Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra

As many of you probably already know, the title of this article draws from an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, wherein Picard is kidnapped by an alien race with an “incomprehensible” language. This “Tamarian” language is based entirely upon a shared understanding of local metaphor, and so when Picard is thrust into conversation with one of them, knowing nothing of Tamarian culture, he cannot communicate until he learns more about their mythology and stories.

Lisa the vegetarianIn the “real” world, outside of the Star Trek universe, there are a few different shared cultural mythologies which have allowed certain groups to establish a solid metaphorical language, with a truly shared understanding of all of the complexity and history of those metaphors. One of the oldest of these would be religion, with its adherence to a bible (or some other form of universally known text shared by followers/disciples). The shared understanding and memorizing of the stories, give followers a metaphorical language to draw from. In a very different vein, the long-running TV show The Simpsons has become so familiar to so many that it now forms a metaphorical language which people all over the English-speaking world share. A person only has to say something as benign and ridiculous as “You don’t win friends with salad” to convey that a) your vegetarian choice of diet is being mocked, b) no one wants to share your food, and thus you will be alone, c) the speaker is consciously being an ass, and is aware of their own hypocrisy and idiocy (because The Simpsons viewers are nothing if not self-aware). All of this is imparted in one short statement, because of the shared metaphorical language of The Simpsons.

It took many years to realize that my own immersion in popular comics had similarly affected me. Like a Tamarian stuck on Earth, I had inadvertently surrounded myself with people who couldn’t really speak the same language as me. Ultimately, as non-comic book readers they knew little of the mythology and stories that make up the background of my own metaphors, and so a divide grew.

Star TrekThis seems to be a common problem, that many people’s interactions falter and eventually fail under the weight of so little mutual understanding, especially in the face of so much denial. After all, we’re all speaking the same language, so there’s no need to assume that we’re misunderstanding each other… Some people might not read comics, but maybe they saw a comic-related movie, or picked up the funny pages of the newspaper once. So that’s the same, isn’t it? No, of course it bloody isn’t. As comic readers of a certain type, somewhat immersed in our world over most of our lives, we share a complexity of metaphor that others can’t imagine. There’s a shorthand of language and expression available to us, and we make use of it without even knowing that we’re doing so.

Recently when House of Final Civil Invasion stuff happened, many people cried Secret Wars II, and we all got it: this is another massive crossover marketing thing that may or may not have even one iota of literary worth. We all knew this because even if we only bought one or two titles in that era, we all remember The Beyonder turning up in them and learning to pee or whatever. It was so ludicrous that it became part of the pantheon of our shared metaphorical language.

FrankThis metaphorical language comes in extra handy when trying to evoke a certain kind of person or mood with this kind of verbal shorthand. “Going all Frank Castle” on someone clearly means killing them extra hard in an act of insanely cold vengeance, involving a disturbing amount of planning, intensity, and carnage. “This is some Electric Blue Superman bullshit” is used as shorthand for a convoluted, stupid, continuity thing.

“Retcon” , a phrase invented to describe the act of retroactive continuity, (i.e. changing the history of a work of serial fiction), is used frequently by comic readers, to the confusion of many outsiders. While its literal meaning is obviously regarding fiction, it works perfectly to describe the kind of revisionism practiced in the heat of a debate or argument, when facts are often ignored in favor of creating a winning rebuttal.

EightballHaving been to art school, it was always difficult to describe how intensely surreal, annoying, ridiculous and/or pointless some of the characters are in that kind of rarified environment. But then Eightball hit, and suddenly we can simply say “It was all very Daniel Clowes, and the meaning is apparent. All of that angst, confusion, and terrible amounts of unaware narcissism are all conveyed by one simple evocation of the Daniel Clowes art school depiction.

Unlike a language comprising mostly of words, a language of metaphors allows for a rich tapestry of meaning and depth of emotional responses to be implied in a sort of verbal shorthand. Making use of this shared experience can only strengthen the understanding between fellow comic book readers, but how easily does it distance outsiders from us?

Fortress of SolitudeNot much ultimately. In my experience, once I acknowledged the scope of the medium’s influence on my language, it became something that I could easily explain. Most Americans that I’ve met seem to have at least a very superficial comprehension of the most iconic characters. While they won’t know what you mean when you say that someone’s “in their Fortress of Solitude”, if you explain that it’s Superman’s retreat, deep in the Antarctic, inaccessible to any human of normal strength, locked with a giant key which only Superman can lift, they’ll start to understand, because they do know who Superman is and what he’s capable of. Eventually, after a 30 minute discussion, they’ll start to picture the deeply private and remote nature of the place you’re describing, defeating the purpose of that metaphorical language, but slowly increasing the common understanding that is growing.


