The juxtaposition of images and words is a hallmark of comics. After all, the comic medium generally uses both words and images to produce meaning. Typically, readers can distinguish between what is a word and what is an image with ease. However, when we scrutinize the way the two symbolic systems create meaning, it is less clear where one begins and the other ends.

In Scott McCloud’s iconic book UNDERSTANDING COMICS: THE INVISIBLE ARTMcCloud blurs the line between image, word, and even sound. McCloud first defines comics as “juxtaposed static images in deliberate sequence.” And he adds that the proposed definition could easily describe words as well as comics. 

While playing around with Magritte’s classic surrealist painting The Treachery of Images in sequential form, McCloud cheekily asks if the reader “hears” what he’s saying.

Image courtesy of Harper Perennial.

Of course, the comics reader does not hear anything. In comics, language appears in the form of written text that compliments the images to make meaning. McCloud highlights an interesting aspect of comics studies with his musings: where does the word begin and the image end? How does the hybridity of comics work to convey meaning?

Some comics don’t use written words at all (for instance, THE ARRIVAL by Shaun Tan). In other cases, such as zines, there might only be a few images. Nevertheless, the term “comics” is applied loosely to many works. Additionally, the nature of language within comics is slippery, resulting in a variety of ways to communicate.

BODY IMAGE by Julie Maroh (published by Arsenal Pulp Press, 2017). Published with permission from the publisher.

A recent comic that plays with the fluidity of language and communication is Julie Maroh’s BODY MUSIC, published by Arsenal Pulp Press. The French author, best known for her acclaimed graphic novel BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR, brings a series of vignettes depicting life in Montreal, Canada.

BODY MUSIC offers a sometimes realistic and sometimes surrealistic look at life for young people in urban Montreal. This city is an ideal setting for a comic that explores language. Located in French-speaking Québec, Montreal is largely known for its bilingual citizens. Many of the vignettes include French, English, Sign, and other languages. Additionally, the graphic novel’s title in French is CORPS SONORES, which roughly translates to”resonant bodies.” The more lyrical English title uses “music” in place of “sonores” –“sound” — but still denotes the focus of an embodied communication.

BODY MUSIC focuses on interpersonal communication in a variety of different relationships, including queer, heterosexual, filial, and platonic. Significantly, the comic does not shy away from showing both the successes and failures of communication.

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BODY MUSIC: Embodied Language

In the vignette “Back At Dawn,” Maroh depicts a young man waiting angrily for the return of his lover who was at dinner with an ex. As the man gets increasingly irate at his boyfriend’s lack of communication, the tension builds. When the young man’s partner gets home, the anger is voiced not in speech bubbles (the tool used by most comics), but through subtitles. The two men are deaf and use sign language for communication throughout the vignette. Likely, they sign in either American Sign Language (ASL), which has its origins in French Sign Language, or Langue des Signes Québécoise (LSQ), both of which are used in Québec.

BODY MUSIC is not the only comic to depict sign language. Canadian creator Diane Obomsawin illustrates French Sign Language in her graphic narrative ON LOVING WOMEN. One of Marvel’s HAWKEYE comics features American Sign Language as well. Nevertheless, Maroh’s  inclusion of a deaf couple in her text is significant in terms of representation and to her exploration of embodied language. Unlike speaking or lip reading (which are inaccessible in a comic), signs are legible on the comic page. Maroh’s choice to feature a visual language that is embodied rather than written has the potential to make comics more accessible to deaf readers. Consequently, the presence of signing disrupts the privileging of spoken language.  

In her NPR review, critic Etelka Lehoczky describes Maroh’s illustrations, saying, “The characters’ faces change so much according to their feelings, they sometimes seem like different people from one panel to the next.” This observation feels particularly accurate for “Back at Dawn,” due to the main characters’ physical use of language. Just like comics, this language comes without “sound.” However, the dynamic shifts in embodied language convey deep meaning. 

BODY IMAGE by Julie Maroh (published by Arsenal Pulp Press, 2017). Published with permission from the publisher.

