4. Iconography, Symbols & Colour

Comics are a medium with a largely semiotic design. David Crow, building from the theories of Saussure and Pierce, describes semiotics as the relationship between components of a ‘sign’ that enable us to turn ‘signals’, in whatever form they appear, into a message we can understand (1). As a means of communication; comics, in its simplest form are a series of signs, the meanings of which are loaded heavily with narrative, thematic and emotive elements. Crow establishes that semiotics have three distinct categories of signs; icon, index and symbol, all of which are used within comic production (2).

  • An icon is a physical representation of what is being described; a picture of someone
    is an iconic sign as it physically resembles that person, while onomatopoeic words are
    icons as they visualise the sounds that they make.
  • An index is a direct link between a sign and an object through practical association,
    such as smoke to a fire.
  • A symbol is a sign that lacks a visual representation of its meanings, such as letters of
    the alphabet or numbers; of which our understandings are through a learnt
    connection (3).

McCloud describes the term ‘icon’ to mean any image used to represent a person, place, thing or idea (4). He discusses the scale of abstraction in comic iconography, with photo realism at one end of the scale and cartoons at the other. By abstracting an image through cartooning, McCloud says, rather than eliminating details, we are instead focusing on specific ones (5). The simplified iconography of cartooning acts as a vacuum in which our identity and awareness are pulled in, to identify with, and project onto characters in order to give life to what is before us, focusing on the message rather than the messenger (6). Mario Saraceni suggests that the stylised nature of cartoons categorise them further towards a symbol than an icon. Our understanding of their representational meaning has to be learnt, relating directly to their linguistic elements which require us to read the images (7). The more simplified the image, the more symbolic it becomes. Crow establishes that ‘all that is necessary for any language to exist is an agreement amongst a group of people that one thing will stand for another’ (8). As such, in order to formulate a symbolic understanding of images, we must have an established understanding of what the artist has intended for us to see. Once this is clear however, the abstract nature of these images allows us to project and imagine our own ideas of identity onto them.

Chris Ware notably utilises simplified representations throughout Jimmy Corrigan. The iconic design of his characters and settings follow almost mathematical accuracy and repetition. The loneliness and ennui of Corrigan throughout the comic is, much like Ware’s use of panel layouts, further structured in the visual language that Ware has utilised. The facial expressions and body language of Corrigan depicts the inner turmoil and anxiety that he is experiencing at any given moment. The simplistic structure of Corrigan’s appearance allows us to project our own anxiety onto the character through the vacuum that McCloud describes. Seth has utilised cartooning as an externalisation of his nostalgia for the medium. By creating an interpretation of the world around him through iconography he is able to draw attention to the aesthetic of the medium. Seth’s contemplation and point of view guide our attention to the depth of descriptive detail that is possible, encouraging us to appreciate the medium as he sees it, while expressing to the viewer an environment in which he is most comfortable.

In both of these cases, the consistency of iconography throughout the comics formulates a world in which we can project our own emotive experience in order to experience to the full extent the emotion that is evoked throughout the narratives that these worlds contain. Isaac Cates expresses that such character and environmental details ‘help to build a world in which the reader will mentally animate, to suggest a space outside of the panels’ (9). The construction of these worlds can be further expanded though the use of colour. Jan Baetens describes that technological advances in printing have reduced the difference
between artist intent in colour and final product, providing an emergence in artists utilising colour in their works (10); both in monochromatic colour such as Ghost World, and those based in full colour such as Jimmy Corrigan.

Colour in Ghost World is largely representative of lighting. Clowes has utilised a particular shade of green as a ‘special blend’ that is representative of the time of day in which people return home and turn on their televisions (11). This aesthetic that Clowes has tried to recreate in the work adds a layer of depth to the comic that would otherwise not exist. The colour provides the viewer with an unnatural hue by which we position the entire narrative, highlighting this notion that a day is ending, visualising the transitional themes of the work – associating colour with a fleeting moment before darkness.

It’s A Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken utilises a similar monochromatic scheme to that of Ghost World. Seth uses a pale blue colour which reflects the Canadian winter in which his narrative is set. Like Clowes, Seth’s use of colour expresses the emotive tone of the comic, providing a solitary environment for Seth to explore in his search for Kalo. The colour use provides a naturalistic and attractive environment, in which Seth encourages the viewer to find comfort in and see the beauty of the comic world as he sees it. This is strengthened through the cream coloured paper on which the work is printed, providing the appeal of the publications which the protagonist collects, while enriching the narrative, providing a warm canvas to oppose his use of cold blue detailing.

In comparison, Ware uses colour in Jimmy Corrigan more complexly, using a number of flat colours. Utilising colour constancy, these flat colours render subtleties of shading unimportant (12). Colour changes occur unlike they would in a natural environment, keeping a consistent use from frame to frame, changing less in ambient lighting than they would in reality (13) Ware has utilised this constancy to assist the iconography in his work, adding an extra layer of depth to provide a more realistic portrayal of environments. Ware utilises lighting and time to assist in the pacing, portraying colour to express what time of day a scene is set.

McCloud states that colours have the ability to express a dominant mood (14), and this is clear through Clowes and Seth’s monochromatic choices. In reviewing the use of colour in these comics, we have two separate approaches; a single colour can represent the overall tone of the narrative, or provide the viewer with a specific idea, while use of full colours through colour constancy provides a representation of real life, establishing a diegetic environment to which the viewer can relate (15). The inclusion of colour is notable in comparing Clowes’ original artwork to the finished product in Ghost World; complete with coloured overlay. The use of colour adds substantial emotional depth, mimicking a combination of lighting and representational colouring to bring the diegetic world to life.

The visual construction of the world in Autumn, Grey is largely formulated through iconography in order to express out rightly the emotional complexity of Drew. By keeping the design based in cartooning, the surface of the character remains accessible, not over identifying with him as a specific person, allowing the work to evoke emotive responses in the viewer more directly. The use of colour in the work has largely been influenced by that of Seth – the purple hue in my work is representative of the withdrawn nature by which Drew lives, presenting a cold environment in which to place him.


  1. D Crow, Visible Signs: An Introduction to Semiotics in the Visual Arts, 2nd edn, AVA Publishing, London, 2010, p. 14
  2. Crow, p. 31
  3. Crow, p. 31
  4. McCloud, S, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, HarperPerennial, New York, 1994, p. 27
  5. McCloud, Understanding Comics, p. 30
  6. McCloud, Understanding Comics, pp.33-37
  7. Saraceni , M, The Language of Comics, Routledge, London, 2003, pp. 24-25
  8. Crow, p. 18
  9. I Cates, “David Boring: Loose Threads and Five Card Nancy”, ImageTeXT: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies, vol 1, no.1, University of Florida, 2004, p. 7
  10. J Baetens, ‘From Black & White to Colour and Back: What Does it Mean (not) to Use Colour’, College Literature, Vol. 38, No. 3, 2011, p. 114
  11. Baetens, p. 114
  12. S Medley, ‘Discerning pictures: How we Look at and Understand images in Comics’, Studies in Comics, vol.1, no. 1, 2010, p. 60
  13. Medley, p. 61
  14. McCloud, Understanding Comics, p. 190
  15. Medley, p. 61

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