Emojis, Comics, and the Novel of the Future

By Tim PetersApril 26, 2016

Emojis, Comics, and the Novel of the Future

Book from the Ground: From Point to Point by Xu Bing

Do you know what Oxford Dictionaries decided the Word of the Year was for 2015?

It was this:



A.k.a. “Face with Tears of Joy.” No letters. No sounds. Just an ebullient smiley face. Verily, something is going on language-evolution-wise. Emojis are everywhere. They’re in prime time TV commercials. They’re in movies, both indie and not (Sony Pictures Animation won a bidding war last summer for an emojis movie). They’re even in the checkout line (you can now buy emoji Pez and emoji fleece pillows). All of which may lead one to ask just how far these histrionic pictographs will spread throughout the culture. If emojis are words, can you write fiction with them? A short story? A novel?

Sure, there was Emoji Dick, a translation into emoji of that one dude’s book about whales. (Fred Benenson, the guy who oversaw Emoji Dick, outsourced the whole thing via Amazon’s slave driver Mechanical Turk web service, paying five cents per “Human Intelligence Task” to over 800 souls.) But what about straight-up original storytelling? Is this possible with emojis? The answer to that question can be found in a work published to minimal fanfare by MIT Press in 2014, Book from the Ground: From Point to Point, by the Chinese visual artist Xu Bing. MIT marketed and described it in their jacket copy as a “graphic novel,” but when you open Book from the Ground, you don’t feel like you’re looking at a comic, at anything related to Peanuts or Astro Boy or Tintin or Maus. You feel like you’re looking at a prose novel from the year 2500 AD.


Xu Bing is vice president of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing and was awarded a MacArthur “Genius Grant” in 1999. He made a splash in the Chinese art world in the late 1980s with a project called Book from the Sky, in which he handcrafted over a thousand made-up Chinese characters and printed them onto scrolls and in books, placing them in a gallery as a kind of literary performance art. The characters looked like Chinese from a distance, but up close were incoherent and illegible. This made people very uncomfortable. These were the days of the Tiananmen Square massacre and the fall of the Soviet Union. Book from the Sky was criticized publicly as getting in the way of “socialist spiritual civilization,” and Xu Bing was branded a bourgeois liberal. In 1990, he went into exile and moved to Wisconsin.

Book from the Sky, which was shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York a couple of years ago and referred to there as “one of the most iconic works of contemporary Chinese art,” came out of Xu’s training as a printmaker and his bookish upbringing as the child of academics. His father, the head of the history department at Beijing University, drilled him in the practice of calligraphy, while his mother, office manager for the university’s library sciences department, let him play in the stacks. Xu Bing was born in 1955 and grew up during the Cultural Revolution. His dad was denounced as a reactionary and sent to prison, and his mother was forced into reeducation. Because he could read and could handle a brush, Xu worked in a propaganda office, doing penance for his “polluted” family members by cranking out posters and leaflets. In the mid-1970s, the Communist Party of China sent Xu to volunteer in the countryside for three years as part of Mao’s rustication program (like a mandatory intra–People’s Republic of China version of the Peace Corps). While there, he continued making posters and designed a quarterly magazine the villagers and the other rusticated city kids produced called Brilliant Mountain Flowers. (The title comes from a poem by Mao Zedong, “Ode to the Plum Blossom.”) When he returned to Beijing in 1977 — just as the Cultural Revolution was ending after Mao’s death in 1976 — Xu enrolled in the Central Academy of Fine Arts. Because it had been closed for a decade, there were 10 years’ worth of students trying to get in. Xu applied to study oil painting, but was accepted instead into printmaking.

When you combine this background as a graphic designer and these experiences of the Cultural Revolution and push all that in the direction of pop art and Dada (the awareness of which came into China in the mid-1980s), you get an artist like Xu who uses calligraphy and printmaking and language-in-general to toy with both his Chinese heritage and the looming hegemony of the English language and Western culture. Hence a project like “Post Testament,” wherein Xu printed and bound using lead type and leather a luxurious-looking tome, the text of which was an incoherent mash-up of the King James Bible and erotica pulp fiction. Or there was “A Case Study of Transference,” wherein Xu brought together two pigs, printed gibberish Chinese on the sow and gibberish English on the hog, put them in a pen covered with books and straw, and then let them fuck in front of an audience.

