Tuesday, January 31, 2006


Happy February! The mystery of the thumping dumpster is revealed in the latest installment of "Karuna". It may have seemed trivial afterward, but that experience did scare the bejeezus out of me.

The Character of "Comics"

Recently, one of the elementary school kids that I teach found out that I “drew comics” after she mentioned that she wanted to be an artist. What intrigued me (besides a 10 year old girl's exuberance that drawing comics was “cool”) was her first response: “Have you made up any characters?”

Its rather striking that the defining feature of comics to kids is characters, as opposed to say, drawing one’s own book or writing a story. Though, this shouldn’t be too strange, since much of the industry of comics is permeated by a recurring theme of characters – in strips, in books, etc. Unlike stories, characters provide a foundation for merchandising, which is where the real money is. Marvel’s website directly totes them as “one of the world’s most prominent character-based entertainment companies.”

Characters versus story also becomes one of the defining differences, I think, between “comics” and “graphic novels.” As a form of literature, graphic novels are more plot/story based in contrast to the characters of comics. This difference underscores the business side of things too. Whereas publishers put out stories by authors, companies put out characters as corporate properties.

While these characters may undergo storylines, the characters are always the primary draw. No one reads X-Men or Batman because the character-titled books have a specific story that someone finds appealing. Rather, they read the books continuously because they like the characters, and seeing what various “creative teams” subject them to. And this is never ending, so the product can be pushed endlessly.

In contrast, the characters in graphic novels take a backseat to the stories. They exist solely as pieces in the greater whole of the conveyed narrative. And, it's a narrative that will have a conclusion at some point.

The web scene seems to balance both of these. Strips by and large remain character driven, while experimental and "artsy" graphic novel-esque works (like Derek Kirk Kim) remain story driven.

Japan meanwhile seems to have the best of both worlds. While they do feature very strong (and marketable) characters, there is almost always a specific story path that they traverse. No matter how much of a character oriented juggernaut Pokémon is, the outline of a story dominates those characters. The characters exist because of the story and don’t stray from its constraints.

This is different from say, X-Men, which merely creates a premise for having characters. The X-Men aren’t moving along some grand storyline, they just interact based on a theme that “mutants exist in the world as a superpowered minority” (and can thereby also cameo in other off-theme books).

Personally, I’d think that this can be added to the list of reasons why manga have seen success in recent years amongst American audiences. Its easier to get readers hooked onto good stories with interesting characters than by character driven soap operas where the plot is auxiliary.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

The God That Wasn't There

I recently watched this documentary that questions whether Jesus actually existed and explores the gaps in the historical record to this effect. It had some interesting points, but could have benefited from even more exposition in the details and expanded commentary about the consequences of its conclusions.

Of similar nature is this episode of Penn & Teller’s Bullshit. I post it not only ‘cause its interesting and entertaining, but because it gives me an excuse to say that Penn sat at the table next to me at dinner in Vegas over the weekend.

I've found mythology, religion, and philosophy to be among my favorite of scholarly topics (lest people forget I studied Buddhism in college), and in a couple months I'll be posting a piece for comixpedia about their relationship to superheroes (I know, the rare interpretive piece, but with a linguistic twist!).

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Digital Creation

As evidenced by my work in A Love Story and the Meditations series (like the now updated "Karuna" story), I have embraced digital tools with open arms. Though, I have some thoughts on their use, especially integrating them with line art and, shall we say, “techniques from the hand” (i.e. non-CGI produced).

Essentially, I think that digital tools should be embraced, but used in careful moderation. Often, digital graphics are extremely pristine, smooth, and uniform. Comparatively, “hand done” works are messy, imprecise, fallible, random. And I think that at least some level of inherent "mistakes" are important.

For instance, I generally can’t stand 3D CGI art in comics when its used dominatingly. I think it just looks wrong, mainly because it lacks a sense of randomness. It is too clean. Human beings make mistakes, and those mistakes are part of what make us human. Without those elements reflected in our “art,” the results seem cold and artificial (unless that’s the aim of course).

More so, on a level of theory, using a completely CGI creation lacks the cultural conventionality inherent in a “drawing style.” It is the epitome of striving for iconicity, though here at the expense of rooting graphic creation in cognitive structure.

Personally, given the available tools, I strive for a balance of these elements. Context dependent, I want the randomness of line art, the precision and naturalness of photography, and the clean smooth uniformity of digital graphics.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Kinder Reflections on Understanding Comics

So, in my “Problems with Closure” posts (parts 1, 2, 3, 4), I was in my "bloodthirsty academic" mode. I aught to add that Understanding Comics should be commended for "closure" in some ways too.

