Comics use several sign-languages at the same time in their images that are also accompanied by words. These signs can only get decoded without larger variations in meaning (connotations) if they are established with precisely one denoted meaning. As images they make possible the description of states and stages in a view images, while one would need many words to describe these. But the associations possible are extremely wide with images, so it is never guaranteed that images are decoded like intended by the encoder. The use of pictograms in various contexts shows the lack of limitations to the use of images as signs: While the meaning of words is defined in dictionaries, it is impossible to fix the meaning of images like that, as not only the elements of each image but also its borders, the perspective chosen etc. are transporting possible meanings. "Possible" is essential here, all these factors do not have to carry meaning in each individual case. The difference between a narration in written texts and in image/text-combinations is a fixture in storytelling.

In comics, the images not only work individually but also in combination: Each new page is a new experience of the images in combination and individually alike: the whole page works as a meta-panel (or meta-image) that consists of all its individual images and combination of their designs (in accordance with definitions in film, one can call this effect mise-en-page). Decisions about the number of images and their placing and style are crucial for the storytelling style of each comic, as the designs of pages and images in reference to each other's dominating graphic elements gives the author control over the design of each full page, for example, sometimes, large signs dominate the entire page - and are composed from elements in individual images and only assemble to the large sign in synchronicity. The options and necessities of page-turning can be simulated on-screen, but the experience of reading is different. Whether a fitting way to narrate with a specific form of plot-development will get established for this medium remains to be seen.


The difference between information-comics and other can be summarised like this: Comics are in our general understanding not produced and distributed to explain a technical artefact or how to assemble or service it. They usually narrate independently of attached artefacts. But when looking at more and more manuals or mounting instructions we find sequential graphic narrations, non-fictional comics quite simply, providing no thrilling plots, but stringent information and with a narrative purpose, e.g. on how to assemble your flat-pack furniture. Also, there are comics that try to teach in a non-fictional way on public health issues or the Geneve Convention etc.

Into which literary field we place documentary, journalistic and other non-fictional comics or comics that tell of natural science or other scientific or other knowledge is not settled, yet. These genres are fluid and some even blend fictional and non-fictional strands of narration. It remains to be seen how comics theory deals with these - in practice they are developing a splendid width and depth of options.

Here is a link to Yalla Yalla, an experimental comic published by Calice Magazine, reflecting on the working conditions of parcel delivery workers in Berlin. It is strong on aspects, places, details of places, but in how far it is documentary and how far it is essayistic depends on the reader, seemingly. Depending on your cultural knowledge, the comic shown next to this text is depicting the lighting of a blue candle or it alludes to specific memory practice - here the lighting of a blue candle to remember and think of your friends and co-players in the Schlaraffic role-playing game. With or without the specific cultural information the comic makes sense and is readable, of course. But it gains different meanings according to its readers' cultural knowledge / frames. While non-fictional comics depend extremely on reference to realities outside of the comic's narrative, this is of course also true for fictional comics and the references contained within these (their point in the words of Keith Jonstone (s. his: Impro for Storytellers. Chapter 5. London: Faber&Faber 1999).

Defining Comics

The currently best definition of comics is Ann Miller's (bande dessinée is French for comics) (in: Reading Bande Dessinée. Bristol: Intellect, 2007; p. 75):
"bande dessinée produces meaning out of images which are in a sequential relationship, and which co-exist with each other spatially, with or without text." This definition refines Scot McCloud's definition and is much clearer on text in comics.
Where comics start and picture books as illustrated texts end remains matter for debate. Where the images provide crucial information that is not given by the text, the images stop being mere illustrations, obviously. If images tell the story mostly and texts provide additional information to contextualise the images in specific ways, we are safely on comics-territory.

There are no one-image comics. One image can show and detail a situation, a moment, a state of things. It can be in whatever style or genre, maybe a cartoon, or a painting that can hint at a before and after to the moment it describes. An image can be allegorical and much more, but it is not a sequence and as such can not tell a story really (s. Detlef Hoffmann (ed.): Erzählende Bilder. Oldenburg: Isensee 1998 for more details). There is no before-after-sequence for example. But an image can contain a sequence of states or stages that show a movement or action, and in that case it enters comics-territory as these can illustrate the passing of time, the consequences of actions, alternative states of things, etc. But strictly speaking it contains several images, maybe without visible frames, that are superimposed or inserted into the one background image. If you want to be restrictive with definitions, you can call these image-composites images with comics-narrational elements. Where they end and real comics start, has to be discussed for each individual case as they can differ a lot. As soon as we have at least two images that together tell a story, we should have a comic. There remain reservations as an agreement needs to be reached on what constitutes a story as well as if and how close to each other the images need to be placed.

book: Comic-Analyse (in German)

Comics analysis, as the title translates quite un-originally, develops a systematic for the analysis of all kinds of comics and other forms of picture stories, traditional European comics as well as Asian manga or even mounting instructions and maintenance manuals. My focus is not on any specific school or analytical approach, but rather looks into the material and how things are narrated, how images and texts are placed and form sequences. While the different theories and views applied in analysis absolutely have their merits (how else can we discuss what things might mean to us?), we need to look into the material itself first and describe it in detail before we put it into wider contexts. My "Comic-Analyse" simply provides the basics for describing comics material in detail.
All picture stories use the same fundus of visual material, in principle, no matter whether they are highly complex or rather simple, stemming from Western or Eastern traditions, no matter if they are drawn in classic ligne claire-style or in high graphic hybridity. The book offers a systematic view onto comics and its elements. The author isolates, describes, and analyses the individual elements from which comics are constructed to be able to understand the interrelations between these different elements and levels of comics story construction. By this, the basic way in which picture stories and comics are working is getting explained, as well as the huge bandwidth of possible variation available for individual comics, picture books etc.

