Semiotics and the Visuality of the Comics

Graphic narratives exist in a variety of forms—from superhero comics and Japanese manga to comic strips and instruction manuals—and have been the subject of a burgeoning amount of scholarship in the twenty-first century. Some theorists tend to place comics in relation to film, conceptualizing it as the “other” dynamic, mass-produced, and highly visual medium born of the twentieth century.[1] However, graphic narratives have little in common with film on a formal level. As Scott Bukatman (2016) notes in his writings on Hellboy, a stylized, action-occult comic series written and drawn by Mike Mignola, “[s]ome of the formal elements that define and structure worlds in comics include quality of line, the use (or nonuse) of color, the slickness of the production, the number and regularity of panels on the page, the acceptance or rejection of the grid, the size of the page, the legibility of panel transitions, the presence or absence of text, the placement and style of text…” and so on.[2] The visuality of comics is highly unique among visual media, and many of its features create or inflect meaning in unexpected ways. Combining visual observation of a comics page with semiotic analysis is a useful approach to specifying how the visuality of comics operates upon the viewer’s experience. This paper pursues a semiotic understanding of the visuality of comics, emphasizing the roles of indexical and iconic sign relations in how the medium creates meaning.

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Before demonstrating the importance of sign functions in understanding comics, it is important to point out how comics are structured as a medium.  Thierry Groensteen’s seminal text, The System of Comics (1999), remains influential in comics studies today and provides a strong basis for a semiotic understanding of how certain features of the comics medium operate. At the time of the book’s publication, comics had received relatively little semiotic analysis. In The System of Comics, Groensteen’s endeavor is to approach comics as “an original ensemble of productive mechanisms of meaning” that operate via sequences of images and text.[3] To Groensteen, the visuality of comics is absolutely primary over text or narrative: “one must recognize the relational play of a plurality of interdependent images as the unique ontological foundation of comics…[T]he central element of comics, the first criteria in the foundational order, is iconic solidarity.”[4] Groensteen’s “spatio-topical system” takes the panel—a single frame and the content delimited by it—as the reference unit for comics. The frame itself serves six functions—the function of closure, the separative function, the rhythmic function, the structural function, the expressive function, and the readerly function—which all “exert their effects on the contents of the panel…and, especially, on the perceptive and cognitive processes of the reader.”[5] Of particular relevance to the iconicity at play in comics—especially highly stylized ones such as Mignola’s Hellboy—is the readerly function of the frame, which will be elaborated upon later. Groensteen also offers analyses of the depictions contained within the frames, suggesting that it is “doubly descriptible,” since description “is not realized if it does not take into account, aside from the drawn elements, the manner in which they are drawn…it is very difficult to completely describe an image in its two dimensions (iconic and graphic), that is, to simultaneously do justice to the represented scene and the organized and sensible ensemble of material lines that produce this scene.”[6] In addition to Groensteen’s emphasis on the functions of the frame, this differentiation between the iconic and graphic dimensions of comics images is crucial to understanding how comics drawings are comprehended by the reader.

 Through its visual format, the comics medium offers a material dimension that the reader understands as an index for creative labor. The Peircean notion of the index, in which “the constraints of successful signification require that the sign utilize some existential or physical connection between it and its object,” can be aptly applied to how the two-dimensional materiality of comic books, strips, and graphic novels calls attention to the artist’s creative labor.[7] Several comics scholars have remarked upon this feature of the medium. While film often speaks to a more embodied subject who becomes perceptually immersed within the medium, comics present deliberately arrayed sequences of physical images; thus, compared to media like film, comics are more engrossing than immersive.[8] In a page from Hellboy: Strange Places (Figure 1), the panels are arranged into a neat stack that occupies the majority of the page, with a margin at the edges of the page and slight margins between the frames of the panels as well. Bukatman suggests that the arrangement of panels upon a page functions as a “tabular, synchronic unity” that the reader encounters before engaging with the narrative contained with the panel sequences.[9] Entirely absent from the immersive motion of film, this characteristic “stasis” of the comics page as a synchronic unit hinders the pace of the narrative and draws attention to the physicality of the “page as surface.”[10] This feature of comics may be more or less salient depending on the particular comic. Superhero comics that place more emphasis upon narrative action may aspire towards a more filmic, immersive experience than slower-paced, creator-owned titles like Hellboy.

Yet it is difficult to imagine a graphic narrative completely robbed of its characteristic material dimension, its indexical connection to the artist’s hand upon the page. Groensteen suggests that the text balloon—a hallmark of the comics medium—creates a “ratio of depth” that enforces the two-dimensionality of the page: “Indeed, the image, to the degree that it relies on the perspectival code and practices the staging of the planes, creates the illusion of three-dimensionality. The text, on the other hand, frees itself from this mimetic transcendence, respecting and confirming the bi-dimensional materiality of the writing surface.”[11] This “ratio of depth” can be observed in Figure 1, in which the text balloon is also contiguous with the panel frame, another visual feature that enforces the page’s two-dimensional materiality. In his 2011 paper “Storylines,” Jared Gardner takes a similar stance, claiming that comics do not “offer the possibility of ever forgetting the medium, of losing sight of the material text or the physical labor of its production…Comics are a medium that calls attention with every line to its own boundaries, frames, and limitations—and to the labor involved in both accommodating and challenging those limitations.”[12] Gardner’s point has an obvious parallel with Peirce’s notion that “an index awakens or directs attention to an object.”[13] When a reader views a comics page, the very structure of the page—composed of panel frames, speech balloons, lettered text, and, of course, drawn images—serves as an index of the artist’s “hand,” which is the object of the indexical sign relation. The comics page resists immersion and compels the reader to engage with it as the material result of creative labor. However, indexical sign relations also play a key role in how the drawings upon the page create meaning.

