Saturday, December 30, 2006

Sand Talk

I've frequently mentioned in my writings about sand narratives created by various Australian aboriginal communities. This article from the Transient Languages & Cultures blog at the University of Sydney has a nice summary of some of the work done researching sand drawings, as well as a bit on how researchers record it. In addition to this shot below, it has some nice photos in it and linked from it that can give some perspective for those who are curious what this all looks like.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Mannerism, Imitation, and Iconic Bias

Dirk (who kindly keeps linking to my posts) provides some thoughts on my last post about imitation by describing "Mannerism" (about halfway down the post).

He describes the Renaissance Mannerists (what I'll call abstractly as "cohort 2") copied the style of the first wave of Renaissance artists like Leonardo and Michaelangelo that came before them ("cohort 1"). Where cohort 1 actually studied the anatomy of real animals and people, cohort 2 simply copied cohort 1. As a result, cohort 2 is said by Dirk to have...
"the surface tics of the Rennaissance masters down pat, but his work displays none of the anatomical understanding by which they came to be able to create such accomplished illusions of form and light. Mannerism is an artistic game of Whisper, with details lost and distorted as they move further away from their point of origin."

Dirk goes on apply this same process to describe the work of Rob Liefeld and others (who I've oddly defended on this front before).

Now, this quote to me summarizes almost exactly the points I made last time that are inherent to the "Art" perspective. With Mannerism, it's not just about copying — it's that cohort 1 didn't copy at all, they drew from real life. This is what I've called Iconic Bias in past posts (parts one, two, three): The belief that the graphic modality of expression should resemble real life ("iconicity" in the semiotic sense). The "purity" of that first cohort is drawn from iconicity, and the lack of it in cohort 2 leads to their derision.

My response is that this isn't the way the human mind is primed (the "Language" perspective): the mind is primed for imitation, and any drawing "style" is a reflection of mental patterns that have become habituated within a drawer's long-term memory. Those patterns become set in this case through one of two ways: 1) copying other people's patterns, or 2) copying perception and siphoning that iconicity through one's mental structures.

The "Art" perspective says that only choice two should be acceptable, with minimal influence from choice one. Recall for instance, McCloud's Six Steps of learning from Understanding Comics: His first level is imitation, but then all subsequent steps require one to cast aside all other influences.

But, as I've pointed out in the past, rejecting the influence of any cohort before your own works against the establishment of conventional signs — which are what language is made up entirely of. The only reason there is a "graphic dialect" of a superhero style at all is because of imitation. Manga thrive on a style that was founded on imitation (Tezuka being largely considered cohort 1, but Walt Disney and others being cohort -1 for him).

Imitation hasn't hurt manga at all. In fact, I'd argue that it has probably helped them in numerous ways: 1) A consistent cultural style allows more focus to be placed on what that style is used to express story-wise than so much focus on the surface depictions. 2) A consistent style across numerous authors is more readily accessible to young readers, especially those who want imitate them. In America, when children want to "draw comics," they want to draw stories about stuff. But, when kids want to "draw manga" they want to draw stories in the style of manga because that's the visual vocabulary that they are now exposed to.

This is just like language: "Exposure + practice = fluency." With language, successive cohorts are always the manner by which it is transmitted. A great example of this is Nicaraguan Sign Language, where several deaf children who had created their own gesture systems combined their contributions to make cohort 1. Successive cohorts took what they did only to refine and alter it into further grammatical patterns. With the anti-imitation influence of Art, this process of conventionalization is largely lost (outside symbolic signs like word balloons and speed lines at least).

The Art pespective just wants to substitute the cognitive man-made exposure for that of real life, and with that, jettisoning an idea of fluency (proficiency in a system) for skill (accuracy at depicting real life): "Perception + practice = skill at representing perception."

While I won't go into it at length, I find it intriguing that in Dirk's same post, there is a damning attitude for Greg Land, who takes iconicity to the extreme by drawing wholly from photo reference — only that he picks and chooses parts of photos to combine thereby messing up the anatomy. So, here it seems to be the case of messing up iconicity through the most iconic method possible!

Final note, so my intentions aren't misunderstood: I should point out that this is not a post of advocacy; I'm not saying people should or shouldn't copy other people. I'm just trying to analyze the issues involved, and in some case, defend all strategies as being cognitively acceptable.

Update 2/26: Dirk has a short reply to this post (halfway down). I don't have much in response to it except that it still maintains the "Iconic bias" underlying the last couple posts . Beyond that, he makes some interesting points.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Imitation is bad!... in the immediate

This post over at CBR had an interesting take on some of the Art vs. Language issues that I discuss, so I felt I should link to it. One of its main arguments is the common thread of "don't imitate other people's styles," i.e. be an individual.

The anti-imitation viewpoint (what I call related to the "Art" perspective) is wrapped up in two ideas: 1) that people should be "individuals" in their drawing style — different from other people. 2) That drawing is an imitation of life (Iconicity), and that a person's style is simply their own manner of siphoning those visuals into graphic form.

Both of these run against the "Language" perspective which pushes communal signs that are conventionally shared amongst a culture, learned through imitation. In Language, it isn't so much a matter of using novel structures (words, drawing styles) but of using those structures to say something interesting and novel.

What I thought was interesting about this post in particular is well expressed in this paragraph (italics from the original):

Don't imitate John Cassaday, find out who John's inspirations were, whose work he learned from, and imitate them. Because even if you can imitate John's work, or Jim's, or Frank's, etc., the best you can achieve through imitation is a mimicry of style, and to be known as an imitator. Style, good or bad, is really the only thing that's going to separate you from the pack, and it's not something you can add into your work. Not really. Style is where your personality surfaces in your work, and true style is accidental.

The underlying "Art" sentiments should be obvious here, but what's interesting is the belief that it's okay to copy somewhat, just not of the "generation" right before yours. It didn't just say "don't copy other people," instead it argued for people to copy the artists who the-artists-you-like copied!

While I understand the argument, and can sympathize at least somewhat with the sentiment in terms of creative endeavors (i.e. the type expressed in the Dylan quote at that articles start), what really makes copying one generation's drawing styles different than any other? Why is there this assumption that there is a degradation that occurs from one generation to the next, and that somehow there is a more "pure" root that aught to be copied from?

If anything, this lesson in history should show that everyone is influenced by other people and that you can probably trace those influences so far you'll lose track of who the actual people were. So, why not embrace the imitative styles since its what we're mentally inclined to do in the first place?

I love the Language equivalent of this: "Don't learn to speak English from your parents and peers! You should learn from Middle English... Those guys really knew how to speak back then!"

Monday, December 18, 2006

Dunkin' pictograms

Speaking of pictographic writing systems that will never be universal, Fabricari sends along this logo from Dunkin' Donuts:

I've been seeing that logo for over a year now, and never quite got that the images were supposed to be a pictographic sentence until a few weeks ago! I had just thought that it was a bunch of pretty pictures. Of course, given that I rarely if ever go to Dunkin' Donuts, I never really put in the effort to try and decode it.

Though, while we're here, I might as well use it as an example as to why pictographs fail as universal systems. Outright, as I mentioned in my last post, the grammar here completely mimics that of English. Of course, that was the intent in this case since its a slogan, which is why there is four units for four words. But, notice also that this conversion makes a very important decision: it chooses to transcribe "America runs on DD" as a verbal-->visual mapping, rather than siphoning the concept behind the idea into the visual modality to then adapt to its own traits. Moving on...

Let's start with nouns. First off, the DD is only understandable if you know the association to the company. The map of America could be read as "map" or some such, but is even more interesting since it is a metonymy. It uses "America" to mean "the people in America."

The verb "run" nicely shows how you can't visually show an action without also showing an object. It's tough to show "run" without also showing the "runner." Verbal grammar (by virtue of its symbolic nature) likes to divide these pieces into [ACTOR]-[ACTION]. In visual grammar this division doesn't work as well (being iconic, not symbolic), instead becoming [ACTOR:state1]-[ACTOR:state2], where "state2" shows the fruition of the action.

Finally, the preposition "on" isn't visually converted at all. I find this to be particularly telling, since it immediately shows the English context. I imagine also that the makers of the logo struggled with it, since this usage of "on" is not the spatial kind ("on top of") but is tied to the verb.

