Thursday, June 29, 2006

Iconic Bias, Part 3

So, last post I talked about how criticism of certain drawing styles stems from the fact that critics might speak a different dialect of visual language. The Art Perspective would have trouble recognizing the idea of graphic dialects because it sees drawing as a siphon for drawing "real life," which leads to the second reason why people might deride certain styles:

Reason 2: They see an issue of skill, not fluency

Rather than seeing graphic ability as a proficiency in a set of communal standards (fluency), people regard drawing as a "skill" that people are "better" or "worse" at. In the Art view, this skill is often determined by how accurate real proportions are held up. Judging representations based on iconicity gives an "objective" basis for claims of value.

Granted, the communal signs of the visual language community may not be prevalent as standardized signs like in spoken language (largely due to the forces brought this Art Perspective). However, within an individual author's style, they have consistencies and patterns. But, you really can just tell when someone is or isn't fluent, based on your own fluency.

I should also note "fluency" makes no judgment about the nature of the content. It purely has to do with reaching a certain degree of proficiency with drawing. Indeed, there are several very popular comics both on the web and not that are very well written and have great content, yet I'd say that their authors are less than wholly graphically fluent.

The fact of the matter is that Liefeld is undeniably graphically fluent: he has internally consistent and patterned ways of drawing and does so to a high degree of proficiency within that style. Sure, his proportions and anatomy may not be accurate to "real life," but this is only an issue if you believe that drawings should match real life, as opposed to patterned mental structures.

Aside from the issue of fluency levels, it is these same issues that lead people to think that certain drawings might be more "primitive" than others, like Egyptian drawings or cave paintings. Appealing to iconicity lets there be a scale of "progress" relating different styles to each other (like the notion "we've progressed so much in drawing since those old days"). Systems using point perspective and shading are believed to be "superior" to those that are flat or fixed to a certain angle-of-viewpoint, because the former is more iconic. A Language view doesn't allow this: all systems are equal, only they do things in different ways.

And finally, a thought to sum up the way that Art can (and does) fit with a Language view: Language (including visual language) is what a structure is, Art is what you can do with it.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

La Belle Dame Sans Merci... no Part Tres I swear!

I've posted the concluding installment to my second visual adaptation of the John Keats poem La Belle Dame Sans Merci. Now that it's done, I'd love to hear people's thoughts on the comparison between the two.

Version One ..... Version Two

As those who read my Comixpedia piece on visual rhyming will note, I tried to maintain a lot of similar structure between them. By the time I did the second one, I started intending for them to be read as a pair.


So, I now need to decide which "Mediation" to post next. What with the Fourth being next week, and then flying to Boston to do house hunting, I may just take the week off. We'll see...

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Iconic Bias, Part 2

As I discussed in my previous post, there is an Art Perspective belief that people should learn to draw from "real life" and not from copying others. In that post, I tried to tease out some of the underlying assumptions of this belief. Here, I'd like to point out how it leads to derision of other approaches (as demonstrated in the quotes from the last posts).

(Caveat: Just to be clear, and to avoid misperceptions, I don't have a problem with people drawing realistically. I'm just trying to examine the underlying assumptions that motivate perceptions of drawing. And, I should also add, that I too am a product of the culture of Iconic Bias, as it did and still does inform many of my graphic decisions.)

There are two reasons those who hold this Iconic Bias might think that certain styles, like say Rob Liefeld's drawings or the manga style, are substandard:

Reason 1: They speak a different graphic language/dialect

People will rag on certain styles mainly because they belong to a different graphic dialect. People who aren't comfortable with the early 90s Image style or manga style (or many others) as their visual language end up making fun of it or calling it substandard. This is similar to the treatment of African American Vernacular English (popularly known as Ebonics) in America. Some speakers of Standard English end up thinking that speakers of African American Vernacular English are somehow stupid or have less skill in language, when really the fact is that they speak a different dialect of English that has its own patterns and consistencies. It's not "lesser" its just different.

Of course, the Iconic Bias has an easy time making these judgments, because it doesn't allow for there to even be such a notion as graphic dialects: drawings are valued on their relations to "real life perception," not mental patterns. The sheer recognition of drawing styles as cohesive systems runs against the free-for-all in how "each individual interprets real life."

