15 Aug 2016

Hatfield (0) “The Art of Tensions”, ‘[introductory material]’, summary


by Corry Shores


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[The following is summary. All boldface and bracketed commentary are my own. Proofreading is incomplete, so I apologize for any distracting typos.]




Summary of


Charles Hatfield


“The Art of Tensions”


[introductory material]



Brief summary:

Comics are a complex medium or art form, because they have a heterogeneous form capable of communicating a plurality of interacting messages or codes. Hatfield will take a reader-response approach and discuss four fundamental tensions that are important to consider when examining comics in this way, namely, the tensions between {1} codes of signification, {2} single image and the image-in-series, {3} narrative sequence and page surface, and {4} reading-as-experience and the text as material object.






Hatfield opens his article by saying that if we regard comics to be simple and transparent, that is, “rhetorically constructed as ‘easy’,” then comics criticism will “remain at an impasse." Rather, comics are hardly simple, since they are a complex communicative medium capable of conveying “a plurality of messages,” and also, they “are heterogeneous in form, involving the co-presence and interaction of various codes” (132). [What is interesting then is that Hatfield’s concern will be phenomenological in a sense, as he writes:] “To the already daunting (and controversial) issue of reading, then, we must add several new complexities, if we are to understand what happens when we read comics” (132).


Hatfield claims that comics’ great strength is that “comic art is composed of several kinds of tension, in which various ways of reading – various interpretive options and potentialities – must be played against each other” (132). Given this complexity, when reading comics, we should “call upon different reading strategies, or interpretative schema” than what we would use when simply reading conventional textual media (132).


Hatfield then outlines the reader-response approach he well take:

The balance of this chapter will engage the fundamental tensions within comics, with emphasis on the kinds of judgment (or suspension of judgment) they demand of readers. I shall concentrate on questions of reader response, in the sense of participation and interpretation, rather than those underlying questions of reading process that properly belong to empirical study (for example, eye movement, working memory, or graphophonic competence). My aim is not to set forth an empirical model of comics reading but rather to establish the complexity of the form by broadly discussing the kinds of mixed messages it sends even to the most experienced of readers. This discussion will serve as a prospectus for the collective task of theorizing reader response in comics in a more general way.



There are four tensions that are of particular importance in such a reader-response theorizing on comics:

{1} the tension between codes of signification,

{2} the tension between single image and the image-in-series,

{3} the tension between narrative sequence and page surface, and

{4} the tension between reading-as-experience and the text as material object.

(Hatfield 132, partly quotational)

To illustrate and discuss these tensions, Hatfield will draw from a wide range of examples (132).




Hatfield, Charles. “The Art of Tensions.” In A Comics Studies Reader, pp.132–148. Edited by Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester. Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi,  2009.



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