Editor’s Note: This is the third and final part of an exciting 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. If you haven’t yet read the rest, be sure to also go back and read parts one and two. Thanks again to all our contributors and a special thanks to Leah for all the work she put into this project. Full bios for all our contributors can be found on the Guest Writers page.
Our round table concludes today with four more scholars exploring paratexts in the “Blue Age of Comics”—both in digital comics or print comics inspired by digital media.
Why are some serial comic plot summaries disguised as social media and who are they for?
Charlotte Johanne Fabricius, PhD candidate, University of Southern Denmark
Rather than a traditional splash page, the issues of Invincible Iron Man collected as Ironheart: Riri Williams are all prefaced by a title page depicting Riri face-on with the letters “REC” and a red dot in the lower left-hand corner of the panel. Riri speaks directly to the imagined camera, addressing the reader in a series of speech balloons. While this could be understood as a form of research log, as practiced by Tony Stark in previous Iron Man comics, she mainly speaks to her personal experience with becoming a superhero and less about her experiments in engineering. Thus the pages give the impression that Riri is vlogging, addressing an audience other than just herself. This recording practice is neither shown nor referred to elsewhere in the comics run and seems mainly to exist as a way of summarizing past events to readers. Thus, the title pages are paratexts rather than part of the storyworld.
The possibility of reading these paratexts as a form of social media leads me to think about how paratextual plot summaries take shape in comics featuring young protagonists. In my dissertation work on contemporary girl-led superhero titles, I have come across a variety of depictions of fictional social media, usually with a real-world counterpart. Many of these, like the YouTube channel Riri might post her vlogs to, serve both as a summary of the continuity thus far and as a meta-commentary on events by the characters themselves, often in an ironic and/or humorous tone. Placed on the threshold of the storyworlds to which they refer, these paratexts play with the conventions of comics and social media alike. They invite readers in, framing the comics as attuned to a youthful audience familiar with the conventions of social media.
The sadly short-lived America (2017-18) written by Gabby Rivera and with recurring art by Joe Quinones, often prefaced issues with a title page formatted as a screengrab of America’s ‘Beamz’-profile (a kind of Snapchat/YouTube/Twitter hybrid). Beamz is referenced occasionally within the comics themselves but never as prominently as on the summary pages.
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl (2015-19) uses a twitter-esque feed in a similar manner, summarizing continuity and teasing events to come. Like America, Unbeatable Squirrel Girl seeks out audiences not necessarily familiar with the superhero genre or the intricacies of the Marvel Universe continuity, instead inviting new readers in by making the stories as accessible as possible through this recognizable format.
As Adrienne Resha points out in The Blue Age of Comics,
“Comics publishers must simultaneously appeal to an aging, homogeneous group of readers and to a younger, heterogeneous group of potential readers. The former expects stories that fit into decades of narrative while also telling new stories about old heroes. The latter group is easier to describe as what it is not: loyal comic book readers. At least, they are not loyal yet. The struggle lies in being able to appeal to both demographics at the same time across what are perceived to be incompatible markets: print and digital.”
Introducing Riri Williams in Invincible Iron Man serves as an attempt to bridge these two groups of readers and the vlog-style panels do a lot of work to include younger and/or new readers. Further, this bridging work encompasses not only digitization of the actual comics, discussed at length by Resha, but also the inclusion of digital cultures such as social media and vlogging. By using the trope of the research log, familiar to readers of Iron Man (as well as of science fiction more broadly) and reframing it as a young girl’s rambling reflections on her life, creators Brian Michael Bendis and Stefano Caselli reach out to a variety of readers. Using paratexts which exist on the borders of the storyworld extends the world of the comics outwards, inflecting all aspects of the comic and its readership with the identity and everyday world of the girl protagonists.
