The Image-World: A Found Comic Poem

Franny Howes

This comic is a piece of feminist visual rhetoric praxis. It draws from my experiences as a queer female comics creator, and addresses issues of sexism in the medium and the industry.

The text of this piece is drawn from Susan Sontag's essay, "The Image World". I constructed a found poem from phrases I found in the piece, which I hope both reflects her argument and forwards her words into a new context. The comic pages I created, using an ink wash painted over the top of the words, show women rising up off the page, dismantling panels themselves, and gazing at the reader directly, showing themselves to be "more real than anyone could have supposed."

See a larger version by clicking on the pictures.

The Image-World: Creator's Notes

Part 1: Sexism, comic books, and other topics that make you fun at parties

"Don't look over it: don't get over it." (Sarah Ahmed, "Feminist Killjoys")

I am writing to you as a queer female comics creator, as well as a rhetorician, and this is not a confession but an important location of my work. My research involves decolonial feminist theory, feminist rhetorical research methodology, and a lot of yelling at my laptop.

Explaining the problem of sexism in comics involves some raw feelings. Usually I vent them on Tumblr:

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The problem encompasses women's exclusion from the emerging canon, disparities in publishing, violent and sexist portrayals in comics, and harassment in fan spaces, not to mention compounding issues of race, sexual orientation, and gender identity.

For instance, when Janelle Asselin anonymously surveyed female creators and fans, they shared stories like this one:

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I illustrated this quote with a takeoff on female superhero bust statues, a kind of comic book merchandise that I've always found problematic.

Here's another story: in 2005, an exhibition called "Masters of American Comics" was held in Los Angeles. It featured fifteen male comics creators including Chris Ware, Art Spiegelman, Milton Caniff, and the guy who created Dick Tracy. No women were included.

And another more recent one: in 2011, DC comics rebooted their entire superhero line of comics, branding their launch "The New 52." In their study of the books released as part of this launch, the Ladydrawers collective located 223 instances where gender played a key role in plot development. Only 11% of those were positive, the other 89% (including things like rape, fridging, objectification, etc.) were negative.

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People frequently assume that the problem is confined to mainstream or superhero comics, and that "indie" comics are less sexist. Ladydrawers research again suggests that the problem is systemic: in a direct comparison done in 2011, the alternative publisher Fantagraphics was employing a smaller percentage of women than Marvel Comics.

I could give you the numbers, or I could give you my life. Being a queer femme comic book girl is being surrounded by male disappointment, and being interpreted as the cause of the disappointment. I'm a feminist killjoy just by showing up.

I am interpreted as impossibly under-read. Gee, it must be my youth. All of my claims are countered by a suggestion that I read more books by men. At the Conference on College Composition and Communication in Atlanta in 2011 (the large annual academic conference for scholars in Rhetoric and Composition, which is what I study) I mentioned the topic of my talk (women's underground comics) and got told I was citing all the wrong people, and that I really needed to make sure I thought about Scott McCloud.

Theory bros taking the time to make sure a short femme woman has read the very basic works in her research area is a fucked up sexist thing that happens to me all the time, and to women all the time. It's acquired a name, in general: academic mansplaining.

I am involved in efforts to confront these problems. The comic I have drawn here is one small piece of a larger effort by women and non-binary-gender comics creators and their allies to work for media justice.

Part 2: Who stencils the stencillers?

The text of my comic is excerpted entirely from Susan Sontag's essay, "The Image World," from her 1977 book On Photography. I was assigned to read and respond to this piece in the form of a comic when I attended the Adventure School for Ladies Comics Intensive, an alternative graduate program focused on gender, labor, and the comics industry. (The previous two cartoons were also created for this workshop.) This two-week course was organized by the Ladydrawers. This makes me a Ladydrawer now.

According to our bio, "The Ladydrawers Comics Collective (AKA "The Ladydrawers") is an unofficially affiliated group of women, men, trans*, and non-binary gender folk who research, perform, and publish comics and texts about how economics, race, sexuality, and gender impact the comics industry, other media, and our culture at large."

I constructed a found poem from phrases I found in Sontag's piece, which I hope both reflects her argument and forwards her words into a new context. The illustrations I created with an ink wash over the top of the words show women rising up off the page, dismantling panels themselves, and gazing at the reader directly, showing themselves to be "more real than anyone could have supposed."

But, as the Ladydrawers have argued, the problem of sexist representation of women in comics is directly related to the exclusion of women from comics publishing. This comic is not just about women characters rising up, but about me as a creator, as a "stenciller" from the real.

