Textual Synaesthetics

Now we tend to say "writing" for all that and more: to designate not only the physical gestures of literal pictographic or ideographic inscription, but also the totality of what makes it possible…and thus we say "writing" for all that gives rise to an inscription in general, whether it is literal or not and even if what it distributes in space is alien to the order of the voice: cinematography, choreography, of course, but also pictorial, musical, sculptural "writing."
- Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology


Although "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" was reprinted multiple times with a few editorial revisions by Ellison, it did not significantly change until it was adapted into a graphic novel format by the artist John Byrne. The genre of the graphic novel became formally defined in the 1980s as the content of some comic books became geared for more mature readers, typically eighteen and older as opposed to the teenagers buying the comic books, and as the length of the storyline increased. Noted speculative fiction writer and theorist Samuel R. Delany prefers to think about the genre distinction in this fashion:

I like 'comics,' myself. In this kind of situation, it's best to hold on to the classical, conservative, demotic term and reinform it with meaning by the way you talk about it...You have to attack the problem of changing meanings by exerting effort at the places where meanings can be changed: at the critical level and at the creative level. (124)

Visually, both comics and graphic novels are done in similar ways, incorporating written text with pictures in a printed and bound format - "juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer" (McCloud, 9). Byrne had established a strong reputation in the comic book field, and when Dark Horse decided to make Harlan Ellison’s Dream Corridor into an ongoing series, the inclusion of "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" seemed like an obvious choice. Byrne’s textual style predominantly comes out of the super-hero tradition; this has shaped his narrative, causing him to concentrate more on depicting the action elements of the story in addition to influencing his kinetic style and color palette. As an example of visual art, a comic book incorporates the same style of perception required when reading a newspaper or a watercolor:

The intense and committed silence with which one looks at a comic - or even the cursory silence with which one looks through a comic...that range of silences is terribly important. That silence is what allies comics with the novel, with painting, with sculpture, with philosophy, with pornography, and with historiography. (Delany, 92)

This duality of perception cues the reader to the multiplicity of readings which may be enacted with the text. Both actions involve looking, a type of textual voyeurism which leads to participation, although the target of this gaze alters the perception of the text.

Since Ellison’s stories are often a quest of exploration between "moral and mythical levels of existence" (Slusser, 5), attempting to convey the psychological states of AM, Ted, and the other characters becomes a question of transforming the mental pictures evoked by Ellison’s text, which are unique to each reader, into a more universally recognizable form. Issues of thematic interpretation remain present, however, due to the intersecting perspectives of Ellison’s companion text, Byrne’s own artistic vision, and the reader’s various levels of visual recognition; "comics readers are also conditioned by other media and the ‘real time’ of everyday life" (McCloud, 106).

Byrne’s style is somewhat stark, using a limited color palette and including a minimal amount of background information; this is particularly illustrated when compared with the graphic portions of the CD-ROM adaptation. Within the graphic art field, "the modern comic has grappled with the problem of showing motion in a static medium" (McCloud, 110). In allowing this convention of the art form to come into play, Byrne manipulates the narrative and privileges certain aspects of the story over others, performing in this operation just the sort of work that Eco suggests is part of all textuality: "[t]exts are the human way to reduce the world to a manageable format, open to an intersubjective interpretive discourse" (Eco, 21). The visual adaptation adds another interpretative field to the story’s constitutive makeup:

In movies, television, and comics, the operative factor is what some film theoreticians have taken to calling "the gaze." The gaze is a combination of the gaze of the viewer at the comic book page...modulated and directed by the looks the characters give to each other or to various objects. (Delany, 92)

Alteration of the narrative also transpires within the textual perception of the graphic novel as a manuscript artifact. Just as Ted experiences some sort of temporal distortion, so too can the readers of the graphic novel:

But unlike other media, in comics, the past is more than just memories for the audience and the future is more than just possibilities! Both past and future are real and visible all around us! Wherever your eyes are focused, that’s now. But at the same time your eyes take in the surrounding landscape of past and future! (McCloud, 104)

The simultaneity of focusing on a specific panel to gain information as well as looking at the tableau which the collected panels create induces a multi-layered overlay of textual information; "the text becomes a present tense palimpsest where what shines through are not past versions but potential, alternate views" (Joyce, 3). As the story unfolds (or perhaps refolds) within the graphic format, both the text of the words and the text of the images cohabitate in the reader’s inductive mind. Hypertext theoritician Richard A. Lanham views this textual movement as a duality which permits two initial readings of the text: "The textual surface has become permanently bi-stable. We are always looking AT it and then THROUGH it, and this oscillation creates a different implied ideal of decorum" (5). In remodeling the ways that information is associated, the change in textual surfaces allows for additional forms of relation, such as electronic texts and hyperlinks. The thoughts to be shared between the writer(s) and the reader(s) can retain a familiarity while engaging in additional modes of discourse:

What makes the comics gaze the privileged one in my estimation is that the gazer has the greatest control over the comic book gaze...In comics, the gazer can control the speed his or her gaze travels through the medium. The gazer can control how far away or close up to hold the page. The gazer can control whether to go back and regaze - and going back to a panel or a page in a comic book is very different from going back in a novel to reread a previous paragraph.…(Delany, 93)

This empowerment of the writer, the reader, and the text within a re-visioning of the data allows for new associations to arise. By skipping around between the various visual nodes, the reader can combine elements in different sequences, permitting many new texts. Changing the implications of ideas permits the reader to access the text with alternate informational strategies.