Semiotics and the Visuality of the Comics

4156 words (17 pages) Essay

8th Feb 2020 Arts Reference this

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Graphic narratives exist in a variety of forms—from superhero comics and Japanese manga to comic strips and instruction manuals—and have been the subject of a burgeoning amount of scholarship in the twenty-first century. Some theorists tend to place comics in relation to film, conceptualizing it as the “other” dynamic, mass-produced, and highly visual medium born of the twentieth century.[1] However, graphic narratives have little in common with film on a formal level. As Scott Bukatman (2016) notes in his writings on Hellboy, a stylized, action-occult comic series written and drawn by Mike Mignola, “[s]ome of the formal elements that define and structure worlds in comics include quality of line, the use (or nonuse) of color, the slickness of the production, the number and regularity of panels on the page, the acceptance or rejection of the grid, the size of the page, the legibility of panel transitions, the presence or absence of text, the placement and style of text…” and so on.[2] The visuality of comics is highly unique among visual media, and many of its features create or inflect meaning in unexpected ways. Combining visual observation of a comics page with semiotic analysis is a useful approach to specifying how the visuality of comics operates upon the viewer’s experience. This paper pursues a semiotic understanding of the visuality of comics, emphasizing the roles of indexical and iconic sign relations in how the medium creates meaning.

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Before demonstrating the importance of sign functions in understanding comics, it is important to point out how comics are structured as a medium.  Thierry Groensteen’s seminal text, The System of Comics (1999), remains influential in comics studies today and provides a strong basis for a semiotic understanding of how certain features of the comics medium operate. At the time of the book’s publication, comics had received relatively little semiotic analysis. In The System of Comics, Groensteen’s endeavor is to approach comics as “an original ensemble of productive mechanisms of meaning” that operate via sequences of images and text.[3] To Groensteen, the visuality of comics is absolutely primary over text or narrative: “one must recognize the relational play of a plurality of interdependent images as the unique ontological foundation of comics…[T]he central element of comics, the first criteria in the foundational order, is iconic solidarity.”[4] Groensteen’s “spatio-topical system” takes the panel—a single frame and the content delimited by it—as the reference unit for comics. The frame itself serves six functions—the function of closure, the separative function, the rhythmic function, the structural function, the expressive function, and the readerly function—which all “exert their effects on the contents of the panel…and, especially, on the perceptive and cognitive processes of the reader.”[5] Of particular relevance to the iconicity at play in comics—especially highly stylized ones such as Mignola’s Hellboy—is the readerly function of the frame, which will be elaborated upon later. Groensteen also offers analyses of the depictions contained within the frames, suggesting that it is “doubly descriptible,” since description “is not realized if it does not take into account, aside from the drawn elements, the manner in which they are drawn…it is very difficult to completely describe an image in its two dimensions (iconic and graphic), that is, to simultaneously do justice to the represented scene and the organized and sensible ensemble of material lines that produce this scene.”[6] In addition to Groensteen’s emphasis on the functions of the frame, this differentiation between the iconic and graphic dimensions of comics images is crucial to understanding how comics drawings are comprehended by the reader.

 Through its visual format, the comics medium offers a material dimension that the reader understands as an index for creative labor. The Peircean notion of the index, in which “the constraints of successful signification require that the sign utilize some existential or physical connection between it and its object,” can be aptly applied to how the two-dimensional materiality of comic books, strips, and graphic novels calls attention to the artist’s creative labor.[7] Several comics scholars have remarked upon this feature of the medium. While film often speaks to a more embodied subject who becomes perceptually immersed within the medium, comics present deliberately arrayed sequences of physical images; thus, compared to media like film, comics are more engrossing than immersive.[8] In a page from Hellboy: Strange Places (Figure 1), the panels are arranged into a neat stack that occupies the majority of the page, with a margin at the edges of the page and slight margins between the frames of the panels as well. Bukatman suggests that the arrangement of panels upon a page functions as a “tabular, synchronic unity” that the reader encounters before engaging with the narrative contained with the panel sequences.[9] Entirely absent from the immersive motion of film, this characteristic “stasis” of the comics page as a synchronic unit hinders the pace of the narrative and draws attention to the physicality of the “page as surface.”[10] This feature of comics may be more or less salient depending on the particular comic. Superhero comics that place more emphasis upon narrative action may aspire towards a more filmic, immersive experience than slower-paced, creator-owned titles like Hellboy.

