Roland Barthes’s Rhetoric of the Image – in comics?

Already in 1964, Roland Barthes (1915-1980) published one of his best-known essays, ‘Rhétorique de l’image’¹. It is also a text that’s quite difficult to understand. Here’s what I make of it: according to Barthes, any image (except for those created by “illiterate societies”, e.g. ancient cultures) contains three messages, the linguistic, the literal (or denoted), and the symbolic (or connoted, or cultural). It should be noted that Barthes deviates from traditional communication theory by using the term ‘message’ without necessarily tying it to a sender: “the language of the image is not merely the totality of utterances emitted (for example at the level of the combiner of the signs or creator of the message), it is also the totality of utterances received: the language must include the ‘surprises’ of meaning.” Anyway, let’s look at these three messages in detail:

The linguistic message can be found “in, under, or around the image”. Such textual matter is always there, says Barthes (although I can image at least one kind of image where text may be completely absent). This linguistic message may have either (or both) of two functions: anchorage and relay. Anchorage means, the text clarifies or “fixes” the meaning of the image, which is always polysemous, by choosing some of the possible signifieds and “banishing” others. The relay function is less common and puts the text in a “complementary relationship” with the image – Barthes explicitly mentions comic strip dialogues as an example.²

The literal or denoted message consists of the objects depicted in the image, stripped of all symbolic meaning. It conveys nothing but a consciousness of the “being-there” of the represented things. (Barthes is particularly concerned with photography here, which additionally implies “an awareness of […] having-been-there” and a tension between “spatial immediacy and temporal anteriority”.) According to Barthes, little more than “anthropological knowledge” is required to recognise the objects in the image on this level, although I doubt it’s always as easy as that.

Finally, the symbolic message contains the signifieds (or ‘meanings’, colloquially speaking) of the image. In contrast to the literal message, more specialised kinds of knowledge may be required to decipher this message, but different “readings” of the same image are still legitimate. The totality of signifiers in an image, by the way, is what Barthes calls the eponymous ‘rhetoric’. It’s also noteworthy that Barthes seems to think that in some instances (e.g. advertisement photography, his principal example) we may even realise signifieds invested by the sender/creator of the image, i.e. recognise the creator’s intention (and there we have the good old sender-message-recipient model again).

Let’s see if we can read a panel from a comic in this way.

panel from Kiyohiko Azuma's Azumanga DaiohThis is the first panel of one of my favourite Azumanga Daioh (あずまんが大王) strips, by Kiyohiko Azuma. On the literal level, we can identify all the objects depicted: the face of Osaka (one of the main characters), her hair and part of her neck, and a bed with its various components. We are also able to tell the flower pattern on the blanket apart from ‘real’ flowers-as-objects. I think we’re still within the realm of the denoted message when we say: this is a sleeping girl.

Before we tackle the symbolic message (even though literal and symbolic message are perceived simultaneously, says Barthes), let’s look at the linguistic message. There is no writing in this panel, but in this case, Barthes is right when he says there’s always some writing nearby. Consider the complete four-panel strip (from the German edition published by Tokyopop):

strip from Azumanga Daioh by Kiyohiko AzumaThere is a heading above the panel and a speech bubble in the fourth panel. The heading reads “Osaka’s New Year’s dream” and tells us that rather than just watching Osaka sleep, we are about to learn what she’s dreaming of. The speech bubble says, “Chiyo, how come you’re able to fly?” Now we need to recall the knowledge of writing that is located even further away from our panel: in previous episodes, Osaka already had weird ideas about the character Chiyo and her plaits. With this knowledge in mind, we can almost guess Osaka’s dream (and indeed, in the next strip we see how Chiyo’s flapping bunches enable her to fly in Osaka’s dream). I’d say this is an example of anchorage: without the writing, the meaning of the image would be unclear.

As for the symbolic message, we need to take into account once more previous episodes, which established Osaka as a slow character who often has wondrous or naive thoughts. This strip is not funny because of the absurd idea of a flying girl – after all, such illogical ideas are common in everyone’s dreams – but because it’s such a typical thing for Osaka to think, no matter whether she’s asleep or awake. The symbolic message may well be to invoke Osaka’s characteristics in order to convey humour. In the last panel, the invoked characteristic are her weird ideas, but in the first panel, which is repeated twice almost unchanged, it’s probably Osaka’s slowness. When in a later episode the livelier character Tomo is shown dreaming her own “New Year’s dream”, one panel of her sleeping in bed is enough to indicate that the following panels show her dream.