Interestingly, the letters pages in these comics take a more classic form, common to current Marvel comics, of emails from readers. Rather than taking reader questions from, say, Twitter or Tumblr, the letters to the editor look familiar to a more traditional readership. Indeed, the first issue of Invincible Iron Man featuring Riri mainly takes letters from readers who have followed the series before Riri’s introduction, commenting on the new protagonist and storyline. Due to being new titles, America and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl featured correspondence from new readers, some new to superhero comics and others coming over from other publications. All letters were sent via email or as physical mail, however. Although email is a digital form, it does cater mainly to an older audience and the tradition of letters to the editor. The letters pages in The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl refer readers to a Tumblr blog run by the creators but do not reproduce any of this content, nor other online interactions with readers.
Keeping social media interactions and letters pages separate allows creators to draw on the community building potential of both forms. Bringing these platforms for engagement together might further consolidate traditional and new readers, but this strategy is not utilized by the examples discussed here. Instead, the meeting of comics paratext and social media serves the purpose of worldbuilding, drawing readers into a story rather than a community of fans. Perhaps the editors imagine that, to a younger audience, the letters pages are not the touchstone for fan community that they once were? By looking to a different kind of paratext, the plot summary, to draw in newer and younger audiences, the creators are focusing on getting readers into comics, trusting that their engagements with fandom happen elsewhere than through letters pages. And while veteran readers might balk at this notion, the fact that Riri Williams was given her own solo series seems to attest to the success of this strategy. The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl ran for 50 issues without a reboot. And while America was cancelled prematurely, the miniseries America Chavez: Made in the USA is launching its first issue at the time of writing. Girl superheroes are here to stay – and so are their new readers.
How can a comic book’s use of paratexts help it appeal to young readers?
Aaron Kashtan, Lecturer in the University Writing Program at UNC Charlotte
Ryan North, Erica Henderson and Derek Charm’s The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl (2015-2019) is one of the most important superhero comics of the 2010s because of the way it opened up Marvel Comics to new audiences, specifically younger readers. It primarily targeted a young adult and middle-grade audience, a demographic that Marvel had been essentially ignoring for decades. Despite or because of this, Squirrel Girl lasted 58 issues (over two volumes)—and only ended because the creators decided to step away. Such a record of success is shocking, especially given that the series’ protagonist started out as a joke.
What makes Squirrel Girl so effective at reaching young audiences? One significant factor is its use of paratext. Squirrel Girl uses paratext to make young readers feel “in the know”—to interpellate them as savvy readers who actively participate in decoding the text.
Squirrel Girl achieves this effect, first, through its bottom-of-page messages. As I noted in my book Between Pen and Pixel, Squirrel Girl, like Ryan North’s earlier Adventure Time comics, includes a “humorous message in barely legible text at the bottom of each page.” I suggest that “this is essentially an attempt to replicate alt text in print” (100). Alt text is a practice specific to webcomics – such as North’s own Dinosaur Comics – in which a hidden message, usually of a humorous or ironic nature, appears when the reader hovers the cursor over the comic. This alt text serves as an Easter egg, rewarding readers who know about its existence. For convenience, I will refer to Squirrel Girl’s bottom-of-page messages as alt texts, though this is an abuse of terminology. In some printed editions of webcomics, for example in Homestuck, the alt texts from the original digital webcomics were published as footnotes;
By analyzing a random issue of Squirrel Girl chosen as a case study of a typical example of the comic’s use of paratext, seeing how alt text helps make younger readers feel like experts and active participants becomes apparent. USG vol. 2, #27 (February 2018), includes 20 story pages of which 16 have bottom-of-page messages. On page one, Squirrel Girl (Doreen Green) and her squirrel sidekick Tippy-Toe are reminiscing about their earlier encounter with Galactus. Doreen says “You go first. And let’s not leave out one single detail.” The alt text reads “Wow, what a weird thing for Squirrel Girl to say! Ah well, I’m sure everything’s completely fine and normal.” This text acts as ironic foreshadowing, implying that things aren’t fine and that Galactus will soon become highly significant. On the next page, Doreen’s roommate Nancy encounters further references to Doreen’s battle with Galactus, and the alt text references the alt text on the previous page: “WHY ARE THINGS NOT FINE AND NORMAL?” Subsequent alt texts have different functions. On page three, Nancy takes a physics test, and the alt text discusses a silly thing North did when taking a similar test. The alt texts on pages four and five are written in the voices of characters on those pages—respectively, a taxicab driver and Doreen—but these texts don’t represent the characters’ actual words. Rather, they represent humorous extrapolations of the things the characters say on the page. On page five, Doreen shouts “DEATH IS THE WORST, EVERYONE HATES IT” and the alt text i imagines Doreen thinking that even undertakers and funeral directors hate death, although their jobs depend on it. These alt texts help readers feel that they have an even more intimate access to the characters’ thoughts than is provided by the thought balloons because they often allow for deeper, if tangential, glimpses into a character’s psyche.
