Grr(aphic) Mondays: Symbolception

I am going to blow your mind. This weeks Grr(aphic) Monday article may change the way you see the world, or at least the world of comics, because I’m going to talk about symbols. Before we get too deep, what is a symbol? The Oxford Dictionary defines it as “A mark or character used as a conventional representation of an object, function, or process”. In a simplified way, a symbol is a visual representation of something else. Take a look at this panel from Scott Pilgrim.

Picture source: [Accessed 14/06/2015]

Where are the symbols in this set of six (debatably seven) panels? Well, all the pictures are symbols, that’s’s the easy part, each individual image, whether it’s the couch Envy is sitting on or the close-up panel on Romona, is a symbol depicting something it really isn’t. In a comic book or a graphic novel it’s a blot of dried ink that represents something that doesn’t exist. In the above image it’s a group of pixels representing a blot of dried ink representing something that doesn’t exist! Due to the cartoon style of the art it is impossible for any of the picture to be accurately representing real world objects, but we never question it. If you begin to analyse it the process seems ridiculous, then you go deeper.

What are the other symbols in the above panels? How about the words? Each word is a symbol which represents a sound which in turn represents a concept. When you read the word ‘science’ in the speech bubble in the last panel your brain immediately facilitates you with the meaning of the word as a concept. Take this a stage further and you realise that individual letters are also symbols, in fact they are the most used symbols in the entire world. Each letter symbolises a sound, that can then be altered by the symbols around it to convey different meanings. You might think this is the end of the road, but we can go even deeper.

Look at the images above, identify the symbols that separate this piece from a picture book? What makes a comic book different? The symbols of the medium. Comic books and Graphic Novels are different to any other medium because they are subject to the visual grammar of panels, speech bubbles and SFX. I could, and probably will, write an entire ‘Grr(aphic) Mondays’ on each one of these symbolic visual cues but right now I am just going to focus on their purpose as symbols.

Panels are symbols in themselves that depict a single scene, a moment in time, they are not static, instead they represent about the length of a shot in a film or TV. In the top panel we know that that time is moving across the panel from left to right as Scott is throw out of the club. Speech bubbles represent speech, I know it’s not the most original thought but it’s true, they are a symbol which translates to ‘he said’ or ‘she said’. A speech bubble also depicts a length of time within a panel filled with vocal speech, which we then decipher from the symbols within bubble. Finally, SFX depict a single moment of audible sound. These three basic symbols form the back bone of comic books and their unique language of symbolism.

This reduction exercise in symbol identification is important for readers, writers and artists to understand as at the end of the day all forms of visual communication, be they books, films or graphic novels, are merely a selection of symbols. The mastery of both the construction and arrangement of such symbols can be the difference between Shakespeare and Watchmen.

By this point you may have realised you are reading an article composed of letters. Letters formed into words which symbolise specific concepts, concepts formed into a cohesive argument which discuses symbolism, such as the symbolism of letters which can be formed into words which symbolise concepts. That’s right, all this time I have been using symbolism to talk about symbolism and language of symbols. If you are feeling a light breeze on your head at this point it’s because I just blew your mind. Symbolception…it’s a thing.

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