So, whether you have been paying attention to it or not, our world and our culture has really come around to embracing its visual aspects of communication and expressions once again. I say once again because as theorist Scott McCloud notes in his work Understanding Comics, communication through images was far more common: think of Bayeux Tapestry and Egyptian hieroglyphs.
This being on our plate, I think it is best that we establish and look at the rhetorical situation we have at hand before us.
McCloud notes that the progression of history and development of writing created differences in these two forms of communication.
These notions of “received” and “perceived” conceptions are part of what pushed their place as communication apart over time.
McCloud ends up helping to define this difference more by placing the conceptions along a plane and gives images to help illustrate the variances.
What our culture is returning to is perhaps very much a healing of the divide between art and literature.
One such place this is strongly occurring is in graphic narratives such as graphic novels and comic books. This is part of what McCloud offers up in Understanding Comics. This work attempts to theorize what graphic narratives and comic really are, by defining them:
At the same time, McCloud’s method of communication is operating as an example of his own theory: a graphic narrative talking about graphic narratives/comics. McCloud is not alone in his assertions that imagery and words can work together, or that they are able to tap into something embedded in humanity.
Famous cartoonist and comic book pioneer Will Eisner, not unlike Scott McCloud (who actually builds on Eisner’s work), in his book Comics and Sequential Art, points out that imagery, like written language, serves and acts as a communicator. Eisner notes that “Comprehension of an image requires a commonality of experience . . . the success or failure of this method of communicating depends upon the ease with which the reader recognizes the meaning and emotional impact of the image” (7-8). So, when one is shown or presented with imagery that is familiar and recognizable, one can and will best be able to assimilate the message being communicated to you.
Beyond the need for comprehension, it is needed that one be able to specifically recognize the power of visual or graphic narratives as well.
The power of those visual images relies heavily within the folds of collective values and recognizable concepts. Chaim Perelman and L. Olbrechts-Tyteca, in their work The New Rhetoric, identify that when looking for objects of agreement, values fall within a second grouping, “concerning the preferable, comprising values, hierarchies, and lines of argument relating to the preferable” (66). These ideas are ones that foster agreement within their conception of a “universal audience,” one that is unknown. Expanding on how values work, they note that “Agreement with regard to a value means an admission that an object, a being, or an ideal must have a specific influence on action and on disposition toward action and that one can make use of this influence in an argument” (74).
So, we know that images need to be agreed upon and recognizable in order to communicate. Good. How about the fact that certain images, and this is with us trying not to jump off into semiotic theory, appear to have a certain power inherently in them.
The ability for such a character, an image, to act in such a manner can stem from what Randy Duncan discusses in his article “Image Functions” found in collection Critical Approaches to Comics. In this article Duncan lays out 4 assumptions:
that images on the page are a result of author intention . . . that the meaning you desire from a comic book or graphic novel might coincide with the meaning of the author . . . that images can function to show the reader the story or tell the reader about the story [and] images are an important agency . . . for conveying subtext, the underlying meaning of a story. (44-6).
Duncan’s notions here, his terminology regarding rhetorical intent found in images, of meaning and interpretation, parallels closely with what Duncan, in collaboration with Matthew J. Smith attempted in their work The Power of Comics.
In this work, under their chapter about creating a story, note that there is a “Process of Encapsulation” when comes to making comic books. They specifically focus on two approaches, choices: syntagmatic and paradigmatic choice.
Syntagmatic choice is defined as, “the process of selecting which panels to present from the possible progression of story images that could occur [it] is analogous to selecting the word order to create a sentence” (132). Whatever is represented, regardless of a reader/viewers preference, this choice allows for greater “dramatic emphasis” to be pulled from what appears on the page rather than what is left out (132).
With the paradigmatic choice, “the chosen images and all the images that could have made sense or communicated nearly the same meaning at the same point in the panel”, which illustrates a more open, semiotic approach to how image selection as stylistic choice can work within a comic book narrative (133). This choice, the paradigmatic one, remains open to symbolic interpretations, which in turn, according to Duncan and Smith give rise to the use of economy of expression via rhetorical figures such as: synecdoche, metonymy, and sequence metaphors (133-4).
So, images can have fixed and flexible meanings when used? Good to know.
Well, perhaps we need to see the use of these rhetorical figures in action. Let’s do this by looking at an example I know well.
Some Superhero Inspiration
So, anyone who knows me a bit, or has read back posts in my blog about my dissertation process, knows that I am a fan of Superman. I only really became a fan of Superman after I read Grant Morrison and Frank Quietly’s All-Star Superman.
Morrison’s depiction of Superman helped change my entire perspective on the man of steel and directly helped inspire my dissertation: American Arête: The Man of Steel as a Rhetorical Model.
