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Issue 7. History and Theory of the Graphic Novel
special section IAWIS conference, Hamburg 2002

Too much is too much. The never innocent laughter of the Comics.

Author: Ole Frahm
Published: October 2003

Abstract (E): The article points out that most of the common theories on comics underestimate this medium. Understanding comics as a medium with a lack of whatever necessarily 'forgets' that comics are too much before they are lacking of something. Discussing an early sunday page of the Yellow Kid the essay shows in a condensed way the possibility of an aesthetics of comics that enjoy what is too much for most of the critiques and defenders of comics.

Abstract (F): Le propos de cet article est de démontrer que la plupart des théories existantes de la bande dessinée sousestiment sérieusement les capacités de ce média. Si l'on envisage la bande dessinée comme un média auquel il "manque" quelque chose, on passe sous silence le fait que la bande dessinée est un avant tout un média caractérisé par l' "excès". Cet article part d'une des premières planches du "Yellow Kid" pour démontrer de manière concise ce qu'il en est d'une esthétique de la bande dessinée qui prend plaisir à ce qui est "de trop" pour la plupart des critiques et des amateurs du genre.

Keywords: Yellow Kid, Aesthetics of Comics, Semiotics, Comic theory, Deconstruction


Comics? What are Comics? Trivial pulps? Ridiculous humor magazines? Mass commodities of the culture industry? Bildergeschichten? Film on paper? Cartoons? Graphic literature? There are many definitions for Comics that should tell us what comics are. In German, Comics is a borrowed word, and the fact that there are so many synonyms for it seems to indicate that the word is not satisfying. But perhaps we have to take "comics" literal and they really are comic, komisch, funny and strange, entertaining and weird. In German komisch has both these meanings. If something is komisch you can laugh about it and be puzzled by it at the same time.

Comics remain between the categories of bourgeois aesthetics. They are neither literature nor art. They lack the depth of a novel, the richness of a painting, the density of a poem, the detailedness of a photograph, and the motion of film. That all this is missing is only natural; otherwise comics would not be comics. But they do not really lack these specifics of other media. Comics emerge from a mixture. As Art Spiegelman once put it: comics are a com-mix, a mixture of words and images (Spiegelman 1988: 61f). As most people maintain, comics seen as commix contain rather too much than too little: too much is mixed up; there are too many series; and there are too many funny and funny moments.

Too many signs

In comics, the signs are exposed as signs. The images are exposed as panels in small frames. The words are exposed in speech balloons, in captions, as sound words. We have to read the words but at the same time they are elements of the image. We have to perceive the images but we can only understand them if we read them one after another, in the sequence of the panels that reminds one of writing. Words and images may be separat as signs, but as panels they are at a certain point inseparable. In comics, words and images exist in specific constellations. What matters in these constellations is the materiality of the signs itself, their specific position on the page, within the comic strip, in the panel.

Only in the constellations of words and images a meaning materializes. When reading comics we witness the emergence of meaning from the signs. We have to decide between reading the words or the images, and yet we need to read both. We have to read and reread, to look at the words and the pictures again and again. Only then we start to evaluate them. This evaluation of the abundance of signs poses problems which cannot be solved with the traditional means of any kind of aesthetic critique.

Too much meaning

Comics as such are always self-referential. The words refer to the drawings, the drawings to the words. Which one is more true? The answer to this question cannot be found within the comics. "What do the images mean?"; "What kind of effect do the words have?"; "What is happening between them?". Comics have the capacity to raise questions about power. They expose the helplessness of all referentiality. And, comics expose the claim to show reality through signs, the totalitarian claim to end all struggles for "reality" by imposing one notion of reality.

This exposition is komisch, funny, and komisch, strange, at the same time. There is never just one meaning in comics. Even the identical repetition of a word uttered by the same figure can mean something different because it is repeated. The figures or words assume a different meaning at specific positions on the comics page. What we have to get to know if we want to understand comics is this strange and funny phenomenon.

Too much to see

Comics reflect the trivial self-referentiality between the same signs and the very different signs. An example: This is a panel from the short story Bats in my Belfry by Jack Davis (figure 1). It appeared in 1951 in Tales from the Crypt and is a typical example of EC, or Entertaining Comics.

figure 1
figure 1

What could be more ridiculous than showing a figure with pointed ears and teeth telling us that he is a vampire bat? We see it. We read it. It is banal. And yet, something else is happening in this simple repetition. To show the obvious twice is to produce a certain Unheimlichkeit, a certain uncanniness. At first glance this appears as just an explanation for people who do not know vampire bats. But in fact it stresses the unbelievable: the existence of vampire bats.