Yet it is difficult to imagine a graphic narrative completely robbed of its characteristic material dimension, its indexical connection to the artist’s hand upon the page. Groensteen suggests that the text balloon—a hallmark of the comics medium—creates a “ratio of depth” that enforces the two-dimensionality of the page: “Indeed, the image, to the degree that it relies on the perspectival code and practices the staging of the planes, creates the illusion of three-dimensionality. The text, on the other hand, frees itself from this mimetic transcendence, respecting and confirming the bi-dimensional materiality of the writing surface.”[11] This “ratio of depth” can be observed in Figure 1, in which the text balloon is also contiguous with the panel frame, another visual feature that enforces the page’s two-dimensional materiality. In his 2011 paper “Storylines,” Jared Gardner takes a similar stance, claiming that comics do not “offer the possibility of ever forgetting the medium, of losing sight of the material text or the physical labor of its production…Comics are a medium that calls attention with every line to its own boundaries, frames, and limitations—and to the labor involved in both accommodating and challenging those limitations.”[12] Gardner’s point has an obvious parallel with Peirce’s notion that “an index awakens or directs attention to an object.”[13] When a reader views a comics page, the very structure of the page—composed of panel frames, speech balloons, lettered text, and, of course, drawn images—serves as an index of the artist’s “hand,” which is the object of the indexical sign relation. The comics page resists immersion and compels the reader to engage with it as the material result of creative labor. However, indexical sign relations also play a key role in how the drawings upon the page create meaning.

 The graphic lines of comics are a crucial feature of the medium, generating narrative meaning and inflecting the reader’s experience by indexing the artist’s sensibilities. In “Revealing traces: A new theory of graphic enunciation” (2001), Jan Baetens suggests how the notion of “graphiation” operates within the comics medium. The term “graphiation” was coined by Phillipe Marion (1993) to describe a form of semiotic enunciation—the act of producing a sign, message, or utterance—that is unique to comics, employing both the narrative and the graphic.[14] The notion of graphiation allows for an understanding of a comic’s visual style as the individual expression of the artist: “Every drawing bears the traces of ‘graphiation,’ or the specific enunciative act uttered by the author or agent when he or she makes the drawings or does the lettering of the panels.”[15] The emphasis on the “traces” of the author or agent demonstrates the importance of an existential or causal relation in graphiation, which can thus be understood as an indexicality. However, Baetens also criticizes the idea that graphiation presents any direct connection to the individual artist, suggesting that “neither the ‘trace’ of the letter nor of the drawing is ever natural, not even when the movement of the drawing hand seems spontaneous. Graphic representation is a socialized act involving many codes and constraints,” such as slick commercial styles that dictate a certain “look” and may efface the artist’s hand.[16] Yet graphiation still plays an important role in many titles, especially stylized ones. Gardner’s analysis of the narrative properties of linework expands upon the question of how graphiation operates in such cases. According to Gardner, David Campbell’s “underworked” lines in After the Snooter (1997) hold narrative meaning by evoking “the fragile spontaneity of the everyday, the transience of daily life that resists our attempts to capture it on paper. The line is uniquely Campbell’s and in it we cannot help but imagine the flesh-and-blood artist putting pen to paper.”[17] In other words, one cannot help but be drawn into the indexical sign relation between the idiosyncratically drawn line and the artist himself. Further, one’s viewing of a drawn depiction in comics is often “accentuated by the fluidity of the curved and tapering line that describes it through the viewer’s imaginative reconstruction of the impulse that created that line.”[18] In the case of the Hellboy page, this occurs less through “fluidity” than through the subtle but perceptible jitter of Mignola’s hand, present not only in the drawings but also in the panel frames. Thus, in addition to comics’ unique visual format, its graphic lines demonstrate another way that indexical sign relations create meaning in the comics system. 

Comics are a visual medium that employs pictures representing particular objects, and the iconic sign, in which “the constraints of successful signification require that the sign reflect qualitative features of the object,” obviously plays a role in how comics drawings create narrative.[19] However, it is also obvious that, as icons, comics drawings are not entirely committed to reflecting qualitative properties of their objects. Since most comics take the form of black-and-white line drawings that may not even use color, they rarely achieve a highly naturalistic relation with their objects. Unlike “purer” visual icons like paintings or photographs, which use light and shadow to reflect qualitative similarities with their objects at a high level of accuracy, comics images have a necessarily limited potential for mimetic resemblance, and do not aspire to it. Groensteen suggests that the comics depiction is a kind of “narrative drawing” that does not “return to a referent, but goes straightaway to being a signified.”[20] In other words, the drawing does not really attach itself to the real world, but instead operates through concept alone. Comics employ a particular kind of iconicity that is less direct than that of a Baroque painting, and this statement is evident from a glance at Hellboy, in which a strange arrangement of flat, expressionistic colors and graphic shapes represent a half-demon humanoid battling sea creatures at the bottom of the ocean. Goran Sonesson’s notion of secondary iconicity, developed in his 1998 paper “That There Are Many Kinds of Iconic Signs,” helps to understands the iconicity of such comics pages. Sonesson differentiates primary and secondary icons based on the roles of qualitative similarity (primary) and conventionality (secondary) in grounding the relation between expression and content:

