Thesis Review Part Three: Reader-text assemblages

Part One of this ‘thesis review’ introduced the philosophical and theoretical concepts that guided the research undertaken in my thesis. Part Two elaborated upon these ideas- paying particular attention to the concept of the rhizome-and suggested that the field of Comics Studies could be considered as rhizomatic. It then went on to demonstrate how approaches to studying superheroes that utilised structuralist theories and/or analysed the superhero comic in terms of representation and ideology could be understood as broadly humanist and based on an arboreal model of knowledge whereby the ‘meaning’ of the superhero could be reduced to a single explanatory trunk. It then went on to argue for a Post/Humanist approach to superhero comics that, rather than an arboreal model, adopted a rhizomatic approach. To aid this understanding a cultural history of the posthuman body in superhero comic was adopted. It was then demonstrated how this moves the analysis of the superhero away from ideology by understanding the development of the superhero through the Golden, Silver, Dark and Modern Ages of comic books in terms of historically situated assemblages.

 If the rhizomatic cultural history was suggested as a theoretical corrective to the limitations of ideological analyses then it was also important to address the implied reader at the mercy of ideology in these approaches. As such my thesis involved another strand in which I interviewed comic book readers about their views on the superhero and posthumanism more generally. This was seen as a methodological corrective to the problems outlined in Part Two.

In this section then I intend to familiarise the reader with historical approaches to the question of texts and reader/audiences. Having done this I next offer a model of text-reader relations that draws on the concept of assemblages outlined in Part One. Because of the ethical issues involved and the fact it’s not officially complete yet I will not be presenting the data from my interviews here on the blog at this time. Instead this review presents a brief history of audience studies, highlighting some of the dualities that have informed scholarly understanding of reader/text relations, and how these dualities follow on from the same historically established philosophical dualities that critical Post/Humanism is generally engaged in critiquing. As such I offer a model of reader-text relations as an assemblage, illustrated by a brief overview of historically situated comic-reader assemblages in the Golden, Silver, Dark and Modern Ages of comics.


Concerns about the effects of media content on viewers, readers and listeners are as least as old as Classical Greece. Plato’s worries about the insidious effects of storytelling on young minds led him to call for supervising, “…the makings of fables and legends” (quoted in Ruddock, 2001:125). In brief, it can be stated that audience research begins with the ‘effects tradition’. Sometimes known as the ‘hypodermic needle model’, this paradigm presumes that the media is capable of injecting ideas directly into audience’s minds (Ruddock, 2001: 40). If this notion seems overly simplistic it should be remembered that the impetus for much of this early research was provided by what appeared to be the very concrete persuasive effects of propaganda (by all sides) during the First and Second World Wars. Compounding this view still further were related contemporary concerns with (or vested interests in) the power of advertising (Bratich, 2005:254).

Despite the effects tradition apparently viewing audiences as passive receptors, Bratich points out that the ‘problem’ lay not with their passivity so much as their potential activity. Bratich suggests that the ‘moral panic’ framework, “…signifies the most conspicuous of problematizations [of the audience]” (ibid: 256). In this model, audiences are painted as “potential H-bombs” (Ruddock, 2001:129) primed to explode into violence and salaciousness by exposure to representations of the same. The comic book scare of the 1950s remains an archetypal example of this.

For many the media effects model was considered psychologically reductive. The positivist reliance on laboratory experiment and causal inference were viewed as an over-simplification of a complex issue, and one that was largely driven by a public rather than academic agenda (Livingstone, 1996), particularly evident in the case of moral panics. One of the major problems with effects research had been its emphasis on what the media does to people, misunderstanding, so it was argued, “…the relationship between media and society…[ by wrongly suggesting] that the media stand apart from other social institutions, trends and forces” (Barker and Brooks, 1999:39). A fallacy compounded by, “…a reliance on methods that were incapable of dealing with the morphology of social reality…artificial settings, removing reception from the contexts that made it meaningful” (Ruddock, 2001:175). The media effects model later mutated into a highly theoretical position in certain structuralist and psychoanalytic ideas about the ‘spectator’ in film and literary theory. Several commentators (e.g. Brown, 1997, Murphy, 2004, Moores, 1993) agree that the film studies journal Screen was the most influential and vocal promulgator of this theoretical perspective.


Put crudely, the position adopted by the most important Screen theorists was that, “…one could assess the social impact of a text simply by looking at its structure” (Ruddock, 2001:125). Utilising various admixtures (“a heady theoretical cocktail” (Moores, 1993:6)) of Lacanian and Freudian psychoanalytic concepts (Creed, 1998), Althusser’s notions of ‘interpellation’ and ‘Ideological State Apparatus’, and Foucauldian notions of how (cinematic) discourses construct subjectivity (Barker and Brooks, 1999:113) the scholarly analysis of cinema shifted:

From considering only the political content of individual films to the function of the cinema itself as a vehicle for disseminating the ideology of the dominant culture…seeking to uncover the cinematic mechanisms that bestow the illusion of subjectivity upon viewers by suturing them into the narrative through identification with the fictional subjects on the screen                (Brown, 1997:23)

In effect taking a position of ‘textual determinism’ (Moores, 1993: 6) in which the ‘spectator’ became a ‘function of the text’ (Barker, 2005: 360), unknowingly fixed in a textually inscribed ‘subject positions’, “…a viewing subject with no alternative but to ‘make the meanings the film makes for it’” (Brown, 1997:24). For Barker, “…the concepts of ‘spectatorship’, of ‘interpellation’ and of the ‘gaze’ simply reproduced in abstracted language” the same claims expressed by the media-effects tradition (2005:359). Staiger has also highlighted this criticism, accusing the Screen theorists of effectively implying:

