Analyzing comics from a discursive approach — Defining basic analysis units

This entry (and all the upcoming ones related to it) is a revised translation of my undergrad thesis, which was originally written and published in Spanish, and can be found here.

In general terms, comics can be defined as a type of text constituted through the collaboration of two systems of meaning: graphic elements of some sorts (be it illustration, photographies, or any other), and discourse units (which work in a similar way to the different kind of utterances one can find in other texts). According to Scott McCloud (known for his works Understanding, Reinventing, and Making Comics) what makes comics differ from other types of texts is the way they are built by juxtaposing these two systems in order to create deliberate narrative sequences. In other words, comics are built as texts by making pictorial and discursive elements collaborate with each other, and not by having either system subordinate the other one.

The Dailies by Dakota McFazdean (2015). This comic employs both pictorial and linguistic elements in order to convey meaning. While it is also possible to come across comics that don’t use any kind of discursive element or pictorial elements — though the latter is far less common — these entries will focus on analyzing comics built through the integration of the aforementioned systems.

With this understanding of comics being construed through a collaboration of pictures and discourse, it is possible to ask oneself in what ways it is possible to analyze them as texts? There are two general answers to this question. The first one by analyzing comics through a focus on a comic’s contents (be it characters, themes, aesthetics, or any aspect related to the comic as a cultural product). The second answer involves focusing on the way these type of texts are organized in order to make sense as cohesive units. This entry will approach this second way, presenting some of my findings and ways to approach comics as texts that are configured following sets of conventions that are akin to those defined in grammatical models.

As with any other type of text, analyzing comics from a discursive point of view first requires an understanding of the different kinds of units these are made of, and of the way in which said units relate to each other in functional terms. With this idea in mind, a good first step is to get a detailed look of the recurring elements that constitute different comics.

If one were to look at several comics, one of the most striking features shared by most of them would be the fact that they’re segmented and organized in smaller units of meaning. Said units are recognizable by having some sort of visual separation between them and they are known as panels. Luis Gasca and Roman Gubern (1988) consider the comic panel to be, from a semantic (that is, from a meaning) point of view, both the basic narrative structure and the main lexical-pictographic unit in comics. According to these two authors, all the resources used to convey meaning in this kind of texts will be contained within panels.

Deep Dark Fears by Fran Krause (2018). In this case, the usage of panels lets the author to not only separate each of the events that make up the narrative sequence, but it also allows the reader to establish a connection between the series of drawings and their relation to the fear the text comments on.

Thinking of comic panels as basic narrative structures that also contain the different resources used to construct meaning allows one to think of them as elements that are somewhat analogous linguistic utterances. With this in mind, one can refer to Mario Saraceni’s work, who set out to compare comic panels with different kinds of linguistic structures. This comparison allowed Saraceni (2001) to conclude that comic panels are analogous to linguistic sentences. Saraceni derives this conclusion from a series of observations that include the fact that panels, like sentences, can be described as organized units meant to represent some kind of communicative intention, and they able to convey meanings with varying degrees of complexity. Additionally, panels — thanks to the graphic delimitations they are contained within — are as easy to segment and isolate from their original text as sentences, which also allows one to argue in favor of them having a degree of semantic and syntagmatic autonomy, especially when compared to the other recurring elements that constitute comics.

Catboy by Benji Nate (2016). While it is possible to argue that the situation presented in this panel is yet to be concluded, a potential reader can probably recognize and describe it through words. The possibility of inferring a particular situation from isolated comic panels can be considered an argument in favor of these units having at least a degree of semantic and syntagmatic independence from each other.

Another reason that allows one to argue in favor of panels being the basic unit of communicative intention in comics has to do with the fact that, typically, every other element meant to express some sort of meaning is contained within them. With this in mind, the next step for this first analysis is to describe the different recurring elements that might show up inside panels.

At this point, it is useful to once again turn to McCloud (1999), who coined the term visual vocabulary to refer to the different kinds of visual entities used to represent — be it through symbols or icons with varying degrees of similarity to the entity they’re created after — not only characters and locations, but also concepts, ideas, philosophies, et cetera. Using the notion of visual vocabulary as a starting point, it is possible to separate the visual elements that constitute the contents of a comic (including elements like characters or settings, which will vary according to the aesthetic criteria and the communicative intentions of every author) from those visual elements which use has been conventionalized due to them allowing organize information in a more reader-friendly way. This makes it possible to think of these visual components — as Saraceni (2004) calls them — as visual equivalents to what grammars define as function words. Several of the previous paragraphs were dedicated to defining panels and their function in comics, which leaves the following components:

  • Captions: associated with all the instances of text that is not verbally produced by any character, captions include text produced by an external narrator, commentary by the author, or visual indications of onomatopoeia.
  • Gutter: traditionally understood by comic theorists as “the space between two different panels”, the gutter can be a tricky concept to tackle, given that a particular author might not use conventional spaces (using instead blurred colors, or single lines, just to name a few possibilities). Instead of thinking of it in terms of fixed space, the gutter is better understood as a visual indicator of time passing between two panels. If one were to compare it to an element present in linguistic texts, the gutter could be considered the closest thing comics have to graphic punctuation, given the way they introduce temporary transitions within a text, while they also separate the different panels that make up the same comic.
  • Bubbles: usually classified in two major categories (speech and thought bubbles), these are conventionally used to introduce utterances that associated with the participants of the events narrated in a comic. There are several conventions associated with the modality of the verbal information included in these bubbles (with spikier bubbles being conventionally used to represent screaming, or dot lined ones representing whispering, to name just a few examples). There is also a possibility of bubbles containing images within them, which leads to the possibility of thinking of panels within panels working in a similar way to subordinate clauses.

The following video includes some examples of these components, along with a brief explanation of how each of them works in the context of this specific comic.

Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton (2006–2015).

As illustrated by the previous figure, functional components integrate themselves with the different elements that can be considered the content of the comic (which will operate in ways analogous to different kind of word classes traditionally defined in grammar) in order to present said content in a properly structured way. While it would probably be possible for a reader to come up with an interpretation similar to that intended by a comic author, it is through the collaboration of all these elements that the comic is fully capable of giving potential readers enough information so that they can interpret a comic in the way its author intended.

Up to this point, this first approach at analyzing comics from a discursive approach evidenced several phenomena related to comic panels both as narrative structures and as the equivalent to discursive units, which leads to the decision making the panel central unit of future analysis. From this point onwards, the follow-up entries to this one will focus on several observations related to the way comics constitute a grammar of their own in order to be structured texts, such as the construction of comics as coherent and cohesive texts, the visual codifying of different grammatical functions (such as transitivity), and the visual representation of different kinds of semantic processes.

Words on comics, music, video games, narrative systems, and more. Icon by Benji Nate @ vice