Communication is an intrinsic human feature that allows the formation and conservation of social dimensions, which in turn help the individual to survive and thrive in the world. The most important, if not comprehensive, mode of communication is language; a means of using a system of symbols to communicate with others of our kind, share ideas and values and influence one-another. Communicative impact directly reflects the degree of believability of words as opposed to pictures. The immediate visual might of pictures makes them more believable than words per se, since seeing is believing and “moving pictures” in more ways than one govern our daily lives.
For the most part, we understand language as a system of characters and signs that visually represent sounds and the combination of these sounds create words and higher units that we finally can use as a communicative device. Strictly speaking, from this communicative and structural aspect, comics as a medium is a language as well. Namely, it uses its specific narrative tools (such as balloons and its unique symbolism) to formulate ideas within its particular framework (of panels and pages). While languages per se use a combination of visual and auditory elements, comics is purely a visual language. What occurs in and between the panels can represent and tries to mimic or at least cater to all of our senses. However, it is our mind that transforms the wavy lines above a cup of coffee into its aroma or the music notes into a specific sound (or their respective illusory depictions) for example. While such representations are purely visual and spatial, they get transformed and perceived temporally through the reading process.
It should be noted that while Neil Cohn in his highly important structural treatise The Visual Language of Comics: Introduction to the Structure and Cognition of Sequential Images provides a morphology of comics, his main objection is actually AGAINST comics as a language in favor of comics being written in a sequential visual language. In other words: he sees language as a human behavior and comics as social elements that are made up of writing and drawing, both human behaviors in their own right. In such a way, comics cannot be a language any more than magazines can be; however, comics (as well as magazines) rely on a unique structure and meaning that work as a language. This notion clearly echoes the Eisnerian dichotomy of comics vs. sequential art. Heavily paraphrasing, comics becomes the subculture of the larger world of visual imagery, just as mythology serves as the storytelling foundations of the larger religious world. Cohn’s argumentation stems from the differentiation between drawing and writing, which have traditionally been seen as a learned skill and an intrinsic ability, respectively.
To explain my argument to this claim, we have to understand the nature of humanity (as hefty as this task may seem). The proposition is that humankind has two basic instinctual aspects: survival and reproduction (something Scott McCloud also touches on). I would argue that there is one more notion missing from this (soon to be) trinity; namely, artistry in the broadest sense, or rather the expressive aspect of every individual (this for example encompasses both learning as well as creativity, both comics as artistry as well as mythology as storytelling). Evolutionary, humanity needed to adapt to the surroundings in order not to perish (i.e. survival, the personal sphere), yet our endurance is directly based on our social continuity, our existence within the so called superorganism (i.e. reproduction, the social sphere). This creates another lovely dichotomy of the micro and macrocosmos. Everything else refers to the expressive potential; the rest of the complex interactions between the individual and the social strata: from political, spiritual, religious, to educational aspects, in a sense the hermeneutics of life.
If we take pictures are indicative of aesthetics, they themselves provide identification and recognition. This consequently means that expressiveness is a natural phenomenon. We see the world and its images extend our expressive potential, as we imitate the world and live vicariously through it, both in hopes of presenting our take on the image of life and, what is more, offering a new insight into its sensory-established base. Through mimicry, reasoning, feeling, philosophy, aesthetics and abstraction we are in fact (re)shaping the world in an almost sublime dance which takes place between the micro and macrocosmos.
While we could argue that expressiveness is merely an extension of complex survival tendencies, since the ability to communicate and form communities are for example paramount in maintaining life as we know it (Are we not political animals?), current human existence has grown into a system of its own being (A leviathan of sorts.). By eliminating natural predators and essentially rising above nature itself, we need not conscientiously and consistently worry about essential doctrines of being fruitful (and multiplying) and survival as such, because we have conquered them by becoming the dominant species on this planet. The pervasive paradox of our achievements remains in our dependence on the natural world and most obviously on our planet for actual existence. The alpha-male syndrome of climbing to the top of the Earthly hierarchy is merely our ego-driven nature, where we have long ago made divinities of ourselves. (Not sure, if Nietzsche would be proud, but thus spoke me.)
Thus, expressiveness becomes the third element in our equation of life as our creative, instinctual and intellectual potential. In a very narrow sense, we can even draw a parallel between de Saussure’s dichotomy (of survival and reproduction) with the consequent culinary triangle (adding expressiveness) of Levi-Strauss or Umberto Eco’s extension of the de Saussurian dyad. The expressive potential embraces everything from the capacity to learn, artistic tendencies, to discovering and knowing who you are. In other words, artistry becomes the quintessential spark that offers pragmatic existence (rooted in bear survival and reproduction) higher philosophical meaning and forms ideologies central for cultural experience. Development of our senses themselves has been subject to the environment. We react to it and are expressed through it, just as much as we in turn (learn to) express our inner self.
Consequently, this is an issue about the organism and its place in the world around it, which is profoundly influential in its functioning. Therefore, it is this third basic element that plays a vital role in the actual growth of humanity and creates the possibility for progressive evolution beyond mere overpopulation that the other two instincts amount to. As such, my argument is that this expressive ability in its broadest sense is thus as intrinsic as the capacity for language for example. Despite the consequent arbitrariness of the symbols used in language, which presents an interesting paradox between the natural, expressive element and its seemingly arbitrary details. Arbitrariness as such is unavoidable in any complex system of thought and being (somewhat akin to governmental laws as opposed to “natural laws”), since all higher modes of understanding must be learned and mastered despite our internal capacities for them; visual literacy being the perfect example.
Archeological evidence seems to agree with this seemingly bold claim, since the earliest traces of humanity are in one form or another linked to expressiveness, emotional responses and creativity, whether we take into account cave paintings or (religious) statues. We have a predisposition for expressiveness, yet the kaleidoscopic stimulants that our eyes afford us make visual artistry central for our understanding of ourselves and the world we inhabit. While we may be predisposed to understand a languages we are brought up in, it comes just as natural (if not more) to understand pictorial elements (a lovely interplay between verbal and the non-verbal communication). Nevertheless, language and drawing both still need to be learned and gradually developed, as there is a profound difference between comprehending basic information, to being knowledgeable and further developing wisdom that extends beyond the initial subject matter. The point is not to answer the elusive question of what came first: the chicken (drawing) or the egg (writing); yet, there is a strong argument to be made that artistry has just as much power as language, even though writing has been the focal point of current human progression The key factor is not the separation of our expressive abilities, but their mutual implementation and cooperation. Coincidentally, by discussing artistic, philosophical or spiritual elements, which are all in their own rights perceived beyond language, we are still doing so on a language base … as least in this case. In either case, the key factor here is not the separation of our expressive abilities, but their mutual implementation and cooperation.
All in all, asking again the question of whether comics are a system of communication, the medium can definitely fit into this definition; especially through the complex, visual interplay in the creation of a given comic, the actual completed work, plus its narrative function and receptive interaction or (visual) communication with the reader. Taking Cohn’s analysis into account, you can argument both ways, essentially depending on how much you love comics or to what extent you analyze visual communication in general. Either way, it’s always good to comprehend distinctions within a seemingly single narrative, because it extends its inherently linear approach … and that’s a godsend.
For reasons of extreme prejudice, the author of this blog wishes to remain anonymous …