Sunday, April 22, 2007

16 panels that are Still Conventional whether you think they work or not

I neglected posting this ealier in the week, but John Morris has a parody/homage to Wally Wood's 22 Panels that always work over at Comixpedia entitled 16 Panels That I Don't Think Work All That Well. There are a couple things I find theoretically interesting about it.

First off, it is a great compilation of conventionalized patterns used in many comics. Just like WW's 22 Panels and the Peanuts patterns I've been finding recently, this list excellently shows how there are systematic and conventionalized patterns in the visual language used in comics. This is in contrast to the view that graphic creation is unrestrained because it mimics perception, and thereby lacks an experss system of mentally stored patterns. Astute observations like these 16 panels excellently show that there is systematic and patterned visual vocabulary used by "visual language speakers" (and I wish more people would do work like this!).

The second thing this list shows is a preference for the use of some representations over others (WW's 22 Panels does this too, though positively as opposed to negatively). Linguistics has often been in perpetual debate with journalists/English teachers/etc. that believe there is a right or wrong way to use language. We are often told "not to end a sentence with a preposition," or "not to split infinitives" — though these are not in any way real rules of English grammar. (They were prescribed by grammar book writers in the 18th century who were enamored with Latin — so they advocated Latin's rules for English, not at all being sensitive to the fact that, y'know, they're totally different languages!!).

This list's intent is prescriptive in the same way. Despite these being consistent conventional trends used in this visual language, they are gauged by their value in usage. An additional aspect to this is the Art perspective most invoked in the comments below the article. Most people object to these panels simply because they are conventional! They're "overused," which means they aren't new and innovative/original — which makes them undesirable to the Art viewpoint.

However, none of this mitigates the fact that these panel types are conventional. The linguist would say "they're all part of language, let's observe how people use them" while the prescriptivist says "they're part of language, but they really shouldn't be, and those who use them are less sophisticated speakers."

It's interesting to note also that no matter how loudly prescriptivism might object to such "bad" usage, it never has an effect on shaping language usage. It's not like split infinitives have gone away because people advocate against them! Nor do I suspect these 16 panels to go away either.

In some ways both aspects of a list like this shows some good headway in recognition of this visual language as a language on the whole. Not only are people recognizing the patterns, they're also judging them prescriptively, just like any other language!

Friday, April 20, 2007

Reviews coming soon (hopefully)

I recently got Endnote for my computer, a program that manages citations and automatically generates bibliographies (a dream program for someone like me who writes a gazillion essays). I had previously been writing little reviews for books and papers into a text file, but now I can put them in Endnote nicely organized. As I'm now going through and entering in all these references, I'm sure to be writing lots more reviews. So, be on the lookout for lots more summaries of research papers, coming soon!

Well, to be honest, not too soon... I'm currently in the midst of massive projects, presentations, and exams for the end of the school semester. Hopefully I can do more blog stuff and personal writing in a few weeks once things die down a bit (well, relatively speaking at least... after that I have hip surgery, summer school, and even more research...).

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Character Design for Graphic Novels

An excerpt from my drawn Comixpedia article along with some quotes from your's truly appear in the new book Character Design for Graphic Novels, written by Steven Withrow and Alexander Danner.

After they'd asked me to be in it, Alexander and I happened to become friends when I moved to Boston. So, I've been hearing about the book's coming for awhile. I got to see the proofs in black and white, and I must say the final copies look gorgeous in full color. In addition to its great instruction, the book is chalk full of works by creators far more talented and interesting than I, so go check it out!

Friday, April 13, 2007

Fun with framing

Today's xkcd makes great use of the recursive framing that I discussed in my latest Comixpedia article. I have no idea if Randall read the article, but I wouldn't put it past him to think up of this stuff on his own since he frequently plays with this type of formalist experimentation. He doesn't entirely use recursion in it, but the rebounding of the last two panels is a nice touch.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Visual Fluency... aka "Pissing off Writers"

There's a been a little hullabaloo lately about Jesse Hamm's recent blog post on "Why Comic Book Writers Oughta Mind Their Own Business," and the Mark Waid reply. Attitudes displayed by both sides aside, I actually agree with Jesse's sentiment, but I think there's some deeper issues going on here in this "artist vs. writer" clash.

What's really at issue here is the level of fluency a person has in producing this visual language that is used in comics. Most of the time graphic production is viewed as a matter of skill — how good someone is at "drawing pictures" or maybe "telling a story" as opposed to being a fluent vs. not fluent producer in an explicit system of expression.

"Artists" — those who are demonstrably graphically fluent — rightfully are justified in feeling perturbed at being dictated to by writers, whose graphic fluency might be questionable. Jesse's post highlights the disjunct that occurs when "artists" are being directed by a writer who is not graphically fluent.

There is a difference between fluency in comprehension and production. Children whose parents speak different languages than the general populace sometimes might be able to understand what their parents say, but they might not speak it. This occurs en masse in our society for visual language — especially since it's a print culture with no reciprocal exchange of expression. Most people in our culture are fluent readers of visual language, but just being able to comprehend is not sufficient enough to be able to produce.

Beyond proudction, there are some cultures — and individuals — that cannot comprehend sequences of comic images. Reading ability between fluent comprehenders also varies as well. Experimental eye-tracking data show explicit differences in the path of eye movement between "expert" and "non-expert" comic readers when navigating through comic pages. Other studies have shown that skill in comprehension of panel sequences and memory of them increases with age, indicating a maturation of expertise.

Further experiments show that children from countries with limited comic reading (i.e. like America) cannot produce sequential images at a high proficiency (in some studies, over 2/3 of the subjects could not create sequences where one panel has some connection to its adjacent panels). In a truly fluent populace like Japan where most all children read and draw manga as part of the culture, 100% of children tested can create sequential images at a high degree of proficiency using complex visual grammar.

We need to move beyond the naive belief that drawing is just a "skill" in a "universal" "art form" (that is equally expressible by those who do or don't have the skill) and towards the cognitive reality that it requires a graphic fluency in an explicit system of expression that must be learned and developed... leaving a large group of people with degrees of limited fluency.

(... just like any other language).