Abstract Comics and Visual Language

Abstract Comics is a new collection of non-representational comics by a variety of authors, including my esteemed blogging colleague Derik Badman. Besides being a beautifully done work of artistry and imagination, among particular crowds it spurs the question “If these are comics, then what ‘are comics’?”

To this end, the book (and the nature of the contents in general) makes a good conversation piece. They also make a great example of how to distinguish the difference between “Comics” and my notion of “Visual Language”, which is made clearest by teasing out just what parts of cognition these comics engage.

First, we should ask the question “Are abstract comics of this sort ‘comics’ at all?” I would have to say “YES” — simply because they call them so. However, they are not instances of visual language.

To repeat my theory… Visual language is a system of patterns (from people’s heads) in that expresses concepts through the graphic modality using sequential images. So, visual language uses three interlocking cognitive systems:

1. Graphic modality
2. Meaning
3. Sequential structure (i.e. grammar)

Like spoken or signed languages, this system is culturally relative, meaning that different cultures use different visual languages (for example, “standard” manga style versus “standard” superhero style dialects), and this system is used socioculturally in comics paired along with written languages.

Comics are written in visual language (± text) the same way that novels are written in English. Novels aren’t English, and Comics aren’t visual language. (This equation would essentially be McCloud’s position, that comics “are” sequential images).

Given this, abstract comics most definitely are comics — because they call themselves comics, they are formatted like comics, they are made by people affiliated with comics, sold in comic stores, etc. They satisfy most all the sociocultural aspects that one would expect comics to fulfill.

However, they do not use visual language. They don’t use representational depictions that reflect patterns in people’s heads. They don’t seem to have any sort of grammar of narrative structure. They don’t depict any meanings at all. In other words, they use just one of visual language’s structures from our cognitive system*:

1. Graphic modality
2. Meaning
3. Sequential structure (i.e. grammar)**

They are merely playing with the graphic modality in a sequential way that entirely lacks meaning (in the conceptual sense, not necessarily the “artsy” sense).

As a result, abstract comics make a great example of comics (and art) that lack visual language. This is the inverse of something like an airplane safety card, which is representational, but lies outside the sociocultural category of calling it “comics.” I should say also, that this isn’t a bad thing — it’s quite fun, clever, and creative, and further goes to my point that these notions of “comics” and “visual language” are separate.

* Interestingly, the one cognitive structure they do use though, is visual language’s navigational system for how to move through a page layout. In many ways this is an ancillary system to the primary VL system for expressing meanings in sequence, but it is curious that this seems to be one of the formal ways in which abstract comics get to call themselves “comics”.

** I haven’t analyzed the pieces in the book enough, but it is not inconceivable that graphic sequences with no meaning could still retain a narrative grammar. For example, Action Star substitution incorporated into a sequence with purely visual surrounding panels could lend to this result.


  • After reading this post, and your "Un-Defining Comics" article, I'm wondering why you stop at define Visual Language with the three criteria listed here and what exactly you mean when say that Abstract Comics don't fulfill the criteria of meaning.

    For example, how do you define the word "the"? It is a definitive article, but what does it mean? If you look at the problem this way, doesn't the "meaning" aspect of visual language become more complicated?

    However, this is not my main concern with your definition. My main concern is with how you are defining meaning. While looking at an abstract painting or drawing, I find a lot of meaning, but not something that I can explain in text. How can someone look at something and not gain some meaning, even if it is subconscious?

    Finally, I'm not sure that 'grammar' is a necessary part of any language. Within linguistics, there is a set definition of language that is usually defined by the International Phonetic Alphabet, but I'm not sure what grammar can mean for visuals/images. It seems like an attempt commodifying art – which wants to pervert and disrupt traditional (Western) logic (see JF Lyotard, among others). Since you also mention sequential structure, what is unstructured about abstract comics/art? Isn't a single-panel work structured in some way?

    Check out Aaron Meskin's article "Defining Comics?" from the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism (2007). The basic argument is that we need to stop trying to define comics and play with the form.

    In a way, this is a very modernist approach to visuality, trying to define and control art that makes meaning.

  • Thank you for the reply. I don't mean to say this negatively, but it doesn't sound like you understand the linguistic understanding of language.

    First, IPA is not a way of "defining language" — it is a way of describing sound systems. All natural languages use a grammar (syntax), which is the thing that sets apart gestures (not language) from sign language (language). I know several words in Korean, but without knowing the grammar no one in their right mind would say I "speak Korean."

