Art Vs. Language: A Battle of Cultural Proportions

In my last article, I wrote about the problems facing the designation of the "comics medium as art," and the value of changing that conception to one viewing the "comics medium as a language" – visual language (VL). In this piece, I’ll explore how the cultural associations brought in the "Art" versus "Language" positions could affect the "medium" structurally, rather than the differences they hold in the realm of "public perception" that I discussed previously.

The conceptions of Art and Language are in nearly diametric opposition to each other. While Language works off of conventionalized signs and the perpetuation of common structure across social use, the primary thrust of Art in Western society has been individuality and innovation. For Art, being like everyone else is a detriment, while in Language it is a necessity. The tension created between these polarized conceptions of Art versus Language has been perpetuated throughout visual language’s development and usage, as VL has been wrongly identified throughout history.

In my last article, I wrote about the problems facing the designation of the "comics medium as art," and the value of changing that conception to one viewing the "comics medium as a language" – visual language (VL). In this piece, I’ll explore how the cultural associations brought in the "Art" versus "Language" positions could affect the "medium" structurally, rather than the differences they hold in the realm of "public perception" that I discussed previously.

The conceptions of Art and Language are in nearly diametric opposition to each other. While Language works off of conventionalized signs and the perpetuation of common structure across social use, the primary thrust of Art in Western society has been individuality and innovation. For Art, being like everyone else is a detriment, while in Language it is a necessity. The tension created between these polarized conceptions of Art versus Language has been perpetuated throughout visual language’s development and usage, as VL has been wrongly identified throughout history.

This polarity most arises in the realm of a "lexicon" – the vocabulary items of a language. In the visual language context, this refers to the makeup of individual images. More often than not, VL features "iconic" representations of concepts – they look like what they represent. This is very different from the "symbolic" nature of spoken words, which do not resemble what they mean, but are not so different from vocabulary items found in sign languages, which are sometimes gestured to look like their meaning. Now, some might say that, unlike the common set of symbols used by English speakers, there is no systematically shared vocabulary among visual language users. Furthermore, producers of visual language all might draw stylistically in a very different fashion. However, these issues can be reconciled by pointing out that our cultural conception of Art might be holding back further development of such conventional signs.

First, there are many shared elements among authors. Both American and Japanese comics commonly use conventionalized methods of representation. In his Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud noted how certain depictions mean different things symbolically in American comics than they do in Japanese comics (e.g., stars and birds encircling someone’s head to show dizziness or a bloody nose to show lust). Within their respective cultures, these symbols have quite common and regular usage, though between cultures they help distinguish one system from another. This difference is inversely similar to words in spoken English versus those in spoken Japanese. Most of the words between the two languages vary greatly, though loan words are shared between the two only with slight change in pronunciation (for example, English has borrowed "tycoon" and "karaoke" from Japanese, while taking "computer" and "elevator" from English).

Commonality in structure occurs in iconic elements as well. However, in images it is not the entire representation that is systematic, but smaller parts of the image. Indeed, in the visual languages used in comics, there is no strict set of images that people write with. However, for example, the depictions of eyes, shape of faces, and female bodies are fairly consistent across many Japanese authors, yet not all that accurate to real bodily proportions. The systematic elements are not the full contents of the drawings, but smaller pieces of those images. And, despite the fact that the depictions are not "realistic," they are accepted by all readers and writers of manga as an appropriate way to draw people. This reflects the language’s desire for social systematic usage in its language group.

In terms of learning, the cultural emphasis on "realistic" depictions posed by Art could actually hold back the creation of a more systematic and shared use of a vocabulary. If the culture emphasizes drawing the human body "realistically" it could be providing a cultural "block" to broad-scale shared signs, because every learner would be hitting the "reset button" when figuring out how to draw. Learners no longer become concerned with finding out the regularized way in which the language group depicts something, but with accuracy of depicting "reality." In many ways, a higher demand gets placed on the learner in this system as well, because they must rely on a large degree of specialized knowledge and individual innovation rather than on acquiring a pre-established system of signs.

On the other hand some people do not aim towards "realistic" representation at all, and attempt to develop their own unique style. By stressing individuality and innovation, the same blockade against the creation of a set of conventionalized signs emerges. Again, if the producer develops their own ways of drawing, they forego joining the sign system of the group.

However, these Art-sponsored drives towards individuality and innovation may not be the natural inclination for learning. In his "Six Steps" of "artistic development," Scott McCloud described the first step taken in learning to draw comics is that of imitation. After this, though, McCloud enters into an Art-driven learning process, whereby individual innovation and personal growth are heralded above imitation.

However, imitation allows learners to acquire the language of their social group. For example, many American children want to learn "how to draw like manga," since they are reading Japanese comics at increasing numbers. The reasons for this growing readership are no doubt fairly complex, though consistent styles across manga might be one factor (other motivations might include less structural things, like diversified storylines or genres). In any case, with children’s interest to "draw like manga" we see the natural Language desire for systematic signs winning out over the cultural Art desire for individuality.

The linguistic tendency to learn through copying could also be one of the driving forces behind "clone artists," who emulate the style of whatever is popular (the other major force being the marketing tool of copying who’s "number one"). Legitimately, people could be learning visual language imitatively, though the Art conception in turn frowns upon it because it goes against individuality.

The "clone artist" issue taps into another field of opposition within this dichotomy: the difference between what you are saying and how you are saying it. In language, we all know that the words we use will be the same, its how we put those words into novel combinations that excites a reader – by expressing ideas or stories imaginatively or with beautiful rhetoric. However, we often find in Art that as much emphasis is placed on how someone draws as to what they’re saying with those drawings. Oftentimes, the more an author is new and innovative with their drawing style, the more they are noticed, and sometimes, admired (or conversely, the less innovative an artist, the more they are criticized for unoriginality). For "artists", the paramount goal has always been finding one’s individual style.