Though it does provide explanations for the way things work, in many ways, the most important contribution of UC is the questions it raises. More than anything, McCloud excellently points out that we should be thinking about certain things. Why is it that we can understand sequences of images? Do we have receptive differences when engaging cartoony versus realistic drawings? Not many people were thinking about these issues at that time (including the Europeans, though they might claim otherwise).

Quite astutely, McCloud does acknowledge that the understanding for most of these things happens in the mind, though he doesn’t fully probe what that means. More than anything, he’s raising the questions and pointing to a place for the answer.

Rather than my harsh critique calling Closure essentially a rhetorical trick of a faux cognitive process, instead, it might be considered a placeholder for a more developed theory. Yes, McCloud doesn’t really identify what the mind does to connect panels, but he does recognize that the mind needs to do something in order for understanding to take place. So, we can call “closure” might more positively be framed as “details to be named later.”

As much as I may pound away at the theories in Understanding Comics, the only reason I can do so is because I obsessed over it when I was younger. And, when you pour over something that much, you're views might change as you start applying and pondering it more. It really is a great foundation. Though foundations are meant to be built on... or sometimes bulldozed in order to build something better...

Friday, January 13, 2006

Problems with Closure, part 4

In my last post, I pointed out the assumption that pictures are not connected to any mental apparatus. I now continue on to show how that affects analysis of sequential images…

Assumption #3: Absence of Mind

By minimizing the contribution of the mind, a simple theory like closure can easily emerge. The images’ meanings are “out there in the world,” so all the mind needs to contribute is possible ways to pull those meanings together. Since no mind is found in the actual images, its placed instead between the images. Transitions just become a surface grafted onto this encompassing unifying process, where the “mind” “fills in the gaps.”

But, what is it "filling in the gaps" with? It must carry some information in order to do this.

Of course, the non-mental explanation says that we understand closure because we’ve had experiences in life that allow us to combine events in images. True enough. This is an appeal to the things being referenced. However, it still can’t escape the mental part of receiving those experiences and drawing upon them to understand images (i.e. doesn’t the mind then have to do something in order to make those experiences understood?).

This view casts the mind as a “magic box.” Stuff goes in, a conscious understanding is reached, but how did it do it? Cognition! Ok, yes, that’s true, but now tell me what that cognition is and how it works. You can’t just say “the mind does it” – you need to say what the mind does to be able to say that “it” does anything. Otherwise you’re just making an empty statement.

Closure doesn’t really say anything about the content of the panels, saying that meaning is created in the space between them. It cedes out a non-role to the “mind,” thereby passing the buck of meaning making to the ether. This makes closure essentially a faux cognitive process. And this is also why it can be extended to apply to just about anything at all.

Instead of a non-principle like “closure,” we can lay out mental schemas for events (and more) in our minds that allow for understanding sequential panels. Rather than a generalized magic that the “mystical mind” performs, this actually identifies the contribution of the mind.

My first model had three of these:

1) Environmental Phrase: unified various environmental elements at the same state
2) View Phrase: combined the same element at the same state
3) Temporal Phrase: unified elements of state changes

These "phrase structures" could then embed into each other, forming a hierarchy showing exactly what the mind brings to the table. While the panels are linear, the structures of understanding are not. Note also, by formulating these rules, they inherently pose constraints to which sequences come out.

My newer approach builds off of this further to stipulate actual grammatical roles, while rejecting the schemas above (because they don’t work entirely). You can see a glimpse of this new approach in the essay "Initial Refiner Projection", though that’s only a small part of it.

In all of these, a contribution of the mind is identified. It is not magically glossed over, and it imbues the power of meaning making to the images themselves in concert with given mental rules.

Once you come to this conclusion though, it raises some other important questions:

Where do these mental schemas come from? (learning or genetics?)
How many are there, and how do they work?
Do these structures connect to other mental domains?

All of these are very important questions, and just the sort of thing that will hopefully occupy a good deal of time and effort in cognitive science in the years to come.

Problems with Closure: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Another cycle

My birthday gift to all of you is another page of "Karuna".

Problems with Closure, part 3

In my last post I pointed out that pictures are not believed to have constraints on them, and that the mind must place constraints on any sort of understanding:

Assumption #2: The Veil of Iconicity

This assumption is that pictures are “out there in the world,” not learned information, and thus not mental phenomena. McCloud shows this underlying belief by stating:

“Pictures are received information. We need no formal education to “get the message.” The message is instantaneous. Writing is perceived information. It takes time and specialized knowledge to decode the abstract symbols of language.” (p. 49)

This belief is formed because images are most often iconic, meaning that they derive their meaning through resemblance to what they reference. A picture of a person is known to refer to a person because we know what people look like in the world. Note, there are three parts to this equation: the picture of a person, people in the world, and the concept of people in our minds.

