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REVIEW: Comics and Language

The subtitle of Hannah Miodrag's book is "Reimagining Critical Discourse on the Form", and she makes a compelling case that the first step is pointing out failings in the current critical discourse.

Comics and Language: Reimagining Critical Discourse on the Form
Hannah Miodrag
University Press of Mississippi, 2013
publisher site | WorldCat

As indicated by the title, Miodrag has chosen to take a close look at the way comics criticism and scholarship tend to address (and not address) language, and she breaks her book into three sections to do so. In "Language in Comics" she calls out the having-your-cake-and-eating-it-too claims that comics must be primarily driven by visual content but that comics' literariness is the best way to demonstrate its cultural value, responding with perhaps the first real examination of the actual words and sentences used in comics (in this case, Krazy Kat and works by Lynda Barry) instead of just the plot of a given story. She also looks at the ways language is "deployed" in comics, using Simmond's Gemma Bovary to demonstrate that the medium can create meaning by manipulating linguistic elements through visuals and design.

Part two is "Comics As Language", where Miodrag catalogs the many inadequate, often self-contradictory ways that critics and scholars talk about the relationship between words and images in comics before exploring that relationship herself with Karasik and Mazzucchelli's City of Glass and Chris Ware's I Guess. She then uses the intricate page design of Watchmen and Ware's Building Stories to question the twin assumptions that comics is a necessarily sequential art form, and that sequentiality necessarily indicates narrative realism. Finally, "Art as Language" takes a deep look at the ways comics art does and, more often, does not fit a linguistic model when creating meaning, raising important objections about the frequent claims by critics that the comics medium is itself a language.

Miodrag's well-demonstrated point is this: comics criticism has done a great job of showing that comics are worth taking seriously from many perspectives, but it's time to improve the rigor of our criticism and scholarship. Her ideas will surely ruffle feathers, but, to paraphrase an observation made by my wife, it's a measure of how far the field has come that a serious, scholarly work can criticize the conclusions and assumptions of other serious, scholarly works while still believing in the value of the medium.

It's hard to recommend this Comics and Language to everyone given its academic approach and reliance on tricky (to me, if no one else) semiotic theory to raise concerns and illustrate points. But because it rewards readers with important challenges to the assumptions nearly all of us have "grown up with" while pursuing comics librarianship, I do recommend that everyone reads it, and I hope it inspires many more critics and scholars to take her ideas even further.