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Imagining a Multiplicity of Visual Rhetorical Traditions: Comics Lessons from Rhetoric Histories

By Franny Howes

1. Introduction

In the academic field from which I study comics, rhetoric and composition, we have a foundational narrative that we call “the rhetorical tradition” – a story that traces the evolution of rhetoric from ancient Greece and Rome, to the Renaissance, to the Scottish Enlightenment, to American writing instruction, to the “rediscovery” of ancient rhetoric, to today. It is seductive and its affordances are great; and yet, it is highly Eurocentric and not contingent on its own evidence.

Comics studies and the study of visual rhetoric have the opportunity to do something different with the way we see our history and how we got here. Our narratives often concern themselves with the value of comics as objects of study and as a mode of communication, and we often struggle with the lack of seriousness and complexity assigned to comics work. Our histories are often highly Eurocentric, tracing the origins of what we know as comics in Europe and the United States. Does it have to be this way? We as comics scholars, in a young field of study, have the opportunity to open up new modes of looking at our past and to take a decolonial approach from very near the beginnings of our field.

Reading indigenous histories of rhetoric, of meaning-making practices, of history, and of writing provides a valuable insight into what comics can do for us today. The multiplicity of histories can provide new ways of reading comics texts, and places that suggest invention in new or underused modes. They can help us ask what comics are or can be for, and decolonize our thinking about comics studies.

2. Histories of Rhetoric

The Rhetorical Tradition can refer to both the foundational narrative of the academic field of Rhetoric and Composition and the mammoth text used to teach it, edited by Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg. In their introduction to the work, they explain their approach and how they trace “the historical development of rhetoric.” It is divided into “conventional chronological periods: the Classical (from about the birth of rhetoric in ancient Greece to about 400 C.E.), the Medieval (to about 1400), the Renaissance (to about 1700), the Enlightenment (from the late seventeenth through the eighteenth century), the Nineteenth Century, and the Modern and Postmodern (the twentieth century)” (1).

This narrative directs the attention of people who study the history of rhetoric. It is required reading for most graduate students being socialized into disciplinary conversations about rhetoric and related areas. It silences by defining the scope of what is the history of rhetoric, and of what is something else. It also solely attributes the invention of rhetoric to ancient Greece, without consideration of the independent development of writing systems and accompanying strategies for effective use of said systems in other ancient cultures.

Entire literate intellectual traditions are ignored to situate the core of the discipline in Western antiquity. This problem is not repaired by adding a few people of color to the narrative, as has happened in later editions of the text. Gloria Anzaldúa’s critique of this narrative and of ethnocentrism now appears at the very end of this book, page 1592 of 1673. What does it mean to situate a narrative about how the history of writing also begins with the Aztecs’ “tlilli, tlapalli” at the very end of the history, rather than the beginning?

What is required to really decolonize this narrative, and, by rights, the discipline of Rhetoric, is rethinking the history of writing and whose traditions and literacies are important and significant. A critical part of this decolonization is the serious consideration of visual rhetoric, of pictographic and ideographic traditions, as part of this history: “tlilli, tlapalli, la tinta negra y roja de su códices (the black and red ink painted on codices),” as identified by Anzaldúa, is a visual cue, identifying writing by the metonymy of its color (1591). The study of literate rhetorical productions of indigenous people in the Americas is itself the study of the history of visual rhetoric and its legitimacy as an intellectual practice.

The idea of codex rhetorics has developed out of the theoretical and cultural work of Anzaldúa, at the intersection of Chicano/a Studies and Native Studies; these texts and practices have been studied before, but by anthropology, archaeology, or history. Naming them as rhetoric cements their connection to writing practices historical and contemporary.

What are casually referred to as Mexican or Aztec codices are really a group of rhetorical practices done by people in the Americas prior to and contemporaneously with colonization. According to Miguel Leon-Portilla, “Mayas, Mixtecs, Toltecs, and Aztecs succeeded in developing their own systems of writing” (xlv). Mexica (Aztec) texts were referred to as amoxtli; Mayan texts were called vuh (Mignolo, “Signs” 222-223). Significantly, all of these texts were highly pictographic (for example, Mexica texts were constituted by “a combination of pictographic, ideographic, and partially phonetic characters or glyphs” [Leon-Portilla xlv]). In Mexica traditions, “in xochitl, in cuicatl,” or “flower and song,” was used as a metaphor to refer to the beautiful use of language by poets and scholars, or wise men (tlamantinime) (Mignolo, Darker Side 97). Fewer than thirty pre-contact examples of these texts exist today, due to their mass destruction during colonization, along with about fifty others contemporaneous with colonization (Chagoya n. pag.).

