[Comics] as Reading – Chapter 3 – Discipline, Langue, and Play in the Discourse of [Comic] Studies pt. 5

PREVIOUS: Chapter 3 pt. 4

Dave Sim, Rick's Story, p. 196

Dave Sim, Rick’s Story, p. 196

Any number of comic artists over the years have used an elaborate, highly stylized, and often remarkably pictographic kind of lettering that draws attention to the visual character of written/printed/drawn text.  The later volumes of Dave Sim’s Cerebus achieve a near apotheosis of the word/image nondistinction.  Consider, by way of example a page from Rick’s Story (above) in which the world of the creator and his drafting table threaten to erupt into Cerebus’ bar.  And if Sim is still too much of a persona-non-grata in the comics world, consider a two-page spread from Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother?  Bechdel’s “comic drama” is replete with line art/hand drawn (and printed) examples of a variety of texts: hand-written journals, computer monitors, letters, newspapers, print books, alarm clocks, labels, pamphlets, calendars, magazines, doodles, etc.  Miodrag’s resistance to even humoring the nondistinction argument renders her argument surprisingly deaf to the very texts that, to my mind, blow it apart.

Alison Bechdel, Are You My Mother?, pp. 132-133

Alison Bechdel, Are You My Mother?, pp. 132-133

Part of this stems from the arbitrariness of pitting words and images against/with each other as the only necessary categories for elements on the plane of the page.  Natsume Fusanosuke, for instance, in his own formalist approach to comics, identifies three components—image (e), word (kotoba), and frame/panel (koma)—which closely mirror Groensteen’s insistence on framing and articulation as necessary pieces in the [comics] structure puzzle.  Takeuchi Osamu, in Manga hyōgen-gaku nyūmon (Introduction to the Study of Manga Expression/Presentation) identifies six formal elements that together distinguish comics from other media, though in his own illustrative example (meaning an example drawn from one of his own [manga]), he points to no less than eight: panel/frame (koma), border lines (wakusen), dialogue (serifu), speech balloons (fukidashi), sound effects (gion), signs (kigō, things like motion lines), figures/characters (jinbutsu), and narrative text (katari no kotoba).

Takeuchi Osamu

Takeuchi Osamu, Manga hyōgen-gaku nyūmon, p. 11

Interestingly, though Takeuchi makes distinctions between types of language (dialogue vs. narration vs. sfx) and puts those distinctions on the same conceptual level as visual elements, there is one kind of writing, evident in his own example, that he omits from this conceptual field: diegetic text, writing integrated into the “images” themselves, shown here with the text bonchiyaki (a type of senbei cracker) on the shop sign in the first panel.  Because writing in a widely literate society is part of the visual landscape of our world (traffic signs, menus, billboards, etc.), occasionally depicting that world will mean rendering writing as part of the line art marks that are used to constitute the image of a t-shirt or a refrigerator or a book or what have you.  Furthermore, Miodrag fails to take into consideration those iconic elements (what Takeuchi refers to as kigō) in comics with semantic content sometimes derivative but largely divorced from “what they depict” in a manner eerily analogous to the arbitrary speech sounds/chicken scratch we regularly attach to high-minded concepts.  It is also worth noting that [comic] artists themselves are perfectly aware of this iconicity of some visual forms.

Berke Breathed, Classics of Western Literature: Bloom County 1986-1989, p. 92

Berke Breathed, Classics of Western Literature: Bloom County 1986-1989, p. 92

The lightbulb over Milo’s head in the second panel of an example from Berkeley Breathed’s Bloom County is illustrative of just how complicated the language/image overlap can become.  The lit bulb represents understanding by way of connections between it and light, light as illumination, and illumination as tied to sight, sight as tied to in-sight.  Or, you could simply point to any of a number of representations throughout the Western literary and artistic traditions of light as reason or intellect or revelation or whatever.  And it’s not like there is a complete lack of any theoretical basis for the relationship between how we read language and how we read images.  Betty Edwards’ Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain is based in the notion that you have to untrain yourself from seeing the world in this conceptual/iconic manner so to be better able to depict it “realistically” in the media of your choosing, so it’s not as if this was even a recent insight.  And, I hasten to note, this theoretical understanding of how seeing relates to drawing began from a practical exercise she gave her students while teaching drawing at Venice High School.

