Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS)


IAS Laughter: Graphic Humour — Comics Studies, Literary Studies, and Laughter

by Dominic Davies

Emily Spicer, Comic Books and Laughter, 2019. © Emily Spicer. Courtesy of the artist.

7 January 2021

Scriberia Ltd, Comic Books and Laughter, 2019. © Emily Spicer. Courtesy of the artist.


On 25 April 2019, UCL’s Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS) hosted ‘Comic Books and Laughter: History, Politics, and Aesthetics’ as part of its seminar series exploring the relationship between literary studies and laughter. If the driving question of this series has tended to see that relationship as a negative one — why isn’t there a better relationship between literary studies and laughter? — the discussion of comics bucks this trend. This is hardly surprising. After all, comics take their name from the ‘funnies’, cartoon strips published in newspapers in the first decades of the twentieth century with the explicit intention of making readers laugh. As comics evolved from simple strips to serialized magazines (both superhero-themed and otherwise) and then to codex-bound books (the ‘graphic novel’), that word ‘comics’ was slowly decoupled from its affective roots. By the 1980s, it was used to describe almost any kind of story that was told through a series of artistic panels or drawings, sequentially arranged into a coherent narrative, and this is how it is most commonly used today. Indeed, that we now use the term ‘comics’ to describe graphic novels that deal with the most ‘unfunny’ of subjects, from Art Spiegelman’s treatment of his father’s memory of the Holocaust in Maus to Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical reflections on the Iranian revolution in Persepolis, shows just how far the word has migrated from its original meaning. And yet, even in these graphic depictions of sometimes horrific events, humour often slips into the frame, bringing with it a nod to the rich heritage, cultural movements, and artistic traditions that lie behind books like Maus and Persepolis.

As for Comics Studies, although it is a growing discipline in the UK (it now has a couple of MA programmes and even a BA programme to its name), it is accustomed to existing on the fringes of other subjects. Comics scholars squat at the edges of Media and Film Studies departments, and more recently, Literature departments, too. Coupled with the sometimes disparaging dismissal of its subject material as ‘popular’ or ‘low culture’, primarily ‘for kids’, this disciplinary marginalization begins to explain why Comics Studies does not tend to take itself as seriously as, say, literary studies. It is true that Comics scholars get upset when the term ‘graphic novel’ is used by literary scholars to describe a vast range of visual-narrative media. This is because they see in this blanket designation a ‘land grab’ that aims to peel off the ‘high’-cultural ‘graphic novel’ for Literature, thereby depriving and purifying it of the form’s historical rootedness in the radical subcultures of head shops, art colleges, ephemeral ‘zines, breaches of copyright production, and explicitly sexualized content, among other things. In other words, they dislike literary scholars wielding ‘graphic novels’ in such a way as to suggest that now, finally, comics will be taken seriously — as though Comics scholars had not been doing precisely that, all along.

Professor Roger Sabin, a pioneering figure in UK Comics Studies and the author of several field-defining books, therefore began the seminar on 25 April by digging into the history of the word ‘comics’, mapping its migration from music hall stage to newspaper page. The earliest comics characters were directly adapted from the celebrated actors and stand-up ‘comics’ who populated the music hall, a space much celebrated for its popular and working-class culture, and a far cry from the stuffy ‘seriousness’ of the university library. In this stage-to-page transfer, which defined their early years, comics’ beginnings invert the well-known page-to-screen transfer of Marvel and DC comics superheroes that has dominated recent decades. Comics were so-named because they were funny, but also because they were often actual drawings of human comics themselves. It seems that comics have always been a transmedial form, breaking down the disciplinary boundaries that structure and regulate the modern university, and that divide something as ‘menial’ as mere laughter from something as ‘serious’ as literary studies.

Nicola Streeten, Always There, 2017 © Nicola Streeten. Courtesy of the artist.

The next speaker, Dr Nicola Streeten, an author and artist who was the UK’s first female graphic memoirist with her wonderful book, Billy, Me, & You (2011), and who has recently published a ground-breaking study, UK Feminist Cartoons: A Critical Survey (2020), reflected on the importance of humour to feminist comics artists, herself included. Beginning with the misogynist’s archetypal defences — ‘I was only joking’, ‘Why do you take yourself so seriously?’ — Dr Streeten showed how comics have been pivotal to feminist attempts to reclaim humour from patriarchy. Her own artistic work is very much in the tradition of these movements, and she epitomizes a common blend in Comics Studies between critical analysis and creative practice, spheres that in literary fields are more rigorously — and unhelpfully — patrolled.

Finally, Dr Nina Mickwitz, whose work explores the intersections of comics, activism, and documentary form, alerted us to the specifically formal mechanisms of comics that make them so amenable to the telling of a joke. If it has become something of a cliché in Comics Studies to say that comics are all about timing, it remains true nonetheless. Some of the earliest Comics criticism, interested especially in the formal and semiotic dynamism of graphic narrative, pointed to the way in which comics — because they are comprised of sequential static images, rather than smooth linear sentences or unbroken film frames — convey time as space. The gap between panels (known as ‘the gutter’) signifies to readers that time has passed, allowing comics artists suddenly to launch new information upon us, to reveal context, or to change our perspective, much like the punchline in a joke. To demonstrate this, Dr Mickwitz pointed to Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy comic strips, which use the rhythm of their sequences to line up hilarious visual gags. Google them: you will get, simultaneously, a quick laugh, and evidence of the formal innovation of comics.

The seminar captured the current and growing richness of Comics Studies today: a field that had broken off into strands of historical, political, practical, and formal analysis, which critics are now bringing back together in provocative ways. And  the discipline’s deep-seated comfort with humour (deriving perhaps from its close affiliation with forms of so-called ‘low’ culture) speaks back to literary studies too in interesting ways. Comics Studies challenges literary studies to wonder whether it might not benefit from a little more humility, and perhaps a little less separation between itself and the rest of the world — a separation which, at best, suggests an inflated sense of its own importance, and, at worst, betrays an underlying insecurity. ‘Have a laugh,’ it seems to say, ‘and most importantly, at yourself. Doing so won’t delegitimize your disciplinary practice. You may even find it sharpens your critical teeth.’

Dominic Davies is a Senior Lecturer in English at City, University of London. He is the author of Urban Comics: Infrastructure & the Global City in Contemporary Graphic Narratives (2019) and co-editor of Documenting Trauma in Comics: Traumatic Pasts, Embodied Histories, and Graphic Reportage (2020).

Texts cc by nd. Images are licensed for single use.