Comics: Images as Script?

So I had the opportunity this Monday to speak about the relationship of images and language/text in comics, as part of Bernd Scheffer‘s weekly lecture on Schrift und Bild, “Text and Image”. My thanks for the invitation and to everyone who came and participated in the discussion.

The most obvious aspect of that image-text relationship is probably the co-existence of text and image on the comic page and everything that flows from it: A rapport that might be drawn by many explanatory arrows that course, in the most simple form, from the inside of speech balloons to other panel elements and back. But it seems to me that this approach, while not inaccurate in itself, misses some larger points, including a more fundamental set of relations between image and script at the basis of comics.

For comics do not necessarily involve text, of course; many juxtapose only images. Where they do involve alphabetical signs, they can treat them as objects of the depicted world instead of or on top of using their function to denote language. And what is perhaps most intriguing, comics can turn pictorial signs to cover the function of script, without ever including a single letter of the alphabet: One dazzling example is demian5’s wonderful webcomic when I am king. Here, the inside of speech balloons is not markedly different in its vocabulary to the outside depiction of the “king’s” world. Both show an aesthetic echo of standardisation, a tendency towards icons that look much as if they were conventionalised forms, although they are not. So what characters say, dream, think or express is made of the same stuff as their world; and their world is made of the same stuff as their intentions and concepts. Or so it seems; their constant failure to manipulate their world implies that this, too, is only a surface appearance.

So a mere co-existence of common script and image is not a basic feature of comics, no matter how typical it is for  most mainstream examples. But it seems to me that another relation between script and image is at least as typical, and probably more fundamental, in comics’ general aesthetics: A rivalry between the two, a constant question that gains and loses explicitness but always insists, somewhere, on asking: Do these images function like script? Can they do what the written word does, can they do more, can they do something different, and can they do something to themselves to focus these issues? Do they take their place among written media, do they usurp that place, do they hold their own in the context of publications dominated by script in newspapers, magazines and books — or are they ultimately relegated to a sphere of margins and illustrations, a virtual funny page always already appended to the virtual newspaper of media dominance?

If there is such a basic rivalry, its presupposition of the written word’s dominance must be more historic than contemporary or systematic. Katzenjammer Kids and Yellow Kid were faced with mostly written context even in their own formats of publication; today, comics are part of a setup that has experienced the famous iconic turn, where verbal dominance very much persists in interpretation, in the standards of specialised discourses, and not least in the language-driven search engines that regulate access to all media including images, but where that dominance has entered a ubiquitously topical rapport with likewise ubiquitous imagery. So in short, if comics’ aesthetics refer to a more marginalized starting point for pictures in a race with-or-against words, then that tendency probably draws as much on a tradition that formed the art as it does on a current media dichotomy.

It is this historical formation and its arguable persistence in comics that I tried to examine in my talk. Starting with 18th century’s debates on lingual versus pictorial arts, e.g. in Lessing’s Laokoon and the commentaries to Hogarth’s eminent picture series, I think there is a specific place for images-as-script prepared by early modern media theory, concurrent conventions of publication, and early modern sequential art. What makes this view complicated, and this became clear in the ensuing discussion, is its focus on historical versions of seemingly systematic, timeless questions. Lessing does not argue that the 18th century is the time of a basic word-image dichotomy that is to be overcome by artistic innovation; he sees the dedication of words to storytelling, and of images to static depictions, as a general anthropological fact, and drama’s potential to overcome that divide as its natural place in a pretty much eternal canon of art forms. When he describes a sequence of paintings depicting a progress as one other possible alternative, we might recognize a very basic approach to the form that became comics. But that idea thinks of comics’ attitude towards images-as-script as a historical heritage, notwithstanding its current effects and relevance: As a tradition of a previous historical a priori, enveloped, preserved, and very much kept alive, in art.

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