In fact, the interpretation of "run" as an action here (like "run down the street") is wholly off, since they don't mean that Americans "use their legs to run on top of Dunkin' Donuts." Rather, they are using a construction "run on" (arguably not two units) that means roughly "to be powered by." The "person running" image then becomes a "double rebus" --> first mapping the sound pattern to the image, then the image's literal meaning to it's "metaphorical" meaning.

To come back around to my initial statement about mimicing English grammar, this actually can't even do that since the slogan doesn't use concrete elements. A literal reading of this ends up being totally bizarre (bracketed by panel, italics adding clarifying info):

[The country of AMERICA][uses its legs to RUN][ON top of][DUNKIN' DONUTS]

SO... this example only goes to reinforce how hard it is to "accurately" map verbal expressions to visual signs — both individual signs and grammatical sequences — especially when it involves metonymic and metaphorical expressions (add those semantic aspects to the list then). While English speakers might be able to figure this one out, can anyone possibly imagine this working on a global scale?

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Sorry, there will never be a universal writing system

Jochen Gos emailed me awhile back with news of her new book Icon-Typing and website Icon-language which is a font that creates pictograms when a person types in their own language's sentences. Unfortunately, it's taken me a rather long time to finish this post about it.

While it's a fun idea, and reminiscent of other projects of the same nature, I should say that I do not consider any of these approaches to be "real" visual languages. And, perhaps dissapointing to some, I don't consider any enterprise that strives for a "universal pictographic writing system" to be a fruitful endeavor for multiple reasons.

I do think that the idea of a pictographic language stems from a deeply felt intuition that there is indeed a visual modality language, but cannot reconcile it with the assumptions our culture makes about graphic signs and language. Among the problems holding back these types of endeavors:

1. Semiotics - There is a general misunderstanding, both in and outside of academia, that there are only two types of graphic signs: those that map to "ideas" – mistakenly like Chinese or pictures – (ideographs) and those that map to sounds - like alphabets (phonographs). This is a gross over generalization that I attacked in my thesis ¡Eye græfIk Semiosis!, trying to show that there is a much more graded system of expression at work here.

2. Grammar - All "univeral" pictographic languages must piggyback on the grammar of existing verbal languages. Verbal languages are vastly different in their grammars so much so that no possible universality could ever be reached. There is a deeper reason for this though: dividing pictograms into linearized individuated units denies the grammatical qualities inherent to the actual visual form. A grammar must arise up out of the signs themselves, not be imposed on signs from the outside (see again my paper ¡Eye græfIk Semiosis!). An Example: A pictographic system might use a marker to show plurality paired with an icon. So, a pictographic symbol might express "men" like [MAN PICTURE]+[PLURAL MARKER] (not necessarily linearly)as opposed to just showing multiple men couched in an environmental setting. In one, the concept arises directly from the sign, in the other it's latching onto the way that verbal languages do it.

3. Morphology - Believing that pictograms from all languages can easily substitute in for the words of a language presupposes that all languages have "word" units like English. What would this do for a polysynthetic language like Greenlandic or Dene that chunks multiple meaningful units into a whole syntactic unit (i.e. a single "verb" in these languages might have the same quantity of information as an English sentence). Chunking up visual pieces like this betrays a bias for how European languages break up units, not all languages.

4. Linguistic relativity - To believe a universal writing system is possible assumes that all languages structure concepts the same way. This is simply not true. The aforementioned Dene has several forms of the same verb meaning, each one reflecting a different type of object (for instance, the verb "give" changes based on the texture and character of what is being given – whether its animate, granular, squishy, flat, etc). Less "exotic" differences are like that Japanese lacks plurals and definitive articles. Plus, given how widely languages differ, which morphemes would be worthy of visual conversion? Do you convert all of them (including things like transitivity or definiteness?) or just those most "visually relevant"?... and how would that not be a subjective decision based on the preferences of the speaker of a particular language? A speaker of English might be more inclined to need particular features (like plural) that differ from a Japanese person (like politeness). A universal writing system assumes that concepts are universal to express and do so in similar ways: a big assumption.

5. Transparency and Iconic Bias - There is a general belief that Iconic signs that look like what they represent are wholly transparent in their meaning and non-culturally relative in and of themselves. This is also untrue. While most all cultures seem to be able to decode what "realistic" drawings represent, they often are subject to entrenched variability. For instance, Australian drawing systems usually feature aerial viewpoints, which can lead to odd interpretations of lateral viewpoint representations. Furthermore, simplfying the "concept bundle" of images down to a one-to-one concept-to-sign ratio is extremely difficult.

Finally, the biggest issue here is that the visual form is implicitly considered as lesser than the verbal. It uses the verbal form to be translated into the visual without stopping to think that the visual form might already have its own visual language system naturally that doesn't need a verbal connection at all. Writing systems themselves are not a bad thing, but as an importation of one expressive modality into another they will always be subject to the constraints of the imported system.

A real, natural Visual Language should be able to stand alone without needing such connections to lean on, and would reflect the diversity of different cultures as well.

Friday, December 08, 2006

License plate linguistics

Here's a little fun with writing and ambiguity. A few nights ago I saw a license plate with some friends that read:


Oddly enough, I parsed this first as being "Oya Baby" — drawing from my Japanese knowledge. In Japanese "Oya" is "parent", and there is a dish served with chicken and eggs over rice called "oyako don": Parent (oya) and child (ko). So, my first thought was that this plate was a Japanese oriented person making some sort of strange reference like that.

Then I hit upon another interpretation... Maybe this person was Jewish, with a nice "Oy! A Baby!"

Of course, right as I said this aloud, my friend proclaimed what seemed like it should have been obvious: "O Ya Baby!"

It seems my knowledge of Japanese and Jewish exclamations trumps my coolness.

What I particularly liked about this exchange was that each of the three parsings covered all the possible combinations for those letters:


And, with each parsing, the polysemous meaning of "Baby" took on a different meaning. For the first two, it was an infant, while for the second it was a familiar term of endearment (for lack of a better descriptor). (Though, you could flip the Baby meanings too: "O Ya Infant!"). It's a nice demonstration of how ambiguous written representations can be without an express phonemic link.

Of course, that license plate still isn't even close to my favorite plate from Berkeley: GRRARGH

Bizarro Scholarship

While listening today to the last lecture of this semester's Intro to Linguistics class that I TAed for, I was thinking a bit about how some of the underlying issues of scholarship in visual language contrast the way they've been approached in linguistics. By and large, I would say that my intentions for a cognitive and mind based approach to drawing and sequential images fit right in to the intents of modern linguistics. But, some of the minor issues are different.

For instance, there is often a distinction made between "Big L" Language and "little l" language. "Big L" Language is the abstract system of communication that is shared by all humans, composed of certain universal structural principles (things like syntax, phonology, semantics, morphology, etc.). "Little l" language is the instantiation of that system in the world into diverse and varied forms: English, Nicaraguan Sign Language, Chinese, Tagalog, etc. These are the variations that come from the manifestation of an abstract system.

Realizing that all these (little l) languages share a broader structure is a significant step in the study of Language. For one, it recognizes that there is a broader field that unifies the study of all the little ones.

The opposite concern occurs with regard to my notion of visual language. People already recognize a broader capacity for people to draw. It's common, normal, and uncontested as a cross-cultural phenomenon shared by all humans. However, what isnt' acknowledged is that there are "little d" drawings — that cultural forms might actually differ from each other in significant and categorizable ways.

Interestingly enough, this reverse concern yields the same ultimate result: the acknowledgement of an underlying system that is both generalizable and diverse. We can't identify individual visual languages from different cultures (say, the difference between a "superhero dialect" of American VL versus a "shojo dialect" of Japanese VL) without first acknowledging that there is 1) an underlying system behind graphic creation and 2) that the underlying system can differ between cultural populations. No matter which way you start with, the path lead to a recognition of both elements.

Other bizarro turns have been less broad. For instance, when Noam Chomsky was first arguing for generative grammar he emphasized that sentences could run to infinite lengths using finite means (ex. Phil said that Krysta said that Gina said that...). His approach sought to find a system that could have infinite expressions using finite means.