While most of the issue’s alt texts are either ironic comments or imagined dialogue, others call the reader’s attention to the comic’s visual and material aspects. Later in the same issue, there is a cameo appearance by Biggs the cyborg cat, a character from Chip Zdarsky and Joe Quinones’s run on Howard the Duck. The alt text, written in Biggs’s characteristic speech pattern, is lettered in the font used for his dialogue, whereas the other alt texts are lettered in the same font used for the other dialogue in the issue. The lettering in Biggs’s alt text is an added bonus for readers who are already familiar with this character. Later still, the dialogue includes the logos of Galactus and the Silver Surfer, and the alt text alerts the reader to the unusual typography used for these logos: “I don’t know what sound it makes when people speak in logo fonts in comic books, but I know that whatever it sounds like, it’s totally amazing.”
Still other paratexts help to integrate the comic and its readers into the larger Marvel Universe. The alt-text explains that North “was thiiiis close to naming these squirrel aliens the ‘Chit-auri’”acts like DVD commentary, offering behind-the-scenes information on the comic’s creation. It also references the Chitauri aliens, familiar from the MCU Avengers movie. When the villain Dormammu appears, Squirrel Girl pulls out a trading card from the fictional “Deadpool’s Guide to Super-Villains” set explaining Dormammu’s history and powers. The card also mentions “Dorm Ammu,” a different character invented for the sake of this joke, and the alt text speculates on what Dorm Ammu might be doing. All these paratextual features make young readers feel like experts on the Marvel Universe. This distinguishes Squirrel Girl from other Marvel comic books for younger audiences, such as the Marvel Adventures imprint (2003-2012) or IDW’s current Marvel Action titles. These latter comics are set in a universe of their own which has much simpler continuity than most Marvel comics. By contrast, Squirrel Girl is firmly grounded in the “real” Marvel Universe, and its paratexts make readers feel capable of understanding that universe’s tangled web of characters. This use of paratext is in keeping with Ryan North’s policy of not talking down to his readers (as another example of this, his stories often include accurate information about computer science).
The alt texts aren’t the only paratexts in Squirrel Girl #27. As usual, the issue begins with a page of Doreen and Nancy’s Twitter posts. As noted in a sidebar, Doreen and Nancy’s Twitter handles actually exist on Twitter, so this paratext extends the comic into digital spaces. In the same way that Squirrel Girl’s alt texts serve as a print version of a functionality associated with digital texts, Squirrel Girl‘s Twitter feeds help to create a connection between print and digital spaces. Also as usual, the comic includes a letters page; it features a drawing and two photos submitted by readers, as well as photos of North’s baby nephew. The coexistence of the letters page and the Twitter feed is another example of how Squirrel Girl synthesizes print and digital modes of text. Finally, the issue ends with three pages of trading cards from “Tippy-Toe’s Guide to Squirrel Girl.” These cards act as a recap of the series for new readers, and they also include Tippy-Toe’s ironic comments.