Perhaps the perception of clones of popular artists wouldn’t be nearly as bad if they were actually saying something interesting, novel, and worthwhile in their content. More often than not, the styles that clones imitate also extend beyond the structural features of the drawings and into the subject matter of their stories. As a result, most judicious readers can hardly get past the fact that clones are just a derivative of some other artist. Here might be the biggest problem with clone artists: they both draw derivatively and work on derivative subject matter: so who cares?

While a shift in cultural perception from Art to Language might not abate this issue, it could remove some stress from the status of imitative styles by acknowledging that drawers need not be stylistically innovative to have worthwhile expressions. Indeed, this certainly hasn’t held back Japanese authors who draw similarly to each other. "Clone artists" would then be left with more freedom of expression, which no doubt could be aided by a diversification of genre, though I have discussed that elsewhere.

In contrast to how images are drawn, the Language and Art tension has not affected the structure of VL in one particular area. In no noticeable way has the grammar of visual language changed – the rules governing how sequences of images are put together. McCloud explained this grammar as a set of categorizable "panel transitions," uniting every juxtaposed pair of panels. He finds six types: 1) action-to-action, 2) moment-to-moment, 3) subject-to-subject, 4) aspect-to-aspect, 5) scene-to-scene, and 6) a non-sequitur. For example, the action-to-action transition shows the progression of time at a fast pace, while subject-to-subject shifts between characters within the scene.

Since various data are unexplainable in terms of linear transitions, I have proposed an alternative model based around hierarchic rules. Panel relations held within a single moment embed into a larger "environmental" structure, all of which embeds into even larger structures expressing "temporal change." Thus, temporal change presides over both environmental and intra-moment panel relations in a hierarchic embedding across several panels, and cannot be seen merely be comparing isolated pairs of panels linearly.

Both of our models espouse the common thread that categories or rules are shared amongst all readers and producers of visual language. However, McCloud seems to imply that authors can consciously modify the types of panel transitions used, which falls right into an Art-bound perspective of individual innovation. (Qualitative "innovation" of this type would be impossible in my grammar, because the rules are not accessible to conscious awareness, being properties of the mind.)

At the same time, though, McCloud is able to record his categories across varying comics, showing that there is a common way in which authors chart. Thus, despite the potential for originality, comic creators are for the most part systematic in their "grammatical" expressions. The primary differences in these recordings came only across cultural boundaries – namely American/European comics versus Japanese comics.

While American and European comics charted similar panel transitions, Japanese comics showed variance in several different categories. McCloud’s explained these differences by asserting that Japan has a different "artistic culture" than the West. However, shifting from an Art to a Language perspective can offer a different reason for such variance.

Simply, the Japanese actually use a different visual language than Americans, which must share common cognitive apparatuses with their spoken language. Therefore, "Japanese Visual Language" shows such radical disparity from its American and European counterparts because the grammars of the spoken languages are so different. English is grammatically far more similar to European languages than to Japanese, which mirrors the charting done by McCloud’s panel transitions. I hope to address these issues of variance in cultures’ visual languages in my own model of grammar in the future.

Thus, though the force of Artistic innovation may influence the representations in a visual language, it does not affect the grammar by which those images are unified in meaningful combinations. Nevertheless, despite the competing influence that Art poses to the linguistic nature of visual language, it does not mean that the development of VL has been damaged or weakened per se. In fact, visual language in America has perhaps developed as any natural language would be expected to develop throughout the last century, despite these cultural constraints. Indeed, the Art mentality has in fact become a part of the present system of visual language in America.

It cannot be speculated how the visual languages present in the comics of the world might change if the cultural constrictions of Art were pulled off in full. However, I also do not think that there needs to be a conscious movement for this, either. Indeed, the influence of Language has always been present in the development of VL, since it is indeed a language in nature. And, if we treat the medium as a language as opposed to Art, that evolution will continue naturally just like any other language, shaped by its shared use within its language group.

Neil Cohn


  1. Dear Neil,

    I just finished reading Scott’s book about what is going on in comics. I am so glad that some debate or at least discussion is going on about comics and what makes them such a special medium especially since Scott says his book is not the end but only a beginning..or continuation of the discussion. And thanks for the notice. I’ll put a link to this article from my message boards at

    I think there is alot to say about every aspect of making and understandin comics. I gave a presentation in Suwon, Korea on Saturday to a group of English teachers in Korea about using Sequential art to help learners have fun in class. Mainly I covered over the dialogue balloons and had them fill them in. I used a few pages to get the idea a cross and it went over very well. In Korea comics are called Mang wha so I used American examples such as the X-men and Daredevil since movies are out but suggested the teachers could use black and white ones sold here like “Slamdunk”.

    Anyway I did a paper on dictionaries and though it might interest you so here is the link.

    I presented it in Busan and the middle part about how we organise vocabulary in our heads may interst you. Finally the other publications I have available that are related are about reading and schemata

    and my review that you commented on “Language in Comics”

    Thanks again and lets keep in touch about where we are going. Best of luck with you research! (copy and paste the links)

  2. I don’t think McCloud discourages visual diversity at all, but rather formulates an attempt to categorize it. I agree with this, but am expressing that it is our cultural conceptions of visual production (Art) that pushes such stylistic diversity. In fact, I’d think McCloud encourages odd experimentation more than anyone I know!

    I think you might be confusing my intended use for Language and Art. I am talking directly of the structure of the system, not the use of that structure. Certainly, a prose novel does require innovation as a piece of writing, but the words that are being used are not newly created, nor are the grammatical rules altered.

