LINGUIST List 15.650

Fri Feb 20 2004

Review: Pragmatics/Lang & Literature: Saraceni (2003)

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What follows is a review or discussion note contributed to our Book Discussion Forum. We expect discussions to be informal and interactive; and the author of the book discussed is cordially invited to join in. If you are interested in leading a book discussion, look for books announced on LINGUIST as "available for review." Then contact Sheila Dooley Collberg at


  1. Kevin Landry, The Language of Comics

Message 1: The Language of Comics

Date: Fri, 20 Feb 2004 12:01:21 -0500 (EST)
From: Kevin Landry <>
Subject: The Language of Comics

AUTHOR: Saraceni, Mario
TITLE: The Language of Comics
SERIES: Intertext
PUBLISHER: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
YEAR: 2003

Announced at

Kevin Laurence Landry, Center for International Students and Scholars
(CISS), Kwangju Institute of Science and Technology (K-JIST).

This book uses discourse analysis to explain comics and in a sense
uses terminology to explain discourse with comics. Knowing the
artist's limitations in sequential art, his perspective and use of
language will develop an appreciation for comics in any layman.
Finding out the secrets behind how panels are linked together reveals
the mystery of how comics are read and can be understood due to visual
representation. The secret language of comics is much like learning
notes for music; it never sounds the same as before and one wonders
how they could not have known earlier. Overall it is more of an
interesting tool to teach analyzing discourse than an analysis of
language in comics.

The core text in the series is 'Working with Texts: A core
introduction to language analysis', and The Language of Comics fits in
with other satellite titles such as the language of Advertising,
Drama, Humour, Poetry, or even Television. Having these other texts
with in the series gives a standard for the author to follow but also
limits the scope and content covered as well as introduces certain
analysis concepts that are not fully developed in this text alone.
The audience is stated as specifically for AS and A2 students to work
in a more analytical manner with texts. Even so, teachers of English
as a Second Language would find the material interesting and useful
for looking at language in an interesting way. The text is rather
academic and does not seem to be addressed to comic book creators.

Chapter one addresses the loose distinction separating graphic novels
and types of classification for sequential art. The main components
special to this genre are employing both words and pictures along with
panels in sequences separated by a gutter. Onomatopoetic words are a
special feature, referred as SFX in the business, depicts noises.
Other rather unique features such as the caption, and balloons are
defined and for an activity readers are told to collect various comics
and analyze them. Although there is commentary on activities from
chapter two, it is only chapter 4 that it is consistently done at the
back of the book. Disappointingly, there is no commentary on the
first activity. It would be better all at the end of each Chapter and
done for each activity even if the exact materials brought are not

Chapter two explains words and pictures in terms of icons, indexing,
and symbols. The differences are on a continuum and even individual
letters are often a mixture of words and artistic expression, the size
and shape of each letter expresses mood and feeling. Conventions of
perspective in art are thought of as existing on a scale between icons
and symbols. Words and pictures are further explained as the
vocabulary and grammar of sequential art.

Chapter three interprets the cohesion between panels and attempts to
explain how the point is gotten across. It is very interesting to
note and have demonstrated the way an element in one panel moves to
the next one. The use of reoccurring content is compared to synonymy
from the core text. Coherence is used to explain the experience
readers bring to the text that connects a group of panels together.
The author states that coherence is found in the gutter but it seems
to be a rather empty distinction.

Chapter four deals with separation of characters and narration from
the voice of the writer and artist. Narration in comics is compared
to novels and additional options open to the medium such as thought
balloons and pictures are demonstrated. The activities begin to be
rather fun and the commentary insightful.

Visual aspects are covered in chapter five. Point of view is defined
in terms of visual, conceptual and interest. The tricks of the trade
are looked at as elements and their location is shown to be hints and
clues to what is to come. It is much like a character we relate to
because experience in our own life is captured in a panel. The
reasons why comics are made and read is left unanswered but something
more than a mere picture book seems to convey something meaningful.
After this Chapter we are left wondering what really does make a good
comic book and what is it that creators are trying to accomplish: what
are they trying to tell us about ourselves?

Chapter six really seems out of place and does not contribute to a
discussion of sequential art. The author compares computers and their
evolution to the language of comics. The restrictions of comics and
what subject matter has been dealt with would have been a much better
ending of the book. Various fonts and computer graphics are discussed
but they really are not related to comics and a historical examination
of changes in popular comic titles would have made a more interesting
summation of language used in comics.

Commentaries explain direct and indirect language as well as
references and suggested further reading. The index of terms contains
specific definitions and the page in which they are dealt with. The
definitions are very clear and only the entries for 'plot' and 'story'
stand out as somewhat odd. 'Plot' is defined as ''the way in which a
story is narrated.'' (Saraceni 2003: 109). However, 'story' is defined
as the series of events that took place and constitute the base for a
plot. I had always considered the plot part of the story not the other
way around.

The author approaches the subject as a reader interpreting the message
artists and writers have for their audience. However, he seems to lack
hands on knowledge of comic production and current technology of comic
creation. The examples used through out the book are not the best
artwork available to consumers but copyrighted material is probably
not easy to procure. For instance Marvel titles and DC graphic novels
are not represented and works such as 'Red Star' actually use models
to mix real world space with two-dimensional format.

The language of comics seems to barely scratch the surface of the
language used by comic book writers and sequential artists. The long
history and variation of the profession over time may have been too
much detail to ask of such an introductory text. However I was
expecting more of an examination of the exact words used in sequential
narration and historical account depicting how graphic material moved
from very restricted audience such as children to mature readers and
what material was permitted.

Comics like movies and other entertainment adapt with the times and it
was not so much the language of specific comics but a very general
analysis of comics compared to novels or poetry as literature. I
think additional chapters should be added looking at early strips from
newspapers, and samples of popular comics in regards to themes and
theory on what sells could even have been touched upon. Titles such
as 'Batman' or 'Who watches the watchmen' and specific writers and
artists had such a profound effect on the industry but are not

The text acts as a great introduction to understanding the basic
mechanics of reading comic books. However, the side of writing and
creating language for comics deserves its own text and has yet to be
written. Perhaps the American market is an isolated cultural division
and the examples used are popular in Britain. Comics are popular in
other languages but of course only English is dealt with. Japanese
and Korean manga style is much different and a comparison of the ratio
of words per panel would have made an interesting style comparison.

Many discussions exist online for comic creators and may prove
worthwhile for readers looking for more behind the scenes information
about the creation of sequential art:


Kevin Laurence Landry has an MA in Linguistics (TESOL) from the
University of Surrey. He is currently teaching English at the Kwangju
Institute of Science and Technology. He is also involved in the comic
industry. He has edited comics published by IMAGE Comics in United States for a Korean company and is
consulting for ICE studio (Korean text support
required) who use Korean artists and American writers. He is very
interested in the trade and currently overseeing titles that should be
published within the year.
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