A primary iconic sign is a sign in the case of which the perception of a similarity between an expression E and a content C is at least a partial reason for E being taken to be the expression of a sign the content of which is C. That is, iconicity is really the motivation (the ground), or rather, one of the motivations, for positing the sign function. A case in point is a picture, in the sense of a depiction. A secondary iconic sign, on the other hand, is a sign in the case of which our knowledge that E is the expression of a sign the content of which is C, in some particular system of interpretation, is at least a partial reason for perceiving the similarity of E and C. Here, then, it is the sign relations which partially motivates the relationship of iconicity.[21]

 Sonesson employs the example of the tailor’s swatch to demonstrate a secondary icon: one understands that the swatch represents its pattern and color, not its shape, only because of the convention associated with the swatch.[22] In his 2011 paper “From mimicry to mime by way of mimesis: Reflections on a general theory of iconicity,” Sonesson also notes that “just as a sign may contain iconic, indexical and symbolic properties at the same time, it may very well mix primary and secondary iconicity.”[23] Sonesson’s theories will be useful in understanding the iconicity of aggressively stylized comics such as Hellboy.

Visual style demonstrates how the comics medium is tied to secondary iconicity, or at least a combination of primary and secondary iconicity. The drawings that compose the pages of Hellboy, for example, bear some similarities between expression and content, but are also heavily reliant on an idiosyncratic system of interpretation—e.g. Mignola’s stylization—to form the iconic ground between a particular grouping of lines, shapes, and colors (expression) and a human skull (content). In Hellboy’s visual style, complex forms are flattened, certain details are disregarded, and organic contours are rendered rigid and graphic; yet the reader still recognizes the content that is expressed by the pictures. Though the depiction of the octopus tentacle in Figure 1 lacks the texture and organic fluidity of a real octopus tentacle, the reader understands the representation in the context of an overarching visual style. This statement is furthered by John Miers’ 2015 paper “Depiction and Demarcation in Comics: Towards an Account of the Medium as a Drawing Practice.” Miers applies a theory of representation developed by Kendall Walton (1990) to how comics drawings function for the reader. According to Walton’s “make-believe” theory of representation, viewing a depiction involves the self-aware use of one’s own perceptual activity as an object of imagination; in other words, “works of art function as props in games of make-believe, which mandate particular imaginative activities on the part of the viewer.”[24] In terms of comics, Miers suggests that comics drawing styles—such as Jeff Smith’s fluid, cartoonish style in Bone (2004)—are suited to how the reader uses the comics drawings: “we want to have direct access to fictional truths about how bodies are moving in space, or facial expressions changing, from panel to panel, and do not want to have to generate them from more directly generated truths about the play of light and shadow,” as in a finely rendered painting.[25] The reader uses the line drawings as “props” to generate fictional truths as mandated by the imaginative context of the drawn narrative; thus, the context of the drawing is crucial to how the reader understands it. This conventionality in how the reader approaches the depicted content constitutes a secondary iconic ground between expression and content. Sonesson’s notion of secondary iconicity can thus be applied to the way that many comics drawings function as depictions.  

The panel frame—a feature highly unique to comics—also plays a significant role in the secondary iconicity of comics images. Groensteen’s “readerly” function of the frame underscores this point. According to Groensteen, one key function of the frame is that it defines a place where content exists for the reader to scrutinize, conferring upon the contained image “the status of a unit: an isolated or enunciated sign.”[26] The readerly function of the frame is especially important for holding the reader’s gaze “in the case where a part of the image on the page might appear insignificant, because it doesn’t allow enough space for the action or the spectacle, or merges in its immediate environment to the point where this section risks not being seen.”[27] The frame contains and reorients the viewer’s gaze, and this is significant not only for how readers move through the narrative, but also for how they understand the depicted content. The comics frame literally “frames” the depiction within the conventions of graphic narrative, providing a context that facilitates the operations of visual style mentioned above. Understanding a certain arrangement of lines, shapes, and colors as Hellboy himself is based partly on shared qualitative properties, but it also relies on the frame to contain and define a place of representation, in which the idiosyncratic conventions of Mignola’s style can be expected to operate.