That film audiences (and Hollywood cinema) were effectively homogenous, asocial and trans-historical… In conceptualising the spectator as essentially an effect of textual processes occupying a single position fixed by a films formal characteristics, these totalising models implied a uniformity of viewer response and meaning production, regardless of who was watching the film or the conditions under which it was being viewed            (quoted in Murphy, 2004:123)

Stuart Hall and the CCCS to develop the next important model of audience-text relations, that of ‘encoding and decoding’. In common with Screen and earlier theories of mass communication, Hall (1973) also argued that the mass media, “…play a crucial role in defining, disseminating, popularizing and protecting the beliefs and values of a social mainstream, dominated by a narrow social elite” (Ruddock, 2001: 120). That is, that a text could indeed be ‘encoded’ with an ideological message. However, Hall’s theory parted ways with earlier theories in two key respects. Firstly, he emphasised that texts are polysemic-if not quite pluralist. Hence, certain alternative readings (‘decodings’) were possible of a text even though certain ideological forces foreshortened the range of available meanings, encouraging viewers to instead accept the ‘preferred’ or ‘encoded’ reading. Secondly, and related to this, Hall emphasized that, “…the social subjects who decode a media message are not the same as the text’s implied readers” (Moores, 1993: 18). In other words, even if we accept, as the Screen theorists did, that the structure of a text serves to convey a preferred message, and that such messages are often indicative of the social values of the ruling elite, it does not follow that the message can be transmitted directly into viewers’ minds and hearts. Rather, the message must first be decoded by the receiver.

This interpretive act inevitably introduces a certain amount of white noise into the signal, opening the possibility for alternative decodings. The receiver’s ability to decode a textual signal ‘correctly’ is dependent on their own standpoints. It is worth emphasizing that Hall was keen to stress that certain preferred readings were intended by producers i.e. that the semiotic structure of a text limited the amount of readings that were possible. In terms of genre for instance, one could not easily decode a western for a sci-fi movies based on the visual cues presented by the film- horses and hats would signify cowboys and not astronauts to most viewers most of the time. However, this is not the same as the textual determinism of the Screen theorists, for in the encoding/decoding model, the meaning does not lie only in the text but in the interaction between text and viewer. The cultural critic cannot say what a film means per se, only what its preferred meaning might be. And even then, it does not follow that all viewers decode it this way.

This being so, the reader/viewer/decoder, while able to engage in, “…some free play within any conative sign” (ibid), is, if not constrained, then at least encouraged to read it in a certain way and within certain limits. Hall postulated three hypothetical positions from which readers might decode texts:

They could accept the preferred reading; they could accept parts of the text while rejecting others, constructing what he called a negotiated reading; or they could reject what the text was trying to make them think in an oppositional reading.                                                             (Ruddock, 2001:126)

Following the discussion thus far it is possible to identify an historical trajectory in cultural studies, “…from a focus on texts to one on audiences” (Bratich, 2005:243). The first major step in this direction,“…was characterized by the method of audience ethnography, which displaced the controlled settings for investigating the variety of encodings” (ibid). The theoretical impetus for this turn was the concept of ‘active audiences’. What is of interest at this juncture is merely the insight that audiences engage in dialogues, or meaning-making processes, with media texts, and are not just passively coerced into – crudely – white, male, bourgeois subject positions by them. The audience was now ‘active’.

This allowed later scholars such as Fiske to theorises that audiences may engage in ‘resistive readings’ (1987), “…an interpretation of a text which changes its encoded meaning at the point of reception” (Ruddock, 2001:126). Sometimes called ‘reading against the grain’, this process is said to involve not a rejection of the encoded values of the text, as in Hall’s oppositional reading, but a subversive interpretation of it. Ruddock presents the film Top Gun as an example. While an oppositional reading might decode the film’s semiotic elements as furthering a jingoistic, militaristic American ideology, and reject the film on those grounds, a resistive reading might position Top Gun as a homosexual fantasy. As a special blog bonus this can be illustrated with a video clip of Quentin Tarantino’s cameo in Sleep With Me (1994):

Such a reading only be done by working within a film’s textual elements rather than rejecting them:

Since the signifier is always potentially ambiguous, it follows that the preferred meaning of a text might be unclear, or might be open to subversion (Ruddock, 2001:126)

Fiske describes what he calls ‘activated texts’; “texts that are effectively produced primarily through the audience’s appropriation of meaning rather than the producer’s attempted positioning of the subject” (Brown, 1997:43). Indeed, he has suggested elsewhere that this is what makes a text pleasurable for the reader- that, “texts must be ‘producerly’, that is serve to as a basis for some form of creativity on the part of the audience” (Ruddock, 2001:154). The idea of active audiences has had significant impact on cultural studies. In a methodological parallel, much work in this area has taken an ‘ethnographic turn’ (Moores, 1993:1) in investigating, “…the media’s varied uses and meanings for particular social subjects in particular cultural contexts” (ibid).

For instance, Jenkins’s ‘textual poachers’ seek to defend the practices of people whom, from his perspective, can be claimed as a subaltern group in as much as their tastes and desires are not sanctioned by the official culture, arguing that fans are not simply obsessive consumers but active producers he takes his central concept of ‘textual poaching’ from Michel Dc Certeau. Brown (1997) summarises De Certeau’s argument:

De Certeau characterized culture as an ongoing struggle between textual producers and consumers…a battle for possession of the text and its meanings… [And] saw consumers as metaphorical poachers, making guerrilla raids into hegemonically controlled spaces                                                                   (Brown, 1997:44)

In Jenkins adaptation of these ideas, “…fans construct their cultural and social identity through borrowing and inflecting mass culture images, articulating concerns which often go unvoiced within the dominant media” (Jenkins, 1992:23). This identity building often incorporates material practices such as the creation of literature and video featuring favourite characters. This network of inter and extra-textual practices extends to the creation of fanzines, discussion groups and websites, the organising of conventions and the process of collecting. For Jenkins, this often places fans in opposition to the producers and owners of the copyrighted texts they are poaching from and repurposing.

