Review: “Language of Comics” in Art of Comics

The recent compilation, The Art of Comics edited by Aaron Meskin and Royt Cook contains several new articles on a “Philosophical Approach” to comic theory. This book tackles many interesting and pertinent topics about comics, with varying degrees of effectiveness.

Here I’m going to focus on Darren Hudson Hicks’ article, “The Language of Comics” since it is especially pertinent to the topics of my research and this blog. Hicks explores the claim that “comics constitute a language” and analyzes that claim in light of Currie’s opinions that film cannot be a language. There are many problems with this article, and, I’ll focus on some of the largest affronts. In the philosophical tradition then, I don’t feel I’d do it any service to pull my punches, so here goes…

In much of this article, Hicks defends the similarities of comics and natural languages, and tries to point out where Currie’s arguments fall flat. I should say upfront that I support this aim, since my own work has to respond to the same questions. To be complimentary upfront, I do agree with many of his points, and think that he is overall on the right track with many of his arguments. The biggest problem is his lack of knowing (or just citing) other appropriate literature.

For example, Currie argues that film cannot be considered a language because the signs (shots) are not arbitrary symbols. Hicks then defends comics for having a great deal of conventional signs, while pointing out that language also is not entirely arbitrary. His conclusion is that symbolic and iconic signs actually lie on a continuum, not a discrete categorization.

I agree with Hicks’ position overall here and his analysis of it (neither all words nor all images are solely iconic or symbolic). My problem is that Hicks’ conclusion misses the mark because of a lack of knowing previous research. He references C.S. Peirce‘s well known division between iconic, indexical, and symbolic types of reference in discussing the difference (and overlap) between images and words. Yet, he does not acknowledge that within Peirce’s system, conventionality is not solely associated with symbols. Peirce recognizes that all three of those types of reference can be conventional, but only symbols derive their meaning solely from conventionality (i.e. Peirce readily would say that smiley faces are Conventional Icons, just like words are most often Conventional Symbols). Had Hicks known this distinction, the idea of a continuum between iconic and symbolic reference would not be needed. This reveals a lack of actually knowing the literature that is being cited.

Another grating section is where Hicks discusses the relationships between panels on a page. Here, he is trying to argue that individual panels on a page interact greatly with other panels. His point is well made, but in his discussion he resorts to reporting where “the eye” moves while reading the example comic page that is reprinted from Xenozoic Tales. As a cognitive psychologist, this grates on my nerves, because if eye-tracking experiments have taught us anything, it’s that we often do not consciously know where our eyes are looking. To me, this renders his whole description a bit vacuous, because it is based on a faulty premise that he actually knows where his eyes are looking (which he doesn’t: My own first reading of the page completely missed details he claims are “visually prominent” and that my eye should “gravitate towards” showing outright that his analysis might be wrong).

Overall though, the discussion of the relationship between comics and language is framed in the wrong way. Because he mostly adheres to the McCloudian conception that “comics ARE sequential images (± text)”, he then must deal with the issue of whether “comics ARE language.”

This is the wrong comparison, though it is frequently made. As I have discussed at length for the past 10 years (herehere, here, in talks, and many comixpedia articles and blog posts), “comics” are not a language. Rather, “comics” are a cultural context in which a visual language of sequential images is used, where it often combines with text. Just as novels are written in English, comics are written in a visual language (plus maybe also a written language). Dylan Horrocks hinted towards a similar breakdown in his essay, “Inventing Comics.”

If Hicks recognized this disparity, much of his arguments would be simplified, and he would not have to deal with the issue of “defining comics” in relation to language. Also, he would not have to deal with the sticky issue of text-image relationships, since if “comics ARE language, what does it mean for that to enclose another language?” This whole issue is rendered moot if “comics” aren’t argued as a language, but “sequential images” are a visual language which combines with written language in a socio-cultural object of “comics”. (Another pet peeve here: he unnecessarily appeals to the brain processing text and images differently. Not only is mentioning the brain superfluous, but his citation for this is from over 40 years ago. Again… lit review?).

Not recognizing this argument for separating “visual language of sequential images” and “comics” again shows a lack of reading previous literature. In this case, it’s a little personal, because it relates directly to my own work. Despite my work probably being the most vocal advocacy of the relationship between language and sequential images over the past 10 years, nowhere is my work mentioned or cited (though an actual comic of mine is featured and cited in a different essay in the book).

If this omission was on purpose (which I doubt), it raises the issue of “why”? If it was not on purpose (as I suspect), it betrays a lack of basic research on this topic. This is more my issue with the article. It’s not so much that my ego is bruised (Horrocks should be mentioned, as should Mario Saraceni’s dissertation, and others), but leaving it out seems an oversight in doing the appropriate background research for a paper topic that could greatly benefit from this point of view. (The books editors should also have given feedback on this, especially those I’ve corresponded with).

Knowing my work would also be useful for his concluding paragraphs. Here, he dismisses the idea of sequential images (re: “comics”) being a type of full natural language because he cannot conceive of a “syntax” for sequential images. In fact, my book Early Writings on Visual Language laid out my first model of generative “syntax” for sequential images all the way back in 2003, and my recent research has actually provided empirical evidence for psychological validity of a “grammar” for sequential images. Granted, Hicks does mention two other approaches to “syntax” by Saraceni and Groensteen. But, these approaches receive little attention outside an endnote, and they are not discussed in depth. One would think such an important topic would receive more than passing mention as being a too “difficult concept to wrap one’s head around” in the concluding paragraph.

Essentially then, this leaves me with the impression that Hicks is saying, “This idea is beyond me, so I can’t address it well enough, and/or it must not actually exist.” This does not see like the lasting impression one wants to have about an essay in a book collection purporting to be a solid foundation for a “philosophical” approach to comics.


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