So, anyone who knows me a bit, or has read back posts in this blog about my dissertation process, knows that I am a fan of Superman. I only really became a fan of Superman after I read Grant Morrison and Frank Quietly’s All-Star Superman.
Morrison’s depiction of Superman helped change my entire perspective on the man of steel and directly helped inspire my dissertation: American Arête: The Man of Steel as a Rhetorical Model.
What Morrison did was open my eyes to the deeper elements found within Superman, to the deeper, archetypal, and intangible but infinite potential of inspiration existed within the figure of Superman.
So, coming at things from this new, enlightened angle, and digging deeper into the structure of comic books formatting – how it works to communicate with its audience – I eventually, figuring that my degree is in Rhetoric, came to a question (well, really many many questions).
The question was:
Can recognizing comic book superheroes as forms of visual stylistic figures and tropes add a greater rhetorical understanding of their potential to persuade an audience?
To try and answer this, I started by falling back on what was my very first bridgehead between comic books/graphic novels and literary and rhetorical scholarship: Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics.
In this work, McCloud notes that comic books have the singular ability to act as “a form of amplification through simplification” (30).
In other words, it can be asserted, if applied to comic book superheroes, that they have a built in use for tasks often performed by the simplest metaphors, analogies, or any form of figurative language. This of course is determined by the author and the message he or she wants to convey. Superheroes can then act as stand in’s for concepts and ideas and express them with new meaning or message, or even remind the audience of elements and ideas that are right in front of them.
Speaking of “right in front of them,” having returned to this text after years of studying rhetorical theory, this statement was like uncovering a hidden gym. It was, quite figuratively and almost literally a skandalon, or stumbling block. This “stumbling block” caused me to take notice of something, McCloud’s statement as quoted above, and see it differently even though I had “walked” past it time and time again.
What About the Rhetorical Side?
So, one might wonder at this point, “I see a lot of talk about superheroes, images, cartoons, and what not, but what about rhetoric?” Well, the answer for that can be found when one considers or asserts, as I am, that superheroes can and do function as a form of rhetorical (visual) style.
When discussing style, rhetorically, one can turn to the Rhetorica Ad Herennium, which discusses (as Cicero does also) three types of style. In particular, when dealing with comic book superheroes and their big, larger than life outfits and struggles one is most likely applying the use of grand or high style. The Rhetorica Ad Herennium defines grand style, when employed by an orator (or in our case a writer or artist) as seeking to use “the most ornate words that can be found for it, whether literal or figurative; if impressive thoughts are chose, such…are used in [the use of figures, such as] Amplification…” (248). This idea of “grand style” and its application gets leads one into an attempt to understand rhetorical figures, among them, and connecting back to what McCloud was asserting to a degree, the idea of amplification
Rhetorical figures, such as amplification, aim to help impress upon an audience the message of the speaker via language or some form of communication. Figures are themselves “tools” at the disposal of a rhetorician/writer/artist to enhance and/or project a message to an audience.
A Visual Turn
Now that I appear to have addressed the rhetorical aspects of style and figures a bit, one might still not see the connection. One could be justifiable in saying: “Okay, I see superheroes and comic books and I see rhetorical style and figures, but I don’t 100% see how they connect. I mean, you have McCloud mentioned here, but is that enough? Are these even the same?”
Again, this is not an unfair question. How and where can we find connection for the classical ideas and elements of rhetoric and the modern conception of graphic narratives? One place might be found is in the writings of the early common era writer and teacher of rhetoric Longinus.
Longinus, in his work On The Sublime (a work focused on good writing) notes that something that lends itself well to notions and “production of grandeur, magnificence [grand style?] and urgency…is visualization (phantasia)…what some people call image-production” (356).
Longinus was not specifically referencing the Grand style of rhetoric or the use of images as per say comic books, but the notions he expresses here do reflect well on the depiction or production of images as beneficial to one wishing to convey elements that would be found in a grand rhetorical style. More importantly, the creation of visualization or phantasia, “image-production,” is a crucial element in most “good” writing. It is also a crucial component of the ability found in graphic narratives to make clear and effective use of communication of ideas as well.