In a broad sense, much of this theoretical and historical work challenges definitions of literacy. Along with Anzaldúa, the semiotician and scholar of colonial history Walter Mignolo is a theorist whose work is crucial to subverting colonialist narratives of rhetoric. In his crucial work The Darker Side of the Renaissance: Literacy, Territoriality, and Colonization, Mignolo explodes the role of language in the Spanish colonization of the Americas. “The relationship between discourse and power during colonial expansion” is contingent, in his analysis, on competing and conflictive literacies, on the presupposition by the Spanish that letters can tame speech (but pictographs cannot), and on the very definition of “book” itself (7, 42). Mignolo draws a distinction between utterly different conceptions of reading: the western notion of “reading the word,” of discerning, and the indigenous notion of “reading the world,” of reading as discerning meaning from something perceived rather than decoded. It is these theories of reading visually that lead most productively into comics-related analysis.

3. Indigeneity and Comics Studies

The preceding critiques of the received history of Rhetoric are thoroughly grounded in Native Studies and ideas of indigeneity. There exists previous scholarship that makes the connection between comics and indigenous people, but it seldom makes the connection to visual rhetoric. The most prominent stance taken is that of the stereotype collector: this mode of analysis looks at images of Native Americans and indigenous people and evaluates the qualities of their portrayal. The evaluations given can be negative, positive, accurate, inaccurate, racist, gendered, or more nuanced descriptions. Michael A. Sheyashe’s Native Americans in Comic Books: A Critical Study is currently the only book-length work that applies this approach specifically to comic books, and scholars including Audrey Schwartz have attempted to build on this work in rhetorical directions. As comics studies develops its breadth, critiques of portrayals of indigenous people such as Melissa L. Mellon’s “Our Minds in the Gutters: Sexuality, History, and Reader Responsibility in George O’Connor’s Graphic Novel Journey into Mohawk Country” may become more common. As yet, they are still rare.

There are even fewer historical or theoretical works on comics that incorporate indigenous approaches and concerns. Oddly, one of the few places where an indigenous text is taken seriously in a comics studies context is in Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. The book that has been a gateway to the analysis of comics for so many of us begins with an analysis of several sequential visual texts in order to develop a formalist definition of comics. One of these is the Aztec narrative of 8-Deer Ocelot’s Claw. McCloud reads the text (as translated by Alfonso Caso) and proclaims that it is, in fact, a work of comics. He moves on to call the Bayeux tapestry comics, and Egyptian tomb painting, and European printmaking (10-19).

The global perspective utilized in this brief portion of the work acts as a legitimizing narrative for the existence of “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence” (9). McCloud naturalizes the production of comics by attributing them to cultures across the globe, spanning thousands of years. In fact, it may be seen as a colonial act to use indigenous work as part of your foundational narrative, but then never revisit the issue or give further consideration to the work beyond appropriating it as part of your history.

Reading a few individual visual texts from a diversity of locations outside of their cultural contexts is a surprisingly effective introduction to a book largely about American, European, and Japanese comics traditions. But, almost no one else in comics studies is running around calling codices comic books, or vice versa. Robert C. Harvey has criticized McCloud’s definition of comics for including things that are not recognizable as comics to a contemporary audience: “By his definition, the Bayeux tapestry and Mexican codices are comics. So is written Chinese. McCloud’s definition includes what we call comics just as “quadruped” includes horses” (75). It has become much more common to define the beginning of comics’ history as occurring with the nineteenth century Swiss artist Rodolphe Töpffer, who not only made cartoons but wrote about how they should be constructed (Kunzle 17-23).

4. Visual Rhetorical Traditions

If you begin with the assertion that the thing contemporary readers collectively recognize as comics first begins to be articulated in the 1830’s by Töpffer, but that other things can still be meaningful ancestors or predecessors, then how have we determined which ancestors, which relations, it is important to pay attention to? Who have we paid attention to in the past, and who and what are currently within our scholarly attention? Throw a dart at current scholarship and you will hit an American or a European, maybe a printmaker. There remain many lacunae in this site of cultural memory, unraveled parts of this tapestry. More needs to be said about past, present, and future connections between comics as we know them and the history of visual rhetoric.

