Comics / Spotlight / Knowledge

A New Theory of Comic Book: Part 3 – Readers


By Hervé St-Louis
Nov 4, 2009 - 0:54

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When Frederic Wertham wrote the Seduction of the Innocent, a book denouncing the bad influence of comic books on youth, he wrote one of the early treatises on comic books as artefacts, objects of study, and art forms. But he also wrote about their impact on readers and their cultural value. The debate about the early work of Wertham has since been about the negative impression he created about comic books as opposed to something more fundamental which is how one goes about studying comic books. Whether one agrees or not with Wertham, this writer thinks most do not, is irrelevant when one ponders what comic books are and what Wertham really contributed to the field of comic book studies.

Wertham bridge the gap that separates the artefact from the impact and response of the reader. His findings may be controversial and contested at every turn. They may be dismissed and hated because of their apparent damages they have wrought on comic books ever since. Even his method can be challenged. Yet, for all his presumed faults, Wertham got something right about comics. If you study comic books, you cannot separate the reader from the object, the comics itself.

In my personal journey of studying comic books, I have identified three biases about comic books and sought to use them as the foundations of a new theory of comic books. The first bias is that I love comic books. The second bias is that artistry and business are equal components of comic books. The third foundational point of this new theory, which will be covered in this third article on this new theory of comic books is that studying readers is as important as studying how comics are created.

A friend with whom I shared my three foundational points remarked that the third was the weakest point. He argued that by default, anyone who criticizes a comic book has interacted with the comic book and therefore his experience as a reader will be presented in any criticism about the comics. In other words, a bias toward the reader is inherent in any understanding of comic books because one must read a comic book to get anything out of them. If we transpose this idea to visual arts like painting, one would say that because the viewer has looked at the painting that if he criticizes the painting, that the effects of the painting on him have been accounted in his transcript. But what about a sculpture? What if one just looks at a sculpture without touching it? Has the viewer experienced the full range of perception toward the sculpture that are available? What if the onlooker is blind and touches the sculpture instead? What about the smell of the materials? Do they count too as experience when it comes to comics, paintings or sculptures? Is there something intrinsic to the experience of a comic book that presupposes that just reporting on reading one is enough to qualify as reader-focused information?

The original point about readers being as important as the craft in the study of comic book came through two elements. The first is a simple populist reaction to current disdain of readers perceived in the comic book industry. Readers, as consumers seem to matter less these days. I argue that the comic book industry is not a client-friendly industry. The second observation is based on closure, that ever present quality that makes comic books unique. Closure is the space between two captions that forces the reader to fill in the gaps of what happens between them.  Closure demands that readers imagine contents not drawn on a comic book page. Therefore it demands that readers be associate creators of the comic books they read. They are the co-pilots of the original creator and without their tacit involvement, there is no possibility to experience the comic book. Therefore, if comic book readers are also creators of the comic books they read, they should be studied to the same extent that the work and the original creator are, for without the act of closure, the comic book cannot be experienced.

Unfortunately, I have to cut this article short, while hoping that you the reader of these many articles can finally see where this new theory of comic books I am presenting and building from personal biases can go. The ultimate purpose of a good theory, I suppose is to be applicable to several scenarios and even to predict outcomes. At this stage of writing these articles, this new theory of mine is still but a framework. More work is necessary, but I have to end this here for now because other important studies outside of the world of comic books, which are dear to me awaits. But the break will allow me to fine tune these ideas and now that I have presented them to the world, hopefully, they will begin to challenge other people too.


Last Updated: Jun 26, 2018 - 9:28

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