To take this further into a connection with graphic narratives and comic book superheroes, it might help to turn to one Douglas Wolk. In his book, Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean, he relates, referring to the genre, that:
“Superhero comics are, by their nature, larger than life, and what’s useful and interesting about their characters is that they provide bold metaphors for discussing ideas and reifying abstractions into narrative fiction” (92).
Here is the formal explication of what I have already been asserting. More so, here is the tie in point. Superheroes, such as Superman, have evolved to become something more than the sum of their parts. They are archetypal elements that stand in for cultural touch points and ideas embedded and engrained into our society. It is through these superheroes that these cultural and societal tropes, norms, mores, etc. “take flight and expression.” Our culture is reaching a point of coming to terms and accepting this. As a rhetorician though, what I want to know, is really, how does it work?
The Power of Comic Books
In their work, The New Rhetoric, Chaim Perelman and L. Olbrechts-Tyteca mention that one of the most powerful, and overlooked, ways for a rhetorician/writer/artist to gain the attention of their audience in the conveyance of their message is through presence. Presence stems from the conscious choices someone makes on what to present to their audience. It is that “choice [that] endows these elements [whatever they have chosen to grant a face to] with a presence, which is an essential factor in argumentation and one that is far too much neglected in rationalistic conceptions of reasoning [perhaps because it] acts directly on our sensibility” (116). So, what the author wants the audience to see becomes part of a clear rhetorical choice based on what will garner the best reaction. It is noted that here and by many others, including Robert E. Tucker in his article “Figure, Ground and Presence” that the idea of presence is too abstract a concept for many who want to identify a more concrete term or trope. Tucker particularly states that the idea of presence has been much maligned and “Criticized as ‘ambiguous’ and ‘nothing more than a psychological concept’ …abandoned by rhetorical scholars” (396). However, the realization, however abstract or intuitive it may be, remains something of importance even if one wishes to ignore it. Its’ [presence’s] power to impact arguments and ideas remains. Simply because one cannot physically identify or pin it down does not discount something, like presence’s, value. Looking at images, for instance, which are able to randomly generate pathos on a viewer, sometimes in unintended ways, and yet their power is acknowledged.
Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca, in The New Rhetoric, conceive many elements of rhetorical argumentation that aid in promotion of presence. One such element is illustration. They state that
“Because an illustration seeks to increase presence by making an abstract rule [selfless hero] concrete by means of a particular case [Superman], there is a tendency to see an illustration as ‘a vivid picture of an abstract matter.’” (360). I have inserted the idea of Superman into this quotation because of just how well that superhero fits as a particular case.
Superman is a powerful image, a vivid image, brought to life on the pages of the medium of comic books. He is a metaphor. Comic books are themselves keen upon the use of metaphors in the visual sense.
In their Power of Comics, Randy Duncan and Michael Smith note: that “The most prevalent reductive device [remembering that comic books demand “economy] in comics is synecdoche [or the] using [of] a part to represent the whole or vice versa” (133). This statement in many ways plays on and expands what McCloud noted in this statement of “amplification through simplification.”
Page 96 of Vol. 2 of All-Star Superman provides, one of many but, the best opportunity to witness how the essence of Superman generates presence via the use of rhetorical figures in visual form as given by Duncan and Smith:
This opening sequence, elongated panel, sets up the scene for the audience with a clear display of what McCloud refers to as Picture Specific. This means that the images do the major communicating of meaning. In this panel, of course absent of words, that is ALL one has is the images.
The panel provides an opening context for what follows. In particular, this panel establishes for the audience that this young woman is not simply standing on the street corner, but obviously on a building of some height. One can, looking closely, gain a hint of the distress to be revealed by the young woman’s body language and what appears to be, in red, a cell phone falling from here hand.
On the right hand side, running parallel, down the page, are 4 panels opposite this long opening panel.
The first two vertical sequential panels on the right-hand side of the page provide a good illustration of the rhetorical figure of synecdoche. This term comes from the Greek συνεκδοχή synekdoche , meaning “simultaneous understanding” or rather to understand or comprehend something as a whole by only a part. The Greek-English Lexicon highlights that this figure stands for “understanding one thing with another: hence in Rhet., synecdoche, an indirect mode of expression, when the whole is put for a part or vice versa, Quint.Inst.8.6.19, Aristid.Quint.2.9, Ps.-Plu.Vit.Hom.22.” (Liddell and Scott). In other words, this classical rhetorical figure is employed to show us “a part of something” that can be then inferred by the audience as a whole that the “part” represents or vice versa.