    Indeed, our culture did give rise to Disney and Foster. However, our culture has also treated such simplified drawing as somehow “lesser” than its realistic counterparts. Otherwise there wouldn’t be a movement to promote acceptance of “comics as art,” would there?

    Although the proposition that comics art is a language may initially seem reasonable, I think it inevitably encourages a misunderstanding of visual art, or an attempt to hobble it.

    In this statement you overtly position yourself as someone attached to the idea that visual production is “art,” thus holding onto the cultural biases that I discuss in this and my last article. This belief has no justification other than as the status quo for our culture. I don’t think that any visual representation can inherently be considered “art” – only the interpretation of it. The actual structure of ‘sequential visual representation’ is linguistic, and I encourage you to read more of my essays in which I outline why.

  3. I think Art is Language. Isn’t it. I mean even if there isn’t any words along with it, pictures convey meaning. They depict meaning. Meaning is stored and decoded in pictures (symbols and words even) So isn’t all art just a message to be conveyed? Art is encoded ideas and concepts and if we understand the language the artist is using it speaks to us if we get what he is saying.

    Is this too general? Did I miss what you are saying?

  4. Not all art is encoded with meaning, some Art derives meaning entirely from context. Jackson Pollack and Rothko come to mind as producing art that was either entirely or almost entirely context driven. However, their work derived meaning from what had gone on before they painted.

  5. I sympathize with what you’re saying, but for my purposes this is too general. Of course visual representation conveys meaning (but doesn’t have to, as the following post points out), but something requires more than the ability to convey meaning to be qulaified as Language. It must also require rules of grammar (sequentiality), a natural effortless learnablity by children, a group of speakers, etc.

  6. Hi Inkbrush, thanks for the post!

    You make several good points, none of which I’m really in opposition to. Individuality was the prime thing that I’m refering to in the text because of its relevance to our current context. My intention was to situate the article in terms of “where we’re at and how we conceive of these things.” However, your note of “skill in representation and rendering” has the same effects against a systematic lexicon as (I take it to mean that) they were drawing “realistically”, and the decrees by the Church lend more towards the establishment of commonality across structure.

    Most definitely the conceptions of Art do change throughout history (as does the structure of individual languages, I should add). This, plus the many notions of “Art is…” that you bring up lend even more credance to our not being able to classify this form (comic medium/visual language) as inherently being “Art.”

  7. Hi Joe,

    You’re right that intent is irrelevant – which I think supports my Language outlook. Intent makes no difference with regard to structure, though it might factor in to Art. I hesitate to define Art, btw, given that it is virtually impossible to define (as pointed out in the post below by Inkbrush). So, if you consider it as having to do with “intent” or “value judgment” or whatnot, you’re fine to do so and I won’t take issue to it. What I do take issue to is claiming that visual representation is in any way inherently “art.” Sure, any visual picture can be interpreted as “art” by either its producer or viewer, but that is quite different from its internal character as a structure.

    In your examples you are getting closer to what I’m talking about with regards to structure. However (sorry if you feel its nitpicking), I should point out that I’ve never once claimed that photographs have any sort of linguistic identity. There is a big difference between capturing the “natural facts” of an object with film and producing a visual representation of it graphically (without looking at it, I should qualify). One process relies on the conceptual structures of the mind, the other does not.

    Thank you for clarifying your equating the words “art” and “pictures.” It is something I noticed, and I think your synonymous usage shows a predisposition for how you consider visual representation. The words we use in talking about this medium have direct consequences to how it is considered in our culture.

    By “cultural bias” I mean that you are simply falling into the category of someone who upholds our culture’s belief that visual representation is (inherently) Art as opposed to Language – which is the opposite of what I argue in my essays.

  8. There are several different views on what constitutes art. (or Art for the matter at hand) To be very dry about it, art is anything that you practice; this is best compared to a science, which is anything that is systematically examined. Art is practice, science is study. Now, by that very strict definition, Comics are art.

    The question however, is whether or not Comics are “Art”, not an art. As to whether or not they are inherently Art, I personally would say no. Simply put, Comics is not Art because Comics is a Medium. A medium is not Art. An oil painting created while following along with Bob Ross is probably not Art. Exceptions to this statement abound, but it is probably safe to say that the majority of the half-finished paintings in living rooms across the country are art projects, not Art. Art is an artifact, a residue left behind after the fact. The Art object itself is rarely the point for the creator. If the art object itself is the point, then the artist is most likely an artisan.

    A medium cannot be Art. However, I would argue that any medium can be used to create Art. Watercolors were considered a teaching tool for centuries, it hasn’t been until recently that these paints have been taken seriously as tools of Art.

    The question of whether or not Comics can be Art is, I think, moot now. The question should probably be: how difficult is it to create Comics as Art today?

    If Art requires an audience to become accepted as a part of the greater body of Art, then the same must hold true for Comics. However, is it possible to create Comics as Art and release it into the public for absorption and still pursue an Artistic Ideal? Is the distribution method for Comics so inherently Capitalistic that Art gets lost in the pursuit of lucre?

    Is this now a moot question with the explosion of Webcomics? Is it possible to create Comics as Art and bypass the traditional methods of distribution, thus keeping the artist’s original vision intact?

    If all this is possible, is the resource of the Internet being utilized properly or squandered as a resource? Will it ever be utilized properly by anyone? Can it?

    Of course, from my point of view, this is all somewhat beside the point. Justifying something’s existence as Art doesn’t matter to the Artist: they do what they do for their own reasons. It does matter to everyone else, and is important for the Artist to escape persecution. The establishment and acceptance of Art protects the Artist and his/her role in society.

