Reading Comics at the Threshold: A Round Table on Letter Columns & Other Comics Paratexts (Part 2)

Editor’s Note: This is the second of a three-part series here on The Middle Spaces—co-organized and co-edited by Leah Misemer—a round table of eleven different scholars discussing comics paratexts. Be sure to go back and read part one as well. Full bios for all our contributors can be found on the Guest Writers page.

Our round table continues today with three more scholars asking questions about how paratexts shape our view of the text in both intentional and inadvertent ways.

Left: The cover to Fiction Illustrated vol. 3 (Pyramid Books, August 1976). Right: the back cover to volume 1 (ibid., January 1976), which calls the publication, “America’s first adult graphic novel revue.”

What do their peritexts tell us about the early “graphic novels”?

Jean-Matthieu Méon, senior lecturer in media and communication studies at Université de Lorraine, Crem, F-57000 Metz, France

A label of generic qualification, such as “graphic novel,” is meant to specify the nature of a work and to indicate how to assess its value. As Gérard Genette points out, peritexts are one of the specific places where these qualifications are given to readers and critics (Seuils, 98-106). But what happens when the generic indication refers to a newly introduced label, as it was the case for the “graphic novel” in the United States in the 1970s and in France (translated as “roman graphique”) in the 1980s? In that case, the peritext­—defined by Genette (Seuils, 11), as titles, chapter titles, prefaces and notes, parts of the paratext which are actually situated on or in the physical bookdoubles as a place of generic definition and justification. In that sense, since the peritext is directly controlled by editors, they can be more revelatory of their intentions and aspirations. 

This process of peritextual definition and justification can be illustrated with two sets of examples of some of the earliest self-defined “graphic novels” in the United States and in France: Fiction Illustrated (published by Pyramid Books in four volumes between 1976 and 1977) which presented itself, on its back covers and interior ad pages, as “America’s first adult graphic novel revue”) and Autodafé (an imprint of the French publishing house Les Humanoïdes associés, which consisted of six volumes released in 1982 and 1983). Both collections were short-lived, homogenous in their format but heterogeneous in their content, and are seldom considered as milestones in the history of the graphic novel (even though they presented key works such as Jim Steranko’s Chandler or the first French translation of Will Eisner’s A Contract With God). Yet they are among the first explicit editorial attempts at presenting their volumes as “graphic novels.” Despite their editorial and material differences both imprints deployed a variety of similar peritextual tools (cover blurbs, preface, introduction, afterword, etc…) in which the value of the presented works was affirmed. The very presence of these peritextual elements such as introductions and afterwords – a literary tradition quite uncommon for comics of these times – underlines the importance attached to the new “graphic novel” label by the publishers through such explanation or commentary.

Both the American and the French series’ peritexts develop analogous argumentation about the intrinsically innovative nature of the “graphic novel” and of their new editorial ventures. For example, the introduction to the first issue of Fiction Illustrated heralds itself as “proof of this coming of age of the American comic book,” while the afterword in the fourth issue claims the series is “some advancement for the graphic story medium in America.” In a similar manner, the back cover blurb for the whole Autodafé series calls itself “a new dimension in the art of storytelling.” The “graphic novel” label is meant to mark an ambition, in aesthetic terms as well as in social and cultural status.

Back cover to Autodafé, volume 3.

The peritexts presents various references and comparisons that situate the works, and the “graphic novel,” in a continuum which goes beyond comics by encompassing cinema and literature and which is meant to give the works a more solid artistic grounding. If these works are “novels,” there’s also a clear cinematic and visual tropism in their referential framework. The cover of the third issue of Fiction Illustrated places its content “in the footsteps of The Maltese Falcon and The Black Bird” and the cover of its second issue references “the tradition of Chinatown and Maltese Falcon.” The back cover text for Un Bail avec Dieu compares the work within to “Les Bas-Fonds [Renoir’s The Lower Depths] and Hester Street”, to “Dos Passos and Kazan.”     

Contrasting these American and French paratexts shows how the “graphic novel” label and its afferent ambitions are necessarily contextual, closely related to specific editorial and comics fields. The comparative and distinctive thrust the “graphic novel” label expresses is directed towards different objects. According to the introduction to Fiction Illustrated #1 by author-cum-publisher Byron Preiss, the “graphic novel” label (or the larger “graphic story” category) serves as a means to get over the opposition between childish comic books and grown-ups comic strips by offering works that “aspir[e] to be adult in [their] audience and approach.” This approach marks comics as “a commercially viable and intellectually respectable form of adult literature.” This positioning is first and foremost defined through editorial formats (comic book vs. comic strip) but it also, somewhat awkwardly, refers to poles of the American comics field of the time (mainstream vs. underground, with Preiss’ “graphic novel” as a possible third position), as explained in the introduction to the first issue and in the afterword of the second.     

