[Comics] as Reading – Chapter 2 – [Manga] pt. 3

PREVIOUS: [Manga] pt. 2

2. Periodic[al] Reading

Puck advertising (and [comic]) page from 1907

Puck advertising (and [comic]) page from 1907

In the comments section to an earlier version of the argument[s] about to follow, Stewart, in response to my reading of a particular page from the July 31st, 1907 issue of Puck (above), gave what I presume to be a rather likely objection to the entire purview of this chapter.

The structure of [Puck] cartoons is fairly consistent, and for this reason they would have stood out to the regular reader (even to me now) on the advertising page. (i.e. almost all cases there is a very clear visual distinction on the picture plane of what is a cartoon and what is an ad.)

My response at the time focused on a number of phenomena that caused me to doubt this assertion.

While you can argue that the framing devices used in [Puck][1] for their strips is relatively consistent (I assume this is what you mean by clear visual distinction on the picture plane), in the 1890s and 1900s, strips on interior pages and not the cover (i.e. the six panel cartoons you typically see on the back cover page) often have their panels distributed over several pages and often among the single “panel” ads, meaning the connection between panels-as-unified strip has to be made, in a very basic sense, within the context of any [reader’s] interpretive act. That alone is probably not significant, but if you consider how advertisements across all periodicals, not just [Puck], occasionally use [comic] tropes in their illustrations, the obvious distinction between a [comic] panel and an ad “panel” breaks down somewhat. The Monkey Brand soap ads in the [Illustrated London News] from roughly this period are a good example of advertisements clearly aping the formal characteristics of contemporary cartoons (e.g. word balloons, [they’re] humorous, etc.).

It is a grave mistake to assume that distinctions between visual types somehow inhere in any given [comic] text or that, if they do not inhere, such distinctions would simply be obvious to any given reader.  We learn to make these distinctions through regular engagement with an ever changing textual landscape of print media.

Not all print matter are designed with the same reading conventions in mind: a miscellany, a broadsheet, a Victorian novel, and a newspaper all have different types of reading “in mind,” even if there is no brain to speak of, and as such are created so as to be amenable to the kind of reading they incline to.  Now, let me be clear: this never rises beyond the level of inclination, due to the gross overlap in formal features of all print texts, and a given text may, in fact, be susceptible to a form of reading not at all intended.  So, a text does not hypothesize a form; at best, it can only ever suggest it and hope any given reader takes the advice.  That said, the differences in expectation as manifest in design render certain acts of reading awkward or inappropriate.  People would think you had lost your mind, if you were to rip out chapters seven and fifteen of a novel and read only those, but no one would bat an eyelash at one person taking the sports page, another the [comic] insert, and yet another the op/ed section of a Sunday paper.  You might only read one article in a magazine or use it to find the number to call for tickets, and yet neither of these acts, which overlap very little and might be poorly served by a book of poems, appear especially out of line.  It would be a mistake to assume that literary analysis and checking whether a recipe has two or three eggs in it are of a fundamentally different order, even if their particulars and modes of expression—a monograph or a flan—cause them to appear radically different.

What exactly, then, does a print periodical, this textual object in which [comics] are so often found but not perfectly identifiable with them, “have in mind?”  One could speak of periodicals (pl.), material things disseminated according to certain, generally serial, conditions, the knowledge of which survives imperfectly in a number of formats, analog and digital.  One could also speak of a—I hesitate to say the—print periodical (sing.), whose identity is more or less elusive.  It is, to put it far too simply, a multi-modal conceptual framework that one might readily identify in periodicals (pl.) but has metastasized[2] well beyond them into media (or textual) conditions one would likely never identify as such, a webpage, for instance (c.f. Chapter 4).  It is a framework for distributing a number of graphic—understood here in terms of both [etched] images and writing—objects in a layout where they might potentially be read as discrete or in tandem.  Layout implies no necessary relationship between these objects nor does it exclude relationship, precisely because such a juncture or distinction originates not in “the text itself” but in any given reading of a periodical (sing.).  A print periodical (sing.) embeds graphic objects, even where one might identify a thousand periodicals (pl.) where no such arrangement of disparate elements seems to exist.  A print periodical (sing.) does not necessitate such a layout but remains always amenable to it.  This is why we can take any of the seemingly singular [comic] texts, like the many “graphic novels” we are now saddled with, and read them in terms of a print periodical (sing.) framework that at first glance they appear not to resemble.[3]