I do not mean to imply that European printmakers should not be explored further in the context of this field of study: our discipline is so new that branches can grow in any direction. In fact, I believe this kind of work can invite parallel explorations of indigenous visual rhetoric in a comics context. One particularly good example of this kind of work is the Winter 2007 issue of ImageTexT itself, focused on the works of William Blake and their relation to the visual. The introduction to that special issue gives a multifaceted justification of why a journal focused on comics and cartoons would give a whole issue to something that isn’t either of those. “There is …something deeper, however, a Broglioian-Blakean-Deleuzian mole tunneling beneath contemporary comic culture, driving creators to aesthetic innovation with visions of brimstone and apocalyptic nightmares contesting the bourgeois dream life of spandex-clad defenders of the status quo” (Whitson 3). The connection between Blake and comics is weird but intuitive, and further justified by W.J.T. Mitchell’s conception of “imagetext” itself, originally developed based on Blake (4).

William Blake did not make comics, but he did make imagetext, and his imagetext resonates with current makers of comics in many complicated ways. Pre-conquest Mexica tlamantinime did not make comic books either, but they certainly did make imagetext, and the relationship between ancient texts and contemporary texts can be constellated in a similar way.

If amoxtli and vuh are not comics, how do we talk about them in this context? Imagetext is certainly available as a theoretical tool, but a concept drawn from Mignolo may be more useful in a context laden with cultural issues. In the preface to The Darker Side of the Renaissance he describes the impetus behind his frequent and recurring use of the word “tradition” in the text. He invites the reader to understand a tradition as “not something that is there to be remembered, but the process of remembering and forgetting itself” (xv). Traditions are “a multiplexed and filtered ensemble of acts of saying, remembering, and forgetting…”traditions” are the loci where people are bonded in…ways of organizing and conceiving themselves in a given space (by country or border) by constructing an image of both the self and the other” (xv).

I propose a theory of visual rhetorical traditions – a tool to investigate ways people are bonded in representing themselves and others in a visual way. Visual rhetorical traditions need not be unbroken chains of ways of doing; accessing Mignolo’s conception, traditions are also acts of remembering, forgetting, and reinscribing and reforging memory. Looking at the connection between Blake and comics is the remaking of a memory of cultural practices in our comics community. Looking at the connections between codex rhetorics and comics made today is an act of remembering.

This theory seeks to recognize and name commonalities in a broader sense than comics form, although such structures can fall under this umbrella. By that, I mean to extend this tool beyond the formalist approaches widespread in comics studies right now. The use of panels and certain conventionalized representations of space and time can be one visual rhetorical tradition that we are making a memory of by looking back to Töpffer; this theory encompasses any visual act of saying that can be repeated and reused. This theory looks for consistencies and strategies between texts or across them rather than within any given iteration of a text.

The title of this paper, “Imagining a Multiplicity of Visual Rhetorical Traditions,” suggests an alternative to “the Rhetorical Tradition” as the locus of the history of writing. A multiplicity of traditions stands as a kind of “pluritopic hermeneutic,” in opposition to the monotopic way of understanding history that currently dominates the study of rhetoric (Mignolo 11). A theory of multiplicitous visual rhetorical traditions has the potential to explore the relationship between comics and other visual media that are not comics but exist in a similar social location, or within a similar culture or discourse community. Ways of making meaning through visual representation carry across genre and form, yet formalist comics definitions deprecate relationships across forms (possibly because comics have so often been looked at as derivative of other forms).

As Mignolo says regarding tools: “We not only use a tool; we justify its uses as selected from among many possibilities. The use of the tool is as ideological as the descriptions intended to justify its use” (24). This is an ideological description of an ideological tool: this tool is intended for decolonial inquiry that decenters the teleological history of writing in the west and values literacy in visual rhetorical forms. Thus, I intend to focus my analysis specifically on the use of indigenous visual rhetorical traditions rather than traditions being forged and rewoven by other comics scholars.

5. Applying the Theory of Indigenous Visual Rhetorical Traditions: Theory and Praxis

Indigenous visual rhetorical traditions can speak to many aspects of comics. In a broad sense, they can ask the question of rhetorical purpose: what are comics for? Can purposes currently being accessed through the medium be complicated by these traditions, and can these traditions serve as a springboard for invention of new modes of comics?