This is the pun of Bats in my Belfry. In this short story the actor Harry Gordon tells us how he became deaf (fig. 2).

figure 2
figure 2

He goes to a strange doctor who replaces Gordon's inner ear with that of a bat (fig. 3).

figure 3

figure 3

Gordon now not only can hear much better than before (he actually finds out about the intrigues of his wife and her lover (see fig. 4: of course they want to kill Gordon), he even mutates into the flying mammal (fig. 5). What already seems almost incredible is taken one step further on the last page of the story when Harry Gordon gains ultimate self-knowledge: he not only killed his wife's lover but also drank his blood (fig. 6).

figure 4

figure 4


figure 5

figure 5

He looks straight at us as if he were looking into a mirror. He is frightened. He speaks to himself and to us at the same time. The italics stress what is important: the inconceivable is as uncanny as it is true. The actor has become a vampire bat. There is no escape.

figure 6

figure 6

The words and the image confirm the horrible truth. The horror of this story is generated by the doubling of the signs. The different signs seem to signify the same, but they are not the same in their materiality. "The same" does not exist. The signs signify without having any origin or reality or relating to an original. This is the terror of the comics. This makes vampire bats and other weird creatures possible. And this is the comic side of the Comics. They mock the notion of an origin, of an original, that were to be signified by the heterogeneous signs. They mock such notions by twice confirming the improbable.

Too much to laugh about

This mockery, this parodical laughter of the comics expresses itself each time in another and completely different form. Just as there are not the comics, there is not the one and only kind of laughter at any original. In the mid-twentieth century horror comic books boomed. Entertaining Comics are a good example for a kind of parodical laughter that is anything but light-hearted. The historical signature of the need for shocking, uncanny and weird stories with unpredictable endings about undead persons, revenants and ghosts is almost too obvious to be true.

At the end of the nineteenth century, when this laughter started to appear regularly in the pages of the tabloids, or the "yellow press" as it was then known, it sounded quite different. In those days comics were called the funnies.

They evolved from newspaper illustrations, humor magazines, caricatures, and editorial cartoons. There had been several popular picture series in the nineteenth century which already featured speech balloons, stereotypes, and speed lines. But in the middle of the 1890s something new appeared on the pages of the New York World which would have long-lasting effect. Every week The Yellow Kid, also known as Mickey Dugan, presented to its delighted readers funny scenes right out of the immigrants' slums: a dog race, a bathing day, a baseball match, a Convention.

Too much sense

The Yellow Kid was quite visible in these chaotic scenes with much animation and not so much action: its bald head, big ears and monochromatic yellow nightshirt were special. On the shirt, the Kid frequently addressed the readers directly. An example: "Aint I de Maine Guy in dis parade?" (fig. 7).

figure 7
figure 7

This page is from May 17, 1896, called "Hogan's Alley preparing for the Convention" (fig. 8).

figure 8

figure 8

The people of Hogan's Alley are on their way to the rally of the G.O.P., the Grand Old Party which is to be held in "St. Loous". They want to support the "Free Silver" minority. The majority want to keep the gold standard for the dollar at any costs. The ordinary people have to pay for this. But the Yellow Kid seems to advertize only for himself - and justly so: it helps increasing the number of copies sold of the New York World.

In the strip Hogan's Alley Prepares for the Convention the Kid for the first time in the series addresses the readers directly. It seems as though the Kid tried to give rise to its future fame. The readers are meant to forget about politics in favour of entertainment. But as ever so often in comics the sentence has a second meaning, associated with the strange spelling of the word "main". As the comic historian and editor of The Yellow Kid reprint edition Bill Blackbeard perceives it, the "De Maine Guy" refered not only to the Yellow Kid but at the same time to a republican delegate from Maine. According to Bill Blackbeard his name was Stephen Sontagg (Blackbeard 1995: 40). One of the leaders of the "Free Silver" minority, he made a stance against the later president McKinley. Now, who is "De Maine Guy" - the famous Yellow Kid or the Guy from Maine? Perhaps even both? It is a rhetorical question: "Aint I de Maine Guy in dis parade?". And the answer is not an answer: "Well I guess dats Right". All possibilities are confirmed, and the confusion is perfect. Which reading is true?