    Oh heck, I’m already tired of this. I’m probably not doing anything except rattling a hornet’s nest anyway.

    I hope none of my comments have been taken harshly, as they were in that way not intended.

  9. Great post inkbrush! You effectively summarized much of the points of my last two comixpedia articles.

    My one point of departure is in vocabulary: I think calling “comics a medium” is to confuse the issue a bit. I believe it is necessary to separate the idea of the “medium” (visual language) from “comics” (a social object/culture). (BTW, Dylan Horroks did a good job discussing this with regard to McCloud’s argument for the unity of the two.) However, given your intention for the term, I am in full agreement with just about everything you stated.

  10. Look I don’t think calling Comics a medium confuses anything. Oil Painting, Television, Watercolor, Stone Sculptures, Installation Art, Prose, Radio and Movies are all mediums. It is more than presumptuous to assume that something separates Comics from the way the rest of the world works in relation to human expression and communcation.

    Comics is a Medium. Because Comics is a medium, it just depends upon execution and context whether Comics are Art, art, commerce, or just plain bad.

    Is it necessary to separate the idea of a painting as medium from the idea of a painting as a social object/culture? No. The ideas shouldn’t be separated any more than they are because they are as separate as they need to be. “Painting” is a gerund. There is no better descriptor for the Art Object left behind after the act of painting has occurred than the one we already have. Why bother with breaking the idea down even further for Comics? What’s the point?

    The title of your essay says: Art vs. Language. That makes no sense, because Art is not a medium. Language is a medium. To call Comics a medium grants them the capacity to become Art. Separating the idea of Comics as Medium (visual language) from the idea of Comics as Art Object weakens rather than strengthens this connection. They should not be separated entirely. (I also don’t agree with McCloud, the two ideas don’t need to be pushed together either)

    I will look forward to your response.

  11. Let me take a different tract of explanation. Humans have three modalities by which they can express concepts: We can make sounds, use bodily motions (especially with our hands), and we can make pictures. Now, when any of these conceptual modalities takes on a sequence that is governed by rules, it becomes a language: spoken language (sound), sign language (hands/body), or a visual language. That’s it: Where is the “comics” in that?…

    “Comics” is the social object and culture that this visual language is used in for our culture. Historical instances of sequential images (like Mixtec pottery) are not “comics” – they are examples of those cultures using their visual languages in their own social contexts.

    Believing that “comics is a medium” is merely a historical association that has been handed down because no one has actually tried to identify what that medium actually is. Look at the phrase “comics medium”: you have an otherwise unspecified “medium” modified by the adjective “comics” (which associates it to that social object). Redefining “comics” as being that “medium” is simply a rhetorical slight of hand that doesn’t actually clarify the issue.

    Or… try adding an adjective to the front: We can say “superhero comics” but we can’t say “superhero comics medium”(or even worse: “superhero visual language”). This is because a genre can modify a social/literary object, but it can’t modify a medium.

    Also: in the context that I am using “medium,” painting is not one, because painting is just another type of tool use that modifies the creation of pictures. I do realize that paint, pencil, etc. (tool usage/substance) are used for the term “medium,” and if you would prefer to do so, that’s fine with me. In that case, lets use the term “form” in the context that I use “medium” above, just so we’re on the same wavelength of vocabulary.

    On that note, “tool use” and creating “conceptual sequential images” (CSI’s? – to use a neutral term?) are qualitatively different. One can create CSI’s in paint, pencil, ink, dirt, pixels – there is no restriction. “Comics” is not a gerund: One creates a comic, not “comics” a comic.

    So as to save space on this massive post (not to be flippant), I discussed why separating the two does allow for the medium to be accepted as Art in my last article.

  12. Hi Joe– As I’ve said at various points throughout this message board, my view of what constitutes “language” is very specific, and is not the metaphorical usage as a “communication system” as it is often used. To not be too long winded or repetitive, I think my “July 14 –11:54” post below decently summarizes my intention in its first paragraph.

    You’re right that I make a distinction between visual production when something is being looked at and something drawn from memory. Drawing from looking at something is a process of “perceptual rerouting” while from memory is directly from mental structures (the interfacing of concepts with those that specify how to manipulate lines and shapes). The latter grouping is more linguistic because it has to do with mental representation, while the former is not (photography included).

    This is another of the tensions that I talked about in the essay – that drawing from perception holds back the establishment of overtly common signs across the language group. Example: what if someone needs to draw a dolphin and doesn’t know how? If they draw from reference, it sustains the individuality/realism of their drawings, while if they imitate someone else, it goes further towards creating systematic usage.

    Essentially, both of these processes exist in our culture, and the tension between them has become an aspect of the development of our visual language – for better or worse. My position is that our cognitive architecture “wants” the systematicity (because of the linguistic nature of the form) but that the cultural bias constrains it from doing so.

  13. First I’d like to point out that the term “naïve drawings” inherently makes it a somehow lesser form of representation.

    You choose an interesting example of children’s drawings, since that is quite obviously influenced by Japanese manga and shares the systematic signs of that visual language group. I should note that studies have shown that children develop graphic skills faster when they imitate the process and style of other drawers, implying again an linguistic basis for graphic representation.

    You’re right, my own work is a reflection of me in my/our culture. A note with regards to my own 24-hour comic: I write solely in thumbnails (no script), and the final product is effectively a “finishing” that is a second layer on top of the original output. The originals are wholly conceptually based, while the finishes might vary in representational style.

    I think we have a slight differing on our intents for study (what you call “comic theory”). My study is of what the behavior of visual representation/expression reflects about the structure of that medium, and in turn about the mind. “Understanding the totality of what comics can express” sounds more like an interest in “artistic” practice, not scientific study.

