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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Graphic Novel as Signifier (A Cracked Out Crash Course In Linguistics)

Once in a while I find a subject in my classes that I feel capable of passing on somewhat competently to all of you fine people, without too many beer bottles getting lobbed at my head. The linguistic concept of the Sign is one of those topics. Now, stay with me here, folks--grab onto the arm rests of your chair (taking care not to disrupt Abraxas the Hideous Armrest Rat) and hold tight. We're about to get... theoretical.

To understand linguistics and the literary theory movement known as Formalism you have to understand the theories of a guy named Saussure. What this canny fellow realized was that words do not have meanings inherent to them. There is nothing inherent in the sound or image "lolcat" that tells us whether or not we can has cheezburger. The word "lolcat" is, in fact, only a signifier that points to a signified: the concept of lolcat. Together, this signifier and signified make a sign. You with me so far?

What Saussure says is that these signifiers and signifieds point to one another solely because they don't point to OTHER signifiers and signifieds. The idea is that the word only means what it means because it doesn't mean something else: words are defined by the fact that they are not other words.

At this point, you're probably either saying, "Alright, what's the big deal? This is totally intuitive," or I've completely lost you. What this is leading up to is a guy named Barthes who, before his untimely-death-by-laundry-truck experience, added a weird second step to Saussure's ideas. Barthes says, hey, let's take this new sign we have here--this combination of a word and its meaning--and use it to point to another, secondary concept. He basically takes the sign and demotes the whole damn thing down to signifier and then asks what it signifies. So, "lolcat" as both word and concept signify a whole range of meanings, such as the creation of a mass filtered reality. This second level signification for Barthes is all about creating a particular mythology that serves particular interests in society. In fact, I suspect he would quite like Leslie the Sleepless Film Student's analysis of lolcats, as linked to above. After all, what she's done is taken a sign and treated it just the way Saussure treats words: as an object that points to a meaning. In this case, the sign is "lolcats" but it could just as easily be "wine," "detergent," "striptease," or "Roman haircuts in film." Don't believe me? Check out the book Mythologies. Barthes is actually riotously entertaining and, even if you don't always buy what he's doing, his essays are fascinating simply for the way they delve into what should be totally innocuous things.

Barthes actually even goes one step further into the realms of crazy by taking whole groups of signs and smashing them together to make whole new signifiers. This works quite well when you're working with something like a complex advertisement: you can pick apart each sign individually and then piece them back together to create an ad that signifies one overriding mythological message.  It's clearly a bit of a mess graphically though:

You think this is bad, just wait till I tackle Foucault...

This kind of formalist analysis, focused on breaking things apart and putting them back together as mythmaking engines, is almost a kind of game. It's fun to see how many different ways you can pick apart a text and how many possible meanings you can pull out.

What all this is leading up to is a short essay I put together for my critical theory class. Yes, this is kind of a sneaky way for me to use an essay I was required to write for class in a Storming the Ivory Tower article, thus saving me some time. Listen: shut up. This is allowing me to sleep for an extra hour or so tonight, which is very, very important at this point in my semester. Besides, this is fun. The topic of the essay, as the title of this blog post may have suggested, is the idea of the Graphic Novel and what it signifies both as a word and an object. It's an idea I've toyed with a little before in my analysis of comics and genre, but this is far sillier than anything else I've written on the subject. See if you can pick out what makes this a formalist critique of graphic novels. And if you're still having trouble wrapping your head around these concepts, feel free to ask me for clarification in the comments.

Graphic Novels

 Graphic novels, despite being composed of the same panels, speech bubbles, and pictures that other comics contain, are a discrete entity with their own particular significance. Some of the connotation of the graphic novel certainly comes from its comic origin, but there is a transformation that takes place when one places the traditional system of panels into a heftier book form, possibly even between two hard covers.
This cover and its association with the word “Novel” in the name is worth examining. “Novel” suggests a number of thing, the most basic of which is the connotation of length and narrative structure. A novel contains a story too long for a short story or novella, and has a recognizeable narrative. Novels as objects, however, have another sort of connotation: that of literary merit (at least relative to television, sports, video games, and so on). Novels are one of the elevated forms of art, and even a novel of little intellectual value is still more respectable than other media. The Graphic Novel thus is a more respectable form of comic book, and the presence of the heavier covers and larger format reinforce the connotation from this title. Soft cover graphic novels are analogous to paperbacks and are less respectable, more “pulp.” The absolute height of literary merit comes with a hard cover, however. It demonstrates that the graphic novel is not a perishable item but a heavy, sturdy object that will stand the test of time. It is more valuable both because of the heftier materials and better printing and because of the higher price tag. Its literal weight corresponds to literary weight, to textbooks and the novels of Dickens or Tolstoy; the harder a graphic novel is to carry, the more significant an object it is.
These elements of significance are at odds with “Graphic” and the pictures inside the hefty covers of the graphic novel. “Graphic” of course calls to mind visual imagery. Graphic novels contain graphics, graphics which are used to tell a story. They are, in that sense, a picture book and are subject to the same considerations from society. They are for children and for childlike adults. Their dimensions are similar to children’s books: thin, but also tall and wide. The pages are large. The more issues of a comic book that can be gathered together into an omnibus volume the better, because not only does this increase the weight of the graphic novel, it also fattens the book up and brings it more into the same proportions as a “real” novel. This is why the full two part collection of Maus, Gaiman’s Sandman, or Moore and Gibbons’s Watchmen have greater literary merit: they are thicker.
“Graphic” also conveys a secondary meaning of graphic violence. In this sense of the word, comics are a pulp phenomenon, carrying a connotation of violence, sex, and melodrama. At the bookstore they occupy a place next to science fiction and fantasy on one side, and, frequently, next to materials for Dungeons & Dragons on the other. They are not separated by genre or even, necessarily, by author, but by publisher, and DC and Marvel, as the most prolific publishers, occupy the greatest space on the shelves. Consumers are encouraged to view graphic novels as an entity best understood in terms of publishing house, and genre is less important than the overall pulp classification.
Graphic novels are thus objects constantly at war with themselves, pulled in two contradictory directions with the qualities of the “novel” struggling to overcome the qualities of the “graphic.”

As always, feel free to leave comments, complaints, or, best of all, your own interpretations, or e-mail me at . And, if you like what you've read here, share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Reddit, Equestria Daily, Xanga, Netscape, or whatever else you crazy kids are using to surf the blogoblag these days.

1 comment:

  1. Interestingly enough, in your explanation of the Sign, you came extremely close to outright pointing out the programming paradigm that seems to mirror that concept: the pointer. The pointer is the signifier that points to the signified, which ends up being a variable (or nothing, if you've failed to initialize the pointer). So, in this way, we can have a useless signifier (an empty pointer, or a nonsense word) that has no corresponding signified.

    Interdisciplinary! =D


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