In summary, Squirrel Girl’s paratexts act as a way into or out of the comic for readers, especially newer and younger readers. The alt texts make the reader feel like an expert: they reward the reader for noticing them, and they provide the reader with additional information not contained in the text proper. Furthermore, the alt texts work in tandem with other paratexts, including the comic’s letters pages and its Twitter accounts, to make the reader feel like a member of the comic’s community and to help readers understand relationships between print and digital texts. While Squirrel Girl is over now, it will be interesting to see whether future children’s comics adopt similar paratextual tactics. Squirrel Girl’s skillful use of paratexts may help explain why young readers went nuts for it. Moreover, the use of paratext to interpellate readers is not a strategy that can only be used in children’s comics. How might other types of comics use paratext differently to appeal to different demographics of readers?
Are hashtags the next phase of evolution for letters columns?
Adrienne Resha, Ph.D. candidate in American Studies at the College of William & Mary
In “The Blue Age of Comic Books,” I wrote, “Many industry professionals are active across social media, and the letters columns that once graced the back pages of comic books have been all but replaced and in some cases augmented by Twitter and, to a lesser degree, Tumblr and Facebook.” Although some contemporary series, like The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, have maintained letters columns and others, like Champions, have incorporated tweets from readers into their printed backmatter, traditional letters columns are not as prevalent today as they were decades before or in the years immediately after the advent of social media. Now, instead of asking for letters to be physically mailed to Marvel editorial, letters are solicited via email or over Twitter. Social media has changed the way that readers interact with comic books, with creators, and with each other. At no point in the last decade has this been more evident than it has in the lead up to Marvel’s Dawn of X (DoX), a revival of their X-Men line of comics.
Between July 24th and October 19th, 2019, House of X by writer Jonathan Hickman and artist Pepe Larraz alternated with Powers of X by Hickman and artist R.B. Silva. Over these three months, letters from readers were not solicited for the backmatter of the comics, which—unlike those on a more traditional publication schedule of twelve issues over twelve months—were printed (and digitally distributed) weekly. Despite the use of #HouseOfX and #PowersOfX hashtags to promote the ongoing twin series by the verified @Marvel account, readers used #XSpoilers and #HoXPoX to tag tweets about them.
The #XSpoilers and #HoXPoX hashtags made up of readers’ tweets are next generation, digital paratexts. Thomas Doherty describes paratexts as “the satellite debris orbiting and radiating out from the core text” or “what Wolverine action figures are to the X-Men franchise.” However, in this instance, the paratexts are not explicitly condoned by the publisher. Unlike print letters or material solicited digitally via email or hashtags associated with Marvel, the publisher does not necessarily assume any responsibility for what appears within the #XSpoilers and #HoXPoX hashtags. Further, these hashtags are not subject to editorial oversight. Editors in the X-Office can select or reject letters for publication but are not able to curate tweets appearing in either reader-generated hashtag.
Anyone able to register and use an account on Twitter may contribute to a hashtag. However, tweets are subject to algorithms, which determine their reach and affect their reception. Tweets from users with more followers are more likely to be seen by more people. The time of day can also affect engagement (likes, retweets, and impressions – the number of times a tweet has been seen). The best time to tweet is midday Eastern Standard Time, between nine and thirteen hours after the digital release of a comic on any given Wednesday. Hashtags can also make tweets less visible, as #XSpoilers was invoked to allow Twitter users to either selectively search out or mute (remove from visibility on their personal timelines) the hashtag in order to avoid seeing such tweets before they could read each individual issue (or House of X/Powers of X as a whole). According to comichron.com, the single issue House of X #1 sold 185,630 copies to brick-and-mortar retailers, while Powers of X #1 sold 167,840 copies. Assuming that even half of these print purchases represent one reader buying one issue (as opposed to one reader buying multiple copies of a single issue, which is probable, especially with the availability of variant covers and collectability of #1 issues) and ignoring digital readers (and pirates) entirely, there are at least 80,000 readers. While, neither the #XSpoilers nor #HoXPoX hashtags can be taken as representative of this readership, these hashtags can be understood as representative of more of the readership than letters columns have been or can be, if only because tweets are not screened by editors or creators, and are especially so in the absence of a letters column.
