Worlds Within Worlds: Audiences, Jargon, And North American Comics Discourse

ASU Author/Contributor (non-ASU co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Ph.D.. Craig Fischer, Professor (Creator)
Appalachian State University (ASU )
Web Site:

Abstract: Let me begin by describing four recent acts of comics criticism, all connected to each other like dominoes falling: 1 English translation of Le Piège diabolique (Paris: Lombard-Dargaud, 1962) published in the U.S. by (...)2The first act: In 2007, the University Press of Mississippi published an English-language translation of Thierry Groensteen’s The System of Comics (Système de la bande dessinée, 1999). In their foreword to System, translators Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen anticipate obstacles to the American reception of Groensteen’s ideas, arguing that American scholars are unfamiliar with the “dominant schools of visual analysis” (viii), most notably semiotics, that inform Groensteen’s approach. Additionally, Beaty and Nguyen point out that some of examples Groensteen brings up come from international artists whose works remain unknown in the United States. As Beaty and Nguyen write, “To call E.P. Jacobs a ‘wordy’ cartoonist is one thing, but for readers who have not been raised on a diet of Blake and Mortimer albums, the specificity of this off-hand comment may well be lost” (ix). Personally, I recognized many of Groensteen’s examples; I own a translated version of the Blake and Mortimer adventure The Time Trap1, so I know how text-heavy Jacobs’ comics are. Also, Groensteen cites several English-language comics—Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen (1987), for instance, and “The Plot Thickens,” a Bill Griffith strip from Raw #2 (1980)—that I and other American comics readers would recognize.3The second and third acts: Two reviews of the English-language System appeared in The Comics Journal #284 (July 2007). The first reviewer, critic and teacher Leonard Rifas, begins by accusing Beaty and Nguyen of elitism. Rifas calls Beaty and Nguyen’s claim that part of System’s difficulty for U.S. readers lies in Groensteen’s use of unfamiliar textual examples a “preemptive insult,” since it implies that “if you fail to be moved by this superlative work, this must be because of your own lamentable ignorance” (99). After summarizing some of Groensteen’s arguments (his survey of previous definitions of the comics medium, and his coining of concepts like “spatio-topia” and “arthology”), Rifas concludes by accusing Groensteen of academic obfuscation, writing that System appears to offer the insufficiently prepared reader an unnecessarily opaque way to explore such simple ideas as the fact that when you open a book you see two pages at the same time or that a comic can tell stories without using words or that speech balloons usually but not always consist of white shapes surrounded by lines. From the perspective of European neo-semiotic analysis, American comics scholarship can seem underwhelming, but the feeling can be mutual. (100)4Rifas sums up System as “188 pages of tough, dry slogging” (100). The second review, by Journal regular Bill Randall, is much more complimentary. While admitting that Groensteen’s terminology “does not sing in English” (102), Randall praises System’s focus on comics as a nested form of aesthetic organization: “Not limited by time, [comics] can make connections across pages or even leaping from page to page, just by spatial resonances” (102). According to Randall, concepts like these “will influence a generation of English-speaking comics scholars” (102).5My own reaction to System falls between these two extremes. Initially, I found Groensteen’s prose and jargon difficult to navigate, but when I applied System’s concepts to a specific example, a page of blank panels from Jason’s Hey, Wait (2001), I found them extremely useful (Fischer). (Like Randall, I was particularly impressed with Groensteen’s description of the comics medium as a kind of reverse Matryoshka doll, where the smallest unit of signification, the panel, can connect and rhyme with larger structures like the tier, the page, the double-spread, and even the “multiframe” of the entire comic or book.) Still, I’d guess that any American comics reader who’s tried to read Groensteen has responded with the same exasperation as Rifas. During a recent presentation at a comics convention, I applied Groensteen’s multiframe idea to the Harvey Kurtzman/Wally Wood Mad story “3-Dimensions!” (1954), and an audience member asked me who Groensteen is and how to spell his name. After I replied and mentioned System, one of my fellow panelists commented that they found System about as entertaining as reading “an operation manual for a new lawnmower.” Dry slogging is the consensus.6The fourth act: At the International Comic Arts Forum meeting in Washington D.C. in October 2007, veteran comics scholar Joseph Witek presented a paper titled “American Comics Criticism and the Problem of Dual Address.” Witek’s paper was subsequently published in The International Journal of Comic Art. The “dual address” in Witek’s title refers to the tendency of English-language comics scholars to aim their writing simultaneously at two (or more) very different audiences, including other comics scholars, and a broader readership comprised also of artists and fans. According to Witek, this dual address has watered down American comics studies, preventing the discipline from cohering into “a real and advancing dialogue” (223), and the controversial American reception of The System of Comics is a symptom of the problem.

Additional Information

Fischer, Craig. (2010). “Worlds Within Worlds: Audiences, Jargon, And North American Comics Discourse,” Transatlantica 1: 2010. ISSN 1765-2766. Version of record available at:
Language: English
Date: 2010
North American comics, jargon, criticism, academic discourse

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