Friday, July 11, 2008

Christoph Niemann's "Abstract City" and the Taxonomy Thing

On July 1, the illustrator Christoph Niemann posted an "opinion art blog" entry to the New York Times website about his sons' enthusiasm for the New York City subway system (an enthusiasm that borders on fandom, given the way the MTA has shaped their encounters with the world around them). If you haven't seen it yet, click here to scroll through it; it's really quite delightful.

As soon as I saw it, I emailed it to some of my friends, and Isaac wrote back thus:

"That's awesome. Is it a comic? Who cares. It's fun."

I heartily concur with Isaac about the awesomeness and fun of Niemann's piece, which I described in my email as "a series of pictures and captions" without noting that a number of the pictures employ word balloons. But I found myself brooding a little about his immediately-disavowed question: "Is it a comic?"

I think Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics is largely to blame for the ontological angst that hovers around works on the margins of what seems to be incontrovertibly comics. As useful as McCloud's work on comics has been, his taxonomical tendencies can be a mite pernicious in throwing up borders between what is/are comics and what is/are not (and I'm deliberately waffling on the number of the verb here because McCloud makes an issue out of it in a dogmatic way). Mind you, the borders themselves are less pernicious than the effort expended on policing them. There is value in reflecting on the different ways a single-panel drawing and a multi-panel strip create meaning, or on how a pantomime comic differs from a verbose visual-verbal blend, but I find myself bristling at the shibboleths of either sequentiality or word+image as the sine qua nons of comics, as pronounced by McCloud and R. C. Harvey, respectively.

I do think that the question that McCloud and Harvey raise is important--namely, what is/are "comics"?--and the question is important largely because precision of vocabulary can clarify discussion and yield finer distinctions. But I also think their answers to the question delimit their subject by limiting it too much. The problem, at least as I see it right now, is that both of them are looking to define comics too much in terms of positive attributes. In approaching the subject of comics, positing less might mean granting more in terms of the semantic reach and syntactic play of the form; and by using these linguistic metaphors I have just tipped my hand.

In short, I am very much persuaded by the Saussurean approach that Thierry Groensteen takes in his Système de la bande dessinée/System of Comics. Saussure's fundamental General Course in Linguistics announces as its goal a definition of the object of inquiry for linguistics, only to conclude that the object of inquiry is language itself. This conclusion might seem banal to the point of tautology were it not for the fact that his definition of language (or, better, his approach to language) is so trenchant and consequential. Rather than attempt to define language as, say, a collection of words and rules to be tabulated (as one might define comics as "a sequence of pictures" or "a verbal-visual blend"), Saussure describes it as a differential system of making meaning, where meaning lies precisely in the difference between signs rather than in any inherent, absolute meaning possessed by an individual sign (a meaning that does not, in fact, exist)--and Saussure suggests that the sign as linguistic unit need not necessarily be verbal (despite his understandable reliance on more formally linguistic evidence from speech and writing).

With that in mind, Thierry Groensteen’s Saussurean approach to comics as another kind of linguistic system may help to clear the air somewhat. Groensteen avoids a kind of grammatical taxonomy that looks for ever-smaller discrete units of meaning, pointing out the folly of an approach that would try to create a morpheme out of a brushstroke, say. What matters is the articulation of relationships (what Groensteen calls arthrology) across the space of a comic (where space is understood, in good Einsteinian fashion, to have temporal consequences that are never absolute in themselves).

So it doesn’t matter, ontologically, if a comic uses words or not: words are just another possible meaning-making element that relies on difference. In the case of comics, the difference between the verbal plane and the visual plane may indeed bear meaningful consequence beyond the words or the visuals themselves considered separately--though how or whether to separate words that are embedded in the visual field within the graphic device of a balloon is another matter. As Isaac put it in his guest stint on the Thought Balloonists blog, "Can the two aspects of innovation or expression really be disentangled that way? If so, why not separate storytelling from drawing style, to make a third graphed dimension? Where does the hair-splitting stop?"

