Review: The Language of Comics by Mario Saraceni

Saraceni, Mario. 2003. The Language of Comics. New York, NY: Routeledge.

Saraceni’s The Language of Comics is one of the few books that attempts to present a holistic theory of how comics work, and draws upon work from “applied linguistics” no less. The book is actually a stripped down version of his dissertation (as is his article “Relatedness” from the Graphic Novel collection). (And good luck finding the dissertation… I had to print it from microfilm on interlibrary loan).

Unfortunately, much of his approach seems to feel of grafting McCloud’s work to ideas in applied linguistics in a simplistic (and uncited) way. For instance, he proposes a gradation between semiotic types (like symbols and icons), and can well be compared to McCloud’s Big Triangle.

He treats the sequential aspect of panels as equal to sentences, giving them a “discourse theory” type analysis (like the dissertation by Stainbrook). Saraceni claims meaning is created through commonality between elements in panels, alternating with successive new and given information. He also uses “semantic fields” (connected meanings: like how “snow, caroling, pine trees, and presents” invokes “Christmas”) to unite panels not encompassed by this information structure.

However, in doing so, he eschews the role of linear sequentiality, yet provides no argument for why people do indeed read in consistent sequences. The result is essentially a watered down version of McCloud’s closure — which it is: his dissertation has the theory in full, and exactly does shoehorn discourse theory onto McCloud’s transitions. Some of his insights here are useful and enlightening, yet they deal entirely with “exceptions.” He rarely discusses “run of the mill” things like the depictions of events, instead culling his examples from very experimental comics storytelling, like Peter Kuper’s The System.

Other chapters cover things like word balloons (perceived as equivalents to direct quotes) and drawings of eyes to buttress a discussion of subjective and objective viewpoints. The final chapter is about computers, which seems out of the blue and has next to nothing to do with comics.

Since it uses applied linguistics, much of the book feels attuned to what might be useful for literary studies. To this extant it might work very well. However, as a theory of “meaning” it falls short, largely because it does not address any type of cognitive system, and lacks even McCloud’s precision of surface categorization.

My biggest gripe about the book is that it is presented as an introductory textbook as part of the Intertext textbook series, has no citations outside a “recommended reading” list in the end, and is written with a matter of fact tone that presents it as an authoritative stance on the body of knowledge of this field. The truth is that no such body of knowledge exists at this point for “comics theory.” Right now, we’re in that period of science where lots of different viewpoints are popping up, just waiting for an encompassing paradigm shift to sweep in and take over.

Even if I were to come out with a book of my full theories, it wouldn’t be a de facto textbook because it would be my views drawing upon that body of research. As a result, to those “in the know,” the format and style make this book seem misleading in its intents for fronting Saraceni’s views as well established scholarship.

To end on a good note: Though I think it fails in not using a cognitive approach, I do like that the book tries to use concepts from linguistics with “comics.” It shows that this type of approach is not just intuitive to me, but to others as well, and locating the book in the broader field of linguisics is good for the field as a whole.


  • Since you were able to find Saraceni’s dissertation, perhaps you can give me a hand with this. I had the chance to read his book recently. Although I found the overall analysis on cohesion interesting, it called my attention that some concepts from discourse analysis were simplified to a point that may be even misleading, like in the use of the term ‘repetition’ instead of ‘reference’, running the risk of mistaking two linguistic devices that usually mean different things. Something similar also happens with the interpretation of ‘parallelism’ as ‘synonymy’.

    My doubt is whether these shifts in terminology are just the result of the book trying to avoid technical terms. Does the dissertation make use of the same terms, or it gets more precise in this respect?


  • The dissertation does get much more precise than the book. The books is extremely simplified. Even his chapter on "Relatedness" from the book collection The Graphic Novel is much better in this regard. The dissertation is actually very technical and very heavily goes into making parallels with discourse analysis.

    I don't think that the terms you're thinking of are entirely misleading though. By "repetition" he really does mean to what extent something repeats in one panel to the next. Again, this is much better articulated in the dissertation though.

    Though I don't think that the theory of "panel transitions" works on its own, I do think that Saraceni's theory from the dissertation does a really good job of operationalizing several of the ideas in McCloud's transitions. (Of course, I reorganized and doubled the amount of transitions in my first book, but that's neither here nor there).

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