More coming in the next post…

A Terrifying Message from Al Gore

Monday, June 26, 2006

Iconic Bias, Part 1.5

Here's another subtle example of this Iconic Bias that I discussed in my earlier post. From a recent new interview with Scott McCloud, the interviewer asked:
"What’s hard for you to draw?"

Can you see the subtle bias here? Give it some thought…

It assumes that the capacity for drawing is about "drawing things in the world" — and drawing them as their supposed to look — as opposed to drawing being a capacity for expressing concepts, which just happen to look like things out "in the world." Let me rephrase the question: "What [things out there in the world are] hard for you to draw?"

In contrast to a Language approach, imagine asking someone, "What words are hard for you to pronounce?" Scott's answer is also illustrative, because it invokes the need for reference photos, tied to that same perspective (if its not in the mind, I need to reference "out there in the world").

Snark I can't hold back: Why is this question even there? I mean, really, this is Scott McCloud, the guy who ushered in deep thinking about comics. You really want to waste a question asking him what he doesn't draw well? Puh-lease.

OK, I swear, next post on this I'll get into some of the results of this Iconic Bias.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Linguistic mythbusting

Here's an article about some of the most pervasive myths about language and questioning why linguistics is not a more prevalently studied or respected field. I personally have an answer to this: since everyone speaks language, people all feel like experts, and they think that they understand most all there is to know about it already. The same is true about graphic creation too. I have a growing list of my own "Visual language myths" that I'll post about one of these days, though I often touch on them in passing anyways.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Comics Generation Thesis

Jason Alderman has completed his (downloadable) Masters Thesis on "Generating Comics Narrative to Summarize Wearable Computer Data." Here's the abstract:
As people record their entire lives to disk, they need ways of summarizing and making sense of all of this data. Comics (and visual language) are a largely untapped medium for summarization, as they are already subtractive and abstract by nature (the brain fills in the blanks and the details), and they provide a way to present a series of everyday events as a memorable narrative that is easily skimmed. This research builds upon the work of Microsoft, FX Palo Alto Labs, ATR Labs, and others to further ground the procedural generation in the comics theory of Scott McCloud, et al.

The paper poses some very intriuging ideas, and he does a great job summarizing and comparing a lot of the work that's been done in comic theory, including my own. Alderman's paper also has a good discussion of various comics computer programs and a very interesting discussion of adapting comic theory issues into programming code. The appendices also have a wealth of summarized theory and analysis as well. Particularly interesting was the taxonomy of panel types and gutter spacing. Go check it out!

He has some good criticism concerning my old model of visual language grammar though those should be asuaged by my newer work (which can be found at my ComicCon talk next month...hint hint).

And since its been mistaken before, I should point out that I don't consider my notion of "visual language" to be comparable to or a subset of the "visual language" proposed by Robert Horn (though his work informed my early stuff, and I subsequently developed a personal relationship with him when I was in college. He's a very nice man and enthusiastic about all things related to visual communication). Horn is more talking about a broader type of visual communication, largely diagrammatic, but mainly from the union of text and image. To me, the visual language is only the visuals (and only in specific conditions), which then unites with the verbal to create a multimodal whole (see my paper, Interactions and Interfaces for more).

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Are you ready to Folk Rock!?

I don't often write about my non-theory tastes on this blog, like music, though I keep meaning to. So, here's a good place to start.

Today, I got my copy of the new Counting Crows live album "New Amsterdam," and its just fantastic.



Not only have they been my favorite band since their debut, but Adam Duritz went to Berkeley and is an unabashed Cal Sports nut (as am I: Go Bears!). (Astute readers might have noticed the cameo of him I drew into We the People.)

I have a ton of their live stuff, largely not "official releases" and this album is great. As soon as that first song started it felt like home. It has lots of variety in song choices from across their albums (including one new song and one old one that was only on bootlegs before), and good versions of all of them. Interestingly, some of their most prominent songs, like "Mr. Jones" and "Round Here" are absent. I think this is good move, since so much of their stuff is great and I'd hate for the band to be overshadowed by their most known hits.

So, yah, as he says on the album: "Are you ready to Folk Rock!?".