How We Look: The Concept Of Closure

UNDERSTANDING COMICS describes the act of reading comics. Specifically, the language of comics relies on “closure” to make meaning. McCloud describes closure as the “phenomenon of observing the parts but perceiving the whole.” The gutter, situated in between panels, helps drive the meaning of comics. Thus, meaning is sometimes derived from what is not seen.  

Image courtesy of Harper Perennial.

It seems as though Maroh is familiar with this concept as well. Not just in comics, but in communication. The absence of language – image or word – is as meaningful as its presence.

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One titillating example appears in BODY MUSIC’s fourth vignette, “Playing With Fire.” In this story, a young British woman named Gemma approaches Hélène, a Francophone author from Martinique. In the ensuing scenes, Maroh builds the heat between the two – often illustrating imaginary flames surrounding Helene’s body as the two women flirt. Appropriately, the figure of speech “playing with fire” refers to the risk Gemma and Hélène are taking.

As a result of their bilingual interactions, the two risk miscommunication. But the communication between the margins, that which goes unsaid and unseen, proves incredibly effective. After a pause, Gemma asks, “What are you doing?” With eyes notably closed, Hélène seductively replies, “Looking at you.”

BODY IMAGE by Julie Maroh (published by Arsenal Pulp Press, 2017). Published with permission from the publisher.

Without further ado, they rush off to Gemma’s hotel room, fire licking the floor as the elevator door shuts. Not only does Maroh demonstrate a type of closure in Hélène’s behavior, she relies on it to serve as the final punctuation mark of the vignette. The reader is left to their own imagination of Gemma and Hélène’s liaison.

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Lost in Translation?

The question of language in BODY MUSIC goes deeper than just what type of sign language the men in “Back at Dawn” use, or whether or not Gemma and Hélène primarily speak in English or French. The comic itself debuted in Maroh’s native language, French. Thus, it was up to translator David Homel to appropriately translate for English-speaking audiences. In order to really understand which form of sign language the men in “Back at Dawn” use, it would be necessary to be able to distinguish between ASL, LSQ, and French Sign Language in the untranslated edition CORPS SONORES. 

Of course, it’s not as easy as just French vs. English, or ASL vs. LSQ. Maroh also includes a vignette “In the Heat of the Club. Saint Catherine Street East” in which two men recreate how they first met. They speak Japanese (with English subtitles). Although the scene takes place in what is presumably a loud nightclub, the vignette feels muted. The succinct – almost blunt – subtitles feel as though they are leaving something out. Without fluent understanding of Japanese, it is difficult to know whether or not there is something lost in translation. As the men converse, they discuss how they met and how they are not following the exact script. They decide that it doesn’t matter; they want each other just as passionately as before.

Maroh’s use of language in this vignette and others proves that language is always approximate. To put an idea into words is to accept the limitations of translation. David Homel’s translations from French appear to take some artistic liberties. As the translation of the books title suggests, Homel is not going for the most literal choice. Rather he attempts to capture the heart of Maroh’s original text.

Love and Lies: The Treachery of Images

Although it is bad practice to end with the beginning, it is appropriate to return now to Maroh’s thesis. BODY MUSIC opens with musings about love. According to Maroh, the process of love is to “love and lie about love… like every time.” Perhaps Maroh is not so much worried about the treachery of love so much as the failings of language to describe love. She depicts the beginning of a relationship like the first steps on a trip that could either end in “break-up” or “life together.”

BODY IMAGE by Julie Maroh (published by Arsenal Pulp Press, 2017). Published with permission from the publisher.

BODY MUSIC is nearly allegorical for the use of language and images to convey meaning and depict life. Maroh tenderly conveys the fictional accounts of fights, break-ups, sex, new love, and romance. She does so despite the potential treachery words may conceal. Ultimately, BODY MUSIC could be considered Maroh’s love letter to the language of comics. Sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes humorous, comics rely on the unspoken words (literally) and the space between bodies to make meaning. Without exception, BODY MUSIC is decidedly comfortable with all that is said and unsaid.

Want to see more of BODY MUSIC? You can find Julie Maroh’s work here.  

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