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In Box: Rethinking Text in the Digital Age

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter explores the critical value of learning to read the graphic narrative through the device of the speech bubble, the comics convention borrowed in the visual system of the text message. Active reading of text-image hybrids, always a part of our lives, is now especially crucial in a society saturated with word-text communication systems that frequently substitute for face-to-face encounters. Focusing on the comics of Emile Holmewood, or BloodBros, this chapter analyzes his short comic, “Speech Bubble,” which situates the text-messaging speech bubble against the comics-language speech bubble. The interplay of these bubbles and the way they expose our assumptions about reading and making meaning emphasize how the act of reading is an ethical process.

Keywords: comics literacy, comics grammar, speech bubble, speech balloon, comics style

(p. 36) They have rounded corners, like a cartouche, and their color corresponds to where they have been formatted: justified along the left side or along the right. Those on the left have a little tail that extends from the lower left corner to the left margin and signify “from”; those on the right have a little tail that extends from the lower right corner to the right margin and signify “to.” They are speech bubbles, or speech balloons, and they may have become ubiquitous through their rigorous refinement and codification in the evolution of comic books over the past century (Origins of the Kid), but they have now reached an even more highly recognizable and insistent pitch with their wholesale adoption into the vocabulary of messaging, or “chat.” Digital conversation is not only the dominant digital experience for many people but perhaps increasingly their dominant means of communication. Though these conversations take place all over the world and in a variety of national languages, the language of the speech balloon remains consistent. The comics speech balloon gradually evolved into its recognizable conventions, and these conventions were picked up and adapted for use in a variety of chatting platforms. The semiotic elegance and visual economy of the speech bubble make it the ideal vehicle for conveying the back and forth of conversation. “Time” is measured as a vertical scroll, as consecutive messages appear beneath each other; and “speaker” is measured on a horizontal axis. This convention stays consistent whether in the use of a personal text-message exchange or for the sometime real-person, sometime bot-chat-simulacrum exchange of the customer-service website chat.

Just as with comics, in which a whole group’s conversation can be recorded with no confusion about who is saying what and, most times at least, in what order, the scrolling chat window becomes a clean record of a conversation between two parties, with the additional helpful supplement of color-coding for attribution. There is no confusion about who is saying what. What is at stake, it turns out, is how to sort out the “who” that is doing the saying. As the messaging phenomenon has grown into its domination of our modes of conversation, our traditional understanding of communication as (p. 37) something occurring between persons fades in proportion. In an age of “conversational commerce,” where the use of “chat, messaging, or other natural language interfaces (i.e., voice) to interact with people, brands, or services and bots” (Messina) feels wholly normal, how does this phenomenon change the relationship between sender and receiver? This precise situation, in which “computer-driven bots will become more human-feeling, to the point where the user can’t detect the difference, and will interact with either human agent or computer bot in roughly the same interaction paradigm” (Messina), is the focus of the comics work of Emile Holmewood, or BloodBros. From a short comic about an ATM that slowly evolves to anticipate the needs and desires of its customers, to a comic about an author whose identity is atomized through the blurred identity of social-media avatars, pseudonyms, and book-jacket biographies, among other things, Holmewood wields a flat visual affect to interrogate themes of dissociation, social confusion, and an ambient anxiety regarding the inevitability of misunderstanding. This chapter analyzes his short comic, “Speech Bubble,” which situates the text-messaging speech bubble against the comics-language speech bubble. The interplay of these bubbles and the way they expose our assumptions about reading and making meaning emphasize how the act of reading is an ethical process.

In Holmewood’s comic, a text conversation is conducted between a character whom we see, Trissa, and another whose person is unseen until the final panels, Melz, whose existence we know of only through cryptic, but plausibly legible, replies in a text-message exchange. It is only on the last page that the reader discovers that Trissa has been receiving messages originating from the haphazard pecking of a group of homicidal chickens that may have murdered Melz. The comic highlights the comical, but also stunning, status of communication in this age, one in which adequation, in this case between a chicken’s random pecking and a teenager’s equally inscrutable text messages, can constitute a fatal error. Of course, Trissa is never aware that she is writing to a chicken. Holmewood presents a gallinaceous version of philosopher John Searle’s famous “Chinese Room” thought experiment, in which he imagines himself in a room from which he issues computer-generated strings of Chinese characters to fool someone outside the room into thinking that he understands Chinese. The conclusion he reaches is that human minds cannot be conceived of as computational systems. In the case of this reading of “Speech Bubble,” the more relevant philosophical questions that pertain have less to do with the way we characterize the “mind” responsible for the output than with the role of the interpreter of those missives.