Iconic Bias, Part 1

I've tried to point out in some of my writings that there is an "Art" perspective that dominates the usage of graphic creation in our culture. Its primary emphasis is for innovation and individuality in styles in contrast to a "Language" perspective that seems communality and shared signs.

Regarding learning, the "Art" view has two emphases:

1. Developing one's own style apart from everyone else (i.e. "don't copy other people's drawings")
2. Learning to draw by imitating real life

I'd like to take aim at #2 in this post, since I think that it carries more assumptions with regard to it. #1 may be something that is emphasized, but its hard not to get influenced by other sources anyways, and the prevalence of "house styles" (Marvel house style, etc) or "cultural styles" (manga style) easily shows how group consistency does happen. Of course the assumptions under #2 motivate the "anti-style" tendencies of #1 as well.

The basic assumption underlying #2, that people should learn to draw by imitating real life, is related to what I call the "Veil of Iconicity." This outlook treats graphic creation (drawing) as something that is not rooted conceptually. The graphic form is merely a siphon through which "real" (looking) things are represented. And, if not done directly through "life drawing," then that mode is what should at least inform a person's drawing "from their imagination".

Now, several people have tried to tell me that "drawing from life" is no longer an emphasis of Art, but I've found these quotes recently on a variety of comic message boards:
"I hate manga/anime. You know why? They are all hacks. It doesn't take any talent to draw round heads and big eyes. It takes a lot of skill to draw accurately proportioned figures that are anatomically correct (traditional line art)."

"Comic books, whether drawn by pinheads like Liefeld or superb artisans like Gil Kane, are a terrible training ground for drawing - even if you intend to learn how to draw comics. All you're picking up the the graphic shorthand the artist has developed to represent figures and environments so he can draw from his imagination. It's always a stylistic distortion, a poor substitute for life drawing or copying photos."

"...photos will build your skills a lot better than copying someone else's ink lines."

This is exactly the Art perspective I'm talking about.

Again, this perspective leaves out the role of the mind in relation to drawing. Patterned ways of drawing, as stored in long-term memory (your "imagination," as if it were a bad thing), are made to seem less valid than just rerouting perception through the graphic form. Sure, by definition an "iconic" sign "gets its meaning by resembling what it represents." However, that doesn't mean that such signs must exhibit this to the maximal degree, all the time (if at all), and without accepting that such signs must come from the human mind.

I'll continue this with the next post, delving more into some of the results of this belief.

Monday, June 19, 2006

San Diego, coming soon!!

Thanks go to Scott McCloud for kindly linking to my latest Comixpedia article on "visual rhyming." He suggests "Eye Rhymes" as another good term, and I agree, it does sound pretty cool.

He also notes that he'll be speaking at the San Diego ComicCon on Friday from 12-1pm. I know I'll be there, and so should you: Scott gives great talks. And immediately after Scott's presentation, you should walk over and see me talk at 1:15 to 2:30 on the Visual Language panel of the Comic Arts Conference!

This year's panel should be fantastic. I can't wait, because my talk will be the best presentation I've ever done. I don't want to overhype it, but I've been working really hard on it and it should be great. Called "The Secret of Sequence," I will finally be unveiling most of the my model of Visual Language Grammar, so, if you're curious at all about "how sequential images create meaning," then you won't want to miss it.

The panel will also have two other talks about theory related things as well. I'll post more about them, and the location, as the date nears.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Re-un-defining "Comics"

Every now and then it's good to revisit the fundamentals. I had articulated the whole division between "comics" and "visual language" fairly well in a listserve discussion awhile back, so I thought it might be worth reposting it here for any (hopefully?) new readers that might have popped up since I started the blog…

The reality is that a notion of "comics" is not entirely grounded in aspects of structure (text/image, sequential images). "Comics" are not "juxtaposed sequential images," nor are they "text/image relations." I say this because there are examples of things that people call "comics" that fit nearly every possible distribution of these elements. Comics can have...