  14. My apologies if I insulted with the “naïve drawings” comment, I just wanted to point out its implicit connotations. I usually say “conceptually produced” but I’m open to others…

    So, if you’re hypothesizing without attempting to prove, what good is it? Your “comic theory” doesn’t seem to commit to anything (and how does that make it legitimate)…?

    As an aside, I question how “objective” any scientific study really is – especially when concerning the mind. Let’s not forget that we are in the Petri-dish ourselves; we can’t escape our own subjectivity (this is, of course, not a critique of your statements per se, but a debated point amongst all of science).

    I think that McCloud’s book treads the line between “how to” manual and “scientific study.” He provided an excellent analysis of what is immediately accessible to people consciously – which is a good starting point for a structural analysis. Because it deals with what is conscious it serves well as a “how to” (and is also probably why its so popular).

    However, it did not probe any deeper than the surface level. That is, he is simply describing behavior, as opposed to using behavior to study cognition. That’s why, for instance, a term like “closure” doesn’t mean anything. It might as well be substituted for “this is where the mind does something – I don’t know what, but its in the mind.” Don’t take this as McCloud basing though – I love(d) UC – I just intend to push even further.

  15. Glad to hear there’s on offense taken. Despite my “take no prisoners” attitude, I really am trying for a friendly discussion!

    I don’t think my study is narrow, but rather accounts for the varied data in a way that various viewpoints with other dispositions might finds unpreferable. But that’s usually the case in science – especially when an alternative perspective arises.

    How can a “sideways shift” actually propose anything qualitatively alternative though? When I say I am probing “deeper” I am in effect proposing an alternative because the very nature of the material changes once it passes the surface level. In essence, pushing deeper proves the surface analysis as shortsighted and ultimately wrong.

    Your observation about photographs vs. conceptually produced pictures is interesting – especially in that it suggests that the mind in contrast seeks for order and clarity. Again though, I don’t have much to say with regards to photos.

  16. While I respectfully consider McCloud to be an antecedent of mine, I make some very important distinctions of departure from him (no panel transitions, separating VL and “comics,” etc). At the point that might work is at now, it hardly resembles McCloud’s anymore.

    I do not consider myself as part of the “semiotic tradition” (I have a few issues with it), but I do use semiotics in my research. In fact, its one of my current research projects. Its still “in progress,” but I’d be happy to pass along a Draft Copy.

  17. I have heard of it, though I haven’t gotten a chance to check it out I’m afraid. Thanks for the recommendation, I’ll see if I can’t get to it at some point!

  18. Dear Neil,

    Thanks. I agree you are defining terms in a lexicon specific for your own point of grammar. I guess I can say that in most comics there are words and the words are different from the artwork in most cases unless they are sound effects and have some special shape. But really every font gives off some feeling and when it all comes together their is a message saying things like oh these guys are professional or wow this guys is deep or hmm.. clever. I guess that is what I was getting at that besides the grammar you are focusing on the art itself conveys a message and has meaning. I guess language can be defined alot of different ways for different purposes. For instance I remember Chomsky who who tend to admire say that language has to be for Human communication but I kind of thought chimps and whales communicate and I would call that language be it ever so basic.

    Anyway what you seem to be getting at is that besides the artwork and words, the space between the panel creates a story in the reader’s mind and reading a comic is different than readinga novel with only words. So then would movies have their own language? Their own Grammar?

    I don’t know if it has to be called grammar. There are other terms to describe language like Discourse or Pragmatics but for your explanation you are applyin tree diagrams and morphology that was used to describe grammar in texts to describing what happens in Comics. I think it is a noble pursuit and hope you dont’ feel like we are taking pot shots at your explanations.

    Thanks for sharing your insights!

    Kevin Landry

  19. I haven’t felt that people were taking pot shots, just having an inquisitive discussion. Language has many uses and functions, and I don’t think that communication is ever claimed as the sole purpose (by me or Chomsky). I think the “meaning” that you might be talking about is in a literary sense – read “on top of” the actual structure. For instance, the words in a novel directly have meaning, but on top of that an interpretive “literary meaning” is also overlain. Is this what you mean?

    I do not think that movies are their own language. Without going too much in depth as to why, I basically think that they employ a derivative version of visual language, that loses many of its properties in the transference from static to moving media. (There have been attempts to create film grammars though – including generative ones.)

  20. Yeah,

    I think there are many layers of meaning and we can call them language in a sense but we don’t have to!

    Here is a crazy look at the world that may be a step further than movies or pictures even.

    The relationship between language and ecology has been explored in a variety of ways, from examination of language as an ecological phenomenon to the influence of language on the environment (see Mühlhäuser 2003). The Centre for Language and Ecology focuses on one important area of ecolinguistics: criticism of discourses which are implicated in ecological devastation, and exploration of alternative discourses. This is not a trivial game of ‘ecological correctness’ (substituting the odd word for a more ecologically friendly alternative), but a deeper quest for alternative systems of understanding and representing nature which promote ecological harmony.

    The role of the centre is:

    a) to provide a lively and interesting online magazine focusing on ecolinguistic discourse analysis

    b) to support research into ecolinguistics by offering information about researchers, conferences, courses, bibliographic resources and internet resources.

    c) to extend ecolinguistic research beyond the boundaries of academia by encouraging collaboration between ecolinguists and educators, environmental activists and writers of texts which have a potential ecological impact.

    Subscriber: Subscribers include anyone who has an interest in ecological linguistics. Subscribers receive emails when new articles appear in the online magazine, and information about courses and special events.

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  21. Neil– This discussion interests me, because it seems to be related to the themes developed by Will Eisner and Scott McCloud, i.e., that comics are a language.

