Menu Close

Review of Comics and Language: Reimagining Critical Discourse on the Form

By Molly J. Scanlon

Miodrag, Hannah. Comics and Language: Reimagining Critical Discourse on the Form. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2015.

Recently I noticed a graduate student struggling with the amorphous nature of comics scholarship. She wanted to examine how comics authors execute shifts in consciousness or point of view, but quickly became frustrated with existing scholarship: countless works that either focused on defensive arguments of the form or provided close readings with little regard for contributing to growing theories of the form. Existing approaches to formalism weren’t applying cleanly to her readings either. She articulated this frustration in my office one afternoon; I shared that I too have experienced similar setbacks in my research. Together we lamented the ways in which the interdisciplinary study of comics requires us to pull from so many sources in order to generate a productive lexicon for describing the form—which itself presents problems—let alone borrowing critical approaches from other disciplines without time or ability for due consideration of their intellectual genealogy. A few weeks later I began reading Comics and Language: Reimagining Critical Discourse on the Form by Hannah Miodrag. My first instance of marginalia read, “She is moving Anglophone comics scholarship in the right direction.”

Amending Current Critical Paradigms

Comics and Language consists of three parts: “Language in Comics;” “Comics as Language;” and “Images as Language.” Eloquently articulated in the introduction, Miodrag’s goal in the book is to amend the field’s approach to comics criticism by examining how current literary and linguistic criticism in the field ultimately does a disservice to the form. Miodrag compels scholars toward a disciplinary reflexivity that has been a long time coming—at least in Anglophone circles—by identifying “divergent discursive expectations and contradictory intellectual goals” (6) that have prevented a more sophisticated critical approach to the study of comics. She qualifies current approaches to comics scholarship as primarily defensive, then proceeds to problematize each using examples from comics.

In each section of the book, Miodrag follows her criticism by proposing more deliberate and empirical conceptions/applications of various literary and linguistic theories. For example, as she problematizes the ways in which various literary and linguistic critical theories have been applied to comics, Miodrag stresses the importance of both verbal and visual signification. She insists that verbal and visual signification be considered in their own right. While some critics resist such a suggestion—for fear of unraveling the interdependent collaboration of text and image in the form—she presents a persuasive case for considering each individually. Miodrag argues for scholars to consider several productive distinctions among theoretical approaches to comics that serve as cohesive binds across the book’s three parts.

“Language in Comics”: Importance of Verbal Signification

In Part One, Miodrag argues that critics too often sideline linguistic elements in comics. In order to argue for linguistic elements as the basis of a comic’s literariness, she uses examples from Herriman’s Krazy Kat, demonstrating how language play, and not simply narrativity, defines a text as literary (18). Miodrag’s readings of several Krazy Kat strips illustrate not only the power inherent in language systems (the langue), but also just how resistant linguistic structure is to challenge. Ignatz’s many acts of “disruptive communication,” for example, result in humor in the comics. Miodrag argues that by their very nonsensical nature they are seen as outside of acceptable language use and therefore not a serious defiance. Literary analysis of Krazy Kat in the first chapter is followed by a Saussurean analysis of language in Lynda Barry’s work in the second. In order to further reinforce that the overarching systemic qualities of the langue are unique to linguistic signification, the author takes up claims by McCloud, Cohn, Kress, and Van Leeuwen. She concludes by articulating the primary distinction: “The role played by the langue distinguishes visual and verbal as, respectively, a system in which signs are made, and a system in which signs are used. In language, speakers are always reusing preexisting signs, whereas visual signification affords scope for creating new ones” (43).

Prior efforts to deny any hierarchical relationship between verbal and visual have resulted in a false conclusion that the two sign systems are indistinct in the comics form. Miodrag responds to this refusal in her analysis of literary language within comics. In chapter three, for example, she explores the work of Will Eisner, Alan Moore, and Posy Simmonds in terms of spatial arrangement of words. Miodrag acknowledges that the visual materialization of linguistic signs on the page (that is, words) “affects and is affected by the pictorial content, and it is the evolving relationship between these within the web of the entire work that produces the text’s full effect” (78). Miodrag’s conceptualization of comics as a web or a network relies on this very understanding; verbal and visual signification are vital components, and that is precisely why each should be considered as a distinct entity and as a productive part of the whole. Miodrag concludes Part One with an especially salient claim and important warning in regards to linguistic signs: “Critics agree that the visual is vital to comics, but in acknowledging this we must not overlook the potential centrality of text—of material, graphic, spaced-out words—in shaping these visual works as much and potentially more than do iconic pictures” (79). Though she argues for the distinction, she is also acutely aware of how the relationship between word and image is vital—though not unique—to the form.

