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Not to be confused with the technical aspects of comics creation, comics studies exists only with the creation of comics theory--which approaches comics critically as an art--and the writing of comics historiography (the study of the history of comics). Comics theory has significant overlap with the philosophy of comics, i.e., the study of the ontology,epistemology and aesthetics of comics, the relationship between comics and other art forms, and the relationship between text and image in comics.
Comics studies is also interrelated with comics criticism, the analysis and evaluation of comics and the comics medium.
Although there has been the occasional investigation of comics as a valid art form, specifically in Gilbert Seldes' The 7 Lively Arts (1924), Martin Sheridan's Classic Comics and Their Creators (1942), and David Kunzle's The Early Comic Strip: Narrative Strips and Picture Stories in the European Broadsheet from c. 1450 to 1825 (1973), contemporary Anglophone comics studies in North America can be said to have burst onto the academic scene with both Will Eisner's Comics and Sequential Art in 1985 and Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics in 1993. Continental comics studies can trace its roots back to the work of semioticians such as Roland Barthes (particularly his 1964 essay "Rhetoric of the Image", published in English in the anthology Image--Music--Text) and Umberto Eco (particularly his 1964 book Apocalittici e integrati).
More recently, analysis of comics have begun to be undertaken by cognitive scientists, the most prominent being Neil Cohn, who has used tools from linguistics to detail the theoretical structure of comics' underlying "visual language", and has also used psychological experimentation from cognitive neuroscience to test these theories in actual comprehension. This work has suggested similarities between the way that the brain processes language and the way it processes sequential images. Cohn's theories are not universally accepted with other scholars like Thierry Groensteen, Hannah Miodrag, and Barbara Postema offering alternative understandings.
"Comics ... are sometimes four-legged and sometimes two-legged and sometimes fly and sometimes don't ... to employ a metaphor as mixed as the medium itself, defining comics entails cutting a Gordian-knotted enigma wrapped in a mystery ..."
Similar to the problems of defining literature and film, no consensus has been reached on a definition of the comics medium, and attempted definitions and descriptions have fallen prey to numerous exceptions. Theorists such as Töpffer,R. C. Harvey, Will Eisner,David Carrier, Alain Rey, and Lawrence Grove emphasize the combination of text and images, though there are prominent examples of pantomime comics throughout its history. Other critics, such as Thierry Groensteen and Scott McCloud, have emphasized the primacy of sequences of images. Towards the close of the 20th century, different cultures' discoveries of each other's comics traditions, the rediscovery of forgotten early comics forms, and the rise of new forms made defining comics a more complicated task.
In the field of composition studies, an interest in comics and graphic novels is growing, partially due to the work of comics theorists but also due to composition studies' growing focus on multimodality and visual rhetoric. Composition studies theorists are looking at comics as sophisticated texts, and sites of complex literacy.
Gunther Kress defines multimodality as "the use of several semiotic modes in the design of a semiotic product or event, together with the particular way in which these mode are combined" or, more simply as "any text whose meanings are realized through more than one semiotic code".
Kristie S. Fleckenstein sees the relationship between image and text as "mutually constitutive, mutually infused"--a relationship she names "imageword". Fleckenstein sees "imageword" as offering "a double vision of writing-reading based on [the] fusion of image and word, a double vision of literacy".
Dale Jacobs sees the reading of comics as a form of "multimodal literacy or multiliteracy, rather than as a debased form of print literacy". According to Jacobs, comics can help educators to move "toward attending to multimodal literacies" that "shift our focus from print only to multiple modalities". He encourages educators to embrace a pedagogy that will give students skills to effectively negotiate these multiple modalities.
The University of Lancaster started offering a PhD degree in comics studies in 2015. The same year French comics studies scholar Benoît Peeters (a student of Roland Barthes) was appointed as the UK's first ever comics professor at Lancaster University.