 The graphic lines of comics are a crucial feature of the medium, generating narrative meaning and inflecting the reader’s experience by indexing the artist’s sensibilities. In “Revealing traces: A new theory of graphic enunciation” (2001), Jan Baetens suggests how the notion of “graphiation” operates within the comics medium. The term “graphiation” was coined by Phillipe Marion (1993) to describe a form of semiotic enunciation—the act of producing a sign, message, or utterance—that is unique to comics, employing both the narrative and the graphic.[14] The notion of graphiation allows for an understanding of a comic’s visual style as the individual expression of the artist: “Every drawing bears the traces of ‘graphiation,’ or the specific enunciative act uttered by the author or agent when he or she makes the drawings or does the lettering of the panels.”[15] The emphasis on the “traces” of the author or agent demonstrates the importance of an existential or causal relation in graphiation, which can thus be understood as an indexicality. However, Baetens also criticizes the idea that graphiation presents any direct connection to the individual artist, suggesting that “neither the ‘trace’ of the letter nor of the drawing is ever natural, not even when the movement of the drawing hand seems spontaneous. Graphic representation is a socialized act involving many codes and constraints,” such as slick commercial styles that dictate a certain “look” and may efface the artist’s hand.[16] Yet graphiation still plays an important role in many titles, especially stylized ones. Gardner’s analysis of the narrative properties of linework expands upon the question of how graphiation operates in such cases. According to Gardner, David Campbell’s “underworked” lines in After the Snooter (1997) hold narrative meaning by evoking “the fragile spontaneity of the everyday, the transience of daily life that resists our attempts to capture it on paper. The line is uniquely Campbell’s and in it we cannot help but imagine the flesh-and-blood artist putting pen to paper.”[17] In other words, one cannot help but be drawn into the indexical sign relation between the idiosyncratically drawn line and the artist himself. Further, one’s viewing of a drawn depiction in comics is often “accentuated by the fluidity of the curved and tapering line that describes it through the viewer’s imaginative reconstruction of the impulse that created that line.”[18] In the case of the Hellboy page, this occurs less through “fluidity” than through the subtle but perceptible jitter of Mignola’s hand, present not only in the drawings but also in the panel frames. Thus, in addition to comics’ unique visual format, its graphic lines demonstrate another way that indexical sign relations create meaning in the comics system. 

Comics are a visual medium that employs pictures representing particular objects, and the iconic sign, in which “the constraints of successful signification require that the sign reflect qualitative features of the object,” obviously plays a role in how comics drawings create narrative.[19] However, it is also obvious that, as icons, comics drawings are not entirely committed to reflecting qualitative properties of their objects. Since most comics take the form of black-and-white line drawings that may not even use color, they rarely achieve a highly naturalistic relation with their objects. Unlike “purer” visual icons like paintings or photographs, which use light and shadow to reflect qualitative similarities with their objects at a high level of accuracy, comics images have a necessarily limited potential for mimetic resemblance, and do not aspire to it. Groensteen suggests that the comics depiction is a kind of “narrative drawing” that does not “return to a referent, but goes straightaway to being a signified.”[20] In other words, the drawing does not really attach itself to the real world, but instead operates through concept alone. Comics employ a particular kind of iconicity that is less direct than that of a Baroque painting, and this statement is evident from a glance at Hellboy, in which a strange arrangement of flat, expressionistic colors and graphic shapes represent a half-demon humanoid battling sea creatures at the bottom of the ocean. Goran Sonesson’s notion of secondary iconicity, developed in his 1998 paper “That There Are Many Kinds of Iconic Signs,” helps to understands the iconicity of such comics pages. Sonesson differentiates primary and secondary icons based on the roles of qualitative similarity (primary) and conventionality (secondary) in grounding the relation between expression and content:

A primary iconic sign is a sign in the case of which the perception of a similarity between an expression E and a content C is at least a partial reason for E being taken to be the expression of a sign the content of which is C. That is, iconicity is really the motivation (the ground), or rather, one of the motivations, for positing the sign function. A case in point is a picture, in the sense of a depiction. A secondary iconic sign, on the other hand, is a sign in the case of which our knowledge that E is the expression of a sign the content of which is C, in some particular system of interpretation, is at least a partial reason for perceiving the similarity of E and C. Here, then, it is the sign relations which partially motivates the relationship of iconicity.[21]

 Sonesson employs the example of the tailor’s swatch to demonstrate a secondary icon: one understands that the swatch represents its pattern and color, not its shape, only because of the convention associated with the swatch.[22] In his 2011 paper “From mimicry to mime by way of mimesis: Reflections on a general theory of iconicity,” Sonesson also notes that “just as a sign may contain iconic, indexical and symbolic properties at the same time, it may very well mix primary and secondary iconicity.”[23] Sonesson’s theories will be useful in understanding the iconicity of aggressively stylized comics such as Hellboy.

Visual style demonstrates how the comics medium is tied to secondary iconicity, or at least a combination of primary and secondary iconicity. The drawings that compose the pages of Hellboy, for example, bear some similarities between expression and content, but are also heavily reliant on an idiosyncratic system of interpretation—e.g. Mignola’s stylization—to form the iconic ground between a particular grouping of lines, shapes, and colors (expression) and a human skull (content). In Hellboy’s visual style, complex forms are flattened, certain details are disregarded, and organic contours are rendered rigid and graphic; yet the reader still recognizes the content that is expressed by the pictures. Though the depiction of the octopus tentacle in Figure 1 lacks the texture and organic fluidity of a real octopus tentacle, the reader understands the representation in the context of an overarching visual style. This statement is furthered by John Miers’ 2015 paper “Depiction and Demarcation in Comics: Towards an Account of the Medium as a Drawing Practice.” Miers applies a theory of representation developed by Kendall Walton (1990) to how comics drawings function for the reader. According to Walton’s “make-believe” theory of representation, viewing a depiction involves the self-aware use of one’s own perceptual activity as an object of imagination; in other words, “works of art function as props in games of make-believe, which mandate particular imaginative activities on the part of the viewer.”[24] In terms of comics, Miers suggests that comics drawing styles—such as Jeff Smith’s fluid, cartoonish style in Bone (2004)—are suited to how the reader uses the comics drawings: “we want to have direct access to fictional truths about how bodies are moving in space, or facial expressions changing, from panel to panel, and do not want to have to generate them from more directly generated truths about the play of light and shadow,” as in a finely rendered painting.[25] The reader uses the line drawings as “props” to generate fictional truths as mandated by the imaginative context of the drawn narrative; thus, the context of the drawing is crucial to how the reader understands it. This conventionality in how the reader approaches the depicted content constitutes a secondary iconic ground between expression and content. Sonesson’s notion of secondary iconicity can thus be applied to the way that many comics drawings function as depictions.  

