Analyzing comics from a discursive approach — Visual representation of transitivity in comics

bacci⭐(Eduardo Baccarani)
7 min readJun 30, 2019


This entry is part of a series of revised notes on my undergraduate thesis, which was originally written and published in Spanish, and can be found here.

Going by previous entries in the series, 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. Additionally, the possibility of identifying the different textuality standards proposed by De Beaugrande and Dressler within the boundaries of comics makes it possible to consider these fully communicative occurrences. With this in mind -and still working on the assumption that panels will be the comic’s central information processing unit- the next step in this series is addressing the way comic panels grammatically organize information in ways that readers can infer as narrative sequences; for this purpose, the following paragraphs will implement the grammatical system known as transitivity.

Defined by Paul Hopper and Sandra Thompson (1980) as a global property of discourse, transitivity can be described as the device that allows speakers to express, through discourse, the way actions (expressed in the form of verbs) are transferred from an agent to a recipient. According to Hopper and Thompson, transitivity is a gradual property, expressed through the presence -within utterances- of the following transitivity parameters:

  • The presence of at least two participants: since no process transfer at all can occur unless at least two participants are involved.
  • Kinesis: with transferable actions being considered more transitive than non-transferrable states.
  • Aspect: finished actions are more effectively transferred than those still in course
  • Punctuality: actions carried out with no obvious transitional phase between inception and completion will be more transitive than those which are inherently on-going; think, for instance, of the duration associated to a process sneezing and compare it to the duration of one like sleeping.
  • Volitionality: willingly initiated actions will be more transitive than unwillingly initiated ones.
  • Affirmation: affirmative utterances will be more transitive than negative ones since the latter ones represent actions that, discursively, do not occur.
  • Mode: refers to the distinction between events being encoded in “realis” or “irrealis” (conditional) modes, with the former being more transitive due to the fact that it represents events that occur at a given point within a time continuum.
  • Agency: related to the ability a participant has to transfer an action into a recipient. With sentences like John kicked the box being more transitive than I was startled by the wind.

Additionally, there are two parameters directly related to the object or recipient of a process: affectedness of the object (that deals with the way the object of an utterance might be affected in perceivable ways) and individuation of the object (which is a list of semantic features that make the object a more defined entity, and includes: proper vs common names; human/animate entities vs non-human/inanimate; and concrete vs abstract entities).

Hopper and Thompson’s transitivity hypothesis proposes that the aforementioned parameters are expressed in clauses, which in turn allows them to reflect a change of states in the entities that participate in a process. As clauses combine together and form texts, these will not only be organized in temporary sequences, but they also will be classified, based on how much they contribute to the logical sequencing and interpretation of a text, in foreground and background structures. Given the fact that this hypothesis was originally designed to study transitivity in linguistic utterances, it is necessary to see how viable it is to apply these concepts to comic panels, which will be done by analyzing a series of isolated panels:

Sam and Max: Surfin’ the Highway by Steve Purcell (2012).

In this panel, it is possible to recognize an action (that could be linguistically expressed as pinching someone’s eyes). It is also possible to clearly identify two perfectly individualized and humanized (or at least anthropomorphized) participants, one of which is transferring a physical action to the other one. Additionally, the action’s recipient (the man with the knife) is visibly affected by this action, which is noticeable not only by the onomatopoeia used in the top right corner of the panel, but by the fact that the man lets go of the knife, and by the teardrops leaving his eyes. The way Max is drawn with short lines that describe a trajectory also make it possible to infer that his action is one that, if not immediate, takes place under a short period of time (and that is also one without a transition phase between its beginning and end), which makes it possible to affirm the action of Max pinching the man’s eyes is a very punctual one. If one focuses on Max, it is possible to affirm this action is not only a volitive one but also one that evidences the character’s agentivity (which can be contrasted, for instance, with the way the man lets go of his knife as a consequence of Max’s action, not because of his own volition or agentivity).

Sam and Max: Surfin’ the Highway by Steve Purcell (2012).