Page 96 of Vol. 2 of All-Star Superman provides, one of many but, the best opportunity to witness how the essence of Superman generates presence via the use of rhetorical figures in visual form as given by Duncan and Smith:
What we have here is 1 page, 5 panel layout. Panel 1 runs the length of the page on the left hand side, helping to indicate height and placement of the scene, the subsequent 4 panels (panels 2-5) run down the right hand side. These panels are where we will apply and look at the use of our rhetorical figures.
On the right hand side, running parallel, down the page, are 4 panels opposite this long opening panel (seen in full page example above).
The first two vertical sequential panels on the right-hand side of the page provide a good illustration of the rhetorical figure of synecdoche. This term comes from the Greek συνεκδοχή synekdoche , meaning “simultaneous understanding” or rather to understand or comprehend something as a whole by only a part. The Greek-English Lexicon highlights that this figure stands for “understanding one thing with another: hence in Rhet., synecdoche, an indirect mode of expression, when the whole is put for a part or vice versa, Quint.Inst.8.6.19, Aristid.Quint.2.9, Ps.-Plu.Vit.Hom.22.” (Liddell and Scott). In other words, this classical rhetorical figure is employed to show us “a part of something” that can be then inferred by the audience as a whole that the “part” represents or vice versa.
This plays out in the first panel shows a close up depiction of a young girl, apparently in distress. Though you have seen her whole body in the first, left hand panel (long shot with building included), you can infer that her entire body has become clinched together in some anxiety before what very well be the prelude to a leap from this building by the way that her hands are clasped tightly and her eyes are shut, with her shoulder hunched up. Here the figure of synecdoche is working within another, as McCloud defines it, picture specific panel (Understanding Comics 153).
There are no words. All information must be inferred via body language and previous knowledge stemming from the elongated panel to far left of the full page image.
One does not have to see the rest of her to infer the notion that she is in pain and distress, though the specific reason remains unknown.
The next sequential panel below it again utilizes synecdoche, but this time with the focus being drawn to the chest emblem of Superman, his “S” and his most identifiable feature other than his cape.
The “S” is partially obscured by the young girl’s head, but it is recognizable and along with his hand, placed upon her shoulder, as well as his calming words, one can immediately distinguish a change in the young girls entire mood and posture.
The scene in this panel would fall closely into what McCloud calls an Additive type of panel (154). Here, the use of words are implemented and imposed as a way of providing amplification and elaboration for the audience’s reception and interpretation of the image.
The role of synecdoche between these two panels is, for the audience, a condition of understanding a larger concept communicated by the author. This concept centers upon the idea that no matter how bad life appears to be, it is never so bad as to end one’s life. One is never really alone. This is implied both in the words Superman, who in panels 2 and 3 (those right above), is not fully scene, but his presence is felt. His words, plus the placement of his hand upon the young girls shoulder represent a clear choice by the author to wish to convey a sense of hope and paternal encouragement both to the young woman and to those who are reading. Synecdoche, its application particularly here, serves to help reinforce a kind of guardian angel or supportive figure, a reassuring voice, for the audience to see.
This notion of protection and the communication are affirmed in the subsequent 2 panels (4 and 5) that follow:
This entire sequence contains a total of five panels on the page. One panel, the long opening on, allows for an initial set up of the scene for the audience. What Morrison and Quitely do with panels that follow is communicate a deeply imbedded aspect of Superman that is often overlooked: his ability to inspire us. They do this by flipping the standard trope of “how” Superman “saves the day.” Instead of waiting for her to jump, and Superman swooping in to save her, Morrison and Quitely have Superman save this young woman, who feels despair and unable to cope with the world, in a different fashion. Superman saves her by giving her part of his strength, his hope. Appearing behind her as she is getting ready to jump, Superman tells her that “Your doctor really did get held up Regan. It’s never as bad as it seems. You’re much stronger than you think you are. Trust me” at which point she hugs him (All-Star Superman vol. 2, 96). This one series of panels alone is a powerful and moving illustration of the strength that Superman has, not physically, but as a model and “hope” for humanity instead.
The economy of imagery here, for one this entire scene is depicted in one page and only five panels helps illustrate the encapsulation of Superman’s essence, his willingness to help others, selflessly by how he himself acts and acts towards others, generates a strong emotional appeals via the audience’s ability to both identify with the superhero and perhaps even the young girl too.
The second trope discussed by Duncan and Smith is metonymy. Metonymy, from the Greek μετωνυ^μ-ία , ἡ, (μετά, ὄνομα) means a “change of name: in Rhet., the use of one word for another, metonymy, Cic.Orat.27.93, Ps.-Plu.Vit.Hom. 23, Quint.8.6.23” (Liddell and Scott). Duncan and Smith define metonymy as “the use of an associated detail to represent the whole [and its most commonly] used in the depiction of part of a physical manifestation of an emotion” (134).