One day, on impulse, I asked the students to copy a Picasso drawing upside down.  That small experiment, more than anything else I had tried, showed that something very different is going on during the act of drawing.  To my surprise, and to the students’ surprise, the finished drawings were so extremely well done that I asked the class, “How come you can draw upside down when you can’t draw right-sight up?”  The students responded, “Upside down, we didn’t know we were drawing.”  This was the greatest puzzlement of all and left me simple baffled.[1] (p. xii)

To recapitulate Ippei’s understanding of [manga] as observations/depiction, it’s worth noting that we all too often take “observation” to be more or less automatic and untrained, as if how we see were simply a natural and obvious outgrowth of our neurological development.  Edwards, however, while she might agree with “automatic,” would strongly disagree with “untrained.”

Global or whole skills, such as reading [!], driving, drawing, in time become automatic.  As I mentioned above, basic component skills become completely integrated into the smooth flow of the global skill.  But in acquiring any new global skill, the initial learning is quite often a struggle, first with each component skill, then with the smooth integration of components… As each new skill is learned, you will merge it with those previously learned until, one day, you are simply drawing—just as, one day, you found yourself simply driving without thinking about how to do it.  Later, one almost forgets about having learned to read, learned to drive, learned to draw. (p. xix)

I would deviate even further to refer to this conversion from conscious attention to “smooth integration” as only apparently automatic,” where so-called muscle memory has taken over from active awareness, because it is entirely possible to “go back,” to draw into one’s focused awareness that which seems to have moved beyond.

This attempt to draw the “automatic” back into the “conscientious” is necessary if we are to see what is harmful in the distinction between theory and practice Miodrag makes and in the assumptions upon which that distinction is predicated.  What both Edwards and McGann (along with the silent Drucker) demonstrate, each one a practically oriented theorist in her/his own way, is that there is a how to perception and how perception translates into understanding (and, perhaps more importantly, how understanding a priori influences perception) is key to loosening the theoretical binds in which we so often find ourselves.  Moreover, while Miodrag’s diatribe falls short of exhorting the academy to expel the practitioner barbarians, her call to discipline them—or kindly request that they discipline themselves—is both outrageous and self-defeating.  The practical know-how—be it artistic or editorial or writerly or whatever—that [comics] practitioners bring to bear has obvious ramifications for the arcane arts of theoretical speculation.  To use a personal example, I, as a scholar, would have had no way of knowing that it was/is quite common practice among American [comic] book publishers to fabricate letters to the editor whole cloth, in addition to selecting and editing those genuine reader letters that were published, if it were not for periodic interactions with [comics] practitioners at conferences, in online forums, and on email listservs.  If one were, for instance, to make grand claims about reader/fan participation within discursive communities surrounding [comics], I would think that this intriguing tidbit of information, obvious to the practitioner but invisible to the sequestered academic, would be rather important to know.

It is no surprise that Miodrag would valorize selectivity, given how highly selective her own reading of relevant theoretical literature is.  Not only that, but her readings of the theoretical texts she does make use of are themselves rather limited.  In addition to riding the distinction between langue and parole rather hard, as if Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics were little more than a langue/parole primer, there is in Comics and Language a rather naïve faith in language-as-reference underpinning this distinction.

The relationship between signifier and signified is purely conventional, based on knowledge.  Visual signs are (certainly more often) motivated, with some logical relationship existing between a sign’s form and its significance.  Pictures look like the thing they represent [!], and though there are codes regulating the relationship between signifier and signified, it is not always necessary to have prior knowledge of a particular sign in order to work out what it represents in the way that it is with arbitrary words, whose signifier-signified association must simply be learnt. (p.9)

If we so desired to plunge ever further down the language theory rabbit hole, it might be worth bringing to bear Derrida’s by now famous critique of the signifier-signified relationship, but it is equally worthwhile to note how Edwards has shown that seeing things as images rather than as concepts bound to what she refers to at one point as the “’tyranny’ of the symbol system” (17) is itself learned and therefore conventional.

The theory of the sign as merely signifier and signified, common to any number of graduate seminars in the humanities, while accurate enough, overlooks an important component of Saussure’s own definition of the sign, namely the basic unit of language at play in the entirety of the three parts of the Cours.