Rakuten manga-shū taisei vol. 1 p. 170-1

Scan from Rakuten manga-shū taisei vol. 1 p. 170-1

This multi-modal framework can be seen in one of Rakuten’s many treatments of women in contemporary society: a two page spread from Tokyo Puck vol. 7 no. 17 (1911).  Here we have two large and, to my mind, sympathetic portraits of two types of Japanese woman, one, as Rakuten says, “awakened to the rights of her sex” (i.e. a suffragette), and the other “awakened to the duties of her sex” (i.e. the good wife/mother that became the feminine ideal, at least in official/authorized discourses).  Above these two women we have a [comic] strip displaying the domestic ineptitude of the suffragette, and below a [comic] depicting the obnoxious fawning of a wife overly devoted to her husband/master.  We have here, not contrasted, but juxtaposed the two types of what are not in fact the traditional and the new woman but two types of the new woman.  Each is represented sympathetically and lampooned, and the tensions between them are not resolved in any discernible way.  Rakuten assists his readers, even those who might be ideologically opposed to each other, to see these new types of women in a variety of ways, thereby destabilizing the notion that one is to be valorized over the other.

From one perspective, it could be said that what we have in this spread are, in fact, four wholly distinct graphic objects: a portrait of a dutiful wife, an educated young woman, and two comic strips.  One does not need to read them in tandem.  It is entirely possible that one’s prejudices might gravitate only to denigrating housewifery or only to valorizing the rights of women by focusing solely on the bottom strip or the portrait on the right.  It is also possible to combine these two ideological positions by, incidentally, also combining readings of these “two” graphic elements into “one.”  The totalizing appreciation of multiple perspectives held in tension is one that appeals to me and, I suppose, Rakuten as well, but it is not one that can be counted on, precisely because there are at least as many readers of this text (be they Japanese-, Chinese-, or English-speaking [or something else!]) as there are potential readings of it.  Moreover, because the framework, the layout, most commonly encountered within the context of a print periodical (sing.) allows for the casual disregard of any or even most of its embedded elements,[4] none of these readings can, to my mind, be considered wholly inappropriate, even when they ignore graphic objects that are, in fact, right there on the same page.  Similarly, an English only reader might overlook the Chinese and Japanese text, while another (vaguely resembling myself) might compare the English with the Japanese and, perhaps, only pretend to have a sense of whether the Chinese is an acceptable rendering of either.  Neither of these readers treats this two page spread more or less appropriately, precisely because the expectation that you would pay attention to and focus on every little thing on the page borders on maniacal.

Winsor McCay, Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, 7 January 1905

In the context of Winsor McCay’s [comics], Katharine Roeder links this propensity to browse, as it were, with the commercial spaces of urban environments.

McCay was an artist who continually looked to his own environment for inspiration, and the world of retail merchandising was no exception.  Given his office’s close proximity to Manhattan’s most renowned shopping quarter, it was inevitable that he would draw inspiration from the retail sector.  Not only do department store strategies of display and advertising find their way into McCay’s work—parallels can also be drawn between the visual and temporal experiences of window shopping and comics reading. (Wide Awake in Slumberland 120)

Roeder emphasizes McCay’s proximity to a particular [textual] landscape and how that registers a profound effect on his work, just as I have tried to emphasize how proximity of certain graphic objects reflects explicitly on how they might potentially be understood.  Roeder later elaborates on how these two modes of reading overlap.

The funny papers and window displays served similar purposes: both were adopted as a measure to improve circulation by using color and eye-catching design to beckon the casual passerby to pause and examine its contents… Like “reading” a comic strip, viewing a department store window is sometimes a temporal experience that requires the viewer to interweave the narration of different framed objects.  Window frames compartmentalize the display into sections, just as the comic strip narrative is divided into panels.  The viewer is required to pass by each window in order to comprehend the narrative of the display [?], just as a reader must pause and absorb each individual comic strip panel in order to make sense of the story.[5]  In both cases the viewer controls the pace at which the narrative unfolds. (ibid. 121-2)

Here, Roeder and I must part ways.  Somewhere in my ellipsis in the above quote, she alludes to Ellen Gruber Garvey’s understanding of the relationship between show windows and magazine advertisements: “the reader freely explores the magazine pages and chooses what content to peruse, just as one navigates a department store and gravitates towards objects of interest.”  This strikes me as woefully naïve and ignorant of how the layout both of periodical pages and stores are designed in such a way as to constrain any “free reading” thereof and guide readers/shoppers toward things they might not otherwise be predisposed to consider.

For some time now, grocery stores, for instance, have been organized according to a principle where those items which might be considered luxuries or which have a high return on investment are placed near the front of the store, as you walk in, close to the entrance, whereas those items that are considered to be staples, what you might have gone there for in the first place, are generally located in the back and as far away from the entrance as possible.  Located in the front, then, are items such as fresh produce, bakery products, and convenience foods, all typically presented in the most visually appealing manner possible, things you might likely pick up in addition to staples but perhaps would give no thought to if, say, the milk and eggs were ready to hand immediately as you enter.  The average grocery store is laid out in such a way as to force you to walk past any number of items you might have no intention of buying in the hope that merely seeing it will induce you to purchase it.

