Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Speaking fun

As I mentioned in a previous post, I'm going to be speaking next week at the Popular Cultural Association National Conference here in Boston next week. If you're interested in attending, I recommend checking out their site. I'll be presenting once again about my work on visual language grammar.

Then, I'm almost more excited to say, that I'll be teaching my stuff to the Syntactic Theory class that I'm a Teacher's Assistant for here at Tufts since my professor is going to be out of town that day. My advisor is the teacher of the class, and since he pretty much helped invent modern syntactic and semantic theory, its been a thrill just being in the class let alone getting to teach a lecture or being the TA.

The course so far has aimed less at teaching the students how to do a particular theory of syntax (though it has done that a bit, advocating my advisor's new theory of Simpler Syntax), but instead at teaching them how to be syntacticians. What are the choices to be made? How can you tell what theory is best and why? These are the questions I'm struggling with in my own work, so it's been enlightening for me greatly as well. (Beyond this, I suppose my contribution just goes to make this course even more unique and weirder than the average university syntax class.)

In this spirit, I'm thinking that I'll teach the class my basic theory of VL grammar, then just give them a whole bunch of the more wacky and interesting sequences I've found and see what they can do with them. And, since I enjoyed it so much, I'm going to include Tim Godek's strip from today. Can you figure out what about it's structure makes me like it so much?

Thursday, March 22, 2007

You're a good grammatical construction, Charlie Brown

I've recently been thinking quite a lot about how best to start testing my theories of visual language grammar. Since I'm in a psychology program, I've got to actually think of experiments that might yield reliable and significant results (hopefully).

One of the main ideas I had was starting off using a corpus of comic strips, so I wouldn't be biasing the study with my own drawings. I hit on the thought that Peanuts strips would be perfect for this since 1) there are a ton of wordless ones, 2) they're well recognized culturally, and 3) they use a fairly simple bare bones structure with 4) nearly always with 4 panels.

So, thanks to a very kind donation from Fantagraphics, I am now pouring through several volumes of The Complete Peanuts strips in search of all the wordless/minimal text ones I can find (there are a lot!). Hopefully, by summer I should be testing peoples intutions on the grammar of these strips, and eventually looking at their brainwaves while processing them (fun!).

One of the things that has jumped out at me is how so many of the strips use systematic patterns that I haven't noticed before. Previously, I've talked about the visual grammatical pattern of the 'Set up - Beat - Punchline' construction (as coined by Neal VonFlue). This is the pattern that sets up the joke with dialogue, then has a pause panel, then ends with the punchline. Well, Schulz seems to use a few other patterns a lot as well.

The most intruiging to me is one that is almost exactly like the SBP pattern, only the "beat/pause" panel isn't actually a pause: it's an "action" panel (SAP?). Instead of a passive type "rest," the space is filled by some wordless action that sets up the payoff with the final panel punchline. I've only looked at the oldest of the collections (the 1950s) and have only seen a few actual SBP constructions. I'm curious whether or not this SAP pattern preceded/led to the SBP one.

Another pattern has the first three panels as wordless depictions of an event, only to have a final panel with a punchline that explains or comments on the actions. This one happens extremely frequently, and sometimes takes on an additional characteristic of having the first panel depicting an action as well. It starts with an event that sets up the primary event that unfolds in the rest of the panels.

Patterns like this are fun to find, but can also be challenging theoretically. At least as far as developing a model for my visual grammar, sometimes I'm hesitant of how to notate certain panels, and often debate which is more correct. Imagine not only trying how best to describe how nouns and verbs combine, but also whether or not things are nouns and verbs in the first place and/or whether those categories are appropriate at all (when there's good evidence for all).

And, unlike with homework, there is often no answer key that I can check with someone else (except, hopefully, what my experiments will reveal). I've always found this "working without a net" to be a little scary, but at the same time exciting since it portends new and uncharted territory. I suppose it's the feeling of truly doing science instead of just learning it.

Note: As long as I'm giving thanks for donations, I should also mention the kind contributions of TopShelf, Drawn & Quarterly, Top Cow, Oni Press, and Dark Horse Comics. Their generosity will make a huge difference in these visual language studies and are greatly appreciated!! If you are from another company and would like to donate to this cause, please contact me...

Sunday, March 18, 2007

New Article: Loopy Framing

At long last, I have a new article up at Comixpedia called "Loopy Framing"! This one tackles the similarities between word balloons, thought bubbles, and panels, arguing that they are all essentially the same thing. Oh, and it reveals some nice aspects of human cognition along the way.

I should also note that this article wouldn't have been nearly as good looking (or timely) without the fantastic illustrations by Tim Godek. Since I'm generally swamped with schoolwork, Tim kindly agreed to help out and make this happen, to which I'm greatly appreciative. Be sure to thank him too, by checking out his site and blog (which are on my regular reading list).

I look forward to hearing your feedback, either here or on the article's thread. Enjoy!

Friday, March 16, 2007

When the going gets tough...

I am not too proud to say it: First-year statistics is kicking my butt. And, occasionally, driving me insane. Seriously. Sometimes I dream in excel spreadsheets.

So, for my spring break I've decided to commit myself to: the obvious solution I should have thought of long ago.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007


Last year I did some work for a non-profit called CAST Inc. that develops technology to be used in education. I'm very excited to be able to go give a talk at their offices tomorrow, which only reminded me that I've kept forgetting to blog about them since I started this whole thing!

One of the projects I did for them involved making two separate "comics" that teach how photosynthesis works. One was a narrative version and one was expository. I'm not allowed to reproduce them in full, but here are clips of both of those works:

Educational comics on photosynthesis

Relatedly, I'll try to post on my thoughts about comics and education sometime soon. Next week is spring break, so hopefully I can get a smidgeon of a breather enough to write something up.