    I’ve always been critical of Eisner’s and McCloud’s approaches because they don’t seem to account for the possibility of rich visual experiences in comics. In fact Understanding Comics seems to discourage the idea with its discussion of iconic art.

    You seem to be discussing this disjunction between what visual art is capable of, and the limited role traditional comics theorists wish for it.

    Unfortunately, I find it difficult to understand your views. For example, consider the following quote:

    ‘The conceptions of Art and Language are in nearly diametric opposition to each other. While Language works off of conventionalized signs and the perpetuation of common structure across social use, the primary thrust of Art in Western society has been individuality and innovation. For Art, being like everyone else is a detriment, while in Language it is a necessity.’

    Under what definitions of art and language would this be true? Certainly a prose novel has as much need for individuality and innovation as a work of visual art. On the other hand, a journalistic photograph is concerned with recording an event, and individuality and innovation are quite secondary.

    However, in spite of my uncertainties about your meaning, the following catches my attention:

    ‘In terms of learning, the cultural emphasis on “realistic” depictions posed by Art could actually hold back the creation of a more systematic and shared use of a vocabulary.’

    (Let me note in passing that there’s no justification for assuming that the desire for realistic depictions in particular is a ‘cultural emphasis.’ The same culture gave birth to Walt Disney and Harold Foster, after all.)


    ‘By stressing individuality and innovation, the same blockade against the creation of a set of conventionalized signs emerges.’

    This is fascinating, because ordinarily ‘comics as language’ advocates only rail against the use of realism. You’ve correctly identified artistic individuality as being at odds with ‘comics as language’ as well. I would further advance that any attempt to enrich the visual experience is at odds with it. In Understanding Comics, McCloud even expressed doubts about the use of color in comics! ‘In black and white, the ideas behind the art are communicated more directly. Meaning transcends form. Art approaches language.’

    Although the proposition that comics art is a language may initially seem reasonable, I think it inevitably encourages a misunderstanding of visual art, or an attempt to hobble it.

    A picture is more than just a collection of signifiers. The primary goal of comics theory should be to understand the possibilities inherent in that fact.

  22. Oops, didn’t log in. The previous comment was by Joe Zabel.

  23. Neil– Thanks for the reply.

    You wrote, ‘I think you might be confusing my intended use for Language and Art. I am talking directly of the structure of the system, not the use of that structure. Certainly, a prose novel does require innovation as a piece of writing, but the words that are being used are not newly created, nor are the grammatical rules altered. ‘

    Ok, so I gather then what you are comparing, to use specific examples, is the word ‘hand’ with a photograph of a hand– let’s say a photo of a hand against a white background, with no additional details visible. Those two items have some things in common; both could refer to the general idea of a hand. But they also are quite different– for instance, the photo of the hand also signifies gender, race, age, health. And the hand is either a left hand or a right hand.

    But in your essay, the distinction you talk about between the two is intent. As I see it, intent is irrelevant. The person who typed the word ‘hand,’ possessed an intent, and the photographer of the hand did as well. But why should we care about that?

    But you might be attempting to refer to a relevant difference between the word and the photo– the word ”hand” is always the same, but the photo of the hand has unique qualities. The photographer could have taken 100 photos of 100 hands, in the exact same position, but each photo would be different from the others. It doesn’t matter what the photographer’s intent is, each of the photos would be noticeably different as a natural fact.

    As for the rest, I’m afraid it would require a protracted dialog for me to understand what you mean by a cultural bias. One apparent point of confusion is the distinction between art and Art– the former is simply a word referring to a particular thing, the other is a value judgement. When I refer to visually rich art, I’m merely using art as a synonym for picture. To say that comics may have visually rich pictures is a fairly objective statement, I would think, not the result of a prejudice on my part.

    BTW, there’s a difference between ‘odd experimentation’ and visually rich pictures. Understanding Comics frequently suggests that visual richness is at odds with ‘comics as language.’ For example, page 30, ‘By strippng down an image to its essential “meaning,” an artist can amplify that meaning in a way that realistic art can’t.’

  24. I did want to make one small point; by no means is this comment intended as a harsh criticism. It should be noted that within the last 100 years the notion of individuality in art has come full bloom into the western world, but that before that time such ideas were not the norm. In France the National Academie was established to create a “national style”, and painters of genuine skill and accomplishment such as Pouissant created Art. Even further back in European history, artists like Rembrandt Van Rindt and Michaelangelo taught painting and sculpture at schools without stressing any notions of individuality. Emphasis was on skill in representation and rendering. Before the Renaissance, the Catholic Church did more than influence Art in Europe: the church dictated to a vast degree what style of art was acceptable. Mannerism was a flat style de-emphasizing the physical form in favor of the spirit, or so the Church held.

    The notion that Art is in any way naturally an individualistic expression does not hold given the history of Art in the world. This is going to sound weird but the best explanation of what Art is was given to me by a Tai Chi instructor, who had also been a sculptor: Art is an agent of change. This means that Art is not separate from human experience, it is not necessarily individualistic (in fact, this means that some of the most effective Art cannot be individualistic) and Art is not something above or beyond most people, but is aimed directly at them. There are dozens of other academically contested notions of what constitutes Art now, including (in perhaps too brief and too glib a phrasing): “Art is what you say it is,” “Art is what we all say it is,” “Art is where you put it,” “Art is Art in context,” “Art is a physical representation of the divine,” “Art is a means of communication,” “Art is whatever seems to be Art at the time.” There are lots of formal definitions of Art and there aren’t many of them that mention Individuality as a cornerstone of their argument.

    Anyway, I know how irritating it is to have responses to posts by anonymous users, so until I get my username you can contact me at:

    Thanks for reading this far!