However, just because they look like what they mean, it doesn’t mean that pictures aren’t conceptual information. Through this resemblance, we forget that it actually requires a mind to understand these images, and thereby discount its contribution to understanding. Images just seem like what we experience in the world: we don’t seem to need any special understanding to know the world, so thus we don’t need special understanding to know images.

Upon closer reflection, this is somewhat of a ridiculous mistake. If I draw a picture, how can it not be connected to my mental understandings? It came out from my mind, why wouldn’t its reception need to go through my mind too!? I had to learn how to draw, doesn’t that mean I had to learn how to understand drawings too!?

Considerable studies have shown that the understanding of images is clearly not so transparent. Often, this is found in native communities like Australian or Amazon aborigines who couldn’t/can’t understand aspects of "Western” representation. In the past, this was haughtily used to justify their intelligence as "primitive" compared to Ameri-Europeans. Really, this is just a case of not having fluency in the conventionality of a graphic system (natives for the Western system(s), and Westerners for the native systems). Science is rife with these sorts of examples treating the world “objectively” while really being unable to see beyond the petri dish that oneself is standing in.

Because images look like what they represent, we gloss over the mental component for understanding them, and in turn is misplaced for sequential images. I’ll take this up in my next post.

Problems with Closure: Part 1, Part 2, Part 4

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Problems with Closure, part 2

The first problem with closure isn’t a direct one, but a tendency of the way our culture treats graphic images as a whole. As a topic, it also happens to nicely correspond to my new article up at comixpedia:

Assumption #1: Artistic Freedom

In line with an “Art” perspective, there is a tacit assumption that “anything goes” with regards to graphic creations. Because “Art” is supposed to be about innovation and interpretation, anything visual is regarded as free from constraints of any sort. This is why transitional approaches like McCloud’s allow for a “non-sequitur” transition, because it’s a catch-all for any panel-to-panel relationship that might seem odd.

Closure, as an idea, allows for this sort of “anything goes” freedom, because it only involves one-to-one panel relationships. Since only two panels are looked at, it escapes the types of constraints posed by an approach that focuses on the relationship of multiple panels to each other.

Of course, if our minds are involved at all, then there must be constraints. How could the mind function without them! Even given the Art perspective, constraints aren’t easy to find anyways because people tend not to find them unless they are broken. And if constraints exist to make people make sense, it usually means that they aren’t broken all too often in daily use.

This is also a concern about the difference between the understanding and interpretation positions that I mentioned in my last post. As cognitively wrong something might seem at a base level of understanding, we can still consciously give explanations for how it might make sense under the right "interpretation." Again, the trouble comes from thinking these are the same thing.

All this concern about “mind” leads to the next underlying assumption though, which will be discussed in my next post…

Problems with Closure: Part 1, Part 3, Part 4

Passing Judgment

I've got new article up at Comixpedia discussing how intuitive judgments can lend towards developing a theories on the structure of visual language. I'm trying a new approach with this one, which I'm hoping to do more of: I'm laying out basic principles of methodology, and then leaving the actual theorizing to the readers. Its sort of an instructional textbooky approach.

So, my question to those who read this is: Do you like this sort of thing? Want more of it? I'd like to hear your feedback...

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Addendum on Intentionality

After that long post, I should note that there is nothing inherently wrong with an "interpretive" analysis for its own sake. I have no problems with artistic readings of things and discussions of what a given work "means." To be clear, what I'm arguing against is the conflation of analyses of interpretation and those of understanding (re: cognition). When one starts mistaking one for the other is where things get problematic.

Problems with Closure, part 1

I’ve been reading Mike Meginnis’ blog lately, which has stirred up some observations I have about the issues of closure. As astute readers of my work know, I don’t buy into the ideas of closure anymore. I did once — developing more panel transitions even — but not since four years ago when I realized that it couldn’t possibly work for fairly straightforward empirical reasons.

Closure as a psychological notion from the Gestalts is largely about “image constancy,” which means that you can have a single image with pieces missing and still understand the whole. In daily perception, we experience this anytime one object covers up parts of another one. Despite that part is covered up, we still understand that there is a whole object beneath it.

McCloud extends closure to do this unification across two separate images. It is a compelling entailment to believe that across two panels we merely are “filling in the blanks” for events rather than objects. Or, even, extending this into some philosophical sense that we “fill in the blanks” all the time in daily life for everything. It is, however, wrong. And it’s founded on some basic underlying assumptions that I will articulate over the next several posts.