    "Meaning" as I discuss it here refers to "semantics" or "conceptual structure" that is the propositional information of a reference. Abstract art of all kinds might express emotive or visual information, but it is not conceptual. That is, there is no "reference."

    Your example of the "the" is not technically a "word" (it's a clitic) and in its function as a definite article it modifies the meaning of other words. Not all aspects of meaning are concrete.

    Abstract art has no conceptual meaning at all (though, as I said, it does have "artistic/interpretive" meaning).

    Finally, I've read Meskin's article. I thought it was decent, though partially a cop out.

    I should also state that in no way have I tried to "define and control art that makes meaning." I've merely teased out the issues involved and am fully supportive of art that uses all types of expression.

  • Oh, I should also note that on your first comment, Visual Language certainly has other traits than those three, but those are the primary fields for any type of language:

    1. Modality (verbal, graphic, manual)
    2. Meaning (semantics – i.e. "Reference")
    3. Grammar

    See my above post for why abstract comics don't fulfill the criteria of meaning.

  • Neil, I think there's an internal contradiction in this piece. First you say:

    "Comics are written in visual language (± text) the same way that novels are written in English" and then you show that abstract comics do not, in fact, use visual language. Normally this would work out to Abstract Comics ≠ Comics.

    But you also say "[…]abstract comics most definitely are comics — because they call themselves comics."

    By this logic, if I write a novel in a coding system that is clearly not English or any other written language, one which has no meaning or sequential structure, it's still a novel (an abstract novel?) if I say it is, if I am a writer, if it's formatted like a novel, and it's sold in bookstores.

    Isn't that patently absurd, or at least stretching the definition of "novel" beyond any usefulness?

    And isn't that what you are doing to the term "comics" as well?

    I appreciate your constant and relentless distinction between "visual language" and "comics" and what each should or can describe, but as a critic of an art form, you're a very good linguist. There are questions about what "comics" is that are worth asking, questions that either don't concern themselves with the detailed structure of visual language or which can dovetail nicely with it, similar to questions about poetry and prose that aren't in the province of linguistics.

    Like the man with a hammer who sees every problem as a nail, you seem to want to answer every query about comics with a definition of visual language. The question "Are abstract comics of this sort 'comics' at all?" calls for discussion that would be be useful and illuminating to students of the form, not merely a peremptory "yes" from the college of linguistics.

    I so highly value your work and eagerly anticipate your dissertation; I think you add a valuable voice to the ongoing conversation. I just wish that, more often than you seem to do, you would remember that just as not every question about prose can be answered in terms of generative grammar, not every question about comics can be answered in terms of visual language.

    Sorry for the long reply. Thanks for all your work.

  • Thanks for the comments Walaka.

    Perhaps I should have clarified my statement that "comics use visual language" with a "mostly" thrown in before the "use" (I had deleted it in editing). The point of that statement is to depart from McCloud's notion that the two are not the same thing.

    This is not a definition of "comics", which is why I don't define "comics" as "being visual language" which is not at all what I believe. The only logical problem comes when you define "comics" as "something written in visual language" (or imply the reverse) — which I don't.

    In fact, by my standards, nowhere in this piece do I attempt to "define comics" at all except to say that it is socioculturally defined (i.e. not by any distribution of sequential/individual images and/or text).

    Some comics don't use visual language — that's the reason for saying that the two things are different, and that abstract comics exist without needing to use visual language.

    And, that's the whole point of this post: the two notions are different, and defining each does not rely on the other. Indeed, I would even go so far as to say that one of the main reasons abstract comics are great is because they don't use visual language. And, the grand discussion emerges from how they challenge people to recognize that separation.

  • Since my linguistics knowledge is admittedly sketchy at best, please excuse any misunderstanding of your post, but I don't think it's accurate to say that abstract comics entirely lack meaning in the conceptual sense. Rather, it seems to me that conceptual meaning is there, just less fixed. For example, I recall Andrei Molotiu stating that someone viewing one of his pieces had interpreted it as a narrative about invading aliens. The same piece might also be construed as a depiction of the lives of microscopic organisms. It seems as though the sociocultural links to to comics and the use of comics layouts in abstract comics implies a narrative grammar even if one is not made explicit through identifiably representational imagery. There is, in my experience, still an illusory sense of some sort of "movement" or passage of "time" in many abstract comics. In my opinion, abstract comics don't delineate a split between comics and visual language so much as reify the conflation of comics and visual language (i.e. McCloud's use of comics as a singular term).
    In fact, the term "abstract comics" implies a play on this conflation of the narrative (comics, in their traditional socio-cultural construction as popular culture) and the non-narrative (abstract art, as a sociocultural signifier of artistic form devoid of narrative content.)

