Date of Award

8-2019

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

English

First Advisor

Michael T. Williamson

Second Advisor

Christopher M. Kuipers

Third Advisor

Gian S. Pagnucci

Abstract

This project challenges prevailing ideas in comics studies about the intersections between graphic novels and literary history. Prevailing criticism tends to function divisively, situate titles within exclusive categories of fiction and nonfiction, and I examine the ways that nonfiction artists reimagine and establish relationships with history. This project seeks to expand the field by arguing that if we can use certain methodologies to glean meaning from historical representation in nonfiction, then we can use similar methodologies to glean meaning from mainstream fiction’s historical representations. With this premise, I examine the ways Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, Alan Moore and J. H. Williams III’s Promethea, and Mike Carey and Peter Gross’s The Unwritten transform literary history into mythology. These titles, I argue, can be better understood as occupying spaces between mainstream fiction and historically-based nonfiction.

Historical representation becomes an interpretive act for Gaiman, Moore and Williams, and Carey and Gross. What becomes a key narrative component in all three series is the way that the artists recreate human history as contingent with the imaginative storytelling for which mythical figures are responsible. The narratives follow a logic that posits how imaginative storytelling drives human history, and these mythologies share one broader idea: faith in imaginative creativity’s potential to elevate humankind’s state of being. Aesthetic interstices between fiction and nonfiction come to the fore in the ways that the artists ironically write stories about the virtues of writing stories. A specular function of the artists is at play in each series: from visibly representing themselves in panels (as in Promethea) to visible images of literary texts within texts that reflect on the function of texts. If we read the artists’ specularity, we can demonstrate how invented myths complement the artists’ personal ideas about imaginative creativity and a sense of responsibility to create stories for humankind’s benefit.

The aesthetic interstices between nonfiction and mainstream fiction are not only important to comics studies in terms of better understanding narrative but, also, in terms of the ways that these aesthetics create space to better understand comics’ intersections with a greater literary history. In Sandman, Promethea, and The Unwritten, the artists’ use of myth to reinterpret the history of storytelling suggests that we can trace these aesthetics from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries to the early-nineteenth century—to first-generation Romantic authors and their narrative practices. When considering the artists’ ways of thinking about creativity, it suggests that not only can we identify how the titles occupy a space between nonfiction and fiction, but we can also identify their intersections with literary structures and ways of thinking about imagination and creativity from the larger European Romantic movement. The importance in identifying such intersections is at least twofold: We can consider a greater literary history of comics, and we can borrow from literary-critical history to better understand a greater spectrum of formal aesthetics at play in narrative.

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