Likewise, newspapers use a similar trick to guide a reader through far more of the paper’s content than she might otherwise be predisposed.  Consider the common practice of using ledes on the first page of newspaper sections to hook a reader onto a given topic of interest only to then move them to a completely different page, so as to finish reading the article in question.  The lede might summarize or tantalizingly hint at what is to come, but the point is to compel the reader to see more of the newspaper than she might otherwise be inclined if the entire article were there on the front page.  This partitioned structure, wherein “whole” articles are divided among two or more pages encourages, if not forces, one to engage in a reading practice where one flips back and forth several times over the same pages in an attempt to draw attention to articles, say, with no lede or to advertisements, a major source of revenue for periodicals of this kind.  Even without this partitioning, periodicals still possess a number of design tricks that indicate greater importance or emphasis on a given graphic object.  For instance, there is the greater weight given to those items that appear above as opposed to below the fold (of a broadsheet) and the use of larger or bolder typefaces in order to grab the attention of an eye otherwise “freely” scanning the page.  Thus, while Roeder’s drawing a connection between comic strip and shop window layout might be apt, its insistence on narrative as a conceptual frame leads her argument into disquieting territory.

NEXT: [Manga] pt. 4

[1] The emendations in this quote are mostly to fix my typos, not to make some grand statement about indeterminacy.

[2] The more common contemporary sense of metastasis as the sudden appearance of tumors first identified in one organ in another seemingly unrelated is not an inept metaphor, but I have the rhetorical sense of an argument repurposed to argue against the one who originated it in mind.  Henry Peachum, in his Garden of Eloquence (1597), warns that “This figure is of little force without a reason annexed to the objection returned, for to denie the one, and to affirme the other without shewing reason of that is said, is a verie feeble manner of confutation or accusation, and is more meete for children and fooles then for men of understanding and wisedome.”  Metastasis is, perhaps, a slightly more sophisticated version of “I’m rubber, you’re glue,” but given the context, a juvenile mode of argumentation seems especially apt.

[3] Though [comic] books and magazines, in the publishing world, are considered distinct formats, it’s worth remembering that even ye olde [comic] book as much in common with other periodicals: letters columns, editorials, advertisements, etc.

[4] Consider the common use of the lede in newspaper layouts, which provides a teaser and/or summary paragraph to an article the majority of which appears somewhere else in the paper.  The process of reading the article in its entirety from beginning to end would require a reader to skip over everything else that appears on the same page as the lede to jump about the text of the newspaper, often several times, in a manner that openly flaunts the idea of simple sequence. In F. M. Howarth’s “A Dark Mistake” in Puck 36.925 (Nov. 28) p. 237f, we see a rather clear example of how even the “obvious structure” of a [comic] strip cannot be taken for granted.  In one panel, a man is walking back into a train car to where his wife is sitting, when in the next panel (on the same page) we are given dialogue appended to a simple black square, presumably the darkness as the train enters a tunnel.  It is only after turning the page, N.B. amidst a number of advertisements, do we see that the man has begun smooching the not terribly attractive woman in the seat just beyond his wife’s.  In this one strip, we see something very much like the lede structure noted above and not at all a simple sequence.

[5] Except, this is not how one reads.  Eye-tracking experiments make quite clear that a reader’s gaze does not move in progression from one isolated element to another but rather flits across the surface of the page often backtracking to portions already gazed upon and skipping ahead to words, phrases, images and what have you far afield from where the attention appears to be focused.  Thus, reading a sentence or a paragraph or a page is not a step by step march from word to word and line to line but a process of scanning wherein sense emerges as a function of numerous passes over a given textual surface, be it a page or screen or some other textual thing.


  1. My written text for the Roeder quotes appears not to have the p. #’s. I’ll add them, once I find them in my handwritten notes.

  2. […] I wavered very little in my critical opinion, when it came time to address a similar concern in chapter two of [Comics] as Reading, Ron’s criticism not only made clear to me how I ought to frame my […]

  3. […] would argue, then, in parallel to my argument in Chapter 2, that the unconscious of web design is the print periodical (sing.), what with its non-necessary […]

  4. […] palpable ambivalence in Japanese society about what gender roles were becoming in the modern age.  We see this ambivalence elsewhere in Rakuten’s manga, where both the “new” and “traditional” modes of Japanese femininity are […]

  5. […]  This literary miscegenation so readily apparent in print periodicals was a recurring theme in the second chapter of [Comics] as Reading.  All apologies for quoting myself, but I put it much better […]

  6. […] [comics], advertising, and the total illustration landscape of a newspaper or magazine, because, as I argued in my book, the premises upon which to make hard and fast distinctions between graphic elements in a […]

  7. […] the process of writing today’s post I was reminded of this Rakuten comic I talk about at greater length in the second chapter of my book project.  What keeps bringing me back to this image is the sheer variety of readings it leaves itself open […]

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