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).

2 comments:

Darren said...

"There are some cultures — and individuals — that cannot comprehend sequences of comic images nor produce them."

Name three of these cultures please.

Neil said...

Three distinct cultures I can't do offhand, however there are various communities in Australia that cannot understand that one spatially juxtaposed panel connects to the following one. I should point out that this is not because a lack of fluency, but because of competing fluency. They have their own visual language that unfurls temporally in a single location rather than spatially across several spaces.

Individual instances of Nicaraguan homesigners (people born deaf who create their own gesture systems in lieu of never learning sign language) show that they can understand the contents of individual images, but can't understand sequences of images. They also cannot understand elements from individual images that are conditioned upon sequence. So, this is a case where they've learned NO language whatsoever.

However, I should say that this same trait is shown experimentally by American four year olds, who do have reasonable language skills by that age.