  • Damian, nice comments. I would agree. Abstract comics use graphics in a way that is not "purposefully" meaningful, but meaning can be interpreted the same way that you can see things in clouds or abstract paintings.

    This is finding concepts where they weren't put — like hearing "John is dead" when playing the Beatles record backward. It's not actually said, but can be "heard" if the listener puts their intention to hear it.

  • beside using iconics or figurative drawings or representational graphic, comics also using abstract graphic representation (non-representational).
    The strokes, lines (speed, radial, etc), or any arbiter graphic expression.
    Take a closer look to japanese comics 'manga', they used many abstract graphics to convey 'feeling'
    So, imho comics is not just construct by 'language' but also non-language.
    The technique (art) to tell something through comics' pictures/drawings/graphics need to be 'socialized', so the new reader get used to its symbolicism and get trained his/her ability of visual literacy.

  • Thanks for the comment. The non-figurative aspects of meaning like speed lines and things are still part of the visual language's vocabulary. Those are just things with symbolic reference instead of iconic reference.

    See my paper "A Visual Lexicon" for a larger explanation of all the parts of this visual language vocabulary.

  • Hello Neil,

    First of all let me say I have followed your work for some time. I have also quoted you in my PhD dissertation. We are both interested in similar things, obviously…

    This post made me cringe a couple of times, though. Let me focus on the one that I find the most unsettling:

    "[Abstract comics] do not use visual language. They don't use representational depictions that reflect patterns in people's heads."

    In this same sense, would you say that abstract painting or experimental writing does not *use* visual language? In other words, would you say that a painting like this one does not *use* visual language merely because it is not figurative?

    This is a complex issue, but I think it can be discussed in simple terms. Alphanumeric symbols, for example, do not necessarily represent anything concrete. They are not referents. Even a single word, out of a syntactic structure, can have equivocal referents ("chip," for example, can many different referents, depending on many conditions). It is syntax, and not vocabulary or individual symbols, what provides referential meaning.

    I fail to grasp why your understanding of meaning is limited to figurative (should I understand "anthropomorphic?) referentiality.

    What provides meaning to many of the comics included in Abstract Comics is not anything strictly extratextual (the fact they have been called "comics," or sold in comics shops, or done by people who do other types of comics as well), but the fact that they use the general syntax of comics (in a nutshell, still panels meant to be read in a particular/suggested sequence). The content of individual panels (what Barbieri would call "micronarrative units") is visual (it's certainly not musical), and their disposition in grids/layouts suggest both an existence in space and time. The visual signs contained in the individual panels and composing the pages do transmit messages, and an interpretive process is carried out by the reader. How can this not be meaning, and how can it not be an expression of visual language?

  • Ernesto, thanks for the comment.

    I use the term "visual language" to mean something very specific — not in a general "visual communication" way that is vogue (and makes me cringe at the lack of knowing what language is).

    Abstract comics and art, like the one you linked to, are definitely NOT visual language. The only patterns they might represent are, as I said in the post, ones related to "graphic structure."

    Fore example, think of Charles Schulz's Peanuts. He draws consistent patterned lines and curves for particular ways of representing particular things. These are patterns in his head of how to draw faces, hands, etc.

    Now, if you subtract away the meaning — anything concrete (characters) or symbolic (i.e. non-figurative: speed lines, action stars, etc.) that actually has meaning to it — then all you're left with is the graphic patterns. This would be the same as using sounds from language with no reference in them (i.e. "nonsense" words like "flark, smiggit, or plonaz" which use English phonology, but no meaning). Letters are the same — on their own they are visual patterns connecting only to sound, but no meaning.

    This is what abstract comics do. They use visual shapes and sometimes patterns, but those patterns have no reference (be it concrete or symbolic).

    I do agree with you that some aspects of reference do come out of sequence. However, just because there are panels does NOT mean that there is meaning, nor that sequential panels mean there is sequential meaning. There are two parts to this:

    1) Arrangements of panels in a layout are read through a system of navigational rules that tells you which panel should be read next. This is connected to, but does not rely on, meaning. (See my paper "Navigating Comics").

    2) In the actual creation of meaning, it is a fallacy that panels on their own insinuate the passage of time and space. Panels serve only as attentional units, not time/space units. (See my papers "TimeFrames…Or Not" and "A Visual Lexicon" along with the podcast "The Function of Panels"

    Thanks again for your comments.