The panel frame—a feature highly unique to comics—also plays a significant role in the secondary iconicity of comics images. Groensteen’s “readerly” function of the frame underscores this point. According to Groensteen, one key function of the frame is that it defines a place where content exists for the reader to scrutinize, conferring upon the contained image “the status of a unit: an isolated or enunciated sign.”[26] The readerly function of the frame is especially important for holding the reader’s gaze “in the case where a part of the image on the page might appear insignificant, because it doesn’t allow enough space for the action or the spectacle, or merges in its immediate environment to the point where this section risks not being seen.”[27] The frame contains and reorients the viewer’s gaze, and this is significant not only for how readers move through the narrative, but also for how they understand the depicted content. The comics frame literally “frames” the depiction within the conventions of graphic narrative, providing a context that facilitates the operations of visual style mentioned above. Understanding a certain arrangement of lines, shapes, and colors as Hellboy himself is based partly on shared qualitative properties, but it also relies on the frame to contain and define a place of representation, in which the idiosyncratic conventions of Mignola’s style can be expected to operate.

Rather than being viewed as low-brow or as the “other” visual medium, comics need to be understood as a unique system of meaning-making and visual operations. Relating comics to the semiotic functions of indexicality and secondary iconicity offers a better understanding of how the medium—from the format of the page to the graphic lines that compose each picture—form various kinds of meaning for the reader. Indexicality helps define how the format, materiality, and graphic lines of comics images affect the reader’s understanding, whereas the notion of secondary iconicity delineates the conventional operations underlying each depiction. Ultimately, examining how different forms of media create meaning for the viewer is a crucial direction to take in an increasingly visual culture.

Figure 1: Mike Mignola (2006), Hellboy: Strange Places, pp. 52.Dave Stewart, color; Clem Robins, letters. Dark Horse Comics.

Works Cited:

Atkin, Albert (2013). “Peirce’s Theory of Signs.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edward N. Zalta (ed.).

Baetens, Jan (2001). “Revealing traces: A new theory of graphic enunciation.” The Language of Comics: Word and Image. Ed. Robin Varnum and Christina T. Gibbons. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. pp. 145-155.

Bukatman, Scott (2016). Hellboy’s World: Comics and Monsters on the Margins. Berkeley: University of California Press. Print.

Bukatman, Scott (2014). “Sculpture, Stasis, the Comics, and Hellboy.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 30, no. 3, pp. 104-117. EBSCO MegaFILE. Web.

Gardner, Jared (2011). “Storylines.” Graphic Narratives and Narrative Theory, vol. 40, no. 1, pp. 53-69. Web.

Goudge, Thomas A (1965). “Peirce’s Index.” Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, vol. 1, no. 2, pp. 52–70.

Groensteen, Thierry (1999). The System of Comics. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. Print.

Miers, John (2015). “Depiction and Demarcation in Comics: Towards an Account of the Medium as a Drawing Practice.” Studies in Comics, vol. 6, no. 1, pp. 145-156. MLA International Bibliography. Web.

Sonesson, Goran (2010). “From mimicry to mime by way of mimesis: Reflections on a general theory of iconicity.” Sign System Studies, vol. 38, no. 1, pp. 18-65.

Sonesson, Goran (1998). “That There Are Many Kinds of Iconic Signs.” In Visio, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 33-54.

[1] Bukatman, Scott (2016). Hellboy’s World: Comics and Monsters on the Margins. Berkeley: University of California Press. Print.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Groensteen, Thierry (1999). The System of Comics. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. Print.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Atkin, Albert (2013). “Peirce’s Theory of Signs.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edward N. Zalta (ed.).

[8] Bukatman, Scott (2016). Hellboy’s World: Comics and Monsters on the Margins. Berkeley: University of California Press. Print.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Groensteen, Thierry (1999). The System of Comics. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. Print.

[12] Gardner, Jared (2011). “Storylines.” Graphic Narratives and Narrative Theory, vol. 40, no. 1, pp. 53-69. Web.

[13] Goudge, Thomas A (1965). “Peirce’s Index.” Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, vol. 1, no. 2, pp. 52–70.

[14] Baetens, Jan (2001). “Revealing traces: A new theory of graphic enunciation.” The Language of Comics: Word and Image. Ed. Robin Varnum and Christina T. Gibbons. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. pp. 145-155.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Gardner, Jared (2011). “Storylines.” Graphic Narratives and Narrative Theory, vol. 40, no. 1, pp. 53-69. Web.

[18] Miers, John (2015). “Depiction and Demarcation in Comics: Towards an Account of the Medium as a Drawing Practice.” Studies in Comics, vol. 6, no. 1, pp. 145-156. MLA International Bibliography. Web.

[19] Atkin, Albert (2013). “Peirce’s Theory of Signs.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edward N. Zalta (ed.).

[20] Groensteen, Thierry (1999). The System of Comics. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. Print.

[21] Sonesson, Goran (1998). “That There Are Many Kinds of Iconic Signs.” In Visio, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 33-54.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Sonesson, Goran (2010). “From mimicry to mime by way of mimesis: Reflections on a general theory of iconicity.” Sign System Studies, vol. 38, no. 1, pp. 18-65.

[24] Miers, John (2015). “Depiction and Demarcation in Comics: Towards an Account of the Medium as a Drawing Practice.” Studies in Comics, vol. 6, no. 1, pp. 145-156. MLA International Bibliography. Web.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Groensteen, Thierry (1999). The System of Comics. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. Print.

[27] Ibid.