Visual sequences faced the exact opposite issue. McCloud's transitional approach to sequences of "comic" panels left no endpoint except for arbitrary physical restrictions like the end of a page or book — which have no qualitative structural impact on the system of images themselves (i.e. you could take those same images and put them into another context and they'd still process roughly the same... like on a webpage instead of a book). Transitions were inherently infinite.

When I started in on my own generative approach to panel sequences, I very quickly realized that there had to be some end for strings. So, I had to try to establish a notion of visual language "sentence." I had to argue for limitations rather than infiniteness.

I'll be on the lookout for any more of these type of contrasts...

Sunday, December 03, 2006

More reruns! Comics≠art

Continuing with the re-posting of my Comixpedia articles, has a posting of my old article Comics’ Identity Crisis: Claiming “Art” is a Misguided Quest. It's weird to see these older papers of mine as if they're new again, and kind of fun. Perhaps if people jump into them again they'll find something new in there...?

For anyone who surfs over from Sequart: thanks for dropping in and welcome to my site!

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

I love this time of year

And now, for the 2006 edition of my annual Big Game poem:

Why so sad little stanfurd tree?
By Neil Cohn, November 2006

Oh why so sad little stanfurd tree?
Afraid you'll lose to Berkéley?

With a team like yours, I can guess the shame
That you must feel as you enter Big Game.

Your talent this year must be awfully thin,
Sitting at Pac-10's floor with a single win.

Poor stanfurd tree, you don't think its fair,
That you'll be pummeled by the mighty Golden Bear?

Perhaps you'll be lucky and you'll claim a score
But another loss to Cal will add to the previous four.

So, enjoy your one win and hope for a repeat
To avoid the embarrassment of an eleventh defeat.

But hope won't be enough come this Saturday
Cause at game's end, in Berkeley the Axe will stay!

Go Bears!

Monday, November 27, 2006

Time essay analyzed

In Derik's continuing exploration of panel transitions (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3), he does an interesting job of dissecting my latest essay "Time Frames... Or Not." To keep things localized, I'll make my responses there, but he seems to have done a fairly thourough job of it. Worth perusing.

Also, Blogger has helpfully decided to add tags in finally, so I'll be trying to work those into all my past posts in due time.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

The Brain

Not much is known about the Brain. Here's a nice little video explaining about it:

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Problems with Transitions

Over at Derik's blog he's been examining McCloud's panel transitions based on influence from film theory (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5 ...more to come).

While Derik only does it a little bit, the application of film theory to panel transitions isn't altogether new. John Barber essentially grafted McCloud's and my own (old model of) transitions onto Eisenstein's thesis/antithesis/synthesis model in his masters thesis. This was then argued against by Ben Woo in his thesis, dismissing it more because modern film theory does than any explicit argument against Barber's thesis. I'm not up on my modern film theory that much, but I believe Eisenstein is fairly passé at this point anyhow.

A few months ago I started noticing how similar Eisenstein's montage was to the cognitive linguistics notion of "Blending." Blending takes two concepts and extracts parts from them to create a new entailment. A classic example is "The surgeon was a butcher" — both surgeons and butchers are skilled at cutting flesh/meat, yet when combined together they illicit a meaning that the surgeon was sloppy. This is just like the 1+1=3 idea from montage.

And it certainly does appear across panels. I had a whole section on blending in my paper A Force of Change. Though, I think that the structures governing sequential understanding (i.e. syntax and semantics) are different from this.

Really, Eisenstein's montage and McCloud's closure are kind of like the film/comics equivalent of ether; a magical "mental" substance that doesn't really exist that glosses over any real substance the mind might actualy be contributing. They're like pop-science: a simple easy explanation for a very complex phenomenon. Just like Freud and Jung are still thought of by laypeople as being what psychology is about, their theories are far left behind to modern thinking. In fact, I'd venture to say they're more used by humanities/social sciences these days than psychology or cognitive science.

Of course, I've been railing on the panel transition approach for quite a while now, over the course of several alternative models. And, it's not just the idea of transitions that has problems: it's any approach that only takes into account panels that are immediately adjacent to each other. Any linear approach to the idea of creating meaning in sequential images will ultimately fail.

As I mentioned on one of Derik's posts, the major shift comes in what one is looking at. Instead of looking at panels' immediate surroundings and basing the system around those juxtapositions, we can instead acknowledge that whole sequences mean things (events/actions/situations/ideas). From there, it becomes a matter of identifying what functions different panels play in creating that overall meaning. Just because we read and write panels linearly doesn't mean that's how we understand them.

Nevertheless, it's interesting to watch Derik go through steps in his thinking in relation to what I did. He named it "rethinking transitions" so it'll be fun to see what his rethinking leads to.

Updated 12/1 with additional links to further entries

Comics software sucks

I apologize in advance for this rant...

One of the pre-installed applications on my new macbook is the "comic" making program "Comic Life." I'd played with the demo before, but figured I'd jump back in with this one to see what was changed. What didn't change was my opinion of it: not good. (It's basically a goofy photo album making program)

This has been my opinion of many of the other programs as well, ranging from Comic Book Creator to Strip Creator to Comic Creator to The Balloonist, as well as (less so) Manga Studio and Comic Works.

While some of these are very well designed programs, such as Comic Life, all of them are fundamentally deficient in the way that they are built. That is, I have the feeling that they were designed by people who have little understanding about the theory behind comics. It's one thing to have advice or commentary from people who make comics, its another to actually understand the structure of the medium and how to best utilize software to manipulate it. Especially if you want it to be used as a professional grade system, it is embarrassing not to take this into account.

(While I wouldn't be surprised if some companies consulted comic artists, I'd be very curious, for example, if Scott McCloud has been consulted on any software like this, as he is the most well known theorist out there).

For instance, a few things I noticed after using Comic Life for about half a minute...

Isn't it a bit curious that in the selection of templates for pages there aren't even standard grids, yet they do include layouts that I've experimentally seen to be problematic for readers? Why is it that when you drag in a panel, it simply appears on top of the others, and not bound within some sort of layout schema? Why do you have various templates for balloons and bubbles, instead of a generalized Carrier field that takes different representations, tails, etc. (and my god how annoying the sound effects are...)

... just to name a few. I could probably go on for pages.

Most of these programs fall into similar patterns, structuring the software as a design program... which is fine if you want to do a modified drawing program, but not if you want to be a visual writer. Even the seemingly well thought-out and evolving Comic Studio is doing things far different than I would think most useful or efficient.

As I might have mentioned before, I've had designs for a "comics" software program for about 5 years now, but have no coding skills (and little time) to work on it. So, if there's any talented and enterprising programmers out there (or companies that don't want your current product to suck so much) that would like to give it a go, feel free to drop me an email.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

New Article: Visual Poetry

Flatteringly ask and you shall receive: After a bit of a haitus, I finally have a new Comic Theory 101 article up Comixpedia entitled "Visual Poetry."

Expanding on my riff on poetry from the last article I did on "Seeing Rhymes," this one explores what a formal visual poetic structure might be like. Throughout the piece I construct a new "poetic trope" based on some theoretical principles. For those curious, I literally made up the poem and its characteristics as I wrote the piece, no planning whatsoever.

Actually, the main reason it took so long to finish was that I had to draw the examples, and drawing time is hard to come by these days. It's an okay example, but I imagine (hope?) more people will take up the idea and run with it better than I did.

See! See! My theories can be applied to practice too!

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

LiwLi updated, links

I probably won't continue commenting for every post of my new Meditations piece "Life is where Love is," but I've always loved today's page for some reason. Maybe I just got the blacks right or something... I don't know. Anyhow, the "visual essay" now enters its body...

Also, in taking a procrastination break from devising stimuli for my ERP experiment, I've updated my links listing to the side. So, a few more comics, blogs, etc. for people to click through if they too are procrastinating doing something. Enjoy!

Grab Bag Comics

Back in like February of this year when I was living in Chicago, I went out to mail a package at the local UPS store. I happened to be mailing one of my Meditations books and the guy behind the counter, Chuck, started querying me about my interest in comics. It turned out that he had graduated from the Savannah College of Art and Design with a degree in sequential art! So, naturally we hit it off great, and he was one of the people I wish I spent more time with while I was back there.

Chuck recently began posting his online comic "Dumstruck" on his Grab Bag Comics site again after a bit of a summer haitus. I definitely recommend checking it out. He started the journal comic at the start of the Iraq war and has decided to keep on it until the conflict sees an end. (I hope you enjoy doing the comic Chuck, that might be awhile unfortunately...)

