Saraceni, Mario.  The Language of Comics.  Intertext.  London and New York: Routledge, 2003.  110pp.  ISBN 0-415-28670-0 (hc); 0-415-21422-X (paper).  Publisher's on-line information
Acknowledgements ... ix

Unit one: What are comics? ... 1
Unit two: Words and pictures ... 13
Unit three: Between the panels ... 35
Unit four: The voices of comics ... 57
Unit five: The eyes of comics ... 71
Unit six: Comics and computers ... 85
Answers and commentaries ... 97
References and further reading ... 103
Index of terms ... 107


Kevin Laurence Landry, Center for International Students and Scholars
(CISS), Kwangju Institute of Science and Technology (K-JIST).

Announced at

This book uses discourse analysis to explain comics and in a sense uses terminology to explain discourse with comics. Knowing the artist's limitations in sequential art, his perspective and use of language will develop an appreciation for comics in any layman. Finding out the secrets behind how panels are linked together reveals the mystery of how comics are read and can be understood due to visual representation. The secret language of comics is much like learning notes for music; it never sounds the same as before and one wonders how they could not have known earlier. Overall it is more of an interesting tool to teach analyzing discourse than an analysis of language in comics.

The core text in the series is 'Working with Texts: A core introduction to language analysis', and The Language of Comics fits in with other satellite titles such as the language of Advertising, Drama, Humour, Poetry, or even Television. Having these other texts with in the series gives a standard for the author to follow but also limits the scope and content covered as well as introduces certain analysis concepts that are not fully developed in this text alone. The audience is stated as specifically for AS and A2 students to work in a more analytical manner with texts. Even so, teachers of English as a Second Language would find the material interesting and useful for looking at language in an interesting way. The text is rather academic and does not seem to be addressed to comic book creators.

Chapter one addresses the loose distinction separating graphic novels and types of classification for sequential art. The main components special to this genre are employing both words and pictures along with panels in sequences separated by a gutter. Onomatopoetic words are a special feature, referred as SFX in the business, depicts noises. Other rather unique features such as the caption, and balloons are defined and for an activity readers are told to collect various comics and analyze them. Although there is commentary on activities from chapter two, it is only chapter 4 that it is consistently done at the back of the book. Disappointingly, there is no commentary on the first activity. It would be better all at the end of each Chapter and done for each activity even if the exact materials brought are not known.

Chapter two explains words and pictures in terms of icons, indexing, and symbols. The differences are on a continuum and even individual letters are often a mixture of words and artistic expression, the size and shape of each letter expresses mood and feeling. Conventions of perspective in art are thought of as existing on a scale between icons and symbols. Words and pictures are further explained as the vocabulary and grammar of sequential art.

Chapter three interprets the cohesion between panels and attempts to explain how the point is gotten across. It is very interesting to note and have demonstrated the way an element in one panel moves to the next one. The use of reoccurring content is compared to synonymy from the core text. Coherence is used to explain the experience readers bring to the text that connects a group of panels together. The author states that coherence is found in the gutter but it seems to be a rather empty distinction.

Chapter four deals with separation of characters and narration from the voice of the writer and artist. Narration in comics is compared to novels and additional options open to the medium such as thought balloons and pictures are demonstrated. The activities begin to be rather fun and the commentary insightful.

Visual aspects are covered in chapter five. Point of view is defined in terms of visual, conceptual and interest. The tricks of the trade are looked at as elements and their location is shown to be hints and clues to what is to come. It is much like a character we relate to because experience in our own life is captured in a panel. The reasons why comics are made and read is left unanswered but something more than a mere picture book seems to convey something meaningful. After this Chapter we are left wondering what really does make a good comic book and what is it that creators are trying to accomplish: what are they trying to tell us about ourselves?

Chapter six really seems out of place and does not contribute to a discussion of sequential art. The author compares computers and their evolution to the language of comics. The restrictions of comics and what subject matter has been dealt with would have been a much better ending of the book. Various fonts and computer graphics are discussed but they really are not related to comics and a historical examination of changes in popular comic titles would have made a more interesting summation of language used in comics.

Commentaries explain direct and indirect language as well as references and suggested further reading. The index of terms contains specific definitions and the page in which they are dealt with. The definitions are very clear and only the entries for 'plot' and 'story' stand out as somewhat odd. 'Plot' is defined as ''the way in which a story is narrated.'' (Saraceni 2003: 109). However, 'story' is defined as the series of events that took place and constitute the base for a plot. I had always considered the plot part of the story not the other way around.

The author approaches the subject as a reader interpreting the message artists and writers have for their audience. However, he seems to lack hands on knowledge of comic production and current technology of comic creation. The examples used through out the book are not the best artwork available to consumers but copyrighted material is probably not easy to procure. For instance Marvel titles and DC graphic novels are not represented and works such as 'Red Star' actually use models to mix real world space with two-dimensional format.

The language of comics seems to barely scratch the surface of the language used by comic book writers and sequential artists. The long history and variation of the profession over time may have been too much detail to ask of such an introductory text. However I was expecting more of an examination of the exact words used in sequential narration and historical account depicting how graphic material moved from very restricted audience such as children to mature readers and what material was permitted.

Comics like movies and other entertainment adapt with the times and it was not so much the language of specific comics but a very general analysis of comics compared to novels or poetry as literature. I think additional chapters should be added looking at early strips from newspapers, and samples of popular comics in regards to themes and theory on what sells could even have been touched upon. Titles such as 'Batman' or 'Who watches the watchmen' and specific writers and artists had such a profound effect on the industry but are not mentioned.

The text acts as a great introduction to understanding the basic mechanics of reading comic books. However, the side of writing and creating language for comics deserves its own text and has yet to be written. Perhaps the American market is an isolated cultural division and the examples used are popular in Britain. Comics are popular in other languages but of course only English is dealt with. Japanese and Korean manga style is much different and a comparison of the ratio of words per panel would have made an interesting style comparison.

Many discussions exist online for comic creators and may prove worthwhile for readers looking for more behind the scenes information about the creation of sequential art:


Kevin Laurence Landry has an MA in Linguistics (TESOL) from the University of Surrey. He is currently teaching English at the Kwangju Institute of Science and Technology. He is also involved in the comic industry. He has edited comics published by IMAGE Comics in United States for a Korean company and is consulting for ICE studio (Korean text support required) who use Korean artists and American writers. He is very interested in the trade and currently overseeing titles that should be published within the year.

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This Page Last Updated 10 December 2005.