Monday, March 30, 2009

Cite This! New MLA Rules for Citing Graphic Narratives

The Modern Language Association recently came out with a new MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers (7th ed.), and at long last, there are rules for citing comics, or "graphic narratives" as they are referred to in the handbook, and as they are increasingly referred to in academic circles, foregoing the awkward, often inaccurate, but entrenched term, "graphic novels."

In grad school, I worked as an editorial assistant at a scholarly journal, where my job required knowing the ins and outs of MLA citation format. Ever since, whenever a new edition of the MLA Handbook comes out, I'm anxious to see what changes have been made. And lots of stuff has changed this time around, including an addition that requires the medium (such as Print or Web) to be included in a works cited entry.

It has irked me that MLA has never had specific rules for citing graphic novels or comics, and this is reflected in a lot of the scholarship on graphic narratives, where it often seems like each essay or book has come up with idiosyncratic rules without any standards or collective agreement. Most of these rules are drawn from a variety of other types of sources, like periodicals, film, cartoons, and illustrated books, while some rules seem to be made up from whole cloth. Now, I'm glad to see that at least some rules are codified.

Here are some examples of graphic narratives given in the MLA Handbook (Note that the indentations are not correct):

Spiegelman, Art. Maus: A Survivor's Tale. 2 vols. New York: Pantheon-Random, 1986-91. Print.

Pekar, Harvey, writer. The Quitter. Art by Dean Haspiel. Gray tones by Lee Loughridge. Letters by Pat Brosseau. New York: Vertigo-DC Comics, 2005. Print.

Yabuki, Kentaro, writer and artist. Showdown at the Old Castle. Eng. adapt. by Kelly Sue DeConnick. Trans. JN Productions. Touch-up art and lettering by Gia Cam Luc. San Francisco: Viz, 2007. Print. Vol. 9 of Black Cat.

The first one is pretty straightforward: if you have a graphic narrative created by a single cartoonist, then that gets cited like a regular book with a single author. For more collaborative graphic narratives, the rules here are pretty similar to citing films: cite by the collaborator(s) who is the most relevant to your research, then include other collaborators after the title.

Unfortunately, a some types of comics publications are still not addressed in the MLA rules. For example, periodical comics still don't have special rules, which they need, as they don't fall easily into the normal rules for periodicals, and nothing really compares very easily to this type of publication. Based on the rules that do exist, here's how I would guess one would cite an individual issue of a comic:

Hickman, Jonathan, writer. "The Bridge: Chapter One." Pencils by Sean Chen. Inks by Lorenzo Ruggiero. Colors by John Rauch. Letters by VC's Rus Wooten. Dark Reign: Fantastic Four 1 (May 2009). Print.

For the issue number and date of publication, I used the format for a scholarly periodical, but that may not be correct. One could leave the issue number out entirely and just reference the issue by date. But because this is a miniseries, would I need to indicate that this is part one of five? Also, I would want to include the name of the publisher in this citation, but that isn't standard for periodicals. Perhaps the line "Published by Marvel Comics." could go in after the lettering credit. And what if the issue contained an individually titled part of a larger story? I would guess that information could go after the individual issue's title.

MLA also doesn't offer guidance on how to cite a collected edition of previously published comics, which is, after all, one of the more popular ways in which comics are published. MLA does have rules for citing reprinted works; however, Maus would be considered at least a partially reprinted work, having been originally published in RAW, yet the example above does not indicate that. So, I'm not sure if one would need to include that original publication information or not. Here, then, is how I would cite a trade paperback collection:

Abnett, Dan, and Andy Lanning, writers. Guardians of the Galaxy: Legacy. Pencils by Paul Pelletier. Inks by Rick Magyar. Colors by Nathan Fairbairn and Guru eFX. Letters by Virtual Calligraphy's Joe Caramagna. New York: Marvel Comics, 2009. Print. Vol. 1 of Guardians of the Galaxy.

That last item might seem redundant, but I think it's necessary. At the very least, it would help to clarify confusing collections like the recent New Avengers and Mighty Avengers hardcovers, which are listed as both volumes of the Secret Invasion storyline in each series and volumes of each title. And if one wanted to include original publication information, I guess that it would now go at the very end of the entry, based on the new MLA rules.

In trying to think through these rules, I find myself sympathizing with my students, who see MLA citation format as frustratingly nebulous and impenetrable. While it may not be as bad as all that, as the scholarly study of graphic narratives continues to grow, these rules will have to be worked out in greater detail and consistency.


billjac said...

Thanks for posting this. I've just set up the graphic novels collection at my library so we'll likely be getting questions on citing them at the ref desk.

Greg! said...

Hey, Dr. K!

My friend Rob linked to your post on his blog (, and I thought I'd let you know I enjoyed it.

It's been over a dozen years since I last wrestled with MLA rules in graduate school, but I remember quite well the challenge of explaining citation standards to undergrads in the tutoring center and in my composition and rhetoric classes. As often as not, explanations ended up becoming justifications. At the same time, I myself was frustrated in figuring out the right way to cite things for the cinema studies class I was taking.

Somewhere in the boxed portion of my library I still have a copy of The Many Lives of The Batman, a collection of critical essays co-edited by Bill Uricchio, a professor in our comparative literature department. I wonder how well they anticipated the MLA's version of how to structure citiations...

David M. Merchant said...

I've been struggling with how to cite original content found in Second Life. As an extra credit assignment I give my composition students the option of locating resources in SL related to any of the stories studied in class. There is a growing collection of educational material being created in Second Life. I've been wrestling with this for a year now, and have yet to settle on a solution that I find satisfying. This is what I've come up with so far:

Avatar's last name, avatar's first name.

"Title of the resource, note, image, poem, song, video, game, etc."

Title of store front, home, building, or otherwise where the avatar's products or resources are contained. Place in italics.

Publisher or sponsor of the site: Name of larger land parcel (region) or name of larger store (shopping complex), building, estate, etc, located within the larger land parcel; If you click on the name or coordinates, you will get an "About Land" box which will give you the name of the Group or individual who owns the land. Think of them as the publisher or sponsor: use the group name if a group. I still not satisfied with figuring out what takes the place of Publisher or Sponsor. Should we consider Second Life itself as the publisher? If so, then what becomes of the group or the land parcel?

Date of publication (day, month,and year, as available); if nothing is available, use n.d. "About Land" in the SL menu gives you a "Claimed" date - that is our best choice for last updated date if the resource itself does not state a date.

Medium of publication: Web.

Date of access.

Optional (though since it is extremely helpful to include I am not sure it should be optional): the SLURL (Second Life URL), the "Landmark" for the source or resource:< region >/< x-coordinate >/< y-coordinate >/< z-coordinate >/).


Yardley, Jo. "The UFA cinema in 1920's Berlin." The 1920's Berlin Project. Dudintsev. 06 June 2009. Web. 4 Ocober 2009. < >

David M. Merchant said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Augustine said...

this is very helpful, thank you. However, i still am not sure how to properly refer to a specific frame's image. when you use a quote usually, it is nice for the reader because they dont have to go looking for this sentence that you are about to analyze. so how do i do that with a frame from say...Persepolis? I feel like it is improper to include the images in the actual essay text, but i want to refer to the image without trying to describe it.

--Ed said...

I'm in the process of writing a paper in MLA format, and I wonder where you'd weigh in on this...

Among my sources are Grant Morrison's Animal Man trade paperbacks, each one collecting approx 9 or 10 issues of the comic. The first volume, unfortunately, has no page numbers that apply to the TPB--only the page numbers from the individual collected issues appear within. So how do you think I should cite a quote from within the TPB?

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