Like the X-Men, Sonia Harris took her self off to San Francisco, where she can blend in with all the other weirdos. By day she does a bit of a Clark Kent thing (but with less reporting and no glasses). By night she’s got a rather sedate Watcher thing going on. You can mail her at sonia@ifanboy.com.



  1. Great work, Sonia. Thanks for not Schumachering this article. 😛

  2. My roommate in college used to rant about that episode of Star Trek every time it was on. Sometimes, the topic of the show’s good and bad episodes would come up, and if there was any lull in the conversation it was only a matter of time before he muttered, "’Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.’ Indeed."

    He contended that the alien language could never evolve in reality… but every time I try to put together a coherent thought here a voice in my head reminds me, "If one of your ‘normal’ friends tried to read this, it would be gibberish. You have to know about zombie covers and Cables and Joe Quesadas. It would take longer to teach them the language than it would to read the piece." To a certain extent, I wonder if this contributes to our enjoyment; it gives a secret handshake to enthusiasts of a once-unpopular hobby.

    (The Simpsons is the Scripture of the 21st century; there is a passage that applies to every situation.)

  3. Man I love Star Trek TNG. Until my dad went crazy and claimed that he wasn’t allowing the demons in the house anymore and that tv show was full of them. So he throw out all the vhs along with anything else remotely science fiction.

    I really wish I was joking but I’m not.

  4.  As silly as it was, that may be my favorite ST:TNG episode.  Leave it to Sonia and the rest of the iFanboys to constantly come up with new and provocative things to think about in the comics medium.  Temba, his arms wide!!

  5. Awesome episode of TNG, my sixth grade teacher even showed it to us as a lesson about communication.

  6. Wow.  To this day, my poor wife can’t say the word, or go near a salad without me, nearly compulsively, saying, "you know, you’re not gonna win any friends with that."

    I’d like to apologize to her right now. 

  7. btw, @timmywood, you just won the day’s patented Mark Millar award.  That’s right.  That story was fucked up.

    I’m sorry dude.  That blows.

  8. Nice article Sonia.  I was having the following conversation with my fiance:

    "So, do you like Green Lantern?"

    "Yes, I also like the Green Lantern Corps."

    "What’s that?"

    "It’s a book that follows the other Green Lanterns across the galaxies.  There’s actually three Earth ones."

    "Oh.  So what other characters do you like?"

    "Green Arrow."

    "…Wait, isn’t the Hulk green?"


    "And isn’t there a Green Gargoyle or something…like from Spider-Man?"

    "It’s the Green Goblin."

    "Right.  So, they’re at DC too?  That’s a lot of green for one place."

    You are completely right.  It’s a different language.

    "Green Arrow.  He’s awesome.

  9. Everyone ignore that last line.  That somehow snuck into my final post.  D’oh!

  10. Good article.

  11. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    Really, really cool.  Loved this piece.

    I’m also reminded of Patrick Stewart’s appearance on EXTRAS.

    "You don’t have a wife.  You don’t have a girlfriend. And you’ve never seen Star Trek: The Next Generation?" 

  12. Sokath, his eyes uncovered!


  13. Great article Sonia!

    The language of metaphors is also pretty prevelant in (and out of) the world of tabletop RPG’s. I used to play a LOT of D&D, and anytime someone trips in public, I want to say "Reflex Save!" out loud.

    And @Neb, I’ve actually thought about the huge amount of green characters, but more specifically, green characters in Spidey’s rogues gallery. Goblin, Sandman, Vulture, Scorpion, Mysterio, Dock Ock, Lizard, Electro, Beetle, maybe Will O’ The Wisp and the Prowler… I’m sure there are more that I’m forgetting.

  14. wow, that’s some interlectual stuff, usually i hate things that make me think but that was a great article

    can you write about naked dudes again sometime soon?

  15. My next-door neighbor’s license plate reads "DARMOK". I really never knew that anyone could like a single episode so much.

  16. that was dodge

  17. @RipperSix My favorite episode is actually "the flute". Picard really sells it, he acts like a man who’s just led an entire lifetime and been entirely changed by it. It’s lovely.

    @gwiz "Dodge"? Clearly I’m not speaking your language… translate plz

  18. @soniaharris I agree. I can’t help but get choked up whenever he plays the flute at the end of that episode and reflects on the world he’s left behind forever. It’s great how some of the greatest episodes of that show don’t involve photon torpedoes, eh?