harker’s analysis of Jayce Salloum’suntitled part I: everything and nothing (2007). In addition to a genuine geographical approach to witnessing, Harker argues for an understanding of witnessing as a form of inter-subjectivity and of viewing as a form of work through which the viewer becomes intimate with the video, the diverse subject trajectories of its protagonist Soha Bechara and his or her own subject trajectories in relation to the video, the protagonist, and the geographical-emotional context.

[18] See, in this context, W.T.J. Mitchell’s reference to Meyer Schapiro’s formal distinction between frontal and profile rendering of the human figure in the present volume.

[19] For an exception, see panel 9 on page 36 in Understanding Comics. Importantly, McCloud sees the realistic depiction of himself in this panel as the condition for the impossibility of the readers’ attention to what he has to say. On p. 28, panel 5 he even depicts himself without glasses but also without eyes!


Dr. Frank Möller is a Research Fellow at the Tampere Peace Research Institute, University of Tampere, Finland, and a member of the Finnish Center of Excellence Political Thought and Conceptual Change, Research Team Politics and the Arts. His recent work in connection with visual peace research has been published in Security Dialogue, Peace Review, Wissenschaft + Frieden, Kosmopolis, Review of International Studies and several edited volumes including Terror and the Arts: Artistic, Literary, and Political Interpretations of Violence from Dostoyevsky to Abu Ghraib edited by Matti Hyvärinen and Lisa Muszynski (New York: Palgrave, 2008).

Comics and Caricatures, January 2010