Comic books have long been participatory media, but their potential to be a more (but never completely) democratic participatory media has been exponentially increased by the advent of digital technologies, especially social media. There are more barriers to getting a letter published as a print paratext than there are to creating a Twitter account and using a hashtag. Hashtags are digital paratexts that facilitate the circulation of tweets ranging from reaction memes (often using screenshots of digital comic books) to anticipatory theories. In contributing original and modified content to these hashtags, readers become creators. The platform on which these hashtags circulate invites active and reactive participation from readers-turned-creators, who continue to use #XSpoilers to talk about the DoX series that spun out of House of X/Powers of X and industry professionals (who are also, often, readers-turned-creators although with contracts) alike. As more (and younger, more diverse, and often queer) professional creators (like writers Tini Howard, Vita Ayala, and Leah Williams) have joined the proverbial Bullpen (or literal X-Slack), there has been a visible increase in interaction with readers online. Take, for instance, X-Factor writer Williams and artist David Baldeon’s #XFAQtor, a DoX hashtag proposed by fans and actively used by pros. Hashtags might not ever totally replace the letters column but they could very well prove to be or become, with or without the letters column, the new backmatter chatter. Just as readers, historically, have used the letters column to find and build community, so too do contemporary, Blue Age readers use social media to find and build community. Now, however, they do so in a place that is neither totally apart from nor totally a part of the paratexts and texts produced by Marvel. The publisher uses hashtags to interact with readers, who use different hashtags to interact with each other (and sometimes creators), all in the orbit of a core text that is, has been, and will be influenced by readers now, historically, and in the future as the core text and its paratexts continue to evolve.
How do we begin to contextualize comics paratexts within the endless and invisible iterability of the Internet?
Kalervo Sinervo, postdoctoral scholar at the University of Calgary
The textuality of those books we’ve read over and over again down the years are as important as the stories they contain and comics can speak to this more than most forms of text. A Millennial rereading a comic from the 1990s can transport back to the cultural context of the video game console wars; a Baby Boomer rereading a comic from the 1960s may suddenly recall their long-forgotten membership to the Merry Marvel Marching Society. Comics paratexts like advertisements, editorials, and even publication information, anchor the comics content in particular cultural moments. But with the advent of networked online culture and the continuing digitization of comics today, what happens to these historical markers? Does the instability of the digital paratext unmoor comics irrevocably?
Take, for example, Marvel’s The Immortal Iron Fist Annual #1 (2007). Even the annum of this “Annual” special is distorted by digital paratextuality. There are multiple channels through which to view this comic online, including the Marvel Unlimited (MU) web portal and readcomicsonline.to (RCO). These two ways of reading online demonstrate myriad schisms in paratextual material: MU has a Help function as well as an info panel telling you the comic’s publication date, the date it was added to the Marvel Unlimited service, the imprint, creators, and a synopsis of the issue. The RCO version, meanwhile, is populated with all sorts of ads. Which are “true” paratexts? It may seem simple to surmise that the MU version must lie closer to the truth, but the info panel erroneously suggests that the comic was published in 2016. The RCO version’s cover image suggests a publication date of 2012, but this too is incorrect, which clicking ahead to the next page reveals.
My own interests in this area also go to the textual fringes of pirated comics, as they point to highly engaged actors serving as cultural intermediaries, illicitly redistributing the comics they themselves have purchased. Unlike the ones you read in a browser or app, these comics are relatively static files, usually formatted as .cbz or .cbr files (meaning they function more or less like PDFs). This is one way to address the methodological problem of scope that comes with doing research on the Internet—find an unmoving baseline object against which to compare other iterations. The folks who pirate these comics (sometimes called “scanners”) often retain all the paratextual materials of the comic from where they sourced it, but also frequently append their own digital signatures on the file indicating their scanner pseudonyms. They might also attach an encouragement to go out and buy the comic you’re reading if you enjoyed it, a memorial page for a creator who recently passed away, or even fond wishes for the holidays.