History of Franco Belgian Comics

Franco Belgian comics, also known as bande dessinée/BDs, have a rich and tumultuous history, and have changed the world of comics. Bande dessinée translates literally from French as “drawn strips”. They have gone through many stylistic changes over the past century and come in quite a few different styles which are done in varying types of media, such as watercolor, pencil, and ink to name a few. Amazingly enough, Franco Belgian comics have been loved so much throughout the years that the industry can easily compete with Japanese manga and American comic books, despite being very different from the two (Echotokki, 2017). Everything from the content to even the way the pages are laid out has evolved since when the first Franco-Belgian comics gained popularity in the early 1900s, and have had a major impact on comic book culture today.

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Before World War 1, the United States dominated the world of comics (Echotokki, 2017). However, Franco Belgian comics had a meteoric rise after gaining favor when they were first published in magazines for children. Though Franco-Belgian comic series are now usually sold as hard cover books, it wasn’t always this way. In their early years, they were not stand-alone comics but were featured in magazines and newspapers as “episodes”. France was highly catholic at this point in history and the Catholic church used these early comics as a way to try to teach children good morals. Since this was also at the turn of the century, the Victorian morals and good sensibilities were still held in high esteem and people found virtuous and proper behavior very important. It was originally drawn in text comics format, with the text written beneath the images, instead of in air bubbles that you often see in in comics today. Word bubbles wouldn’t become common place until later in the century, due to educators and the church finding this format unsuitable for teaching, which at this time was the primary goal of Franco-Belgian comics (Screech, 2005).

The short comics found in newspapers and magazines for children in the early 1900s were the precursors to the more standard Franco-Belgian comics. The title of one of the first true bande dessinée is usually attributed to Les Pieds Nickelés (translated as “sensitive feet”), which was created in 1908 by Louis Forton. Initially, it was published in a newspaper called L’Épatant. It was meant to be a satirical piece that poked fun at the government and the aristocracy. Prominent political figures even appeared in the comics from time to time. The story follows the misadventures of three work-avoidant men, Ribouldingue, Filochard and Croquignol who are always at odds with the law. Their self-proclaimed “sensitive feet” are apparently the cause of their ambivalence towards hard work. This particular work was revolutionary in terms of layout. Les Pieds Nickelés was the first major band dessinée to have speech bubbles instead of the traditional text comic format. Apparently, Forton had to fight tooth and nail with the publishers to be able to use speech bubbles in his comics. (Kousemaker, 1970)

Les Pieds Nickelés is one of the longest running comic series, and is still ongoing and vastly popular to this day. Though Forton died in 1934, other artists kept the series going, and multiple film adaptations have been made since then. (Kousemaker,1970)

Another influential precursor to the modern Franco-Belgian comics is a series called Bécassine, which was written by Jacqueline Rivière and illustrated by Joseph Pinchon in 1905. This piece was featured in a magazine for young girls called La Semaine de Susette. Bécassine, the main character of the story, is a housemaid from Breton (a province of France), and though she is absent minded and a bit foolish as her name implies, she is the first female protagonist in the history of popular Franco-Belgian comics. At first, she was not depicted in a positive light, as people from Breton were seen as bumpkins by the Parisians at this time. However, as the comic (which was originally just a placeholder on a blank page in La Semaine de Susette), gained popularity, Bécassine was shown in a more amicable and less foolish way. From its original publication in 1905 until the latest issue in 1950, 27 issues of Bécassine have been published. Since this publication came before even Les Pieds Nickelés, it is considered to be the first true band dessinée. This comic has speech bubbles, and also it inspired the Franco-Belgian comic style of “ligne clair” which would appear in the most popular Franco-Belgian comic; Les Aventures de Tintin (revolyy LLC).

Another magazine that was highly important to the history and progression of Franco Belgian comics is Le Journal de Mickey. Paul Winckler wanted to capitalize on the highly popular Disney character, Mickey Mouse and thus created “Le Journal de Mickey”, which he began distributing in 1934. This eight-page magazine follows the stories of Mickey Mouse as well as other Disney characters. Just four years after its first publication, 400,000 copies of the magazine were sold, which was twice as much as the competing magazines of the time. (Marshall, Bill; Johnston, Christina, 2005)

This age in which bande dessinée were so popular was referred to as The Golden Age of BD (Gabut, 2004). Part of what made Le Journal De Mickey so successful was the fact that it had much higher quality printing than other publications and was also quite a bit bigger. It followed the American style of having word bubbles instead of being in text comic format, and was interactive in the sense that interspersed throughout the magazine, were letters from readers, stories, and contests. Though it had monumental success in the 1930s, when World War 2 began, Le Journal de Mickey’s headquarters had to move to an unoccupied part of France. The war depleted the countries supplies of paper and ink, resulting in poorer quality printing and much shorter volumes. During the war, Germany prohibited American comics, so the comics about the Disney characters were omitted and replaced by traditional French text comic format comics (Marshall, Bill; Johnston, Christina, 2005). Soon Le Journal de Mickey had to cease publication because of a huge decrease in sales. It was out of print until it was revived in the 1950s; which once again became incredibly popular and is the leader in French comic books for children to this day (Le Journal de Mickey fête ses 70 ans, 2004).

The next work I will discuss is the series “The Adventures of Tintin” which was created by Georges Remi, who is more commonly known as Hergé. This comic is one of the most famous and well-loved Franco-Belgian comics in history and is popular in many countries, including the United States. Originally it was published in a magazine for children called Le Petit Vingtième, but later was sold in hard-cover form. The series follows a character named Tintin, who is a reporter who gets into all kinds of predicaments with his trusty companion; a white Fox Terrier named Milou, which translates to “snowy” in English. Tintin is known not only for his characteristic coiffure, but his boy-scout spirit and intense passion for justice. He is Hergé’s ideal self; a hero and advocate for law and integrity. (Les Aventures De Tintin)

It’s debut which was published in 1929, was a volume titled “The Adventures of Tintin in the Land of the Soviets”. It was actually a response to the Russian Regime, to which Hergé was extremely opposed. Hergé drew from a book titled “Moscow Unmasked” as inspiration. In his comic, Russia is depicted as a barbaric, and boorish place. This first publication, along with several of Hergé’s first Tintin comics were wrought with racist themes, which Hergé later regretted terribly. It is notable to state that Hergé’s superior and editor, Norbert Wallez, has a great fan of Mussolini and despised the Russians. Since the Tintin comics were geared towards young readers, it became a propaganda piece that hammered the concept that the Russians were savage communists into the minds of the young audience. (The History of Belgian Comics, 2017)

The style of The Adventures of Tintin has changed greatly since its original conception. The drawings used to be quite rough, sketchy, and simplistic in comparison to its current style which is in the afore mentioned ligne claire style (The History of Belgian Comics, 2017). This style was actually developed by Hergé himself and has been copied by numerous artists.