“Comics as Language”: Reading Repeatedly

In Part Two, Miodrag explores the ways in which word and image interact in several comics examples—reminiscent of McCloud’s taxonomy of word/picture combinations (153-5). Ultimately she concludes that claims regarding the nature of word/image interaction cannot and should not speak for the form as a whole: no single case of word/image interaction should be made to represent the full range of possible interactions. She focuses primarily on visual signification, using City of Glass to argue that “[t]he effect of the sequence depends on the palpable and resonant gap between what is said and what is seen, with word and image necessarily remaining distinct in order for this reciprocal offsetting and countering to occur” (92). Though the image itself can take a secondary role in terms of driving narrative direction, Miodrag urges us to acknowledge that “the atmospheric contribution these pictures makes is not negligible because they contribute little additional information: they are metaphorical, engaging, and imaginatively arousing” (92). Miodrag argues, then, that comics’ verbal-visual interaction should be referred to as a hybrid, because the term “acknowledges that this new whole is formed from two constituent elements, totalities in their own right that are ontologically separate entities, and so avoids the problems inherent in positing the form as a ‘language,’ whose interacting elements somehow override their dual consistency” (99). Comics’ hybridity, for example, is enacted in instances of materialized visualizations of verbal signs like the (in)famous “Pow!” Relying once again on linguistic structuralism, Miodrag argues that “this powerful ‘pow’ is both visual and verbal at once, but does not then somehow become neither. We lose nothing of either of the separable visual and verbal elements, though each adds something to the other” (103). If “pow” were typed instead of drawn, for example, the very same linguistic signifier would be read in an entirely different way; its relationship to the visual signifier creates the difference. Miodrag quotes Sabine Gross: “learning to read means learning to stop considering letters and words as images” (105). Miodrag’s use of Gross’s work provides much-needed clarity at the conclusion of another theory-heavy chapter. Inevitably, Miodrag argues, meaning making from the perspective of a comics reader refers not to reading differently but reading repeatedly, each time applying a new lens of either visual or verbal signification, or what Gross and Chute have both described as a “back-and-forth” pattern (106). The speech balloon—which can require readers to see text as both image and language simultaneously—is one aspect of the comics form that is unique; simultaneity of narrative content is another.

Miodrag identifies two unique elements of the comics form in Part Two: the speech balloon, a “visualization of words that precludes the easy dissection of the visual and verbal” (101), and “the simultaneity of narrative segments on the two-dimensional page” (111-12). In chapter five, she further explores existing criticism on the visual elements of the comic, pulling largely from film theory and problematizing such disciplinary borrowing. Primarily, Miodrag argues that conceptualizing the comics panel as formally similar to the film shot is not the most productive application of film theory because, in the comic, “within the page, simultaneous panels can participate in webs of interrelationship that violate narrative sequence” (112). Relying heavily on the work of Neil Cohn, she identifies why existing scholarship on sequence in comics is so problematic. For one, she argues, panel sequence does not denote narrative time, but—more often than not—reading time. Secondly, “over-general comparisons with the linguistic structural model little illuminate the way texts are organized and read” (126). However, Cohn argues that panel structure equates to an organizing principle not unlike language’s grammar. Miodrag diverges on this point and instead uses it to further problematize the idea that narrative time and reading time share a linear sequence. Rather, non-linear sequence is also possible in comics, an aspect of the two-dimensional form to which film theory cannot pertain. In this way, if we are to use a metaphor to describe comics, Miodrag suggests we abandon “sequence” and embrace “network” in order to reflect the ways in which readers actually “move through,” or have the ability to move through segments in a linear or non-linear fashion.

“Images as Language”: Limits of Linguistic Structuralism

In the third and final section, Miodrag continues to contest claims that comics are a language or that visual signification is comparable to that of verbal. Now, I will admit that I had to dust off some texts from graduate school to make these connections truly clear—but that is more of a reflection of my vague ability to recall theories of linguistic structuralism than it is of the author’s intelligibility. By chapter nine, she begins to articulate the ways in which the composition of the page can be seen to parallel semiotic systems in productive ways—just not as broadly as the langue denotes. In other words, the meaning-making structure of a single comics text is indeed a semiotic system—particularly as it consists of logical connections through motivated signs and familiar conventions. However, though the langue is a semiotic system, the logic does not work in reverse; not all semiotic systems constitute the overarching social structure of linguistic langue. Just before the conclusion of the text, she writes, “[like] any semiotic system, meaning depends on differential relationships, and individual panels are imbued with a significance dependent on their place within a larger system. However, their values are constructed within the bounds of individual texts”—the “langue of the text” (176)—”and are often additionally imbued with significance through their context. Composition is a system of motivated forms whose significance is often interpretable in ways arbitrary language is not” (245). A strength of this final section, and of the book as a whole, is Miodrag’s delineation of which scholarship has been productive in moving the field towards a more standardized critical discourse. In fact, Miodrag’s certainty regarding the boundaries of comics’ formal features—supported by her thoughtful consideration and application of these critical lenses—carves a helpful, and dare I say liberating, path for future scholarship. By resolutely excluding images from the langue, we can abandon our preoccupation with fitting formal and organizing principles of language to the visual. Theory is, after all, only as effective so far as it helps comics scholars to articulate phenomena of meaning making. If we follow Miodrag’s approach, however, we are free to explore other criticism that may map more productively to the form than did the ill-fitting formal and organizing principles of linguistic grammar, syntax, and others.

