Comics aren’t just unique sequential artwork, panels, word balloons, captions and compelling story lines that often involve superheroes. They go much deeper than that, and John Walsh, associate professor of Information and Library Science, at the Luddy School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering, explored that with his presentation, The Comic Book Paratext, at the Comics Arts Conference, an academic component of the prestigious Comic-Con International 2023 in San Diego, California.
Walsh addressed the concept of paratexts in the context of comic books and how they can influence the understanding of a particular comic, or comics in general.
Paratext, a term from literary studies, refers to the components surrounding the main text of a novel, poem or play. For example, in a mystery novel, the book chapters are the main text. The paratext includes elements such as the cover, the title, the author’s name, table of contents and more.
In a comic book, the paratext includes components surrounding the comic book panels, such as advertisements, fan mail, “bullpen bulletins,” publisher news, titles and more.
During his presentation, Walsh referred to an essay, “Superhero Comics and the Authorizing Functions of the Comic Book Paratext,” by Daniel Stein, that described paratexts as “productive contact zones between producers and consumers, authors and readers.”
“While paratexts are often discounted as insignificant,” Walsh said, “many scholars have argued that they are very important to understanding a work of literature, including comics. I agree with this point of view.”
Walsh said paratexts influence the reception and interpretation of a comic book. His presentation illustrated the many types of paratexts found in American comic books. He provided examples from various genres, publishers and decades. He explored cases in which paratexts had a strong narrative, thematic, or conceptual relationship to the main comics text. He also discussed his growing digital collection of example comic book paratexts.
The software used to develop and host the collection is developed by a team that includes two former Luddy/ILS students: Olivia Wikle and Devin Becker.
Wikle is now the Head of Digital Scholarship & Initiatives at Iowa State University; Becker is Associate Dean for research and development for the University of Idaho Library.
The four-day Comic-Con International is considered the premiere comics convention in the world. It featured more than 1,000 exhibitors and nearly 2,000 hours of programming on all aspects of comics and related popular art.