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Visualizing Comics: A Metadata Approach to Critical Analysis

Created by Amy. Last updated on 5/3/2018

Why Visualize?

There’s something paradoxical about archives, databases, and other collections. They are often filled with valuable information, but, at same time, they are plagued with various silences that fail to represent complexity that is the human experience. This problem of archival silence is a difficult one to fix, however, digital humanities is in a unique spot to open the tool kit and address these shortcomings (Klein 2013, 662). Images are typically governed by two rules that ensure we can understand and interpret their message; “a highly formal set of visual elements with rules that govern their use and a verbal description of this system and the ways it works”, and thus provides a unique way to explore and interpret various sorts of data (Drucker 2014, 18). Tools utilizing visual forms of communication allow us not only to create visualizations that look various aspects of comics, but also begin to address the numerous silences housed in archives and collections across the world.

Visualizing Page Size: Page Size as an Indicator of Market Transitions

Soon after the rise of comics as a form of mass culture, production means became a defining characteristics of comic books.  Comic books were produced on disposable paper that became a form of cheap entertainment for the middle class, (Duncan, Smith, and Levitz 2009, 12). As paper quality changed to reflect the needs of buyers, it would also make sense that production factors changed to reflect the shifting market of comic books.

There was an expectation that page size would begin to standardize around what Ducan et al. calls the Era of Invention, lasting roughly from the 1840’s until the early 1930’s (12). Setting out to see if there was a correlation between X and Y, I created a new data sheet using only the columns for publication date, title, and page size. These data needed a bit more cleaning and page sizes needed to be converted in to centimeters. RAWGraphs was used to create a Convex Hull graph to show the change in page size over time.

The final visualization shows that, instead of a period of standardization, comics were seemingly produced between about 7 and 35 centimeters during the Era of Invention, however, starting in the 1920’s through the 1960’s great variation began occurring, with page sizes ranging from 7 to over 70 centimeters, before again standardizing. While the comics digitized by this year’s course all fell in to this standard range it does raise the question of what sorts of metadata recorded can be used to track market changes, and how does the Comic Collection here at MSU represent those transitions?Visualizing Publication Language: The Application of a Post-Colonial Lens

Page standardization over time

Visualizing Language: A Look a Post-Colonialism in Comic Book Metadata 

When visualizing language distribution in the comic collection, the application of a post-colonial lens sheds light on cultural dominance in production practices. While most of the comics in Special Collections are in English, the application of a critical lens, one that looks at the combination “race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and cultural beliefs and customs”, allows us to explore the ways in which language can be viewed as a contributing factor to power dynamics (Tyson 2011, 4).

Setting out to answer this question I once again created a new excel sheet only including the records that had language designations. I then used Tableau to represent the number of unique languages of the comics per country. I excluded the United States and England were excluded from the visualizations as they were both major outlier due to the extremely high production level of comic books.

These visualizations highlight countries producing comic books in more than one then language or languages other than national designations.  Many countries are producing in multiple languages, most often English and their designated dialect. However, some countries, such as Japan are producing more in English then their national language and seem to be targeting an audience different from their production region. Jay Gluck's Ah-so: the misadventures of a foreigner in Japan, a comic book published in Tokyo, Japan was produced in English and is seemingly aimed at tourists of the country. Comics published in countries with more than one national language, for example Switzerland, often appear to favor one language over the other, in this case comics were produced in French more often than German. Both scenarios highlight publishing preferences for western languages across the globe and the influence language has on production output.

Focusing specifically on the African continent, the visualizations highlight two interesting features, and when analyzed through a post-colonial lens, we can see the dominance of western culture over local dialects and tradition. A total of 16 comics from the data set were produced across Africa, however, only one of these were published in language native to the continent. Taking a closer look at this record, the comic “Die Tweede Wereldoorlog in Spotprente” (which translates to “The Second World War in Cartoons”, is listed with African as its designated language. While Google Translate quickly reveals it was published in Afrikaans, there are over a thousand different language spoken across the continent, and this generalization grossly over simplifies the linguistic diversity of the country. A similar generalization occurs with the comics listed under the Chinese designation. While Madeiran is the official language of China, there are at least 8 different Chinese languages. These linguistic simplifications suggest the spread of westernized generalizations of various geographic and cultural regions across the globe.

Publication language by country

Publication langauge of comics per country

Archival Silences: Visualizing Women’s Voices in Michigan State University’s Comic Collection

As we seek to uncover any possible silences in the archive, data may not always be easily accessible, and in this case linked data was used to collect metadata about author’s gender. Archival silences enter archives in four ways; the creation of sources, the production of archives, the conception of narratives, and the constructing of history (Trouillot 1997, 26).

As women have faced numerous historical inequities in the past, it unsurprising to see their lack of representation in the Comic Collection, however, utilizing linked data and visualizations can aid in shedding raising awareness not only in regards to the marginalization of female voices, but also bring their work to the public’s attention. This task required more than just involved more than just data cleaning and topic standardization, it also required the use of linked data that drew from the United States Library of Congress and Virtual International Authority File to obtain information about gender.

Gender Distriution

Gender distribution in the archive

The visualizations related to gender, are communicated through simple bar graphs, created in Tableau, where the message is clear, there are drastically fewer women in the archive as compared to men. Women such as Eleanor Packer, Barbara Woodhouse, and Ann McGovern make up only 53 of the over 800 unique authors represented in the dataset. Another bar graph lists and tallies the different subjects assigned to works written by female comic authors. Looking at the Library of Congress subject headings, provided a way to better understand the sorts of materials these voices where publishing. Comics produced by women fell into a total of 46 unique subject headings, where the most common included funny, fiction, children, and animals.

 Female LOC Subject Headings

Library of Congress subject headings assigned to female writers 


Visualizations have allowed for us to do more than just showcase various sorts of metadata about comic books, but also illuminate various silences in archives and collections everywhere. These graphics have a language that allow us to communicate messages with images as opposed to text, they allow us to communicate more than just visually pleasing graphs, but also shed light on marginalized voices (Drucker 2014, 44-46). Digital humanists have the tool kit to begin to explore various facets of the human experience, and while many voices are silenced in the archival process, this just one step at illuminating the life and work of these individuals.