Rather than being viewed as low-brow or as the “other” visual medium, comics need to be understood as a unique system of meaning-making and visual operations. Relating comics to the semiotic functions of indexicality and secondary iconicity offers a better understanding of how the medium—from the format of the page to the graphic lines that compose each picture—form various kinds of meaning for the reader. Indexicality helps define how the format, materiality, and graphic lines of comics images affect the reader’s understanding, whereas the notion of secondary iconicity delineates the conventional operations underlying each depiction. Ultimately, examining how different forms of media create meaning for the viewer is a crucial direction to take in an increasingly visual culture.

Figure 1: Mike Mignola (2006), Hellboy: Strange Places, pp. 52.Dave Stewart, color; Clem Robins, letters. Dark Horse Comics.

Works Cited:

  • Atkin, Albert (2013). “Peirce’s Theory of Signs.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edward N. Zalta (ed.). https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2013/entries/peirce-semiotics/
  • Baetens, Jan (2001). “Revealing traces: A new theory of graphic enunciation.” The Language of Comics: Word and Image. Ed. Robin Varnum and Christina T. Gibbons. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. pp. 145-155.
  • Bukatman, Scott (2016). Hellboy’s World: Comics and Monsters on the Margins. Berkeley: University of California Press. Print.
  • Bukatman, Scott (2014). “Sculpture, Stasis, the Comics, and Hellboy.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 30, no. 3, pp. 104-117. EBSCO MegaFILE. Web.
  • Gardner, Jared (2011). “Storylines.” Graphic Narratives and Narrative Theory, vol. 40, no. 1, pp. 53-69. Web.
  • Goudge, Thomas A (1965). “Peirce’s Index.” Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, vol. 1, no. 2, pp. 52–70.
  • Groensteen, Thierry (1999). The System of Comics. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. Print.
  • Miers, John (2015). “Depiction and Demarcation in Comics: Towards an Account of the Medium as a Drawing Practice.” Studies in Comics, vol. 6, no. 1, pp. 145-156. MLA International Bibliography. Web.
  • Sonesson, Goran (2010). “From mimicry to mime by way of mimesis: Reflections on a general theory of iconicity.” Sign System Studies, vol. 38, no. 1, pp. 18-65.
  • Sonesson, Goran (1998). “That There Are Many Kinds of Iconic Signs.” In Visio, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 33-54.

[1] Bukatman, Scott (2016). Hellboy’s World: Comics and Monsters on the Margins. Berkeley: University of California Press. Print.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Groensteen, Thierry (1999). The System of Comics. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. Print.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Atkin, Albert (2013). “Peirce’s Theory of Signs.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edward N. Zalta (ed.). https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2013/entries/peirce-semiotics/

[8] Bukatman, Scott (2016). Hellboy’s World: Comics and Monsters on the Margins. Berkeley: University of California Press. Print.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Groensteen, Thierry (1999). The System of Comics. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. Print.

[12] Gardner, Jared (2011). “Storylines.” Graphic Narratives and Narrative Theory, vol. 40, no. 1, pp. 53-69. Web.

[13] Goudge, Thomas A (1965). “Peirce’s Index.” Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, vol. 1, no. 2, pp. 52–70.

[14] Baetens, Jan (2001). “Revealing traces: A new theory of graphic enunciation.” The Language of Comics: Word and Image. Ed. Robin Varnum and Christina T. Gibbons. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. pp. 145-155.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Gardner, Jared (2011). “Storylines.” Graphic Narratives and Narrative Theory, vol. 40, no. 1, pp. 53-69. Web.

[18] Miers, John (2015). “Depiction and Demarcation in Comics: Towards an Account of the Medium as a Drawing Practice.” Studies in Comics, vol. 6, no. 1, pp. 145-156. MLA International Bibliography. Web.

[19] Atkin, Albert (2013). “Peirce’s Theory of Signs.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edward N. Zalta (ed.). https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2013/entries/peirce-semiotics/

[20] Groensteen, Thierry (1999). The System of Comics. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. Print.

[21] Sonesson, Goran (1998). “That There Are Many Kinds of Iconic Signs.” In Visio, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 33-54.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Sonesson, Goran (2010). “From mimicry to mime by way of mimesis: Reflections on a general theory of iconicity.” Sign System Studies, vol. 38, no. 1, pp. 18-65.

[24] Miers, John (2015). “Depiction and Demarcation in Comics: Towards an Account of the Medium as a Drawing Practice.” Studies in Comics, vol. 6, no. 1, pp. 145-156. MLA International Bibliography. Web.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Groensteen, Thierry (1999). The System of Comics. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. Print.

