I’ve been talking quite a lot in this column about the problems in attempting to write in a knowledgeable and understandable fashion about what makes a comic work or not work. One of the memes floating around the blogosphere these days, as I noted previously, is that most comics critics don’t discuss the art work very much because they don’t have the familiarity or background necessary to do so. They lack the sort of vocabulary that say, your average art history major, would be able to provide.
I’m not 100 percent certain that’s true or not, but either way, it, to my mind, begs the question: do we need our own unique vocabulary? We borrow a lot of terms from film criticism and other forms of criticism, but is that cheating? Are we merely slapping terms that don’t really apply to the books we’re attempting to describe? Comics are a unique art form, do we need to start creating and applying our own unique critical terms in reviewing and describing them? If so, how do go about doing so in an organic, applicable fashion (i.e. not just make up a bunch of words at random)? Has this sort of vocabulary-building already happened, and if so how? Or is this a really asinine question and not something any sensible person should spend their time worrying about?
Rather than attempt to form my own half-baked opinion, I decided to put togehter another roundtable and ask various intrepid bloggers and critics what they thought about the issue. Here’s what they had to say:
We need a vocabulary. Every serious discipline (arts, sciences, humanities) has a certain amount of jargon associated with it. While some may consider that an impediment to easy accessibility, jargon exists to be able to say something long and often complicated in a brief way with a (mostly) agreed upon meaning. Comics criticism needs its own jargon, to a certain extent. For a simple example, in a review I could say “the blank space between the panels on the page” or I could say “the gutters”: time saving and efficient. The term “gutters” is a fine example of comics vocabulary that is widely accepted and used. Even those who would, with an “anti-academic” stance, argue against a specific comics vocabulary would use the term gutters. Panels, word balloons, thought balloons, captions, speed lines, emanata: these are words that get used and recognized (okay, maybe not the last one as much, but it should be well known).
Comics criticism doesn’t necessarily need a unique vocabulary, or rather, it doesn’t need a completely unique vocabulary. It would be nigh impossible (and ridiculous) to avoid the terminology of related arts such as literature and art (theme, characters, plot, composition, foreground, background, etc.) or even film. These are useful, well understood terms that need little to no adaption to work for comics. But comics have unique elements that do require unique (or adapted) terminology. The few examples I mentioned above are part of that unique terminology which is already in existence. I haven’t researched the origin of all these terms, but somewhere someone started using one and it caught on.
Some of that, I’d think, comes from reading comics, seeing something, and feeling the need to name that thing. This is the investigative wing of criticism, trying to break new ground in finding ways to read and understand comics. We can see new terms enter the language that way, such as the use of “transition” as coined by McCloud (I believe?). Thierry Groensteen, in his excellent System of Comics, coins terms such as (in the English translation of Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen) “iconic solidarity,” “arthrology,” and “braiding”, but until enough people read his book and make use of the terms they don’t enter the vocabulary of comics. The above mentioned “emanata”, taken from Mort Walker’s Lexicon of Comicana, is a great example of a term for something that didn’t have a name, a term which, I think, is a little more known now (?). I’m not sure we can just make up terms at random, but I think terms could be spread through use like the memes that float around the blogosphere. Why not? I know I’ll gladly use a term that someone else coins if it fits my need. The use may be messy at first (if I use a term in a review, will my readers know what it means and if they don’t how could they look it up) but time fixes these things. A boon to this sort of activity would be a greater sense of a critical infrastructure in comics (associations, journals, lexicons, networks, etc.).
To go back to the “comics critics don’t discuss the art work” idea, I think this owes a lot to a lack not only of vocabulary but of the associated ability to “read” the art at a level deeper than straight representational narrative. It takes times and work to learn these things, and it’s a lot easier to talk about the story. And sadly, with most comics, the art is such that it doesn’t have that much of an affect on the reading anyway, it exists at that base level of straight narrative visuals, often gussied up with “dynamic” perspective/viewpoint (borrowed terms!) to vary the monotony.
So, yes, I think it is worth thinking about, but it also as important to not just think but act. Try coining a term next time you need it. Maybe it’ll catch on. At some point every word was “just made up.”
I first encountered the word “panelling” in reference to comics storytelling and layout, in the last 2 years or so, in the context of a piece of critical writing. Instantly, I could tell what the critic had meant, and where I would have used “storytelling” and probably been unclear as to whether I was talking about telling the story through the pacing/plot or the physical panels on the page, this person had come up with a term that, while new to me, was also perfect for what s/he was trying to convey. I think that as more and more graphic novel readers come into the field, either through ignorance of existing nomenclature or bringing a wider range of life-experiences to the critical table we’re going to see the language of comics criticism continue to grow and evolve.
I don’t think that not being able to talk about the art in a comic is a “problem” any more than I think that not being able to talk about the story is a “problem”. It is, instead, the bar for entry into comics crticism. That might sound elitist of me, but if you as a writer can’t string together a paragraph about why the art works or doesn’t work for you–or even that it’s pedestrian and unworthy of comment–why are you critiquing comics in the first place? The pictures and the story aren’t, or shouldn’t be, neatly divisible, at least not in good criticism. That’s not to say that niche reviewing isn’t a [deeply fetishistic] but respected outlet of criticism, I’m sure the folks that critique song lyrics regardless of the music that accopanies them, or cinematography-obsessed-types going over a film, shot-for-shot, never mentioning if it adds up to a movie, that those people live full and happy lives. But they’re at least up-front about their aims and methods, that counts for an awful lot, in my estimation.
