Reading the Field

The Routledge Companion to Comics reviewed by Nina Mickwitz

The central questions with any themed collection of essays are whether, but also how, the work constitutes more than the sum of its parts. Yet this anthology calls for a different approach than most. To begin with, its scope – 442 pages and 47 chapters – is too vast for a review of individual contributions. When deliberating what an anthology does, it is important to pay attention to what is covered (and omitted), how the collection compares to existing attempts to cover a similar topic, and how the material is organised and grouped. In short, one should consider issues such as coverage, comparison and editing (Di Leo 2004). On this occasion, editorial contributions take on a further dimension of importance, as this is an introduction not just to a particular aspect or area of comics’ scholarship, but to the field itself.

The editors’ intention is, in their own words, to supply »a single collection that can serve as a state-of-the-art introduction to and overview of the entirety of comics studies« (Bramlett, Cook and Meskin 2017, 3). Setting aside this daring (or misguided?) claim to completeness, the breadth and scope of what follows is indeed impressive. No less important, however, is that a collection of this order does more than trace the contours of current scholarship; its inclusions, (inevitable) exclusions, and organisation of material make a formative assertion. Through its selections, and by setting out its contents in according to a particular logic, an anthology such as this arguably produces a ‘map’ of its subject. And while, as the popular expression attributed to Polish semanticist Alfred Korzybski goes, â€șthe map is not the territoryâ€č, maps can shape understandings and subsequent navigations in significant ways. The introduction provides the customary survey of important earlier contributions to the field, although not without some surprising absences. Expanding the range of individual scholars and pioneering works afforded a mention would have strengthened this initial overview. Earlier collections presenting a broad range of approaches and aspects of academic engagement with comics have also been published (see Varnum and Gibbons 2001; Heer and Worcester 2009), and acknowledging them would have helped historicize this contribution. Beyond the editors’ initial introduction, The Routledge Companion to Comics is organised under four main headings.

The first section, »History and Traditions« offers accounts of comics histories and cultures from different parts of the world. It opens with »Origins of Early Comics and Proto-Comics« (Inge, 9-15), which connects German and US comics histories by attending to Wilhelm Busch’ Max und Moritz (1865), the morbidly ill-behaved children setting out a path since followed by many other youthful miscreants in comics. Then, following a chapter on seminal publication formats (LefĂšvre, 16-24), »The Comics Code« (Kiste Nyberg, 25-33) and »Underground and Alternative Comics« (Cook, 34-43) each considers an important period in the history of US comics. The subsequent chapters in this section deal with national and regional contexts beyond the US. This endeavour to represent comics as a global phenomenon should not be expected to be comprehensive or to avoid broad sweeps. The resultant dynamic, and inferred hierarchy, nevertheless give pause for thought and highlights the challenge of configuring global comics cultures in this way. Within The Routledge Companion to Comics, some national comics histories have a chapter each, while others share the bill in their respective chapters. Some authors cover even larger regions: JosĂ© Alaniz discusses Eastern/Central European comics (98-105) and Ana Merino introduces Latin American comics (70-78). Both contributions are excellent, but unenviably tasked with summarising context, historical information and condensing an extensive range of material. To do justice to the particularities of different socio-political and historical contexts, Merino’s solution is further selection, choosing to focus on Mexican, Argentine and Cuban comics traditions.

Despite the ambition to provide ‘a truly global approach to understanding the field’ (publisher’s foreword), the overall selection and its assembly effectively accentuate the US perspective of the anthology. All views are inevitably situated somewhere, so the issue is not the US perspective but rather a reluctance to fully acknowledge this bias. But despite the somewhat awkward approach to a global overview, this section certainly fulfils the editors’ aim to provide a valuable reference resource. These fact-rich pages will be a treasure trove for researchers. The survey/chronicle approach is prominent in this first section and also »Comics Genres« that follows it. From the third part of the book named »Issues and Concepts« there is a shift towards a more analytical mode which continues through the fourth and final section »Other Media and Other Disciplines«. This diversity makes for a resource with something to offer for readers with differing inclinations and preferences, while browsing gives plenty of opportunity for inadvertent discovery. »Issues and Concepts« has a trickily broad remit, in that it deals with concepts and theoretical debates, including formal aspects, but also chapters on comics fandom and identity questions such as gender, sexuality, race and ethnicity in relation to comics. »Other Media and Other Disciplines« explores connections between comics and other cultural forms (visual arts, cinema, literature) and between comics studies and other, often more institutionally secure and established, disciplines. Here, discussion of comics in libraries (Graham, 399- 405), as pedagogical resource (Tilley and Wiener, 358-366) and comics in childhood studies (Saguisag, 433-442) forms an informal sub-set of interrelated topics.

