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Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter Mouton April 20, 2017

A Picture is Worth More Words Over Time: Multimodality and Narrative Structure Across Eight Decades of American Superhero Comics

Neil Cohn EMAIL logo , Ryan Taylor and Kaitlin Pederson
From the journal Multimodal Communication


The visual narratives of comics involve complex multimodal interactions between written language and the visual language of images, where one or the other may guide the meaning and/or narrative structure. We investigated this interaction in a corpus analysis across eight decades of American superhero comics (1940–2010s). No change across publication date was found for multimodal interactions that weighted meaning towards text or across both text and images, where narrative structures were present across images. However, we found an increase over time of narrative sequences with meaning weighted to the visuals, and an increase of sequences without text at all. These changes coincided with an overall reduction in the number of words per panel, a shift towards panel framing with single characters and close-ups rather than whole scenes, and an increase in shifts between temporal states between panels. These findings suggest that storytelling has shifted towards investing more information in the images, along with an increasing complexity and maturity of the visual narrative structures. This has shifted American comics from being textual stories with illustrations to being visual narratives that use text.


Gerardo Soto-Becerra is thanked for additional assistance in data gathering.

Appendix. Works analyzed

Our corpus analysis used the following books, listed chronologically by publication date.

  1. Berold, B. and Eisner, W. (1940). The Flame. 3: 1–20. Fox Comics.

  2. Kirby, J. and Wellman, M. W. (1941). Captain Marvel Adventures. 1: 1–31. Fawcett Comics.

  3. Binder, J. (1942). Captain Midnight. 1: 1–34. Fawcett Comics.

  4. Vagoda, B. and Weisbecker, C. (1943). Black Hood. 9: 1–23. MLJ Magazine

  5. Nordling, K. (1949). Lady Luck. 86: 1–32. Quality Comics.

  6. Quackenbush, B and Eisner, W. (1950). Doll Man. 30: 1–32.Comic Favorites, Inc.

  7. Anderson, M and Siegel, J. (1951). Lars of Mars. 11: 1–16 & 28–31. Approved Comics.

  8. Ferstadt, L, Fago, A., & Fox, V. (1955). Blue Beetle. 18: 1–25. Charlton Comics.

  9. Cole, J. and Woolfolk, B. (1956). Plastic Man. 64: 1–31. Comic Magazines.

  10. Plastino, A. and Bernstein, R. (1959). Action Comics. 252: 1–27. DC Comics.

  11. Springer, F. and Kastle, H. (1962). Brain Boy. 2: 1–28. Dell Comics/Western Publishing.

  12. Wood, W. and Lee, S. (1964). Daredevil. 5: 1–20. Marvel Comics.

  13. Ditko, S. and Gill, J. (1965). Captain Atom. 78: 1–20. Charlton Comics.

  14. Ditko, S. and Glanzman, D.C. (1967). The Blue Beetle. 3: 1–20. Charlton Comics.

  15. Steranko, J. (1968). Nick Fury Agent of S.H.I. E.L.D. 1: 1–20. Marvel Comics.

  16. Adams, N. and O’Neil, D. (1970). Green Lantern. 76: 1–23. DC Comics.

  17. Novick, I. and Bates, C. (1973). The Flash. 211: 1–16. DC Comics.

  18. Dillion, D. and Pasko, M. (1975). Justice League of America. 122: 1–18. DC Comics.

  19. Tuska, G. and Mantlo, B. (1977). The Invincible Iron Man. 100: 1–19. Marvel Comics.

  20. Rogers, M. and Englehart, S. (1978). Detective Comics. 475: 1–17. DC Comics.

  21. Colan, G. and Mantlo, B. (1981). The Avengers. 210: 1–22. Marvel Comics.

  22. Colan, G. and Thomas, R. (1982). Wonder Woman. 289: 1–26. DC Comics.

  23. Byrne, J. (1984). Fantastic Four. 269: 1–22. DC Comics.

  24. Bolland, B. and Moore, A. (1988). Batman: The Killing Joke. 1: 1–20. DC Comics.

  25. Dwyer, K. and Gruenwald, M. (1989). Captain America. 358: 1–22. Marvel Comics.

  26. McFarlane, T. and Michelinie, D. (1990). The Amazing Spider-Man. 328: 1–23. Marvel Comics.

  27. Lyle, T. and Potts, C. (1993). Venom: Funeral Pyre. 2: 1–22. Marvel Comics.

  28. Kubert, A. and David, P. (1997). The Incredible Hulk. 454: 1–25. Marvel Comics.

  29. Yu, L. F. and Ellis, W. (1998). Wolverine. 121: 1–21. Marvel Comics.

  30. Quesada, J. and Smith, K. (1999). Daredevil. 8: 1–22. Marvel Comics.

  31. Dillon, S. and Ennis, G. (2001). The Punisher. 6: 1–22. Marvel Comics.

  32. Sciver, E. V. and Johns, G. (2005). Green Lantern: Rebirth. 5: 1–21. DC Comics.

  33. Garney, R. and Straczynski, J. M. (2007). Amazing Spider-Man. 539: 1–23. Marvel Comics.

  34. Romita Jr., J. and Hudlin, R. (2008). Black Panther. 35: 1–22. Marvel Comics.

  35. Medina, P. and Way, D. (2009). Deadpool. 11: 1–22. Marvel Comics.

  36. Gleason, P. and Tomasi, P. (2010). Green Lantern Corps. 42: 1–24. DC Comics.

  37. Finch, D. and Jenkins, P. (2011). Batman The Dark Knight. 2: 1–20. DC Comics.

  38. Pacheco, C., Diaz, P., and Gillen, K. (2012). Uncanny X-men. 10: 1–20. Marvel Comics.

  39. Guedes, R., Fawkes, R. & Lemire, J. (2013). Constantine. 1: 1–21. DC Comics.

  40. Gerads, M. and Edmondson, N. (2014). The Punisher. 5: 1–20. Marvel Comics.


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Published Online: 2017-4-20
Published in Print: 2017-5-24

© 2017 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston

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