The Comics Journal: Review

Reading Iconotexts
Peter Wagner

Reviewed by Leonard Rifas, “Comics Library,” TCJ #188 (July 1996)

Peter Wagner’s Reading Iconotexts uses the theories of intertextuality, discourse analysis, semiotics and deconstruction to make sense of cultural objects which mingle pictures and words (“iconotexts”). Wagner’s examples are all from 18th Century Europe, but they provide models of how these tools might also be used to analyze comic books and pornography and to improve comics historiography. Wagner’s prime examples of iconotexts are the celebrated engravings of proto-cartoonists William Hogarth (1697-1764). Wagner is an expert on 18th century erotica, and includes obscene prints from the period of the French Revolution as another type of iconotext which he examines.

Most of the standard histories of the comic book medium praise William Hogarth, but in ways which makes Hogarth’s work seem dull. Usually they describe his prints as a step toward the invention of the comic strip, asking that we notice that his pictures were richly detailed, didactic, and set in a narrative sequence. Wagner approaches Hogarth’s engraving as supreme examples of “intertextuality.” The theory of intertextuality “insists that a text cannot exist as a hermetic or self-sufficient entity, and hence cannot function as a closed system.” In Hogarth’s drawings, every small detail can be decoded as referring to other texts or images or specific individuals or events, and “many of his prints cannot be understood without a thorough knowledge of the personal and political feuds fought in the contemporary press.” Wagner provides enough examples of such meaningful detail in the visual and verbal elements of Hogarth’s work to fire the imagination.

Several things deflate the excitement of this project. One objection that Wagner anticipates is that his reading of Hogarth’s prints “yield results that are not strikingly different in kind from those in more traditional kinds of studies (e.g., Paulson’s books on Hogarth).” Another is that although the though of Hogarth’s prints as a “semiotician’s paradise” in which every tiny element works as a footnote is delicious, a careful reader must resist making indiscriminate speculations, forced analogies, loose associations, and the tendency to see contrasts, reminders, evocations and references everywhere. (I adapted this latter objection from something comics historian David Kunzle said about a different scholar’s study of Hogarth.)

In his defense against the first objection, Wagner emphasizes the theoretical differences which mark his study. The first of these is that Wagner rejects interpreting works, such as Hogarth’s prints, on the shaky foundation of what the artists supposedly intended when creating the piece, in favor of a “discourse analysis.” In Wagner’s book, studying Hogarth’s intertextual references as part of a “discourse analysis” seems to mean discounting most of the evidence that is available and pertinent to interpreting Hogarth’s intentions. One appeal of discourse analysis as a tool for studying comic books and pornography is that the creators of these texts have frequently been anonymous or have left little record of their intentions or have been driven by such intentions as “getting their pages in on time” which do not yield much analytical insight into their work. These texts do make intertextual references which are clear to most readers, yet can become mysterious within a few years as contemporary personalities and events are forgotten. On the other hand, comic books and pornography present a much sparser array of intertextual references than Hogarth did.

Regarding the second objection, since Wagner does not claim to be cataloging the references and allusions that Hogarth consciously inserted into his work, that frees him to see any references in as many places as he cares to look, with the usual proviso that readers will find some of his interpretations more convincing or interesting than others.

After chapters on the front matter of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, picture framing, and Hogarth’s prints, Wagner addresses “Obscenity and Body Language in the French Revolution.” The dustjacket for this book shows a teasingly-cropped engraving of the princesse de Lamballe fingering Marie-Antoinette (the uncropped engraving is reproduced as figure 88). Wagner rejects interpretations of this smut as primarily political or liberating, partly because of his consistent distaste for “hierarchies of meaning” which reduce muddle by assigning central importance to some elements and reducing others to marginality. Wagner’s interest is in approaching works unconstrained by modern classificatory schemes in order to reconstruct some of the mentalités expressed in them: “Rather than being mono-dimensional and genre-specific (political or pornographic, fictional or factual), these works are “impure” (in a literary and moral sense) and semantically ambiguous, and they cannot fully be comprehended in terms of binary concepts.” This is a helpful point of departure for speculating about the meaning of contemporary sex comics and magazines (although perhaps not directly useful for those trying to convince courts that particular titles are not classifiable as pornography).

A mean-spirited temptation when reading works driven primarily by theoretical concerns is to boil them down until they disappear as pure gas. When faced with this temptation, one does well to remember the idea of “différance” which refers to “the subtle ways in which meaning is never [emphasis added] really clarified but constantly postponed and deferred from one signifier to another…” Wagner’s study is a generously footnoted scrap of a larger fabric. He took the word “iconotext” from Michael Nerlich, “intertextuality” from Julia Kristeva, “discourse analysis” from Michael Foucault, “différance” from Jacques Derrida, and so forth.

© 1996