I think we’ve already got a great vocabulary that’s growing every day, and even if critics did start inventing new words tomorrow, who cares? The goal of criticism is clarity, in my humble opinion; making your opinions on a piece’s success known. If you’re speaking gobbledygook that’ll all come out in the wash. If you start using ‘panelling’ tomorrow, great! Whether you steal the majority of your vocabulary from fine arts, literary criticism, popular critical writings, film, music, whatever, as long as you can communicate your intent, that’s what it’s all about. Clarity is the mark of a great critic or reviewer, and someone who expresses their ideas poorly–or can’t express an idea at all–just isn’t much of a critic. I don’t think that’s a failing of the medium or a lack of specific critical vocabulary for comics.
Language is always the challenge, isn’t it? For a critic of visual art this is an acute concern. How to convey, interpret and describe visual information. Text is more natural for text, which is ultimately why, I believe, many comics critics feel more comfortable writing about text, story and ‘content’ than the graphic side of the work.
It’s certainly true that comics criticism has less of a fine-tuned, medium-specific vocabulary to draw upon than criticism of many other media — though it has some. The same goes for comics scholarship, actually, though things are changing there — in English the influence of Scott McCloud’s various syntagms for image/text-interplay and especially panel transitions have been enormously influential far beyond the academic domain.
For the critic, however, the use of specialized terminology is often something of a mixed blessing. The precision it enables often comes at the expense of clarity for the lay reader, and the (more or less informed) lay reader is the audience most of us write for. Criticism is such a different beast from scholarly writing; at its best it is often a creative endeavor not entirely unlike art, in which the critic’s subjectivity is crucial.
What I am advocating here, I guess, is the development of a poetic rather than a taxonomical approach to language. It generally works better to evoke or suggest than to describe. Following this, I generally do not find the relative dearth of critical terms the real problem in writing comics criticism.
That being said, a certain level of description and analysis is indispensable to most good criticism. I actually find many terms taken from the criticism of pictorial art and literature quite useful in relation to comics. I don’t, generally, think it is an uncomfortable fit — comics make use of text and images, and tell stories most of the time. Why not make use of the terminology developed to describe and analyze these through the centuries?
Film terminology, specifically, is less useful I find. The similarities between comics and film are very superficial, and just as approaching the making of comics like shooting a film, analyzing comics using terms developed for the treatment of film tends to hamper the final product because it imposes formal and narrative structures alien to the art form.
I think we’ve built up a pretty good vocabulary for discussing comics art, but it might be a little bit daunting to outsiders when critics start throwing around terms like “gutters” or “cross-hatching.” I know I’m sometimes unsure what exactly people are talking about when describing art, but I try to comprehend it to the best of my ability (sample images help, as discussed in a previous roundtable). I will say that I do dislike the appropriation of language from other media (I hate the use of the term “camera angle” when discussing comics), unless it’s appropriate. And then there are times when I’m writing that I don’t know how to describe something, so I just make up a term (I know I probably overuse the word “cartoony”).
So it would be good to try to establish some more universal comics-related terms, but I don’t know of any way to go about this, other than just making them up as we go. The good, appropriate vocabulary will hopefully seep into the collective language, possibly aided by discussion amongst critics.
Another possibility, and one that’s a bit too ambitious for somebody like me to attempt, is establishing a Wikipedia-like comics criticism dictionary (glossary?), which could be collaboratively edited by a variety of people. That could be a central repository for terms and a place to point people if they don’t understand something. I don’t know, maybe it’s a silly idea, but it might work. If somebody decides to go for it, let me know.
Comics, especially mainstream books have such a infinitesimal audience that it’s of little interest to me to utilize any language that might exclude anyone. I find that the longer, more involved pieces of comics criticism (which I, admittedly, don’t write much of) is pretty interesting to me as a reader, because I’ve got a relationship with the medium.
Most of the time though, through no fault of those writers, something that gets into lengthy descriptions of art doesn’t come across as something that would be enjoyable to someone who doesn’t have that same investment of time. It’s a type of writing that appeals to comics fans that read extensive comics reviews — not so much to anyone else. Comics sites are already fannish enough, with all the in-jokes and what not, and the greatest pleasures I’ve had in my short time writing about them has not been when a creator emailed me to say he “liked my stuff” because I said his comic was good, but the moments when someone who doesn’t have any interest in comics really enjoyed reading what the site had to say about them. Those are the people, in my mind, comics reviews should strive to reach, and I think “creating our own language” would be cutting off the already tiny audience for the stuff. I’m not preaching pandering, or lowest common denominator, i’m just against the attitude of making a tiny hobby that much less open to new readers. On the other hand, if somebody came along and really blew me away while getting all Finnegan’s Wake while they were writing about Iron Fist, then I might change my tune.
