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Words . . . and Images

posted: 3.31.11 by Andrea Lunsford

About a dozen years ago, I began to pay serious attention to what Mitchell Stephens described as The Rise of the Image, the Fall of the Word. As a rhetorician, I have always been interested in theories and practices of persuasion, but I had studied persuasion in terms of words and their power. As we moved more and more into a visual culture, however, I began to think a lot more about how images move us to action and, along the way, about not only the visual but the aural imaginary. I found I had a lot to learn.

This interest in images led me to begin teaching at least one graphic narrative in every course, beginning, not surprisingly, with Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus. I’ve taught that text now many times and think it’s fair to say that I see something new in it with every teaching: it is, in my opinion, a work of genius. (It is also a work, students have told me, that changed them from history-class haters in high school to history majors in college.)  I also taught Lynda Barry (100 Demons is one of my all-time favorites) as well as Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, Gilbert Hernandez’s Chance in Hell, Gene Yang’s Anerican Born Chinese, Marguerite Abouet’s Aya, and especially Joe Sacco’s many works of comics journalism.  Slowly but surely I worked up my courage to teach a whole course in graphic narratives.

What working with my students has taught me (as well as my reading of folks like Scott McCloud) is that while I tend to read words first and look at pictures later, my students usually do the opposite. Some even tell me that they take in both words and images in a kind of all-at-once gestalt that then gives way to looking at each more closely. So I’ve had to recognize the degree to which my reading practices are tied almost entirely to the conventions of traditional print. I’ve had to learn a new way to read, one that is far less linear and calls for far more re-reading than I am accustomed to doing with traditional print texts. And it’s taught me to “read between the lines” in entirely new ways as I study the frames and the gutters and the interaction between them. Reading—even online—feels more visceral and tactile to me than ever.

Students are often quite good at monitoring their own reading practices and reporting what they are doing (and how they feel about that) when they are reading traditional print texts. They’re also good at analyzing how words and images work together—or undercut or deny one another. One student (Shuqiao Song, whose work is excerpted in the 7th edition of The St. Martin’s Handbook) looked very carefully at what I. A. Richards called the “interinanimation” of words and images in Fun Home, finding that pictures and text often told strikingly different and often contradictory stories—that then told yet another story when looked at together. In a multimedia presentation for our class, she stripped the words out of a series of panels and then showed them to the class, first just as a set of images and then just as a set of words. The students, who had read the book, were startled at the disjunction and very impressed with how Bechdel had woven images and text together to create a multi-layered message.

When I talk about teaching a course on comics, I often meet skepticism from colleagues and from the public.“How can you teach a college course about such dumb stuff?” one person asked me. I don’t think anyone who reads the works I’ve mentioned here can possibly say that this work is “dumb stuff.” Indeed, graphic narratives seem to me to be in a great and glorious renaissance, with more profound and provocative works appearing every year (one of my more recent favorites is Asterios Polyp). In ancient Greece, the rhapsodes used images embedded in words to hold huge crowds in sway with their mesmerizing poetry. Even earlier—much earlier—artists drew images in cave drawings to tell stories, record important events, sway their viewers. Today’s graphic narratives can take advantage of both these ancient persuasive traditions by combining words and images. Once upon a time, a picture might have been worth a thousand words. But words paired with pictures? That’s worth even more!

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Categories: Handbooks
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One Response to “Words . . . and Images”

  1. Jack Solomon, CSUN Says:

    Since the fundamental premise of Signs of Life in the USA has been, since its first edition in 1994, that cognitive reading and writing skills can best be taught through an attention to visual images as well as to written symbols, I certainly agree with the sentiments of this blog. But a certain caveat about the use of images needs to be made. That is, there is a reason why the reading of images feels more “visceral and tactile”: this is because, in semiotic terms, they constitute “iconic” signs. Iconic signs are signs that resemble their meaning or referent (as a map or photograph resembles what it means). Our interpretation of iconic signs, at the denotative level, is thus a mainly sensory phenomenon. The trick is that there are connotative meanings beyond the sensory denotative meanings, and these meanings are cognitive in nature. But since the denotative iconic image is so naturally processed by the senses, the connotative meaning is much more easily masked.

    This is essentially what Roland Barthes was getting at in his ground-breaking text Mythologies, and it is one of the fundamental premises of Signs of Life in the USA. That is, that we must teach our students to go beyond denotative iconicity when analyzing images towards connotative significance. This is why using comic books is not trivial, but it can be trivial if one stops at the simply sensory dimension of graphic signs.