The back cover blurb featured on all Autodafé volumes expresses a similar positioning logic in the use of the “graphic novel/roman graphique” label. But the frame is different: distinctions are made not within the comics field (as it is for Fiction Illustrated) but at its borders. “Autodafé is more than just another series: an original concept between novel and BD [bande dessinée]. Giving complete freedom to creators, banishing the boundaries between images and words, it is a unique format, a new dimension in the art of storytelling” (my translation and emphasis). The Autodafé series tries to move the lines between the comics field and the literary field and to posit the “graphic novel” as a new third space, defined as a crossroad of formal text/image experimentation. For Fiction Illustrated, the “graphic novel” label was a means to help comics find a place in bookstores. In France, where comics already were in bookstores, the label was a means to find another place in bookstores.

Autodafé back cover blurb

The same label, used for a similar distinctive and status-affirming attempt finds different meanings, due to the different editorial, cultural, and symbolic frameworks. “Graphic novel” is a positioning tool more than an essence. Attention given to paratexts can offer hindsight on the historical construction of a genre. It also warns us against univocal interpretations of an editorial label such as the “graphic novel” whose uses can’t be separated from their context.

 How can paratexts both reinforce and disrupt the marginalization of minority voices?

Brianna Anderson, PhD student in English, University of Florida

The educational back matter of One Dead Spy, the first volume of Nathan Hale’s middle-grade Hazardous Tales comics series, concludes with an eight-page comics sequence entitled “Crispus Attucks: First to Defy, First to Die!” [emphasis in original]. The interlude depicts the former slave Attucks as he recounts his life before asking the main comic’s white narrator: “Say, how did you get this job telling U.S. history? I’m in the history book too” (127). This pressing question of who gets to tell history—and whose stories remain mere footnotes or get omitted altogether—underlies Hazardous Tales. The historical fiction series centers on the American Revolutionary War spy Nathan Hale (no relation to the author) as he narrates significant historical events. Though Nathan’s white voice dominates the comics’ primary narratives, several volumes also feature minority historical figures who narrate what author Hale terms “mini-comics.” As the name suggests, these “mini-comics” consist of short comics sequences, typically ranging from one to eight pages long, that either interrupt or follow the main comic and that provide separate, supplemental historical anecdotes. By granting a voice to minority speakers, these mini-comics spotlight often-overlooked marginalized narratives and teach children to question the dominant white discourses often presented in history textbooks and popular media. However, by displacing these minority narratives to the optional backmatter, Hale also isolates these counternarratives from the white Nathan’s telling and upholds racist paradigms by (literally) re-marginalizing the marginalized.  

The hangman identifies Crispus Attucks during a paratextual retelling of the Boston Massacre in Nathan Hale’s One Dead Spy (126). [click to enlarge]

The mini-comics’ simultaneous unsettling and reinforcement of dominant historical discourses manifests most obviously in One Dead Spy. Advertised on the back cover as recounting “TRUE stories of American history,” the comic traces Nathan’s life and depicts prominent events in the American Revolution, such as the Boston Massacre. However, a quick examination of the comic’s characters reveals troubling oversights in the text’s allegedly accurate representation of history. The comic’s 113-page primary narrative features a myriad of white men, but it does not feature a single non-white character. Moreover, only two nameless, almost entirely silent women appear in a total of four panels. This troubling lack of nonwhite and female representation omits more than half of the Revolutionary era population from the supposedly factual comic and offers children a biased portrayal of history by falsely suggesting that only white, male leaders played significant roles in the war. 

In the mini-comic “Crispus Attucks,” however, the titular character provides a counternarrative to Nathan’s white-centric telling of the Boston Massacre. In the main comic, Nathan narrates the shooting, represented in a panel that reproduces Paul Revere’s famous engraving. Attucks’s crumpled corpse appears at the bottom of the panel, surrounded by a bright red pool of blood. During Nathan’s narrative, none of the white characters identify Attucks or even acknowledge his presence, reducing the man to a silenced, bloody spectacle. Significantly, an almost identical panel also appears during Attucks’s later recounting of the Massacre in the mini-comic. Here, a secondary character ensures that the audience notices Attucks’s presence by intruding in the frame of the panel to exclaim, “Hey, look, it’s you!” (Hale 126). Notably, the lurid pool of blood has also vanished from this re-rendering. In contrast to Nathan’s narrative, then, this paratext explicitly identifies Attucks and enables him to narrate his own death with less sensationalized imagery. As a result, the mini-comic complicates Nathan’s initial portrayal of the event by revealing the presence of an alternate, previously overlooked perspective. This re-centering of the narrative introduces children to a marginalized viewpoint that may not appear in their history textbooks and tacitly asks readers to consider whether Nathan’s story—and, by extension, history at large—has omitted other voices. 

