Review: Metaphoricity of Conventionalized Diagetic Images in Comics

Michał Szawerna’s recent book Metaphoricity of Conventionalized Diegetic Images in Comics: A Study in Multimodal Cognitive Linguistics analyzes a variety of structural aspects of the visual languages of comics by taking a deep dive into Peircean semiotics and cognitive linguistics, particularly conceptual metaphor theory, and cognitive grammar. The book seems to have flown largely under the radar of most discussions of comics theory, but it is interesting in several regards.

The book opens with an analysis of the history of scholarship on comics, emphasizing the structuralist and linguistic analyses. Included in this is a discussion of Polish research, which I had not previously seen discussed in other publications. It also extensively covers the semiotic theories of C.S. Peirce and the developments of conceptual metaphor theory over the past 30 years.

The substantive chapters then each delve into a different aspect of the structure of comics. This starts with a chapter on the abstract properties of panels and how they convey time across sequences, then progresses to a discussion of depictions of motion (motion lines, polymorphic panels).  Chapters then discuss the depictions of sound (balloons), and “mental experiences” (like thought bubbles, upfixes). A concluding chapter then summarizes the overall arguments.

The book throughout contains several insightful examples and analyses, and at the least makes one consider the complexity of various visual conventions. For example, the chapter on motion discusses what I’ve called “polymorphic” representations, where a single panel shows a character repeated in an action to imply motion. Here Szawerna observes that this overall pattern extends beyond motion, and can also depict transformations, like a werewolf’s shift from a man to wolf-man. I don’t think I’ve seen this representation discussed in any other paper, and it’s  nice observation of its similarities to other polymorphic panels.

Other observations seem a little overly strong. For example, in the chapter on comic panels, Szawerna takes on the strong McCloudian position that the width of panels has a direct correspondence to time duration. He also claims that images in sequence are directly mapping to a timeline of episodic events (a space = time metaphor), even comparing comics to the grid pattern of days on a calendar. I’ve long pointed out problems with this view, and support against it has been provided by several experiments.

This relates to my first critique of the book. Though the book has many good insights, it ultimatley feels like a case of “if all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail.” That is, the metaphorical interpretations run so rampant throughout that no alternative interpretations are offered nor considered. I don’t disagree with metaphorical interpretations of various conventions, but it seems a metaphorical interpretation should be a “last resort” if a simpler explanation is possible. For example, experimentation of motion lines has implied their understanding is not metaphorical or based on our perception of moving objects, but driven largely by conventionalization.

Also, while the work is clearly well-researched, at times references seem selective or miss important arguments. For example, in the introductory chapter, Szawerna critiques my notion of visual language on the basis of Hockett’s design features for language, claiming that visual languages cannot be languages because they do not exhibit thing like duality of patterning or arbitrariness. However, these issues are addressed in the second chapter of my book, which is cited, and perhaps more importantly, does not acknowledge that those features do not hold up for sign languages, nor are they even consistent descriptors of spoken languages.

My second main critique of the book relates to cognition. Mostly the book seeks describe what is happening in the visual language of comics, often in very intense details. But, these often amount to just giving labels to things, falling short of explaining the mechanisms and cognitive processes involved in these representations. Granted, description is important too, but I would have hoped for more of a balance.

More concerning is the repeated invocation for the “psychological reality” of the argued analyses, despite no evidence being provided for such interpretations. There are no theoretical diagnostic tests, nor is any empirical literature discussed, even though there has been relevant psychological experiments about many of the issues under analysis.  Claims of “psychological reality” need to engage the actual experimental cognitive literature, as should any theoretical claims about how “comics work.”

For example, the experimental literature would especially be useful to examine Szawerna’s claim that people transparently understand images and conventions in visual languages (which he attributes to Miodrag). The empirical literate actually shows cultural differences for many conventions that occur in comics (and even basic drawings). Also, developmental psychology has shown trajectories for learning to understand basic images, image sequences, and morphemes like motion lines and carriers. Szawerna uses the assumption of transparency to ground claims of metaphoric knowledge motivated by universal and embodied understanding, but the literature does not seem to support this (although, non-transparency does not rule out a metaphoric interpretation).

Finally, it should be noted that stylistically this book is not an easy read, particularly for those who don’t often read research on linguistics. It is often weighed heavily by jargon and exceedingly long sentences. Some serious copyediting could beneficially cut at least a third of the book’s 490 page length. This would have been useful, as I fear that sometimes the book’s insights are buried beneath the prose.

Criticisms aside, the book seems like it would be important for scholars to engage if they are interested in the understanding of these elements of visual vocabulary and/or visual metaphor. In addition, this book seems to be a landmark in the study of the visual language of comics for what it does. It is the first, to my knowledge, to devote a book extensively to rigorously analyzing just a few structural features of the visual domain. Such depth of analysis is indicative of the growing seriousness and sophistication of the linguistic and cognitive approach to visual languages, hopefully making Szawerna’s book a harbinger of further works to come.

Szawerna, Michał. 2017. Metaphoricity of Conventionalized Diegetic Images in Comics: A Study in Multimodal Cognitive Linguistics, Łódź Studies in Language 54: Peter Lang Publishing.


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