Two comics-identified works within the reach of my analysis and description speak back to these questions. (By “comics-identified,” I mean that the creators of the works have named them in their own words as comics, and this analysis takes them at their word, without feeding them through a definitional filter.) One work is an ambitious collaborative project by a team of professionals with art-world prestige, published and distributed at first on a small scale, and then for the broader market through a large publisher. The other is a small project for a micro-audience designed by me, the author of this paper, specifically to put some of these theoretical ideas into practice. Both of these works specifically access visual rhetorical traditions exemplified by Mexica codex traditions in order to serve purposes not often considered in the context of comics: they are works with a functional relationship to memory as well as performance.

Codex Espangliensis: From Columbus to the Border Patrol is a collaborative book art project, self-identified by co-creator as a “post-Columbian Spanglish comix/codex” (Gomez-Peña n. pag.). It is the work of Guillermo Gomez-Peña, a performance artist, Enrique Chagoya, a painter and collage artist, and Felicia Rice, a book artist and typographer. It was first printed in 1998 as a limited-edition artists book, but later adapted for a wider printing. The original version of the text was printed using amatl, or traditional Mexican bark paper, and letterpress. Felicia Rice observes in the introduction: “In a sense, the printing process forced a compromise between a native material and a tool of colonization, the printing press” (n. pag.). The book has the accordion-fold form of the surviving Mexica codices, and takes up many of the visual tropes of such works, including ways of representing human figures. The book also collages liberally from the American comics tradition, including snippets of Mickey Mouse and Superman. (In particular, identifiable elements and dialogue quotes from the Superman story “For the Man Who Has Everything,” by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, appear, as well as references to the Death of Superman story drawn by Dan Jurgens. See Figures 1 and 2.)

Figure 1: Excerpt from 14th panel in right-to-left succession of Codex Espangliensis

In this excerpt from the 14th panel in right-to-left succession, Nezahualcoyotl, the Aztec “warrior and philosopher king” (Baca 65), struggles against Superman and Wonder Woman, accompanied by the counter-narrative of the Aztec colonist and Gomez-Peña creation, Europzin Tezpoca, who named Europe after himself.

I was first introduced to the book, and by extension to the opus of Guillermo Gomez-Peña, through the work of Damián Baca. In his book Mestiz@ Scripts, Digital Migrations, and the Territories of Writing, he describes the book in detail in a chapter regarding Chicano codex rhetorics: “By intertwining Mesoamerican pictography with Mexican murals and Chicano iconography, codex rhetorics at once look back to the Mesoamerican past while critiquing the present and inventing possible shared futures” (79).

A theory of visual rhetorical traditions asks, what does this book do? How can understanding indigenous visual meaning-making practices and uses of visual rhetoric enrich our understanding of this work and of the rhetorical action it takes? In this case, key to appreciating the work being done by Codex Espangliensis is some understanding of the role of performance in relationship to the reading of codexes, and of Mexica notions of reading in general.

Codexes are notoriously “laconic texts,” as described by Elizabeth Hill Boone. When trying to read one of these texts in the same way one would read a contemporaneous European text, a great amount of detail seems to be lacking. The images that communicate meaning seem very terse in comparison. However, the idea of sitting down individually with a book as an alphabetically literate individual and consuming a fully conceived message transmitted by an author is antithetical to literacy practices in this cultural context.

Codexes were not necessarily consumed by individuals, but rather, were performed by wise men who knew how to interpret their images in the correct way, and knew where to elaborate on the seemingly laconic images. The books were mnemonics for a larger performance: the images acted as shorthand, capturing the essential details of topics such as history and social order, while giving structure to the story. “[T]he pictorial histories were read aloud to an audience, they were interpreted, and their images were expanded and embellished in the oration of a full story. The pictorial histories were painted specifically to be the rough text of performance” (Boone “Aztec” 71).

Thus, I argue that Codex Espangliensis accesses this visual rhetorical tradition: the use of a laconic visual text as script and mnemonic for a performance, rather than an intentionally autonomous work. I intend for this interpretation to be additive, rather than dismissive of other literary and rhetorical readings of the work. In a literal sense, the book contains the script of a performance; but in a figurative way, the book stands as a reforging of the connection between visual rhetoric and performance, picking up comics elements along the way.