The strips now are reposting his summer entries that weren't put up before. Amusingly enough, I found I'm even in one! He does a pretty amusing version of me, complete with exuberance for linguistics and bandaged wrists from my bout with tendonitis earlier this year.

So yah, go check it out!

Monday, October 30, 2006

More on LiwLi

So, with this latest post of my new Meditations story "Life is where Love is," I figured I should fill in a bit more info about it. The piece was the first of my more "conceptual" approaches to structuring comic stories. If you can even call it a story. Or a narrative. I've always thought of it more as an "artistic visual essay." You'll see why after a few more posts.

In any case, I drew it right at the end of high school in 1998, and to be honest, given the quality of my drawing back then, you can kinda tell that's when it was done. I do quite enjoy the heavy black/white contrast style still though.

A friend of mine from high school at the time was a director at Cal Arts and decided that he wanted to turn it into a ballet. This was just a couple months after I finished it actually. So, the school shelled out several thousand dollars, (he built a full cliffside among other sets), and they used the comic as the direct script for the show. The ballet was set to go on tour a year later, but complications lent it towards never making out and about. Nevertheless, it was essentially finished and ready to go from all I've heard.


Thursday, October 26, 2006

CCS trip

Today I made my trip up to Vermont to talk with the fine folks at the Center for Cartoon Studies. It was quite fun, and gave me a nice break from grad school as well as a little exploratory New England adventure.

I presented my talk on visual language grammar and I thought that the discussion with the students was particularly good. I’d planned on having a lecture, discussion, and then Q&A, but their observations in the lecture were so good it left hardly any time after for more focused discussion.

Showing their intuitive chops, they pitched in with great questions, observations, and insights as only full time students at a “comics college” would (or as I called it, a “visual language learning school”). I was quite impressed, though not surprised given their vocation. I also got to have a delightful post-talk tour from a student named John-Michael that extended the discussion of theory til I had to hop on my bus back to Boston (thanks again for the book John!).

From all indications, they seemed to have as good a time as I did. So, for any of you reading this, thanks for the fun day!

Monday, October 23, 2006

New Comic: Life is where Love is

At long last since the start of grad school, I've got a new (old) comic up at my Webcomicsnation Meditations series. Despite the somewhat corny title, this is actually the oldest piece I'm putting up there, originally drawn waaaay back in 1998 (hence the more "raw" look to it stylistically). This is actually the story that got me drawing artsy type works, which then led towards my work in theory. I'll try to talk more about it in a later post, but for now I'm too tired and too stressed to add more. Enjoy the start!

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Links of note

Rob Vollmar has posted another installment of his "Rage of Angels" essays. This one examines some of Outcault's Hogan's Alley works. While I'm fairly ambivilent to historical-literary analyses of these types, I hit Rob with some pretty hard comments on his last essays, so I figured I should point out that this one reads pretty well. Nice to see him jumping straight into the material without the faux-neuroscience discussion; it gives a much cleaner read and analysis I think.

This webcomic is funny to no end: xkcd. Definitely worth strolling through the archives when you have some need of procrastination or manic laughter. And, to make this at least a somewhat theory related plug... After reading a bunch of them, the simiplicity of the stick figures really grows on me. It also lends towards an acceptance of the stick figure as a common conventional sign for person. I know this isn't "news" per se, but with so much variation due to iconicity in most of the Western tradition, I kind of like the consistency. (It also reminds me of the Australian systems I'm always talking about, which depict people as a "U" shape)

Oh, and if I remember to get back into the groove of uploading the files, my Meditations comics should return this Tuesday. Watch out!

Friday, October 20, 2006

New toy!

Despite being a vacuum of Free Time, Grad School does seem to have its perks. Take for instance the brand spankin' new Macbook that my (three!) advisors all pitched in to help me get. The lab I'm in runs on Windows, so we're going to turn this computer into a dual boot Mac... pretty cool if I do say so myself. Of course, this means I need to start working much harder on my ERP project...

This photo is from the built-in camera on the computer and the ever-fun program Photobooth. I've also tried out the video conferencing with friends and family in California. It's very very cool, especially with more than two computers. Hooray for new toys!

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Talk at Center for Cartoon Studies Oct 26th

One of the great new things I'm discovering about living in New England is that lots of cool stuff is all close together (coming from California, nothing is close together). One of those cool things is the Center for Cartoon Studies up in Vermont. Since its so nearby, I've arranged to give a talk up there on October 26th. I'll be presenting about some of my favorite major themes: the distinction between comics and visual language, the Art vs. Language divide, and my ongoing work on how sequences of images communicate.

(Note to any CCS students who might be reading this: if you have any other topics of interest you'd like me to delve into, please shoot me a note!)

I'm greatly looking forward to the trip. It will be my first time up to Vermont and the more northern part of New England. I've also noticed that Scott McCloud is giving a lecture/booksigning there at Dartmouth the week before (hosted by CCS ), so I'd be curious to here students' takes on our different approaches afterwards.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

You can take the man out of Berkeley, but...

Sometimes I really miss my alma mater. Tonight our Golden Bear football team crushed Oregon as I watched with the New England Alums, and there was this great quote at the end of the AP article on it:
[Coach] Tedford has turned Cal into a football power - but it's still Cal. Cosmologist George F. Smoot, who won the Nobel Prize in physics on Tuesday, was introduced before the game to the cheering student section, which chanted "Nobel Prize! Nobel Prize!"

Friday, October 06, 2006

Neil's Research: Year One Projected

Over the past few weeks my advisors and I have been planning out what my first year project is going to be. We've decided it would be easier for me to jump into a straight-up psycholinguistics study than deal with designing a "comic" based study right away. So, my project is going to be looking at ERPs and semantic coercion.

What, you ask, are ERPs? ERP stands for "Event Related Potential" and its a measurement of the electrical activity of the human brain. How it works, is the experimenter puts a cap on people that measures their EEG, or electroencephalogram, which is the ongoing electrical activity in the brain. This electrical activity is all abuzz in your noggin' all the time. So, while doing certain tasks, this cap measures these brainwaves, which are then time-locked to those events that coincide with the tasks. The waveforms are then averaged out to reduce "noise," resulting (hopefully) in a waveform that can be informative about whatever task was performed.

Or, at least, that's as far as I know so far. I technically start learning how to run subjects in our lab on Monday.

And so, I'm sure you're wondering, what is "semantic coercion"? Glad you asked... Semantic Coercion is a linguistic phenomena that occurs when certain lexical items are paired up to create a meaning that is not explicit in the sentence. For example:

Tymmi began a comic.

In this sentence, you understand that the action is beginning to read or write a comic, yet nothing in the sentence is provided that tells you that. The information is illicited out of the combination of the words. This effect is not found if that information is provided:

Alexander finished his coffee (with coercion)
Alexander finished drinking his coffee (without coercsion)

So, my question for the next year will be... is anything special going on in the brain during sentences like these?

Which brings us to a final question you might ask... does this have anything to do with comics? And the answer to that, I'm afraid, lies in a future post sometime soon...

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Oceanside Soo Bahk Do

Recently with my not-so-copious free time I've managed to construct a website for my martial arts studio back home in California, Oceanside Soo Bahk Do ( As I'm currenlty in Boston, I don't have the pleasure to train back there too often, so it was nice to be able to contribute in this way at least (I currently train at Boston Classical SBD).

It's been interesting going back and forth with my teacher, Ted Mason Sa Bom Nim, in constructing the site, since he's really the epitome of "humble martial artist." While he, and many others at our school, are tremendously impressive, he also leaves things out like the fact that he was instrumental in the establishment of Soo Bahk Do in Argentina.

The story as I understand it is that an Argentinian Tae Kwon Do practitioner came to America to learn martial arts and had been swindled out of money by a Tae Kwon Do school. He had read a letter that Master Mason wrote in Karate Illustrated and then tracked down our school. Master Mason took him in, trained him with next to no cost, and sent him back with plenty to share with his countrymen. He then persuaded many Tae Kwon Do schools in Argentina to convert to Soo Bahk Do, leading to a huge following there. Apparently they refer to my teacher as the "godfather" of Argentian SBD down there (he went for their anniversary several years back, only to be welcomed with banners strung across the streets. He was rather embarrassed, though I'm sure quite proud as well).