Sontag's basic question is, why do we need to photograph everything? What is ubiquitous photography doing to our very notion of reality? If images make the world, then her critique of this phenomenon is also applicable to comics. With all the power images have to wound, I wanted to take Sontag's words and sharpen them through my comic.

See a larger version by clicking on the picture.

Sontag's essay critiques the way contemporary western culture uses photography for "imprisoning reality" and "depersonalizing our relation to the world." Photography creates another reality by the physical impression of light on film: what she calls the "image world." The comics creator Lynda Barry also uses the phrase "image world," but to name the world created by drawing, imaginative play, and storytelling. The idea of a separate and additive reality created through rhetorical action (visual, in this case) made me think of the reality of women comic book characters, born into a world where they are very likely to be naked, silent, and/or without agency (see research by the Ladydrawers collective here and here The image world is a topos. It is the spectopia: the looking-place. You can move around but you also have to look.

Sontag describes photography as a process of stenciling off the real. And while she says that photographs are uniquely situated, artists have been using techniques like the camera obscura to trace what they see for hundreds of years. There's a lot of stenciling going on in comics—we somehow balance fucked up portrayals of women with comics artists taking photos and having their friends or employees act out scripts.

Juxtaposing the idea of stencilling off reality with comics is purposeful: what relationships do comics images have to reality? They can be traced and be traces in the Derridean sense. Reality and the "image-world" mirror each other. This doesn't have to be a mini-lesson on deconstruction: I am just haunted by the present absence of women in comics about women.

Comics consumers are both readers and spectators. We uniquely combine alphabetic reading (following the top to bottom, left to right patterns used by Western comics; or, the right to left organization of manga) with the voyeurism film has long been accused of. The panel has the potential to be a window into space as much as the film screen does. And thus we are gazing as much as we are reading.

Gaze can perpetuate sexism in media: as Laura Mulvey wrote in her classic article "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," in film, men look and women get looked at. Men who control the camera control whose body is stared at with the lens's unblinking eye. But directing the comics consumer's gaze as well as depicting it can be a feminist tactic.

I originally drew the feminist satirist Alice Duer Miller without her eyes visible for a comic published in Hand Job: A Labor of Love. Our editor/fearless leader Anne Elizabeth Moore pressed me on why none of the women in my comic had eyes. Everyone's gaze was averted or hidden under a turn-of-the-century fancy hat. I revised the comic to show her meeting the reader's gaze, and I was struck by how much two lines and two dots changed the affective quality of the page.

Gaze functions very deliberately in the conclusion of the comic "The Image-World." After three pages of averted glances, it is full of eyes that regard the reader. It is a gleeful, knife-sharpening staredown. It's partially inspired by "eye practice," a beginner art phenomenon where you basically just draw a bunch of eyes. I've had pages where I ended up with fifty pairs of eyes looking in different places.

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Sontag concludes her essay by saying the real world must also account for the world of images: images are not copies of the world but are things that are part of the world. Images can challenge reality--they are "richly informative deposits." And so sexism in comics isn't just a trace of sexism in the material world; it is an additive part of the material world. But images can challenge reality, and so anti-sexist images can challenge both misogynist representations in comics and stare back at sexists in the material real. I wouldn't have made this connection if I wasn't challenged to by the innovative pedagogy of Adventure School.

Part 3: Found poetry and the art of shopping for words

The method I used to create the text is called a "found poem." This kind of poem is constructed out of quotes from some kind of pre-existing text, re-arranged into lines and stanzas to take the form of a free-verse poem. It's similar to "found object" art, where a pre-existing object is recontextualized as a piece of visual art. Found poetry can either pick, choose, and re-arrange pieces from a corpus, or take an intact chunk and present it as a poem. My piece takes the first approach.

Creating a found poem can be a way of doing textual research: I have learned from the ways my colleagues and mentors Qwo-Li Driskill and Malea Powell have used this technique to represent archival research on American Indian history and genocide.

Driskill's poem "Dawes Commission: Found Poem" is constructed from quotes from a citizenship trial of their ancestor in 1877, where they were accused of not being Indian because they were also "nappy headed."

Powell's poem "Listing" appears inside a larger essay about the lived experience of archival research, "Dreaming Charles Eastman." She wrote a poem to represent and interpret the material she found while researching in the St. Louis University Law Library's Native American Reference Collection. In this poem, she joins excerpts from 19th century Bureau of Indian Affairs reports to pieces of Miami language education material with an original bridge. Fittingly, she also says the poem is a bridge.

