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.