Taking that as my cue not to gas on too much longer, I would just suggest that another great virtue in a linguistics-derived approach to comics is that it might free up the subject to enjoy as much variety as language enjoys. To be sure, some linguists have occasionally failed to attend to the nonstandard uses of language found in, say, poetry; nevertheless, poetry exists (eppur si muove!). Likewise, Niemann's piece may not fully satisfy either McCloud or Harvey as to its status as a comic (Is it "sequential enough"? Do the panels without words or letters reduce to "mere" drawings? How do the captions function alongside the images?)--but I would prefer to think that it is extending the resources of comics, as poetry extends the resources of language, rather than somehow failing to attain to some orthodox formal standard. Besides which: it's fun. And that's mostly what I cared to share in this post.


Anonymous said...


Thank you so much for this. You have crisply articulated what I've been thinking for quite some time.

The problem with the McCloud and Harvey methods, to put it another way, is that both are reductive in ways that are not only pernicious but don't necessarily follow from evidence. They describe certain (and perhaps common) comics, and use that description to create a reified set of hard-and-fast axioms.

Yet as you sagely point out, poetry exists even if the linguist chooses to ignore it. Some looking phenomenologically at an object can describe it, but making the leap to say that this one description now applies to ALL objects is absurd.

The Groensteen position is a brilliant one, because it's both narrow enough to really examine and break down comics, but wide enough so as not to let so many unusual variations slip through the theorists' grasp.

I have a lot more to say about this issue, but it's probably wise to stop here. It's too bad the Groensteen book isn't in English.

--Rob Clough

Mike said...

While it's true that I ended up reading most of Groensteen in French, because that was the only available version at the Oxford library, it actually is now out from the University of Mississippi Press in an English translation by Bart Beaty & Nick Nguyen. Our buddies at have some posts up about it, which are worth a look as well. (Later, when my internet access is not so iffy as it is now--I'm in France at the moment--I may make these things more linky for convenience.)

Matt said...

Mike, thanks for flagging Niemann's work (somehow I'd missed it!) and also for your thinking on the ontology of comics. I don't have much to add to that.

I merely want to note how comics (and other art) may communicate meaning in ways that taxonomies and ontological priors might miss. For example, Niemann's work produced in me a remarkable aural sensation. His relatively depopulated frames, minimalist human forms, the distant and subdued narration, and the vividly "silent" Helveticish signage, all that resonated with a roar of trains, screaming people, sword-like clangs of steel wheels on steel rails, etc. memories summoned back to my ear by his primarily visual work.

By the way, Mike Dawson's "Freddie and Me" (recommended by Isaac in a separate post) produced a decidedly aural sensation in me as well (for different reasons).

The phenomenological question of "how comics mean" seems at least as interesting as what they are or mean.

Matt said...

Also, I wanted to ask you as a theorist and as a maker of comics: does theory interact directly with your creative process? The question sounds trite enough for me to hate myself for even asking, but, for some reason, I'm very interested...

Mike said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comments, there, Matt. I occasionally share your strongly aural response to silent media--at least, I'm often struck at the mismatch between my own imagined voices for characters in comics or prose and the way those voices are realized in film or other audio versions.

As for the way theory interacts with our creative process: it interacts pretty directly on those occasions (which are many) when Isaac and I approach a creative problem with reference to some sort of prior constraint. And occasionally a specific question or problem posed by comics theory will influence my thinking about a story (as in a piece I'm slowly gestating about word balloons).

More often, though, the theory comes up after the fact, as we scrutinize work we've already produced and think about what works and, more instructive, what doesn't work--or at least what doesn't work as we'd expected or hoped.

I'd be interested to hear what Isaac has to say about this, of course!

Isaac said...

The only time I think about theory while I'm making comics, to tell you the truth, is when I think about ways to thwart a theory or "answer" a critic.

That is, I might think, "Oh, this would send R. C. Harvey into conniptions, if we did this..."