(Please click on all images — they’re much easier to see in the big versions.)

Over at The Panelists, in the comments to Derik’s really terrific post on Blaise Larmee’s Magic Forest, I’ve been harassing Charles Hatfield a bit about the theoretical status of “sequence” in comics studies. For me, the importance of sequence is always overstated in a way that I think limits what the term “comics” can be appropriately applied to and, even worse, emphasizes one subset of elements within comics – the sequential, narrative ones – at the expense of the metaphorical and structural aspects I find more interesting.


Charles asked me this:

can you remember a comic, or imagine a comic, in which some presumption of sequence did not play a part in your experience of it?

The phrase “some presumption of sequence” is pretty open – Charles clarifies later on that he includes any reading protocol in this category, so in this formulation, I either “read” the comic, in which case it’s sequential, or I don’t read it – in which case why isn’t it just visual art? That’s maybe loading the dice a little.

But all reading protocols aren’t sequential or serial. There are recursive reading protocols. In prose literature, writing that invites those recursive protocols generally accompanies more sequential narrative writing, it rarely stands entirely on its own, but it’s still a different reading protocol from the one we follow when we read sequentially. Metaphorical conceits often come together at the level of recursive reading. I can definitely think of examples of books where my experience of recursion played a stronger role than my experience of sequence. Charles made many useful observations about sequence in the comments that I’m just beginning to think through, but I wanted to offer up the best — and purest — example of recursive reading in comics that I could think of:

Saul Steinberg’s The Passport is my favorite “graphic novel” although I’m probably the only person who’d ever call it that. Composed in 1954, it is graphically forward looking:

It has inventive drawing – such as this wonderful page exploring how little you need in a cartoon to make sense.

It has rollicking humor:

But most importantly it provides meaningful insight into the emptiness of America’s conformist and self-absorbed middle- and upper-class culture, which he critiques without any trace of schadenfreude and little irony. Those recurring elements work throughout to give structure to that critique; for example, the “blockhead” character in the “Think” panel above also appears as an “empty head”:

Both signal the manifestation of that self-absorption as lack of wisdom and perspective. This visual trope of emptiness, for example, here appearing on its own, is later combined with other tropes — lavishly decorated urban environments and exotic locales, as well as garish clothing, used to signal the consumptive, conspicuous excess of bourgeois life — to build a representation of the inherent tensions and contradictions of the middle-class routine.

It’s also put together with what passes for “realism” in his scenery as part of his critique of the bourgeois taste for exoticism:

Very few tropes carry only one signification though — the geometric blocked-head also references a “square” character, and when combined with the garish fashions (generally, but not always, for women), signifies a person whose clothes are more expressive than she is. Steinberg’s term “Americanerie” applies here (although his coinage, derived from the French bondieuserie, dates to two decades earlier) but by this volume, he’s entirely cognizant that Americanerie is thoroughly kitsch.

As semiotically rich as it is, though, the book lacks any discernable “narrative arc” – there’s a vague “get the passport, go places” setup in the beginning but it is not sustained for more than a few pages and is tenuous even there. Specific characters rarely reoccur or even congeal into “characters” in the conventional narrative sense, although styles of representing characters, graphical elements recur throughout and form the backbone of the structure. There is an order to the images, but the order itself does not affect the meaning – you could invent a narrative arc for this work, following the order that the images are placed in, but it would be your invention, not Steinberg’s. Steinberg’s order is deliberately, provocatively recursive, and sequence is largely besides the point.

The structure of this book – for it does have structure, just not sequential or serial or narrative structure – is as imaginative and challenging as that found in the prose writing experiments of mid-century, experiments which were beginning, also in New York around the same time, with William Burroughs and the Beats.

Although most lovers of cartoons will express affection for Steinberg, he and his work have been carefully marginalized away from the “center” of comics history. Perhaps the root of the problem is the notion that single-panel cartoons aren’t “comics,” which has always felt specious to me. But there is no question that Steinberg’s experimental sensibility was on par with any literary writer, and the output of his pen is equally important to history. Comics studies and comics theory should definitely have a tent big enough to include him: if for whatever reason it’s important to exclude non-sequential “cartooning” from “comics,” then someone really needs to come up with an umbrella term.

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