June 6 – 8 , 2014 at The Hilton Anatole Dallas

Review of Frank Bramlett’s “Linguistics and the Study of Comics”

Bramlett, Frank, ed.  Linguistics and the Study of Comics.  New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2012.  xiv + 310 pp.  $85.00.  Hardback.  ISBN 978-0-230-36282-6.

The basic purpose of this edited volume is best stated in the editor’s “Introduction.”  Namely  that this is “a book for anybody who wants to know more about how language and comics go together.  It begins to construct a space in which the scientific and literary study of language may productively combine with the burgeoning scholarship in comics” (1).  He credits the work of Will Eisner, himself a name in the medium with the first self-described graphic novel A Contract with G-d and Other Tenement Stories, as the foundation of the study of comics language.  That said, he warns that Eisner’s presentation may lead one to confusion because his work “may have interfered with the study of language in comics because [he] called for a language of comics (emphasis original)” (2).  Indeed such a study is possible because recurring images maintain meaning across medium and era which allows for the construction of the visual syntax, grammar, semantics, and lexicon necessary for a thorough linguistic presentation.  Here, “researchers blend linguistic scholarship with comics scholarship to help propel us [readers, fellow researchers] into a deeper and clearer understanding of what language is from a disciplinary sense, what comics is from a disciplinary sense, and how productively the two fields contribute to each other” (8).  Beyond mere interdisciplinarity, this study seeks to formulate the operational terms and methodologies for an entirely new discipline.

The selected authors represent a wide range of expertise and background fields.  Kristy Beers Fägersten hails from Swedish linguistics while Eliezer Ben-Rafael was a professor of sociology in Tel Aviv.  Carla Breidenbach, a California Chicana, is a Spanish professor in South Carolina.  Others call Liege, Toronto, and Zurich home, and others have experience in India and Turkey.  Indeed, this is the widest ranging group of comics experts assembled in English in quite some time.  If there is a lack in this group, it is in the relative dearth of Latin American and East Asian presentation and complete absence of African representatives.  Arguably, however, such an investigation might be best done in its own work focusing on graphic literature in other languages.

Elisabeth Potsch and Robert E. Williams open the collection with a cognitive linguistics approach with special emphasis on how speed and direction are conveyed in still graphic format.  Richard Watson Todd uses functional linguistics to examine Gary Larson’s Far Side single-panel comics.  Jill Hallett and Richard W. Hallett, in perhaps a controversial choice, examine representations of the H1N1 (swine flu) virus in international political cartoons with distinct studies done of publications in India and the US.  Neil Cohn combines the fields of psycholinguistics and cognitive linguistics in an attempt to understand visual language and is best seen as a synthesis of the extant work on the subject in an projected coherent whole.  Indeed, this work “advances his prior research in identifying structures and functions that arise from the mental capacity that humans have for creating comic art… that humans have the capacity to create visual language and that artists create their comics using visual language” (9).  Veronika Tzankova and Thecia Schiphorst look at how political cartoons can “speak the unspeakable” as multiple levels of understanding and intentional polysemy are approached in the Turkish milieu (9).

Miriam Ben-Rafael and Eliezer Ben-Rafael look at how the French language is adapted to comics, incorporating large swathes of English along the way, yet remaining essentially French despite what the Académie Française might have to say about the matter.  Gert Masters wades into the linguistic aspects of nationalism in the Low Countries.  Frank Bramlett, the editor, examines the sole instance of manga in this collection with varieties of English used in Afro Samurai.  Carla Briedenbach examines formation of Latino identity and identification as expressed in English-language comics with elements of Spanglish.  Similarly, Karla Beers Fägersten looks at code switching between English and Swedish in her homeland’s comics.  Shane Walshe closes the volume with a survey of language and identity creation for superheroes.

This is an ambitious project.  The scope is somewhat broader than it actually reaches in that there are several important fields of both comics and linguistics which are left out.  If Eisner tried to do too much, Bramlett may have tried to do too little.  But, the editor did call it “a beginning.”  It is an important first step and should not be discounted simply because it is relatively early in the field.  Preliminary surveys of this sort make later, definitive products possible precisely because they bring together so many different types of authors with their divergent disciplines and perspectives.

– J. Holder Bennett, Collin College

 

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