Just what is it that we're doing here?

If you take a look at the “About” tab on our site you can find the single page summary of the SSHRC grant proposal that is the primary driver of this research project. That’s all well and good, but what are we doing really?

To help explain this project to the 136 students in my ENGL 388 (Comics and Graphic Novels) class the other day I drew on a pair of examples from two of the books that we have read over the course of this term. The first of these was Watchmen. We all know, for example, that the structural basis of Watchmen is the nine-panel grid (three tiers of three panels) that regularizes the layout of the entire work. Here’s an example of that layout from the first issue. 

But let’s recall that Watchmen only seems to rely on a nine-panel grid. The first page, for example, has seven panels, while the second has eight. Indeed, the first nine-panel page doesn’t appear until page five (above). In the first issue, only nine of the twenty-six pages has nine panels. None has more than nine, but the vast majority - almost two out of three - contain fewer. While it is true that you can distinguish the alignment of the grid even in pages that don’t use it due to the choices that Dave Gibbons makes about panel width and height, Watchmen is predominantly not a comic featuring a nine-panel grid, although it is frequently discussed as if it were. Our impression may be that Watchmen is mostly nine panels, but the data shows that only 133 of the 336 pages of Watchmen have nine-panels (39.5%). This project is a first step in discussing these kinds of comic book stylistics through the use of a large data set.

With this project, we are proposing to study a randomly generated sample of American comic books produced between 1934 and 2014. Specifically, we will study a statistically significant sample from each of those eighty years. In the first phase, we will code a series of relevant pieces of data (number of pages per issues; numbers of stories per issue; numbers of panels per page; number of word balloons per panel; number of words per balloon). During the second phase we will be looking at data that is more subjective and more difficult to quantify (for instance, typologies of panel transitions). In the final phase, we will draw upon the data set to author a study of the evolution of comic book styles over time. 

Let’s return, for example, to the Watchmen example. If we note that throughout the series the nine-panel grid typically runs about 40% of all pages, what can we make of this chart?:

That enormous spike in issue six (“The Abyss Gazes Also”) immediately leaps out at us. This is the chapter in which Dr. Malcolm Long examines Rorshach and we learn the back story of the book’s protagonist. Indeed, the preceding chapter (“Fearful Symmetry”, the most formally inventive chapter in the book) is also primarily, though not exclusively, about Rorschach. The seventh chapter (“A Brother to Dragons”, which is the first to have pages with more than nine panels (during the sex scenes)) primarily focusses on Dan and Laurie. Certainly, then, an interpretation that suggests a connection between the non-powered heroes of the book and the nine-panel grid becomes an enticing route for thematic investigation. This would be supported by the fact that the alien-infected final chapter has the lowest number of nine-panel grids (only four out of the thirty-two pages), and is the only chapter that uses traditional single panel splash pages. 

Watchmen provides a very obvious example of how a study like this might work because it is so formally structured. What we are not particularly interested in, however, is analyzing individual works like Watchmen but charting the evolution of the comic book format over time. We are interested in the typical comic books of various periods, not the ones that have been proclaimed the best. Indeed, it is more likely than not that Watchmen would not even be randomly selected into our sample set! Examining changes to comics over time is one of the things we are most interested in.

Take, for example, Saga. I taught my students this book shortly after teaching Watchmen. One of the things that my students immediately noted is that the first issue contains six splash pages, and that the splash in general is one of the visual hallmarks of the work. Moreover, they noted how much more quickly it reads than does Watchmen because the volume of text is quite reduced. I think it is a commonplace to note that contemporary superhero comics contain less text than do comics from thirty years ago, and that those contain less text than comics from thirty years prior to that. Yet we lack the tools to actually demonstrate this assumption that is so routinely taken for granted. 


Moreover, we throw a spanner into the works when we talk only about superhero comics, or, worse, only certain types of superhero comics (that is, comics from “the big two”). Watchmen is often praised as realist because it lacks thought balloons and sound effects, and it is noted that in the wake of Watchmen many comic book artists abandoned these story-telling elements. Can we actually demonstrate that with data? Moreover, when we step further back we might note that most Archie comic books of the 1960s contained no thought balloons or sound effects. Is Watchmen radical for borrowing the formal stylistics of Archie?

This is very much only the tip of the iceberg, but, I hope, it gives a small sense of our goals. In the coming weeks I hope to blog a bit about the theory behind what we are doing, and then, once term ends, we will begin working on our data set and coding protocols in earnest. We will be sharing our thoughts on these topics as we go, and we really hope to encourage feedback wherever possible : better to identify a misdirection early in the process than to have to go back and begin again.