 Ligne claire is characterized by fully fleshed out backgrounds, stark black line drawings with flat color and minimal shading. It looks very playful and has a fair amount of detail. Artists who use this style want each of the panels and all of the content in each segment to be on a similar hieratic scale. Though ligne claire style fell out of fashion for a spell in the 1960s, it became popular again in the 80s because of peoples’ nostalgic feelings towards the style. (Ligne Claire, 2015)

When Hergé passed away in 1983, the 23rd volume of Tintin was released. The 24th and final volume was published three years later, just prior to the disbanding of Hergé’s studios. Though the series has ended, it is still wildly popular and manifests itself in new forms of media, such as the recent movie adaptation. (The Adventures of Tintin- Hergé)

My final example of another wildly loved publication is the Spirou comic series, which was published in the Spirou Magazine in 1938. Charles Duplois, who was the son of the incredibly successful Jean Duplois, who founded the Duplois publishing agency, was at the helm of editing and producing The Spirou Magazine. Having seen the meteoric rise and success of the Tintin comics in Le Petit Vingtième as well as Le Journal de Mickey, Duplois employed some of the same format and techniques that the afore mentioned comics exhibited. The Spirou Magazine itself was an eight-page magazine that was printed in a large format on quality paper, similar to Le Journal de Mickey. In addition to the Spirou comic itself, the magazine also contained multiple comics, including popular American comics such as Superman. (Kousemaker, 1994)

Like Le Journal de Mickey, the Spirou Magazine suffered during World War 2 because of bans on American comics, which were imposed by the Germans. Between the years 1941 to 1942, circulation of the Spirou magazine increased from 85,000 to a whopping 152,000 copies even though the war was in full effect. Like Le Journal de Mickey, the printing quality wen down and the volumes became a lot smaller due to the paper and ink shortages in Belgium. Duplois tried to stay in business during the war but had to cease publication for a time to avoid being imprisoned. Luckily, the Spirou Magazine was very popular and the fanbase was strong, so after the war ended, the comics came back into circulation (Kousemaker, 1994).

 As mentioned earlier, after the war ended, there came the Golden Age of Franco-Belgian comics; a time when the Spirou Magazine flourished. Many more contributors began working on the magazine and the volumes increased from eight pages to upwards of sixty (Breig, 2009). Now the comics are sold individually, and the Spirou Magazine has become a secondary focus, though it is still quite popular.

One of the most influential comics of today, “The Smurfs”, also known as “Les Schtroumpfs” by the French, was actually originally published in the Spirou Magazine. At first, they didn’t have their own storyline, but were actually supplemental characters that appeared in Pierre Culliford’s (also known as Peyo) “Johan and Pirlouit” series. This series was moderately popular but when the now iconic little blue dwarves appeared in Peyo’s 1958 Johan and Pirlouit strip in the Spirou Magazine, they were an instantaneous success. (Kousemaker, 1970)

Amazingly enough, the origin of the Smurfs began as a joke between Peyo and a friend. When they were at a restaurant, Peyo couldn’t recall the word “salt”. Instead of saying “pass the salt”, he said “pass me the schtroumpfs.” He found this made up word highly amusing and decided to integrate it into his comic. When the smurfs were so well received, Peyo was asked to make a spinoff in which the storyline would be centered around the smurfs. Peyo took Spirou’s offer to do so and subsequently the series moved its way up the ranks into a weekly comic in the Spirou Magazine and then was published as a hardcover series in the 60s and 70s.

Though the smurfs were originally intended for a young audience, there were certain volumes that were meant as satirical pieces and commentary on current economic events in Belgium ta the time. Adults and children alike could enjoy these books due to content as well as the appealing illustrative style.

After having wild success from the 50s onward, the Smurfs gained even more popularity at a global scale when animated features were made in the 60s. Movies such as the Smurfs and the Magic Flute as well as their theme song (which was translated into multiple languages) were major proponents of their ever-growing fanbase. The Smurfs were in fact so loved that they became the Belgians’ mascot in the 1980s Olympics (Kousemaker, 1970)

Unfortunately for Peyo, his creative freedom and artistic vision for the Smurfs television series was more or less usurped by Hanna-Barbera Studios, though his partnership with them made him wildly successful monetarily, as well as winning him an Emmy Award. Though Peyo received numerous accolades for The Smurfs series, he was unhappy that Hanna-Barbera studios was adding in new characters and making plotlines and teaching morals in the television series that Peyo had not initially wanted. In addition, he felt that the show was pandering too much to American taste and was annoyed that some of the mild violence had been taken out as well as the plotlines being dumbed down to cater to a younger audience (Kousemaker, 1970).

 Though there are countless incredible Franco-Belgian comic series on the market, the three that I mentioned have been known as some of the most inspiring and most successful ones to date. They have been the source of inspiration for other forms of pop culture such as movies, television series, and comic conventions. In terms of conventions, one of the most attended ones that is not in the United States and features many Franco-Belgian comics is Festival international de la bande dessinée d’Angoulême. This festival is completely focused on comics, which is a bit different that the American Comic Cons, which feature all types of media. However, both are places that foster the ever-growing love for Franco Belgian comics. Fans are able to go to discussion panels about the comics, meet other artists, and many people like to come dressed as their favorite characters from the comics (ANGOULÊME INTERNATIONAL COMICS FESTIVAL). An important fact I might add is that bande dessinée have also been a primary source of creative inspiration to aspiring artists. I speak from personal experience when I say that growing up with these comics has inspired me to be an illustrator and has fanned the flames of my passion for writing comics. Being able to attend conventions and see the artists at work is truly inspirational and, in my opinion, plays a major role in furthering the culture and audience of bande dessinée.

