Inkers and Thinkers 2015: Peripheral Vision in Comics by Ben Juers

Comics scholar Jens Balzer has stated that in reading comics, ‘the gaze of the beholder must arrive at a mode of distraction’ in order to negotiate the various tensions at work in the medium. In this ‘mode,’ the eye is set in perpetual motion, continually seeking out alternative focal points, enacting the animation implied by the juxtaposition of static elements. According to Balzer, this ‘distracted gaze’ – typified early on in the crowd scenes of R.F. Outcault’s Hogan’s Alley – teaches the beholder an alternative, mimetic approach to participating in the constant motion of modernity, one that both sidesteps and caricatures this motion in the manner of a flâneur, or a Situationist dérive. In other words, comics show the reader that they are not passive spectators, that they can manipulate the spectacle of modernity, and interpret it in a variety of ways according to their subjective experience. Using this argument as a starting point, I will examine how certain comics after Hogan’s Alley play to this ‘distracted gaze’ through anti-sequentiality and the accumulation of peripheral details that reveal themselves on re-reading. This will demonstrate the formal and conceptual significance of marginality and the periphery in comics, how this discourages interpretive stagnation and mirrors what Balzer sees as the transience of modernity. Specifically, I will be looking at the copycat Yellow Kid strips created by George Luks in the 1890s, George Carlson’s Jingle Jangle stories from the 1940s, the ‘chicken fat’ aesthetic of Mad in the 1950s, and the echo of Outcault’s crowd scenes in Jordan Speer’s recent QCHQ.

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