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Issue 1. Cognitive Narratology

Educational Comics - Text-type, or Text-types in a Format?

Author: Heike Elisabeth Jüngst
Published: December 2000

Abstract (E): Educational comics are sometimes classified as text-types. However, the standard definition of text-types normally refers to classes of texts such as cooking recipes which share certain conventionalised patterns. This is not true for educational comics which can accomodate a variety of patterns, resp. a variety of text-types, as analysis of several educational comics published in Germany will show.

Abstract (F): Les bandes dessinées didactiques sont parfois analysées et cataloguées comme un "type textuel", c'est-à-dire comme un groupe de textes obéissant à des structures stéréotypées communes, telles par exemple les recettes de cuisine. Dans le cas des bandes dessinées didactiques, la notion de "type textuel" s'avère inefficace, vu que les bandes dessinées en question peuvent correspondre à un large éventail de genres et de types textuels. L'analyse d'un corpus allemand permettra de montrer à quel point la notion de "type" ne correspond pas à la réalité de la production bédéistique.

Keywords: Comics, Paedagogy, animal documentary, TV-commercial, brochure, distribution



Far from being used for pleasure only, comics have sometimes been made a vehicle for transporting information. Educational comics and other kinds of info-comics abound, yet there seems to be no uniting philosophy behind them. There are pamphlets and BD style comics; length and depth vary enormously, some have been written for children, others for grown-ups (extensive information on the subject in the USA can be found in Rifas).

Educational comics are, of course, texts. In linguistics, info-comics have often been classified as a text-type (e.g. Wittwer). However, this definition neither takes into account the characteristics of educational comics, nor does it describe the varieties available. There is also very little contact between linguistic research in comics and other kinds of research in comics which sometimes leads to incompatible classifications. In this paper I will analyse a variety of educational comics available in Germany today and propose a kind of classification which combines text-type linguistics and research in comics. The criteria for analysis come from both fields of research.

The terms info-comics and educational comics are used interchangeably and refer to comics which were designed with any kind of information purpose in mind. The comics analysed present a selection from different fields: one animal comic, one about philosophy, one about the history of music and one about the pill, and a cookbook. The animal comic has been published by a Swiss publisher; the philosophy and the history of music comics are Italian and French respectively but have been published in German by a publisher of schoolbooks. The info-comic about the contraceptive pill is published and distributed by a pharmaceutical company in Germany.

The aim of this paper is to show that the definition of educational comics as text-type which is widely accepted in German linguistics cannot be kept up when examining the subject more closely. Even when taking into account the situation in Germany only, this definition is too restricted.

1. Characteristics

1.1 Distribution

Educational comics are, above all, comics. This statement may seem tautological, but many linguistic analyses of educational comics accept mixed forms such as texts with inserted cartoons. Educational comics use panels and bubbles as the stereotypified idea of comics demands. One can even state that today's educational comics tend to be extremely conventional in their use of images, unimpressed by the experiments we witness otherwise in the comics and graphic novel field.

We tend to think of comics as small, inexpensive booklets which can be bought at news stands or at a stationer's. Educational comics do not follow this way of distribution. Some are available from book publishers, which means they are sold exclusively in bookshops. The other common kind of info-comic has pamphlet character and is distributed either by state authorities (these comics tend to warn about health hazards) or by companies in the pharmaceutical field (these comics combine information with advertising). Comic pamphlets are distributed free in schools or GP surgeries, depending on their origin and topic. Most of these comics address children, although there are some exceptions.

The fact that most educational comics are available in bookshops only means that children will probably not run across them by chance and buy them out of curiosity. It also means that these comics are part of a high-price segment of literature, unlike comic albums or strip comics which one would buy at news stands. Bookshops are highly respected places teachers will frequent. Thus, the teacher stands between the comic and the reader, as a kind of multiplier. This is not the normal relationship between children, teachers, and comics.

Moreover, some educational comics are published by publishers of schoolbooks, which means they will be placed on the bookshop shelves reserved for schoolbooks. Even children who buy books in bookshops will very probably not browse these shelves.