A Case Study in Transference

Lest you think this guy is a transcultural nihilist, Xu has made other projects that thrust semantically in the opposite direction. For instance, there was his “Square Word Calligraphy,” where he developed a way to write English via the brushstrokes and square-shaped geometry of Chinese calligraphy. Xu set up in a museum a traditional-looking classroom, in which all the words on the chalkboards and in the instructional primers were Chinese-looking English. And in 2003, he started a project called Book from the Ground. Having been elevated professionally to the realm of the jet-set art star, Xu got into the habit of collecting the pictographic safety cards in the seatbacks of airplanes. He had an epiphany in 2003 while looking at a gum wrapper. There was a message in pictographs telling the chewer to dispose of the wrapper appropriately. Seeing this, Xu said,

I came to realize that in addition to single icons being used to explain something simple, several together can be used to narrate a longer story. From then on, I began to collect and organize logos, icons, and signs from all over the world … the rapid development of internet and digital technology has greatly expanded the field of icons. Thus, my project of collecting signs and icons has become an endless one.

First, Xu had the idea to create chat software that would translate English or Chinese into translinguistic pictographs. A setup like this — involving two facing computers with a curtain in between them separating the users — was displayed in a 2007 show called “Automatic Update” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He took the idea further and wrote a book with these icons (including, of course, emojis) and called it Book from the Ground: From Point to Point. It was published in Taiwan in 2011 and mainland China in 2012. A scene from chapter one, in which its protagonist wakes up and heads to the bathroom, reads as follows:


A translation of the above section goes (according to Book from the Ground: From Point to Point’s making-of metabook, The Book About Xu Bing’s Book from the Ground, also published by MIT):

Mr. Black gets up, shuffles over to the bathroom and sits on the toilet. He sits on the toilet for a long time. “En … er … ugh … en …” as much as he tries nothing comes out. “What’s wrong down there?” He ponders. Still waiting on the toilet, he takes out his smartphone and proceeds to go online. He checks his Twitter, Google, rss, and Facebook and suddenly, “Ah!” He feels something, he pushes hard and finally, a poop is released. He lets out a long breath of satisfaction! Finishing up with the toilet paper, he has a look at his creation and then flushes.

“Mr. Black” is how Xu Bing refers in interviews to the hero of this novel. Visually, he’s a twin of the guy on a men’s room door — dot for a head, shoulders square, circular nubs for hands and feet. Book from the Ground is 112 pages long and has 24 chapters, each for an hour in Mr. Black’s day. And this day consists alternately of banalities and slapstick. Mr. Black (who is a 28-year-old bachelor and white collar office drone) cooks breakfast, but burns his bacon and eggs and pours coffee on them to put the fire out. Mr. Black rides the subway to work, and his foot gets stepped on. Mr. Black, who works on the 89th floor of a skyscraper, gives a presentation at a meeting while his bladder’s full and as he runs to the bathroom afterward slips and falls on his ass.

When he gets to the bathroom, the scene looks like this:


Notice what image Xu uses to represent “urinal.” That’s Fountain by Duchamp. And as for why Xu switches mid-book from using yellow-faced emojis to streamlined black-and-white ones … that’s anybody’s guess.

Mr. Black’s personality is part Dilbert, part Little Tramp, part “Buddy Boy” Baxter. He’s romantic but obedient. Occasionally deceptive but generally decent. He gets excited to see he’s got email. He plays video games when he can’t fall asleep at night. He ends early a date with a girl that he met online so he can bring noodles to his friend in the hospital. He’s the 21st-century grandchild of all those brow-furrowed proletarians at the center of such wordless, woodcut, proto-graphic novels as Passionate Journey by Frans Masereel or Gods’ Man by Lynd Ward. But whereas the woodcut novel was an experiment that never caught on (it was a highbrow reaction to silent cinema, and dwindled when movies got sound), you wonder what Mr. Black’s fate will be. Is this a one-off art world gimmick? Or could there be something lasting here?


Proof that Xu Bing is not alone is a book called 102 Hours, which tells the story — albeit simplified and shortened — of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. A design firm named Tank created and self-published it as a fundraising project for a not-for-profit in Boston. It relies less on emojis and more on the men’s-room-door–type humanoid stick figure. And while it doesn’t work as a self-contained story (lacking the grammatical arrows, parentheses, and punctuation marks that make Xu’s book make sense), it’s nevertheless a second example of this new kind of storytelling, one that takes the frame structure of comics — its syntax of placing sequential images side by side — but replaces comics’ hand-drawn cartoons with stripped-down, computerized, repeatable icons that function more like words than pictures.