Understanding popular culture, “…in terms of productivity, not of reception”, Fiske provides three modes of semiotic productivity- audience activity that, “…occurs at the interface between the industrially produced cultural commodity (narrative, music, star, etc.) and the everyday life of the fan” (1992: 37). These are semiotic, enunciative and textual productivity. Semiotic productivity, “…consists of making meanings of social identity and social experiences from the semiotic resources of the cultural economy” (ibid). Fiske remarks that this type of productivity is not just the province of fans but relates to audiences generally. Semiotic productivity is interior. Enunciative productivity, on the other hand, is when, “…meanings made are spoken and are shared within a face to face or oral culture” (ibid). Clothing and collecting are also forms of enunciative productivity. Textual productivity, finally, is the creation of written texts, films, illustrations and songs that draw upon the object of fan attention.

While theorists in the Screen mould might be accused of seeing ideological, “…conspiracy at every turn, Fiske [and others] seems to find cause for celebration on behalf of the subaltern in their every meeting with mass culture” (Brown, 1997:45). Never the less, active audience theory has not quite exorcised the spectre of ideology and the question of power. Barker and Brooks (1999:124) note that in making room for concepts of agency and opposition such theories still leave notions of

‘Ideology’ exactly as they were. They still involve a notion of ‘positioning’, that is, that if there isn’t ‘critique’ or ‘opposition’, then ‘discourses’ and ‘ideologies’ are like viruses which invade the brain. But for resistance, texts get you.

Implicit within fan studies insistence on activity, productivity and poaching of mass produced texts is the suggestion that, “but for audiences’ ‘activity’ or ‘resistance’ an unsullied text might influence them” (Barker, 2010: 6).


How do these debates relate to superhero comics? Part Two highlighted several analyses of superhero comics that implied a readers (or readers) at the mercy of ideological manipulation, but none of them incorporated the views of actual readers into their work, speaking about them instead. Putsz writes, “…inside interpretations of this culture may be problematic and subjective, but the few outsider perspectives on comic books…are perhaps even more flawed by denying the consumers the power to explain how they use their favoured texts” (1999:202). Maigret (1999) and Brown (2001) both concur with this, and further call into question the notion of ideology In comics being a “univocal process of inculcation” (Maigret, 1999). Brown finds that, “…fans demonstrate that they do not just passively accept dominant messages” (2001:200).

However, these recent studies of comic book fans are not the first flowering of interest in their activities. As has been seen the comics scare of the 1950s flamed by Werthem’s Seduction of the Innocent encapsulated the media effects model, whereby innocent children are converted into sex-crazed, murderous, fascists by their comic book reading. But even as early as that dissenting voices could be heard. For instance, Ruddock cites a 1949 study that utilized open-ended, qualitative interviews to investigate the role of comic books in young male readers’ lives: “they did not find a moronic, uniform sample seduced into sin by these lurid rags, but instead found readers displaying different preferences and levels of media literacy who derived a range of pleasures from comics” (2001:69). Comics history and the mediums social standing may have been very different if this study, and not Werthem’s had proved the most influential.

Putsz (1999) draws on historical research, interviews, fanzines and other publications in order to document the history of comics fandom. He highlights that comics fandom consists of a spectrum of what he, adopting the idiom of his subjects, calls ‘fan-boys’ and ‘true believers’- mainstream comic book fans (of corporate superhero narratives) and ‘alternative’ interests (in underground and independent comics, often autobiographical).  While Putsz’s emphasis is on explicating comics fandom generally, Brown’s (1997 a, b; 2001) approach addresses issues of race and masculinity specifically. Drawing upon ideas of cultural capital and utilizing participant observation and interviews, Brown argues that Milestone Comics provided alternative models of black masculinity for their readers.  Martin Barker’s (1984) A Haunt of Fears investigated the horror comics scare in Britain while his next study centred upon the short-lived British weekly Action, itself a victim of a moral panic in the late 1970s. Barker analysed questionnaires (containing both quantitative and qualitative elements) from 135 former readers of the comic. By asking respondents to rate themselves as ‘casual’, ‘regular’ or ‘committed’ readers of the comic Barker discovered an interesting trend that contradicted the claims of media effects theorists: “it appeared that the closer the connection, and the greater the ‘influence’ of the comic, the more readers were made to think and reflect and argue” (Barker and Brooks, 1999:14). This research was followed by a (1993) study of readers of another British comic, 2000AD.

This time utilizing a “questionnaire incorporating a range of quantitative indicators, a Semantic Differential test, and opportunities for open-ended responses” (ibid), Barker analysed 250 responses. Again, for readers who took the comic ‘seriously’ and allowed it, “to cross into other parts of their thinking”, the apparent violence and horror of 2000AD’s (often post-apocalyptic) stories:

Constituted it as a source of hope for the future. The explanation seemed to be that in the context of the lived experience of these readers, ‘bleakness’ represented a kind of realism which allowed them to ‘keep their imagination alive’. The significance, of course, is that this finding is the exact inverse of the frequently claims relationship, that the contents of a mass medium tend to reproduce themselves, in the same form, in the heads of audiences, ‘violence’ breeding violence…and so on. (ibid: 15)

My thesis takes the position that the simple categorization of passive versus active readers will not suffice since it, “…does no justice to kaleidoscopic reactions to the media” (Ruddock, 2001:177), and fails to account for “emotional and physical [embodied] pleasures” (ibid: 152; cf Barker and Brooks, 1999; Williams, 1991). As such, it is suspicious of the conspiratorial claim that the producers of media texts have intentionally mounted ideological pressures on the reader, and suggest instead that, as Brown puts it, “it would seem that ideology, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder” (28).