Thus, educational comics sometimes have severe difficulty in reaching their target audience, which may account for their relative lack of popularity in Germany. Children may come into contact with copies of comics pamphlets, wherever these are distributed, but as far as educational comics sold in bookshops are concerned, coincidence is needed.

1.2 Inner characteristics

1.2.1 The Guide

Educational comics exist in nearly every special field: history, natural sciences, philosophy, music. They are characterized by a dialogic structure: either two characters are talking, asking the questions the reader should ask and giving the answers he should be looking for, or one character tells a story, sometimes addressing the reader directly. These characters serve as guides, sometimes following a storyline, sometimes dishing out information like a kind of encyclopaedia.

Guides are popular in children's literature and particularly popular in children's TV programmes. Nearly all children's programmes with an information content have a guide or host. Sometimes, this guide is a stuffed puppet, sometimes a human.

As on TV, these comics characters can serve for identification, but this is not a necessary feature. In the case of "Laura, die Liebe und die Pille" ("Laura, love and the pill"), the fourteen-year-old heroine has been designed for identification, whereas her (too) understanding parents seem wishful thinking rather than reality. In "Elefanten, Kinder der Savanne" ("Elephants, Children of the Savannah"), a little elephant named Kleopatra talks directly to the reader. Readers will probably not identify with the elephant (depending on the reader's age, however), but Kleopatra is incredibly cute and everyone will follow her story with great interest. The funny bird in "Geschichte der Musik in Comics" ("A History of Music in Comics") does neither invite for identification nor is it cute enough to carry interest. Here, the reader must develop interest for the facts displayed in words and pictures.

In "Geschichte der Philosophie in Comics" ("A History of Philosophy in Comics"), we find a dialogic structure: a philosophy teacher explaining complex philosophical concepts to a fisherman. This structure is highly unbalanced; in fact, the teacher seems to be talking all the time. Besides, he is the only guide I have found who does not show emotions. The emotions displayed in a human (or anthropomorphized animal) face are an important aspect in the strategy of making information interesting and appealing; Kleopatra the elephant, although not anthropomorphized, shows emotions in a more convincing way than the philosophy teacher.

The children's cookbook does not have a guide. There are nameless children, boys as well as girls, with happy faces throughout the comic, and they actually address the reader, telling him about their personal preferences or adding extra hints to the recipes.

1.2.2 Perspectives

"Laura" and "Elefanten" follow a storyline. In Laura's case, this is just a pretext for selling contraceptives. The elephant comic is far more interesting, and far better done besides. It corresponds uncannily to the idea of the comic as a frozen film. The pictures follow the conventions of animal documentaries; the texts offer the kind of information the voice-over would offer. We can see all aspects of elephant behaviour. Large panels show the whole herd, e.g. the opening shot (3) or the bathing elephants (14); smaller panels provide action and normally concentrate on Kleopatra's antics, e.g. taking a mud bath (18). The point of view is that of a viewer in front of the TV set who follows the cuts and structures a director has decided on. There are few instances where the viewer sees things from someone else's perspective, in this case through the binoculars of the rangers who watch the elephants (44) or from that of the poachers who read the elephants' footprints (40). Otherwise the reader is the camera, which provides the illusion of being there and taking part. The comic resembles a storyboard where the important frames are designed in detail whereas the "in-betweens" do not appear on the paper.

The perspectives in the philosophy comic are also interesting. It is extremely difficult to visualize philosophical ideas, unless they are presented in the shape of a myth by the philosopher himself. Platon's cave makes an excellent subject for visual representation (53). Other things are far more complex, and the author resorts to pictures of a science-fiction like style. "The distribution of knowledge" becomes the picture of a row of people, their skulls open, and Zeus ladling something liquid into the heads (32). A picture like this can easily be remembered.

At times, this comic can also become film-like. This is particularly true for several series of panels relating to philosophers' lives, not to their theories. Empedokles precipitating himself into the Etna is shown in a series of panels which look like trashy horror comics (18). There are strong colours and the feeling of movement. The philosophy comic is very close to a general public idea of comics. However, there are scientific footnotes explaining complex terms - and there is one right underneath Empedokles hurling himself into the abyss.