Although presentations dedicated to comics are commonplace at conferences in many fields, entire conferences dedicated to this subject are becoming more common. There have been conferences at SAIC (International Comic Arts Forum), MMU (The International Bande Dessinée Society Conference), UTS (Sequential Art Studies Conference), Georgetown, Ohio State (Festival of Cartoon Art), and Bowling Green (Comics in Popular Culture conference), and there is a yearly conference at University of Florida (Conference on Comics and Graphic Novels). Additionally, there is an annual Michigan State University Comics Forum, which brings together academics and professionals working in the industry. Notable regularly held movable conferences include the Comic Art and Comics Area of the Popular Culture Association of America and the conference of the International Society for Humor Studies.
The International Comics Arts Forum (ICAF), begun in 1995 at Georgetown University by Guy Spielmann and Tristan Fonlladosa, is an annual academic conference distinguished by its international focus and scholarly rigor The German Gesellschaft für Comicforschung (ComFor, Society for Comics Studies) has organized yearly academic conferences since 2006. The Comics Arts Conference has met regularly since 1992 in conjunction with San Diego Comic-Con International and WonderCon. Another important conference is the annual International Graphic Novels and Comics Conference held since 2010 organized by British academics. This conference has been held in conjunction with the longer running International Bande Dessinée Society conference. Comics Forum, a UK-based community of international comics scholars, also holds an annual conference at Leeds Central Library; the first was held in 2009.
^Iain Thomson, in his "Deconstructing the Hero" (in Jeff McLaughlin, ed., Comics as Philosophy (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005), pp. 100-129), develops the concept of comics as philosophy.
^Meskin, Aaron and Roy T. Cook (eds.), The Art of Comics: A Philosophical Approach, Wiley-Blackwell, 2012, p. xxxi.
^David Carrier, The Aesthetics of Comics, Penn State University Press, 2000, Part 1: "The Nature of Comics."
^Bramlett, Frank, Roy Cook and Aaron Meskin (eds.), The Routledge Companion to Comics, Routledge, 2016, p. 330.
^Roland Barthes, "Rhétorique de l'image", Communications4(1), 1964, pp. 40-51, translated as "Rhetoric of the Image", in: Roland Barthes, Image-Music-Text, essays selected and translated by Stephen Heath, New York 1977, pp. 32-51.
^Umberto Eco, Apocalittici e integrati: comunicazioni di massa e teorie della cultura di massa, Bompiani, 1964. Cf. also: Umberto Eco (1972). "Epilogue", in: Walter Herdeg and David Pascal (eds.): The Art of the Comic Strip, Zurich: The Graphis Press.
^Neil Cohn, The Visual Language of Comics: Introduction to the Structure and Cognition of Sequential Images, London: Bloomsbury, 2013, p. 1ff.
^Kress, Gunther and Theo Van Leeuwen (2001). Multimodal Discourse: The Modes and Media of Contemporary Communication. Arnold Publishers. p. 20.
^Kress, Gunther and Theo van Leeuwen (2006). Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design (2nd ed.). Routledge. p. 177.
^Fleckenstein, Kristie (2003). Embodied Literacies: Imageword and a Poetics of Teaching. Southern Illinois University Press. p. 2.
^Jacobs, Dale. "Marvelling at The Man Called Nova: Comics as Sponsors of Multimodal Literacy". The Journal of the Conference on College Composition and Communication. 59 (2): 182.
^Jacobs, Dale. "Marvelling at The Man Called Nova: Comics as Sponsors of Multimodal Literacy". The Journal of the Conference on College Composition and Communication. 59 (2): 201.
^Williams, Paul and James Lyons (eds.), The Rise of the American Comics Artist: Creators and Contexts, University Press of Mississippi, 2010, p. 106.
^Waugh, Coulton, The Comics, University Press of Mississippi, 1991, p. xiii.
^Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics, Harper Perennial, 1993, pp. 10-15.