Searle later addressed this issue, writing: “The problem with the concept of “information processing” is that information processing is typically in the mind of an observer.… The reason we cannot analyze consciousness in terms of information processing and symbolic manipulation is that consciousness is intrinsic to the biology of nervous systems, but information processing and symbol manipulation are observer-relative (Searle 34). The folly at the heart of “Speech Bubble” supplies the suggestion of the recuperative power of better preparedness on the part of the observer. Creating a heightened commitment to reading awareness, so to speak, might allow us a distancing remove from the phatic image and “message-intensification which has … assigned a (p. 38) primordial role to the techniques of visual and oral communication” (Virilio 14). The comics-reading process serves as a heuristic, a way of learning through parsing and understanding narratives that identify our desire to make sense out of nonsense and, in the case of “Speech Bubble,” the inscrutable dialogue of a text conversation. This chapter focuses on this observer-relative state of information processing, because the experience of reading “Speech Bubble” most directly mirrors Trissa’s and, in turn, our contemporary reading experience. Holmewood asks us how we can and should be better readers than Trissa if we, too, have treated her responses to “Melz’s” texts as plausible interpretations of those texts. His comic endorses a scheme where the reader’s absolute power as interpreter and creator of meaning of a text is celebrated, while also emphasizing the equally crucial understanding of the importance of responsible reading. We need a reading that is careful, deliberate, and self-aware regarding our particular situatedness, a situatedness that reminds us of our constant vulnerability to sometimes getting things very, very wrong.

Reading the Speech Bubble

This focus on the reader’s responsibility in the generation of meaning has been well argued in the definition of the comics form. Scott McCloud articulates this most persuasively in his canonical Understanding Comics: “Between such automatic electronic closure and the simple closure of everyday life—there lies a medium of communication and expression which uses closure like no other … a medium where the audience is a willing and conscious collaborator and closure is the agent of change, time and motion” (McCloud 65). The comics form, in McCloud’s opinion, is constructed in such a way that the reader is expected to do much of the work of drawing conclusions based on careful scrutiny of the information in panels and their arrangement, teasing meaning from a combination of these codes and, indeed, from the information that is left out. Closure, then, describes the reader’s active creation of meaning from seeing two images in sequence and deducing the meaning of how the former has led to the latter, akin to the “Kuleshov effect” in film (Barr). The visual codes, their placement on the page, their relationship to text, and the relationship between these variables are just some of the codes a reader is required to hold in suspension and give equal weight to as he or she reads. The extent to which the codes work together underscores the critical value of considering these complex functions with care and rigor, “identifying these codes and creating an understanding of how they signify” (Postema xvi). The form itself encourages a carefulness of pacing inscribed on the page: “One of the important effects of the ‘time’ of comics, then, is slowed-down reading and looking. Comics subvert what cartoonist Will Eisner, speaking disparagingly of film, names its “rhythm of acquisition [as a] direct challenge to static print” (Eisner 3). The diegetic horizon of each page, made up of what are essentially boxes of time, lends graphic narratives a representational (p. 39) mode capable of taking up complex political and historical issues with an explicit, formal degree of self-awareness” (Chute 9).

Wolfgang Iser wrote:

textual structures and structured acts of comprehension are … the two poles in the act of communication, whose success will depend on the degree in which the text establishes itself as a correlative in the reader’s consciousness. This “transfer” of text to reader is often regarded as being brought about solely by the text. Any successful transfer however—though initiated by the text—depends on the extent to which this text can activate the individual reader’s faculties of perceiving and processing. Although the text may well incorporate the social norms and values of its possible readers, its function is not merely to present such data, but, in fact, to use them in order to secure its uptake. In other words, it offers guidance as to what is to be produced, and therefore cannot itself be the product. (107)

