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.

Monday, August 07, 2006

La Pluie

At long last, my Meditations have returned. Here's the latest called "La Pluie".

The use of French was largely intended for the melancholy mood it gives, and I took into account that readers might not actually be able to read it. My own French is rather poor (which actual French speakers will probably notice), as I only took two years in high school which were promptly replaced by Japanese. The understanding of the words wasn't meant to be entirely necessary, though they do naturally add another level. The style of the person’s face was inspired from some French comic books as well.

The piece is only three pages long, and was done entirely in one night while on summer break after my freshman year at Berkeley, if I recall, while listening to an Annie Lennox CD of my parents (odd how details like that pop out). The rain was a mixture of pen and dabbing/swiping of a tissue paper dipped in ink. Otherwise it was inked with a nib (if I remember correctly).

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Wizard World Chicago Wrap up

I'm happily unwinding after a long weekend of Wizard World Chicago. I lucked out with a booth next to Jose and Daphne from Dreamweaver Press, which was fun since we were booth neighbors in San Diego a few years back too.

Though it was a little slow, I was very glad to talk to everyone who came by, and flattered by the occasional few who actually knew of my work already. It'd been awhile since I'd had a full on booth at a convention, so I'd almost forgotten the look of "you do what?!" on people's faces when I describe that I research the "cognitive processes behind comics."

By far though, the most entertaining moment of the weekend came on Saturday. In the middle of talking with a guy about my work and interests, he was apparently so impressed (?) with me that mid-sentence he whipped his phone out of his pocket to call a female friend who was somewhere else on the show floor and tried to get her to come over so he could set me up on a date with her. A bright-red laughing Daphne said that's enough for me to now introduce myself as a "sexy comic theorist."

So, I guess I now know what's going on my next business card. ;-)

San Diego Con? Check. Chicago Con? Check. ... Now on to all the loads of work I wanted to get done before (gulp) moving to Boston in three weeks and (gulp!!) school starting in four!

Friday, August 04, 2006

Pictureless Byrne

Derik was sent a great series of pages from an old Marvel Alpha Flight issue by John Byrne that uses only words in the panels. I also second his observation about the mainstream character of the pages, despite no picture content. It's also fun to see a little formalist experimentation by such a mainstream artist like Byrne. Though, come to think of it, he has played with things like this before, like with several pages of panels shown entirely from a subjective viewpoint.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

ComicCon Report (finally)

Huzzah! My computer has returned. While I was responding to (and purging) a few emails I was astounded to find 520 emails had accumulated across my various addresses. So, if you’ve emailed or expected more prompt communication from me over the last two weeks, I apologize and please be patient… I’ll get to it in no time I’m sure!

ComicCon was quite fun for the two days that I attended. Given that I’m from San Diego, with parents and friends making bids for time and the fact that I’ve been going in a professional capacity since I was 14, two days is plenty.

My first day was rather uneventful on the whole, though I did get to visit with various people, including T Campbell, who was the first person I ran into and always a pleasure to talk with.

Friday had far more fun highlights, opening the day with Brandon Peterson introducing me to Frank Cho and Howard Chaykin (who is hilarious, fascinating, and could be listened to all day). While there I ran into Merlin and we headed up to Scott McCloud’s panel. The whole family was great on stage. Scott’s talk was expectedly excellent, and his daughter Sky’s talk was awesome despite the technical problems (a theme of the day I’d find out).

I then skedadled over to my own panel with Zon Petilla (left) and Hal Shipman (middle). The talk as a whole went alright, though it had some issues. Running off a flash drive on an old and tired computer, the first segment suffered several mangled slides, causing my presentation to be a little lackluster, and ushering me into posing my fellow presenters and good friend Ian on stage as if they were panels.

Luckily, I was saved by fellow presenter Hal Shipman’s computer, after which it was smooth sailing. I sincerely hope people enjoyed the talk and that the distractions didn’t detract from it too much (and perhaps gave it some additional entertainment value?). I also thought that Hal’s talk, which followed mine, did a great job of exploring the differences between how Herge and Hal Foster used various graphic signs like speed lines. I’d love to see more papers like it.

At my talk I was also stoked to finally meet in person Neal VonFlue (who reminded me of a groovy Morgan Spurlock) along with Fabricari. It was great to talk to them and everyone else who came by at the booksigning afterwards.

So, all in all it was a fun, if short, ComicCon this year. Now on to my hundreds of emails, and Wizard World Chicago this weekend.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Reruns at

So, after discovering my post about them, the folks over at Sequart have kindly offered to repost some of my essays on the comic industry that initially appeared at Comixpedia over the last few years. I'm grateful for the exposure to a new audience, and if you've surfed over here from there, welcome to my site!

The first article is "Dissolving Comics' Boundaries", addressing how I think the comic industry can expand and what exactly that means.