Much of what I want to discuss in this section has been cut from the thesis for the sake of space and remains to be written up properly. Some of these ideas were presented under the title “Fans and Fiction Networks: A Rhizomatic Approach To Superhero Comics and Their Readers” which I presented at 2011’s Joint International Conference of Graphic Novels, Bandes dessinees and Comics. As I still intend to write this up as a separate article I will just offer the abstract here and a few notes to clarify:

Accepting that Comics Studies is still an expanding field, and arguing that one of its current strengths lies in its lack of a precise disciplinary boundary, this paper begins by noting that despite Barker’s thorough deconstruction of ideological readings of comic books, such approaches remain a regular feature of  such work, particularly superhero comics. Going on to discuss how the rise of audience studies, and fan studies in particular, presented something of a riposte (to greater or lesser degrees) to such textually deterministic readings in the study of film, television and literature, the paper acknowledges the strengths but also the drawbacks of audience studies and notes the relative lack of literature of this sort on comics fans with irony, given that, perhaps more than any medium, the relationship between comic books and fans can be seen as ‘symbiotic’ (Barker, 1989). It goes on to discuss the concept of the ‘rhizome’ finding it particularly useful in overcoming deterministic theories of ideology but also in providing a model for describing the interaction between text and reader. Furthermore, it provides a model for understanding the complexities of continuity, those growing and convoluted ‘fiction networks’ that many superhero comics take place in, making particular reference to the origin story of Captain America , DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths  and All Star Superman to illustrate these complexities.  The paper concludes by showing how these ideas have affected the author’s research thus far, what this can contribute to existing research, and what further questions this poses.

Rather than address the idea of continuity as rhizome (more on the complexities and metaphysics of continuity elsewhere on the blog if you want it though) this section focuses instead on the way that the rhizome of continuity includes readers within it. First of all we must establish what more arboreal understandings of continuity have concluded.

Perhaps the most famous analysis of this kind is Eco’s (1972) Myth of Superman, which argued that Superman’s failure to fight injustice on the macro level implies, “…an implicit acceptance and defence on the hero’s part of the tenets of capitalism and bureaucracy” (Peaslee, 2007:37).  Indeed, several such formalist critiques have centred on the serial nature of superhero narratives. Andrae elaborates upon Umberto Eco’s influential essay on the myth of Superman by claiming that the lack of continuity between issues, “…reveals a fixed core that is impervious to substantial change , thereby becoming a vehicle for the stable reproduction of social relations” (Andrae, 1980:136), and that furthermore, “…the disintegration of time in Superman stories has ominous psychosocial implications” (137). Both Eco and Andrae’s pieces fail to fully grasp the nature of comic book continuity, which was building as they were writing. Dittmer (2007) speaks of ‘the tyranny of the serial’, claiming that the serialized narrative and continuity of superhero comics enforces a ‘structural limitation’ on comic book discourse. Wolf-Meyer (2003) and Hughes (2006) make similar points to Dittmer, and all use Moore and Gibbon’s Watchmen to illustrate their arguments, comparing the  12 issue limited story with its conclusive ending to on-going superhero narratives, whose ending is always indefinitely delayed in a ‘continuous present’ as Eco called it (or ‘floating timeline’ as the comics community refers to it (Wolk, 2007)). Wolf-Meyer argues that:

Because superhero comics are predicated on preserving the status quo, they expect of their readership a conservative reading strategy that translates into desire for conservative narratives-utopia achieved would be a radical narrative, whereas utopia attempted and failed retains the conservative status quo while appeasing the conservative ideology of readers                                        (2007: 2003)

Dittmer, Eco, Andrae, Wolf-Meyer and Hughes all argue for the conservative ideological effects of continuity and serialisation, and charge it with conservative ideology, and it is possible to argue that such a theoretical position has something in common with the sort of structuralist/ideological analysis exemplified by the screen theorists of the 1970s, many of whom exhibited a ‘textual determinism’ (Moores, 1993: 6) in which the ‘spectator’ became a ‘function of the text’ (Barker, 2005:360), unknowingly fixed in a textually inscribed ‘subject position’. Returning from film to comics we might take, for example, Andrae’s claim that, “…one could argue that the destruction of time [in comic book continuity] undermines the individuals capacity to become a self-constituted subject” (177), as applying much the same logic to superhero comics and their readers.

By contrast, considering the reader-comic relationship as a rhizome, a singular multiplicity that contains readers and texts rather than a singular text and a multiplicity of readers, would abandon any such ontological hierarchy, instead considering readers AND texts AND creators AND publishers AND characters as existing on the same plane. At the very least it is obvious that there can be no comic book culture without comic book readers.

Comics’ fandom grew out of science fiction fandom. Indeed, the creators of Superman were highly active this already thriving subculture during the 1930s, as was Julius Schwartz, the highly respected DC comics’ editor who oversaw Superman’s comics adventures in the 1950s (Jones, 2004). During the Golden Age of comics publishers sponsored and controlled their own fan-groups. Hence, young readers during World War 2 were invited to join Captain America’s Sentinels of Liberty, for example. In 1947 the first issue of Comics Collectors News was published (Schlesinger, 2010). This fanzine addressed those nascent collectors and admirers of the form that cartoonist Jules Fieffer (2003) writes of in his memoir of that time.

