17 Aug 2016

Hatfield (2) “The Art of Tensions”, ‘2. Pictographic Language’, summary


by Corry Shores

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[The following is summary. All boldface and bracketed commentary are my own. Proofreading is incomplete, so I apologize for any distracting typos.]



Summary of


Charles Hatfield


“The Art of Tensions”


2. Pictographic Language




Brief summary:

The tension between words and text can appear even when there is no text. First, we suppose that we regard as symbols all elements of the comics work that serve a referential function, including images that refer or represent by means of resemblance. Symbols that show are ones that represent by means of resemblance, and symbols that tell are ones that represent by means of convention. Next, consider comics where the dialogue balloons contain pictures or icons rather than text. Here there is a tension between the contents of the balloons being both symbols that show and symbols that tell, despite the fact that these two functions cannot be reduced to one another.






[Previously we saw that there is a tension in comics between word and image, because in some sense they can be distinguished but in another sense the basis of the distinction is called into question through the interplay of these distinguished things.] [We might think that the tension between image and text can only occur when there is text. However,] “Comics can exploit the tension between picturing and writing without incorporating words per se, as the growing body of ‘mute’ or ‘pantomime’ (that is, wordless) comics attests” (133). Instead of text, these wordless comics can have “diagrammatic symbols, such as panels, speed or vector lines, and ideograms, to gloss or reinforce what’s going on in the pictures” (133). Also, the material inside word balloons can have icons instead of words (134).

Hatfield gives the example of Eric Cartier’s Flip in Paradise. Here Flip is negotiating a drug deal. Hatfield notes how balloons, by showing a decreasing amount of money, suggests haggling. Then, as the drugs take effect, the balloons crowd together and their icons’ relevance becomes hard to discern, suggesting he is losing his ability to think and communicate coherently.

 photo deal scene_zpsloutjgyv.jpg

Later Flip is teaching a parrot some words, but as we see, he is actually teaching the bird about killing and cooking it.

 photo parrot scene_zpsrvi7ygbe.jpg

In this way, “Cartier makes ingenious use of such visual symbols to dramatize Flip’s struggles to communicate in strange lands” (Hatfield 134).


Hatfield notes that the pictures in the balloons can be more generic than the drawing style outside the bubbles, or they can be the same style. He cites some examples in François Avril’s and Phillipe Petit-Roulet’s Soirs de Paris, in the story “63 Rue de a Grange aux Belles,” where “elaborate pictograms [...] capture the conversations taking place at a cocktail party” (134). Hatfield then notes the range of types of pictures that appear in the balloons. There is a man who asks a number of women to dance, and in each case there are the same simple icons to show the man’s request and the woman’s subsequent rejection (134).

 photo Pairis Soirees.3.1-3_zpsadqopv1u.jpg

Or the balloon contents can appear almost exactly like they do visually in the scenes, “as when a would-be Romeo uses a series of balloons to itemize a woman’s attractive features: her eyes, breasts, legs, and so on” (134).

 photo Pairis Soirees.2_zpsreyh00fw.jpg

And also in another case, when people are discussing paintings, we see images of the works they are discussing.

 photo Pairis Soirees.8.3-4_zps2lxgflfb.jpg

Hatfield explains, “Such examples suggest that visual/verbal tension is not necessarily even a matter of playing words against pictures; it may be a matter of playing symbols against other symbols” (134). [I do not find this part absolutely clear. Some of the examples in “63 Rue de a Grange aux Belles” do not seem to me to be so obviously symbols, especially for example the paintings, because their referential function seems to be one of resemblance. Hatfield will clarify this terminology in the next section, so let us move to it.]


[In this next paragraph, I have the impression that Hatfield is considering all visual givens in the comics work that have a referential function as being a symbol. Then, there are symbols that are supposed to show us what is really supposed to be there in the story’s world (available for the characters to experience), and there are symbols that tell us things about what is going on in the situations. (But I am not sure that I fully grasp the correspondence between diegetic and non-diegetic with image and text. I suppose thought bubbles are non-diegetic, because the characters do not actually see those symbols floating in the air, even though the dialogue is apparent to the characters and not just to the reader.) Hatfield then says that normally symbols that show are more or less representational drawings, while symbols that tell are “words, balloons, and a few familiar icons” (134). It also seems that he is locating the tension between image and text between these two types of symbols, with images being symbols that show and text being images that tell. He then says that the difference between these two types of symbols can be blurred when we use symbols that show to function as symbols that tell, as in the examples above. Now, symbols that show use one sort of code of signification (which I suppose is reference by means of resemblance) and symbols that tell use another code of signification (which I suppose is reference by means of convention). This means that this tension that can arise between the two “may be characterized as the clash and collaboration of different codes of signification.]

Such visual/verbal tension results from the juxtaposition of symbols that function diegetically and symbols that function non-diegetically — that is, the mingling of symbols that “show” and symbols that “tell.” More precisely, we may say that symbols that show are symbols that purport to depict, in a literal way, figures and objects in the imagined world of the comic, while symbols that tell are those that offer a kind of diacritical commentary on the images, or (to use another rough metaphor) a “soundtrack” for the images. In most comics, the symbols that show are representational drawings while the symbols that tell are words, balloons, and a few familiar icons. (These icons are nonalphabetic symbols of a sort that many word processors now make available to writers: arrows, dotted lines, lightbulbs, stars, and so forth.) But the potential exists for comics creators to push this tension much further, even to incorporate representational drawings as “dialogue” and to blur the difference between alphabetic symbols and pictures. At its broadest level, then, what we call visual/verbal tension may be characterized as the clash and collaboration of different codes of signification, whether or not written words are used. Again, the deployment of such devices assumes a knowing reader.

(Hatfield 134)





Hatfield, Charles. “The Art of Tensions.” In A Comics Studies Reader, pp.132–148. Edited by Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester. Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi,  2009.



Image sources:

Cartier, Eric. Flip in Paradise. Paris: Rackham, 1990.

Avril, François and Phillipe Petit-Roulet. “63 Rue de a Grange aux Belles”. In Paris Soirees [English translation of: Soirs de Paris]. ©2012 Humanoides. Los Angeles.




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