Jakob F. Dittmar: Comic-Analyse.
Konstanz: UVK 2008, 210 pages.
2., rev. edition: Konstanz: UVK 2011, 220 pages.
Now available at Herbert von Halem-Verlag, Cologne.
ISBN 978-3-7445-0381-5
Link to publisher's homepage

Publications on comics (by me and together with others):

"Defining the Graphic Novel" in: International Journal of Comic Art, Vol. 24:1, Spring/Summer 2022.
"Review of Johannes C.P. Schmid, Frames and Framing in Documentary Comics" in: European Comic Art, Vol. 15:2, 2022.
"Belonging in Auto|Biographical Comics: Narratives of Exile in the German Heimat" (with Ofer Ashkenazi). In: Nima Naghibi & Candida Rifkind, Eleanor Ty (eds.): Migration, Exile, and Diaspora in Graphic Life Narratives. Special Issue of a/b: Auto/Biography Studies. Vol. 35, 2; 331-357. London: Taylor&Francis.
"Narrative Strategies - African Types and Stereotypes in Comics" and the German interpretation of the English text:
"Erzählstrategien - Afrikanische Typen und Stereotypen in Comics" in: Corinne Lüthy, Reto Ulrich, Antonio Uribe (Hrsg./eds.): Kaboom! Von Stereotypen und Superheroes - Afrikanische Comics und Comics zu Afrika; Kaboom! Of Stereotypes and Superheroes - African Comics and Comics on Africa. Basel: Basler Afrika Bibliographien, 2020.
"Comics as Historiography" (with Ofer Ashkenazi). In: Schmidt, Johannes and Laura Schlichting (eds.): Graphic Realities. ImageText 11:1, September 2019.
"Blind readers and comics - reflecting on comics' storytelling from a different perspective" in: Ian Hague et al. (eds.): Comics Forum. 4 August 2019.
"Negotiating Documentation in Comics" (by Ofer Ashkenazi and me). In: International Journal of Comic Art, Vol. 20:1, Spring/Summer 2018; 587-597.
"Abstraction and non-sequitur." In: Aarnoud Rommens, Pablo Turnes, Erwin Dejasse, Björn-Olav Dozo (Eds.): Abstraction and Comics. Brüssel: La 5e Couche (5c), 2019.
"Experiments in Comics Storytelling" in: Studies in Comics 6.1, 2015: Proceedings of the fifth annual International Graphic Novel and Comics Conference; 157-165.
"Sequential Images, the Page, and Narrative Structures" in: International Journal of Comic Art, Vol. 17:2, Autumn 2015; 561-571.
"Experiments in Digital Comics: Somewhere between comics and multimedia storytelling" in: Ian Hague (ed.): Comics Forum. March 13, 2015.
"Spirou – över 70 år av figurdesign" (in Swedish) in bild & bubbla nr. 201/2014; 98-101.
"Comics for the Blind and for the Seeing" in: International Journal of Comic Art, Vol. 16:1, Spring 2014; 477-86.
"Comics" (in German) in Jens Schröter (Hg.): Handbuch Medienwissenschaft. Stuttgart: J.B.Metzler; 258-261.
"Die Vermittlung von Zusammenhängen und Handlungsfolgen mit Hilfe beweglicher Elemente" (in German) in Urs Hangartner, Felix Keller und Dorothea Oechslin (Hrsg): Wissen durch Bilder. Sachcomics als Medien von Bildung und Information. Bielefeld: Transcript; 311-326.
"Comics and History: Myth-making in Nazi-references" in: International Journal of Comic Art, Vol. 15:1, Spring 2013; 270–286.
"Digital Comics" in: Scandinavian Journal of Comic Art (SJoCA), Winter 2012; 82–91.
"Grenzüberschreitungen: Technikdokumentation und drei-dimensionale Bilder in fiktionalen Comics" (in German) in: Thomas Becker (Hg.): Comic: Intermedialität und Legitimität eines popkulturellen Mediums. Bochum: Bachmann Verlag 2011; 147-158.
"Comic und Geschichtsbewußtsein - Mythisierung im Gegensatz zur Historisierung" (in German) in: Klaus Farin, Ralf Palandt (Hrsg.): Rechtsextremismus, Rassismus und Antisemitismus in Comics. Berlin: Archiv der Jugendkulturen 2011; 419-427.
Research paper "Comic" (in German) in: Historisches Wörterbuch der Rhetorik (HWRh). Tübingen: Max Niemeyer 2011; 169-185.
"Jaki bodzie komiks cyfrewy?" ("Digital Comics" in Polish, translated by Michal Blazejczyk)
in: Zeszyty Komiksowe Nr. 10, pazdziernik 2010.
"Comics and History: Myth-making versus Historisation" (in Hebrew, translated by Ofer Ashkenazi) in: Slil: On-Line Journal for History, Film and Television Winter-Issue 2010.
Comic-Analyse. (book in German)
Konstanz: UVK 2008 / 2011 now available at Herbert von Halem Verlag, Cologne.