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Review of  The Language of Comics

Reviewer: Kevin Laurence Landry
Book Title: The Language of Comics
Book Author: Mario Saraceni
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Pragmatics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 15.650

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Date: Fri, 20 Feb 2004 09:22:05 -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

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

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

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 mentioned.

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.