Perspicuous Objects

In Conclusion

A discussion of what makes comics tick that does not explicitly consider the visual language choices of the artist will always be an incomplete discussion. In fact, the words on the page are sometimes the least interesting place to start a reading of a comic. However, it isn't always obvious to readers that they ought to be reading well-made comics with the kind of rigor they might bring to the reading of a well-made traditional text. The English majors I teach tend to be trained to think about the juxtaposition of textual images and the importance of small details in a poem, but they often need a nudge to think in the same way about the images inside a graphic novel. Or maybe they just need permission to bring the full range of their literary and rhetorical tools and sensibilities to the reading of images in the comics form. Whatever the case, when I assign a graphic novel or comic, even and especially to English majors, I always remind my students to look at the pictures, which are not just illustrations of the words but are instead visual language that is as much text as the traditional text on the page. I ask them to notice how the images are made, how their very form can be analytical, how they can draw the mind in certain directions. I ask them to notice how the meanings of images on the page arise in the aggregate, rather than alone, with every mark on the page meaning something and no mark on the page meaning what it means when taken by itself.

In many cases, a discussion of the comics grotesque might be a great place to start: How are these figures attenuated? What kinds of amplification by simplification are going on? How do the images work together with juxtaposed images and texts to establish characters and places? This is close reading that takes into account visual details in the ways that close readers of poetry and fiction are trained to take into account imagery rendered in text. What were my first impressions? What's concatenated visually here in support of my first impressions? Is there anything that contradicts my initial response? How has looking closely at the more granular details deepened or altered my reading of the whole piece? In reading comics, then, what we add to the text-on-a-page paradigm is this: Look at the pictures, and look at the pictures next to the pictures. They are full of information. They are also imagery, and they are doing all the amazing things that imagery does, and they are doing it in complex ways worth examining. But you have to look to see it.

The discussions of cartooning and concatenation throughout "Perspicuous Objects" leave much still unsaid about the virtually endless set of rhetorical tools used by comics artists, and especially about the poetics of joining images and designing pages. But as a whole the framework suggested by "Perspicuous Objects" provides a way to look at the constituent elements of a specific visual narrative and to begin analyzing the rhetorical and literary work being done by its lines, abstractions, image selections, and juxtapositions. The webtext focuses on terminology and ideas that can help along critical thinking about how images can be analytical by design, how they can be inflected by their context and placement, and how they can rise above straight-forward illustration of what a composition is already saying with words alone. With a useful vocabulary for talking about how formal, visual qualities of a comic are integral to its meaning-making, students can begin their analytical work by looking closely at specific images as focused, analytical images contributing to a narrative, rather than by loosely translating images into words. They can move beyond discussing visual narratives as if they are traditional stories or essays that happen to be illustrated, and they can look more closely at the relationship between a visual narrative's at and through states, as Richard Lanham (1993) suggested they should.

That is to say, the ideas presented here can help an analytical reader avoid, for example, treating a cartoon bird as if it is little different than the word "bird." Further, if students learn to describe and analyze the rhetorical situation of cartoons in the context of comics, then that analytical outlook should help them begin to see and analyze the constructedness of all kinds of images deployed in all kinds of multimodal discourses. Moreover, if they can make a case about how context affects even what a stray squiggly line means, then they are becoming more sensitive to the ways all extended arguments are crafted out of many small, connected pieces. Other strategies can move students toward this kind of analytical outlook, too, of course; my case here is that comics can provide an excellent starting point for conversations and lessons about the dynamics and difficulties of not only multimodal communication, specifically, but also meaning construction and analysis, generally.

Comics often make their way into classrooms in much the same way that film does—as a form teachers expect students to somehow connect with better than they connect with print, whatever that means. A comic like Marjane Satrapi’s (2007) Persepolis, chronicling Satrapi’s experiences with religious and political extremism, might become the anchor for classroom discussions of religious and political extremism. Leaving aside the dubious assumption that students will always find a comic more congenial than simple prose, there is surely value in many such discussions, but just as surely these discussions tend to consider the comics form of the narrative only in passing, if at all—skipping over looking at the text in order to look right through it.

But to ignore the form is to ignore much of what a highly visual text means. To ignore the form is also to miss an opportunity to teach students something about how visual rhetoric works, much as ignoring the form and style of a film—or the form and style of traditional prose texts—means sacrificing opportunities to talk about how communication works. Cartoons and comics can be used to show how every mark on a page contributes something to the page’s meaning, how all the marks depend on each other for their significance, how images can be analytically focused, how abstraction itself is a sort of analysis, how style matters, how the arrangement of elements can be significant—how created images can be literate and literary, in short. Not only can students become sharper readers of comics, their study of accumulated, concatenated meaning in comics may become the study of how selection and arrangement are crucial to composing and expression of ideas, period.