  25. Neil– There’s a number of interesting threads to pick up on, but let me pick this one:

    ‘I should point out that I’ve never once claimed that photographs have any sort of linguistic identity. There is a big difference between capturing the “natural facts” of an object with film and producing a visual representation of it graphically (without looking at it, I should qualify). One process relies on the conceptual structures of the mind, the other does not.’

    I’m surprised to hear that you make this kind of distinction regarding photography. Since photographs are used very widely for the purpose of communicating, I would think that their linguistic identity is undeniable; but that depends on the definition of the term ‘linguistic identity.’ And since the photographer must choose where to point the camera (and often controls what the camera sees rather meticulously), I don’t think one can rule out the possibility that the conceptual structures of the photographer’s mind are engaged in the creation of the photo. But that depends on how one defines ‘conceptual structures.’

    Am I correct in making the inference from the above quote, that you think there is a meaningful distinction between artists who have their subjects in front of them, and those who draw strictly from memory? For example, my understanding is that Jack Kirby drew mostly from memory; on the other hand, some artists with primitive styles draw using a model. Does this mean that Kirby’s work has a linguistic identity that’s lacking from the hypothetical primitive artist I’ve described?

    –Joe Zabel

  26. Neil– I think you’re touching on a valuable aspect of drawing here. There’s a tendency of ‘naive’ drawings to magnify and change details about the world in a way that, in some cases, makes the drawings more meaningful. Some details that visually are rather subtle and hard to notice become magnified in drawings– for example, the fingernails, and the pupil inside the iris of the eye. Hands tend to be drawn larger than they proportionally are. In the typical cartoon, the most meaningful parts of the body, the head, hands, and feet, are drawn larger, while the rest of the body is smaller than natural proportions. Something I’ve noticed in my own drawing is that I feel a little uncomfortable when I’ve drawn a standing figure, and one of the arms or legs is complete covered by the rest of the body– I want to be able to see all four limbs, for it to be a true and complete representation of the body– even though the natural pose might be one in which one arm is resting at the side, obstructed from view.

    I’m not sure that it’s necessary for the artist to cloister himself away from the reference for the drawing to have these qualities. Robert Crumb’s art, for example, has a wonderful naive quality to it, but he frequently engages in life-drawing.

    There are probably many other meaningful effects that crop up in ‘naive’ drawings that my description above doesn’t account for. Take a look at this set of a child’s drawing that William G. has assembled into a comic: — Various odd shapes in it may be suggestive of additional meanings (like the horizontal strokes at the sides in the ‘happy/sad’ images.)

    Your interest in this process is well placed, and I certainly agree that the phenomenon is worthy of serious study.

    My concern, however, is with comics theory that elevates one form of expression above another and awards it a privileged status. This isn’t helpful in understanding how comics work, because it creates a barrier, a bias if you will, to understanding the totality of what comics can express.

    I’m not assuming that you harbor such a bias, by the way. I noticed, for instance, that in the 24-hour comic on your site, you experiment with mixing drawings with photographs; and on one page, you have a sequence of photographs of a woman that briefly take on a lifelike effect.

  27. My intent was not to denigrate the drawing practice I was talking about by calling it ‘naive;’ if you can suggest a term that designates the practice of drawing without a model, I’d be happy to use it.

    My interest in comic theory is not as an “artistic” practice, nor is it a scientific study. A scientific study involves use of the scientific method– formulating a hypothesis and then using an objective method to prove or disprove it. I might engage in the hypothesizing, but I’m not prepared to prove or disprove.

    I had a debate with an academic a few years ago over on the Comics Journal discussion board, and he insisted that McCloud’s book was merely a ‘how to’ manual. I maintain that comics theory is neither mundane nor quixotic. It may not be a scientific study, but it is a legitimate field for intellectual inquiry.

  28. Neil– Thanks for the very reasonable reply. I’m afraid I was becoming a bit testy there– message boards tend to bring out the worst in me!

    I think part of the problem here is that your work is kind of like a naturalist who is studying robins. Somebody comes along and says, ‘But what about sparrows? What about owls?’ But obviously for a naturalist to get anywhere, they must limit their study in some way.

    I agree that McCloud, by intent I think, maintained a certain level of detail detail in UC, leaving many opportunities for going deeper. I’m concentrating more at the level he was working at, criticizing his conclusions and suggesting alternatives. Basically, I think you’re emphasizing a downward shift, i.e. deeper, while I’m emphasizing a sideways shift, i.e. alternatives.

    Thinking about ‘conceptually produced’ pictures in comparison with photographs, it occurs to me that one of the big differences is the prevalence of chaotic elements in the latter. Pictures derived from concepts tend to impose order upon the universe, but photographs reveal the universe’s disorder. Motivated photographers often try to minimize the disorder– posing models in front of a white screen, for example– but in a photograph, the chaos is always present.

    I’m reminded of Banks/Eubanks, a graphic novel by an excellent artist, Tom Hart, who works very ‘conceptually’. I thought the first two thirds of the book worked quite well, but when the story calls for a hurricane to invade the scene, Hart’s conceptual approach is not up to the task of evoking it.

  29. ‘How can a “sideways shift” actually propose anything qualitatively alternative though? When I say I am probing “deeper” I am in effect proposing an alternative because the very nature of the material changes once it passes the surface level. In essence, pushing deeper proves the surface analysis as shortsighted and ultimately wrong. ‘

    The analogy of sideways and deeper breaks down very quickly. I had inferred from some of your comments and things I saw on your site that you basically accepted McCloud’s take on comics, but that you were going into greater detail and in other ways probing deeper. My own approach is to start with rejecting some of McCloud’s ideas, particularly the ideas about iconic images, and developing a general view, a ‘surface analysis’ as you put it, that differs from his.