[27] Ibid.

Graphic narratives exist in a variety of forms—from superhero comics and Japanese manga to comic strips and instruction manuals—and have been the subject of a burgeoning amount of scholarship in the twenty-first century. Some theorists tend to place comics in relation to film, conceptualizing it as the “other” dynamic, mass-produced, and highly visual medium born of the twentieth century.[1] However, graphic narratives have little in common with film on a formal level. As Scott Bukatman (2016) notes in his writings on Hellboy, a stylized, action-occult comic series written and drawn by Mike Mignola, “[s]ome of the formal elements that define and structure worlds in comics include quality of line, the use (or nonuse) of color, the slickness of the production, the number and regularity of panels on the page, the acceptance or rejection of the grid, the size of the page, the legibility of panel transitions, the presence or absence of text, the placement and style of text…” and so on.[2] The visuality of comics is highly unique among visual media, and many of its features create or inflect meaning in unexpected ways. Combining visual observation of a comics page with semiotic analysis is a useful approach to specifying how the visuality of comics operates upon the viewer’s experience. This paper pursues a semiotic understanding of the visuality of comics, emphasizing the roles of indexical and iconic sign relations in how the medium creates meaning.

Before demonstrating the importance of sign functions in understanding comics, it is important to point out how comics are structured as a medium.  Thierry Groensteen’s seminal text, The System of Comics (1999), remains influential in comics studies today and provides a strong basis for a semiotic understanding of how certain features of the comics medium operate. At the time of the book’s publication, comics had received relatively little semiotic analysis. In The System of Comics, Groensteen’s endeavor is to approach comics as “an original ensemble of productive mechanisms of meaning” that operate via sequences of images and text.[3] To Groensteen, the visuality of comics is absolutely primary over text or narrative: “one must recognize the relational play of a plurality of interdependent images as the unique ontological foundation of comics…[T]he central element of comics, the first criteria in the foundational order, is iconic solidarity.”[4] Groensteen’s “spatio-topical system” takes the panel—a single frame and the content delimited by it—as the reference unit for comics. The frame itself serves six functions—the function of closure, the separative function, the rhythmic function, the structural function, the expressive function, and the readerly function—which all “exert their effects on the contents of the panel…and, especially, on the perceptive and cognitive processes of the reader.”[5] Of particular relevance to the iconicity at play in comics—especially highly stylized ones such as Mignola’s Hellboy—is the readerly function of the frame, which will be elaborated upon later. Groensteen also offers analyses of the depictions contained within the frames, suggesting that it is “doubly descriptible,” since description “is not realized if it does not take into account, aside from the drawn elements, the manner in which they are drawn…it is very difficult to completely describe an image in its two dimensions (iconic and graphic), that is, to simultaneously do justice to the represented scene and the organized and sensible ensemble of material lines that produce this scene.”[6] In addition to Groensteen’s emphasis on the functions of the frame, this differentiation between the iconic and graphic dimensions of comics images is crucial to understanding how comics drawings are comprehended by the reader.

 Through its visual format, the comics medium offers a material dimension that the reader understands as an index for creative labor. The Peircean notion of the index, in which “the constraints of successful signification require that the sign utilize some existential or physical connection between it and its object,” can be aptly applied to how the two-dimensional materiality of comic books, strips, and graphic novels calls attention to the artist’s creative labor.[7] Several comics scholars have remarked upon this feature of the medium. While film often speaks to a more embodied subject who becomes perceptually immersed within the medium, comics present deliberately arrayed sequences of physical images; thus, compared to media like film, comics are more engrossing than immersive.[8] In a page from Hellboy: Strange Places (Figure 1), the panels are arranged into a neat stack that occupies the majority of the page, with a margin at the edges of the page and slight margins between the frames of the panels as well. Bukatman suggests that the arrangement of panels upon a page functions as a “tabular, synchronic unity” that the reader encounters before engaging with the narrative contained with the panel sequences.[9] Entirely absent from the immersive motion of film, this characteristic “stasis” of the comics page as a synchronic unit hinders the pace of the narrative and draws attention to the physicality of the “page as surface.”[10] This feature of comics may be more or less salient depending on the particular comic. Superhero comics that place more emphasis upon narrative action may aspire towards a more filmic, immersive experience than slower-paced, creator-owned titles like Hellboy.