The image explains nothing. Mickey Dugan is holding a hammer in his right hand; perhaps he wants to announce something during the convention. With his left hand he points to himself. This inconclusive reading is the first of this early page's several motifs which retain their importance for the aesthetics of comics to the present day. Another motif is the positioning of the words: Are they spoken? Are they sewed into the yellow shirt? What meaning should we attribute to letters on a shirt?

Too much writing

It seems as if the nearly toothless child is addressing us with these words. But the words appear as letters, handwritten. This is crucial. We have to see the falsely spelled word "main". The pun, the play of words between main and Maine, can only be seen. The difference of the words cannot be heard. It is only visible. Through the materiality of the signs on the nightshirt, the consonance becomes different, and the multiplied meaning is deferred. Importance is bestowed on the name of a state, the state name is turned into an adjective, and the Yellow Kid, sign-posting the meaning, in turn becomes most important. The sentence is not heard once but has to be read and reread again and again, especially as it refers directly to the image.

In this strip the words are spread all over the image. The banners have a strange character, too. Imperatives, ironic commentaries, absurd advertisements for a playful amusement. The political debate about "Free Silver" seems to be banalized when the claim for "Free Lunch" is articulated (fig. 9). But is not "Free Lunch" the more political claim?

figure 9

figure 9

The words refer to other figures too. One boy is named "Levi", holding the sign of the dollar, another has a hat which labels him "Dark Horse" (fig. 10, 11).

figure 10

figure 10

The laughter of the comics is never innocent, never guilt-free. It burst out in-between racist, anti-semitic and sexist exclusions. Often the laughter of the comics merely reproduces the disparagement. But sometimes the laughter reflects the emergence of the exclusions between the words and the images. The laughter of the comics reminds us that these exclusions are performative, attributions by means of signs like that paper hat of the boy.

figure 11

figure 11

Too many speech balloons

There are not yet any speech balloons in the Yellow Kid. But what this strip makes visible nevertheless is the precarious, different appearance of the words in comics. The words are disseminated. They are not spoken but exposed in their materiality throughout the graphic space of the page. This is true for all comics. Comics show the words without origin. The words are not utterances by somebody but material enunciations.

The seemingly obvious and profane materiality of the words can be too much because comics wear their date openly, so that the values and exclusions the words contain become visible. Images and words are not "united in comics" as the German journalist Andreas Platthaus claimed in the title of his book on the history of comics (Platthaus 1998). Words and images are juxtaposed in their different materiality, side by side on the same surface of the paper of the page.

The words within the image show the emergence of historically limited truths because the object - even when it is a vampire bat - seems to be materialized. These materializations are obviously scary. The important opportunity that comics provide to evaluate the historically limited power of the signs in their dissemination as constellations is obscured by a fear of "signs that are too much".

Too many images

The large panel from the Hogan's Alley strip could be divided in many smaller units. The many little puns are to be read as one image and as several panels at the same time. When reading comics our view ss dispersed, not only because of the words, but also because of the images and what is between the images. We have to understand the composition, the sequentiality, the discontinuities. Sometimes even the material gesture of turning the page acquires a meaning.

Just before Harry Gordon, the vampire bat, attacks his victim, the page reaches its end. The murder happens between the panels, between the pages. On the next page the victim lies on the floor, sucked off its blood (fig. 6). What is at stake here is not to imagine or to visualize the murder in mind, as most of recent comic theories would state. Rather, understanding Comics means to enjoy the material dispersion in the repetition of the figures, the signs, the blank gutter. The narrative of the popular images is only materialized in themselves.

Too much Commerce

This dispersion of the view and of the signs in comics is often confounded with the comics' distribution system. The Yellow Kid of Josef Pulitzer's New York World was so popular that its author Richard Felton Outcault was hired by Pulitzer's rival, William Randolph Hearst. Hearst hired the author, but he did not buy the series. So, for a while, there were two Yellow Kids which both claimed to be the original. The merchandizing industry flourished anyway. There were cakes, puppets, puzzles, and much more (fig. 12).

figure 12
figure 12

Comics as the production of popular images were always connected to commerce. If they hadn't increased newspapers sales - and with this the profit margins of the owners - they would not exist. To understand comics as an art form, like other bourgeois art forms, on a non-commercial level has only become possible since the commercial importance of comics waned.

Too much Entertainment

Because of the Yellow Kid, comics were subsequently associated with the tabloid press, cheap fare, entertainment and sensations. And for a reason, one has to admit. Up until today, on every Sunday "The Sunday Pages" bring colour to the grey news. Even after fifty years, Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz succeeded to come up with a pun or a wise word that turned the day off into a happy day.