While all aesthetic objects invite and deserve this kind of balanced and careful scrutiny based on a simultaneous consideration of multiple levels, comics is unique in its formal emphasis on the epistemic value of reading what is not there. McCloud concludes: “No other artform gives so much to its audience while asking so much from them as well … what happens between these panels is a kind of magic only comics can create” (92). Comics do indeed perform a kind of invisible magic between panels—showing as much with what is not there as with what is and, crucially, identifying the reader’s essential role in the process of creating meaning by treating it as what Barthes called a “writerly” text (5). How we tell that we are, in fact, communicating with whom we think we are communicating—let alone what that interlocutor’s intentions are—is a problem that emphasizes the reader’s role in the construction of meaning when confronted with what is not there. How do we recognize that we are communicating with a human? How do we recognize that we are communicating with the person whose claims about their identity are largely based on what that person tells us?

This chapter focuses on aspects of the reader’s assumptions that are deduced from the physical structure of the medium. Modes of reading with respect to text have, for the last century, at least, been less affected by the placement of text on a page, of arrangement and size, and of factors such as page turns. That is to say, a reader of a text-only printed book—short stories, novels, and the like, with exceptions for some poetry—thinks that he or she is reading the same “text” whether in enlarged print, whether in hardcover or paperback form, whether the margins are wider, or whether the text is printed on coarse or fine paper, accounting, of course, for certain shifts in reading experience. The comic, however, requires an alertness to form that uses shifts in arrangements, size, layer, and so on, in its making of meaning. Just as quotation marks in a text suggest to a reader that the sentences enclosed within them indicate a speaker, so, too, does the speech bubble, or balloon: “no balloons exist that do not refer, and cannot be attributed, to a known or supposed speaker. The relationship between the speaker and the enunciation that is uttered is so strong that one can speak (p. 40) of a sort of functional binomial. This bipolar structure is one of the fecund schemes that organizes the reading of comics” (Groensteen 75). Even when the speaker cannot be seen, however, as when “the character is invisible, situated off-screen, or hidden by an element that has been turned into a screen (a wall, vegetation, mist, etc.), out of view.… [t]he balloon is then indicative of his presence, and is his appendage, pointing toward him like an arrow, exert[ing] a truly signaling function” (Groensteen 77). This indication of person is the assumption by which Holmewood’s comic gains its momentum and its ironic force. Using the assumptions that attach to the speech bubble form, and by focusing our attention to the way even perspective is an act of imaginative collaboration by a reader in defiance of the flat surface of a page, “Speech Bubble” exposes assumptions as it gently (roughly? Isn’t that, too, a matter of perspective?) mocks them.

When we reach the final page of Holmewood’s comic, we are able to perform an act of revision of the meaning of what we have just read, but we are left to wonder, is there anything we could have done to prevent misunderstanding from the beginning? As meaningless as the text messages appear now that their sender is identified, our initial response, like Trissa’s, is to make meaning from it. “Speech Bubble” thus brings the question of the reader’s responsibility, and the importance of the reader’s acts of interpretation and predictive acumen, to the foreground in a comics setting. This comic expertly delivers a punchline that comments on the graphic narrative form but also on larger philosophical questions in the study of language, mind, consciousness, and semantics. It does this by wielding those aspects of the form that are medium-defining: the use of perspective, the suggestion of space and layer, and the faith in and desire for closure. Holmewood’s choice of the speech bubble is a canny one; with its stealth and precision, it mimics how quickly our ideas of speech and its relation to the speaker, or the speaker’s intentionality, have been challenged and recalibrated in this age.

Our ability to read intentionality is changed by the increasingly common fact that exchanges occur without face-to-face communication, as described despairingly by Virilio: “the bulk of what I see is, in fact and in principle, no longer within my reach … the logistics of perception in fact destroy what earlier modes of representation preserved of this original” (7). In the absence of interpersonal interaction, what are the kinds of behaviors, as readers and writers, that we can adopt in order to achieve greater clarity of communication? Taking McCloud’s point that comics ask much from their readers, “Speech Bubble” suggests that if messaging systems are going to borrow the visual codes of the comics system, they had better also adopt the commitment to careful reading that comes with it. Readers must apply that readiness of interpretation, that willingness to weigh and deliberate between the potential meanings available, that we have learned to do from reading comics. That is to say, comics do not merely lend systems of conveying information; we borrow the means without borrowing the interpretive practice at our own peril. Comics language offers us a way to read critically and responsibly at the surface of a text that balances the physical form of a message with the content it conveys.