  • Thanks for your reply, Neil. I can see how your understanding of the term "visual language" is very specific, and in that sense I understand your argument.

    Would you be willing to consider a different meaning of "meaning," though?

    In other words, why limit "meaning" to what is referential? I may be wrong, but it's as if you were applying the verifiability principle of logical positivism to the study of comics…

    Your use of meaning seems to refer to "cognitive meaning." Even cognitive meaning admits denotation and connotation. Perhaps in abstract art, or in "mere" graphic patterns, meaning is constructed through denotation, in the absence of literal referentiality?

    In certain poetry, for example, "nonsense" words *and* their graphic disposition on the page collaborate in the transmission –if not construction– of meaning. I would suggest it is similar in comics.

    I appreciate the conversation and the thought-provoking posts. Thank you.

  • Ernesto — glad you're enjoying the discussion. That's why I maintain the blog!

    To me, there is no meaning without some form of reference. Unless there is some concept in the brain that is engaged, it does not have meaning.

    Of this, there is two types though, what I call in the post "conceptual" vs. "artsy" meaning. Here's how I described these in another discussion:

    The difference that I make between "conceptual meaning" and "artsy meaning" is in some sense a degree of immediacy. Conceptual meaning is just plain straightforward meaning — how words and images express reference. "Artsy meaning" is interpretive, and often overlain onto conceptual meaning (when present), often a "post hoc inference".

    For example, an image springs to mind from Thompson's Blankets where the main character is standing with arms outstretched and casting a shadow. The conceptual meaning is just that: "guy with arms outstretched casting shadow." But, the pose as a cross gives us "symbolic" meaning associating to Christ and the character's religious conflicts — this is the "artsy" meaning.

    Artsy meaning is less straightforward without this sort of direct imagery, like when people make up a story or interpretation of what some painting/story/etc is "about" above and beyond what is directly given (i.e. "it's a painting about the complexities of living in a harsh ghetto" as opposed to "it's a man holding a basketball in the projects" or something like that).

    As I say in the post, abstract comics and art don't have this conceptual meaning.

    But, as Damian notes above, we might try to fill in conceptual meaning where there isn't any already. In this case, I'd say the "artsy" meaning is an act of coming up with conceptual meaning, the same way as you can imagine faces or objects in clouds.

    It might be appropriate to say this is denotative vs. connotative, though to me this latter "artsy meaning" is a very different process than in referential conceptual meaning. It is often conscious, and often post-hoc.

    I hope that long answer makes sense…

  • Thanks for your reply!

    Considering you are already reading Blankets (which implies a series of given circumstances, including understanding English, knowing of indie comics, etc.) wouldn't it be some kind of aphasia not to be able to get the Christ connotation?

    What you refer to as "artsy" seems to be the metaphoric/paradigmatic axis, the "conceputal" the syntagmatic axis.

    I find it hard to reconcile a separation of both.

  • If you want to think about these as being paradigmatic/syntagmatic, that's fine I suppose. I personally don't subscribe to this sort of semiology/structuralism (the cognitive revolution pretty much ushered it out).

    Artsy meaning doesn't have to be metaphorical. If you go to "metaphor" in Lakoff's sense, there are metaphors at work in the very basic conceptual meanings.

  • Neil, it just hit me that what you are saying is that comics *are* not a language *in themselves*. (I'm slow…)

    Since you don't personally subscribe to structural semiology, I assume you don't agree with people like Umberto Eco, Luis Gasca, Daniele Barbieri or Roman Gubern when they wrote about "the language(s) of comics."

    I am not discussing the difference between "comics" and "visual language" as you define it. I am talking about "comics" being a language in themselves.

    I would suggest all comics share a particular modality, meaning (if understood more broadly than in the cognitive sense you subscribe to) and grammar.

    For me, what's been called "abstract comics" is the equivalent to, say, Luciano Berio's or John Cage's music. What they did *is* music, but not in the same way than, say, Mozart or the Beatles…

    It is *music* not because it was (not without scandal) socioculturally agreed as music –you can find Berio's CDs in the music section of shops and libraries– but because they "speak" the language of music, and therefore *are* music…

    Of course that the discussion now would be if there's "conceptual meaning" in music… if there's not, then it's not a language… and I guess it is here where we have our main disagreement.

    I wonder how you feel about object-oriented philosophy. My preference to speak of a poetics of comics scares me away from any attempt at fixing referential meanings.

    Thank you again for the conversation.

  • Write a Reply or Comment