EC Comics was the first comics company to seriously engage with their readers. Editor William Gaines encouraged his ‘EC addicts’ to write in letters that were published in the back pages of titles such as Tales from the Crypt and Weird Science. The letters were printed with names and addresses, encouraging postal correspondence between fans (a feature of early sci-fi fandom) and providing the building blocks for a growing fan community. EC Comics would feel he brunt of the comics controversy of the 1950s (Williams, 1994) but ironically the comics controversy and the advent of the Comics Code helped, in a sense, to foster a sense of community among comics fan still further by stigmatising them (Lopes, 2009) and thus making the need for legitimation, or conversely, pride in their outsider status, more pressing. But it was during the Silver Age of the 1960s and the second coming of superhero comics that comics fan culture really began to consolidate itself.

Marvel Comics picked up where EC had left off. Marvel’s editor-in chief and main writer Stan Lee cultivated a convivial mood of conspiratorial agreement with readers by using his editorials to flatter their intelligence for choosing Marvel, and encouraging readers to write in. Regular dialogues took place within the letters pages both between the Marvel group and other readers.  Readers were introduced to the “Marvel Bullpen” as Lee called it in his editorials, “Bullpen Bulletins”. Herein, Stan Lee would write about the small group of writers and artists that worked in the Marvel offices.  He introduced a policy of naming the artist, inker and letterer in each comic, more often than not with nicknames like “Jolly Jack Kirby” or “Swinging Steve Ditko”. The writer was usually Stan Lee himself.  The precedent for this was EC, who had always credited writers and artists. Marvel also introduced continuity to comic books. Not only did stories run over several issues but events that happened in one book could have repercussions in another. Characters from different tilte existed within a shared universe where they could meet each other, fight, marry, leave school or have children. Lee encouraged Marvel Maniacs to write in with suggestions for stories and team-ups. He also introduced the ‘No-Prize’, awarded to correspondents who highlighted continuity flaws in the then still young Marvel Universe and could come up with imaginative ways of accounting for them. Many of these practices were still being continued by Marvel into the late eighties and early nineties.

The Silver Age saw a growth in fanzines and the first comic book conventions where fans could gather with like-minded people to buy, sell and discuss comics. In a related development, this period also witnessed the birth of underground ‘comix’, independently published comics that dealt, often explicitly, with the concerns of the emerging countercultures without having to obey the censorious strictures of the Comic Book Code. Underground, or alternative comix, “… were interested in self-expression above all” (Wolk, 2007:39). Influenced as much by EC’s Mad Magazine and the funny animal books of the Golden Age as by LSD and rock and roll, the comics of the underground displayed a level of sex, violence and drug use unimaginable within the pages of a Comics Code approved mainstream comic. Although some have argued that comix represented an oppositional culture to the mainstream publishers (Williams, 1994, Wolk, 2007) it was the underground comix that helped pave the way for the consolidation of mainstream comic culture. The fact that many independent publishers that sprang up to take advantage of the, “… Informal network of head shops and record stores that were prime outlets for selling underground “comix”” (Wolk, 2007:39) also led to the system that would replace the traditional outlets.

This alternative system led to the opening of outlets, “… devoted primarily or exclusively to the sale of comic books and commonly operated by proprietors who were also comic book fans” (Wright, 2003:260). Soon publishers began to distribute comics directly to these stores. This had several advantages as Wolk illustrate, “…since the direct market meant that publishers got orders before they had to print their comics, they could print exactly as many copies of each issue as the market demanded…without having to worry about paying for copies they would never sell or losing their shirt on returns. That meant that stranger, artier projects that wouldn’t have stood a chance on the newsstands could at least break even” (ibid: 41). Wright elaborates further… “the specialty retailer placed unsold comic books in plastic bags, boxed them, and retailed them-often with higher price tag-as collectible items” (Ibid:261). Pustz (1999) highlights how this an interest in comic book continuity to develop still further as older comics became more readily available.

The annual Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide debuted around the beginning of this stage in 1970 and, “… fan culture became a cottage industry in and of itself” (ibid: 253). At the same time fans were taking control within the industry. Coogan writes, “… adult fans began moving into the industry as professionals…fans offered the comics companies a chance to fill the [creative] vacuum with employees who specifically wanted to write comics and were young enough not to worry about benefits” (Coogan, 2006: 218). Moreover, it has always been true that any given comic book lives or dies by fan interest in it. This is purely economic in most instances, but a notable crystallization of this effect occurred in 1988 when DC invited readers themselves to vote on whether Tim Drake-recently appointed as Batman’s newest Robin, but increasingly unpopular with fans- should be killed by the Joker or not. Over 10, 000 phone votes were cast and Robin’s death was decreed by a narrow margin. The direct market had proved profitable for the comic book industry, but it also had a side effect on the content of comic books, in that the continuities of the Marvel and DC Universes became increasingly complex.  This has led to what Wolk calls “superhero metacomics” aimed at, “… ‘super readers’: readers familiar enough with enormous numbers of old comics that they’ll

Craft reminds us that although comics universes are produced by corporate interests it is never the less, “…overly reductive to think of the corporation as a unitary agent, or to think that its power is absolute” (Craft, 2004:138). In fact, they must respond to, “…coherent and vehement reader communities, which can coalesce around Internet communications and publishing technologies to organize those desires and to make them known” (ibid).  Moreover, the lines between producer and consumer in comic book culture have always been permeable. Comic book fans moved quickly into the comic book industry towards the end of the Silver Age.

Nor is this just one continuity. As seen above comic book universes are in fact a series of connected multiverses and readers have become accustomed to holding these multiple timelines in their head (Jenkins, 2009:20). Collins (1991) calls this a kind of hyper-consciousness’ As Wolk points out, the Marvel and DC Universes have grown so complex that they have led to what he calls “superhero meta-comics” aimed at, “…‘super readers’: readers familiar enough with enormous numbers of old comics that they’ll understand what’s really being discussed in the story” (2007, 105). Kaveney suggests that these two seventy year old continuities (the Marvel and DC ‘Universes’) are, “the largest narrative constructions in human culture…and that learning to navigate them was a skill-set all of its own” (2008:25).  Putsz, too, describes the importance of continuity to long term readers, noting that for some fans there is even pleasure in the difficulty non-fans have in comprehending continuity (1999:130). As such, any study of committed comic book readers has of necessity to take their unique fiction-network into account if a fuller understanding of the pleasures of reading superhero comics is to be achieved.