(p. 41) Reading “Speech Bubble”

Thierry Groensteen’s analysis of the speech bubble and, in particular, its physical insistence, identifies it as a characteristic that contributes to our understanding of the comics structure: “When comics are in color the balloons are most often presented in white.… The whiteness of the balloon, which is that of the paper, attests to its indifference to the illusionist conventions that govern the image” (70). This identification of the word with the paper of the page sets it in a different “zone” from the image:

it designates an opposition between the “textual zone” and “image zone.” Indeed, the image, to the degree that it relies on the perspectival code and practices the staging of the planes, creates the illusion of three-dimensionality. The text, on the other hand, frees itself from this mimetic transcendence, respecting and confirming the bi-dimensional materiality of the writing surface. When the panel is cut into two zones, one asserts a flatness that is betrayed by the other in the production of the illusion of depth. In this sense, it is legitimate to assert that the cohabitation of the drawing and the balloon creates a tension, since the three-dimensional space constructed by the cartoonist is contradicted by the presence within it of this piece that is added, a stranger to the representative illusion. (69)

Holmewood’s “Speech Bubble” builds its humor on such oppositions, while consistently showing that distinctions between surface and depth are more complicated than binomial distinctions. Indeed, seemingly antipodal terms such as surface and depth are repeatedly challenged in Holmewood’s comic. In reading, whether printed words, text messages, or the graphic narrative, the conceptual notions of closeness and distance that we attach to those words are coded by visual markers that we interpret; this is a process that follows the construction of depth in the drawing, by the artful arrangement of straight and curved lines crowded together at the surface of the picture plane. The comics page reminds us of the systems of signs that we contend with on a daily basis, and the misunderstanding at the heart of “Speech Bubble” strikes in the reader a sense of wonder that we are able to understand anything at all.

The comic is titled “Speech Bubble,” but its four pages are nearly silent and devoid of speech, if speech is understood primarily as an utterance. There are sounds in the comic, but we are meant to understand them as barely audible—the “pop” of a bubblegum bubble bursting, the escaped noises from behind muffling headphones. And yet the comic is also extremely text-heavy. Indeed, letters and numbers are all over the page, to the extent that they sometimes block other letters from being read. Sometimes the letters are read for meaning, in the sense that they form words; sometimes they are read for meaning, in the sense that they form a uniform resource locator, also known as a Web address, that identifies a location on a computer network and how it can be retrieved. There are, however, bubbles all over each page. A few of them are pink bubbles formed by chewing gum, and one is the recent explosion of a bubble—little lines (p. 42) emanating around the onomatopoetic “POP” of the chewing gum—but the most prominent bubbles are the obstinately contrarian speech bubbles, which make claims to speech while remaining inaudible. This is the speech bubble as adopted for text messaging on the mobile device, a borrowing that simultaneously copies and defies the logic of conventional comics language. Holmewood takes the speech bubble appropriation and returns it to its source, the graphic narrative, making a comedy that is intrinsic to the form: with visual puns like bubbles that don’t speak or vertical bars that are not gutters, the comic proliferates with a hyperactive commentary that shows how much what we accept as our everyday experience of reality is, in fact, based on an everyday experience, and acceptance, of illusion.