The music comic makes strong use of symbolism. It is admittedly difficult to describe music in any medium but music itself. We get systems of music, instruments, and orchestras. Apart from the composers who are rendered in a realistic style, people look funny and chubby. There are many jokes (which, by the way, do not translate), visual as well as linguistic, which actually distract from the topic of the comic. On the whole, the possibilities of comics have been reduced to characteristics of the funnies, added to a rather flat, encyclopaedia-like list of composers. Perspectives vary, although the portrait (composers) and the view of a stage dominate.

The cookbook has a typical cookbook perspective which means that we often do not see people but the hands of people performing certain actions. Apart from that, perspectives do not play an important role.

1.2.3 Closure

Relying strongly on film techniques, the elephant comic also has a strong idea of closure. The music comic which simply lists one composer after the other, mentions a few important works and dates and then goes on to the next composer in line does not need the kind of closure a storyline demands - there is no closure between the entries of an encyclopaedia. The panels are self-contained, there is no real chance to fill in gaps in between.

Again, the case seems to be most complex with the philosophy comic which mixes a variety of techniques with different needs for closure. Some philosophical concepts are represented in single panels with a long written introduction, placed in a bubble, spoken by the philosophy teacher (e.g. 55, 65). Sometimes, long passages of text/quotations are split up into several bubbles, sometimes in separate panels (e.g. 25). Here, the bubbles serve the same purpose paragraphs would serve in a text consisting of words only. Scenes from the philosophers' lives, however, are shown in film-like sequences with the kind of "in-between" closure a storyboard needs (e.g. 39). On the whole, closure does not play an important part in understanding the philosophical ideas; advanced comic reading techniques refer to the decipherment of complex panels with a fantasy element rather than to action sequences.

The cookbook comic again follows the step-by-step structure of a cookbook. There is of course a certain element of closure as the pictures cannot show the duration of each step of preparation. However, the readers are used to this kind of closure and will probably not feel an effort while reading. It is moreover a kind of closure which does not depend on the comics format but is characteristic for all kinds of cookbooks.

1.2.4 Cultural elements

Strangely enough, "Laura", which was designed for a German-speaking clientele, has only few cultural elements. Even those cannot serve for identification for the whole target group. Disco-dancing is popular with many teenage girls, although not necessarily at the age of fourteen. Also, Laura's success with the DJ (2) seems more of a teenie-novel daydream than a feature of everyday life. Laura's parents seem exclusively concerned with debates about the pill (4). They are very progressive: Laura's mother is extremely pleased when she learns that Laura has been to the doctor to get a prescription for the pill without telling her (12). I showed the comic to some university students who were actually shocked. They thought that the relationship between Laura and her parents was phony. On the whole, the story has been modelled on information formats which can be found in teenage magazines, but also on TV commercials, and combines daydream elements with bits of information. The drawing style is a clear Lichtenstein-type of drawing.

As for the style of the elephant comic, its models seem to lie more in the area of children's books on animals than in a truly comics style. The model for the text structure is a TV format. Animal documentaries are shown on almost every TV channel wherever TV channels exist. The cultural technique of reading an animal documentary can more or less be applied to reading the elephant comic (apart from the fact that animal documentaries very often do not follow one single individuum but combine the best footage showing several animals with a text pretending it is just one). The reader knows what to expect, right down to the idolisation of the elephant which is a characteristic of Western culture. Often, the elephants appear in pictures which make them look like beings from another world. For example, we can find romantic pictures of elephants sleeping at the foot of the Kilimanjaro, all in blue watercolours with a white full moon (11). The last panel in the book shows a herd of elephants arranged in the shape of a pyramid, advancing towards the reader, trunks lifted in triumph, a halo of sunrays directly behind them. There is the idea of a triumphant army as well as that of a religious icon (48). No doubt an African farmer fighting hard to save his crops from the ever-hungry elephants (who do not just trample down enemies but also yams and sugarcane) would not find this funny or appealing.