The linguistic sign unites not a thing and a name, but a concept and an acoustic image [image acoustique].  The latter is not a material sound, a purely physical thing, but the psychological imprint of that sound, the representation that we are given testimony of by our senses; it is sensorial, and if we come to call it “material,” that is only in this sense and in opposition to the other term of the association, the concept, generally more abstract. (Saussure, Cours de linguistique generale, p. 98, trans. your dear author)

The term “acoustic image” may seem rather odd, but is perfectly comprehensible so long as we regard it, as Saussure likely did, in etymological terms.  The image, the “semblance” (from the Latin imago) is acoustique and not phonique (i.e. emanating from a “voice” or phōnē), because it is a function of how particular sounds are heard (from akouein, the Greek verb meaning “to hear”), thus the clarification that what in Harris’ translation is referred to rather blandly as a “sound pattern” is a “psychological imprint.”

The psychological character of our acoustic images appears well, when we observe our own language [langage].  Without moving the lips or the tongue [la langue], we can speak to ourselves or recite mentally a piece of verse.  This is because the words of the language [la langue][2] are for us from acoustic images, which we must avoid speaking of as composed of “phonemes.”  This term, implying the idea of vocal action, can only agree with the spoken word, with the realization of the image interior to discourse.  In speaking of the sounds and the syllables of a word, one avoids this misunderstanding, so long as one remembers that it refers to the acoustic image. (ibid.)

It is all too common to speak of language in terms of utterance or enunciation and to speak of texts as uttering and enunciating in this sense, yet Saussure, before ever speaking of le signe in terms of signifier and signified, goes out of his way to make certain that just such an assumption of utterance is avoided by his reader.  He objects to speaking of words in terms of phonemes, precisely because such an externalization—such an objectification of language fails to account for how associations are made between semblances and ideas in signs and how these associations are located not, as Kristeva would seem to assert, out there in some indeterminate ether but in one’s mind.

Saussure, though, does not abandon the conventions of linguistics as an academic discipline—in fact, his work is arguably the source of much that is taken for granted with the practice of linguistics as science.  Yet, as we can see from his claim above, his work also contains within it the seed of its own undoing.  For, if we extrapolate somewhat from the implications of orienting signs in terms of how they are understood, as acoustic images, it is quite easy to see, as Culler does in an earlier quote, the paradoxical relationship between langue and parole, between language as organizing principle and language as used.  The first mention of la langue in reference to signs plays upon the ambivalence of the word.  The words we speak (i.e. paroles) are creatures of the tongue (i.e. la langue), which are the realization in discourse of a governing language (again, la langue).  To speak in broader terms, reading/interpretation cannot be first and foremost speculative, for speculation, as to theory or to meaning, can only arise out of and be bound to practical encounters with texts and how they are understood.

Perhaps it is unreasonable to take Miodrag to task too strongly for that which has not always been understood terribly well, even by the loftiest of high theorists.  Yet, it is unforgivable, to my mind, to regard with a rather snobbish indifference the truly theoretical implications of practical know-how.  I suppose there is a certain degree of comfort in taking things as given.

Familiar things do not look the same when they are upside down.  We automatically assign a top, a bottom, and sides to things we perceive, and we expect to see things oriented in the usual way—that is right side up.  For, in upright orientation, we can recognize familiar things, name them, and categorize them by matching what we see with our stored memories and concepts. (Edwards, p. 55)

However, if any insight gleaned from Edwards’ upside-down drawing exercise is to be taken to heart (if not to head), it would seem that what is necessary in the face of a theoretical impasse is not correction, as Miodrag desires, but rather disorientation, to see awkwardly and asystematically rather than conventionally.

NEXT: Chapter 3 pt. 6

[1] For a more lengthy description of this exercise, c.f. pp. 55 ff. in the third edition.

[2] Saussure depends here on an ambivalence in the word langue, as both the organ and what we might refer to as our “mother tongue,” that is difficult to convey in English with the same economy of expression.



  1. […] the mere juxtaposition of words and images (if we assume those to be wholly distinct categories, which I do not) is a rather paltry precondition for calling something a [comic], though some remain perfectly […]

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