^Alexandre Linck Vargas, A invenção dos quadrinhos: teoria e crítica da sarjeta (The invention of Comics: Theory and Criticism of Gutters), Ph.D. thesis, Federal University of Santa Catarina, 2015, Abstract: "we stumble upon the inventions of a comics artistry, from the 1960's on, through conflicts with the art world (Pop Art, Lowbrow Art and exhibitions), through the emergence of an authorial disposal and of an institutionalized comicphilia..."
Hague, Ian, Comics and the Senses: A Multisensory Approach to Comics and Graphic Novels, Routledge, 2014.
Harvey, R. C., The Art of the Funnies: An Aesthetic History, University Press of Mississippi, 1994.
Harvey, R. C., The Art of , University Press of Mississippi, 1996.
Hajdu, David, The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America, Picador, 2009 (originally Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008).
Hatfield, Charles, Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature, University Press of Mississippi, 2005.
Heer, Jeet and Kent Worcester (eds.), A Comics Studies Reader, University Press of Mississippi, 2009.
Jones, Gerard, Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book, Basic Books, 2005.
Klock, Geoff, How to Read Superhero Comics and Why, Continuum, 2002.
Kukkonen, Karin, Studying Comics and Graphic Novels, Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.
Lund, Martin, Re-Constructing the Man of Steel: Superman 1938-1941, Jewish American History, and the Invention of the Jewish-Comics Connection, Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.
Magnussen, Anne and Hans-Christian Christiansen (eds.), Comics & Culture: Analytical and Theoretical Approaches to Comics, Museum Tusculanum Press, 2000.
McLaughlin, Jeff (ed.), Comics as Philosophy, University Press of Mississippi, 2005.
Meesters, Gert, "Creativity in Comics. Exploring the Frontiers of the Medium by Respecting Explicit Self-imposed Constraints," in Tony Veale, Kurt Feyaerts, Charles Forceville (ed.), Creativity and the Agile Mind: A Multi-Disciplinary Study of a Multi-Faceted Phenomenon, Walter de Gruyter, 2013, pp. 275-292.
Miller, Ann and Bart Beaty (eds.), The French Comics Theory Reader, Leuven University Press, 2014.
Miodrag, Hannah, Comics and Language: Reimagining Critical Discourse on the Form, University Press of Mississippi, 2013.
Petersen, Robert S., Comics, Manga, and Graphic Novels: A History of Graphic Narratives, ABC-CLIO, 2011.
Pizzino, Christopher, Arresting Development: Comics at the Boundaries of Literature, U of Texas Press, 2016.
Postema, Barbara, Narrative Structure in Comics: Making Sense of Fragments, Boydell & Brewer, 2013.
Pustz, Matthew (ed.), Comic Books and American Cultural History: An Anthology, Continuum, 2012.
Reynolds, Richard, Super Heroes: A Modern Mythology, University Press of Mississippi, 1994.
Saraceni, Mario, The Language of Comics, Routledge, 2003.
Schmitz-Emans, Monika (ed.), Comic und Literatur: Konstellationen, Walter de Gruyter, 2012.
Smith, Matthew and Randy Duncan (eds.), Critical Approaches to Comics: Theories and Methods, Routledge, 2012.
Smith, Matthew and Randy Duncan (eds.), The Secret Origins of Comics Studies, Routledge, 2017.
Stein, Daniel and Jan-Noël Thon (eds.), From Comic Strips to Graphic Novels: Contributions to the Theory and History of Graphic Narrative, Walter de Gruyter, 2015.
Waugh, Coulton, The Comics, University Press of Mississippi, 1991 (originally Macmillan, 1947).
Weiner, Robert G. (ed.), Graphic Novels and Comics in Libraries and Archives: Essays on Readers, Research, History and Cataloging, McFarland, 2010.
Williams, Paul and James Lyons (eds.), The Rise of the American Comics Artist: Creators and Contexts, University Press of Mississippi, 2010.
Wright, Bradford W., Comic book nation: The transformation of Youth Culture in America, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.