Returning to the page from All-Star Superman, there are two close-ups and one full away examination of emotions on display.
Starting again with the panels of the top right of the page, the first panel allows one to infer the depiction of intense pain:
Looking at McCloud’s charts of facial expressions, the image of the young girl’s face falls most closely to “pain empathy” made up of “disgust” and “sadness” (Making Comics 85). The emotions one can infer, also drawing on body language and the left-hand panel of her standing on a ledge leads one to a notion that she is in such emotional pain that she appears ready to take her own life.
The panel after it, with the emergence of Superman directly behind the young woman portrays an expression of surprise/astonishment/etc.
This depiction immediately changes in the next vertically sequential panel where Superman arrives, with his hand on her shoulder. Her facial expression becomes one of mild surprise with aspects of revelation, perhaps from Superman’s words about the misunderstanding that lead her to feel she should take her own life.
Finally, in the third panel on the right hand side, Superman’s face is finally seen for the first time on the page as the image pulls away. One can slightly confer an expression of calming sympathy and reassurance on his face as it leads to the final panel and her embracing of him in a hug.
Symbols and Sequence Metaphors
The third trope discussed is that of the sequence metaphor, and this is perhaps the most crucial combination of this particular page from All-Star Superman’s ability to help generate a deeper sense of meaning beyond what is simply depicted.
Duncan and Smith note that “Symbols are another means of economy of expression in comics [and these] can manifest as a sequence metaphor [or] two juxtaposed images that together create a meaning not present in either image alone” (The Power of Comics 134). There are several levels on which to look at this page of All-Star Superman as acting within the bounds of sequence metaphors.
The first comes by looking at this page in reference to the entire work of All-Star Superman and noting that of all the acts of heroism portrayed within, this particular and rather simple page is perhaps the most revealing. The revealing quality comes from the two panels found in the right hand side of the page, again. Focusing on specifically “two juxtaposed images” brings about an examination of impact Superman has as a symbol.
From his absence in the first panel to his then appearance in the second, it is incredibly powerful to witness what Superman, as a symbol, has the ability to do in helping this young girl. What is even more telling is the fact that the essence of Superman has a twist here. Instead of “typically” performing the act of saving this girl after she has jumped, Superman’s essence shifts slightly to Morrison’s intention to have him act as a symbol of inspiration. His words are able to move this young girl, his hand on her shoulder gives her hope, and ultimately provides her with a chance to change her own life for the better by knowing that there is someone out there looking out for here.
What does this all mean?
To begin to look at the potential place of images, particularly as rhetorical artifacts and with the potential for communication, I chose to come at the comic book superhero (a popular aspect of our current culture) from a non-cinematic point of view in order to, ideally, start a conversation about the potential of this kind of narrative in the classroom. This is a process that I not only advocate, but practice too. In future posts I aim to share what some of my students are doing in the Comp 2 classroom with graphic novels, as well as present some steps I am taking to apply graphic narratives as a form and medium to engage students as well.
It just helps if I warm you up a bit by talking about and demonstrating the potential that is there first.
Duncan, Randy. “Image Functions: Shape and Color as Hermeneutic Images in Asterios Polyp.” Critical Approaches to Comics: Theories and Method. Eds. Michael J. Smith and Randy Duncan. Florence: Routledge, 2011. Print.
— and Matthew J. Smith. The Power of Comics: History, Form and Culture. New York: Continuum, 2009. Print.
Eisner, Will. Comics and Sequential Art: Principles and Practices from the Legendary Cartoonist. New York: W. W. Norton & Co, 2008. Print.
Liddell, H. G. and Robert Scott. English-Greek Lexicon. 9th Ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, Print. Perseus Digital Library. Tufts University. Web. 31 July 2015.
McCloud, Scott. Making Comics Storytelling Secrets of Comics, Manga and Graphic Novels. New York: William Morrow Paperbacks, 2006. Print.
—. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: HarperPerennial, 1994. Print.
Morrison, Grant and Frank Quitely. All-Star Superman, Vol. 1 & 2. New York: DC Comics, 2007. Print.
Perelman, Chaim and L. Olbrechts-Tyteca. The New Rhetoric: A Treatise on Argumentation. Tran. John Wilkinson and Purcell Weaver. Notre Dame: U of Notre Dame P. 1969. Print.
Rhetorica ad Herennium. Trans. Harry Caplan. The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present. 2nd edition. Ed. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2001. 243-282. Print.