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Narrative Structure in Comics: Making Sense of Fragments by Barbara Postema

Barbara Postema organizes her book about making sense of comics the way I was imagining organizing my own hypothetical one. She starts with single panels, then moves on to the relationships between panels, then the whole page, and finally the sequence of pages. Basically, she starts with the smallest elements of comics and then moves up in size. Her goal is to examine how these various elements function, but she doesn’t seem interested in developing some grand theory full of neologisms, as Thierry Groensteen does in The System of Comics. This makes for a book that is fairly accessible on the one hand, but a little unclear about its goals on the other.

The main focus of every chapter is Postema’s analysis of specific comics and I think this analysis is what may be most useful to people. If you want some more insight into The Golem’s Mighty Swing or Shutterbug Follies, then you may enjoy this book. Postema is a careful reader and exhaustively describes elements of the comics she discusses. This is a strength, though I also found it to be a bit tedious at times. In some instances, the descriptions are of factual details in an image and so seem redundant when paired with the very image she describes. Also, these long descriptions sometimes lack a clearly stated point in the beginning, so that one has to slog through a few pages to see what Postema is getting at. Still, she makes many insightful comments and I enjoy how she weaves in other theorists, such as Barthes and Groensteen.

The question I have here is: who is this book for? I think that the book is aimed at academics who want to engage with comics, but are unsure of how to do so. But Postema doesn’t present a systematic way of doing this. Instead she presents a series of observations about the different elements of comics, as if she were saying “take a look at this and try something similar in your own comics reading.” She wants to show how one might bring the theories of Barthes, Bakhtin, or Eco to bear on comics reading. But it’s more of a suggestion by example than a clear program. Also, she refers to comics that people who aren’t already immersed in comics reading probably haven’t heard of, such as Shutterbug Follies. I am all for expanding the canon, but this may alienate people new to comics instead of draw them in. Also, Postema goes into deep analysis of certain scenes of comics that are not reproduced in the book. This means that we cannot see what she means; we just have to take her word for it. And if you have never read the comic she is analyzing, then you are completely lost. In fairness, this is a problem I see in a lot of writing about comics. Comics essays tend to be styled like literature essays: lots of verbal analysis with a few quotations thrown in as evidence. Yet since comics is a visual medium, the evidence needs to be shown visually. Maybe this is difficult to do because getting the rights to images is a challenge. Yet I suspect the real reason is that the genre of criticism is steeped in words. It doesn’t yet integrate images very well (ironically). Also, as Neil Cohn points out, the appendix on comics terminology in the book is odd. Its inclusion seems to signify that this book is for people less familiar with comics and comics criticism. Yet the appendix only contains five terms, and those terms are only the most basic, such as panel and gutter. The terms that Postema uses to analyze comics, such as paratextual, syntagym, or the difference she makes between sequence and series, are not listed. I guess she or her editor assumed that these terms are sufficiently defined in the text. But oddly, many of these terms also don’t show up in the index.

All criticisms aside, I am really glad this books exists. Most books written about comics by academics for academics make odd assumptions or demonstrate shocking gaps in understanding. Postema doesn’t have these problems. For instance, she understands that comics is primarily a visual medium and doesn’t get hung up on the old saw that comics simply puts pictures and words together. The more wannabe comics theorists who understand this the better, and I thank Postema for trying to set them straight.

Also, as the title of the book implies, Postema sees how the various fragments of comics, its elements, work together to create a coherent narrative structure. For instance, she goes into some detail explaining how images in comics both represent things (the iconic level) and also signify ideas and associated meanings (the connotative level). While literary theorists understand the difference between denotation and connotation and how the two may work in, say, a poem, for some reason when the same theorists look at pictures they assume that the pictures just convey what they show. They are blinded by the representational. They miss the connotative possibilities and so miss a large arena in which comics function. The examples Postema gives to explain this from Julie Doucet and Jason Little are lucid. As I said, Postema’s strength is careful analysis, or, to use a term that has fallen out of favor in some places, her close reading.

Another idea that she brings up that I really am getting a lot out of is the relationship comics has to time. Scott McCloud makes much of this also in Understanding Comics, yet Postema’s observation explains how images in comics, even in a single panel, are different than images in painting and photography. This is due to how comics relate to time. If one looks at a painting or a photograph, what one sees is a frozen moment. The image seems static and timeless. Yet a comics panel implies the movement of time. “The moment that is shown is unfinished. It asserts itself as a fragment of a larger whole” (Postema 13). This is an idea that I want to write about more and I have to credit Postema for helping me in this direction.

Overall, Postema’s book acknowledges that comics is an art form that is capable of a complex interplay of its elements. In the end, she states that comics demand a lot of work from the reader (121). If I am right and this book is aimed at academics who are considering comics to teach or research, such an argument is essential, not just to counteract the negative assumptions of the past, but to seriously move comics criticism forward.

Get the book here.

Other reviews:

Derek Royal
Neil Cohn


(written July 13, 2015)