"The Image-World" is not the first found poem or found poem comic I've made: as part of a presentation at the Feminisms and Rhetorics conference in 2009, I put together panels quoted from several different comics by Lee Marrs to make a statement about women's underground comics in general. These panels I found through archival research (and photocopied so I could collage them). The following page from my zine quotes from her comics "Cyberfenetics," The Further Fattening Adventures of Pudge, Girl Blimp, and the introduction to the zine Spit in the Ocean #4.

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I suppose I'm cheating in the case of "The Image-World" by making a poem out of a piece of criticism that is already extremely lyrical. Sometimes the challenge is to find the poetry in something unpoetic. But my method here is also a way of remixing Sontag's argument. It's a form of creative digestion. When I was writing it I felt like Ghostwriter, the ghost who writes to us, the character from the 1990's children's show on PBS who spoke by rearranging letters and words, lighting them up and making them float in the air.

It's also an invention constraint. You are shopping for words.


Sontag suggests photos are a "transfusion of reality"—but can you get such a transfusion by travelling somewhere else and drawing what you see? Adventure School really was a transfusion. More like, we all poured out our blood into a kiddie pool, stirred in super-black ink, and replaced it. I became transfused with my panel-mates.

And representing myself in a comic makes me a comic book character too, right? Cartoon Franny has never left my hands, but I drew myself sitting in an empty fridge for a reason. I identify with the women in comics, even the "bad" ones. I feel my spine twist beyond the bounds of material logic. I don't want to be murdered and shoved into a fridge.

In another portion of "Dreaming Charles Eastman," Malea Powell writes, "If you feel written on, write back." I say, if you are gazed at, gaze back. Stare 'em down. A comic book character will win any staring contest, as long as she is allowed to meet the reader's gaze. I dare you to look away.

Franny Howes is a PhD student in Rhetoric and Writing at Virginia Tech, a graduate of the Adventure School for Ladies, and the creator of Oh Shit, I'm in Grad School! You can see her comics and visual rhetoric on the web at

This piece is protected under a traditional copyright license; therefore, the replication, redistribution, or deviation of the material is strictly prohibited.

Works Cited:

Ahmed, Sara. "Feminist Killjoys (And Other Willful Subjects)." Scholar and Feminist Online 8.3 (Summer 2010). Barnard University. Web. <>. 13 September 2013.

Asselin, Janelle. "What It Feels Like For A Girl (In Comics) Part 2." 22 February 2012. Web. 2 December 2012.

Driskill, Qwo-Li. "Dawes Commission: Found Poem." Rabbit and Rose. No date. Web. <>. 13 September 2013.

Howes, Franny. "Wimmen's Rhetorix: Memory and Materiality in Feminist Underground and Alternative Comix." Feminisms and Rhetorics Conference. East Lansing, Michigan, October 2009. Unpublished conference paper.

MariNaomi and Anne Elizabeth Moore. "Graphic Evidence of Inequality." 13 September 2011. Web. <>. 13 September 2013.

Moore, Anne Elizabeth, and Mardou. "How to Draw Comics the New 52 Way: Women Get "Fridged" Again." 6 December 2011. Web. <>. 13 September 2013.

Moore, Anne Elizabeth, and Sarah Drake. "In Comics World, Women Are Invisible - Except When They're Naked." 5 July 2011. Web. <>. 13 September 2013.

Mulvey, Laura. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. 833-44. Print.

Powell, Malea. "Dreaming Charles Eastman: Cultural Memory, Autobiography, and Geography in Indigenous Rhetorical Histories." Beyond the Archives: Research as a Lived Process. Eds. Gesa Kirsch and Liz Rohan. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2008. 116-27. Print.

Sontag, Susan. "The Image-World." On Photography. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1977. 153-180. Print.

Fair Use Statement

1. The purpose of this work is transformative: I have taken an essay and transformed it into a poem-comic, and also transformed the meaning from a meditation on photography into a story about gender and comics. I have also taken an alphabetic text and transformed it into a visual medium.

2. The nature of "The Image World" is a published, non-fiction work of criticism.

3. I have quoted 175 words of a 27-page essay, which is an extremely brief fragment.

4. My work does not deprive the copyright holders of income: it is not a literal illustration of the work, and so, even if the copyright holders wished to produce a graphic version of "The Image World," it would be completely different from what I have created in this essay.