Holmewood’s comics style presents the flat, ironic style that he displays with limpid precision as a graphic artist, animator, and illustrator. His panels actively challenge the viewer to perceive them at the level of their materiality, understanding them in a way that reduces both word and drawing to informational codes of equivalent signs. As Groensteen notes: “If the image was understood, not in its reference but in its strict materiality, as a group of lines or signs inscribed on a support plane, the solution to continuity between the drawing and the balloon would reflect on nothing more than on the nature of signs (analogic here, there digital) and there would be no place to imply that such signs conceal or recover any others” (70). The images are constructed of groups of lines and signs within panels that mirror the shapes of the panels themselves. Thus, the panel at the top of the page shows the conversation of the smartphone screen directly above four small panels arranged in the shape of a square of approximately the same size (Figure 3.1), suggesting how units of action—expanded cheek, expanding bubble—are like units of conversation. This grammar of the square deliberately causes a sense of visual confusion with the bottom panel on the page, which stretches across the width of the page but contains within it another “window” defined by the open doors of the subway and outlined at the top and side “margins” by the same transparent white of the comics page and, as it happens, the comics gutters. The viewer may be able to quickly gloss this as a subway with doors open, but the process required to reach that gloss is complex and suggests a series of layers of depth implied by Trissa’s head and body, the train platform, the train carriage, the space revealed by the open door, the visible closed doors on the opposite side of the carriage, and the “audible” sound of the chewing gum that we have seen in the previous panel now no longer visible either to us or to anyone who faces Trissa. Instead, it is a “pop” that we “hear” through reading. This technique of presenting gutters within the panel is repeated on page 2 of the comic (Figure 3.2) with the image that Melz texts to Trissa of a chicken; it, too, is framed with a thin white gutter around it, and yet the play on gutters as a visually legible and therefore almost invisible code is investigated again with the panel at the bottom of the page.

In BoxRethinking Text in the Digital Age

Figure 3.1 BloodBros, “Speech Bubble,” page 1. Originally published in Kus! (Latvia: Kuš Komiksi, 2017), page 91. Image courtesy of Emile Holmewood.

© Emile Holmewood.

In BoxRethinking Text in the Digital Age

Figure 3.2 BloodBros, “Speech Bubble,” page 2. Originally published in Kus! (Latvia: Kuš Komiksi, 2017), page 92. Image courtesy of Emile Holmewood.

© Emile Holmewood.

The yellow vertical pole of the subway line, introduced at the bottom of page 1 and then again next to the head of the man with the chicken hat, reappears at the bottom panel of the second page exactly aligned in the center of the panel so that its dimensions precisely continue the line of the gutter that separates the previous three rows of panels on the page. In practice, nothing changes about the way we read this bottom panel as (p. 43) (p. 44) (p. 45) either two panels showing Trissa on the left and the man sitting opposite her on the right or one single panel showing the two simultaneously viewed from the side. The only potential difference would be a perceptual shift in our understanding of the direction in which the pink-shirted commuter is facing. We assume that this person is not actually standing directly between the two seated people, because we have previously seen an unobstructed view of the man with the chicken hat at the top of the page. The yellow vertical “gutter,” then, implies a depth that pushes the two seated figures to the “front,” while the pole on the left, the standing figure, and the pole on the right represent items that stretch further and deeper into the space of the train car.

We become better able to construe where those poles might be placed when we reach the top of page 3 and see each of these figures from the other’s perspective (Figure 3.3) and note whether the pole appears on their left or right. None of this is obvious from the picture itself; in fact, it is only the active work of the viewer that makes spatial sense of the images shown. And it is not just the similarity of internal boundaries (the pole in the subway) to extradiegetic boundaries (the white gutters that separate panels) that Holmewood plays with. He shows how subtly the relationship between panels can be expressed through the slightest manipulations.

In BoxRethinking Text in the Digital Age

Figure 3.3 BloodBros, “Speech Bubble,” page 3. Originally published in Kus! (Latvia: Kuš Komiksi, 2017), page 93. Image courtesy of Emile Holmewood.

© Emile Holmewood.

In the two center pages of the four-page comic, three virtually identical panels show the young man who sits across from Trissa. The panel at the top of page 2 and the panel at the top of page 3 sit directly next to each other, like the “find the differences” pictures in the pages of a child’s activity book. The second panel does not follow sequentially from the first: in fact, seven panels intervene (more if we start counting panels within those panels). Yet the placement of the panels is unavoidable. The reader notes the slight changes in the impassive faces and Orphan Annie empty circles of these faces; the pursing of the lips, the faint indentations of dimples, Trissa’s reaction registered by the diagonal hatch lines under each eye. These subtle shifts are telling. The third version of “chicken hat” is a photograph that Trissa has secretly taken of the man seated across from her. More of his body is cropped out of the panel, the whole panel appears smaller, and the color contrast is just slightly more faded. Yet, because of the speech bubble that hovers above this green-outlined panel, the reader immediately identifies it as a photograph rather than a continued action in Trissa’s diegetic reality. The ease with which the reader identifies this as a photograph in the virtual world of the text message is hardly worth noting. Hardly noticeable, too, is the visual similarity between the white cloud in the background of the photograph of a chicken sent from Melz’s phone (Figure 3.2), to the thought bubble coming from Trissa’s head that says “why’s she not replying?!” (Figure 3.3). Trissa’s thought bubble is also separate from the diegesis of “Speech Bubble” and transparently white, like the page it is printed on; it occurs not at the level of the conversation taking place on the phone screen but on some other plane. For us, it is, as Groensteen would put it, in the “zone of opacity within the ‘transparent plane’” (70) of the comics panel. And yet the thought cloud of that opaque zone and the “actual” photographed cloud of the text message are visually equivalent. Such things remain there, just as much at the surface of each panel as the objects on which the reader chooses to train his or her focus.

