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Rhetorical Television

There’s a thing that’s sometimes called “rhetorical television”: where someone walks around on screen, basically, and tells you what they think on a given topic. Here’s how I perceive the world, they say, and here’s the history and the evidence to back it up. It’s what we in Britain call Reithian, after Lord Reith of the BBC; the idea that tv can be both compelling and educational. A good recent example is Richard Dawkins’ THE ROOT OF ALL EVIL?, presenting his view that religion is disgusting. It’s not objective television, and it’s not supposed to be. There’s no law that says he has to present the other side, or a (cough) “fair and balanced” coverage of the topic.

You don’t see much of it in comics, for obvious presentational reasons. Scott McCloud’s comics on comics are obviously rhetorical (leading to a parody single called FILIBUSTERING COMICS). There’s Alan Moore and Bill Sienkiewicz’s BROUGHT TO LIGHT, which uses a surreally-imagined CIA operative as the voice, poking through the fourth wall at us as he recounts the secret history of US intelligence according to the Christic Institute (who, people have told me, were not happy with the hypervivid treatment of their research).

I occasionally “went behind the camera” with Spider Jerusalem when he went off on a flight of anecdote and rhetoric, but they were almost all short pieces. I did an entire episode in that style, though, and I’m thinking about digging that story out and going through it again.

Because the lesson of rhetorical television is that a visual narrative does not have to be about conflict or even character, in its commonly understood frame, to be a compelling piece of art.

And I just got interrupted by a phone call and totally lost my train of thought, so…

(Originally written 9 January 2006)

Published in brainjuice comics talk


  1. Well, that Richard Dawkins documentary rocked. We never get anything like that in the US. Just about never. Just 10 Christian Republican stations. I showed a bit of it to me mother and she almost shrieked in pain. Now, that’s good television…Brought to Light rocked as well. By the way, the next time you run into Alan: please tell him that he has a responsibility to become a billionaire just like J K Rowling! We need a left wing Rupert Murdoch who can fund not only a left wing press but third party movements in both the US and Britain (apparently, from what I’ve seen.)Or you could just fully fund parties like The Greens or that new Pirate Party (copyleftists get elected)…

    Come on. Have your man in Hollywood contact those Sopranos guys and lets see Top Ten the HBO series, or Tom STrong, the HBO series, or Promethea, the HBO series or Global Frequency, the (nevermind…loved that pilot by the way…)

    And a link that you might find interesting.

    (I never thought sharing my shit might be helpful but you never know…I’m never leaving my apartment…)

  2. Alex Alex

    I’m not sure what’s meant by “obvious presentational reasons”, as comics seem to me an ideal format for that kind of brisk, entertaining non fiction rant or ramble, as I think Eddie Campbell’s work rather roundly demonstrates. Weren’t there studies (Alan Moore always talks about this) stating that comics are the medium most conductive to the retaining of information in the human brain, and they offer both the pop accesibility and energy of television while allowing for a density of information it’s hard to fit into a television program. The audience for comics does seem to have a resistance to didactic work, though, as the response to Promethea’s guide to the Sephirot indicated.

  3. Napalm Dog Napalm Dog

    I think the issues of Transmetropolitan with the rhetoricals were fantastic. It built well on the character’s feelings and how they drove him. I’m almost half-expecting to see you do this with Miranda in Global Frequency.

  4. Sounds a lot like Penn & Teller’s “Bullshit!” Which has its great moments.

    Elvis nevuh did no drugs!

  5. Dane Dane

    Penn & Teller’s Bullshit! is like this. This also reminds me of Edward R. Murrow and “Good Night, and Good Luck.”

  6. I hope no-one thinks that Professor Dawkins’ “Root of all Evil” is some kind of rhetorical standard – all Dawkins managed to do on his little jaunt was build a straw man and dry hump it across two episodes.

    I think that given the proliferation of the internet and the commoditisation of internet fora (forums?), the Reithian comparison stands: the most recent lecture, featuring conductor/composer Daniel Barenboim, a section of the broadcast was put over to direct questioning of the good conductor. With the advent of the internet and creator-owned sites, there is an opportunity to analyze the rhetoric or, as with the case of our esteemed host, discuss directly the thinking behind the speech.

    As a result, no-one has the luxury of unchallenged speech in public media.


  7. Paul Paul

    Speaking about comics being a great way to mainline information straight into the brain – I learned (and retained) more about cosmology, geology, evolution and history from Larry Gonick’s Cartoon History of the Universe than I did from any other single source with the exception of A Short History of Nearly Everything (on speaky-straight-to-brainy mp3). I suppose it’s the combination of words and vivid pictures that makes the information so much stickier than plain text.

    As for rhetorical comics – the Revivials episode of TransMet was one of the best in the entire series. You could feel the anger radiating off the page. It was powerful and moving stuff.

  8. Interesting!
    As i read through Transmet it was the rethoricals that really pulled my attention, i kept thinking you were teasing us puny readers with those issues on purpose, guess not…

  9. I think this is also the strength of a number of podcasts, people just ranting at air.

  10. Nis Nis

    I’m sorry but I don’t get the concept – Is breaking the fourth wall the “rhetorical” part of this, or is it the “person tells how he/she percieves the world, really”?

    Actually I would have a hard time pointing to a cartoon that wasn’t rhetorical. Rather the term in discussion would be the old Rhetorical thought “Ars non apparet” – when the persuasive effort is obvious, the “artfulness” of it is affected in some way or other.

    Isn’t it rather a question of narratives – having formed a coherent narrative that stands as a self-supporting entity, being persuasive in its “completeness”?

  11. Carlos Nicolini Carlos Nicolini

    Another example would be, I think the epilogue to “From Hell”.

  12. allana allana

    when i was a child my mother got me a cartoon bible. i know i read through it at least 3 times. if what you say about comics being “the medium most conductive to the retaining of information in the human brain” is true… why aren’t i a cross-humping christian?
    i am the furthest thing from a sci-fi fan. what hooked me about transmetro (my first foray into comics) was precisely the spittle-flinging first-person ranting that made it seem more human than a bunch of people in a cockpit talking about top-secret invasions. the interview issue in particular is by far my favourite. a lot of premises about the transmet world are a bit faulty (why, in a world of obvious sexual free-for-all, does a politican using hookers still rate as newsworthy?) but once you’ve created that world you have more than enough ammo to deconstruct it bit by bit. ditto for the invisibles and their sprawling metaphysical drug-rambles. it’s a bit different in the real world, though.

  13. Rhetorical television

    Warren Ellis increases my vocabulary with “rhetorical television”; a most useful expression and one with echoes in the smarter parts of the blogosphere (if in comics not so much). There’s a thing that’s sometimes called “rhetorical television 

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