comics theory

The Language of Comics by Mario Saraceni

So I’m reading through a few books on comics and how to analyze them and the first one I finished is part of the Routledge Intertext series, The Language of Comics by Mario Saraceni.

The audience for this book is, I believe, college students and so the aim here is to help college students analyze comics. From my own experience teaching comics at the college level, this is a worthwhile goal and a clear text is needed. However, I’m not sure Saraceni’s book is that text.

For one, Saraceni makes a few counter-factual claims. Early in the book, he says that one of the two most important characteristics of comics is that it, as an art form, employs both words and pictures (5). While this is often true, it is obviously not always the case. David Carrier makes the same claim in his book The Aesthetics of Comics and that book, while well-intentioned, demonstrates a shocking naivety about comics. So this was an early red flag as I was reading. Then on the next page, Saraceni says that comics have six to nine panels per page (7). Yes, he modifies this statement with “normally,” but he cites this “six to nine” figure a few other times throughout the book. Oddly, he provides plenty of examples that show that comics pages can have any number of panels. While I don’t believe that Saraceni is as unread in comics are Carrier seems to be, these careless claims undercut his authority.

On the whole, the rest of the book provides many interesting insights, but feels a bit underdeveloped and ill structured. For instance, Saraceni asks what relationships exist between words and pictures and answers that there are only two relationships (13). Not only is it odd that he can only see two relationships possible, his way of explaining the relationships is very roundabout. Basically, the two categories that he comes up with are “blend” and “collaboration.” “Blend” is when the words and images convey the same information and “collaboration” is when they do different things but work together to create the overall meaning. Yet instead of saying this straight out, he waits fourteen pages before defining the terms he introduces. In those fourteen pages Saraceni explains the concepts of icon and symbol from semiotics. He ends up saying that words in comics exist between icon and symbol and that images do as well. So they inhabit a similar space. This is interesting, but it doesn’t really help to understand what he means by “blend” and “collaboration.” It also doesn’t help that as soon as he finally defines these two concepts he doesn’t use them and instead says that words and images “interact in many different ways” (28). So we jump from “two” to “many.” This isn’t completely nonsensical, but it is sloppy and adds to the feeling that this book needed a few more drafts.

Then there’s the whole chapter at the end about computers in which Saraceni goes through the icons on his desktop. One can infer some connections to the ideas he has brought up earlier in the book, but how any of this helps us understand comics is beyond me.

There are other odd things like this I could mention, but instead I want to briefly bring up the various exercises in the book. Since the aim of this text is to use it in a college classroom, the addition of exercises is appropriate. However, as a teacher I have difficulty imaging that I would use these exercises. Most of the exercises involve students making lists, which gets old pretty quickly. Also, while many of the exercises are trying to get students to understand how panels connect with each other based on common elements or visual themes, the exercises completely overlook the fact that what most often joins panels is narrative. Usually comics tell stories. This book seems to overlook that fact.

Overall, this book is interesting but it’s careless structure and long asides make it seem more like an early draft than a finished book. According to Neil Cohn, the book is adapted from Saraceni’s dissertation and that would explain why it goes to such lengths to explain certain ideas. Again, the goal of the book is admirable; I just don’t think it is very effective at accomplishing that goal.

pictures over words?

R.C. Harvey has an interesting essay over at the Comics Journal. I find a lot of what he says very thought-provoking and I have to agree with him on the examples he gives (for the most part), but one underlying preference that governs his criticism is that in comics the pictures should lead the pacing and not the words. While I too tend to prefer comics that are visually paced, I am loathe to overprescribe the medium. And in fact, I can think of works I like that are word-centric. For instance, I know that Alison Bechdel composes her comics in words first and then decides how to illustrate them later. And I think Fun Home is an incredible book. Dan Clowes also has a lot of works, such as “Immortal, Invisible” or the beginning of David Boring, that a very narrative heavy. I would say that in these works words set the pacing more than the images.

And yet I agree with Harvey’s overall point that many people who try to create graphic novels seem to not really understand the medium. Part of this may be they are coming out of a writing tradition and have not really thought through how comics function and the unique advantages of the form. Still, I don’t think the problem is that the words are the prime mover of the pacing.

