Metatext in the comics (conference version)

(An abstract for the upcoming Semantics Festival at Stanford; my paper is this Friday afternoon at 2. This is the abstract as submitted, but with a footnote added; it needs more text and also illustrative examples. Earlier version on this blog here.)

Metatext in the comics
Arnold M. Zwicky, Stanford University
SemFest 15 (2014)

Cartoons and comics have main content – visuals, usually (though not always) with speech from the characters. But there often is other material designed to frame the way to read this text: metatext, of at least six types.

1. Inserts. These are bits of text within the body of a panel or panels, but not attributed to any of the characters. Often they are crucial to understanding what’s going on – indicating changes in place (“meanwhile, back in Metropolis”) or time (“three days later”), but sometimes providing a narrative background without which the comic would be incomprehensible (Zippy the Pinhead frequently has inserts of this sort – in which case they should be thought of as a third kind of main content.

2. Captions and 3. Titles. Captions (located below the body of the comic) are so common in single-panel cartoons that they’re scarcely worth commenting on, except to note that single-panels are often so poor in context and content that captions are valuable for the reader. (Single-panel cartoons often have captions, inside quotation marks, instead of speech balloons, showing what a character is saying. In particular, this is New Yorker style. Not really metatext, but a piece of text that happens to be located outside the main image.)

Non-speech captions are often dispensable, but nevertheless useful, and they can provide a “second smile”* for the reader (visual: man waiting at airport with a sign “Godot”; funny as it stands, but the caption “Another day at Beckett International Airport” provides a second smile).

As for titles, in principle, titles (located above the body of the comic) serve to announce the topics of comics, especially three- or four-panel strips. But they have other uses.

A great many Zippys have titles, but these titles are rarely just helpful topic declarations; instead, they are additional jokes, beyond the ones in the body of the comic, providing second smiles.

4. Mouseovers. Available only on the net. These framing or commenting messages appear when a mouse hovers over the image. xkcd is especially given to mouseovers. Often they provide second smiles.

5. Accompanying text. Available on the net and, in principle, with print comics, but mostly used on the net, where explanation or snarky commentary can be provided after the comic itself. Scenes From a Multiverse and Dinosaur Comics regularly have accompanying text.

6. Footnotes. Occasionally, comics have expressions marked as footnotes (with the standard asterisk), with the explanatory footnote itself (again, marked with an asterisk) appearing somewhere inside or close to the body of the comic.

A combo. AZ’s posting of an xkcd cartoon, entitled “Messing with my mind”, has a title (beginning with “My hobby”), an insert (“Three hours later”, indicating the passage of time), and a mouseover:

Like spelling “dammit” correctly – with two m’s – it’s a troll that works best on the most literate.

[*added  4/8/14: Thanks to Michael Siemon for this felicitous term.]

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