Icons. The world is full of icons. They can depict a religious savior, they may stand for a pop culture star, they can have a purely marketing purpose or they can be the building blocks of pictorial/visual depiction. Although we will surely be subject to all of these uses or icons (if not more), the latter is what I would like to focus on a bit more.
Icons are part of the vocabulary of comics, the essential ingredients in any type of comics world the authors envision and create. The word icon stems from the Greek word εἰκών meaning image. An icon in comics stands for a variety of images: from characters and things to places and other (more abstract) notions. The richness of expression within panels is both hindered and enhanced by the authors’ creativity. From the viewpoint of perception, resemblance is possible, when we understand what pictures represent and how they are connected to their subject-matter.
The origin of the idea of icons in contemporary times goes back to the theories of structuralism and semiotics, both covering the study of signs. With his dualistic approach of langue and parole, Ferdinand de Saussure ushered in a new understanding of language by pointing to the arbitrariness of signs it uses. The sign is comprised of the signifier and the signified, the image and the meaning, respectively, where one cannot exist without the other. This theory extends beyond language use: we can draw parallels to the dualistic approach in myth and religion (yin/yang) and even point to the fact that most of our conceptions of things and even perceptions of color are culturally specific. What something represents and how this came to be is intricately connected to the environment one belongs to.
Charles Sanders Peirce is one of the theorists that enhanced some of Saussure’s theories. The concept that is most important for this purpose of this post is the three-part structure of a sign as icon, index and symbol. All three concepts embody the notion of a sign as something that stands for something else.
An icon resembles what it means. Pictures for the most part fall into this category. Therefore, a picture of a specific comics character stands for that character, because that is what it resembles.
An index causes or indicates the meaning in something else or the presence of something else. From the perspective of mythology as the backbone of religion, we can say that myth in an index of religion (depending on your perception and the depth of each of these two rich disciplines).
The meaning of a symbol, as the most arbitrary or abstract element of this triad, depends on shared conventions between the sign and its meaning. Rudolf Arnheim in his visual theory points to a similar structure of a sign, a picture and a symbol, distinguishing the images by their level of abstractness. This further stresses the paramount role of conventions in the distinctions of these elements.
While most pictures are icons, most words typically appear at the other side of the spectrum as symbols, to a degree depending on the level of your perceptual skills, as visual literacy makes abundantly clear (more on this in the next post). The arrangement of letters G-O-D stands for the idea of God/god because of conventions, not because it would actually resemble or indicate the deity (I’ll discuss the sacrality of sounds such as om/aum in a future post). The issue of the word GOD actually standing for either gods of old or God (Yahweh) as the omnipotent entity can be further disputed from the theological standpoint. While science may factually argue the existence of the ideological God, believers and agnostics cannot (yet) grasp this (seemingly) eternal concept through any limited human means either.
In de Saussurian terms, another relation of the sign is its consequent mutability and immutability, in other words: its nature to change and its relative unchanging nature. This concept is paradoxical in comics as well, since a color scheme may be fixed, as in the case of red generally signaling danger and fear, specific context and cultural differences can affect its use. In such a way, red was seen as a protective color in the Anglo-Saxon times, while in Hellboy the readers soon internalize the protagonist’s red skin and demeanor as neutral and not dangerous, despite the underlying implication of his demonic nature.
A slight deviation of de Saussure’s dualistic approach can be applied to pictures as simultaneously direct and indirect, precise and imprecise. A picture is directly observable, perceptual, since it (or rather its author) reflects the nature of the world as our mind perceives it. The concept of image-building seen from Kant’s phenomenological perspective actually denies any direct observance per se, since our eyes (senses in general) become a relay between the actual world and the “images” we perceive through complex decoding in our brain. The question can thus be raised about our rational and empirical capabilities – between our inherent and acquired knowledge – and their consequent accuracy/factuality. Even if we may not truly know things-as-such in themselves, what remains is still the division between our personal self and everything else around us. Such a dichotomy between the personal and the social also plays a prominent role in mythological narrative – the interplay of the macrocosmos and the microcosmos.
Pictures, however, can be indirect as well, either depicting an element in the background or showcasing abstract notions. Pictures allow direct portrayal with indirect intimacy, in other words: subtle pictorial metaphors can speak volumes in the same way as pictures have the power to convey meaning “silently”, in a sense becoming more striking than words. The pictorial satire expressed in caricatures for example has a distinct effect of being direct, as it is pictorial in nature, yet indirect as well, since the artistic style is not a direct representation of an actual person or events taken under scrutiny (hence a caricature). This is the power of pictorial use and why caricatures and (witty) visual metaphors still have great appeal.
Keeping all or this in mind, the crucial (McCloudian) aspect in the understanding of comics lies in the perception of pictures as received information and words as perceived information. More specifically, we might distinguish between a pictorial image as a whole as (for the most part) opposed to a linguistic step-by-step process of comprehension, where the meanings are build more gradually. This means that our brain immediately (or at least much faster) processes the image of a picture without the need to decode it. Words, on the other hand, by default demand a more thorough analysis, since, as we have observed, they are abstract symbols that we cannot attribute to any visual object in our world.
There is of course a wide range of possibilities where for example more abstract pictures require greater amount of perception from the observer, while more direct (ironic) pictures are perceived faster. Our brain, therefore, needs to decode the images of letters (into sounds) and find appropriate, culturally agreed upon meaning(s) for them, before they can be grouped into even larger units of meaning. Without such a process, a discussion of the meaning of life in a foreign language can for example enrich your life as much as the noise from a vehicle passing by (although the latter can extend it, if this alerts you to the danger and consequential prevention of being run over). Linguistic reading is, therefore, a much more arduous process than pictorial reading, which in turn seems more natural and straight-forward.
One of the reasons why pictures have been more frowned upon than words lies in this perception of the two. Because we primarily experience the world visually, we take for granted the barrage of images that our brain needs to process at any given moment. Most people can identify a multitude of objects (governed by immediate notice of color and shapes) just by taking a glimpse of a picture, while a mere glimpse of a text does not convey any meaningful information (apart from a large, short word or number for example). Pictures are a representation of our world, a world that is dominated by visual stimuli. For this reason comics are relatively easy to understand; however, mastering their meta-language is akin to comparing the ability to read English and grasping the intertextual mythological meta-world stressed in Shakespeare’s work. Quite often, those are two completely different worlds.
While languages require a (set) number of symbols that are transformed into meaning, drawing is both more personal and obvious, because it reflects the world around us. The language/writing system as we know in the West is as arbitrary as it is complicated, with the exception of pictograms and ideograms which inherently began as representations of the natural world and human ideas (the Chinese character for a tree resembles an actual tree: 木). If the vision is not impaired, it becomes quite obvious to observe a tree, because trees are present everywhere and have an inherent value by provide us with oxygen, paper and shelter. Writing about trees, drawing an image of a tree or typing the word TREE, however, become much more personal, unique and even potentially painstaking tasks, especially when having to provide a realistic, nuanced image full of visual and intertextual detail.
To close the branches of this woody discussion, the image of a tree (or even its bare idea) carries lots of mythological weight as well, since most cultures recognize the world tree as the(ir) life source. The portrayal itself can, however, imply various meanings: the mere placement of the tree in a picture or a panel (or tree as a background with branches as panels or separators) creates a relationship to the surrounding objects or lack thereof, while the use of color adds volumes to the power of the image. But for appropriate recognition and appreciation of this we need some visual literacy …
For reasons of extreme prejudice, the author of this blog wishes to remain anonymous …