Review: Semiotics and comics

Magnussen, Anne. (2000). The Semiotics of C.S. Peirce as a Theoretical Framework for the Understanding of Comics. In A. Magnussen & H.-C. Christiansen (Eds.), Comics and Culture: Analytical and Theoretical Approaches to Comics. Copenhagen: Museum of Tusculanum Press. pp.193-207

Magnussen’s paper attempts to apply Peircean semiotics to the comic medium, though little of the actual paper focuses on those intents. Much of the paper is concerned with the definition of “comics”, which is too bad, because it is nearly irrelevant for the overall claims attempted to be made. Like others, she conflates the structural aspects of the visual medium with the definition of “comics” though, so that “comics” is a sign type built out of image parts < panel < panel sequence < comic. She makes a parallel to Van Dijk and Kintsch’s 1983 discourse approach, equating panels with propositions and citing “local coherences” between panels created through inferences (which could essentially be the same as McCloud’s notion of “closure”). The “global coherence” of panels relation to the whole is interpretted through narrative schemas. Because she conflates “comics” with stories/sequential images, she states:

“For a comic not to be a story, it should be possible to create a global coherence on the basis of something other than story-structure, and in which the local coherences are made on inferences based on parameters other than actions, actors, time and place” (198).

She then gets into the usual bind regarding whether a comic without a story is actually considered a “comic” or not. If accepting that comics ≠ sequential images, this would be of no concern.

Her main analysis focuses on the semiotic elements of the example comic. She primarily focuses on icons, indexes, and symbols, and leaves out aspects of Peirce’s model regarding the nature of the “Sign vehicle” that would change many of the interpretations related to conventionality. For instance, if she had those notions, simplified icons would not be interpreted as symbolic, but just types of “legisigns”.

Most of her argument though is that comics use indexical signs beyond just icons and symbols. For example, she claims that word balloons are indexical because of the attribution given by their Tails. More interestingly, she claims that the “still-images of actions” are also indexical, because they only show a part of a broader temporal whole action. This is probably the most astute observation of the piece, yet receives relatively little relative attention. This is a key insight, and would be worth expanding on.


  • Thanks for the comment!

    I take it you mean that last point about individual panels being indexical for broader sequences? I’ll see if I can’t mull it over a bit more and do a follow up post.

  • Hello sir,

    I just read your article Undefining “Comics” and then typed semiotics and comic books in a Google search and this was the first link! My name is Tim and I’m an undergrad student doing a senior research paper on comic books (namely Batman and Superman from the 1980s up to the 21st century) and was wondering if you could point me to any articles (like the one you just reviewed) that analyzes comics using semiotics. I just read one entitled Draw a Thousand Words by Barbara Postema and enjoyed it lots (possibly a future review for you?). Anyhow, nice post, I’ll be sure to see what else you’ve written about,


  • Tim, thanks for the comment. I haven’t read the Postema article, but will check it out.

    There isn’t much out there about “comics” that I know of that explicitly uses Peirce’s semiotics. I do, but don’t have articles written with that in mind — it’s usually just an undercurrent or something I give in my lectures.

    Good luck with your studies!

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