All posts by monique.tschofen

About monique.tschofen

Monique Tschofen is a professor in the Department of English at Ryerson University, and appointed to the Joint Ryerson/York University Graduate Programme in Communications and Culture.

Circling the Perimeter/ Entrenching the Perspective: War Comics as Vision Machines

Copyright @Monique Tschofen

…the comparative success or failure of any given war becomes dependent on securing ocular dominance. (Mark Featherstone, 436)

…a supply of images would become the equivalent of an ammunition supply… (Virilio, War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception, 1)

 Comics, as much as pornography or video games or theme park attractions, are products and producers of what Jean-Louis Comolli described as the modern “frenzy of the visible.” They are designed to make us look, and to look closely, at the same time as they supercharge that seeing. While comics studies has tended to focus on how comics are at their core story-telling media, comics readers—especially children—know that the story or its characters often matter little. Much of the pleasure of the text emerges from the way a comic frames our vision. We take delight in the comic’s lexicon of close-ups and low angles, point of view and reaction shots, and detail inserts. We are seduced by the chiseled chin, the bulging bicep, and the punch at the reverberating instant after it has hit its mark. In even the most facile comics story, moody shadows and spotlights, jagged lines and cloud-like bubbles can provide deep satisfaction to a gaze that lingers.

This paper departs from the premise that, despite its medium specificities, comics belong to a broader visualculturewhere they work alongside other practices to generate and replicate ways of seeing and produce observers. In order to understand the ideologically persuasive force of comics and their complicity in inculcating certain kinds of beliefs it is necessary to consider the comic’s construction of vison as part of a far larger set of technologically-mediated culturally-determined practices of seeing. Doing so makes it possible to connect the comic’s embeddedness in systems of representation—that is, in ideology[i]—to its participation in broader representational systems—that is, to a schema of technologies and techniques that frame a perspective of the world.

Comics and Media Studies

Despite the similarities between comics and other visual media like film or picture books, the discipline of comics studies has grown largely from the assumption that comics are unlike other visual art forms, and require medium-specific critical approaches.[i]However, the discipline’s need to delineate its own contours by asserting how comics differ from other media has been unnecessarily restrictive. In the afterword to a special issue of Critical Inquiry devoted to comics,W.J.T. Mitchell seeks to take away the protective barriers between comics studies’ and other media studies. He poses two questions: “Where do comics fit among the media, and what can the study of media tell us about comics?”[ii]

Submarine explosion
C.T. Legault (a). Active Comics. No. 1, February 1942,
Commercial Signs of Canada: Cover. Bell Features
Collection, Library and Archives Canada.

The first part of his question about comics, where do comics fit among media, asks comics scholars to do some inter-disciplinary and cross-disciplinary work. To understand comics, he hints, one needs to acknowledge that media do not emerge in isolation from one another; many practices feed into and out from comics such as drawing and writing as do many technologies such as newspapers, magazines, and pulp publications.[iii]Mitchell would caution against a reductive, linear understanding of media history in which each medium would be seen to remediate the one that came before it.

The second part of Mitchell’s question, “what can the study of media tell us about comics?” (255),  hints that the kinds of questions that other disciplines ask can be productively imported into comics studies. Doing so would not condemn comics to a subordinate position within some specious hierarchy of media, as many comics scholars have suggested.[iv]Rather, one of the implications of Mitchell’s work is that understanding comics as a visual practice within a media culture,for example, would make it possible to enrichen the questions we pose about comics.

Prompted by Mitchell’s invitation to widen the optic of comics studies, we should therefore not only ask what comics are and what modes of engagement they demand from the viewer. Neither should we only ask about what they do when they traffic in stereotypes to transform ideology into myth and convince the masses of the rightness of systems of belief. We could use a “form sensitive analysis,” which according to Dilip Gaonkar and Elizabeth Povinelli, asks “how to engage [cultural and technological] forms as mobile vectors of cultural and social imaginaries…to foreground the social life of the form” rather than merely “reading social life off of it.”[v]

 Works cited


Images in this online exhibition are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.