Nathan’s original narration of the Boston Massacre in the primary narrative of Nathan Hale’s One Dead Spy (26).

The Underground Abductor, the series’ fifth installment, uses mini-comics to confront young readers with an even more radical denunciation of dominant historical discourses. The comic’s primary narrative centers on abolitionist Harriet Tubman’s life, recounted by the white Nathan. However, Hale interrupts the main comic with “The Adventures of Tiny Frederick Douglass,” a three-page mini-comic that features a darker background and smaller panels, visually separating it from the primary storyworld. In this paratext, narrator Nathan provides a brief overview of the first thirty years of the Douglass’s life, while Douglass only contributes sparse dialogue within the panels. The mini-comic ends with Nathan instructing readers to turn to the backmatter for “part 2” (Hale 81). However, this promised sequel does not appear in the paratext. Instead, an enraged Douglass tears down the panel enclosing the second mini-comic, exclaiming, “You want to hear about my adventures? Why don’t you read the books I wrote!?” (Hale 127). By insisting that readers consult his own autobiographies rather than a condensed retelling, “Tiny” Douglass refuses to allow Nathan to further appropriate the real Douglass’s story and rejects the comic’s attempt to marginalize his narrative in the concluding paratext. Additionally, the character empowers children to conduct their own historical research by encouraging them to seek out Douglass’s three autobiographies, texts that young readers may not have encountered prior to reading Underground.   

On the surface, then, the mini-comics seek to educate children about marginalized historical narratives that may be excluded or minimized within the history classroom. However, Hale’s inclusion of these paratexts provokes an obvious question: If the author wants to draw attention to these often-silenced voices, why doesn’t he simply cast Attucks and Douglass as the primary narrators of his comics instead of footnoting them in the optional paratext? A generous reading of the mini-comics suggests that they function as ironic metacommentaries that use their literal marginalized positionalities in the comics to provoke children to consider who gets the privilege of telling history. However, children without previous knowledge of the racial politics of history may lack the necessary savvy to grasp this nuanced critique. These readers may simply regard the ancillary narratives as secondary to the white Nathan’s account if they read the supplemental paratext at all. Thus, while the mini-comics can introduce children to much-needed historical counternarratives, they also risk reinforcing the racial hierarchies they seek to dismantle. As a result, Hazardous Tales asks us to consider both the unique pedagogical possibilities of paratext and its limitations, particularly when it comes to voices already marginalized in mainstream historical accounts. 

Milk Duds Superduds Sweepstakes ad from comics published November 1978. [click to enlarge]

How do readers understand character identities when they appear in both the text and paratext of a comic?

Mark Hibbett, PhD student, University of the Arts London.

Comics characters have a long history of being used for advertising purposes, perhaps most famously in the long-running series of advertisements for Hostess fruit pies, in which superheroes thwart evildoers through judicious use of processed confectioneries. A great example of this appears in “Fury Unleashed,” a strip which was published in Marvel comics dated April 1982. In it, Captain America realizes that neither his shield nor his superhuman strength can save Nick Fury, so instead he throws Hostess fruit pies at his friend’s captor, distracting him long enough for the heroes to escape. However, when Cap faces a similar scenario in Captain America #268, published that same month, he chooses to surrender himself to save his friends rather than simply providing a dessert option for his enemies.

How are readers of Captain America #268 meant to understand this? Are they expected to view these two versions of Captain America as different characters who just happen to look the same, or is something else going on?

Another example of this tension between text and advertisement paratext appears in Fantastic Four #200, a double-length issue featuring a duel to the death between Mr. Fantastic and Doctor Doom, with a center-spread advertisement in which Doom implores his fans to enter a competition run by a candy company to ensure that fans of superheroes don’t win instead. The text reads as a direct address to the reader and, though Doom speaks in a slightly less formal manner than usual, the images portray him in the same way as he appears in the surrounding narrative.