A further commonality between his text and the indigenous texts produced contemporaneously with colonization that Mignolo analyzes is the notion of the “coexistence and conflicting interactions of alternative and conflictive literacies” (Mignolo, “Signs” 273). Texts produced under the watch of colonial powers combined the visual rhetorical traditions of indigenous sign systems with alphabetic writing introduced as part of the colonial project. Many of these texts document the conflict of colonization itself as their subject. “Conflictive literacies” adroitly describes the collision of word and image in Codex Espangliensis. Words are in some places bold and in other places barely legible, and are in both Spanish and English; some of the text is denotative and some imaginative, drawn from a performance by Gomez-Peña that reimagines Europe being colonized by the people of the Americas.

The images of the book are laden with violent conflict themselves. Superheroes collaged from other contexts float through the work, engaged in bloody violence. These interactions contain some text, also collaged from other comics (including some very noticeable Alan Moore dialogue), and yet they do not necessarily supply a complete sequential story. Even the order of the pages itself is brought into question by a conflict of literacy practices. Should the book be read from right to left or left to right? The introduction to the text suggests that both happen at once, and that the conflicting meanings produced by both readings, “in fragments and in recurring episodes,” reflect the way history itself unfolds (Gonzales n. pag.). The laconic nature of the codex tradition once again comes to bear: while the images and their juxtapositions exist as ambiguous, violent tableaux, they also serve as mnemonics of stories that readers already know, whether they are comfortable being reminded of them or not.

Figure 2: Excerpt from 4th panel in right-to-left succession of Codex Espangliensis

In this excerpt from the 4th panel in right-to-left succession, the Virgin of Guadalupe is shown speaking the villain Mongul’s dialogue from Alan Moore’s famous Superman story, “For the Man Who Has Everything.” Wonder Woman emerges from an anatomical diagram of a woman’s torso, in an image collaged from that same comic. While the Virgin seems to be nodding prayerfully at Wonder Woman, they are attributed lines that are antithetical to each other. Is the Mexican religious icon set up to fight the representative of American popular culture? The image is ambiguous.

There is no uninterrupted history of codex-making practice that connects the rhetorical work being done by Gomez-Peña, Chagoya, and Rice with pre-conquest manuscripts. However, Codex Espangliensis is a massive act of memory, reaching into both American popular cultural imagery and indigenous imagery to invent a way to represent the ongoing struggles of colonialism in a way that is both new and old. The book engages the rhetorical traditions of the Americas and transmits them to future visual rhetors: by identifying itself as a work of comix, as well as a codex, it suggests that memory work and performance work can be tasks done by other visual texts.

Codex Espangliensis is the best mass-distributed work I have encountered that exemplifies this theory, in the context of indigenous traditions. However, I began a comix-creating odyssey of my own around the same time that I began working with this theory. I would like to discuss one of my own works in order to further demonstrate how comics and visual rhetoric can engage memory in productive and useful ways, building off of indigenous rhetorical traditions.

In 2008, as part of a graduate seminar on the history and theory of rhetoric taught by Dr. Malea Powell at Michigan State University, I had the opportunity to create a synthetic final project. Rather than writing seminar papers, we were assigned to create something more akin to a “collage essay,” where multiple voices, narratives, arguments, and styles can intersect and overlap. However, the specific form and genre of the piece we were to create was up to us: non-alphabetic projects were welcomed.

Over the course of the semester, we had swept through several thousand years of human history, moving from Aristotelian rhetoric to Iroquois wampum hypertextual practices (Haas 77), and from the Belle lettres era of rhetoric to the postmodern and postcolonial (or paracolonial) era. Since I was dealing with such a vast amount of information, the critical faculty I wanted my final project to address was memory. How do you remember all the things you have learned in such a broad survey? The question deviled all of us in the course of the semester. However, we also encountered memory as it lives in the history of rhetoric, in Europe and in the Americas: in the “memory palaces” and mnemonic devices used in medieval Europe to extend and organize human memory before the dawn of print, and in the use of sequential images in codexes to give “armature” to a work that relies on human memory for its performance (Boone 55). Indeed, memory is often described by rhetoricians as the “lost canon,” as it was considered crucial in ancient Greek rhetoric, but ascribed less significance as time went on. However, as is conclusively demonstrated by scholars of indigenous rhetorics such as Angela Haas and Damián Baca, memory remains crucial to understanding the function of many indigenous rhetorical traditions.