Of course, he'd never put this on the site. So, I figure that's what students are for, to brag for you.

Anyhow, that studio has been my second home for over half my life now, so I'm glad I can provide it a home on the web.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Playing with Reality and Limitations

While watching the local Boston public channel I stumbled across the end of a documentary about photography that "plays with reality". I only caught the last artist profiled, but his work was so amazing I had to find him online and post about it.

His name is Arno Rafael Minkkinen, and while seeing his photos I was literally watching TV with my jaw hanging open. Most all of his works are "self-portraits" where he uses his body in combination with nature to create truly unusual and amazing images.

On the documentary, he was talking a lot about how limitations can provide you with proper constraints to do things that are remarkable (he uses no digital tools or manipulation). I think this applies to many aspects of artistry, and of the human mind. In language, the constraints and limitations of our grammar make it so that we can understand each other. Breaking those rules makes problems occur.

I actually prefer constraints in artistry. It shows that one has a control and mastery over the specific set of rules and limitations that one is faced with.

Japanese arts do this a lot. Their poetry is highly structured with syllabic restrictions and content requirements (as in Haiku and Waka). The same is true of Noh and Kabuki plays, as well as traditional Japanese music. Indeed, the shakuhachi (a Japanese flute) "sheet music" uses Japanese characters that indicate finger positions only – not tonal notes. So, when musicians play correctly, they are encouraged strictly to do the proper fingering and head motions. The sound that comes out might be different for every player and every flute, and this is considered beautiful.

In terms of "comic" creation, this same tension appears in the "Infinite Canvas" versus standard formalism debates. Though I might be grouped in with Formalists, I think I prefer working with a structured page size most of the time. It gives me the proper constraints to then be creative within. If I recall correctly, at his MIT lecture, Scott McCloud intimated some of his own reflections about limitations. His preference for an Infinite Canvas stemmed from the idea that while limitations are good to have for art, self-imposed ones are better than those that come from sheer circumstance (like the size of a page having come from the history of printing). I intend to return to this idea once I ever get around to finishing off my next Comixpedia piece on visual language poetry (uh... hopefully soon).

In any case, go check out the work of Arno Rafael Minkkinen; it's well worth the time spent.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Comic Strip Artist's Kit, and more

In the "tools for comic making with some thought behind it" category comes this blog, Temple of the Seven Golden Camels, by storyboarder Mark Kennedy. He's been posting several good entries of advice for cartooning and comic creation. Much of his thoughts come from Disney animators, as that seems to be where he works (or did work… not entirely sure).

Of particular interest was this Comic Strip Artist's Kit by famous Disney artist Carson Can Osten, which reminded me of Wally Woods 22 Panels that Always Work.

Like 22 Panels…, these pages contain tips for creation, described as being "created to help beginning comic artists deal with perspective problems and other drawing difficulties." It also seems to have been an industry meme that eventually had some parts end up in the book The Illusion of Life. Over seven pages he identifies several common problems that creators face in framing and representation, and then offers solutions and tips all around. Kindly, the pages are all downloadable in large printable sizes.

Other notable posts include these: One, Two, on Composition by illustrator Rowland B. Wilson. These also are downloadable and have some good advice in them, though they are less theoretical in my opinion than the Osten pages.

He also has a whole series on Design and Drawing. One of his comments stood out at me, because it contrasts with the opening sentiments of McCloud's chapter on character design in Making Comics. Kennedy advises in drawings to avoid symmetry, saying ," The human eye doesn't like symmetry. It's lifeless and boring." Contrast this to McCloud who calls symmetry "Life's Calling Card."

In other places, he and McCloud share opinions, like with proportions in frames, to which they both advise against symmetry and placing the focal action right in the center (though McCloud notes its uses as well).

As this post might intimate, the site is full of interesting posts and one can easily take up quite a lot of time reading it. Go: Read!

Update 9/22: It's been pointed out to me that Josh Farkas has created PDF downloads of many of Kennedy's writings and posted items. Lots easier than downloading all those jpgs at the blog, but still recommended to read the original posts too.

Making Comics by Scott McCloud

For those who have been living in a cave the past summer, Making Comics is Scott McCloud's latest offering; a how-to book on the process of comic creation. I've had my copy for about a week, but wanting to give it a good thorough read-through before commenting (as well as juggling it with reading about statistics and developmental psychology), I'm only now finally posting some thoughts on it.

Perhaps returning to familiar ground is a good place to start. Not infrequently I've noticed, I have been wrongly anonymously-quoted as saying that Understanding Comics was a how-to book, and I think MC helps make a clearer distinction. UC is a book of theory, but like the start of any good field's theories (which it is, both good and a starting point) it begins with what is most accessible to people's intuitions. From this, you can go in two directions: theory and practice.

Take for instance nouns and verbs. One can use nouns and verbs to better understand how to be a good writer (like in English class), or you can use them to analyze the deeper structures of how language works (like in linguistics). Comparable is the idea of panel transitions. In UC, McCloud took a very theoretical approach to dissecting and analyzing them, while in MC he (kinda) uses them as a tool for praxis. Both are valid ways of using that theory.

And from the basis of UC these two paths should now be clearer. With MC, McCloud has gone the route of English class, essentially becoming a "visual language instructor." I've primarily gone the linguistics route, diving into theoretical waters and ultimately critiquing the initial theories that McCloud set the tone with (though, while maybe not always as immediately recognizable as McCloud's, even my theories have a practical application too).

As always, as an author McCloud is a treat to read. His drawings looked fantastic and polished, yet, part of me wished he returned to the greys he used in Reinventing Comics, which gave nicer tone difference to the black of the line art and would have been softer on the eyes than his faux-screentones.

The footnoting of every referenced image on every page was tedious and annoying (and better served by the then redundant end section). It made things seem awfully cluttered at times. I liked that he had endnotes and drawing activities, though I would have preferred the activities to be drawn (or have "worksheet style pages" rather than just a listing in text).

Though well executed, Chapters 1 and 2 I felt were a little long because of how dense they were. Each had many subsections (and subsections of subsections), and it would have benefited from broader "book sections" for each, then subdivided into chapters per sub-topic. This might have allowed McCloud to breathe a little more for each one and really go further in depth. Despite the great probing he does, you can tell he's just scratching the surface of his thinking.

I loved his "Choice of moment" discussion of events carried out by panels, represented by connecting the dots of an overarching event. Particularly interesting was how he seemed to equate different parts of the visual sequence explicitly to different words. It reminded me at least a little of how linguistic semantics uses one language to describe the meanings of another (the idea being that if something can be said in one, its equivalent can be found in the other, implying all the while that the two are equal in expressive power). It was very interesting to see how he changed his description of the sequence with each change in panels.

What was also particularly intriguing about this discussion was that it betrayed an internal conflict within McCloud's approach to sequential meaning. While McCloud does include his taxonomy of panel transitions from UC in MC, he uses them sparingly in scattered amounts throughout. Now, I've been a critic of transitions and closure (which surprisingly hardly appears at all in MC), but a simple difference in my theoretical approach to McCloud's is just one of scope. While transitions simply relate one panel to another, a broader look at sequences admits that they form a holistic sequence.

Unlike his panel transitions, this "dots" depiction implies this same sentiment of mine that a sequence composes a contiguous whole event based around an intended expressive idea. Things like his lengthy (and excellent) discussion of "establishing shots" actually damage the idea of transitions, as they also rely on a functional relation to the whole sequence, and would have trouble being placed in a transitional approach (especially when the establishing shot itself is broken up into several panels).

Another theme of the book (and talking to him in person) is how self-deprecating McCloud is about his own work. He consistently expresses that his own work isn't quite good enough, and that is why he's writing a how-to book: to teach himself. As I told him in person, I think this is pure baloney.

In the words of his own "Four Tribes." analysis, I feel that McCloud isn't fessing up to his own Formalist identity, and critiquing his own work from the perspective of an Animist or Classicist. Part of the benefit of this theory is in understanding the inherent subjectivity of how one perspective views another.