Yet it is difficult to imagine a graphic narrative completely robbed of its characteristic material dimension, its indexical connection to the artist’s hand upon the page. Groensteen suggests that the text balloon—a hallmark of the comics medium—creates a “ratio of depth” that enforces the two-dimensionality of the page: “Indeed, the image, to the degree that it relies on the perspectival code and practices the staging of the planes, creates the illusion of three-dimensionality. The text, on the other hand, frees itself from this mimetic transcendence, respecting and confirming the bi-dimensional materiality of the writing surface.”[11] This “ratio of depth” can be observed in Figure 1, in which the text balloon is also contiguous with the panel frame, another visual feature that enforces the page’s two-dimensional materiality. In his 2011 paper “Storylines,” Jared Gardner takes a similar stance, claiming that comics do not “offer the possibility of ever forgetting the medium, of losing sight of the material text or the physical labor of its production…Comics are a medium that calls attention with every line to its own boundaries, frames, and limitations—and to the labor involved in both accommodating and challenging those limitations.”[12] Gardner’s point has an obvious parallel with Peirce’s notion that “an index awakens or directs attention to an object.”[13] When a reader views a comics page, the very structure of the page—composed of panel frames, speech balloons, lettered text, and, of course, drawn images—serves as an index of the artist’s “hand,” which is the object of the indexical sign relation. The comics page resists immersion and compels the reader to engage with it as the material result of creative labor. However, indexical sign relations also play a key role in how the drawings upon the page create meaning.

 The graphic lines of comics are a crucial feature of the medium, generating narrative meaning and inflecting the reader’s experience by indexing the artist’s sensibilities. In “Revealing traces: A new theory of graphic enunciation” (2001), Jan Baetens suggests how the notion of “graphiation” operates within the comics medium. The term “graphiation” was coined by Phillipe Marion (1993) to describe a form of semiotic enunciation—the act of producing a sign, message, or utterance—that is unique to comics, employing both the narrative and the graphic.[14] The notion of graphiation allows for an understanding of a comic’s visual style as the individual expression of the artist: “Every drawing bears the traces of ‘graphiation,’ or the specific enunciative act uttered by the author or agent when he or she makes the drawings or does the lettering of the panels.”[15] The emphasis on the “traces” of the author or agent demonstrates the importance of an existential or causal relation in graphiation, which can thus be understood as an indexicality. However, Baetens also criticizes the idea that graphiation presents any direct connection to the individual artist, suggesting that “neither the ‘trace’ of the letter nor of the drawing is ever natural, not even when the movement of the drawing hand seems spontaneous. Graphic representation is a socialized act involving many codes and constraints,” such as slick commercial styles that dictate a certain “look” and may efface the artist’s hand.[16] Yet graphiation still plays an important role in many titles, especially stylized ones. Gardner’s analysis of the narrative properties of linework expands upon the question of how graphiation operates in such cases. According to Gardner, David Campbell’s “underworked” lines in After the Snooter (1997) hold narrative meaning by evoking “the fragile spontaneity of the everyday, the transience of daily life that resists our attempts to capture it on paper. The line is uniquely Campbell’s and in it we cannot help but imagine the flesh-and-blood artist putting pen to paper.”[17] In other words, one cannot help but be drawn into the indexical sign relation between the idiosyncratically drawn line and the artist himself. Further, one’s viewing of a drawn depiction in comics is often “accentuated by the fluidity of the curved and tapering line that describes it through the viewer’s imaginative reconstruction of the impulse that created that line.”[18] In the case of the Hellboy page, this occurs less through “fluidity” than through the subtle but perceptible jitter of Mignola’s hand, present not only in the drawings but also in the panel frames. Thus, in addition to comics’ unique visual format, its graphic lines demonstrate another way that indexical sign relations create meaning in the comics system. 

Comics are a visual medium that employs pictures representing particular objects, and the iconic sign, in which “the constraints of successful signification require that the sign reflect qualitative features of the object,” obviously plays a role in how comics drawings create narrative.[19] However, it is also obvious that, as icons, comics drawings are not entirely committed to reflecting qualitative properties of their objects. Since most comics take the form of black-and-white line drawings that may not even use color, they rarely achieve a highly naturalistic relation with their objects. Unlike “purer” visual icons like paintings or photographs, which use light and shadow to reflect qualitative similarities with their objects at a high level of accuracy, comics images have a necessarily limited potential for mimetic resemblance, and do not aspire to it. Groensteen suggests that the comics depiction is a kind of “narrative drawing” that does not “return to a referent, but goes straightaway to being a signified.”[20] In other words, the drawing does not really attach itself to the real world, but instead operates through concept alone. Comics employ a particular kind of iconicity that is less direct than that of a Baroque painting, and this statement is evident from a glance at Hellboy, in which a strange arrangement of flat, expressionistic colors and graphic shapes represent a half-demon humanoid battling sea creatures at the bottom of the ocean. Goran Sonesson’s notion of secondary iconicity, developed in his 1998 paper “That There Are Many Kinds of Iconic Signs,” helps to understands the iconicity of such comics pages. Sonesson differentiates primary and secondary icons based on the roles of qualitative similarity (primary) and conventionality (secondary) in grounding the relation between expression and content:

A primary iconic sign is a sign in the case of which the perception of a similarity between an expression E and a content C is at least a partial reason for E being taken to be the expression of a sign the content of which is C. That is, iconicity is really the motivation (the ground), or rather, one of the motivations, for positing the sign function. A case in point is a picture, in the sense of a depiction. A secondary iconic sign, on the other hand, is a sign in the case of which our knowledge that E is the expression of a sign the content of which is C, in some particular system of interpretation, is at least a partial reason for perceiving the similarity of E and C. Here, then, it is the sign relations which partially motivates the relationship of iconicity.[21]

 Sonesson employs the example of the tailor’s swatch to demonstrate a secondary icon: one understands that the swatch represents its pattern and color, not its shape, only because of the convention associated with the swatch.[22] In his 2011 paper “From mimicry to mime by way of mimesis: Reflections on a general theory of iconicity,” Sonesson also notes that “just as a sign may contain iconic, indexical and symbolic properties at the same time, it may very well mix primary and secondary iconicity.”[23] Sonesson’s theories will be useful in understanding the iconicity of aggressively stylized comics such as Hellboy.

Visual style demonstrates how the comics medium is tied to secondary iconicity, or at least a combination of primary and secondary iconicity. The drawings that compose the pages of Hellboy, for example, bear some similarities between expression and content, but are also heavily reliant on an idiosyncratic system of interpretation—e.g. Mignola’s stylization—to form the iconic ground between a particular grouping of lines, shapes, and colors (expression) and a human skull (content). In Hellboy’s visual style, complex forms are flattened, certain details are disregarded, and organic contours are rendered rigid and graphic; yet the reader still recognizes the content that is expressed by the pictures. Though the depiction of the octopus tentacle in Figure 1 lacks the texture and organic fluidity of a real octopus tentacle, the reader understands the representation in the context of an overarching visual style. This statement is furthered by John Miers’ 2015 paper “Depiction and Demarcation in Comics: Towards an Account of the Medium as a Drawing Practice.” Miers applies a theory of representation developed by Kendall Walton (1990) to how comics drawings function for the reader. According to Walton’s “make-believe” theory of representation, viewing a depiction involves the self-aware use of one’s own perceptual activity as an object of imagination; in other words, “works of art function as props in games of make-believe, which mandate particular imaginative activities on the part of the viewer.”[24] In terms of comics, Miers suggests that comics drawing styles—such as Jeff Smith’s fluid, cartoonish style in Bone (2004)—are suited to how the reader uses the comics drawings: “we want to have direct access to fictional truths about how bodies are moving in space, or facial expressions changing, from panel to panel, and do not want to have to generate them from more directly generated truths about the play of light and shadow,” as in a finely rendered painting.[25] The reader uses the line drawings as “props” to generate fictional truths as mandated by the imaginative context of the drawn narrative; thus, the context of the drawing is crucial to how the reader understands it. This conventionality in how the reader approaches the depicted content constitutes a secondary iconic ground between expression and content. Sonesson’s notion of secondary iconicity can thus be applied to the way that many comics drawings function as depictions.  

The panel frame—a feature highly unique to comics—also plays a significant role in the secondary iconicity of comics images. Groensteen’s “readerly” function of the frame underscores this point. According to Groensteen, one key function of the frame is that it defines a place where content exists for the reader to scrutinize, conferring upon the contained image “the status of a unit: an isolated or enunciated sign.”[26] The readerly function of the frame is especially important for holding the reader’s gaze “in the case where a part of the image on the page might appear insignificant, because it doesn’t allow enough space for the action or the spectacle, or merges in its immediate environment to the point where this section risks not being seen.”[27] The frame contains and reorients the viewer’s gaze, and this is significant not only for how readers move through the narrative, but also for how they understand the depicted content. The comics frame literally “frames” the depiction within the conventions of graphic narrative, providing a context that facilitates the operations of visual style mentioned above. Understanding a certain arrangement of lines, shapes, and colors as Hellboy himself is based partly on shared qualitative properties, but it also relies on the frame to contain and define a place of representation, in which the idiosyncratic conventions of Mignola’s style can be expected to operate.

