Comics,semiotics & Adv


In my master’s thesis I talked about the semiotics of comics and the differences in the various countries. But what is this discipline about?

Semiotics of comics

The development of this discipline has a European imprint and, in Italy, it is Linus magazine, founded in 1965 by Elio Vittorini, Oreste del Buono and Umberto Eco, to start the semiotic studies of comics. Eco, who is one of the first scholars to talk about comics, defined it as “a literary product and I talk about good comics like the one with which repetition has a meaning, increasing the richness of history“. 

In Apocalittici e integrati, based on the study of mass culture , Eco considers the comics as an autonomous form of communication and for the first time applies semiotic tools to the comic strip, highlighting codes and communication strategies, analysing the languages ​​and the relationships between the cartoons and putting comics on the same level of other languages forms of narrative communication. Comics are seen as a medium or genre capable of generating autonomous and original meanings through their own linguistic and syntactic structures. This narratological peculiarity can be traced back from Eco to fairy tales, presenting repetitive patterns capable of immediately satisfying a playful necessity, and to the detective novel where a character performs the same actions in an invariable pattern.

Eco also talks about cartoon semantics where the terms acquire a new meaning only within its code: comics develops a metalanguage: an example is given by the balloon that names its code and does not represent a conventional sign: the variable contours, i.e. the line, tell us how to interpret the linguistic terms it contains. The signifiers of the comic are the linguistic component and the iconographic elements.

The fields of semiotics examined are different: it starts from the structural semiotics of Greimas based on the structural method that considers the text as a system of relationships where the textual element makes sense only if inserted in a network of relationships (in the case of comics the word-image relationship). The interpretative semiotics with Eco that investigates the operation of the interpreting process and then takes into the analysis of figurative semiotics aimed at the recognition of images as a representation and the plastic semiotic based on the effects of sense produced by the visual elements.

The history of comics

The hypothetical beginning is traced back to ancient Egypt with the coloured vignettes drawn on the papyrus to get to the first century BC, in ancient Rome, with the tabulae satirical and the Trajan column. In the Middle Ages it continues with the Pauperum Bible that collected the main episodes of Jesus’ life. In the Renaissance develops the caricature, always of satirical kind and with William Hogarth (1697-1764) who has narrated stories through images creating the custom satire.

In France, the comic strip began to develop on the feuilleton and the main genre is the satiric one with Asterix by Goscinny and Udenzo who, through the characters of the comics, made fun of some political and social figures.

In Italy the spread of the comic was quite troubled because it began to emerge in the Thirties and then was eliminated almost entirely during the Fascist regime. The first comics were published in the children’s magazine Corriere dei Piccoli (1908) and the first character to be introduced to the Italian public was Mr. Bonaventura by Sergio Tofano while in 1932, on the pages of Jumbo, Mickey Mouse debuted. On the Corriere, american products, often aimed to an adult audience, were readapted to the Italian context and to a child audience. Since 1940, because of the fascistisation, the American comics are eliminated to give more space to regime’s propaganda (adventure’s genre with the aim of celebrating Italian values ​​and fighting foreigners, considered as enemies, in distant lands). After the war, despite growing interest, comics are considered poor products aimed to children or people of low culture. Only since 1960 there is a reintroduction of comics, this time destinated exclusively to teenagers and considered an object of study, especially in the semiotic field with Linus acquiring cultural legitimacy.

In the United States among the main works there were Flash Gordon (1934) by Alex Raymond and Superman (1933) by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. In 1947, Colton Waugh published The Comics, the first story of American comics and the first sociological study on comics. In this case, the comics follow the historical-political evolution of society embodying the models of society and the nationalist hero during the conflicts. Mickey Mouse (1932), in the Thirties and Forties, embodied the roosveltian ideal of the middle-man: honest, laborious, optimistic, nationalist but after the end of the Second World War and the New Deal took over Donald Duck, a middle man protesting against injustice, lazy but determined in fighting obstacles. Another example is Peanuts (1950) by Charles M. Schultz. The main characters are Charlie Brown; insecure, victim of the system and unable to oppose to Lucy, symbol of the matriarchy of the American society of the time and Snoopy symbol of evasion from problems that, when not possible, flows into a latent melancholy.

The comic was used as a real weapon to ensure the highest possible consensus from the public on nuclear energy. Nuclear power’s momentum was broken in the late 1970s by several factors like antinuclear movement. Both nuclear industry and participants in the antinuclear movement published entire comics books to explain their views of nuclear power. In 1948, when comic books were a popular mass medium and frequently used for promotional purposes, General Electric sponsored Adventures inside the atom. These pronuclear comics projects hired cartoonist who used a realistic art style that conveyed conventional respectability. Children learned about nuclear energy as a source of strength and power, not just from industry-sponsored comic books but also from nuclear-themed entertainment comic books like Atomic Mouse (1953-63). In 1976 a new generation of small-circulation comic books directly challenged the pronuclear movement. From 1976-1980 the movement questioning nuclear power rose and independently-produced comics presenting arguments against uranium mining and nuclear energy were published everywhere. At the time American media went from celebrating the wonders of nuclear power to publicizing its dangers. 

Language of comics

The uniqueness of comics is therefore based on complex reworking mechanisms such as the integration of linguistic data with the iconics ones and the organization of information signals in a sequential-narrative line. The directions of research on the language of comics vary: in the United States the sequential hypothesis prevails while in Europe is maintained a semiotic approach to this language. Comics in America are considered as sequential art. Will Eisner, one of the greatest contemporary cartoonists, defined it as an artistic-literary form based on uniting drawings, images and words to narrate a story. Scott McCloud, also a cartoonist with a more communicative approach, defines it as a set of images and other figures juxtaposed in a sequence with the purpose of communicating information and cause a reaction to the reader.

Through the comic, time is represented in the space where we can have a represented time that is what we see in the image and the time told that represents the time of the story that the image tells. When these two types of time coincide in the scene they create a sequence in which there are no jumps. Since the verbal text in the balloons is a part of the image, there is a reading time which emphasizes the importance of the story and reproduces the subjective time of the character. 

But how can we slow down the reading time?

The main tool is the caption that, highlighting the action that is represented in the illustration, reiterates what the image shows, slowing down the reading. The duration of time and the spatial dimensions are defined by the panel content. But time can be of two types: the one described by the comic and the one perceived by the reader. Time never has the same duration, but when it coincides with space it can create a sense of timelessness. Interaction of time and comics is favoured by sound (world balloons, sound effects) and motion (panel-to-panel closure, within panel).


The comic is still considered an entertainment for young people but, as mentioned earlier, it is also a language that adapts to changes and especially now that communication has moved above all online, it needs a new form. Several scholars argues that comics as narration is used only in the television commercial through the use of animation while in the direct promotion they are mainly used gadgets. These gadgets are distributed mainly through giveaway which consists in adding an extra product to increase the effectiveness of the promotional product and the mascot, advertising testimonial and protagonist of the technical communication  of the product they produce.

On the web, on the other hand, they can be created in the form of web comics and distributed periodically in blogs obtaining the loyalty of the public who visits them and discover promotions which they share on social networks. Readers become an element of message diffusion, making viral communication  through word of mouth and social sharing.

The Advercomics transmits promotional communications using the language of comics that has the main advantage of synthesizing complex and serious messages making them accessible through the use of comics characters. A company using the comics combines words and images and involves the recipients of the message by transmitting the company values, brand philosophy, product advantages etc. It binds to the message an emotion that remains in mind and associating positive values ​​to the brand.