Reading through the anthology’s chapters in succession might not be the way most readers would approach a book like this, but it offered some satisfying surprises. In the genre section, intersections and interrelations between genres (western and horror, or adventure and war comics) are made available as different authors sometimes reference the same titles. For example, Garth Ennis’ and Steve Dillon’s Preacher (1995-2000) is cited in both in »Western Comics« (Grady, 164-173) and »Horror Comics« (Annwn Jones, 174-182).

The disciplinary, as much as the geographic, viewpoints of the editors are evident in the prominence of philosophical and linguistic framings. For instance, Christy Mag Uidhir’s discussion of seriality (248-256) appears informed by philosophical logic and circumvents direct engagement with actual publishing contexts. Other contributions address topics such as authorship (Mitchell, 239-247), adaptation (Pratt, 230-238), rhetoric (Duncan, 415-423), linguistics (Bramlett ,380-389) and, highlighting issues long overdue attention, Jonathan Evans’ chapter on comics and translation (319-327).

As the main focus here is the contribution’s account of the scholarly field, it feels appropriate to briefly mention the chapters »Defining Comics« (Meskin, 221-229) and »Comics and Cultural Studies« (Hague, 424-432). Both offer instructive accounts of the field of study, as opposed to the object of study. This kind of reflective engagement is vital for comics studies to develop and mature rather than merely grow in numbers (Steirer 2011). Meskin’s chapter gives an overview of categorisations contingent on formal conventions and ontological debates that seem to have receded of late, but form part of the history of the comics studies field. Hague on the other hand highlights crucial contributions to scholarship in the UK, including Martin Barker, Mel Gibson and Roger Sabin. He also looks further, to significant contributors such as Bart Beaty and Jean-Paul Gabilliet, in this introduction of approaches to comics that place social and material practices centre stage. In other words, attending to what people do with comics and the contexts of the production and circulation of comics.

The latter two expressly connect with John Lent’s (2013) suggestion that »industry studies« has long remained an under-utilised approach, but one with potential to significantly enrich comics studies. Rather than a text-centred, formalist or authorial focus, this entails studying comics as a field of cultural production, and examining the cultural and institutional structures, economic drivers and conditions, material processes and socio-cultural networks that form it, both previously and in the present. Such work is increasingly emergent (see for example Brienza and Johnston 2016), and evident within numerous chapters in this collection. Most of the time however, these considerations are presented within treatments of specific comics histories or as a sub-section of another topic. Hopefully the importance of such concerns will soon be shored up and acknowledged as a vital element of comics studies, perhaps as a section header/s in their own right?

Taking the line that meaningful publication is judged by »scholarly merit and utility in terms of community building« (Di Leo 2004, 11), there is no doubt that The Routledge Companion to Comics meets the criteria. This is a hefty tome, boasting rich contents and offering valuable, high-quality reference points for a wide range of research. The chapters are written authoritatively and from positions of expertise. While certain disciplinary allegiances make themselves felt, the anthology nevertheless includes multiple approaches, methods and frame-works. The collection’s attempt at global perspectives makes visible some of the challenges involved in configuring scholarship in this way. In his chapter on East Asian comics, Adam L. Kern (113-115) rightly observes that transnational aspects of both comics production and consumption are considerable. They are not necessarily always best served by national framings.

However, editors should be congratulated on the ambitious scale of their project and have achieved a valuable contribution with numerous individual gems. By offering a timely touchstone for further critical debate and discussion about the field and its configuration, this collection clearly fulfils its most important brief.


  • Brienza, Casey and Paddy Johnstone: Cultures of Comics Work. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.
  • Di Leo, Jeffrey R.: Analyzing Anthologies. In: On Anthologies. Politics and Pedagogy. Ed. J.R. Di Leo. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2004, pp.1-27.
  • Heer, Jeet. and Ken Worcester (Eds): A Comics Studies Reader. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2004.
  • Lent, John A.: Comics scholarship. Its delayed birth, stunted growth, and drive to maturity. In: Nona Arte. Revista Brasileira de Pesquisas em HistĂłrias em Quadrinhos, 2.2 (2013), pp.4-20.
  • Steirer, Gregory: The State of Comics Scholarship. Comics Studies and Disciplinarity. In: International Journal of Comic Art, 13.2 (2011), pp. 263-85.
  • Varnum, Robin and Christina T. Gibbons (Eds.): The Language of Comics. Word and Image. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2001.


The Routledge Companion to Comics
Frank Bramlett, Roy T. Cook and Aaron Meskin (Eds.)
New York: Routledge, 2016
472 p., 176,93 Dollar
ISBN 978-0415729000