After much internal debate over what I actually wanted to make (my original plan was to make a talking accordion-fold codex that used the same technology as musical birthday cards, but I wasn’t able to pull that off), I wrote, drew, collaged, and assembled a 16-page zine mini-comic. While the work is titled “Nonsense Comix 6: Oh shit, I’m in grad school…” the purpose of the text is serious. Through weaving sarcastic humor with allusions to the history of rhetoric, I attempted to create a comic that was also a mnemonic for what we learned and theorized together as a class over the course of a semester. I transformed what I considered the most significant ideas from the course into drawings and collaged images, as well as hand-lettered and collaged text. Furthermore, the comic I created was an artifact that would go home with each member of the class. It was my hope that the comic I created would be useful as well as interesting, that it would be something that could be revisited as a trigger for our poor frazzled grad student memories when we needed to remember something about, say, Hugh Blair.

Figure 3: The second inside page of “Nonsense Comix 6: Oh Shit, I’m in grad school…”

Figure three shows the second inside page of the comic, and is an example of a page that combines original drawings and text, along with collage, to hold memories of many significant moments of learning. The page takes its layout, with a primary image/text surrounded by small blocked off images and texts, from the Codex Borgia, a pre-conquest divinatory manuscript. First and foremost, the page contains my personal definition of rhetoric being spoken aloud by a human figure (creating such a definition was an assignment in the course): “the multiplicity of voices and images engaged in making meaning.” Below this definition is an image of a bird saying, “This is a thing you do in grad school. You define things. Kenneth Burke talked about man as the symbol-using animal, goaded by hierarchy, but he could have as easily meant grad students.” The bird is intended to be the wren mentioned at the very beginning of Burke’s “Definition of Man.”

Surrounding this primary panel are other mnemonic images and quotes referencing other related ideas, as well as jokes and stories from the course. The triangle in the upper-right hand corner of the page that shows the letters L, E, and P and the phrase “whence blackmail?” refers to the rhetorical triangle of logos, ethos, and pathos, and a story I shared about trying to teach this for the first time to freshman writing students. (I tried to have my students brainstorm ways that one might be persuasive, in hopes that we could then derive the Aristotelian triad from their ideas. It almost worked, except one group of students were really hung up on blackmail as a persuasive force, which didn’t really fit into a lesson on essay writing. Maybe it’s a form of ethos? Who knows.) An image excerpted from an episode of the webcomic xkcd appears in the lower left hand corner of the page, showing a sweating stick figure about to enter a room full of playpen balls, with a dialogue balloon appearing from the right reading “Are ya scared yet?” This represents a metaphor I brought up in class based on that comic strip. The original comic represents adulthood and being “grown-up” as the ability to define what grown-up means, including defining it as the ability to fill your living room with playpen balls and jump in. I often looked at the avalanche of ideas coming at us as first-year graduate students as playpen balls that we had the right to jump in. The ball pit metaphor transformed several times over the semester, but it is one of my most memorable metaphoric images from the class (along with Timmy the Terministic Screen, a character who shows up later in the comic as well).

The page contains other laconic images and terse phrases that are intended to trigger memories about rhetorical theory. The monkey in the upper right hand corner, as well as the phrase, “Reading is a form of life.” in the lower left hand corner, allude to Henry Louis Gates’s The Signifying Monkey; similarly, other text on the page alludes to Lacan and to Derrida. The expressive image of the New Mutants character Danielle Moonstar, as drawn by Bill Sienkiewicz, serves in part to represent the bewildered and alarmed graduate student taking in all of this for the first time. (Really, the first time you read Derrida you might as well be studying at the Xavier mansion or Hogwarts: it is certainly bewildering.) It’s also intended as an ironic inclusion of a fictional indigenous comic book character, created by white folks, in a comic that attempts to embody some indigenous visual rhetorical traditions, made by a white academic.

That is a really wordy elaboration of what goes on in just one especially meaning-laden page of the comic. However, as it is intended to play out, this chain of remembering would take place mentally, after the end of the course, as a way to refresh and revisit what we learned (to be fair, with an emphasis on what I, as the comic’s creator, contributed and thought was most important). It is somewhat difficult to measure the success of such a venture. In my later studies and scholarship I have found it useful to return to this text as a reminder of what I had already read. The comic has also been used by colleagues at Michigan State University and Texas A&M to teach rhetoric and multimodal composition. And I have returned to the strategy of using mnemonic images in later comics I have created, although not in quite as explicit a way as I attempted in this work. Overall, I am pleased to consider it a successful experiment, and an encouraging one.