As Ndalianis observes, reader’s memories serve, “…as a databank of complex, interconnected, and retrievable chunks of information” (2009: 282), arguing that committed consumers of superhero narratives,

Become engrossed in a more conventional sense, with the story and themes unravelling along syntagmatic lines; but they’re also encouraged to participate with the work on the paradigmatic level through the multi-layered, intertextul references…the reader is an intergral part of the superhero genre. Through their immediate experience and, later, their memory of the experience of reading a comic book, the reader becomes as embedded in the hyper-timelines of a superhero story…[superhero comic book readers] actively participate in a game-like convention that’s about the construction of the rules of the superhero genre across media: its various points of origin, its points of divergence, and its radical transformations (Ndalianis, 2009: 285-285)

Without going into more detail here it can at least be suggested that in this model of the text-reader relationship readers, texts and producers atre not in opposition with one another but part of a singular process. In short, readers of superhero comics are part of the rhizome of comic book continuity. This notion leads us a little closer to overcoming the dualities that have previously characterised audience studies.


As we have seen investigations into supposed ‘media effects’ have resulted in the development of a number of competing paradigms but has generally been marked by what Brown succinctly describes as an opposition, “…between theories of the producers hegemonic power and the audience’s ability to construct active, critical and oppositional interpretations” (Brown, 1997:20). While theorists in the Screen mould might be accused of seeing ideological, “…conspiracy at every turn, Fiske [and others] seems to find cause for celebration on behalf of the subaltern in their every meeting with mass culture” (Brown, 1997:45). As Moores notes, studies of audiences since the 1970s articulate

A productive tension between those cultural analysts who are primarily concerned with the structural patterns of distinction, segmentation and social reproduction-and those preferring to acknowledge the creative practices of ‘poaching’, bricolage and social resistance (Moores, 1993:138)

A theoretical tension, in other words, between constraint and creativity, or pessimism and optimism as regard text-reader relations (ibid). Never the less, active audience theory has not quite exorcised the spectre of ideology and the question of power. Barker and Brooks note that in making room for concepts of agency and opposition such theories still leave notions of

‘Ideology’ exactly as they were. They still involve a notion of ‘positioning’, that is, that if there isn’t ‘critique’ or ‘opposition’, then ‘discourses’ and ‘ideologies’ are like viruses which invade the brain. But for resistance, texts get you. (1999:124)

Implicit within fan studies insistence on activity, productivity and poaching of mass produced texts is the suggestion that, “but for audiences’ ‘activity’ or ‘resistance’ an unsullied text might influence them” (Barker, 2010: 6). These dichotomies-between text/reader, reader/producer, activity/passivity, ideology/resistance-r and the question of how they might be overcome, return us to Post/Humanism.


A posthuman perspective on text-audience relations suggests itself. Theories of audience-text relations frequently hinge on a binary opposition between audience and text. Other authors argue that this dichotomy was simplistic and that the comics industry, for example, should instead be seen as engaging in a dialogic encounter with readers. Brown suggests that this a sympathetic rather than “a struggle for power and meaning” (1997:21). For Barker there is a ‘symbiotic relationship’ between producers of formulaic narratives (such as superhero comics) and their consumers:

A symbiote is an organism which lives in a relationship of mutual dependence with another. Although it is possible to study it separately, any full account of its structure and its behaviour depends upon studying it as an organism-in-relation. (1989:129)

Barker’s organic metaphor of the symbiote could be reframed in Deleuze and Guattari’s terms as an assemblage (see Part One for more detail).  An assemblage is any amount ‘things’ or bits of ‘things’ gathered into a single context. A comic book is an assemblage, as is the superhero.  While the metaphor of the symbiote presents producer and consumer as a mostly harmonious whole when considered as assemblage the relationship between these two parts is itself constantly forming new assemblages: reader AND text AND creator AND history AND science AND so on.

Film theorist Patricia MacCormack has elaborated upon this idea, writing that it is a fiction to think that “cinema is a version of actual sexuality simply repeated on screen…What happens when there is sexuality without the possibility of heterosexual or homosexual union? What happens to gender if sexuality is not based on oppositional terms?” The viewing-assemblage formed between certain horror films and viewer then is capable of opening new pathways of desire. MacCormack writes that watching such images, submitting to ‘cinemasochism’ can be a catalyst towards new forms of becoming.  MacCormack writes that:

Spectator and screen form a machinic assemblage. Machinic should not be confused with mechanical. ‘Machinic configurations do not recognise distinctions between persons, organs, material flows, and semiotic flows.’ (1996:46) The spectator and screen machine is a ‘composition of deterritorialising intensities’ (1992: 38). It is an arrangement of a body and a surface, but the machine is independent of the materiality of its parts according to Guattari. It describes the system of connection by which the components perturb and affect each other as they are perturbed and affected. Each perturbation shifts points of intensification and changes the direction of flows, making some areas dense and others dissipate. The territory is remapped, deteritorialisation leading to a re-composition. But the machine structure itself, the act of watching, remains the same (MacCormack, 2005: 7).