    This may be a naive question, but what’s your take on semiotics? Do you consider your work to be in the tradition of semiotics?

  30. should point out that I’ve never once claimed that photographs have any sort of linguistic identity.

    Neil, are you aware of the book “Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design” by Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen? You might find it interesting. Their premise is that many images are to some extent “read” by viewers. They even apply it to movie stills. It’s very interesting.

  31. I think one has to be more philosophical exact:  To my mind at least it is simply wrong  to equate language with grammar. Performative issues (extremely important in Japanese of course), the radical social (male/female, master/slave) difference in use and in the lexicon, the different style of writing, left to right, or right to left, the number of signs used in writing,…have traditionally not been considered part of the grammar of a language (perhaps this is wrong).  Culture are different (Japanese love of death), but this is not dominated by the grammar difference.

    England, France, Germany are all indo-european, but even today there are unbridgable differences in the national way of life, philosophy of life, comic culture, even literature.

    To my mind the difference between Christianity and Buddhism or Shintoism or Chinese folk religion is more fundamental than anything else

    The strong Humboldt/Whorf thesis is simply wrong (at least as commonly understood).  One difficulty with Whorf is, that his knowledge of Hopi was in fact nearly nonexistent , something which the german linguist E. Malotki has shown in great detail.

    There are enormous differences in languages, also in their grammar, but grammar  does not dominate culture: Japanese, Chinese have no gender (so there are no sexes there?), european langanges give everything a certain sex (but the things in the world couldn`t  care less), the difference between 1 and more than 1 can not be expressed grammatically in Asia,  personal pronouns are used only under and since european cultural influence,

    Japanese Visual Culture may be more rich than european (european calligraphy is of course only an irrelevancy copared to the chinese simply because of the numer of Kanji,  the dominance of ink (over print or oil) connected to writing, european calligraphy  of course  is only a joke  to sinologists.

  32. Differences between European and Asian Visual Art (high, as well as low) (and Arabian or Jewish Visual Cultures). But also between the european traditions: high and low, literate, illiterate, but also regional: dutch art and italian art (and not only the "high " one).

    There is an enormous tradition of mass visual language in Europe, but comics are nearly as different from traditional prints, newspapers, emblem books, illustrated stories as photography is from trad. printing. With its dynamic interaction of word and picture, dominated by the logic of the picture, not the story, Comics were a genuine USamerican medium at first, a medium of the english-less and half-literate, the german, italian, jewish, irish, russian Masses and their newspapers, like the great brutal movies of the time. Like european movies (or TV) the best european comics are still stiff and literate.

    Wasn`t Japan also basically an illiterate society until not so long ago? Perhaps manga really are so popular, because even the Japanese kids  need all the help they can get (and much more of it than we) to learn to read? And this simply leads to a positive attitude towards comics even later?

    Northamerica and Japan love comics, because they want to have mass culture (and mass schooling). Cultures who stay strongly elitist and don`t want educated masses have a popular Visual Culture only  in the traditional, religious or ritual sense and in cinema or television, where people can stay illiterate as long as they wish.

  33. Comics really are for kids, at least outside of Japan and maybe the USA, and if kids stop reading them, they are no longer relevant (graphic novels!). Young students are basically still teenagers in the West. Commercial comics need a mass market of reading and buying children, the intellectual (and maybe artistic) ambitions and powers of the not quiet grown ups dominate (and have always done so) nearly every aspect of comics.

    But this readership in the West and especially in Japan is in a sense very well educated. Teenagers act dumb as hell, but they all have much much more purely intellectual skills, than nearly all normal people in any society have ever had. For centuries and centuries (and not only in China or Japan) nearly nobody could really write or read.

    The interesting thing about comics for us grown ups and would be artists or intellis may be the drawings and pictures, debates on the form of the medium, but most of them have to work as are a form of mass media folklore, of storytelling for kids, children`s literature and folk lore.

    1.) They are literature and the reader need language skills. Without basic real french, it is useless to try to like the bande desinee. But  a 12 year old school kid knows in fact (linguistics before Chomsky) everything useful there is to know about one`s own language, and not only the spoken one.

    2.) What about artistic sensibilities? The educational establishment and the "independent " mass media have to reach everybody to behave rationally in the capitalist sense, their great ambition is to teach as few things as possible, to keeep everybody on board. Art, phantasy,…are for the time of not-work only and schooling is seen as work.

    3.)The affluent society must always work  to stay that way (work at least enough to live off other people`s work in the financial and trade sectors). The cultural might of capitalism is such, that everything worthwile is a sellable product: this gives us toys nobody could play with and entertainment no sane person could truely profit from and Marvel and DC.

    Comics are a mass medium for schooled kids, children with more than enough time and money on their hand, but without artistic or intellectual chalenges in school and without the human skills every member of a pre-industrial, non-urban society needed to have early on to survive.

    Now only mass basic skilling counts, the skills simply everybody has to have in a large urban society with enormous masses of people to feed, but it also is the only society ever (including of course communist ones) where the ambitions of the masses count. This may simply be, because the tax guzzling parasites on top have to give something back to stay elected parasites.

    This society was born with the industrial revolution, which in the USA after the Civil War was driven by half-illiterate immigrants without English, who americanized their names on arrival and produced the melting pot  capitalism which began to dominate the world in the 1920s (with a little help by self-destructing Europe). The great silent movies were born into this extremely dynamic society and so were then brutal and funny and illiterate comics. 

    Traditional popular visual cultures are strongly religious or ritualistic.  Perhaps our own urban, industrial produced folklore could not even be that different , it it has to work and find a buying mass public. Not everybody can be above the average, not even in their dreams.

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