I’d be hard-pressed to buy into the concept that using terms found in film criticism to be “cheating” in any definition of the word. Nobody owns the language of a field of study, and anybody who tries to pull that card doesn’t have anything worth listening to. I’d also be less interested in turning comics criticism over to the hands of art criticism, a field who’s audience may even be less welcoming than comics bloggers. If you’ve spent anytime in galleries (not museums, they let in old people and children) that carry some of the more cutting edge contemporary art in New York or Paris, and you’ve been treated with anything like respect, than you were wearing clothes cost more than a small car. (Or you’re really, really hot.)
First, there’s nothing whatsoever wrong with adopting vocabulary from art/film/literary criticism. Comics isn’t entirely sui generis; it shares some features with these other media. Obviously, these shared features don’t work the same way in comics as in the other media. But that doesn’t mean that the critical vocabulary developed for them can’t be transferred to comics. It would be bizarre to declare that we can’t talk about, say, “catharsis” in comics just because Aristotle used it to describe Greek tragedy.
So bizarre, in fact, that there’s almost certainly a blog out there, somewhere, devoted solely to declaring just that.
But, equally obviously, there are also lots of features that are unique to comics. These do demand a new vocabulary. To some extent, we already have one, consisting of either neologisms or terms used in a new sense. Some examples, pretty much off the top of my head: panel transitions, speed lines, Kirby dots, decompression, continuity porn, speech bubbles, and, God help us, “graphic novel”.
Yes, we need more. But the new terms will evolve organically the same way critical vocab did in other domains, viz. piecemeal, haphazardly, with plenty of false starts, over several decades (at least). Some of the vocab will be contributed by online enthusiasts. Probably much will come from theoretical tracts written by professional academics. More and more of these tracts will appear when “comics studies” gains the same respectability inside the academy as “film studies”, which can’t be that far off. Some terms will flourish. Others will wither on the vine. There will be heated and tedious disputes between different theoretical schools. These disputes will be every bit as rational and worthwhile as current messageboard debates about DC v Marvel or Little Lulu vs Octopus Girl.
Actually, I only wish there were heated debates about Lulu vs Octopus Girl.
In short: it’s okay to adopt critical terms from other media, because comics has some things in common with those media. For the things that are unique to comics, we do need new vocab (or new uses for old words). To some extent, we’ve already got it. The rest will come gradually over the years, at least until the environmental apocalypse comes and we’re all fucked. So, probably five years.
I’ve already made some of my own contributions to the evolution of comics-critical vocabulary, although in a negative way. As a positive suggestion, here are some new critical terms: splog; wurt; queeto; and funch. Feel free, fellow critics and reviewers, to use them as you please.
After all, as Humpty-Dumpty said, it is we who should be masters of words, not the other way around.
The language of comics criticism is still pretty inchoate and gap-ridden, but it’s all we’ve got right now; enough discourse, and it’ll work itself out eventually. And yes, it’s totally fair to borrow from the language used to discuss film and prose and theater and other kinds of visual art, as long as we’re vigilant about their connotations — actually, I wish more comics critics would raid the visual-art critical stockroom. Making up one’s own terms is an appealing idea, but it’s only helpful if they’re really, really great and catch on. If everybody’s using their own languages, the result is Babel; if flawed bits of language become commonplace, then we’re stuck with them, or have to debate and qualify them endlessly.
I tend to be conservative about the evolution of language, so I wouldn’t automatically be in favor of a new lexicon for comics reviewing. I don’t want to freeze anything in amber, and if people feel the lack of it and want to undertake something like that, more power to them. I just don’t think I’d be an early adopter, but I’m generally not in any category.
Eh, I don’t know. In terms of academic and scholarly criticism, there might be some real need for new terminology, but for the average critic writing for the reading public, I don’t think it’s a real problem. As Gary Groth said at the panel on comics criticism at SPX this year, Donald Phelps has been doing pretty well without feeling the need for comics-specific jargon. Of course, we’re not all Donald Phelps.
If you’re discussing narrative in comics, I don’t think it’s a problem at all to borrow terminology from literary criticism, which has, after all, been around since at least Aristotle. A lot of people have been thinking about narrative for a long time, and there’s no point in
ignoring their insights. Film critics fruitfully use lit-crit ideas all the time. The only danger is applying those ideas indiscriminately, even when they aren’t actually appropriate to the
comic at hand. Likewise, I don’t see anything wrong with taking ideas from other kinds of criticism (art, music, film), as long as they’re applicable.
More importantly, it would be nice if comics critics who used such terms actually knew what they meant. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen words (literary, genre, verité, formalism, etc.) used by critics who have obviously never looked them up in a dictionary.
In any case, many comics-specific terms already exist (panels, balloons, grid, gutters, all that Scott McCloud stuff, etc.), and when I hear someone say that we need an entirely new terminology to describe comics, it usually makes me think that person isn’t working as hard as he or she should be. If you’re writing about a comic, and it has some important aspect to it that you can’t put into words, you should think about it more until you can put it into words. If you have to invent some new term to do it, go ahead. If you can’t do that either, maybe you shouldn’t be writing about that comic.