The Comic Book as Symbolic Environment: The Case of Iron Man

By Hogan, Jon | ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, April 2009 | Go to article overview

The Comic Book as Symbolic Environment: The Case of Iron Man


Hogan, Jon, ETC.: A Review of General Semantics


The relationship between humanity and technology is a subject that is always pertinent to society. As new tools develop, the ways in which people deal with each other as well as the technology itself come into question. This is a matter that concerns all of us interested in semantic and media environments. Marshal McLuhan investigated the effects of technology on human consciousness. Jacques Ellul fretted about humankind's eventual loss of autonomy to machines; Neil Postman lamented the paucity of critical thinking about this issue.

The comic book is one context in which humanity's relationship with technology is often explored. Whether it is Batman's parents falling to a gun or the Incredible Hulk receiving his monstrous powers from radiation, comic books often explore the effects of technology on society. Comic books are well-suited to deal with this issue because of their cartoonish drawings that often shun photorealism. Any manner of technology shown in a comic book will appear realistic in the context in which it is presented. While poor special effects in a live-action movie stand out as glaring failures, a drawing of a fantastic machine in a comic book looks the same as the cartoon people with whom they interact and illustrated landscapes where they exist. Therefore, technology can be treated with a degree of seriousness lacking in other forms of entertainment. Also, as McCloud explains in his Understanding Comics, comic book art appeals to people because, visually, a cartoon drawing is a nondescript place to be filled with the reader's empathy. McLuhan describes graphic storytelling as a "cool medium," a medium that gives less information but allows for maximum audience participation. By making the characters decidedly lacking in photorealistic physical description, the reader can much more easily see the hero as a stand-in for himself. In these ways, comic books are particularly well-suited to deal with the interaction and union of humanity and technology.

The comics medium in its very nature is a union. Coupling static visuals with text, comics can convey messages through two very different means. Sometimes the two aspects of comics work in perfect harmony with each other. Other times, picture is at odds with words, creating a meaning and nuance that can be extracted from the piece. Either way, graphic storytelling is unique in the sense that it uses text and static images to communicate with its audience. Comic books are culturally valuable because they can help us to better understand our society.

Depth and insight are mixed with Archie and Jughead in the perception of comic books, making it rare that they receive critical recognition. Since their inception in the early 20th century, comics have been viewed as the basest form of popular culture: junk entertainment. The use of pictures made people see the medium as distinctly low brow.

The academic study of comics was bolstered in 1985, when Will Eisner published Comics and Sequential Art. Eisner argued that "thoughtful pedagogical concern would provide a better climate for the production of more worthy subject content and the expansion of the medium as a whole" (Comics and Sequential Art 5). In the late '80s and early '90s, comic books were receiving more positive media attention. Adult comic books such as Watchmen, Maus, and Dark Knight Returns helped many people respect the medium as a means of telling stories of great depth and maturity. Scott McCloud published Understanding Comics (1991) in which he used media scholars to analyze sequential art. Since then, reading and studying comics became legitimized and increasingly popular.

Comic books are most often used in popular culture studies. They are highly visual, like television and the Internet, and popular culture studies place comics in this image culture. They are also collaborative, like other popular media such as films and television. The typical mainstream comic book features rotating teams of writers and artists throughout its run, creating collaborative authorship. …

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