Rather than being viewed as low-brow or as the “other” visual medium, comics need to be understood as a unique system of meaning-making and visual operations. Relating comics to the semiotic functions of indexicality and secondary iconicity offers a better understanding of how the medium—from the format of the page to the graphic lines that compose each picture—form various kinds of meaning for the reader. Indexicality helps define how the format, materiality, and graphic lines of comics images affect the reader’s understanding, whereas the notion of secondary iconicity delineates the conventional operations underlying each depiction. Ultimately, examining how different forms of media create meaning for the viewer is a crucial direction to take in an increasingly visual culture.

Figure 1: Mike Mignola (2006), Hellboy: Strange Places, pp. 52.Dave Stewart, color; Clem Robins, letters. Dark Horse Comics.

Works Cited:

  • Atkin, Albert (2013). “Peirce’s Theory of Signs.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edward N. Zalta (ed.). https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2013/entries/peirce-semiotics/
  • Baetens, Jan (2001). “Revealing traces: A new theory of graphic enunciation.” The Language of Comics: Word and Image. Ed. Robin Varnum and Christina T. Gibbons. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. pp. 145-155.
  • Bukatman, Scott (2016). Hellboy’s World: Comics and Monsters on the Margins. Berkeley: University of California Press. Print.
  • Bukatman, Scott (2014). “Sculpture, Stasis, the Comics, and Hellboy.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 30, no. 3, pp. 104-117. EBSCO MegaFILE. Web.
  • Gardner, Jared (2011). “Storylines.” Graphic Narratives and Narrative Theory, vol. 40, no. 1, pp. 53-69. Web.
  • Goudge, Thomas A (1965). “Peirce’s Index.” Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, vol. 1, no. 2, pp. 52–70.
  • Groensteen, Thierry (1999). The System of Comics. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. Print.
  • Miers, John (2015). “Depiction and Demarcation in Comics: Towards an Account of the Medium as a Drawing Practice.” Studies in Comics, vol. 6, no. 1, pp. 145-156. MLA International Bibliography. Web.
  • Sonesson, Goran (2010). “From mimicry to mime by way of mimesis: Reflections on a general theory of iconicity.” Sign System Studies, vol. 38, no. 1, pp. 18-65.
  • Sonesson, Goran (1998). “That There Are Many Kinds of Iconic Signs.” In Visio, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 33-54.

[1] Bukatman, Scott (2016). Hellboy’s World: Comics and Monsters on the Margins. Berkeley: University of California Press. Print.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Groensteen, Thierry (1999). The System of Comics. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. Print.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Atkin, Albert (2013). “Peirce’s Theory of Signs.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edward N. Zalta (ed.). https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2013/entries/peirce-semiotics/

[8] Bukatman, Scott (2016). Hellboy’s World: Comics and Monsters on the Margins. Berkeley: University of California Press. Print.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Groensteen, Thierry (1999). The System of Comics. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. Print.

[12] Gardner, Jared (2011). “Storylines.” Graphic Narratives and Narrative Theory, vol. 40, no. 1, pp. 53-69. Web.

[13] Goudge, Thomas A (1965). “Peirce’s Index.” Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, vol. 1, no. 2, pp. 52–70.

[14] Baetens, Jan (2001). “Revealing traces: A new theory of graphic enunciation.” The Language of Comics: Word and Image. Ed. Robin Varnum and Christina T. Gibbons. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. pp. 145-155.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Gardner, Jared (2011). “Storylines.” Graphic Narratives and Narrative Theory, vol. 40, no. 1, pp. 53-69. Web.

[18] Miers, John (2015). “Depiction and Demarcation in Comics: Towards an Account of the Medium as a Drawing Practice.” Studies in Comics, vol. 6, no. 1, pp. 145-156. MLA International Bibliography. Web.

[19] Atkin, Albert (2013). “Peirce’s Theory of Signs.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edward N. Zalta (ed.). https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2013/entries/peirce-semiotics/

[20] Groensteen, Thierry (1999). The System of Comics. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. Print.

[21] Sonesson, Goran (1998). “That There Are Many Kinds of Iconic Signs.” In Visio, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 33-54.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Sonesson, Goran (2010). “From mimicry to mime by way of mimesis: Reflections on a general theory of iconicity.” Sign System Studies, vol. 38, no. 1, pp. 18-65.

[24] Miers, John (2015). “Depiction and Demarcation in Comics: Towards an Account of the Medium as a Drawing Practice.” Studies in Comics, vol. 6, no. 1, pp. 145-156. MLA International Bibliography. Web.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Groensteen, Thierry (1999). The System of Comics. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. Print.

[27] Ibid.

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