102 hours

In his treatise on the aesthetics of comics, Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud defined the medium as “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence.” McCloud wanted this definition to be specific enough to rule out cinema or single-panel cartoons (which don’t juxtapose images alongside each other) but broad enough to help comics evolve from their 20th-century tendencies (superheroes, funny animals, exaggerated anatomy, pen and ink drawings, newsprint, etc.). At the end of the second chapter, after he explains the psychology of the smiley face, he says:


And there’s Mr. Black! The flattened physique. The monochrome coloring. And in that brain on the left, just above the signs for the restroom, are the rings of the Olympics. It was at the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo — the first Olympics hosted by a non-Western country — that a set of pictographs was created to communicate with the athletes and the spectators regardless of their native tongues. Those pictographs looked like this:


There’s Mr. Black again. Doing the clean and jerk. Wielding a saber. Kicking a soccer ball. The universal athlete. Now, emojis come from Japan. They were invented by a guy named Shigetaka Kurita who was working for a telecom company called NTT DoCoMo that was releasing in 1999 one of the world’s first mobile internet platforms. The screens of the phones they were working with could only fit 48 letters. Kurita says that AT&T had already been offering internet services to its cell phone users, but only via words, not pictures. For example, with a weather forecast, the AT&T service would say “Fine,” for a nice day, but Kurita wanted something more direct and visual. “I’d rather see a picture of the sun, instead of a text saying ‘fine.’” He proposed the idea of emoji (“emoji” is a portmanteau of two Japanese words: “e” for “picture” and “moji” for “letter or character”), was given the go-ahead, and had one month to come up with about 180 characters. Some of the early emojis looked like this:


Kurita said, “I was working with the sense of creating a new alphabet. It was an attempt to create texts rather than a sense of making pictures.” He pulled ideas from a couple of sources. One was manga (Japanese comics) and their shorthand symbols such as a light bulb over a character’s head to represent inspiration or sweat beads on a forehead to mean stress or nerves. And the other was the pictographs of public signage, which came to prominence after the 1964 Tokyo Olympiad. The emoji system Kurita came up with became so popular that other Japanese telecom companies copied the idea. It was with the release of the iPhone in 2007 and the ensuing worldwide smartphone gold rush that emojis became The Beatles of digital messaging.


What’s radical formally about Book from the Ground: From Point to Point is how Xu Bing, despite his training in printmaking and calligraphy, didn’t draw his own symbols (unlike Book from the Sky, where he composed and carved into wood his own pseudo-Chinese). He wanted to see how thorough a story he could tell using only the icons that other people (like Shigetaka Kurita at NTT DoCoMo or the designers of the Tokyo Olympiad) had already drawn. He borrowed and reused visual symbols the way when you speak or write English or Chinese you borrow and reuse words that have already been defined and put into use by others. This is a kind of fiction writing that resembles prose and resembles comics but is neither the one nor the other. It’s a synthesis, and one which was made available at this historical moment because of the personal computer and digital graphics.

If you look at the history of comics, particularly at the turn of the 20th century, you’ll see how they became a successful mass medium through new reproductive technologies. Inexpensive color printing let newspaper tycoons use them as a marketing ploy. The phonograph and the motion picture let cartoonists see their drawings as a written version of a recorded action. Like in the 1880s and 1890s, we seem, culturally, economically, to be in yet another Gilded Age of predatory capitalism and exponential technological development. Some of this technology — especially the digital computer screen — can produce and reproduce images and language in ways that previously were impossible. One assumption about comics that’s still held today is they ought to be drawn by hand, using pencils and pens or brushes, and that every part of every scene has to be drawn anew. A consequence of this is how laborious — how slow, tedious, and repetitive — making comics can be. Hence the mythical more-or-less-a-decade necessary for the creation of so many memorable graphic novels: 13 years for Bone, 11 years for Maus, 10 years for Black Hole, 10 years for Building Stories, seven years for Fun Home. Hell, Michelangelo finished the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in four years’ time, that despite pausing in the middle for a 12-month sabbatical and stylistic retooling.

Despite MIT Press’s branding Book from the Ground: From Point to Point a graphic novel, Xu was not on a mission to revolutionize comics. In fact, the book is almost willfully uninterested in the history of the medium. References to Batman and Spider-Man and the Hulk show up but only through their incarnation in movies and video games, not in their primary form as the protagonists of comic books. Xu said of his ambitions,

I have created many works that relate to language. Twenty years ago I made Book from the Sky. It contains a text legible to no one on this earth, including myself. In contrast, today, I have used this new sign language to write a book that everyone can understand … I believe that the power of this work does not lie in its resemblance to art, but in its ability to present a new way of looking at things.

Writing with icons (such as emojis) could allow for a storytelling that mixes what’s good about prose (the efficient, denotative communication) with what’s good about comics (the array of visual data) and that regards a computer and digital culture not as a threat but as a necessary tool. It’s only by being willing to change and adapt and evolve that the novel — be it of prose or of comics — can continue to live up to the promise of its name. Xu Bing’s Book from the Ground: From Point to Point is just that. The rarest of novels. One that’s legitimately new.


Tim Peters is a writer and graphic designer based in Urbana, Illinois. His work can be seen at www.timsletters.com.

LARB Contributor

Tim Peters is a writer and graphic designer whose work has appeared in The PointThe Review of Contemporary Fiction, and The McNeese Review, and online at McSweeney’s Internet TendencyThe Rumpus, and elsewhere. He was a Fulbright fellow in 2009, in Argentina.


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