Super-Hero Comics and Reader Textualization:

Participation and Narrative Construction

This is a piece that explores the idea of textualization in super-hero comics and how these stories are constructed. More than that, it is an introduction to exploring purpose — why are super-heroes so engaging after all these years? What is the purpose of super-hero comics on a cultural level? This is also a bit of a set-up for future explorations, as it serves as a framework for comic analysis. One can look at comics and determine the ways that they pull in the reader into their world beyond just a compelling narrative.

Textualization, as defined by Jon Thiem, professor emeritus of English and Comparative Literature at Colorado State University “takes place when the world of a text literally intrudes into the extratextual or reader’s world” (Thiem 339). The process of being “lost” in a story is very real, and he furthers it as resulting from a truly immersive text in which a reader is completely absorbed. Thiem describes this concept in relation to magical realist literary style, whose metaphorical nature compares well to the visual narrative construction of the comic book. Like these stories, the world of most comics are filled with fantastical plots and  super beings that defy the laws of physics and have impossible powers, but are taken on face value as simply existing in that world. Within the pages, the fantasy is banal and a part of daily life. Thiem supports his ideas discussing the English language phrases used to describe this process and effect, as readers often say that they are “lost in a book” or “totally absorbed,” and notes that other languages have similar expressions (Thiem 341). The narratives of magical realism allow this to happen, often through implementing nameless protagonists and dreamlike stories, similar to the abstract identities of a super-hero and the plots within a comic – we project ourselves onto super-heroes because of their masks allow for a blankness in identity and they have nonspecific heroic titles.

Further, there is vast psychological pleasure associated with reading, and the process of reading can have profound emotional effects. Victor Nell’s study, Lost in a Book: The Psychology of Reading for Pleasure, uses a cognitive science approach to look at this psychological connection to reading. Nell describes this “absorbed” reading process as a “trance,” which he sees as being remarkably similar to a dreamlike state, a process he refers to as “ludic reading” (Nell 73). Nell states that, “like dreaming, reading performs the prodigious task of carrying us off to other worlds,” and attributes this mostly, but not exclusively, to fictional work due to its association with pleasurable reading (Nell 2). Nell describes the reading process, beginning with visual perception and working into more complex areas of comprehension and states that “consciousness is a processing bottleneck, and it is the readily comprehended messages that fully engage the receiver’s conscious attention” (Nell 77).

Nell notes that less complex literary works make this process more complete, stating that “the richness of the structure that the ludic reader creates in his head may be inversely proportional to the literary [level] and originality of the reading matter” (Nell 77). The reader’s comprehension is more complete when the text is less literarily and cognitively complex. Nell summarizes this idea by stating that, “the processing demands made by James Joyce may require frequent pauses and regressions, whereas the even pace of Wilbur Smith, and the well-practiced ease with which the reader can imagine his stereotyped characters and settings, may impose a heavier continuous load of attention” (Nell 77).

If the process of ludic reading is greater when the text is simple, does this process increase even more in the case of a visual narrative? Nell argues that when the brain does not have to struggle for comprehension, it is more able to enter the trance of ludic reading and that visual comprehension is the first step in this process. Thiem would probably argue that this creates an easier process of textualization. If readers do not need to put increased effort into understanding characters, settings, plots, or even the structures of sentences, then they are able to immerse themselves more fully. The comic’s visual narratives allow this process to continue to a greater potential, as images replace description and plot and allow for even greater comprehension through the reader’s understanding of the illustrated world. One does not need to read about the character leaving a room, or a snow covered mountain, if one can see it visually represented.

Researchers Peter Coppin and Stephen Hockema from the University of Toronto’s Department of Information theorize on the possibility of images to hold information beyond basic visual comprehension. Beyond the evolution of the human brain’s visual comprehension abilities, they theorize that “illustrations and visualizations may evolve to augment our cognition in an era that seems to be growing increasingly interconnected” (Coppin, Hockema 2). They further support this by emphasizing that, “illustrations may be increasingly called upon to help translate complex (often invisible) interconnections into visible form”  (Coppin, Hockema 2). Though this may suggest the role of the artist as being more valuable to comic narrative, one should note that famous comic scribe Grant Morrison did start his comic career working as an illustrator (Salisbury 206). During the process of scriptwriting, he often visualizes elements of the story, and adds accompanying sketches to his scripts for artists to follow (Meaney). Morrison’s writing process is at least partially visual, a fact which may make it easier for artists to translate his ideas on to the page and perhaps allows for a writer to more completely picture the realities of the world one he or she creates. The textual and visual narrative creation process are not mutally exclusive to Morrison’s work, and he is able to include extradiegetic narrative information into his comics. But, as future articles will explore, Morrison uses textualization quite often, and his comics have a participatory nature to them, allowing for the reader to be an acknowledged part of the reading process. The theory of comic reading, and the cognitive research associated with it suggest, as Coppin and Hockema state, that one should consider “comics and illustrations as physical phenomena that interact with people, thus causing effects in people” (Coppin, Hockema 3).

Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art discusses how comprehension of a visual narrative becomes increasingly cognitively automatic, through a process known as closure, “observing the parts but perceiving the whole” (McCloud 63). He describes this process as the brain completing narrative illustrations through visual comprehension, which allows effortless understanding of the greater idea of the image, and in the instance of comics, the overall story and world in the book. Comic panels are generally physically separated on each page, but while we read, we perceive them as a single narrative flow. The space between panels, what McCloud refers to as “the gutter,” allows the “human imagination [to] take two separate images and transform them into a single idea” (McCloud 66). McCloud argues that the basic nature of comics and the process of reading them represent an absolute form of his idea of closure. If the process of narrative comprehension becomes increasingly effortless because of the images-as-narrative and the brain’s ability to perceive the whole from fragments, then the idea of ludic reading trances, or being lost in a book, would naturally increase because of the very nature of this medium and the process of reading comics. The nature of the medium allows textualization to happen more naturally, due in part to its visual narratives.

Pascal Lefèvre expands on this idea in his essay “The Construction of Space in Comics” in which he describes how the idea of three dimensional space and narrative reality are interpreted by the audience through the ideas of diegetic and extradiegetic space (Lefèvre 157). The diegetic space of a comic may refer to the layout of a character’s home, or their direct environment, while the extradiegetic space refers to the ways that a panel and page are constructed in relation to the narrative of the overall story. This extradiegetic space can vary from the ideas of panel order on a particular page to the style of the artist, as Lefèvre states:

Consequently the form of the drawing does influence the manner the reader will experience and interpret the image: the viewer cannot look at the object-in-picture from another point of view than the one the picture offers; he is invited to share the maker’s mode of seeing, not only in the literal, but also the figurative sense.  (Lefèvre 159)

This refers to visual narratives as being able to hold narrative power in their images outside of depth cues and visual representations of people, objects and space. The images, their construction, style and layout on the page hold a narrative power that is inseperable from the ideas of the story, characters and dialogue of traditional text-based narratives. This can be extended outside the images, and be included in the page itself, as Lefèvre states, “[the reader] is conscious of the unseen but virtual space outside the panel borders and to link the fragments together, the reader is looking for overlaps” (Lefèvre 159). This idea clearly overlaps with McCloud’s idea of  “the gutter,” and the way the reader links static images into fluid action and story. The panels and the abstracted space outside of the panels are all narratively important. In a super-hero comic, the diegetic and extradiegetic space is allowed to be more fantastical, its entirely fictional world is accepted because “if a comic pretends to be a realisitic depiction of our world, the reader will expect a sufficient degree of consistency” (Lefèvre 160).

Super-hero comics are therefore allowed to break away from the notions of realistic narrative storytelling, in terms of both text and visual narrative. Therefore, the comic medium and super-hero genre allow someone like Grant Morrison to include his (often hard to believe) ideas of magic in the visual narrative of a comic, and for it to be interpreted with a sense of concrete reality by the reader. It may not necessarily be real to the world of the reader, but it is real to the world of the character, and therefore the medium allows for that reality to be accepted without argument. The narrative space is as visually malleable as it is in terms of creating a fictional universe, and the reader is able to cope with this difference and derive meaning from reading.


Coppin, Peter, and Stephen Hockema. “Research Methods to Understand Comics and the Human Mind.” Toronto, May 11, 2008.

Grant Morrison: Talking With Gods. Directed by Patrick Meaney. Produced by Sequart Research & Literacy Organization and Respect! Films. 2010.

Lefèvre, Pascal. “The Construction of Space in Comics.” In A Comics Studies Reader, edited by Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester, 157-162. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2009.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: Harper Perennial, 1994.

Nell, Victor. Lost in a Book: The Psychology of Reading for Pleasure. New Haven and London: Yale, 1988.

Salisbury, Mark. Writers on Comic Scriptwriting. London: Titan, 1999.

Thiem, Jon. “The Textualization of the Reader.” In Essentials of the Theory of Fiction, edited by Michael J Hoffman and Patrick D. Murphy, 113-120. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2005.

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Tim Bavlnka has a Master’s degree in Popular Culture at Bowling Green State University. He recently completed his thesis analyzing the works of Grant Morrison, titled Superheroes and Shamanism: Magic and Participation in the Comics of Grant Morrison and discusses how Morrison implements magic into narrative construction. His research interests include comics, digetic and extradiegetic narrative relationships, American black metal, contemporary forms of occult creativity, 4chan, and other internet communities. Tim currently lives in Madison, WI and occasionally writes on his blog

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  1. David Balan says:


    But if the more information given increases the ease of textualization and viewer involvement, would not that mean that film would be the most easily involved medium of all? You don’t have to imagine or read how the dialogue sounds, it just plays – you don’t have to use closure to imagine the image in the gutter, it just plays for you. (Although it’s worth noting that at scene cuts you use some degree of closure.)

    And yet, for my part, I often find books and comics more engaging -because- they are more demanding. Not that I want something unclear or difficult to follow, but the more that my thoughts fill in the experience, the more I might feel that the world is part of my own – which seems to not jive with your thoughts on textualization.

    What do you think?

  2. Tim Bavlnka says:

    David –
    Thanks for the comment. However, I think engagement and textualization are two different (somewhat related) experiences. There is a difference between being excited about the content and feeling like you are a part of it. Hopefully this will become clear as I explore the topic applied to particular stories and comics.

    The statement about film is possibly accurate – We’ve all seen kids leaving the theater imitating what they’ve just seen or have personally wanted to save the day much like John McClain. Even enjoying a movie while watching it, and several days later realizing how crummy it was might suggest that it was able to keep you absorbed more. I’m no film scholar, though. They may have their own term for it. I think why it works with text or text/visuals is because of the fact that it is so far separated from filmed media and forces more interpretation.

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