Language, Comics, & Context: Part 2

Recap of part one: Rhetorician I.A. Richards explored how we communicate primarily through abstract concepts. Individually, we assign meaning to words based on our personal experiences with them; Richards called that “technical context.” Societally, we understand each other’s use of words representing abstract concepts through “literary context,” where we specify the meaning of words by surrounding it with other words. Full post with examples available here: Language, Comics, & Context: Part 1.

Words & Icons Are Symbols

Acknowledging Richards’ theories about context and meaning for words enhances our understanding of comics. Though interest in educational comics steadily increases, comics have always been stigmatized as non-intellectual, and the lack of images in the majority of “adult” books demonstrates that. Before the 1960’s, “there was a complete absence of critical, archivistic, and academic attention” (Groensteen, “Why” 4). However, the clear parallelism between words and icons in regards to context and meaning reveals this prejudice as unfounded. Scott McCloud’s ground-breaking, non-fiction work Understanding Comics, presented in words and icons, interrogates rhetorical functions performed by comics that mirror yet further Richards’ theories. While Richards studied words that represent abstract concepts, McCloud delves into pictorial symbols–icons–as representatives of places, names, things, or ideas (McCloud 27).

Words & Icons Require Context

Another scholar, Thierry Groensteen, asserts that “icon solidarity” is the defining characteristic of a comic, which references the interdependability of images in a comic that are simultaneously separated yet connected through their presentation (“Impossible” 128). The idea behind icon solidarity reflects Richards’ notion of literary context; as we interpret words based on surrounding words, we interpret images in a comic based on the images collectively, each icon placed in context by the icons around it. Though literary context clarifies meaning, people still bring various perspectives to every word or icon, and technical context applies to language and comics. For example, readers would have different immediate thoughts in reaction to a stop sign drawing. However, the stop sign drawing is placed in context if it’s surrounded by images of a man crying, a man drinking a beer behind a car wheel, and emergency vehicles zooming down the road. With words and images, technical context and literary context compete. Richards asserts that believing a word has one true meaning is superstitious, claiming that “the stability of the meaning of a word comes from the constancy of the contexts that give it its meaning” (Golden 264). With the parent-child-bully example and the stop sign-drunk driving example, listeners/readers come close to a unified interpretation of a situation described conceptually (through words or icons) when literary context is added, but technical context always shapes people’s perceptions on an individual level and makes a singular interpretation or mental picture impossible.


McCloud makes a poignant statement about the function of words and icons in our lives: “Our identities belong permanently to the conceptual world. They can’t be seen, heard, smelled, touched, or tasted. They’re merely ideas” (40). I.A. Richards’ notion that context determines the meaning of words, as they cannot have intrinsic definitions, is directly applicable to icons. Examining the relationship between context and words or icons addresses both the ways humans represent abstract concepts and the ways we contextualize the symbols around us that define the social world.

Are you a comic fan? Let me know in the comments, and thanks for reading!

Works Cited

Golden, James, et al. The Rhetoric of Western Thought. 10th ed., Kendall Hunt Publishing Company, 2011.

Groensteen, Thierry. “The Impossible Definition.” Heer and Worcester, pp. 124-131.

Groensteen, Thierry. “Why Are Comics Still in Search of Cultural Legitimization?” Heer and Worcester, pp. 4-11.

Heer, Jeet, and Kent Worcester, editors. A Comic Studies Reader. UP Mississippi, 2009.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics. Edited by Mark Martin, Kitchen Sink Press Inc, 1993.


One response to “Language, Comics, & Context: Part 2”

  1. I’m a fan of graphic novels. I enjoyed Archie and Little Lulu as a child, though.

    Liked by 1 person

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