A reader’s body is an assemblage which, “…retains its own impetus…for forming assemblages which allow desire to flow in different directions, producing new possibilities and potentials… towards a disarticulated body whose organs (and their movements and potentials) are no longer structured in the same way, or structured at all (Maslin, 2004:88). Even so, a body’s becoming remains always transitional: “A body-in becoming soon re-stratifies: either captured by or lured by the socius… and these territorialisations are also never fully complete: a living desiring body will always form new assemblages that have the potential to transform it and its territories” (ibid). Maslin argues that these ideas allows us, in his example, to conceptualise drug addiction as a process: “…as a verb: a doing word, not a descriptive noun…not reduced a priori to a single process” (Maslin, 2004: 89), thus moving drug discourse away from pejorative moral judgements about right and wrong to an ethico-aesthetic approach that takes, “…thought (and ethics) away from internal meanings, causes and essences, and toward surface effects, intensities and flows” (ibid:85). I want to apply these same ideas to comics and their readers.

As assemblages the “…function or potential or ‘meaning’” of a comic book or a reader, “becomes entirely dependent on which other bodies or machines it forms an assemblage with” (Malins, 2004; 85). So we are moved away from “internal meanings, causes and essences”. If ideology is found in a comic book it is only because an ideology-assemblage connected up with the comic book assemblage, each altering the function of the other in the process. A different theoretical assemblage would produce a different ‘meaning’, uncover a different ‘essence’. At the level of textual analysis then the concept of assemblages moves analysis away from what the superhero ‘IS’ to what the superhero can do.

As already discussed, ideological readings imply an audience at the mercy of ideology or, at best, engaged in a battle for meaning with creators and producers. Reconfigured as a reading-assemblages instead the focus shifts to how reader’s bodies connect up with the machinic assemblage of the book, forming a new assemblage which in turn connects up with other bodies and machines, “…people, substances, knowledge, institutions-any of which may redirect or block its flows of desire” (ibid). Being a fan becomes a process: a verb and not a noun. Comics and readers form a rhizome with one another, an assemblage of an assemblage. Assemblages allows desire to flow in different directions it produces, “…new possibilities and potentials…brief lines of movement away from organization and stratification” (Malins, 2004:88). While the concept of active audiences often places the practices of textual poaching and productivity as ways of resisting cultural hegemony the concept of reader-text assemblages instead views such activity as forms of becoming, born of desire rather than resistance.

Assemblages are capable of bringing about any number of effects, and of containing assemblages within itself and forming new assemblages with readers, libraries, church hall jumble sales, bonfires and so on. Section Two demonstrated how the superhuman bodies of the Golden, Silver and Modern age were assemblages. The Perfect Body of the Golden Age comprised bodybuilding AND eugenics AND Nietzsche AND Darwin AND new printing technologies AND Fascism AND readers AND so on. The reading assemblages formed with the Perfect Body allowed desire to flow in particular directions. Consider the hundreds of thousands of copies of Captain America shipped to US troops each month to boost patriotic morale, or the thousands of readers who sent off for Charles Atlas’s bodybuilding program.

In Part Two I wrote that the posthuman Military-Industrial body deterritorialised the Perfect Body. This act of detrritorialisation extends to the assemblage formed by reader and Military-Industrial body. Between 1969 and 1971 the letters pages of Captain America featured

Extended debates occurred between readers discussing the meaning of patriotism and antiwar protests, the morality of political apathy, the role of violence in conflict resolution, nationalism versus global community, and the Vietnam War…several argues that he needed to be fighting in Vietnam. Others argued that he was an agent of the establishment and needed to be shown rethinking his position (Costello)

While in the letters pages of Iron Man one reader

Warned that as a munitions manufacturer, Iron Man was “going to have to do some pretty big restructuring of his life to avoid being classified as an enemy of the people. One reader simply condemned the superhero as a “profiteering, capitalist, war-mongering pig”…published letters from liberals far outnumbered those from conservatives, who complained that the series had already moved too far to the left (Wright, 2001:241)

In a different register Maigret describes how some stories allowed readers to analyse their own experiences and memories, citing a reader who was prompted by an issue of Daredevil dealing with drugs to, “…express his emotions after his cousin had died of an overdoes” (Maigret, 1999:14). Such examples demonstrate how the comics-assemblage which has frequently opened up “new possibilities and potentials” by way of political debate for instance or motional release.

The reading-assemblage formed with the Silver Age Cosmic Body was known to form further assemblages, as in this unpublished letter to Marvel Comics describing a reader+marijuana+music+comic book assemblage:

I like to smoke a bowl, put on ELO or Pink Floyd and read the latest issue of Doctor Strange                                                                                (quoted in Howe, 2012)

We can only imagine what interesting becomings this particular assemblage engendered (for a great deal more on the Cosmic Body-assemblage see my essay The Silver Age Superhero as psychedelic Shaman).


Understandings of audience-text relations have too often rested on a binary understanding of reader and text, text and creator, and creator and reader as separate. I argue for understanding reader-text relations in machinic terms as assemblages or rhizomes. This moves analysis of the superhero’s posthuman body away from theories of ideology (and inherent assumptions about implied readers) towards an ethico-aesthtetics of the superhuman posthuman body, asking not what it is, or what it ‘means’ but what it can do, what new becomings does it allow?

In the conclusion of this thesis review I want to pull all of these strands from Parts One, Two and Three together and answer the most pressing question that can be asked of any thesis: why should anyone give a shit? Or, to put it in less colourful terms, what is to be gained from understanding the posthuman body as rhizome? What are the advantages of considering readers and superhero comics as an assemblage, theoretically and philosophically? I hope to show that these are not simply abstract concerns, theoretical masturbation or a waste of taxpayer’s money. I hope instead to demonstrate that any consideration of the posthuman is always a corporeal concern. As such it is also a subject of political concern and a question of social policy-what kind of bodies do we want to create, and who gets to do the creating? What new assemblages does it form?