• wordless sequential images (should be obvious)
• text integrated with sequential images (should be obvious)
• text integrated with a single image (Family Circus, etc)
• text dominating non-sequential illustrative images (Cerebus "Reads" volumes)
• a single image (instances from various newspaper strips: The Far Side, Ziggy, etc)
• text with no images at all (Kenneth Koch's The Art of the Possible: Comics Mainly without Pictures, or "Panel One" by Alexander Danner)

This is the evidence: we call instances of all these things "comics." Given that all of these examples do exist, no precise definition can capture exactly what the label "comics" encompasses. At most, we can say that these aspects fall on some sort of graded range of prototypicality for how we determine what "are" "comics."

Yet, at the same time, there are also plenty of examples in society that do fulfill these distributions, but are not called "comics" because they don't fall into the proper social context: instruction manuals, advertisements, storyboards, illustrated books, etc. If one pursues a prescriptive definition, some of these things could be called "comics" – but that isn't the common usage by speakers of English.

Given this evidence, where does that leave our definition of "comics"? It leaves it ungrounded in structural concerns, but based on a variety of socio-cultural factors, including but not limited to:

• a physical object
• a sub-culture
• an industry
• a collection of genres (superheroes at the forefront)

The result is the realization that aspects of visual creation are entirely separate from the socio-cultural notion of "comics," despite their prevalent place used in that social context. "Comics" are written in a visual language the same way that novels are written in English.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Looking Ahead to the Past

Akin to the spirit of my last post, in the latest issue of Cognitive Science is an article about Aymara Andean metaphors for time. The authors claim that Andeans have a conception of the future as something behind the speaker and the past as in front. This is the opposite of English where most of the time we "face the future" or "look back to the past."

I have not read the piece yet, but apparently, press releases have been claiming that this reversal is unique to Andean, which the Language Log dispels quite quickly. I find it interesting that much of the data relied on gestures as well as spoken utterances, as it acknowledges the inseparability of conceptual expression in different modalities. What I'm curious about regarding this is what types of graphic narrative system this culture has (if any… I'd be floored if a culture didn't have a graphic system, but narrative — i.e. VL — is another story).

While not reliant on a front/future type metaphor, the linearity of panels in comics does echo this spatial-temporal metaphor. Would Andean allow for a similar native graphic system? I have no doubt that Andeans could learn and acquire a paneled system, but I'm more curious what sort of native system might arise, since other graphic cultural examples imply conceptual integration with language and gestures.

Hopefully before long "graphic" will become a category as centrally inquired about for studying concepts as language and gesture.

Update (6/17/06): More from the Language Log, this time a defense about the uniquness of Ayamara back/future time metaphors.

Thoughts on Time

I've had a couple very interesting (and heated) discussions about "time" with friends recently that might be interesting to share. What had inspired one of these discussions was a book I'd read that implied that human's ability for narrative gave way to ideas of past, present, and future, and thus a sense of time that is unavailable to animals.

My friend, ever the philosophical champion of animals (bless his heart) responded that this isn't the case at all. He noted this example: his cat can watch its prey go behind an object and will know its going to come out the other side, so it goes to the other side to trap it when it comes out. So, since it can predict the result from a starting action, it has a sense of a future, and thus a sense of time.

I disagreed with this categorization, thinking that a conception of "time" as a thing is different from the cause and effect knowledge of events in daily life. He replied that it's just a matter of degree, not kind.

My thoughts right now are that there are two things going on here:

1. The subjective experience of time through the events that happen through during the day.
2. An abstract sense of time as something objective and outside just experience.

Whether it’s a matter of degree or kind, some type of symbolic activity (be it language or otherwise) is necessary in order to move from a conception of the first type to the second.

So, what does this have to do with visual language?

Well, many people believe that panels somehow equate to moments, and that "movement through space is movement through time." I believe that the second belief in time underlies these assumptions. The whole sequence of panels (or just physical space) is looked at as an abstract passage of time in which the actual panels (or internal parts of panels) are seen only as parts that fulfil the expectations of the broader whole.

In contrast, a view of panels akin to #1 focuses only on panels as segments of events. That is, the understanding of panels in sequence is far closer to the experiential sense of events than to an overarching sense of time (as I suggested way back in my Buddhism essay).

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

BNS, an overdue plug

Much to my surprise, Joe Zabel gives me a little hat-tip in his excellent review of Butternutsquash over at The Webcomics Examiner. Joe makes some great observations, and I wish he dissected the aesthetic qualities of even more of the strips.