These traces speak volumes about comics fandom because they’ve been remediated and remixed by fans. Scanner tags can be embedded subtly in the art somewhere or appear as a totally new page, and almost always consist of collaged art from somewhere else—some other comic, medium, or property. In the case of the scanned Iron Fist Annual, the scanner tag takes the form of a coupon in the back of the issue for the “world’s deadliest scanning secrets” in homage to the mail-away offers often included in older comics. Elsewhere, scanners have remixed X-Box packaging art, splash pages from other comics, photoshopped screengrabs from superhero movies…the possibilities are endless. These are the kinds of subversive paratexts you only get in digital comics, and call into question the entire way we have to consider creative contribution in the 21st century. Scanners follow in a tradition pioneered by the scanlators who helped bring manga to the English-speaking market by not only scanning and illicitly redistributing Japanese comics online, but doing the obviously creative and transformative work of translating them as well. The creative contributions of scanners are less clear-cut. Does a scanner tag embedded right under the creative team’s names on the cover of the issue constitute remix culture, or just brazen copyright infringement? Do they imply some sort of pirate author-function, attempting to invert Foucault’s concept of authorship as coded power?
If scanner tags can confuse the provenance of pirated comics, the rest of their paratexts tend to offer clarity. The scanned Iron Fist Annual contains all the hypotextual publication information without any contradictory indicators: The Immortal Iron Fist Annual #1 was published in 2007. It also retains the original advertisements. While this may not seem terribly important to preserving the story, it’s extremely useful for researchers looking to contextualize comics historically and arguably, similarly useful for all readers interested in better connecting to shared culture. This presents a conundrum: if the most broadly useful and accurate digital version of this comic is pirated, how do we ethically conduct research? This quandary, however, is less relevant moving forward: since the industry shift to simultaneous release, fewer and fewer comics are actually scanned, and more are ripped from official digital platforms like MU—platforms where, as we’ve already established, paratexts are subject to change. This means that even new pirated comics may reflect inaccurate publication information going forward.
Ultimately, the paratexts of digital comics reflect the same touchstone problems we grapple with in all online life and media: targeted advertising, the difficulty of archiving the digital ephemera, cookies and trackers, surveillance—all of these are virtually traceless products of what Orit Halpern calls the “cloudy architecture” of the Internet. On sites like RCO, you can read a comic online with sidebar and banner ads for a local restaurant or an item you recently viewed at an online retailer in your browser. Next week, you may return to the same comic, at the same URL, and find those pieces replaced by reflections of your even more recent browsing behavior. But then, should we even consider these ads as paratexts of the comics themselves, or paratexts of the platforms on which we find them? What about the URLs themselves? What about if you turn on an adblocker? In the Blue Age of Comic Books (which, as the term’s progenitor Adrienne Resha reminds us, is marked by digital networks and platforms), we’re well-served to wrestle with such questions as our reading habits change. When the power of the paratext is derived from contextualizing a comic’s content within the cultural moment of its creation, the mutability of that paratext is urgently relevant, reshaping our relationship to history.
We would like to thank all of the contributors to the Reading Comics at the Threshold round table for their insightful inquiry into the role of paratexts in comics and to invite other scholars and thinkers to consider joining the conversation, not just in the comments or on social media but to consider pitching a guest post of your own on the subject or any of its various intersections. These round tables require a great deal of work and coordination, but they are a crucial contribution to public scholarship in the field, and The Middle Spaces will continue to organize them yearly around different themes, so there will be future opportunities to participate. The 2021 round table may be delayed a bit because of continued pandemic related scheduling difficulties, but it will come. Keep your eyes (and ears) open and consider subscribing to The Middle Spaces (Infrequent) Newsletter to keep abreast of news.