He interestingly footnotes that much of his instruction in the books is teaching how to be an Animist, and in reflection seems to be what McCloud wishes he was more of. In some ways I feel that this is a case of "outside type envy," believing that you should be that which you're not because the other might thereby seem better (and might be more prevalent and thus louder in expressing their distaste at things). On the one hand, it's good to respond to criticism and grow as a creator beyond where you already are. On the other, it's good to embrace what's good about yourself for who you are (and for McCloud, there's lots), and it's quite alright to tell people to fuck off and enjoy their own camp without being so prejudicial to that which is different from their preferences.

That said, I should say that any of my gripes about the theoretical underpinnings of the book are tangential to the practical aspects for which the book was intended. In fact, I was a bit surprised there wasn't more theory in it, given that many theoretical observations that have been in his live talks of late didn't make it into the book.

For what the book purports to do though – instruction – it excels at. While I was able to scrape together what I feel was pretty good tools for learning when I was younger, this is certainly a book I would have loved to have when I was first starting out as a comic author.

This also taps into the concerns some reviewers have expressed regarding the book's audience. It certainly doesn't seem to be for people who can't draw at all, but rather for those who already have at least a base understanding and ability. It isn't a "foreign language class" that teaches you from ground up.

Rather, it’s a "(visual) language arts" class that teaches you to hone the intuitions you already have. McCloud strives to take what you have and make you better. He certainly lives up to his side of this equation, and hopefully the rest of us readers can live up to ours.

Other reviews I found interesting:

TCJ Forum
Stephen Frug

Monday, September 18, 2006

Tim and Time

So, well timed for my new essay, "Time Frames... or Not", on why panels don't equal moments (and time does not equal space), Tim Godek posts this excellent and simple example of a temporal paradox. (I'm not reposting it here because the file size is rather large, so go look yourself!)

Since the three "moments" of the event happen across the same background, a "temporal map" reading would force the foreground figure to be hovering in front of the background, or, the background shifting behind the character. I think that we're forced to reconcile that the person is doing an action that occupies a singular space (i.e. sitting and thinking) while the background does not remain consistent behind that static foreground space. So, either fore/background is shifting or it creates a paradox of temporal progression where we parse the foreground figure in his own "conceptual space" separate from the background.

This also relates back to the "positive/active" versus "negative/passive" elements I talked about in my "A Visual Lexicon" paper. I think what makes this strip work without a "shifting" interpretation is that the Tim character is Active in the sequence compared with the Passive background. So, our focus of attention is held on him rather than on the consistency and oddness of the background.

In either reading, there is something in the content that illicits a "not normal" reading (i.e. moving when sitting vs. static yet background conflict). If anyone finds more of these temporal paradox type examples, definitely send them my way.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

McCloud at MIT

Well, it seems that nothing brings together comics-folk like a good long Scott McCloud lecture. Scott gave his lecture at MIT tonight to a packed house to promote his latest book Making Comics (which I just finished reading... review coming soon).

We got there fairly early, so I actually got a nice long chat in with him before things got too crazy. It's been awhile since I've gotten the opportunity to chat with Scott, so I was greatful for the chance. As I intimated, lots of comics folk turned out, and several of us went out to dinner afterwards...

Present were the "Comixpedia quartet" (upper left) of Bryant Paul Johnson, Me, Alexander Danner, and Kelly Cooper, along with the ever-entertaining duo of Jeph Jacques and his girlfriend Cristi. Along the bottom are some friends of Kelly's and one lucky comic fan who we adopted for the evening. (Hmmm...there's something kinda fun about being able to link nearly everyone you had dinner with).

The evening was quite fun and reminded me of college when I used to get together with a bunch of people in the Bay Area comics scene. Hopefully we'll have similar gatherings in times to come.

** Bonus linguistics observation of the talk: McCloud made a great noun to verb conversion with "breadcrumbing" (i.e. making a path for people to follow). **

Monday, September 11, 2006

Eloquence on 9/11

I really didn't do much to think about memorializing 9/11 today. I saw them lowering the flags to half mast on campus this morning, and besides that it persisted in and out as a passing thought in my mind throughout the day. However, the most eloquent speech on the subject that I have found was spoken by MSNBC's Keith Olbermann tonight. Not only am I finding him to be of the best caliber journalists on TV these days, but, in an era applauding "plainspokenness" over "eloquence," Keith is also one of the most stirring in his words.

I encourage everyone to watch.

(Linked video from the excellent Crooks and Liars)

Monday, September 04, 2006

Essays on "Narrative Art"

Rob Vollmar has an ongoing essay up about "narrative art" on his blog, currently serialized in three parts:

Part One
Part Two
Part Three

It seems like he might be going somewhere with it, but as someone who has studied a little of cognitive neuroscience (and hopefully will be doing direct research on it very soon) I am a bit put off by his continued invocation of right/left brain distinctions. So little of the brain's functioning is known that it is easy to make broad sweeping claims about it and hard to say anything truly substantial. It might seem like a picky thing, but it struck a nerve for me...

It is easy to be enticed by the desire to discuss the brain. After all, it is the hidden key to understanding human activity, and I can see how mentioning it lends a feeling of legitimacy totalks of "narrative art." However, in most discussions (like here), it is largely irrelevant. "Word, images, and writing" can adequately be described and interestingly discussed as human behavior without invoking vague pop-psychological discussions of the brain, especially for his "historical" aims.

It is very hard to make claims about neurological activity (like that "narrative art" involves right or left brain activity and/or their interactions) without some sort of experimentation. Hell, it's hard to make conclusive claims about the brain even with experimentation! (…which is partially what makes it so intriguing to study)

At this point in studies about "narrative art," (as Vollmar calls it) just discussing the functions, of how image and text work together is enough to provide fascinating reading. Vollmar clearly has intuitions that can lend to interesting observations about this topic. I hope that his future writings can tap more directly into them.

In both scholarly and public avenues, I often get asked about "comics" and the brain. The fact of the matter is, no one knows anything (yet). I know of no studies addressing it at all (yet). At this point it is wholly conjecture, and a big blank white page on which to paint any number of discoveries (or tabulate data, as the case may be).

With that I will now turn to sleep, so I can wake tomorrow, begin this adventure called "grad school," and aim to hopefullly build some contributions to this neuro-comics discussion before too long.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

New Essay: Time Frames... Or Not

Wow, its been a really long time since I last posted a new downloadable essay. Well, if you've been anxiously awaiting one, today is your lucky day! I've just posted my latest theoretical offering, "Time Frames... Or Not," where I tackle the assumptions that lead to the (false) belief that successive panels equal moments in time. Here's the full abstract:
The juxtaposition of two images often produces the illusory sense of time passing, as found in the visual language used in modern comic books. While this linear sequence may seem on the surface to present a succession of individual moments, the understanding of graphic narrative is hardly so simple. This paper will explore how the linearity of reading panels and the iconicity of images create various assumptions about the conveyance of meaning across sequential images relation to space and time.

Astute and long-time readers of this blog will remember that I mentioned writing this paper way back in January of this year. Its good to finally get it done and out!

Like many, I'll be back to school come Tuesday, so hope you all enjoy the day off!

Friday, September 01, 2006

Screwed: The Undeclared War Against the Middle Class

As long as I'm doing politically oriented posts, I've been meaning for a while to plug Thom Hartmann's new book Screwed: The Undeclared War Against the Middle Class -- And What We Can Do About It.

Thom is, of course, the author of the political book I illustrated We the People: A Call to Take Back America, and is a great writer (and radio host. If you listen to talk radio, he's easily accessed on via iTunes webradio). Alas, his latest offering isn't in "comic form," but I'm sure it'll be a good read nonetheless. Thom often talks about these issues on his radio show, so I imagine the book to be a lucid expansion of those ideas he hits on frequently.

The Power of Nightmares

For anyone that is interested in the state of the world today related to American politics and terrorism, I highly recommend watching this BBC documentary on the concurrent rise of the neo-conservative movement and Islamic terrorism over the past fifty years.

The documentary is downloadable in three parts and is rather long (one hour per installment), but it is definitely worth watching. Not only will you learn the history of these movements, but you'll also see how supremely weak grounded both ideologies and movements are. Seriously, it is worth setting aside the time to watch them (as well as contemplating these issues in relation to other things like, say, the military industrial complex and corporate personhood).

Thursday, August 31, 2006

"Comics" is not a medium, nor a mode of expression

Academic Henry Jenkins has a couple outtakes from his book where he discuses "comics" as being a mode of expression rather than a medium, working off the McCloudian definition of "comics" as being equal to "sequential images with/without text."