(p. 46) (p. 47) What these kinds of visual echoes do, especially when they occur in different spatial and narrative contexts, is highlight this reading complexity, as well as our aptitude for reading complex webs of signs. They also are there, of course, when we make decisions about the points that we think are important, the points around which we form meaning. The illusions and assignations of depth and the attention to some things in favor of others all point to conventions applied by the reader. The comics reader, just like the reader of chat messages, skims across the surface of the page not because of inattention or lack of care but because most of the time, his or her assumptions with reading are correct, and even if those initial assumptions are incorrect, the reader can almost instantaneously revise his or her reading. Add to these the many times words are misspelled, autocorrected, or abbreviated with regularly used acronyms, and the willingness to read quickly and the willingness to accept errors that may require revision are correspondingly heightened. Thus it is that the most complex visual moments in “Speech Bubble” take place within the actual speech bubbles of Trissa and Melz’s text conversation, which make up a large proportion of these panels. The reader’s eventual realization that Trissa has been having a one-sided conversation may come before Trissa comes to that conclusion, assuming that she ever does, but this reader, at least, wonders if even that has not been rather a bit late.

On Reading and Being Close

Trissa’s mouth moves, but words don’t ever come out of it. Even when bubbles literally do come out of it, words never do, unless we count that paradoxically wordless “pop” sound that is translated to an onomatopoetic word on the comic page. Many words do indeed come from the direction of Trissa, though, and she is their source as far as we can guess—the arrows tell us so, anyway. But the words that come out in speech bubbles are unheard; this, in itself, is not surprising given the conventions of the text conversation. What might be surprising is that they are unlikely to have been seen by Melz at all. The first and only text from Melz that we see on page 1 reads, “miamgmt,” which Trissa immediately corrects: “nah its [sic] yeezy” (Figure 3.1). The lack of capitalization, the idiomatic “nah,” and the use of “its” instead of “it’s” are all the kinds of conventions that we have learned to read “through” with text (and other communications in general) as a shorthand. This is also true of the perpetual acronyms and abbreviations. In Melz’s text, then, we readily accept the names of potential entertainers—is Melz asking whether it is M.I.A. or the band MGMT? The reader only too readily accepts Melz’s “reply” as inconsequential and not of any concern and begins to read the seven seemingly meaningless letters bundled together as a possibly meaning-making response to Trissa. This is made significantly easier when considering the three messages that Trissa has sent prior to Melz’s reply. The first is equally illegible as a series of letters, numbers, and punctuation. Yet even though we cannot “read” it, we know that we are not supposed to. We as readers recognize the physical likeness of a URL or Web address to a music-streaming service. (p. 48) We know that reading those letters is not what Melz is supposed to do; she simply has to touch that link to activate a series of steps on her own phone that will open a link to a track. Text messages are more than rebuslike; sometimes they require us to read acronyms (“OMG”), and sometimes they require us to read icons, or emojis, rebuslike, as with the shape of a heart instead of the word “love” (Figure 3.1) or a blank staring face with a flat line for a mouth to perform one’s affectless response.

