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.