Though I frequently hear statements of faith in McCloud's definition and the propagation of it. However, I have still not received any good argumentation for why "comics" equals "sequential images with/without text." Frankly, this hasn’t surprised me, since I don’t think its possible to reasonably make such a claim.

Most people, I assume, are arguing this definition by following McCloud’s lead. However, at least in Understanding Comics, McCloud never provides an argument for his definition of "comics" either. Rather, he takes Eisner’s abstract notion of "sequential art" and then (as Horrock's first noted) recasts it as the definition for "comics." The reasoning for this follows no explicit argument, reasoning, or logic, McCloud does this solely out of preference stating,
"At one time or another, virtually all great media have received critical examination in and of themselves. But for comics this attention has been rare. Let’s see if we can rectify the situation. Eisner’s term seems like a good place to start."

And from here he begins to construct his definition around the base of "sequential art."

But, notice that from the very beginning he assumes that "comics" are a "media" to begin with, on part with "written word, music, video, theatre, visual art, and film." When separating "form from content" he assumes that "comics" are the form, not content. He begins the discussion with his position already loaded to believe that "comics" are a mode of expression, not simply an object that uses a mode of expression. He doesn’t say that sequential art is the medium that goes into the object of "comics," he makes them into the same thing.

There is no argument here for why "comics" should equal "sequential images," it is just a definition that is constructed out of the already stated assumptions that "comics" is some kind of medium.

This all has also got me wondering when "comics" as abstract notion first started emerging. Is it attributable solely to McCloud? This would be the usage of "comics," a plural, as a singular. Suddenly, instead of just being a type of book, it is able to be a medium or mode of expression (or even a type of scholarship – with far reaching implications here).

For instance, people talk as if "comics" was some sort of overarching category that subsumes manga, graphic novels, comic strips, bande desinee, etc. — "oh, they’re all just 'comics.'" Contrast this with "graphic novel." We don’t project "graphic novel" as an abstract; it’s a thing – a type of book.

If you reject the abstract formalist view in favor of "comics" only as a social object, these labels become more distinct in their own right. Graphic novels aren’t just a "type of comic," they are a format and literary movement distinct from comics. The same goes for manga, though it has even more slippery issues signifying both native Japanese works as well as a burgeoning OEL community.

The interesting thing I find in Jenkins' writing is that he heavily focuses on the associated social context of comics, while conversely saying they are a "mode of expression" that cuts beyond cultural context.

Again, to call "comics" a mode of expression misses the point. The mode of expression is drawing "sequential images with/without text" (aka "visual language" combined with "written language"). It is this mode of expression that is used within comics... and graphic novels and manga, etc. Though if you think you can prove otherwise, I'd love to hear the argument for why.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

¡Journalista! returns and school is around the corner

Huzzah, ¡Journalista! is back online! I'd almost forgotten how amazing Dirk's breadth in blogging is. Go read and bookmark!

Lots of pre-school preparation has been going on. Yesterday I very excitedly got the keys to the office that I share with several other psychology grad students. Quite fun to get an office that's not my desk at home. My advisor, Professor Jackendoff, and I met today to make some plans for his Intro to Ling. class that I'll be the TA for. We also did some brainstorming for my first year project, which will involve experimentation. It looks like I'm leaning toward looking at event perception and its potential relationship to understanding sequences of images. I'll try to blog about it as the project progresses.

Oh, and I'm going to try to post a new downloadable essay sometime in the next few weeks if I can get around to finishing my edits of it. I'd like to get it done before school is in full swing and I get bogged down by statistics homework and grading papers.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Comic Book Innovation

I've been meaning to post a link to this site for awhile, but am now finally getting around to it...

Comic Book Innovation is an interesting yet sparsely updated theory-based blog with a couple different comic projects on it. I originally found his site because of his adaption of McCloud's Big Triangle. He seems to also be working on some other projects as well.

While his work isn't necessarily theoretical in a way that explores the medium, it certainly takes a theoretical tact that I haven't seen much in other places. For instance, his Comics Mindmap attempts to break down the constituent parts of a comic, from the parts of a page or panel, up through genre and format. His visualizations of story structure also seem to have some interesting theory based intuitions in them.

One of his projects seems to strive towards creating a "Comic Studio" software program to help comic creators develop works. I'm particularly curious to see what he comes up with, since I've had designs for a visual language software program for over four years now (Alas, I can't code :( ... any enterprising and talented coders out there are welcome to contact me though!).

On the whole, the site seems worth following just to see what curiosities are next to emerge.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

A new Home Sweet Home

After a loooooong drive from Chicago to Massachusetts, I am now finally settling in to my new apartment in Somerville, eagerly awaiting the start of school. My place is still littered with boxes and whatnot, but at least my computer is up and running enough to get some work done.

In the scant amount of time I've been here, I've already had my webcomics friends represent: as I got totally lost driving around this labryinth they call "roads," Kelly Cooper kindly helped guide me to my apartment over the phone, and I spent several fun hours tonight hanging out with Alexander Danner and his wife. Alexander and I were talking about possibly organizing a monthly comics creator roundtable of somesort, which could be very fun.

My first night here I went to get some Chinese food, and here's the fortune I got:

Not a bad reminder for someone about to start a doctorate in Cognitive Psychology.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Wally Wood's 22 Panels That Always Work

It's been interesting to see the explosion of blog entries about Joel Johnson's buying of Wally Wood's 22 Panels that always work. One part of me is a bit dismayed at the news, since a few months ago I actually contacted the seller contemplating buying it myself. I'm extremely greatful that with his new buy Mr. Johnson has made high resolution files available to the rest of us to share in this piece of history.

Theoretically 22 Panels... is an intriguing aspect of comics in America, because it gives a consistent panel sized unit that is (possibly) repeated in multiple books. Repetition (i.e. conventionality) of this sort is of course a hallmark of language. Like Mark Evanier I'd love to see a study probing just how widespread the use of these panels has become.

My own guess is that these compositions have become extremely widespread across authors, largely without them even referring to the 22 Panels... worksheet. That is, I think that some of these panels have become so common in usage that people imitate them without thinking about it, as they have just become a consistent part of the mental visual vocabulary. (As with all issues like this, if any enterprising students out there want to do a study on this, I'd be happy to advise and publish their piece!)

What's also been interesting about reading the various blog posts on this topic is seeing the teetering balance of the Art vs. Language viewpoints. You can really tell the tension between those who have no problem with using the repetition of these panels (Language) and those who scoff at how unoriginal and un-innovative using them would be (Art).

Monday, August 21, 2006


Amongst the chaos of packing and getting all my loose ends tied up here in Chicago before my move to Boston this week, I was able to find the time to knock out the oh-sio-rare-from-me colored piece. Here's a fun self-portrait that I finished recently:

It was originally for a panel in a work in progress of mine, but I liked it so much I had to do a color version. It is, of course, an homage of the famous Norman Rockwell Triple Self-Portrait, of which there have been several other notable parodies/homages. I've been a Rockwell fan for a while. My grandparents had a print of his hanging on their wall and a giant book of his work that I used to flip through as a kid captivated. Naturally, I made a few alterations to make it more attuned to myself, though, come to think of it, perhaps I should have replaced the canvas with a cintiq tablet altogether!

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Neil vs. The Giant

Here's a random post that relates to my life outside of comics/visual language (gasp!) that I thought is too cool not to post.

A friend of mine has been posting some of our Soo Bahk Do martial art tournament matches online lately. This is a sparring match from the 2004 Nationals Team competition of me fighting a guy we affectionately nicknamed "The Giant" (you'll see why). I'm the small one in the red. We ultimately tied the match, but watch for my spinning back kick at around 1:40 in the video. The ref blocks the view of my body, but you'll see my foot come up right to the guy's head. Enjoy!

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Comics and Information Design

What with the chaos of getting ready to move, I'm going to skip updates on Meditations until I get settled into Boston in a week and a half. In the meantime...

John Soellner alerts me to his site comparing qualities of "comics" with information design. He has a nice set of links down at the bottom, though his writings seem fairly limited so far. I was a bit surprised by this, since I think there's quite a lot of overlap that can be discussed. Perhaps we can hope for more to come?