The comics discussed in this essay have been a source of enjoyment to readers young and old throughout the last century. The content and styles that are exhibited in these comics are very reflective of their respective time periods. Though there have been many religious, economic, and societal barriers that that stood in the way of Franco-Belgian comic artists’ way, it has not barred them from producing exceptional comics that have influenced all kinds of media and other forms of pop culture.

Echotokki. “An Introduction to Franco-Belgian Comics – Echotokki – Medium.” Medium, Medium, 9 Sept. 2017,

 Bramlett, Frank; Cook, Roy; Meskin, Aaron (2016-08-05). The Routledge Companion to Comics. Routledge. ISBN 9781317915386.

 Screech, Matthew (2005). Masters of the Ninth Art: Bandes Dessinées and Franco-Belgian Identity. Liverpool University Press. ISBN 9780853239383.

Zig Et Puce,

“Louis Forton.”, 1 Jan. 1970,

Revolvy, LLC. “‘Bécassine’ on” Revolvy,

Gabut, Jean-Jacques (2004). Lâge d’or de la BD: Les journaux illustrés 1934-1944” Herscher. p. 192.

“Le Journal de Mickey fête ses 70 ans”. Le Nouvel Observateur. 18 October 2004. Retrieved 19 March 2009.

Marshall, Bill; Johnston, Christina (2005). France and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History: a Multidisciplinary Encycopledia. Ashgate publishing. p. 285. ISBN 978-1-60473-004-3.

Les Aventures De Tintin – Tintin,

“The History of Belgian Comics / Part 2.” Europe Comics, 12 June 2017,

“Ligne Claire.” Comic Book Glossary, 18 Dec. 2015,

The Adventures of Tintin – Hergé,

“Robert Velter.”, 1 Jan. 1970,

Kousemaker, Kees. “Spirou, the Classic Period (1938-1969).”, 1994,

Brieg. “Bilan 2009.” Razor Tie Artery Foundation Announce New Joint Venture Recordings | Razor & Tie, Rovi Corporation,


Kousemaker, Kees. “Peyo.”, 1 Jan. 1970,


The History and Development of Wonder Woman Comics

For over 60 years, Wonder Woman has filled the pages of her magazine with adventures ranging from battling Nazis, to declawing human-like Cheetahs. Her exploits thrilled and inspired many young girls, including Gloria Steinem. Through all of this, she has had to pilot her invisible jet through territories that her male counterparts have never had to. She is constantly pulled in two directions; her stories must be entertaining and none threatening to the male status quo, while simultaneously furthering her as the original symbol of ‘Girl Power.’ She is praised for being an icon of strength to women everywhere, but chastised for wearing a skimpy costume and tying men up, as if she were no more than a male fantasy. No comic book character has had to endure as much scrutiny as Wonder Woman. That’s because Wonder Woman represents an entire gender, at a time of important social flux. Although she was created by a man to influence a male audience, Wonder Woman has evolved into an important symbol of the feminist movement.
An Amazon is born
Shortly after Superman made his appearance in 1939, a noted psychologist by the name of William Moulton Marston wrote an article in Family Circle magazine, praising comic books. According to Les Daniels in Wonder Woman: The Complete History (Chronicle Books, 2000, pp. 22-24), his article caught the eye of M.C. Gains of DC Comics. Gains was so impressed by the article, he hired Marston into a new position at DC Comics. Within a year, at the urging of his wife, Marston set out to create a female superhero. By February 1941, Marston handed in his first script for ‘Suprema: The Wonder Woman.’(We owe a debt of thanks to whoever dropped the Suprema.) Marston created a unique heroine, based loosely on Greek Mythology. Diana was the Princess of Paradise Island, a mystical place inhabited by Amazons. Her mother, Hippolyte (sometimes referred to as Hippolyta), Queen of the Amazons, wanted a child and petitioned the Goddesses of Olympus to give her one. She was instructed to sculpt a child from clay. When she was done, the goddesses imbued the statue with life. Diana was raised as the princess of her nation, until one day, an aircraft carrying one Steve Trevor crashed off the shores of the island. Diana rescued him and nursed him back to health. The Goddesses decreed a contest should be held to find an Amazon champion to return Trevor to the United States and also help with the war effort. As the princess, Diana was forbidden to enter the contest by her mother, the Queen. Diana disguised herself and won. Reluctantly, Hippolyte awarded Diana the costume of the champion and sent her on her way, and a legend was born.

