Analyzing comics from a discursive approach — Coherence, cohesion, and textuality standards in comics
This entry is part of a series of revised translated notes on a topic originally covered in my undergraduate thesis, which was originally written and published in Spanish, and can be found here.
As stated in the previous entry, comics can be considered a type of text capable of conveying meaning, as well as organizing and presenting information through a collaboration of visual language and discourse units. With this in mind, it becomes pertinent to ask oneself how is it exactly that comics do this, and in what ways do pictures and discourse collaborate to make sure this information is presented in ways that are both coherent and cohesive.
From a functional point of view, texts are first and foremost understood as communicative events produced under a specific context and communicative intention. According to De Beaugrande and Dressler, texts must fulfill seven standards or conditions in order for them to be considered fully realized communicative occurrences. These conditions can be classified in those centered in the text (specifically, cohesion and coherence) and those centered around the user (which include intentionality, acceptability, informativity, contextuality, and intertextuality).
As a side note, due to the fact that this series mainly focuses on the grammatical organization of comics, this entry will mainly focus on cohesion and coherence. It will, however, briefly address the way user-centered conditions are present in comics.
Coherence and cohesion: reading comics as logically construed units
De Beaugrande y Dressler define cohesion as the property that determines the possible ways in which different elements that constitute the surface of a text can combine with each other in order to organize themselves in logical sequences; additionally, these two authors affirm textual cohesion is established through the creation of grammatical dependence relationships, which will also determine the way information is organized within the limits of a text. Coherence, on the other hand, can be understood as the property that allows the establishment of logical relationships between the different concepts and ideas built through the text. In other words, cohesion and coherence are what allow text to be organized and interpreted as logically construed units. In the case of comics, this will translate into the possibility of potential readers being able to read panels as sequences (logically and sequentially organized), and not just as a collection of isolated elements that happen to be represented in the same space.
As it happens with any other type of text, comics will build cohesion and coherence by the establishment of relations between concepts (understood as cognitive knowledge or contents) by either linking concepts that belong to the same semantic field or by connecting them via some form of logical relationship in the text surface. In other words, concepts inside a particular text can relate by belonging to the same field of cognitive knowledge, or they can relate through similarity, opposition, comparison, dependence on each, et cetera.
Now, how exactly do concepts relate to each other within the limits of comics? According to Saraceni (2001), the way comics organize information within panels also allows for this them to build cohesion and coherence within each text. According to this author, this is achieved through three main processes: a repetition process, a process Saraceni (2001) names collocation, and a series of constant inference processes. The following example will allow to better illustrate the way both of these properties work in the case of comics.
By implementation of the aforementioned processes, the author of this comic is capable of presenting the events represented along its different panels as part of a related sequence. The repetition process, which is probably the most frequently used out of the three processes, allows the reader to consider a group of panels part of the same content unit. In the case of this comic, these repetitions are working in two ways: it either involves multiple instances of the same element appearing through different panels of the same comic, or it can be achieved by representing different parts — like arms standing in place of entire characters — of a particular entity appearing through different panels, in some cases, the representation of elements associated with one particular entity might be enough to achieve this repetition.
This second process of partial repetition relates to the collocation process, through which elements contained within panels relate to each other by virtue of belonging to the same semantic field (or at least to knowledge domains that are somehow related to each other). In the case of this comic, not only is it possible to associate certain features or body parts with specific character, but the author also associates certain tools or objects with actions peformed by the characters, as seen below.
Lastly, comics rely on a constant series of inference processes, through which readers are capable of recognizing the way actions and event start or continue during the graphic transition from one panel to another. These inferences appeal to the readers’ cultural knowledge and world experiences, and their main use is to ensure semantic elements in comics (particularly those represented graphically) are interpreted in the way intended by the author. Inferences also allow comics to play with their readers’ expectations, as it is possible to see in the following example.
While it has been possible to cover the way in which of these processes work individually, comics work as cohesive and coherent texts because said processes happen simultaneously. Which will be illustrated through the following example.
In the case of this comic, Purcell’s intention is to portray a shooting scene, which can be identified thanks to a series of cues. The first one being the presence of armed characters in almost every one of the comic’s panels. The presence of these guns ties to the fact that characters holding them are often seen actioning them (pulling the trigger) which, along the multiple moving bullets that appear in different panels and the damage caused by them, emphasizes the idea of the different iterations of shots being fired happening in a quick, almost immediate, succession, which visually appeals to the cultural interpretation of what a shooting is. In the case of this comic, the usage of speech balloons allows the author to justify, within the limits of this comic’s narrative, why the shooting took place.
User-centered textuality standards: the role of context and conventions in reading comics
Up to this point, this entry has focused in the way comics organize information in ways that are coherent and cohesive, there is still the need to address the textuality standards that center around the user intentionality, acceptability, informativity, contextuality, and intertextuality).
Generally regarded as “paired” principles, intentionality and acceptability relate to the motivation that moves a producer to organize information in the form of a communicative text that will be accepted by a receptor. In order to do this, both producer and addressee have to adhere to the pragmatic cooperative principle which states that one has to make the maximum effort to enable the communicative process to be successful. Informativity has to do with the way information in a text can go from absolutely informative (by virtue of being unknown to the reader) to virtually irrelevant (due to the reader’s knowledge of it), and with the way in which parts of the text distribute new and given information in order for the text to have communicative value. Contextuality focuses on the very important role context plays in any form of communication, and it mainly relates to the way how, in every situation in which language is used, the quality and effect of the communication is determined by the contextual knowledge shared by the participants. Finally, intertextuality has to do with the way how the understanding of one text can possibly be influenced by the structure of another text. Additionally, intertextuality is also what allows readers to subconsciously generalize the functions of elements that might repeat through different comics, which allows for the establishment of conventions for both writing and reading of these texts.
Fundamentally, comics can be considered narrative texts articulated with the intention of providing entertainment, which means their structural and content restrictions are far fewer than those identifiable in other, more “formal” types of text. This also ties with the contextuality standard, since it is virtually impossible to fully measure how familiar a particular reader is with both the context in which a particular comic was articulated and with the ideal context and author may (or may not) have imagined for its consumption. Based on this, it results more effective to work on the assumption that a particular comic’s contextuality will vary from reader to reader. In a similar vein, a reader’s receptibility of a comic — which translates in their willingness to read it — will also affect its degree of informativity.
Concerning intertextuality, this standard’s configuration seems to work in a way similar to that of other types of narrative texts, with comics being capable of directly appealing to their readers’ knowledge of other texts (be it comics or not) in order to present information. Conversely, it is also possible for the events narrated in a comic to be referenced in other texts, which has become a common practice in numbered comic book series.
Describing the way textuality standards are present in comics allows for two main findings: the first one relates to the fact that comics, just as any other type of text, rely on different processes in order to ensure information is presented in ways that are both cohesive and coherent, which in turn results in these texts being capable of organizing information sequences in logical ways. The second finding, on the other hand, has to do with the way comics are capable of appealing to their readers’ individual world experiences. This process allows not only for the intended interpretation of comics as standalone texts but it has also allowed for the conventionalization of their own functional language, which in turn has influenced the way comics are written.
From the observations here presented, it has become possible to identify the way the different textuality standards proposed to De Beaugrande and Dressler are presented within the boundaries of comics. This, combined with the notion of the panel as the comic’s central information processing and organization unit (proposed in the first entry of the series), will make it possible to analyze some of the finer processes through which comics code both semantic processes and grammatical functions, which will be the focus of upcoming entries on this series.