More fundamentally, the problem is that the words and pictures are not given unique jobs. In the word-centric examples Harvey provides, the problem is that the pictures merely illustrate the words, not that the words lead the narrative. This is what Scott McCloud calls a “duo-specific” relationship. And this is not a new problem. The old  Classics Illustrated books and many of the EC horror comics had this same problem. So I also disagree with Harvey that somehow writers new to comics are destroying the medium. I think the problem is the same one that has always been: the medium has been viewed simplistically and its potentials ignored.

local images to global images = metonymy

Okay, first read this. It’s a translation of an article by Barthélémy Schwartz about the defining characteristic of comics.

I’ll wait here until you’re done.


Okay, so this reminds me of my old idea that comics are metonymy. With metonymy, a part or a related concept of a larger idea stands in for that idea. This can be seen visually in comics all the time. The minimalist backgrounds of someone like Jaime Hernandez are a good example. The backgrounds are often just simple lines and silhouettes that stand in for something like an entire neighborhood. So a part stands in for a whole. Yet this is done in painting as well, and so doesn’t seem like a fundamental enough idea.

So let’s move away from the individual panel or even the act of drawing itself. As Schwartz says, comics are created when “juxtaposed local images” make up “a global image.” For instance, we could have a panel of someone throwing a ball and another panel of another person catching a ball. As readers, we understand that it is the same ball in each panel and that the one person is throwing it to the other. Also, if they are dressed in uniforms, we may assume the act is part of a larger game, which brings in the related idea of other players and perhaps spectators. So these juxtaposed parts are pieced together and create a narrative larger than the pieces themselves. I would call this metonymy.

I’m not the first to say this. According to Ann Miller in her book Reading Bande Dessinée, Roman Jakobson first applied the concept of metonymy to visual art. Yet his understanding seems more akin to the first one I described above, which doesn’t capture what is special about comics from other visual art. Miller also says that “Fresnault-Deruelle has called [comics] a ‘metonymic machine'” (78). Still, as Miller goes on to describe this idea all her examples are of individual panels. For instance, she discusses how speed lines have become a grammatical element to stand in for speed.

But what I mean by metonymy in comics is more akin to what Schwartz says about individual images making a global image. The structure of comics itself is metonymic. The reader takes discrete images that relate to a larger idea to understand that larger idea. Related details stand in for a larger whole. This act is essential to being able to read comics. So it is a fundamental component of how the art form functions.

intentional dis-ease

John McWade had a fascinating article about typesetting over at Before & After. Basically, the thesis is that easy-to-read typefaces and layouts may not always be better. Sometimes confusing layouts make the reader slow down and pay attention.

I’ve thought about this in comics in terms of the density of panels. Denser panels tend to slow down the eye and make the reader work a bit more. Fractured narratives, such as The Sound and the Fury, have a similar effect. And I think the clunkiness of the gameplay in the original Silent Hill actually adds to its effect.

But it’s interesting to consider making a comics panel or layout confusing expressly with the intention of getting the reader to work more. I need to run off now, but I want to think of examples of this in comics. Do you have any?

text/image pairings in comics

Since I’ve been teaching Fun Home the past year and I just read Essentials of Visual Communication, I’ve thought a lot about what Alison Bechdel calls the “separate tracks” of comics, text and image. Scott McCloud categorizes these pairings in the “Show and Tell” chapter of Understanding Comics, but his emphasis is on which element, the text or the image, carries the most information. So he has categories like “word specific,” “duo-specific,” and “interdependent.” While I think these categories are useful, I’m more interested in what specifically the text and image are doing, what roles they are playing together. Obviously, wordless comics and dialogue-only comics are left out here, but Fun Home constantly pairs text and image and does so in different ways. I started making a list as a teaching aid and added to it a lot the past few weeks as I was going through Essentials of Visual Communication.

So I wanted to share a visual list of some of the pairings I came up with. Most of these came out of analysis of actual comics, especially Fun Home, while a few are theoretical. This is not supposed to be a complete list, but I am curious to hear if anyone reading this has other pairings to suggest. Besides the intellectual interest in making this list, I thought it might also be useful in teaching as well as creating comics. On the creation side, it could inspire creators to think of other ways in which text and image work together. In terms of teaching, I was thinking of putting some of these up for my students and getting them to look for which appear in Fun Home and where. If I were teaching a class about creating comics, then I could have students choose a certain number of pairings and use them as the basis for a comics panel or page.