The problem with the way acronyms have asserted themselves into our vocabularies and our reading competencies is hardly just that they have made us all too comfortable with reading, saying, and writing down nonsensical things and applying a meaning to them. It is also the case that we now find ourselves willing to read meaning into mistakes, because we are now also used to discovering neologisms and new acronyms and shorthand. All reading can be thought of as a form of problem solving, but the acronym that presents itself as a riddle to be solved is a problem of a very special kind. Consider this scene from part 4, chapter 13, of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. It is a crucial moment of understanding between Levin and Kitty. Kitty has previously humiliated Levin by rejecting his proposal of marriage, but he now senses the possibility of a shift in her feeling. He tentatively takes up a piece of chalk at the table where she sits and writes on its green cloth cover:

“There,” he said, and wrote the following letters,—W, y, a: i, c, n, b; d, y, m, t, o, n? These letters stood for: When you answered: it can not be; did you mean then, or never? It was quite unlikely that she would be able to make out this complicated sentence; but he looked at her with an expression as if his life depended on her understanding what those letters meant.

She glanced seriously at him and then, leaning her puckered forehead on her hand, began reading. Occasionally she looked up at him, her look asking him: “Is it what I think?”

“I have understood,” she said with a blush. (362)

The sentences composed of first letters become longer and more complex, but each time, they are understood completely, interrupted only by exchanged looks and brief verbal assurances of “I understand.” The two young people reconcile and express their mutual love, the man proposes, and the woman accepts; this all happens through the abbreviated language of the acronym. While the words are abbreviated to their first letters, this has the effect of making the process of understanding the totality of what they represent—the series of words that compose a sentence—a laborious and nearly impossible task. The acronym in Anna Karenina is thus a notative system that works by the logic of the metonym, where the part, in this case the first letter, represents the whole. The fact that meaning depends on the deep understanding of the recipient in order to ensure that the intended message is received thus suggests metonyms of all kinds, where the intended meaning lies in an arrangement of understanding between two people.

This moment between Kitty and Levin grazes aspects of reading that are at odds with the reading experience of the reader of Tolstoy’s book: readers who hold the book (p. 49) Anna Karenina in their hands and read that scene alone and in silence do not have Leo Tolstoy sitting across from them, eagerly waiting to acknowledge their understanding. Kitty and Levin are reading these first letters of each word together, so that the scene can be read as somehow testifying “to a fantasy of literature in which a text might somehow overcome the distances between individuals. By presenting reading as a means of fostering intimacy while maintaining the privacy of personal response, scenes of people reading together offer insights into the nature of collective experience and the way that we might turn to literature to help us negotiate the precariousness of human relations” (McDowell 351).

How similar, then, are these two experiences that we call reading: the solitary reader alone with the complete text of Anna Karenina in his or her hands and Kitty sitting directly across the table from someone composing the text in real time directly on a table before, and for, her eyes alone? And where does this air of mutual understanding actually reside? It is possible, for example, that the writer and the reader are simply experiencing a coincidence of meaning where attributed meaning and the received meaning are mutually satisfying. These questions of reading, in real time, and alone or accompanied, underscore the transactional nature of the processes that adhere to reading. How is it that Kitty can read “When you answered” for “W y a”? How much of her reading ability is dependent on the readability of Levin’s text, and how much is dependent on her own skills of interpretation? Vladimir Nabokov, in his lectures on Russian literature, dismisses the young lovers’ meeting of the minds: “All this is a little far fetched. Although, no doubt, love may work wonders and bridge the abyss between minds and present cases of tender telepathy—still such detailed thought-reading, even in Russian, is not quite convincing” (163). And yet the fact that we want to be convinced, and that we readily accept that the read words were the intended words based simply on a nod of affirmation, tells us something about what we fervently want when we look at something. Reading is treated as a transparent process, such that two people looking at the same words would understand and thus experience them in the same way. The scene between Kitty and Levin has its obverse in a belief in “being there” created by shared reading. John Keats contrived to lessen the distance between himself and his brother in America by suggesting that they read a passage from Shakespeare at the same time on the same day so that they might “be as near each other as blind bodies can be in the same room” (Keats 176; also in Paterson 126; and in McDowell 351). The act of reading, even between two who are divided by the Atlantic Ocean, can make two separated bodies feel as if they are in the same room. So from Kitty and Levin, we see the shared understanding acquired in the same room; from Keats and his brother, we imagine a sense of a shared room through a belief in a shared understanding.