This plays out in the first panel shows a close up depiction of a young girl, apparently in distress. Though you have seen her whole body in the first, left hand panel, you can infer that her entire body has become clinched together in some anxiety before what very well be the prelude to a leap from this building by the way that her hands are clasped tightly and her eyes are shut, with her shoulder hunched up. Here the figure of synecdoche is working within another picture specific panel. There are no words. All information must be inferred via body language and previous knowledge stemming from the elongated panel to the left.
One does not have to see the rest of her to infer the notion that she is in pain and distress, though the specific reason remains unknown. The next sequential panel below it again utilizes synecdoche, but this time with the focus being drawn to the chest emblem of Superman, his “S” and his most identifiable feature other than his cape.
The “S” is partially obscured by the young girl’s head, but it is recognizable and along with his hand, placed upon her shoulder, as well as his calming words, one can immediately distinguish a change in the young girls entire mood and posture.
The scene in this panel would fall closely into what McCloud calls an Additive type of panel. Here, the use of words are implemented and imposed as a way of providing amplification and elaboration for the audience’s reception and interpretation of the image.
The role of synecdoche between these two panels is, for the audience, a condition of understanding a larger concept communicated by the author. This concept centers upon the idea that no matter how bad life appears to be, it is never so bad as to end one’s life. One is never really alone. This is implied both in the words Superman, who in panels 2 and 3 (those right above), is not fully scene, but his presence is felt. His words, plus the placement of his hand upon the young girls shoulder represent a clear choice by the author to wish to convey a sense of hope and paternal encouragement both to the young woman and to those who are reading. Synecdoche, its application particularly here, serves to help reinforce a kind of guardian angel or supportive figure, a reassuring voice, for the audience to see.
This notion of protection and the communication are affirmed in the subsequent 2 panels that follow:
This entire sequence contains a total of five panels on the page. One panel, the long opening on, allows for an initial set up of the scene for the audience. What Morrison and Quitely do with panels that follow is communicate a deeply imbedded aspect of Superman that is often overlooked: his ability to inspire us. They do this by flipping the standard trope of “how” Superman “saves the day.” Instead of waiting for her to jump, and Superman swooping in to save her, Morrison and Quitely have Superman save this young woman, who feels despair and unable to cope with the world, in a different fashion. Superman saves her by giving her part of his strength, his hope. Appearing behind her as she is getting ready to jump, Superman tells her that “Your doctor really did get held up Regan. It’s never as bad as it seems. You’re much stronger than you think you are. Trust me” at which point she hugs him (All-Star Superman vol. 2, 96). This one series of panels alone is a powerful and moving illustration of the strength that Superman has, not physically, but as a model and “hope” for humanity instead.
The economy of imagery here, for one this entire scene is depicted in one page and only five panels helps illustrate the encapsulation of Superman’s essence, his willingness to help others, selflessly by how he himself acts and acts towards others, generates a strong emotional appeals via the audience’s ability to both identify with the superhero and perhaps even the young girl too.
The second trope discussed by Duncan and Smith is metonymy. Metonymy, from the Greek μετωνυ^μ-ία , ἡ, (μετά, ὄνομα) means a “change of name: in Rhet., the use of one word for another, metonymy, Cic.Orat.27.93, Ps.-Plu.Vit.Hom. 23, Quint.8.6.23” (Liddell and Scott). Duncan and Smith define metonymy as “the use of an associated detail to represent the whole [and its most commonly] used in the depiction of part of a physical manifestation of an emotion” (134).
Returning to the page from All-Star Superman, there are two close-ups and one full away examination of emotions on display.
Starting again with the panels of the top right of the page, the first panel allows one to infer the depiction of intense pain
Looking at McCloud’s charts of facial expressions, the image of the young girl’s face falls most closely to “pain empathy” made up of “disgust” and “sadness” (Making Comics 85). The emotions one can infer, also drawing on body language and the left-hand panel of her standing on a ledge leads one to a notion that she is in such emotional pain that she appears ready to take her own life.