Robert Horn has made some to do about some of those connections, and Soellner seems to pick up on some of that at least (I do appreciate his using the term "information design" as opposed to Horn's meaning of "visual language" which is vastly different from mine).

Perusing some of the links there, I will vent that one of the things that bugs me about most discussions of "comics" from information design perspectives (though, thankfully, not here) is the sheer lack of treating the visual language as any sort of language. Since ID is mainly concerned with demonstrating data or information graphically, the intuituve aspects of the visual sequence seem wholly ignored for the properties of spatial juxtaposition (as if that's all there was to it).

My sense is that most of the people talking about these sort of things come from computer interface design or information design backgrounds, yet don't have much productive fluency in this visual language of "comics." In some ways, I feel like McCloud oversold the universality of creating "comics" to the point where people feel empowered to talk about it, even when they might lack the intuitions and expertise of graphic fluency. Perhaps this can be added to the list of illusions cast by that "veil of iconicity"?

Interestingly, his last post has a quote from Dennis O'Neil amounting to saying "images plus words in comics = a language." This "images + words = language" is roughly the same as the way Horn means it too. I have never understood this sort of reasoning... why should words, already a language, plus anything-else equate to some larger language (which, ahem, doesn't seem to have real intrinsic properties like a natural language)? Though perhaps less poetic, I far prefer to be accurate by saying that the visuals might become a language that then meets up with the written to become two languages working together in a broader multimodal communicative act.

This same trend has gone through gesture research too, with some people saying that "language + gesture = language". .... "1+1=1"? Huh? Why isn't it that "language + gesture = multimodalism beyond language"? This is yet another of those papers lying half written in my computer. Someday, I swear!

Monday, August 14, 2006

Personality Tribing?

In several of his latest interviews, talks, and, I assume, upcoming book, Scott has talked about his "Four Tribes" theory that roughly describes different groupings of creative enterprise. His chart looks roughly like this:

Classicists are concerned with beautiful craftsmanship, Animists with the craft of the story. Formalists dissect the medium itself, and Iconoclasts rebel against the status quo in search of authenticity of message. I’m sure discussions of this will be all the rage soon enough, especially once Scott’s new book comes out, so I thought I’d add some thoughts.

When I was in college, a girlfriend of mine sucked me into her obsession with personality profiling (usually Keirsey or Myers-Briggs test), where individuals are measured by variations on four fields to create a "type." For instance, Introversion (I) and Extroversion (E) lie on opposite ends of one type’s continuum. People’s behavior usually falls somewhere in the middle of these gradations. When all four of these gradations are mapped, it becomes a "type."

At the surface, both Personality Profiling and the Four Tribes serve a similar fascination of "oh oh, I'm mainly this type!" It also gives light on how one type might view another (Classicists no doubt view other types as less graphically achieved, Iconoclasts view Classicists as surface and no substance). But, a little deeper, I think that Scott’s individual tribes also have some parity to aspects of the personality variables (at least, from a "creator" point-of-view).

Along the horizontals run the two variables of "Sensing"(S) versus "Intuitive" (N) cursorily glossed as whether someone experiences and understands the world more through their body/activity versus mind/thought. The top two (Classicists to Animists) reflect Sensing traits – those that are oriented towards some kind of activity – craftsmanship of drawing or writing. The bottom two (Formalist to Iconoclast) more reflect Intuitive traits – more mind oriented and "intellectual."

The verticals also have another kind of variable, "Thinking" (T) versus "Feeling" (F), kind of the distinction between logical reasoning and gut instinct. Up and down the first column (Classicist to Formalist) would be Thinking, because they examine technical precision, either for craft (Classicist) or for the medium itself (Formalist). The second column (Animist to Iconoclast) has more Feeling traits – motivated by gut feelings for a story (Animist) or idea (Iconoclast).

Crossing these variables then gets you different combinations of traits, which I’ll leave up to the reader’s discretion to probe. Now, I wouldn’t necessarily think that creator’s personalities would identically align with the traits that they map to on the Tribes chart, but I wouldn’t think it outlandish either.

Incidentally, to those who care, in profiling I’m generally an ENFJ, and while most wouldn’t be surprised to hear I’m a Formalist, my roots/instincts are actually as an Animist (with a slight sidetrack in college as an Iconoclast). So, not a perfect alignment, but also not surprising that different traits of mine would dip into different squares.

[Edit 9/7]: I found this nice extended analysis of McCloud's "Four Tribes" theory. I hadn't realized that McCloud based his theory on the Jungian types to begin with, but perhaps that's one of many things I'll find once the book actually arrives at my doorstep.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Codex Boturini

My old friend John Jacobson passes along this link to the final pages of the Mexica Aztecs’ Codex Boturini which shows some very interesting text/sequential image combinations. It’s definitely worth reading through the Brief Readings of each page, and at least perusing the essay.

One of the things I find interesting about it is its use of footprints to provide the "path" of the gods, which helps "unify the design of the manuscript." Structurally, this is interesting because the footprints retain an aerial view while the rest of the images feature a lateral viewpoint. This is reminiscent of some of the drawings by Arrernte children who unite the aerial view of sand drawings with the lateral view of Western representation.

It also seems that the reading of the manuscripts is somewhat as a mnemonic – not fully a visual narrative that draws its meaning from the properties of the graphics alone, joined by the meaning of the words. Rather, it lies on the cusp area of my CMGS where the drawings represent mnemonic signs for "set of concepts that could be verbally formulated in a number of different ways," used as a supplement to oral performance.

This type of visual concepts is an interesting feature of many older systems (including the Tibeto-Burman Naxi as well as several others). It’s kind of a halfway usage of the visuals without, in my estimation as yet, fully becoming a visual language, while also not using the transcription system as its own stand-alone system of "writing."

Reposted 8/11 with fixed links

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Theory informed tutorials

Well, now that I'm back online, it looks like this week is just a blogging bonanza!...

Scott links to Rivkah's blog instruction series on Paneling, Pacing, and Layout in Comics and Manga. It's broken up into a couple parts:

Part One
Part Two
(It looks like one more part is on the way. I'll update as accordingly)

These essays are very praxis-oriented theory, but still very interesting. I'm always curious about the intersection between praxis and (cognitive) theory, and actually think there is a fair amount of overlap. Praxis oriented instruction talk about how best to guide the intuitions, while structural theory seeks to probe those intuitions for their underlying rules. Hopefully we'll reach a point where a foundation of structural work is established so we can actually see where it and praxis meet up.

There's also a discussion about the usefulness of such tutorials that I've found interesting for its underlying motivating content of the Art vs. Language divide – individuality and "anti-copying" versus conventionality.

As insinuated by the above statement, my take on tutorials is similar to language classes. If you are a native English speaker, English classes help you hone your intuitions to become a better writer. If you don't speak the language already, language classes actually teach you to acquire the structure to begin with. These "visual language tutorials" are similar – they can either help improve your graphic writing, or lead towards getting graphic fluency in the first place.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Just for the kiddies

This was a final thought that never got posted on the whole "Iconic Bias" kick. I started thinking about the old "Comics are for kids" misperception related to it all. On the one hand, I think we can all agree that this belief has come in part from the selection of genres and social contexts that propagated during the rise of the industry. But, on the other hand I think that a deeper issue might also be at work: the idea that pictures as a whole are somehow simple or lesser than (spoken) language.

We even see the derision of the graphic form in our speech, in idioms like, "Do you need me to draw a picture for you?" The phrase tacitly assumes that pictures are simpler than words, and hence drawing a picture will communicate the idea in a less complicated way. Now, this consideration of drawing could be considered a good thing ("Isn't it great how simple and understandable these complex ideas are presented in drawings!"), but here the tone usually remains derogatory towards graphics.

This "simplistic" perspective could also be related to the Iconic Bias issue: "If pictures just look like what they mean, how complex is that? …because we understand pictures just like we understand real life."

In this view, again, pictures are not conceptual (no mental system). Perhaps that's why people are always flabbergasted to hear that certain people or cultures have trouble understanding certain drawings or sequences of images (which does happen), as if it tears against the very fabric of their knowledge of drawings. The classic orientalist thing to do was blame the people, as if they were substandard or primitive, instead of (gasp!) seeing that their own system might be learned to a large degree and not as transparent as one would like to think.