Andrae, T. (1980) “From Menace to Messiah: The History and Historicity of Superman,” in Donald Lazere (Ed.) (1987) American Media and Mass Culture Berkeley: University of California Press pp. 124-138

Barker, M. (1984) A Haunt of Fears: The Strange History of the British Horror Comics Campaign USA:  University Press of Mississippi

Barker, M. (1989) Comics: Ideology, Power and the Critics Manchester University   Press

Barker, M. (1993) “Seeing how far you can see: On being a fan of 2000AD” in David Buckingham (ed.) Reading Audiences: Young People and the Media Manchester University Press ND pp. 159-183

Barker, M. (2005) “The Lord of the Rings and ‘Identification’: A critical encounter” European Journal of Communication 20:3 pp. 353-378

Barker, M. and Kate Brooks (1999) Knowing Audiences: Judge Dredd, its Friends, Fans and Foes Luton: University of Luton Press

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Brown, J. A. (2001) Black Superheroes: Milestone Comics and Their Fans USA: University of Misssippi Press

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Ndalianis, A. The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero Oxon: Routledge pp.270-29

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faculty of Wesleyan University’s%20Thesis.pdf

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About Scott Jeffery

Hello humans. I am Dr. Scott Jeffery. I do the following things (in no particular order): Research into Post/Humanism and Transhumanism and superheroes (seriously, I’ve got a PhD and everything) Stand-up comedy Compulsive rumination I blog about these things (plus occultism and all kinds of other lovely, strange topics) at NthMind. I also write regular short film reviews at Filmdribble. I can be contacted via twitter (@sjzenarchy) or at View all posts by Scott Jeffery

5 responses to “Thesis Review Part Three: Reader-text assemblages

  • victoriagrimalkin

    Just what is a “posthuman” perspective?

    • Scott Jeffery

      Good question! I think maybe I didn’t clarify that in these thesis reviews. I will add that to part four! The short version for now, as it relates to readers and texts is that just as humanism posits the self as a unified, rational subject possessed of an innate human ‘essence’, books, films and comics have been analysed as possessing the same qualities, as unified object possessed an innate ‘meaning’.

      Posthumanism, at least the philosophical school I term Post/Humanism, seeks to dislodge the human as the center of thought and trouble the assumption that human subjects are unified, rational beings. In short, that there is a human ‘essence’. So for me at least a posthuman perspective on readers and texts would assume a) that a text does not possess a single ‘meaning’ but many possible meanings depending on the reader, and that b) the reader themselves is not a singular being, and finally c) if neither the reader nor the text are singular, unified entities then we can conceptualise the two of them as forming a third entity-a reading assemblage.

      Does that answer the question? Hopefully part four will clarify everything. To quote P. T. Anderson’s Magnolia, “in the end, this will all make sense”!

      • victoriagrimalkin

        Well, it’s not exactly clear, but I get your concept. By reading your blog, I am participating in a reading assemblage. Perhaps a better term would be “suprahuman” rather than “post”, which summons thoughts of after, as in no humans at all.

      • Scott Jeffery

        I see what you mean. So I agree basically that the ‘post’ in posthuman can be confusing.

        In the thesis I suggest that it’s best to consider the posthuman as made up of several overlapping but distinct realms. One of these is science-fiction, which I refer to as Superhumanism. Another is Transhumanism, which is specifically concerned with technologically augmenting human bodies and leading to a posthuman future in the sense you mean in your comment, that is, a world of beings that are no recognisably human. The third realm is what I call Post/Humanism, which encompasses all those critical/theoretical/philosophical schools which critique humanism and its assumptions (Nietzsche, Foucault, Deleuze, Haraway and so on).

        Here’s what I say in the thesis about that:

        But critical Post/Humanism itself has been criticised by Habermas (2003) particularly Derrida and Foucault, and he is skeptical of philosophies that present the Enlightenment ideal of reason and Modernism generally as inherently authoritarian (1981). Habermas also takes issue with Transhumanism, fearing that biotechnologies will have adverse affects on equality and freedom: “We cannot rule out that knowledge of one’s own hereditary features as programmed may prove to restrict the choice of an individual’s life, and to undermine the essentially symmetrical relations between free and equal human beings (2003:23). Habermas, like Fukuyama, sees a worth in the notion of the rational, liberal humanist subject but sees it as a process that requires working through rather than abandoning. For Habermas the Enlightenment is an ‘unfinished project’ (1995). Badmington finds Derrida most useful in this regard, observing that:

        Precisely because Western philosophy is steeped in humanist assumptions, he [Derrida] observed, the end of Man is bound to be written in the language of Man. Each ‘transgressive gesture re-encloses us’ because very such gesture will have been unconsciously choreographed by humanism…Derrida’s work permits a rethinking of the anti-humanist position…[that] testifies to an endless opposition from within the traditional account of what it means to be human. Humanism never manages to constitute itself; it forever rewrites itself as posthumanism. This movement is always happening: humanism cannot escape it’s ‘post-‘.
        (Badmington, 2000:9)

        For this reason this paper refers to critical-philosophical posthumanism as Post/Humanism. This conception of the ‘Post/Human’ is indebted to Graham (2002) who uses this term rather than the more common ‘posthuman’ (or even ‘post-human’) because it suggests, “…a questioning of both the inevitability of a successor species and of there being a consensus surrounding the effects of technologies on the future of humanity” and that the Post/Human is, “…that which both confounds but also holds up to scrutiny the terms on which the quintessentially human will be conceived” (2002:11).

        (I should point out that these terms are my own and somewhat arbitrary. but hopefully useful for considering the various strands that weave together in the concept of the posthuman.)

  • victoriagrimalkin

    Just read this short story by Nick Mamatas, which uses the term “post-human” and seems an apt assemblage. I immediately thought of you.

    (Looks like the link won’t work unless you cut and paste, also quite apropos.)

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