Instead of producing a modern-day artifact that looks anything like a codex, what I attempted to do was to use codexes, as well as other mnemonic indigenous visual texts such as Lakota winter counts, as springboards to ask the question: what are comics for? What can a comic be for? If the extension of human memory was key to such visual texts, can this also be done in a comic?

It is in this way that I believe my project and a larger work like Codex Espangliensis share common ground. Both works use indigenous visual rhetorical traditions as a starting point to extend the potential of contemporary textual production: the codex accesses the relationship between visual rhetoric and performance to tell a new and transgressive story of resistance to colonization, and my comic accesses the relationship between visual rhetoric and memory to serve as a mnemonic for a large amount of rhetorical history and theory. At the same time, both texts remain coherent sequential narratives (as ambiguous as the one presented in Codex Espangliensis may be). Finally, I hope that this pair of examples shows how thinking about visual rhetorical traditions – about shared acts of remembering and forgetting, of reforging of connections – can be useful in interpreting what is going on in a text with obvious historical connections, as well as in imaging what can be done with a text as a writer, artist, or creator.

6. The Legitimacy of Visual Texts

To conclude, in viewing decolonial histories of writing and the history of comics side by side, there is a clear duplication of efforts to define visual texts as serious and legitimate in different academic contexts. In both cases, the evolutionary model of writing that labels communicating with pictures as both primitive and childish has caused harm to producers of visual rhetoric. However, the scale of the harm done becomes exponentially larger as a force of colonial power, which destroys the libraries of entire civilizations, than as a force that merely reifies the canon of literature and privileges alphabetic text as more worthwhile than comics.

In Thierry Groensteen’s essay “Why Are Comics Still in Search of Cultural Legitimization,” reprinted in A Comics Studies Reader, he decries the comic’s lack of legitimacy: despite the comic’s continuous existence since Töpffer, “it is curious that the legitimizing authorities (universities, museums, the media) still regularly charge it with being infantile, vulgar, or insignificant” (3). He describes comics as enacting the “imprisonment of verbal expression in the visual system” and claims that “the champions of a culture which postulates the supremacy of the written word over all other forms of expression could only take this inversion as an attack” (6-7). Walter Mignolo also deals extensively with the devaluing of non-alphabetic writing by power structures and legitimizing authorities. In his afterword to Writing Without Words: Alternative Literacies in Mesoamerica and the Andes, he states that “one of the consequences of alphabetic writing in the history of the west was its close association with speech and the increasing distinction between writing and drawing” (293). In this case, “the Greek legacy of the power of the letter to represent speech” is the legacy that indigenous texts contend with (300).

In both cases, the authors access Derrida’s critique from Of Grammatology: that logocentrism leads to the fallacy that writing copies speech. However, Groensteen largely elides the part of Derridean critique that identifies ethnocentrism as well as logocentrism in the elevation of alphabetic texts as the highest of all intellectual forms. Additionally, Mignolo is writing about the material extermination of all but a few dozen manuscripts from before colonization, while Groensteen is largely writing about texts being accorded the same respect as literature. In fact, Groensteen’s complaint that in regard to a particular history of comics “over a half a century of French, English, Dutch, Spanish, and even American comics [were] denied existence because they weren’t mass-produced!” seems downright petulant in comparison to the destruction by fire of Mexica, Maya, Mixtec, and Toltec works en masse by colonial authorities such as Diego de Landa, so that only a handful remain today (Mignolo, Darker Side 71).

Rather than set up an argument about whose visual texts are the most marginalized and why, it is more important to let this comparison force the question: can we address how the power structures of colonialism work with logocentrism to marginalize visual rhetorical traditions? Is it possible that the same forces that led to the destruction of indigenous works are still marginalizing visual works, in different ways, through different material and historical processes? This possibility opens up a fruitful and interesting space for people working in comics studies, rhetoric and composition, and indigenous studies to build theory and interdisciplinary conversation. I have only begun to suggest brief examples of places where this has happened already in the crafting of visual rhetorical texts; more probably exist already, and many more can be produced if this framework is used as a springboard.

