A dream team of comics scholars has been assembled, including Professor Bart Beaty, Unflattening author Nick Sousanis, and asst. professor Benjamin Woo, and using funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and The University of Calgary and Carleton University they’ve launched a website called What Were Comics? which will…well, it’s best to let them explain:

Our proposed project is the foundational step in a larger program of work that seeks to reorient the study of comics (comic books, comic strips, graphic novels) by introducing data-driven research to the field for the first time. During this phase of the research we have two specific and inter-related goals: first, we will create the most comprehensive online open-access research tool for the study of the American comic book; second, we will draw upon the data produced by this tool to rewrite the history of the American comic book as the development of a set of styles and techniques that existed across the industry as a whole. By exponentially expanding our sample set, we will shift the study of comics away from the broadly humanistic study of exceptional works and towards a more rigorous focus on works that typified cultural production over time. This perspectival shift in method will produce new theories of the comic book as we facilitate a move from asking the theoretically abstract question of “what are comics?” to the empirically-grounded question of “what were comics?”.

Now, what does that mean?

With this project, we are proposing to study a randomly generated sample of American comic books produced between 1934 and 2014. Specifically, we will study a statistically significant sample from each of those eighty years. In the first phase, we will code a series of relevant pieces of data (number of pages per issues; numbers of stories per issue; numbers of panels per page; number of word balloons per panel; number of words per balloon). During the second phase we will be looking at data that is more subjective and more difficult to quantify (for instance, typologies of panel transitions). In the final phase, we will draw upon the data set to author a study of the evolution of comic book styles over time.

For a start, they’ve counted all the 9-panel pages in Watchmen. You may have thought ALL the pages in Watchmen had 9 panels, but it isn’t so! Can you guess which issue had the most 9 panel pages? And WHY?

This is gonna be great.


  1. They might want to include panel geography.
    For example, Watchmen plays with the 3×3 grid.
    But a page might have a 2×3 panel up top (ABCDEF), and 3 single panels below (G. H. I.). Or two long panels running the length of a page (ABDEGH, CFI).

    And what of superpanels/polyptychs?

    What about dialogue captions vs unseen narrator captions? Editorial footnotes? Thought balloons?

    Exciting stuff!

  2. Uh, what now? This seems like a totally statistical study only interested in the structure and geometry of comics, with absolutely no interest whatsoever in the artistic or literary content. Sorry, but as a fan who’s been reading comics for nearly 60 years, I see only the most limited, and boring, value in such an endeavor.

    But good luck with it.

  3. Now, I know that this is used to quickly exemplify the kind of research the site is dedicated to conduct, but the argument seems a bit straw-manish to me. I don’t know if anybody (at least, nobody that read the book) really says that The Watchmen uses a nine-panel grid really means that every page has nine panels, but rather that there is an underlining structure of nine panels on top of which each page is built.

  4. Not all Watchmen pages used the 3×3 grid. The title pages, for example. Also the short quotations at the end of each comic.

    And… it was broken deliberately at certain dramatic scenes… Nite Owl’s dream, the Times Square denouement, “fearful symmetry”, the multi-page super-panel “Tandoori to go!”

  5. Having written pieces using this kind of research before, it definitely can be useful. The virtual elimination of the thought balloon, for example, had a major impact on both the storyteller’s toolkit and the amount of time it took to read comics — which had knock-on effects when it came to the value proposition. Likewise, it’s no mistake that comics were in incredible trouble in the late 1970s, when the editorial page count at Marvel was at its lowest point and prices were skyrocketing.

    Nobody imagines that literary success can be reduced to something found in a data set, or so I would assume. But the mechanical considerations have played a role in how stories in general have been told, and how they’ve been received.

  6. I didn’t expect this to be the most controversial post of the day, but I urge everyone to co to the site and read all the comments. I’ve excerpted them to gin up intrigue, but I think Mssrs. Beaty, Sousanis and Woo can speak for themselves and have a great interest in lively comics scholarship.

  7. Thanks for the coverage, Heidi!

    Torsten: Absolutely agree! With this post we have not even begun to scratch the surface of what we hope to do in terms of panel geography. We hope to roll out some additional thoughts in the next few weeks in advance of developing our coding protocols, but panel height and width are very much on our minds these days. I hope to have a note up later about panel size in Alison Bechdel’s comics, but it depends on me getting my marking done first. Speaking of which…

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