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Marston had said his aim with Wonder Woman was to influence a male audience with the notion that females could be just as powerful as men, through the use of their own gifts. A reoccurring theme is the dominance of women over men, by teaching them ‘loving submission.’ The reality is that the early issues of Wonder Woman almost always contained scenes of bondage. Wonder Woman’s one weakness was to have her bracelets chained together by a man. Many, many men took advantage of that. Because he was on the team that developed the first polygraph, Marston gave Wonder Woman a magic lasso that would enable her to extract the truth from its victim or make them susceptible to her suggestions. Of course, they had to be tied up. If Wonder Woman wasn’t chained up, she was busy tying someone else up to do her bidding. When you combine that with a seductive costume, (The costume created such a ruckus, DC Comics editor, Dorothy Roubicek wrote a memo to Gains suggesting the costume be given a more Greek tunic look. (Daniels, pp. 62-63)) the early Wonder Woman comes off as a fetishistic fantasy. That may be one of the biggest reasons it was such huge success with a male audience.
Artist H.G. Peter illustrated Wonder Woman for Marston’s entire tenure on the book. Although he was required to delineate Wonder Woman in bondage motifs and other sundry escapades, his art was not overly sexual. This was one of the factors which helped establish Wonder Woman among female fans. She was strong and athletic, but without an unreal body image.
Many of her adventures pitted her against a real life enemy, the Nazis. This was World War II, after all, and women were dong their part to help the war effort. Wonder Woman was a symbol of the emergence of women in active roles. But, even before the war was over, Marston began introducing costumed villains. Interestingly enough most were female. Dr. Poison, the very first costumed villain, was actually a Japanese princess, disguised as a man. As her Rogues Gallery grew, it became more populated with women, than men; The Cheetah, Queen Clea, and Giganta, just to name a few. It seemed that Wonder Woman would be relegated to fighting her own gender. It was another way that she could be interpreted as powerful, without upsetting the status quo. She was rarely seen as someone who could overpower a strong male villain.
Wonder Woman did continue to be an important symbol in those early days. She was the only female superhero in the Justice Society of America (A forerunner of the Justice League of America), although she was relegated to the office of secretary. Again, it was a large stride while being subservient to the male heroes in the book. You can almost see her serving coffee at JSA meetings. Her magazine debuted a backup feature called ‘Wonder Women of History’ in which an important female historical figure was profiled. It seemed that the intention of her being a symbol of feminism were there, while the actions of the stories painted a different, more sexual picture. This is a contradiction that survives even into today.
The Silver Age
After Marston’s death, Robert Kanigher took over the duties on Wonder Woman. In a rare occurrence, Kanigher served as both writer and editor for over 20 years. Gone were the Nazis, and many of Wonder Woman’s original foes. In their place, Kanigher began writing stories centered on Wonder Woman’s romantic life. In Sensation Comics #97 (May-June 1950), Wonder Woman becomes the romance editor of a women’s magazine. Instead of battling evil villains, Wonder Woman herself became the center of conflict, as characters like Bird-Man and Mer-Man vied for the affections of the Amazon Princess. Other times, she would have a whole story dedicated to explaining to poor Steve Trevor that they could not marry until her services as a hero were no longer required. It seemed that Wonder Woman had been relegated to the role of the maiden fending off numerous suitors, as if she were a southern belle. It is interesting to note that during this time, ‘Wonder Women of History’ was replaced with a feature called ‘Marriage a la Mode,’ celebrating the marriage customs of different cultures. Wonder Woman of the 1950’s was in a flux, just like American women. They had been asked to do their part during the war, but when the men came home, it was time to go back into the kitchen. The problem was most women realized an untapped potential to be more than a wife and mother. This would show up in the form of modern feminism in the next decade. It must be pointed out that most of the supporting cast was made up of other women; (Hippolyte, other Amazons, and even a younger version of Wonder Woman, Wonder Girl) but the stories were still centered on marriage and boyfriends.
The artistic team of Ross Andru and Mike Esposito hiked Wonder Woman’s star-spangled shorts a bit, but still the art was very respectful to the female body. No larger than life breasts or pencil thin waists. Wonder Woman had an athletic build and was considered statuesque.
A Change Will Do You Good’
1968 was an interesting year for our Amazing Amazon. After Kanigher’s departure, Editorial Director Carmine Infantino assigned writer Dennis O’Neil and penciller Mike Sekowsky to the title. When a new writer is assigned to a title, the direction of the character usually shifts, but no one could predict the direction O’Neil and team were about to take.
” What they were doing in Wonder Woman, I didn’t see how a kid, male or female, could relate to it. It was so far removed from their world,’ recalled O’Neil.’ (Daniels p. 125) His solution was to remove Wonder Woman’s powers, effectively putting a normal female out into the world to fend for her self. Gone were the magic lasso, bulletproof bracelets, and invisible jet. Wonder Woman was now outfitted in mod 60’s clothes and partnered with an Asian mentor, I Ching. She relied on martial arts instead of Amazon strength. O’Neil believed that by making her a normal person struggling in an extraordinary world, she would be a more viable feminist symbol. Many people agreed and sales skyrocketed. Wonder Woman was kept in this direction for almost two years before a very prominent feminist took a very anti-de-powered Wonder Woman stance: Gloria Steinem.
In July of 1972, Steinem’s new magazine, Ms. hit the newsstands with a familiar face on the cover. Beneath a banner that read ‘Wonder Woman for President’ was a rendering of Wonder Woman, in her traditional costume. Essayist Joanne Edgar took up two pages of the premier issue to denounce the changes made to Wonder Woman, and to assure readers that Wonder Woman would return to her roots in 1973. Steinem also wrote the forward to a hardcover collection of Marston-era Wonder Woman stories, and took the opportunity to denounce the changes herself. Steinem and others felt that by robbing Wonder Woman of her powers and tools, they had weakened an important symbol. She was no longer a unique person. It could also be suggested that because the idea came from a man, that it was an attempt by males to negate a woman as a powerful force. It seemed that Wonder Woman had been adopted by the feminist movement as a powerful symbol of what a woman could aspire to. It is probable that most women who invoked Wonder Woman in their feminist rhetoric had not read some of the more outrageous of Marston’s stories.
Wonder Woman finally got her tiara back in Wonder Woman #204 (January-February 1973). Robert Kanigher was again the editor, if only for a few issues. The adoption of Wonder Woman by Steinem and company appeared to have an immediate influence, as Wonder Woman became a very active superhero, with all manner of villains. For the most part, stories did not center on romance or bondage, but rather on costumed villains and other action oriented heroics. Wonder Woman was finally getting the recognition of being a top notch Super Hero.