What is/isn’t unique to the form?

Among the most compelling findings from Miodrag’s work on comics is that many of the elements we profess to be unique to the form are, in fact, not. Four major points constitute the meat of these findings: collaborative play of word and image; incorporation of “literary” writing in multimodal form; closure required from audience; and sequentiality. She defines collaborative play of word and image as a hybrid, but the expansive repertoire of possible word/image combinations is not unique to the comics form. She reminds us that such combinations regularly occur often in other media such as film, print advertisements and corporate logos. Incorporation of literary writing isn’t unique either; other media regularly rely on highly creative verbal signification for meaning making. Even McCloud’s tenet of closure didn’t make the cut, for—as she argues through Ernst Gombrich—”‘there is no representation [that] leaves nothing to the imagination’: we fill in unheard words in conversation, overlook misprints and deduce the correct word when reading, and infer familiar images from loose or abstracted representations” (108). Finally, sequentiality in narrative—a vital modifier in McCloud’s definition of comics: “sequential art”—”does not hold the key to understanding the comics form” despite its current role as “cornerstone of current conceptions of the form” (126; 141). Because Miodrag so fearlessly leaves no (corner)stone unturned, I would have liked to see the discussion of elements unique/not unique to the comics form take a more prominent focus in the text’s organization and framing, perhaps via more emphasis in the introduction or the conclusion.

In terms of elements unique to comics, my discussions of Part Two already identified three: the speech balloon, the simultaneity of narrative content on the two-dimensional page, and the unique network that require us to “scan and rescan the various relationships between the various segments (panels and actions) in this composition” (165). Miodrag articulates one more element unique to the form, its “divergence from prose literature” (60). Comics have formal limits that necessarily challenge literary lenses of word play. Perhaps the largest setback of Miodrag’s argument is that though she leads with a chapter on language in comics as potentially literary, she doesn’t problematize the very aim of literariness soon enough.

Toward the conclusion of Part One, Miodrag writes: “Due caution must be taken when applying neighboring analytical paradigms, such as literary close reading, to the comics form. Such applications can only ever be a starting point for a fully developed theory of comics; we cannot simply build comics theory from pieces of existing theory without attuning these to the art form’s particularities” (60). Miodrag clarifies, however, that applying literary analysis to better understand a comic’s verbal signification does not mean every comic should be evaluated by its literariness. This clarification is one that I had anticipated since chapter one, but didn’t appear until chapter three. A large faction of Anglophone scholars consciously avoid the academic colonization of comics by attempting to elevate their position in popular mass culture to one of a more highbrow nature. I could not tell for sure where Miodrag stands in terms of this debate, but I nonetheless wanted to see her actively resist this urge and to identify not only the benefits, but also the limitations of literary criticism as she later does with linguistics. In order to articulate the holes she sees in existing theory, Miodrag is forced to cage exceptions to the rule until she has articulated a countering amendment. But, her acknowledgement that comics writing is “divergent from prose literature” does indeed come. What follows is another thoughtful consideration of how the comics form is indeed “not a mere hybrid of graphic art and prose literature,” because of the possibility for “visual arrangements [to] create literary effects” (87; 76).

Miodrag’s cautionary tale of haphazardly applying “neighboring analytical paradigms”—literary or otherwise—is central to the text’s purpose. Productive debates regarding the disciplinary purview of comics studies can only serve to grow the field. The existence of these very conversations brings us closer to uniting intellectual goals and establishing more convergent discursive expectations among scholars. My reading of Hannah Miodrag’s Comics and Language gave me a revised understanding of the current state of comics criticism and a deferred dream regarding future growth of the work we do. I immediately scanned the introduction and sent it to my graduate student, along with the recommendation that she find a copy before the end of the term; it is sure to enlighten not only her current project, but also the future of Anglophone comics scholarship.

Related Articles