Hamburg University | Germany
The Multimodal Framing(s) of Documentary Webcomics
Whereas both documentary comics in print form (Adams 2009; Grünewald 2013; Chute 2016), as well as fictional webcomics (Kukkonen 2013; Hammel 2014; Thon and Wilde 2016) receive growing attention among comic scholars, non-fiction webcomics are fundamentally underresearched. These “short-form documentary comics” (Mickwitz 2016) are oftentimes distributed via specialized online platforms like Cartoon Movement or The Nib that allow for these graphic narratives to be distributed among social networks. They also may be embedded in transmedial arrangements with other journalistic forms. Additionally, authors such as Josh Neufeld or Sarah Glidden, for instance, create both webcomics and comic books, making use of their respective medialities. Largely, webcomics allow for enhanced interactive potentials – both as part of the comics itself and in their immediate medial surrounding. Whereas the medium of comics regardless of material manifestation is inherently multimodal in its combination of image, text and layout (Bateman and Wildfeuer 2014), publication online allows for the effortless integration of further modes (Kress 2003), such as photographs, animated gifs and even videos, that are not conventionally part of the comics medium – calling into question notions of comics based on sequential static images. In addition, digital distribution allows authors to react to current events and produce content spontaneously, avoiding the lengthy print publications process. Documentary webcomics, at the same time, have to be differentiated from memes, single cartoon images and web-based comic strips in that they employ complex narrative structures.
The paper will be informed by a multimodal approach to frame theory. Frames, most commonly known as “schemata of interpretation” (Goffman 1974) or as structures of lexical and grammatical meaning (Fillmore 1985), are in social semiotics conceived of both as semiotic entities and cognitive and cultural phenomena (Kress 2003; van Leeuwen 2005; Kress and van Leeuwen 2006; Kress 2010). Graphic narrative is constituted by a dynamic of visual and material frames on the one hand, and cognitive frames such as genre and medium on the other (Denson 2012; Schmid 2016). Events are framed visually in an abstract drawing style; framed within the boundary of the panel, through writing and through the narrative sequence and finally within the layout of the print page or, in this case, website. The reading process is furthermore informed by preconceived expectations, for instance towards truth and authenticity, communicated through markers of medium and genre. The specific mediality of webcomics allows authors to employ particular strategies to place their works within generic frames based on the digital layout, as well as the inherent multimodality of the websites they are distributed on. The paper seeks to describe how authors employ the webcomics layout, as well as their situatedness within online platforms to frame their works as non-fictional as well as advocate social causes through the genre of documentary.
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Kress, Gunther. Multimodality: A Social Semiotic Approach to Contemporary Communication. London and New York: Routledge, 2010.
Kress, Gunther, and Theo van Leeuwen. Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design. 2nd ed. London and New York: Routledge, 2006.
Kukkonen, Karin. “Web Comics.” The Johns Hopkins Guide to Digital Media. Eds. Marie- Laure Ryan, Lori Emerson, and Benjamin J. Robertson. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013. 521-524.
Mickwitz, Nina. Documentary Comics. Graphic Truth-Telling in a Skeptical Age. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.
Johannes C. P. Schmid is Research Assistant in the research project “Media-Aesthetic Strategies of Framing and Translation in Graphic Novels” as part of the research group “Translating and Framing. Practices of Medial Transformations” at the University of Hamburg. For his MA-Thesis Shooting Pictures, Drawing Blood: The Photographic Image in the Graphic War Memoir (Berlin: Bachmann, 2016) he was awarded the American Studies Award of the University of Hamburg 2015, as well as the Roland Faelske-Award for Comic and Animation Studies 2016. His dissertation project is titled “The Frames of Documentary Comics”. Johannes Schmid is co-organizer of the Comic-Kolloquium Hamburg.