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Comics and Language

Comics and Language: Reimagining Critical Discourse on the Form

Hannah Miodrag
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    Comics and Language
    Book Description:

    It has become an axiom in comic studies that "comics is a language, not a genre." But what exactly does that mean, and how is discourse on the form both aided and hindered by thinking of it in linguistic terms? In Comics and Language, Hannah Miodrag challenges many of the key assumptions about the "grammar" and formal characteristics of comics, and offers a more nuanced, theoretical framework that she argues will better serve the field by offering a consistent means for communicating critical theory in the scholarship. Through engaging close readings and an accessible use of theory, this book exposes the problems embedded in the ways critics have used ideas of language, literature, structuralism, and semiotics, and sets out a new and more theoretically sound way of understanding how comics communicate.

    Comics and Language

    Comics and Language

    eISBN: 978-1-62103-955-6
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-2)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 3-14)

    The term “comics” has come to be used, within the Anglophone industry, as a non-count noun that collectively refers to the drawn strip medium’s various subcategories. It subsumes, but is not reducible to: children’s comic books, which first took off when newspaper strips were sectioned into supplements, and which were increasingly aimed at a juvenile audience from the early twentieth century; classic genre serials, popularly associated with the superhero Golden Age that kicked off in the 1930s; the unruly underground comix of the 1960s counterculture; adult graphic novels, which began to gain cultural currency in the 1980s; and a host...

  4. PART ONE Language in Comics

    • Chapter One Arbitrary Minimal Units in Krazy Kat
      (pp. 17-40)

      Comics critics’ default justification for asserting that comics are a literary form is that, like prose fiction, they tell stories. Time and again, “themes, plots, and characterisations” (Lombard et al. 1999: 23) are emphasized in discussions of comics’ literary properties. Their parity with verbal literary forms is couched in terms of generic narrative attributes or, even more diffusely, as lying in such sweeping artistic values as being “creative, original, well-structured, and unified” (Meskin 2009: 220). George Herriman’s Krazy Kat ran in the newspapers of William Randolph Hearst from 1913 to 1944, its core plot repeated day after day: mouse throws...

    • Chapter 2 Langue, Parole, and Constraint in the Cartoons of Lynda Barry
      (pp. 41-58)

      Lynda Barry’s cartoons possess the kind of strong characterizations, poignant plots, and grim themes that resonate with Anglophone comics critics’ content-focused criteria for literariness. However, like Herriman, her work is ill-served by a conception of the form that sidelines textual content, and ignores the truly literary formal features of language. Barry’s cartoons further undermine assertions about the primary role of images in conveying narrative information. Frequently, words are indispensable to the sense of her strips, as in the example below (Fig. 2.1). The pictures provide context here, with the narration tellingly detached from the parallel visual strand to create a...

    • Chapter Three Language in Context: The Spatiality of Text in Comics
      (pp. 59-80)

      Thus far, the focus has been on comics’ incorporation of literary writing, and how those literary qualities depend on mechanisms specific to the linguistic system. This approach has been used to show what is lost by the habitual sidelining of comics’ language. However, while it has been demonstrated how comics can achieve the same verbal prowess as prose texts, the specificity of the comics form and peculiar ways it can deploy language have so far been ignored. Critics’ “search for comics exceptionalism” (Beaty 1999: 67) has led to many a dubious claim about features “unique” to the comics form,¹ and...

  5. PART TWO Comics as Language

    • Chapter Four The Hybrid Question: Interaction or Fusion?
      (pp. 83-107)

      By way of introduction to the widely accepted epithet that “comics are a language,” this chapter tackles the issue of “hybridity” and explores the various ways critics characterize the conjunction of words and images in comics. The French critic Aarnoud Rommens, reviewing the essays collected in The Language of Comics, complains that the hybridity debate is crowded with ill-defined terms such as “partnership” and “integral language,” which “fuzzy terminology […] suggests its own conceptual inadequacy” (Rommens 2001: np). Much of the discourse around the issue of verbal-visual interaction does seem to justify this charge.

      It is indisputable that words and...

    • Chapter Five Comics as Network
      (pp. 108-141)

      Sequentiality features nearly universally in critical attempts to nail down a definition of the comics form, as alluded to in relation to Simmonds’s networked compositions. This emphasis stems from Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art (1985), for though Eisner posited comics as one particular kind of sequential art, subsequent expansions of his definition, such as McCloud’s (1993), have accentuated this aspect of comics still further. Indeed, it has come to so dominate theoretical conceptualizations that the form itself is sometimes rebranded as Sequential Art (Thought Bubble 2011: np). It is through reducing the form to this one feature that critics are...

    • Chapter Six Sequentiality as Realism
      (pp. 142-166)

      Conceptualizing comics in terms of linear sequencing does not provide quite the scope it is often credited with for differentiating comics from other narrative media. Nor does this understanding of the form offer a sufficient basis for explicating how we read and process these texts. As Watchmen and Metronome have shown, any demarcation of the relationship between (text) space and (story) time will only ever be typical, not definitive, and the medium facilitates much greater narrative diversity than the “space equals time” rule suggests. As has been mentioned, and will be further demonstrated in Chapter Seven, the various facets of...

  6. PART THREE Images as Language

    • Chapter Seven Asterios Polyp and the Structure of Visual Images
      (pp. 169-196)

      Much reference has been made to the broad analogies critics often make between linguistic and visual signification. There exists a marked critical drift towards framing the distinctions between visual and verbal as somehow specious. Both the simplified, abstracted pictorial style of cartoon drawing and the comics medium’s disparate non-pictorial elements (such as speech bubbles, panel borders, and the like) are suggested to function like language. These elements are often seen as being “as abstract and symbolic as words” (Hatfield 2009: 133). For many critics, when an image’s iconic resemblance is pared down and schematized, and/or where a high degree of...

    • Chapter Eight Style, Expressivity, and Impressionistic Evaluation
      (pp. 197-220)

      Alongside narrative breakdown, panel composition, and page layout, Harvey identifies style, or “the highly individual way an artist handles pen or brush” (1996: 9), as the fourth of comics’ graphic threads. He also notes that style is the “most illusive” (1996: 152) and hardest to account for of these elements. He states that “describing a style is about as far as criticism can legitimately go” because the expressiveness of a particular style is simply “too individual a matter to provide a basis for evaluation” (1996: 152). Drawing style is highly qualitative and impressionistic. It is “the visual result of an...

    • Chapter Nine Composition: Continuity, Demarcation, and Nesting
      (pp. 221-245)

      The final aspect of the formal framework set forth here considers composition in comics, namely the ways in which the form integrates individuated panels into a larger whole. Doing so involves a certain resurrection of issues touched on in Chapter Five, addressing the relationships between panels’ contents and their frames, and also between those panels and the larger totalities of page and entire work, focusing on the page as a semantic unit. As mentioned earlier, Groensteen proposes the “multiframe” as the basis for understanding layout, a conceptualization based on “the reduction of images to their frame, either their outline or,...

  7. Conclusion
    (pp. 246-252)

    The preceding arguments have sought to expose the problems inherent in many of the stock assertions that are widely made about the formal makeup of comics. These prevailing assumptions have become engrained as the basis for understanding this hybrid medium in formal terms and the use that it makes of the visual and verbal signifying modes. It has been shown throughout that the resultant formal critical framework corresponds to defensive preoccupations with the supposed superior status of language and literature and has less to do with the evidence provided by comics texts themselves. I have ascribed this problem in part...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 253-256)
  9. Bibliography
    (pp. 257-266)
  10. Index
    (pp. 267-272)