I will say, though, that I think linear transitions are the intuitive place to start an analysis of sequential images, and McCloud gave a gift to us all by inaugurating this field. But as much as I love the guy and appreciate his contributions, I have to tear into the ideas…

On the surface, closure provides what every body wants out of a theory. It’s a simple, catch –all that imbues the “reader” with individualistic power of contribution to the piece. However, human biology and cognition are rarely simple – nor should they be — given the millions of years of evolution and development they have undergone to reach the point they’re at.

Also, because of how simple McCloud leaves it, he opens the door for it to be applied to various purposes:

1) Is this “filling in the gaps” about unconscious understanding?

2) Is it about conscious interpretation of an “artistic” intent?

These distinctions are very important, and they are just what Meginnis struggles with. On one hand, we’re talking about mental processes that underlie understanding in a very basic sense. The other position is talking consciously interpreting "meaning" beyond that fundamental level of understanding.

Here’s the difference in an analogy to spoken grammar: No matter how much literary theory can explain what the "meaning" of a sentence is, it still doesn’t go into any part of real understanding. While it may debate the senses of words, the author’s intentions, and how well they achieve them, etc., it never actually broaches how the words themselves are strung together in a meaningful whole structurally.

You can debate all you want about what the "meaning" of the last sentence was interpretively, but none of that can go to explaing just why your mind can directly connect the word "debate" to each of the groupings of words "senses of words," "the author's intentions," and "how well they acheive them" (or how those groupings of words are connected to each other). Those understandings certainly aren't linear, which is how you just experienced them consciously in reading.

Such structural concerns are left to linguists, and are largely irrelevant to these “interpretive” questions because they are at a level above the structural investigations of cognition. The same is true for sequences of images.

In the next several posts, I’ll be going more in depth on the problems with closure. These will all be based on underlying problems with the theory, not delving into the empirical examples found in data which invalidate linear analyses (of which there are many).

Problems with Closure: Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

Tuesday, January 03, 2006


Starting today I've got a new story running on my Webcomics nation site, called "Karuna".

This is actually a true story, about something that happened to me while I was walking around the UC Berkeley campus as a sophomore in college. It was such a bizarre experience that I felt I should draw it as a story. It also had a kind of story-arc feel to it, and the way I draw it is pretty much the way I remember it happening (minus the passers-by).

Because it transpired in a real place nearby where I lived, I thought it would be interesting to photograph the site and only draw the characters. Besides the added significance in terms of the story, I think it achieves a sort of heightened masking effect. The graininess of most of the pictures was accidental. I had borrowed a digital camera from a friend, and he had uploaded them as 72dpi for me, which meant the quality wasn't quite as good. I think this turned out for the better in many ways though, since having it be too crisp would contrast the line art overly much I think.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Comics and the mainstream

Tom Spurgeon makes some points on why comics shouldn’t strive to be in the mainstream. I’ve addressed the ways I believe the form can become a major force in American culture in a number of writings. I’m not wholly in disagreement with is thoughts, but they afford me the opportunity to reiterate my beliefs by addressing each of his points:

1 & 2. That “comics” is and should remain a “secondary art form” relies on the false combination of the social artifact of “comics” and the structural form of visual language. Nothing about sequential images or the union of text and image inherently denigrates it as a lesser medium. It is because our culture’s only experience with this visual language has been primarily through the limited genres and industry of “comics.” If the medium — visual language — is to expand into the mainstream, it must step outside the association to “comics” through alternative genres and markets.

3. I agree that superhero comic companies have little to learn from manga… to an extant. The only successful way in which they can learn from the success of manga would be to fully adopt an alternative marketing and creative strategy, which is antithetical to their existing business model. While their model is profitable, actual comic books form only a small portion of their revenue, which largely comes from advertising and merchandising. This also leads to…

4. …the infrastructure problem that Spurgeon mentions, which is true. Because Marvel and DC have a niche audience, any expansion beyond their corporate products will always be a major financial risk. Again, the only real growth could occur if it cast off those restrictions, which of course is ridiculous for a company to do when they make money off them.

5. I am in full agreement that the status quo must be rejected in order to enter the mainstream, and that means rejecting most of the establishment of “comics.”

Nobody has to accept that this medium is a “secondary form” though. They only need to accept that the ways in which “comics” uses this visual language limits the chance for VL growth. The only real reforms to“maximize the potential audience” are through moving outside the “comic industry” audience that it currently has. “Comics” is a well that can only be tapped so far. By expanding beyond this model, the roof for maximal audience would be nearly unlimited.