In the end, there can never be only one history of comics or rhetoric, but many narratives grounded in time and place. We are constituted by the multiplicity of stories we tell about ourselves, within and without our scholarly work. Through this work, I would like to imagine comics studies as a place where decolonial work can happen to constellate our field as broadly as possible, and to draw productively from as many places as possible, to craft a truly interdisciplinary field of study that does justice to visual rhetorical traditions practiced by people throughout space and time.


Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La frontera. Excerpted in The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg, eds. Boston: Bedford-St. Martin’s, 2001. 1585-1604. Print.

Baca, Damián. Mestiz@ Scripts, Digital Migrations, and the Territories of Writing. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. Print.

Bizzell, Patricia, and Bruce Herzberg. The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present. Boston: Bedford-St. Martin’s, 2001. Print.

Boone, Elizabeth Hill. “Aztec Pictorial Histories: Records Without Words.” In Writing Without Words: Alternative Literacies in Mesoamerica & the Andes. Elizabeth Hill Boone and Walter Mignolo, eds. Durham: Duke University Press, 1994. 50-76. Print.

Chagoya, Enrique. “Imagery.” In Codex Espangliensis: From Columbus to the Border Patrol. By Guillermo Gomez-Peña, Enrique Chagoya, and Felicia Rice. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2000. Print.

Gomez-Peña, Guillermo. “Texts.” In Codex Espangliensis: From Columbus to the Border Patrol. By Guillermo Gomez-Peña, Enrique Chagoya, and Felicia Rice. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2000. Print.

Gomez-Peña, Guillermo, Enrique Chagoya, and Felicia Rice. Codex Espangliensis: From Columbus to the Border Patrol. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2000. Print.

Gonzáles, Jennifer. Introduction. Codex Espangliensis: From Columbus to the Border Patrol. By Guillermo Gomez-Peña, Enrique Chagoya, and Felicia Rice. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2000. Print.

Haas, Angela. “Wampum as Hypertext: An American Indian Intellectual Tradition of Multimedia Theory and Practice.” SAIL: Studies in American Indian Literature 19.4 (2007): 77-100. Web. 23 July 2010.

Harvey, Robert C. “Comedy at the Juncture of Word and Image: The Emergence of the Modern Magazine Gag Cartoon Reveals the Vital Blend.” In The Language of Comics: Word and Image. Robin Varnum and Christina T. Gibbons, eds. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001. 75-96. Print.

Howes, Franny. “Nonsense Comix 6: Oh Shit, I’m in Grad School.” 28 Feb 2010. Web.

Kunzle, David. “Rodolphe Töpffer’s Aesthetic Revolution.” In A Comics Studies Reader. Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester, eds. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2009. 17-24. Print.

Leon-Portilla, Miguel. The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico. Boston: Beacon Press, 1992. Print.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics. New York: Harper Perennial, 1994. Print.

Mellon, Melissa L. “Our Minds in the Gutters: Sexuality, History, and Reader Responsibility in George O’Connor’s Graphic Novel Journey into Mohawk Country.” ImageTexT: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies. 4.3 (2009). Dept of English, University of Florida. 28 Feb 2010. Web.

Mignolo, Walter. The Darker Side of the Renaissance: Literacy, Teritorriality, and Colonization. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan UP, 2003. 2nd ed. Print.

Mignolo, Walter. “Signs and Their Transmission: The Question of the Book in the New World.” In Writing Without Words: Alternative Literacies in Mesoamerica & the Andes. Elizabeth Hill-Boone and Walter Mignolo, eds. Durham: Duke University Press, 1994. 220-270. Print.

Mignolo, Walter. Afterword. In Writing Without Words: Alternative Literacies in Mesoamerica & the Andes. Elizabeth Hill-Boone and Walter Mignolo, eds. Durham: Duke University Press, 1994. 293-313. Print.

Munroe, Randall. “Grownups.” xkcd. Web. 23 July 2010.

Sheyashe, Michael A. Native Americans in Comic Books: A Critical Study. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 2008. Print.

Whitson, Roger. “Introduction to ‘William Blake and Visual Culture,’ a special issue of ImageTexT.” ImageTexT: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies 3.2 (2007). Dept of English, University of Florida. 28 Feb 2010. Web.

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