The panel after it, with the emergence of Superman directly behind the young woman portrays an expression of surprise/astonishment/etc.
This depiction immediately changes in the next vertically sequential panel where Superman arrives, with his hand on her shoulder. Her facial expression becomes one of mild surprise with aspects of revelation, perhaps from Superman’s words about the misunderstanding that lead her to feel she should take her own life.
Finally, in the third panel on the right hand side, Superman’s face is finally seen for the first time on the page as the image pulls away. One can slightly confer an expression of calming sympathy and reassurance on his face as it leads to the final panel and her embracing of him in a hug.
Symbols and Sequence Metaphors
The third trope discussed is that of the sequence metaphor, and this is perhaps the most crucial combination of this particular page from All-Star Superman’s ability to help generate a deeper sense of meaning beyond what is simply depicted.
Duncan and Smith note that “Symbols are another means of economy of expression in comics [and these] can manifest as a sequence metaphor [or] two juxtaposed images that together create a meaning not present in either image alone” (The Power of Comics 134). There are several levels on which to look at this page of All-Star Superman as acting within the bounds of sequence metaphors.
The first comes by looking at this page in reference to the entire work of All-Star Superman and noting that of all the acts of heroism portrayed within, this particular and rather simple page is perhaps the most revealing. The revealing quality comes from the two panels found in the right hand side of the page, again. Focusing on specifically “two juxtaposed images” brings about an examination of impact Superman has as a symbol.
From his absence in the first panel to his then appearance in the second, it is incredibly powerful to witness what Superman, as a symbol, has the ability to do in helping this young girl. What is even more telling is the fact that the essence of Superman has a twist here. Instead of “typically” performing the act of saving this girl after she has jumped, Superman’s essence shifts slightly to Morrison’s intention to have him act as a symbol of inspiration. His words are able to move this young girl, his hand on her shoulder gives her hope, and ultimately provides her with a chance to change her own life for the better by knowing that there is someone out there looking out for here.
Let’s return to the question at the beginning:
Can recognizing comic book superheroes as forms of visual stylistic figures and tropes add a greater rhetorical understanding of their potential to persuade an audience?
Like the graphic narrative itself, there is a visual ability and component within the superhero narrative to represent deeper, complex visual figures and tropes that can perform on an audience in a rhetorical fashion.
This is not to say that all comic book superheroes operate in a deep rhetorical fashion, but as a form of communication they can in fact all convey some form of persuasion. There is though an ability for superhero narratives to operate in a grand style of rhetorical persuasion and to make use of rhetorical tropes to communicate powerful messages.
Duncan, Randy and Matthew J. Smith. The Power of Comics: History, Form and Culture.New York: Continuum, 2009. Print.
Liddell, H. G. and Robert Scott. English-Greek Lexicon. 9th Ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.Print. Perseus Digital Library. Tufts University. Web. 31 July 2015.
Longinus. On the Sublime. Trans. D. A. Russell. The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present. 2nd edition. Ed. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg.Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2001. 346-358. Print.
McCloud, Scott. Making Comics Storytelling Secrets of Comics, Manga and Graphic Novels. New York: William Morrow Paperbacks, 2006. Print.
—. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: HarperPerennial, 1994. Print.
Morrison, Grant and Frank Quitely. All-Star Superman, Vol. 1 & 2. New York: DC Comics, 2007. Print.
Perelman, Chaim and L. Olbrechts-Tyteca. The New Rhetoric: A Treatise on Argumentation. Tran. John Wilkinson and Purcell Weaver. Notre Dame: U of Notre Dame P. 1969. Print.
Rhetorica ad Herennium. Trans. Harry Caplan. The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present. 2nd edition. Ed. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg.Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2001. 243-282. Print.
Tucker, Robert E. “Figure, Ground and Presence: A Phenomenology of Meaning in Rhetoric.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 87.4 (2001): 396-414. Print.
Wolk, Douglas. Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean.Philadelphia: Da Capo Press, 2007. Print.