Julie Maroh Skandalon
Mario Saraceni The Language of Comics
I’m kicking off this year’s Reading Challenge with a couple of books, both of which can be read in a day: Julie Maroh’s Skandalon, and Mario Saraceni’s The Language of Comics, and I’m going to use one to discuss the other. A little bit of background is necessary for the Maroh novel, however: it can be read and understood on its own terms, naturally, but Maroh provides an Afterword which situates the main character in a different, more mythical dimension and provides an explanation for his behaviour which goes beyond the rather trite summary to be found in the book’s blurb: ‘a fiery and intense contemporary myth about the recklessness of fame’. Well, no, not really. The myth in question here is not a new one for our times, it is a much older myth that has been retold in a modern setting with a main character who is the perfect vehicle: an immensely successful rock star who wields enormous power over his fans, men and women who adore him and follow wherever he leads.
Skandalon is a truly astonishing book. Much is explained in Maroh’s Afterword, which, following the writings of René Girard, sets out the philosophy of prohibition and the way in which myths and rites produce stories which become culturally embedded, thereby reinforcing and perpetuating accepted behaviours. The skandalon is a figure that transgresses these imaginary boundaries, attracting scandal as he does so and encouraging others to mimic his behaviour. But inevitably, the skandalon eventually becomes the scapegoat or victim. He who has vicariously fulfilled the desires of others has to face the consequences as the people turn on him – which they must, if societal order is to be restored. And so it is with Maroh’s main character, Tazane, the name being of course a pseudonym. His real name is Cedric. (One of the other characters suggests that the name Tazane is cursed and all would have been well if they’d stuck to Cedric.)
Saraceni’s book is a wonderfully accessible introduction to the study of comics as multi-modal texts: complicated concepts are made simple and exemplified with reproductions of numerous individual frames and complete comic strips. What I propose to do here is to explore a few of Saraceni’s observations with reference to Skandalon, but what follows is certainly not going to be an exhaustive exploration of how comics work – merely a taster.
One of the most interesting points of Saraceni’s discussion lies in his comparison of the layout and format of a comic strip with that of a text composed entirely of verbal features. He notes that the difference between functional and content words is reflected in the make-up of the verbal and visual language of comics, where functional words (words that link other words together to build a sentence, such as conjunctions and prepositions) have their counterpart in functional components, and content words (nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc.) in content components. The functional components of comics are things like captions, sounds effects and emanata (text or icons that represent what’s going on in a character’s head, so for example, sweat drops can indicate anxiety or nervousness). In this image here, for example, the ringing of the telephone rendered by the dring sound effect becomes more insistent over the three panels; Tazane ignores it, but the increased size of the letters and the frequency with which they appear indicate both the character’s consciousness of the sound, the length of time which has passed since the telephone first began to ring, and his growing agitation as the words gradually fill the frame. (Eventually he rips the socket from the wall.)
Another functional component is the speech balloon. This is the space that is used to report what a character is saying, and its physical appearance on the page acts as a sort of adverb to tell us how something is said. Here, for example, we know from the visual elements (the crowd, the microphone) that Tazane is onstage singing, but we can guess from the spiky balloons and large spaced-out font of the letters that he is not crooning softly, but belting out the words. The colour scheme reinforces this impression: think how these panels would differ if rendered in pale blue or green, for example.
Saraceni also argues that the gutter – the blank space separating the panels – ‘is similar to the space the divides one sentence from the next’. The gutter is not simply a blank space, in fact: every narrative is necessarily incomplete and this is a space for the reader to fill with real-world knowledge. Take the following example.
This montage is made up of two pages, with the page break occurring down the middle, after the third panel from the left: this is important, because in the Western world we read each panel from left to right, top to bottom, and we do the same thing with the whole page.
So what’s happening here? We see first of all a cloud of smoke. On its own, this means that something is on fire, but what? In the second panel, a lit cigarette lies next to a butt in an ashtray, and we can see that the smoke comes from the cigarette. The ashtray is on a table, and in the third panel, we see what else is on the table: empty or near-empty bottles of alcohol – spirits and beer rather than wine – one bottle could be vodka, another Jack Daniels. The fourth panel shows us another view of the table (and all the time, the repetition of the table image is leading us to assume that it is the same one): a pencil, and some papers with musical notation. Finally, the fifth panel shows us the human agent behind all this – a hand playing a guitar – and we can infer that the musician shown here is the one who has been smoking, drinking and writing music. This is Tazane.
Onto the panels on the right-hand side of the montage, and we see at the top a close-up of Tazane with eyes closed, clearly absorbed in his task. The ‘camera’ pans out for the next panel and we see him playing, the tops of the bottles just visible in the right-hand corner. In the panel which follows, Tazane is writing on the paper, and we can infer again that he is writing down the tune he has just played, or perhaps some lyrics. The foreshortened perspective of the image ensures that the hand holding the pencil is central to the panel, with the trajectory of the pencil leading the eye back to Tazane’s face and from there down to the point of the pencil again, following the circle of thought from the origin to the recording of that thought. He returns to his playing for the final frame, depicted from yet another angle, and here we note an interesting point Saraceni makes about the panel – that it is not the same as a photograph or a film still, because the panel represents a portion of time rather than a snapshot. The final frame of this sequence could take up any amount of time: he could be playing for a few seconds, or a few hours. Panels can fill an entire page, as the one shown below does.
And there are numerous other examples of one-page panels in Skandalon. Page 85 is entirely blank, with not even a page number, but this can also be considered a panel; in fact, the page is blank because the narrative has reached a point where Tazane rapes a young female fan, and the blank page emphasises the horror of the scene by hiding it from the reader.
I mentioned the ‘camera’ earlier, and something that has sparked interest in recent years is the presence of the narrator in comics and graphic novels. In Skandalon, Tazane himself does some of the narrating for us, rendered in square captions in a font different to that of the round speech balloons. So Tazane is narrator as well as character. The other character, Philippe, also does a little narrating for us. On finding the remains of Tazane’s mobile phone, he says ‘Not again!’ – but who is he talking to? Ostensibly, himself, but arguably he is speaking to the reader as well and imparting the information that this is not the first time Tazane has smashed up his phone. But I think there is yet another narrator, the one that decides what to show us in each panel and whose point of view we see: close-ups, for example, are more likely to invite us to feel empathy for the character concerned. Creating a graphic novel involves decisions about the shape and size of each individual panel, its positioning on the page, its relation to other panels and its place in a sequence as well as what is depicted, how characters and events are depicted, what point of view is represented, whether or not captions are used, and many, many other decisions relating to both functional and content components. It is perhaps here, in these decisions, that we should be searching for the narrator. Saraceni recognises that the narrator’s presence cannot be reduced to a consideration of captions alone. The kind of syntagmatic and paradigmatic analyses that are applied to verbal texts can equally be applied to graphic novels, if we consider creative choices made on both horizontal and vertical levels.
To conclude, Skandalon is a disturbing but immensely rewarding read, and Saraceni’s exceptionally useful book helps the reader to understand and articulate Maroh’s work. I’ve had a happy week with this, all in all.