Doctoral Dissertation

27.4.2019 FL Essi Varis (Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, literature)


27.4.2019 12:00 — 15:00

Location: Seminaarinmaki , H320
FL Essi Varis defends hers doctoral dissertation in Literature "Graphic Human Experiments: Frankensteinian Cognitive Logics of Characters in Vertigo Comics and Beyond".

Opponent professor Karin Kukkonen (University of Oslo, Norway) and Custos professor Mikko Keskinen (University of Jyväskylä, Department of Art, Music and Culture Studies).

The doctoral dissertation is held in English.


This article-based doctoral dissertation explores how fictional characters unfold and function in the cognitive interactions and tensions that take place between texts and readers. The focus is on multimodal characters of graphic narratives. Accordingly, the theoretical framework combines some of the central insights of comics studies with various theoretical views on fictional characters and various premises of cognitive narrative studies.

The analyzed series were picked from the corpus of DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint, which publishes experimental, intertextual series for adult readers. One of them, Neil Gaiman and J. H. Williams III’s miniseries The Sandman: Overture (2013–2015), was subjected to cognitive comics analysis, the purpose of which was to investigate how the comic’s alien characters inject a sense of nonhuman otherness in the reading experience. The other target text, Mike Carey and Peter Gross’ metafictional series The Unwritten (2009–2015) compares Frankenstein’s monster to fictional characters: both are artificial creations assembled out of diverse materials, but still have a semblance of life and humanity.

This analogy constitutes the backbone of the extensive theoretical fusion and speculation performed throughout the work. The Creature’s journey from assorted fragments into a sentient, rebellious being is likened to the developments between structuralist, cognitive and transmedial character theories, for instance.

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Additionally, Frankenstein’s handiwork and the wanderings of his collage-like creation steer the attention towards the ways characters and their parts are recycled from text to text and from medium to medium. These transtextual processes are shaped both by the commercial interests of the creative industries and by the communities of readers, whose cognitive engagements ultimately grant the characters a spark of life.

Based on the case studies conducted in the four articles, the dissertation suggests a new enactivist theory of fictional figures. Characters are experienced as dynamic and life-like because readers enact them as such in their interactions with texts and other readers, and because these textual, social and cultural environments offer possibilities for such cognitive actions. These interpretational processes are profoundly relational, open-ended and subjective, which imbues characters with monstrous paradoxicality and instability: they are both text and cognition, both mimetic and synthetic, both incomplete and forever open to new meanings.

Keywords: comic book characters, fictional characters, comics, graphic narratives, cognitive narrative studies, enactivism, reading experiences, narrative theory, transmedial narratology, Vertigo comics, Frankenstein’s creature