The cultural element in the music comic is very strong. This does not stem from the fact that music is a cultural technique, as the cultural elements do not relate to music but to the French origins of the comic. There are visualised puns (ballet - balais, 17) as well as remarks about the history of music which show a French perspective. For example, the idea that German music was predominant in Europe for centuries is never evoked in German schoolbooks. The attitude of the music comic is completely different, referring to a kind of German standard which upset other countries (22). If this was not a comic but a book, the paragraph referring to this would certainly have been left out in translation. With the pictures, it is impossible (unless you want much re-arranging, which in turn is probably too expensive). The idea of representing Arnold Schönberg as a mad scientist who invents the twelve-tone technique in order to assure German domination in the field of music for the next century (10) is not funny, but horrifyingly tasteless, particularly as Schönberg was forced to emigrate to the U.S. when the Nazis came into power in Germany.

The philosophy comic, on the other hand, uses symbols from various European cultures wherever possible. Some panels are modelled on paintings (on Greek vase drawings resp. Matisse paintings, on Rodin's Pensée, 25). Others make good use of Italian comic style (Empedokles etc.). The mixture of cultural and more general comic elements leads to an interesting and stimulating result. It makes this comic a very grown-up comic. Although published as a schoolbook, it makes an interesting read for grown-ups, too.

Lettering is actually an interesting cultural element. Well into the eighties, the standard practice of German comics publishers was to use printed type. It was argued that this actually gave the comics higher quality, as German has a very complex spelling system, particularly as far as the use of capital letters is concerned (Dolle-Weinkauff 158). The fear that comics might turn their young readers into illiterates was counteracted. There seem to have been severe difficulties in fitting these lines into the bubbles. Consequently, German comics from this period look rather strange to the non-German reader, particularly Astérix with its elegant original lettering.

The lettering problem persists with the music comic. The printed lines seem forced into the bubbles. The philosophy comic, however, published by the same publisher but nearly ten years later, uses "proper" lettering: handwritten and capitals only. However, with the long stretches of text, another system would sometimes have been preferable.

"Laura" has printed type from the era of desktop publishing: good to read, but sterile and non-artistic.

The cultural elements in the cookbook are reduced to the kinds of dishes which can be found and to the lettering: the authors use the standard handwriting German schoolchildren learn in grade one, with capitals and small letters. Some publishers favour this style for children's books; however, all the other books appearing in the series use printed type.

2. Medium - Format - Text-type

From the analysis of educational comics presented here, we can see that they do not follow one single rule. Certain elements (e.g. the guide) appear often, but not always. Elements from different cultural backgrounds can be seen in the pictures as well as in the words. The only aspects which unify these texts is the fact that they are comics and that they transport knowledge.

Text-type debates seem to be one of the favourite topics of German applied linguistics. The debate has by now reached educational comics, and most participants in this debate seem to agree that educational comics are a text-type. However, this point of view seems restrictive.

Text-types are most commonly classified according to Gläser:

"Als Textsorten gelten Klassen von Texten mit bestimmten strukturellen und funktionalen Merkmalen, die sich in konventionalisierten Mustern mit einer hohen Gebrauchshäufigkeit verfestigt haben." (Gläser: 28).

"Text-types are classes of text which share certain structural and functional elements and have developped conventionalised patterns with a high level of usage." (my translation)

This is not true for educational comics, as they do not have the same function (the purpose of a cookbook is very different from that of a history of philosophy) and do not follow conventionalised patterns. They are not one text-type. Wittwer's paper classifies them as "a text-type which is used to present specialist knowledge to non-specialists". As far as target group and contents go, this definition is valid. However, this definition does not challenge the definition of text-type as such. Presenting specialist knowledge to non-specialists is an element in many text-types - again, a cookbook has specialist knowledge to offer, as well as an encyclopedia. Still, they are recognisably different from each other.

Other text-type systems classify texts according to target groups or communicative purposes (Göpferich). Again, educational comics do not fit into one of the text-types derived by these systems, as the communication purposes of the examples given here differ considerably.

On the other hand, easily recognisable text-types like cooking recipes can be rendered in the format of a comic without losing their purpose, at the same time retaining much of their shape. The recipes in the comic cookbook follow the pattern most recipes would follow: ingredients - preparation - cooking time/oven temperatures. Thus, there is not really a change of text-type, but simply a change of format.