Nowadays, in times when mass-produced moving images are broadcast to nearly every household, the visual sensation that coloured comics created is hard to imagine. Certain superhero comic books with their opulent panels, certain graphic novels with their graphic brilliance may remind us of this sensations.

Too many series

During the period when two Yellow Kids co-existed, this seemed to be one series too many. But everyone who knows the work of George B. Luks, Outcault's successor at the World, is impressed by its quality (fig. 13, Marschall 1997: 25-30).

figure 13

figure 13

On a page like The Open-Air School in Hogan's Alley from 18 October, 1896, we actually see three Yellow Kids, the 'original' one plus little twins who hide in the margin of the page (fig. 14). In such cases it is hard to keep up. This may be the reason why it is often stated that everyone who has read one comic book knows them all, that all series are one and the same, that only the brains of infants are apt for the monotony of the jokes. But as I have shown, the signs of the comics materialize a historical signature on every new page with a specific singularity that is never simple. In their topicality the transitory comics remind us through many details of long-forgotten stories of the twentieth century. This is another reason to reread them again and again. In comics, it's the little things that matter, an "incorrectly" written, overdetermined sign, a single line, their historical materiality.

figure 14

figure 14

Too much of the little

The second most important motive for comics proposed by the Yellow Kid is that they assume the perspective of the little ones. In the parade for the convention in St. Louis Mickey Dugan supports the minority which is concerned with the claims of the little people. Children and youths have been the most favourite protagonists in comics ever since. In their adventures and jokes they laugh at how they cope with being at a situation's mercy.

In this, the grave misunderstanding of comics as mere reading for children finds one further reason. Comics are not interesting for children because they are so easy to read but because figures like Mickey Mouse, Asterix, or the underestimated German Digedags, are always shown as small people that are confronted with bigger ones. And what is more important: they are not lacking anything. Little Nemo, Snoopy or Calvin dream of being bigger precisely because they do not want to grow up. Little Donald Duck torments his even smaller nephews because he is tormented by the Bigger ones. Even Superman, the last survivor from planet Krypton, has to mask himself as the almost childishly clumsy Clark Kent. So Superman is a little one himself who saves the world from great dangers, such as the Nazis.

The smart little ones always laugh at everything that is big. Comics prefer mostly little forms as in the comic strips. They are a little literature. Little does not mean less in comics, it rather means too much. Too many small speech balloons, to many tiny images, too many little stories.

Too much of too much

The value of the single sign, the dispersion of the signs over the page, the enjoyment of  their materiality and surfaces, their innumerable repetitions of words and images, of figures, of series, the surplus of meaning, the performance of the little ones, the parodical laughter at the notion of an origin - all this defines comics, or comix. By this definition, it is not necessary to compare comics with other media only to realize what they are supposed to lack but to read them carefully and to analyze their own history.

In the meantime, comics are consumed incidentally, just like one listens to the radio. They are a part of the everyday life and still komisch, funny and strange, entertaining and uncanny. They are always a little bit more than they seem to be, always a little bit smarter than people think, always a little bit more than just one, hence already too much. As little ones, they stay as the Maine Guy. As vampire bats they make the notion of a single truth bloodless. The experience that what is little matters also implies a politization of the signs. Comics do not arbitrarily play with meaning but reflect their emergence with their constellations of words and images.

All exclusions, all evaluations and orders are not founded by an origin but become readable, visible between the signs. What there is too much of in comics is therefore, too much repressed history and also too much repressed historical materiality. The reflection of this repression is the chance of comics to be a comic critique.


Blackbeard, Bill Blackbeard (ed). 1995. R. F. Outcault's The Yellow Kid. Northampton: Kitchen Sink.

Davis, Jack. 1951.  "Bats in my Belfry!". In: Tales from the Crypt # 24

Marschall, Richard. 1997. Amaericas Great Comic-Strip Artists. New York: Roundtable Press.

Platthaus, Andreas. 1998. Im Comic vereint. Eine Geschichte der Bildergeschichte. Frankfurt am Main: Alexander Fest.

Spiegelman, Art. 1988. "Comix - An Idiosyncratic Historical and Aesthetic Overview". In: Print, November/December 1988, pp. 61-73. (Reprinted in: Art Spiegelman. Comix, Essays, Graphics & Scraps. From Maus to Now to MAUS to Now. New York: Raw Books 1999. pp. 74-81.)



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