Comics and Language: Reimagining Critical Discourse on the Form by Hannah Miodrag

Hannah Miodrag Comics and Language

The subtitle of this book is more accurate than it’s main title; Miodrag examines what she sees as common assumptions and mistakes that comics critics make. She points to lack of precision, sloppy reasoning, and confirmation bias. While at times the arguments are a bit belabored and redundant, her book is a needed amendment to the patterns of a lot of critical thought about comics.

One trend she sees is how often writers seem obsessed with claiming that elements in a specific comic are universal. As if how the relationships in that comic work, between word and image say, are endemic to the medium itself. I once got on David Carrier’s case for just this issue (Miodrag points out a different one on page 89). In his book The Aesthetics of Comics, he claims that what defines comics are word balloons. Yet if the small selection of comics you read and write about have word balloons that doesn’t mean that it is the defining characteristic of the medium. What about Miné Okubo’s Citizen 13660? Or Edward Gorey’s work? Or much of Eleanor Davis’s Why Art? Not to mention the thousands of completely wordless comics out there. The issue is that so many critics are desperate to claim legitimacy for comics that they leap to hasty generalizations. A group of comics may all exhibit the same quality, but that doesn’t mean that all comics have this quality, or must have it to be considered comics. It’s a reductionist view that does nothing to help the medium.

Miodrag also places nice attention to pacing. This is a subject that has been habitually overlooked. Groensteen addresses it and Tom Hart is teaching about it, but these are exceptions. Even books that tell you they will teach you how to create comics often overlook pacing entirely. Miodrag’s analysis of how Posy Simmonds paces Gemma Bovary, for example, is enlightening. Miodrag is a careful close reader and her analysis is one of the strengths of the book.

She also contributes to the argument that comics have more in common with graphic design than any other medium. But actually, that’s more my own hobby horse than Miodrag’s. So I guess you’re just getting a sample of how I may quote from her book later.

While there are all sorts of little things I could quibble with in Comics and Language, my main objection to the book is how sometimes she goes to an odd extreme to make her points, sometimes setting up a straw critic to take down. For instance, in the first chapter she claims that critics don’t analyze Herriman’s Krazy Kat for its literary qualities. Her goal is to point out that in comics criticism, critics confuse imagination and plot for literariness. In other words, they don’t evaluate the use of language. This is a good point but I don’t think it really applies to Krazy Kat. It goes against my personal experience, for one. And there are several public examples. E.E. Cummings wrote an analysis of the characters in the strip and Umberto Eco wrote of the its poetic qualities.

Still, her main point that comics criticism is often very limited in what it means when it uses the term “literary” is an important one. The emphasis tends to be on creativity and storytelling, not on depth of character, complexity of theme, and use of language. With these standards, Michael Moorcock would be a better writer than Gabriel García Márquez. This is why, as she points out, that writers such as Will Eisner and Alan Moore (61) get touted as exemplars. This is something I had always felt but had never articulated, much less as carefully as Miodrag does. I had always been annoyed that certain graphic novels were held up as standards of the medium when they seemed so mediocre, or merely good. Part of the issue, according to Miodrag, is that critics’ notions of what actually make a comic “literary” are very simplistic. In the end, I think this undercuts the very thing that critics are trying to do. They are trying to show that the medium has great works. But by holding up painfully adequate books they are just showing that comics are indeed incapable of being taken seriously. Is Watchmen genuinely as profound as The Sound and The Fury?

The real reason I’m writing all this, besides trying to digest my own thoughts and recommend the book itself, is to take on one argument I have with Miodrag. Again, it’s another example of her saying something a bit extreme to make her point, but in this case it is just wrong. On page 100, Miodrag takes issue with the idea that outside captions always operate differently than in-panel text boxes and word balloons. What I think she’s trying to get at is that the role words are put to in a given comic is more important than any “rule” about how captions or word balloons always operate. But the argument is a bit messy. And on page 101 she states this: “The role words play is not determined by their position.” Okay, I agree that a comic creates its own logic and that this tendency of critics to want to establish absolute rules can actually hinder their analysis, but this is wrong. In comics, position is meaning. It is not absolute- the meaning is always dependent on context- but how the artist choses to place the elements in the comic is one of the ways they create meaning.

We all know that position is meaning when it comes to prose. “Grandma, let’s eat!” has a different meaning than “Let’s eat Grandma!” Same words, but position makes one an invitation and the other cannibalism.

How about this:

mistah dobalina panels

The first panel shows question and response. The second conveys a lack of recognition. Again, same words, different placement, different meaning. The roles are dictated by their positions.

But this quotation I’m digging into comes within the context of captions and if placement within the panel always works better. So let’s look at an example like that:

i am here panels

In the first, the caption sits outside the panel. Here the words seem to be about the scene as a whole. We are invited to see this landscape as where the narrator is. In the next two panels, the caption is placed within the panel. This invites us to read the words in the context of the image plane and so new meanings emerge. In the second panel, the caption is in a text box located over the tree. This implies that the narrator is hiding in the tree. Lastly, placing the narration over the ground makes it seem as if the narrator is dead and buried. Same words. Different placements. Differing meanings.

Just to clarify, I’m not arguing that any one approach is superior or that the relationships above will always exist in every comic. I’m just saying that the position of words affects their role. And I take Miodrag’s point that many critics, such as R.C. Harvey, assume that words within the panel inherently work better. Yet to argue against this I feel she briefly overlooks how the comics medium works. She says that it’s wrong “to confuse position with function”  when it comes to words, that instead it is a “question of [their] role” (101). Yet their placement is their role. Again, that role depends on context, but placement is meaning. To deny that is to deny one of the ways comics functions.

You can read a more chapter by chapter review of Comics and Language here:

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