The same is true for the elephant comic. In this case, the text-type is a text-type from the TV format, the animal documentary. Very few elements which appear in comics only, such as visualized sound words, are introduced; the text-type and its purpose have simply changed the format.

The music history comic uses text which could as well be found in a history of music handbook. Composers are introduced with their life dates, their style is described and summaries of their most important works are given, and the arrangement of information is far from creative: a standardised national and chronological approach is followed. The only addition to this kind of text is the abundance of pictures, particularly in cases where the authors use visual irony (e.g. the spectator drowning in tears while watching Puccini's operas, 12, or Pierre Boulez appearing as a tamer of musical notes in a circus, 41). These pictures are easy to remember, but they show strong personal preferences and sometimes do not really make sense (why is Boulez the only composer taming notes?). However, portraits of composers and photographs from opera or ballet productions can be found in many handbooks, too. Only when the authors try to visualise music does the comic format truly make sense. This minor addition does not change the text-type as such.

Like the music history comic, the philosophy history comic follows the encyclopaedia text-type, with chapters for schools of philosophy as well as for single outstanding philosophers. Here, too, important works are mentioned and quoted and facts from the philosophers' lives are given. Again, this does not make this comic a completely new text-type. Moreover, the latter two examples are examples for text-types children would not buy in their conventional form; it is rather a matter of parents and teachers choosing these books for children.

"Laura" is a combined information and advertising brochure with a weak storyline. It actually resembles an extended TV commercial: a sexy young heroine who needs advice, dialogues with her friend/between her parents which state the problem, a helpful older sister, the expert (a young woman gynaecologist) extolling the benefits of the product, and a happy ending as the product has indeed solved the heroine's problems. This storyline is typical for German TV commercials for most kinds of medicines. The format changes, the contents and form remain.

3. Conclusion

The comic format is particularly suitable for adapting a variety of text-types. The structural patterns of these text-types remain and are represented in visual as well as textual elements of the comics. However, the text-types can always be recognised as such. The comic format does not change the text-type, it simply gives it a new format. This means, of course, that comics themselves cannot be classified as text-types.

On the one hand, this dependence on standard text-types makes the comics easy to read and to understand. The reader's expectations are fulfilled. On the other hand, comics are capable of doing more than just accommodating pre-existing text-types and embedding them into a new format. A less conventional "panel-and-bubble" idea of comics could contribute to a new generation of educational and info-comics.

Works cited

Comic about the history of philosophy: Casamassima, Domenico und Eugenio Fiorentini: Geschichte der Philosophie in Comics: Das griechische Denken. Stuttgart etc: Klett, 1994. [originally Italian]

Comic about the history of music: Deyriès, Bernard, Denys Lemery und Michael Sadler: Geschichte der Musik in Comics. Band 3: Von Mahler bis heute. Stuttgart: Klett, 1983. [originally French]

Dolle-Weinkauff, Bernd: Comics: Geschichte einer populären Literaturform in Deutschland seit 1945. Weinheim/Basel: Beltz, 1990

Gläser, Rosemarie: Fachtextsorten im Englischen. FFF 13. Tübingen: Narr, 1990.

Göpferich, Susanne: Textsorten in Naturwissenschaften und Technik. FFF 27. Tübingen: Narr, 1995.

Comic cookbook: Könemund, Gisela: Leckeres aus der Puppenküche. Ravensburg: Ravensburger, 1989.

Comic about the pill: Laura, die Liebe und die Pille. Oberschleißheim: Organon [pharmaceutics], [2000].

McCloud, Scott: Understanding Comics. The Invisible Art. New York: Harper Perennial, 1994. [Kitchen Sink Press, 1993].

Comic about elephants: Paccalet, Yves und Gabriel: Elefanten: Kinder der Savanne. Reihe WWF Comics. Bern: Zytglogge, 1995. [originally French]

Rifas, Leonard: "Educational Comics: A Message in a Bubble." Print - America's Graphic Design Magazine. Nov./Dec. 1988. 145-157, 203-204.

Wittwer, Michael: "Fachsprachliche Besonderheiten der popularisierenden Fachtextsorten in der Pädiatrie." Abstracts 31. Jahrestagung Gesellschaft für Angewandte Linguistik. 184.



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