This set of panels makes it possible to contrast a more atelic or extended process (sleeping) with a more telic one (kicking a crate). In the case of comics, the aspect of a process will depend not only on the semantic nature of the process itself but in the way its participants are represented. With one being that processes like kicking could be perceived as closer to being atelic were it not for the presence of visual information (like the way the crate is drawn fully destroyed) that let readers perceive the process like a finished one.

Disney comics by Walt Disney (1933).

Finally, this panel works as an example of the way comics can represent processes that occur in both real and unreal modes, the latter one being represented by utilizing cloud-shaped balloons, which have in conventionalized in comics as a resource to representing either dreams or a character’s thoughts.

The transitivity hypothesis proposes that the aforementioned parameters are expressed in clauses, which in turn allows them to reflect a change of states in the entities that participate in a process. As clauses combine together and form texts, these will not only be organized in temporary sequences, but they also will be classified, based on how much they contribute to the logical sequencing and interpretation of a text, in foreground and background structures. According to Hopper and Thompson, it is possible to affirm that foreground structures present a text’s main points, being through these that readers can recognize its main subject and ideas. Background structures, on the hand, are not necessary to comprehend a text’s main topics, but they contribute to its content by either expanding or commenting on these ideas.

Given the fact that comics can be considered narrative texts, and taking into consideration the way narrative speech essentially represents actions that affect entities within a time continuum, it becomes pertinent to think about the way the interpretation of panels will be influenced not only by sequential organization but also by the way foreground and background information allows the establishment of logical relationships between the different panels that make up a comic, as it is possible to see in the following example:

Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton (2006–). The interpretation of this comic depends on the fact that it is possible to infer that processes occur within an established timeline where the same entity is affected by a sequence of actions (in this case, the hunting of the baby seal needs to temporarily -and logically- precede the woman wearing the fur in order for this comic to make sense). These observations make it possible to assume that if one were to alter the order in which the author has organized these panels, it could have resulted in the temporary and logical organization of them -and thus the interpretation of the entire comic- also being altered.

Regarding the possibility of having both foreground and background structures in comics, it is important to remember at this point that, unlike linguistic sentences (which are intrinsically linear in the way they organize information), panels offer authors the possibility of representing more than one simultaneous action within a single unit of information. With this in mind, analyzing the visual representation of transitivity in comics means not only inferring a temporary sequence of events, but also recognizing which actions contribute to the main narrative structure. As the following example will illustrate:

Catboy by Benji Nate (2016-). This page presents a short sequence that could be described as two characters getting “breakfast burritos” and then proceeding to eat them. One of the characters, Henry (the cat), is portrayed as not enjoying this meal, which in turn causes him to hunt down a bird and eat it. Despite the burrito being less of an animated object than the bird, it is clear both entities are affected by Henry’s actions, which are portrayed as highly kinetic, telic, and (due to the lack of any kind of indication of the opposite) volitive.

From the observation of this comic page, it is possible to affirm that, despite several of the processes on it taking place at what could be considered simultaneous, not all of them hold the same weight within the text’s narrative structure (which becomes more apparent after comparing the way the processes that have Henry as the agent contribute to way the narrative sequence progresses when comparing them to those of Olive (the girl, whose presence in this page can be described as that of a commenter of Henry’s more physical actions), which allows to argument in favor of comics being capable of presenting narrative sequences that rely on the implementation of both foreground and background information. In the case of this particular comic page, it is also noteworthy how the most transitive processes not only drive the narrative sequence, but they’re also presented to the reader as a sequence of events related by cause and consequence, which highlights the way transitivity contributes to the construction of visual narrative sequences within comic panels.

Having analyzed several of the processes which allow comics to work as both communicative occurrences and narrative texts, the remaining entries in this series will aim to provide an in-depth analysis of the different processes that take place within comic panels, starting with a finer revision of the way the different visual elements within this unit work in ways that can be considered analogous to the way the different grammatical word classes work in linguistic utterances.



bacci⭐(Eduardo Baccarani)

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