To be honest, BNS may just be my favorite webcomic, and really I could (and do) include their examples in many of my projects. At one point, Joe says "Whether you refer to that quality as “closure,” “VL” or something else, Butternut Squash has got it in spades." Well, I personally just call what BNS does "good writing," which is why you should go spend an hour or so perusing their archives.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

"Comic" Theory 101: Seeing Rhymes

At long last, I finally have a new "Comic" Theory 101 article up at Comixpedia. This one delves into the possibilities of "visual rhyming" and how we can play with it in practice, particularly in visual poetry.

For those who are curious, the first two examples come from a piece I did waaaaay back in 1998 called "Life is where Love is" that has yet to be posted online (though its in the Meditations book already). The large pages, of course, are from my La Belle Dame Sans Merci adaptations, the second version of which is being serialized twice a week. The final poem is brand new for the article.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Manga Literacy

I've made a couple additions to the Reference Bibliography, including this one:

Nakazawa, Jun. 2005. Development of Manga (Comic Book) Literacy in Children. In Shwalb, David, Jun Nakazawa, Barbara (Eds). Applied developmental psychology: Theory, practice, and research from Japan. Pp. 23-42

This English piece is a nice summary of the work of Japanese Psychologist Jun Nakazawa, as well as several other Japanese studies on "manga literacy." His various experiments cover a lot of ground, usually looking at students from 1st through 8th grade. Most all his findings show increased understandings with aging and expertise. I'll discuss only a few of the many studies in it.

The study I liked the most asked children to arrange randomly given four panels into a strip, finding that correct answers grew from fairly low for kindergarteners and 1st graders (5.2 and 6.6%) to high for 4th and 6th graders (around 80%). Another task on that test asked for students to fill in the blank of a missing panel, which no K/1st graders could get right with increasing percentages along older grades. Comparatively, adult college students were far better than the children.

He also has designed a "story comprehension" test to examine how fully they can recall plot aspects of a ten-page Doraemon manga. He showed again that the biggest growth came between 1st and 4th grades.

He also did some eye-tracking studies comparing the eye movements of an "expert" versus a "non-frequent" manga reader. The "non-expert" fixated far more on word balloons than images and had higher reading times. On the other hand, the "expert" reader made "fewer useless eye movements" that were smoother, in addition to a higher rate of skipping over more panels and balloons. However, the expert also had higher story comprehension recall than the non-expert, despite reading faster and skipping elements.

The second part of the paper looked a lot at the role of manga in education. One interesting finding showed that frequent reading of manga correlated to achievement in language arts (particularly sentence comprehension) and a liking of social sciences, though "not significantly with liking for art class." Several studies also indicated a higher comprehension for learning from manga than from pure textual "novelized" writing.

In all, the piece presents several very interesting findings related to children's (and some adults) understandings of manga, and it is a veritible treasure trove of citations and studies. It presents a "cognitive processing model" based on this work, though it's so general that it could apply to any type of media. Along those lines, it doesn't really break up understanding into any sort of "grammatical" components as I'd like to see, lumping in aspects of things together (like manga consisting of pictures, emblems, text, etc rather than breaking those things down). The best part of the paper is its overall picture: that the skills required to understand the "comic medium" are learned and increase over age and practice.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

4 years

I forgot to post it a few days ago, but back on Wednesday it marked the fourth anniversary of the emaki.net website! Hooray! I've been a bit busy these days and rationing my typing/drawing time, but I'll try to post reviews this week of some good articles I've read lately.

Friday, June 02, 2006

An Inconvenient Truth



I just saw Al Gore's movie An Inconvenient Truth today, and man, all I can say is that everyone out there should see this movie. It is powerful, compelling, and downright scary. It very clearly and eloquently lays out the dangers of global warming, as well as gives a strong insight into Gore and his interest in it. I urge everyone to visit the website go see the movie.

Was the 2004 election stolen?



Robert Kennedy Jr.'s cover story article in this month's Rolling Stone provides fairly overwhelming and irrefutable evidence that the winner of the 2004 presidential election was not GWB. I highly recommend that everyone read the article, despite its length. No right in America is more important than our right to vote, and the fact that it has been subverted should anger, inspire, and force people to demand that this sort of injustice not go unnoticed or repeated.