Comics as Theoretical Devices: The Relationship between the Act of Doing Theory and the Ways in which Comics Draw Attention to their Form
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Today's digital culture is becoming harder to analytically approach and theorize due to its multimodality, speed, scale, and pervasive control. These difficulties present a problem for theory, as many scholars continue to focus on textual discourse as a constituting factor of, and approach to, digital culture, rather than on its formal, or material, aspects. Due to this gap in scholarship, this thesis argues for a new and more emblematic theoretical approach to the digital in the form of comics by explicitly positioning comics' potential as "theory-fiction." Initially conceptualized by Mark Fisher, theory-fiction seeks to do theory from a fictional standpoint to align it more closely with the digital and to mirror how the digital is subjected to the same fictional groundings. In my work, I extend Fisher’s concept to argue that comics, much in the same way, are emblematic of digital culture, and further, that, as a hybrid form combing both visuals and text, offer a theoretical vantage point even more closely aligned to the digital in providing a reading practice where the relationship between text and image is complicated and ruptured. By oscillating between looking at the formal aspects of comics and through their content—a method of close reading taken from Jason Helms— my thesis highlights these points of complication and rupture and proposes using comics as theory-fiction. Through close analysis of three case studies—Joshua W. Cotter's Nod Away (2016), Inés Estrada's Alienation (2019), and Shirow Masamune's The Ghost in the Shell series (1991-2001)—I argue that each, taken as theory-fiction, offers a disruptive reading experience from which a space can be opened to approach digitality. First, Nod Away analyzes the way mediation within comics, and in extension digital media, is built upon negation, on which Alienation marks this absence as the constituting factor of alienation between user and mediator, whereupon The Ghost in the Shell highlights this alienating mediation as an interface that changes the machine as much as the human. Taken together, my reading of these three comics as theory-fiction aims to show a more fruitful way to approach and theorize digital media with from a relatively outside position, as well as to further highlight the theoretical importance of comics in general and to offer the tools to do theory with them.