So let’s start with narration and monstration. These are my pet terms of the past year. Narration is what is told, verbally. Monstration is what is shown, visually.

Sometimes the image shows what happens and the text explains how or why it happens.

In Modern Cartoonist, Dan Clowes says to think of the text as the mind and the image as the body.

And here’s one about the image/text red herring I mentioned in the Essentials of Visual Communication post.

The opinionated lizard narrator in Enigma made me think of this next one.

These next three come from teaching Fun Home.

And two theoreticals.

Do you have any others? Or any specific examples of the above pairings?

notes on Essentials of Visual Communication

I picked this up from the library. The organization of the book is a bit scattershot and there are some odd claims in it. And large portions of the book don’t interest me, like the explanations of how the business of an ad agency works. And oddly for a book about visual communication, there is no mention of comics at all. There is discussion of film, literature, billboards, web sites, tv commercials, but nothing about comics. All that being said, there are some interesting and insightful ideas presented in the book. Some of them I had heard before in other places, but they were presented here with nice specific examples.

Anyway, I made some notes of things that interested me as I read, so I thought I’d share them here. I left out things about Gestault principles and axis of action, not because I wasn’t interested, but because the book didn’t introduce any new insights about them (for me). The following is simply an undigested bullet list. Also it probably goes without saying, but in the following notes I was thinking specifically about the relation to comics.

• image/text red herring. The text can create an expectation that the image subverts. Or vice versa.

• image/text difference. Image shows what happens. Text describes how/why it happens (more on this in another post).

• metonymy. Often employed to illustrate an abstract concept: picture of Wall Street to stand in for idea of stock market. Or a cup with one toothbrush next shown with two toothbrushes to show that a new relationship has begun.

• synecdoche. Part stands in for whole. A seagull is shown to stand in for a whole seaside setting. This reminds me of three jagged lines in Peanuts standing in for an entire lawn.

• metaphor. Often used in advertising. The image is the metaphor; the text acts as the referent. Example: the image is of an arrow, the text states the make of a car. The viewer understands that the car is fast.

• context. The textual context can change the meaning of an image. If an image of two couples embracing is accompanied by the word yes, then the image takes on a romantic meaning. If the same image is accompanied by the word no, then the image is about a nonconsensual pairing.

•frame/panel. Horizontal and vertical frames have inherent movement. Square frames are static. Though a diagonal composition in a square frame can give it some dynamism.

• rule of thirds. Split a frame into thirds horizontally and vertically. Place important elements on the intersections.

• L > R movement. Left to right movement is the standard U.S. reading direction and images that move that direction seem to being going somewhere. Figures that move from right to left seem to be coming home.

• shadows = volume. Figures without shadows look two-dimensional. Shadows give figures weight and volume.

• head in frame. If a person’s head is low in a frame, then it seems like the person is sinking.

• Roland Barthes: studium and punctum. Studium is an image that is informative, presents a general observation. Many news photos fall into this category. Puctum is an image that contains a question or something wrong with it that makes the viewer have to interpret. A photo of a group of people looking at something out of the frame would fit this category.

• Roland Barthes: positive and negative space. This is different than the graphic design meanings of the terms. The positive space is what the viewer sees in the image. The negative space is what the viewer intuits to be outside the image. This relates to studium and punctum.

• Roland Barthes: anchorage and relay. These are categories for relationships between text and image. Anchorage is when the text and image are anchored in each other, when they say the same thing. Scott McCloud labels this as duo-specific. Relay is when the text and image carry different pieces of information, or say different things but come together to create a greater meaning. McCloud labels this interdependent.

• denotation and connotation. As with words, images have denotative meaning, what they literally mean, and connotative meaning, what they imply. Connotation refers the to associated ideas or emotions around an image. A picture of a casket connotes death.

• image/text reception. An image is more immediate, processed by the right brain. It is more emotional. Text is decoded, processed by the left brain. It is more intellectual.

• equality vs. contrast. Equality is static. A frame divided equally in half has no movement. Contrast is dynamic. A frame divided so that the top portion is larger has a weight to it. The top portion presses down on the lower portion.