There is no indication that Doom has broken off from battling his nemesis to promote chocolates, so this is clearly not meant to be the same story but neither is any explanation given for two such different versions of the character appearing in the same publication. It seems to be taken for granted by both publishers and readers that texts and paratexts can happily co-exist even when they contradict each other, but how does that work when the same character is involved in both?

Roberta Pearson and William Uricchio, in The Many Lives Of Batman (1991), suggest that the attributes of fictional characters can be broken down into components. For example, Captain America’s components in the Twinkies advert are:

Attributes:  Strategic thinking, bravery, super-strength

Events: Entry into lair, use of shield and cakes.

Recurrent characters: Nick Fury, Trapster

Setting: Trapster’s base

Iconography: Red, white, and blue superhero costume, shield.

The advertisement’s one-page strip gives a limited range of information, but most of these components are also present in the concurrent issue of Captain America. The use of cakes is absent, but then so are Nick Fury and the Trapster, and it would be entirely reasonable for readers to accept that not all components would appear in every story. Similarly, the version of Doctor Doom in the Milk Duds advert has an attitude that is broadly consistent with the one in the main comic, calling superheroes “dolts” and commanding his followers to “heel,”  and, although he does not do so in the main text of Fantastic Four #200, it would not be impossible to imagine him using a candy competition as a front for a nefarious scheme.

The individual components of these characters thus remain the same in text and paratext, however, the “transmedia storyworld” that they exist in does not. This is a term introduced by Henry Jenkins in Convergence Culture (2003) to describe the setting for stories which are told across different media, with characters interacting across a shared fictional universe containing many stories, not all of which the audience experiences firsthand. 

Hostess Fruit Pies ad featuring Captain America (from Marvel comics published March 1982) [click to enlarge].

Lisbeth Klastrup and Susana Tosca, in Transmedial Worlds – Rethinking Cyberworld Design (2004), defined three key features of transmedia storyworlds:

Topos: time period and geography

Mythos: backstory or history

Ethos: code of ethics telling characters how to behave 

In both of our examples the topos is the same in the text and the paratext – the “Marvel Universe,” a tweaked but recognizable version of modern-day America. It is in the mythos and ethos, however, that differences become apparent.

The mythos of the Marvel Universe is an ongoing fictional history built up over almost sixty years. Fans may not have read every single story within the mythos but are aware of its general shape and, through this, gain an understanding of the events and actions which are possible within it. Thus, although it is theoretically possible, in the Marvel universe and our own, to solve some of life’s problems with sugary snacks, it is not something that fans would expect to see as the focus of a story because, until these rule-breaking advertisements began to appear, it had never been the focus of a story.

The fact that the promotion of chocolatey treats is not present in the mythos of the Marvel Universe indicates that it does not comply with its ethos, and thus the versions of Doom and Captain America that we see in these advertisements must exist in a similar, yet separate, storyworld with its own developing mythos that contains the promotion and strategic use of snacks and an ethos that regards this as an acceptable activity for super-powered beings. 

Superhero universes have their own way of dealing with such differences between storyworlds. The idea of a “multiverse,” where different versions of the same characters exist in parallel dimensions, originated in science fiction and was introduced to comics in The Flash #123 in 1961. The practice of giving numbers to the different worlds first arose in Marvel’s multiverse with the designation of its core world as Earth-616 in Marvel UK’s Captain Britain series and has since developed to cover every alternate universe ever seen in Marvel’s stories, including the Ultimate Universe (Earth-1610), MC-2 (Earth-982), and even Hostess advertisements (Earth-51914). Some of these designations have been deemed official by Marvel, but for the most part, they have been developed by fans as part of categorization projects such as Marvel Database, Comic Vine and Grand Comics Database

These projects demonstrate that fans not only accept the existence of different versions of the same characters but also celebrate them in their own creative endeavors. This acceptance requires an understanding that fictional universes have rules which the characters within them must abide by, and it is this implicit comprehension of transmedia storyworlds that, in answer to the question initially posed, allows readers to understand the different ways that such characters behave when they appear in both the text and paratext of the same comic.

Be sure to return next week when four more scholars help to wrap up the round table by examining paratexts and digital comics in part three.

3 thoughts on “Reading Comics at the Threshold: A Round Table on Letter Columns & Other Comics Paratexts (Part 2)

  1. Pingback: When He Speaks He Never Says It Twice – This Week’s Links - Avada Classic Shop

  2. Pingback: Reading Comics at the Threshold: A Round Table on Letter Columns & Other Comics Paratexts (Part 3) | The Middle Spaces

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