Alien Scripts: Pseudo-Writing and Asemisis in Comics and Graphic Novels

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‘Asemic writing’ is defined by Tim Gaze as a collection of forms ‘which appears to be writing’, while ‘having no worded meaning’. Asemic forms may bear the hallmarks of writing, either through their shape or organization, but have no specific verbal signification. These signs are typically abstract, geometric glyphs, arranged in linear sequence so as to invite the act of reading, but that do not allow verbal interpretation. The relationship between literacy and asemic signs has been established historically, and many past examples of asemic writing (sometimes described as ‘pseudo-writing’) can be found in historical artefacts which convey a sense of status, power and exclusivity through asemic decoration.

Asemic language appears within images in Shaun Tan’s wordless picturebook, The Arrival (2006). Tan uses this pseudo-writing to represent a generic foreign language, with the aim of showing a sense of alienation. These images demonstrate that language, when it is not understood, can be isolating. In other examples, asemic writing is used to convey a sense of otherness. Dylan Horricks (2014) uses shading within speech balloons to describe ‘words [that] were not understood by us’. Here, the use of a speech balloon signifies verbal communication, though no verbal meaning is present.

Numerous texts contain decipherable alien languages, painstakingly developed by linguists (such as Christine Schreyer’s Kryptonian). Such sign systems can be directly transliterated, offering the readers the challenge of deciphering messages. However, other comics, ranging from Peanuts to the X-Men, embrace asemisis. These present alien or animal languages that are never intended to contain decipherable messages, and instead convey a sense of otherness through the impossibility of understanding.

This paper will explore the motivations for featuring asemic signs in comics and graphic novels, focusing in particular on Shaun Tan’s The Arrival, and The X-Men, seeking to consider how meaning is achieved through meaninglessness in indecipherable symbols.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages9
Publication statusPublished - 4 Sept 2014
Event3rd Global Conference: The Graphic Novel - Mansfield College, Oxford, United Kingdom
Duration: 3 Sept 20145 Sept 2014
Conference number: 3rd


Conference3rd Global Conference: The Graphic Novel
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
Internet address


  • comic
  • graphic novel
  • pseudo-writing
  • asemisis
  • language


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