So that was, if I got it right, a basic application of Barthes’s theory to a comic panel. A more interesting example would be a panel in which literal message and symbolic message are at odds with each other, or in which the linguistic message acts as relay rather than anchorage. I’m sure there are plenty of such examples once one starts looking.

¹ I’m using Stephen Heath’s translation, “Rhetoric of the Image”, in: Roland Barthes, Image – Music – Text, New York 1977, pp. 32-51.
² Comics Studies have later developed more elaborate systems of the relationship between scriptorial and pictorial elements in comics. See e.g. Nathalie Mälzer’s recent conference paper.

Shōjo manga roundup: Crayon Days, Pocha Pocha, Kase-san

It’s been a long time since I posted a straightforward review of a comic. The last one was actually from June 2013 (of Before Watchmen). All the while I’ve been reading comics, of course, some of which I found noteworthy. Here are three short reviews of some of them, united only by the fact that they are all shōjo manga from the last few years.
Painting is still very much a physical activity in Crayon Days.

Painting is still very much a physical activity in Crayon Days.

Title: Kreidetage (くれよん でいず ~ 大キライなアイツ / Crayon Days – Daikirai na Aitsu)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Kozue Chiba
Year: 2013-2014 (originally 2012)
Publisher: Tokyopop (originally Shōgakukan)
Pages: 192-196
Price: €6.50 (D)
Website (German):
Volumes reviewed: 1-3 (of 3 volumes in German so far; vol. 4 is scheduled for April)

Shima is a 16-year old girl who likes to paint, but is otherwise unremarkable. The story starts with her changing from a regular high school to an art school. A fairly standard love story ensues, her (main) love interest being a rough and unfriendly schoolmate who is already an acclaimed painter. While I can’t say I find the depiction of high school life in Crayon Days convincing, it might be an interesting manga from an art historian’s perspective, as we get to see people painting and talking about painting. For instance, in the world of Crayon Days, abstract expressionism still seems to be en vogue. However, as in many other manga, the setting isn’t all that important here – it just serves as a backdrop for the characters and the story.
Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○
Katsuyo being caught at what she's best at.

Katsuyo being caught at what she’s best at in Pocha Pocha Swimming Club.

Title: Pocha Pocha Swimming Club (ぽちゃぽちゃ水泳部 / Pocha Pocha Suieibu)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Ema Tōyama
Year: 2014 (originally 2011)
Publisher: Egmont Manga (originally Hōbunsha)
Pages: 112
Price: €7 (D)
Website (German):
Volumes reviewed: 1 (1 volume in German so far; vol. 2 is scheduled for March)

When overweight Katsuyo finds out that the boy she fancies only likes slim girls, she decides to lose weight and joins the swimming club of her school. I must admit I hadn’t read a yonkoma (4-panel) manga before, mainly because I thought that format was employed only for gag strips. As Pocha Pocha shows, longer stories can be told just as well in such a rigid layout of 2 × 4 panels per page. I’m not even sure  whether I find ‘comedy’ the right genre designation (though I suspect some of the humour gets lost in translation). Then again, romance isn’t the decisive element either here, as the story revolves rather around swimming, eating, and losing weight.
Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○
Yamada and Kase, our soon-to-be lovers from Asagao to Kase-san.

Yamada and Kase, our soon-to-be lovers from Asagao to Kase-san.

Title: Ipomoea (あさがおと加瀬さん / Asagao to Kase-san)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Hiromi Takashima
Year: 2013 (originally 2012)
Publisher: Egmont Manga (originally Shinshokan)
Pages: 159
Price: €7 (D)
Website (German):
Volumes reviewed: 1 (only 1 volume in German so far)

The shy schoolgirl Yamada meets her athletic schoolmate Kase when watering flowers (ipomoea or morning glories, asagao in Japanese) at their school and gradually falls in love with her. Yuri (Girls’ Love) is another kind of manga that I’ve shied away from in the past, finding it somewhat creepy for adult men to read about lesbian teenage love. Kase-san, however, handles the topic sensitively, as there is no nudity at all in this manga. It is quite similar to a heterosexual romance story, except that the protagonist Yamada struggles to come to terms with her sexuality and that of the eponymous Kase. Their homosexual love is still experienced as a somewhat ‘forbidden love’, which adds an interesting twist to this story. Hopefully Egmont will translate more of this series.
Rating: ● ● ● ● ○