“Speech Bubble” asks us a different question: what do we do when the two interlocutors are neither there in the same space nor, apparently, capable of fully understanding each other? At the top of page 2, Trissa gets a new text response: “hsyiaw j syk” (Figure 3.2). The clustering of consonants and the number of letters seem daunting, but Trissa’s response broadcasts a willingness to read the text as Kitty might have, with each (p. 50) letter signifying a word. Just as “idk” signifies “I don’t know” and “ttyl” signifies “talk to you later,” “hsyiaw” must mean something, too. Trissa interprets it as “haven’t seen you in a while?!” and the reader tries to fill in the rest: “just so you know.” Similarly, Trissa’s response of “harsh bae!” to the next message “idgaf” helps us read Melz’s text. None of Melz’s responses presents any kind of visible sentence structure, and yet the responses seem plausible. Can we really blame her for not having very much to say in response to Trissa’s solipsisms anyway? Again, we are returned to Searle’s “Chinese Room” thought problem. While Searle focuses almost exclusively on the computing brain inside the “Chinese Room,” little is said about the (Chinese-reading) person outside receiving these missives and declaring them to be correct Chinese. What Trissa’s hermeneutical readings of Melz’s texts show is the extent to which a reader who plans and expects to be reading something will work to find these texts understandable. And so it is that Trissa, completing an act of closure in more ways than one, reads meaning into the empty space that is Melz’s place in their chat exchange: she reads the lack of communication as an act that deserves a “blocking.” Again, Holmewood shows how layers of surface are rendered for the eye to process. In the final panel of the third page (Figure 3.3), we see Trissa’s thumb pressing “block” on a window that obscures the text conversation beneath it, some of which is also blocked by the (unseen by Trissa and anyone within the comic) borders of the panel frame. Between the layer of the comics frames and that of the depicted phone screen is the untethered onomatopoetic “hmmf,” also surrounded by emanata the way “POP” had been in the earlier panel, also occupying an aural space diegetically and a physical space extradiegetically.

It is only on the final page (Figure 3.4) that the reader sees things from Melz’s point of view, if only she were still alive to have one. Instead, the first panel shows what would have been Melz’s view of that text conversation we have been reading along with Trissa, as it appears behind the cracked screen of Melz’s cell phone. The screen is blue because its glass reflects the same blue sky that we have seen in the windows of previous panels and the blues that we see now from behind the bodies of chickens calmly pecking away at the ground, and the phone screen, that lie in front of them. And of course, there is the paler blue of the outstretched arm, which we reluctantly identify as Melz’s; quite blue now, actually, the hand is curled stiffly so that it happens to point upward and to the left at the panel above. Occluded slightly by the margin of the panel, the sign is still legible: “Danger! Do not feed the chickens!” We can read it and understand its significance in the one-sided drama that has transpired. We can also interpret this: it turns out that the drama between the girls, and the drama of the comic “Speech Bubble,” is that it follows from the mistake of not reading signs.

In BoxRethinking Text in the Digital Age

Figure 3.4 BloodBros, “Speech Bubble,” page 4. Originally published in Kus! (Latvia: Kuš Komiksi, 2017), page 94. Image courtesy of Emile Holmewood.

© Emile Holmewood.

The comic begins with a Web address, a link to the song that Trissa listens to. But before that panel, there was the title panel, which playfully gives the details such as the title and the author on the screen of a smartphone, complete with autocorrecting suggestions. The system where letters are now only as likely to be words as they are to be other kinds of codes such as Web addresses and acronymic sentences is what Lydia Liu describes as a state of having become a “shared code of inscription” (31) of a postphonetic world. In “Speech Bubble,” we get a glimpse of how much the conversations that we (p. 51) (p. 52) may believe are mutually sustained and constructed may be just symptoms of our own, to be generous, naivety or, to be slightly less generous, narcissism. The point Holmewood might be making is less about Trissa’s consistent errors in reading; she is, after all, fully committed to drawing meaning from the messages she receives. Things took their downturn before “Speech Bubble” even began. If we want to point blame anywhere, it should be at the one who failed to read the signs entirely, and quite literally. We stumble through signs real and imagined all the time, and we treat them as if they contain meaning for us. We ignore them at our peril, because the rest, as they say, is silence.

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