It was at this time, Wonder Woman finally appeared on network TV. In the fall of 1975, The New, Original Wonder Woman aired on ABC. Starring Lynda Carter, the first episode dealt with Wonder Woman’s origin, sticking very closely to the comic book version. The ABC show was very tongue in cheek, but was a hit and aired on ABC and CBS, until 1977. Lynda Carter became the first woman to star in an action/adventure TV series, giving more credence to the ties between Wonder Woman and feminists.
The comic book version continued in the same vein through the late 70’s and early 80’s. The only notable event was the change in her costume in 1982. In Wonder Woman #288 (February 1982), the eagle emblazoned on her bustier was traded in for a stylized double w. The change was to herald the creation of the Wonder Woman Foundation, created by DC Comics president Jenette Kahn. The purpose of the foundation was to honor (financially) women over 40 who have made a contribution to society. It was launched to coincide with Wonder Woman’s 40th anniversary.
In 1986, the entire DC Comics universe was given a makeover. Many characters, including Wonder Woman, had amassed a large and convoluted history, thanks to the ever revolving door of writers and editors. The solution was a 12 issue series entitled Crisis on Infinite Earths. Every character in the DC Universe (DCU) was rebooted, but none was as drastic as Wonder Woman. In Crisis #12, she was attacked and devolved into the clay from which she was formed. The clay then spread itself over the shores of Paradise Island. The stage was set for a comeback.
George Perez took on the daunting task of breathing new life into the Amazon Princess. He was well aware of the fact that he was tinkering with an icon. Perez spent copious amounts of time researching Greek Mythology, and also feminism, discussing the project with his wife, editor Karen Berger, DC President Jennette Kahn, and of course, Gloria Steinem. Wonder Woman and feminism were about to become one and the same.
Perez did not tinker with Wonder Woman’s origin too much. He did move her to present day, instead of World War II. She was still a princess, and was raised on an island of amazons. He did, however, give a very feminist slant to the creation of those amazons. In Wonder Woman #1, (February 1987), it was shown that the amazons were the re-incarnated souls of women ‘whose lives had been cut short by the ignorance of man.’ As they migrated to Themyscira (Paradise Island) they became enlightened women, who spent their days learning and constructing. They were no longer the warrior race of mythology. As the champion of the contest that sent her to the Patriarch’s World, Wonder Woman was an ambassador of her nation, charged with espousing the ideals of her Olympian Gods. This Wonder Woman needed no day job; she had an ambassadorial post at the United Nations. She was first a teacher, second, a hero. It is amazing that Perez was able to use Greek Mythology and give it a feminist slant. In the hands of a lesser writer, the task would have failed. Greek Myth is rife with the subjugation and humiliation of women. Perez was able to center on the female contingent of Olympus, and keep the males as chauvinistic as before.
Perez also handled the art chores, and made Wonder Woman look very real and very feminine, without resorting to objectifying art. Her physique was that of an athlete. She was tall, not too slender, and very muscular. It action sequences, you could see the muscles on her body strain as she attempted feats such as tossing tanks around.
During Perez’s run, Wonder Woman spent as much time on the lecture circuit as she did fighting off bad guys. The sales of the comic were strong, but DC was anxious to use their revamped character in more action oriented stories. William Messner-Loebs, took over as writer, but the major change was in the artist, Mike Deodato, Jr. To many people, all the work that was done to portray Wonder Woman as a strong, intelligent female hero flew out the door as Deodato brought his brand of art to the title. Wonder Woman now had very large breasts, a teeny tiny waist, and legs that went on for miles. Sales of the book were incredibly strong, but much of the attention was on the stylized, sexual appearance of the Amazon. Wonder Woman had never looked quite so slutty. Many claimed that Wonder Woman had become cheesecake, never the less, Deodato stayed on until issue #100.
A Look To The Future
Phil Jimenez took over the book and attempted to reconcile some of the continuity problems that had already surfaced on the series. Another talented writer/artist, Jimenez nurtured Wonder Woman through some very tough times. Like a mirror to actual world events, 2001 was a very difficult year for Wonder Woman. Themyscira was embroiled in a heated civil war, which resulted in the abolishment of the matriarchy and the loss of the title of princess for her. In a staggering galactic war, Hippolyta her mother and supporting character since the beginning of the book, was killed. Wonder Woman was shown as a woman who had very human problems to cope with. Her battles were not always with super villains or natural disasters. Jimenez showed a hero who had to deal with mother/daughter issues in a way that had rarely been shown in the series. Wonder Woman and her mother did not always get along! In one of his best issues (Wonder Woman #172) Jimenez weaved a tale of jealousy and forgiveness, as a protective mother (Hippolyta) gave her life to protect her seemingly ungrateful daughter. Jimenez was not afraid to show Wonder Woman in an unflattering light. She was jealous of her mother donning similar armor and leaving the shores of Themyscira to become a hero in her own right. Stories such as these brought some very female oriented issues to the forefront. Wonder Woman had never had to deal with issues of her royal status, her relationship with her mother, and the grief of losing a parent. Of course, she came through all of this on top, and ready to fight the good fight, but it was a difficult and interesting journey.
As 2003 begins, writer Walter Simonson has revisited the non-powered concept of the 60’s. With only 2 issues out, only time will tell if it will be as radical a change as it was before.
In the new millennium of Xena, Lara Croft and other female action heroes, is Wonder Woman still relevant to the feminist movement’ Without her example, many of these franchises would not have had the inspiration to become a reality. Those choppy territories Wonder Woman covered have paved the way. Many writers and artists can use Wonder Woman’s history as a blueprint for what works, and also what doesn’t. Wonder Woman continues to mirror the complexities of feminism; strong and assertive, yet caring and nurturing. All the while balancing family issues and fighting against stereotypes. As her comic book moves ahead, Wonder Woman will continue to tackle issues relating to every woman, and even, every human.
Works Cited:
Daniels, Les. Wonder Woman: The Complete History. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2001.
Edgar, Joanna ‘Wonder Woman Revisited’: Ms. Warner Communications: (July 1972) 28-29
Jimenez, Phil. Wonder Woman #172. (Second Series) DC Comics: (August 2001)
Kanigher, Robert. Sensation Comics #97. DC Comics: (May-June 1950)
Kanigher, Robert. Wonder Woman #204. DC Comics: (January-February 1973)
Marston, William Moulten. Wonder Woman Archives, Vol. One. New York: DC Comics 1998, 8-16
‘The New, Original Wonder Woman’ Wonder Woman, ABC: November 7, 1975
O’Neil, Dennis. Wonder Woman #177. DC Comics: (July-August 1968)
Perez, George. Wonder Woman #1 (Second Series) DC Comics: (February 1987)
Thomas, Roy. Wonder Woman #288 DC Comics: (February 1982)
Wolfman, Marv. Crisis On Infinite Earths #12 DC Comics: (December 1986)