Thursday, June 28, 2007


Dirk links to this blog post with a scanlation of the manga "Abstraction" by Shintaro Kago. It's a pretty incredible formalist experiment, and definitely worth checking out. ('s a bit "lewd" to say the least...) Go now!

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

I'll show you my paradigm if you show me yours

I'm shocked at the response that my quote in yesterday's ¡Journalista! (thanks Dirk!) has generated. Is it really so hard to believe there's a separation between the structure of a system of expression and how it's used in "literary" contexts?

Ok... maybe I'm not so shocked...

For spoken language, this is simply the difference between studies in lingusitics/cognitive science and literary studies. Not seeing that split for "comics" is one of the issues wrapped up in the muddled understanding of graphics and "comics" in our society.

And, I should say, I don't believe that literary and linguistics/cognitive analysis don't or can't complement each other, but recognizing the division is important at the outset. One is involved with idenitifying cognitive processes and patterns of usage and behavior. The other looks at how those patterns are used to create some sort of expression (and possibly, larger level patterns). One discusses meaning for the base semantic understandings of cognition. The other discusses meaning layered on top of those cognitive processes (often "interpretive").

The structural analysis lends itself to informing the literary quite easily. If I were to propose a method for categorizing panels based on how many "characters" they contain (which I have), even as a structural analysis, literary works can use it to discuss the sorts of concerns they have. This doesn't work as well in reverse — categorizing panels (or layouts, as Peeters did) as "decorative" versus "rhetorical" does not offer me a way to study processing or structure (though I'm open to being proven wrong). However, it does work within the contexts of literary analysis.

Neither approach is inherently better or worse within the contexts of its own intents. However, the motivating factors behind the paradigms need to be recognized as very different. To this end, the label "comic theory" is being used in very disparate ways that do not necessarily inform each other. While I've found many who go ga-ga over it, I find French "comic theory" as largely unusable and uninformative to my conception of "comic theory"—because it is of a totally different paradigm. (...and also why, I'm guessing, that they tend to dismiss McCloud's work, which I find to be far more interesting than theirs)

My point is, that like the divisions between any paradigms, it's not so much the answers being provided that are different, but also the questions. The clearer this can be made, the more there is potential growth for "progress" on all sides.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Photo Technology

This is pretty amazing new technology for photos that aggregates the information in many photos to create virtual environments, not to mention a pretty impressive navigational tool for photos and data alone.

The potential for applying it to comics is huge. On the one hand, you could use all the information stored in various panels to create a virtual environment of the fictional landscape. Moreso though, I imagine a tool like this would offer huge ground for those who are experimentally minded about online comics and the Infinite Canvas.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

ImageText Vol. 3

The latest issue of the online journal ImageText just came out with a couple articles of note (to my tastes):

The first one examines the role of comics in education, a subject dear to my heart (and the topic of one of my Comic-Con panels this year). The experiment is interesting, though I would have liked to see actual reporting of the statistics that were run, which seems like it'd be important in a piece like this.

Also, the background research seems blissfully ignorant of most of the research out there pertaining to this sort of work. Perusing the references, the books about comics are largely historical or literary treatments, and the books about psychology/education are mostly 20 to 30 years old—none of which are about comics or related research in text-image relations in educational contexts. Given a section is called 'Comics and Cognition,' it has next to no research about comics and cognition, much less the directly pertinent work that has been done in educational contexts (despite the clear overlaps in methods).

I also found it quite odd that while testing students' background experiences with images versus text, there was no question about how often they read comics. This seems like a major oversight in design, since it could correlate levels of expertise into the statistics.

The other articles of note are Jesse Cohn's (no relation) translation of a chapter of Benoît Peeters' Case, Planche, et Recit pertaining to comic page layouts, as well as his commentary about the chapter.

Peeters proposes a taxonomy for different types of page layouts, serving decorative versus rhetorical functions (among others). I find it a bit difficult to review these theories, simply because of the very apparent paradigmatic differences between this approach and my own. We are asking very different questions to generate our different answers.

French works like Peeters or Groensteen seem to be concerned with how things function in the contexts of the "work of art." In contrast, proposals like McCloud's (and mine) do not care what the work is about, but hypothesize structural principles at work in the medium and (hopefully) cognition. To invoke an analogy: I'm interested in identifying how "nouns and verbs work." They're interested in how people "use nouns and verbs in writing."

Along these lines, I'm currently analyzing data from an experiment I did looking at page layouts (I hope to have it readable by the end of summer... this is what my other ComicCon talk will be on). Immediately apparent is the difference in the intents: I don't care what the "design" of the layout "conveys"; I want to know about the strategies people use to navigate the layout irregardless of the content. As much as people might hypothesize what order people read panels in, or how the "layout is read as a whole," no data has yet shown what people actually do. Hopefully I can show some of that.

Thursday, June 14, 2007


My department here at Tufts is hosting a big linguistics/psychology conference this weekend that everybody is going crazy organizing and getting ready for. I'm not really doing that much though, since I'm not presenting or participating that much (I'm actually heading to Santa Barbara on the weekend to watch my brother graduate college!).

Anyhow, my advisor asked me to draw a few comics for his upcoming talk and book so I figured I'd share. I'm not sure what the full discussion will be, but he said these will be used to talk about how sometimes reference occurs in places outside of sentences themselves:

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Links anyone?

Life's been good lately. After being a bit debilitated from my hip surgery, I'm now starting to walk short distances again, though the crutches will be with me for a few more weeks still. More pertinent to my research concerns, I've finally finished writing my first year project paper, which was a bear to write. Now I can turn my focus to other visual language and comics related projects. Here's some links that have fallen in my lap recently...

Through my ComicSpace account, I was alerted to The Cape Symposium. While most of it seems to be a message board for talking about superhero comics in particular, the overall tone tries to probe a little deeper than the usual surface discussions, and some threads seem to aim towards praxis based theory. One thread has a downloadable pdf exploring the relations of text and image in comics, largely from a semiological-ish view.

Also, Tor from Comic Book Innovation emails me with word of Storytron, which seems to be a company working on technology for interactive storytelling. Seems to be pretty interesting.

Finally, Alan David Doane has a great essay about why the mainstream comic market is doomed to extinction. I think it's a great piece, and echoes many of the things I said in my first essay for Comixpedia, and in many of the writings in the "Visual Language Manifesto". Worth reading if these are concerns of yours.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Review: The Language of Comics by Mario Saraceni

Saraceni, Mario. 2003. The Language of Comics. New York, NY: Routeledge.

Saraceni's The Language of Comics is one of the few books that attempts to present a holistic theory of how comics work, and draws upon work from "applied linguistics" no less. The book is actually a stripped down version of his dissertation (as is his article "Relatedness" from the Graphic Novel collection). (And good luck finding the dissertation... I had to print it from microfilm on interlibrary loan).

Unfortunately, much of his approach seems to feel of grafting McCloud's work to ideas in applied linguistics in a simplistic (and uncited) way. For instance, he proposes a gradation between semiotic types (like symbols and icons), and can well be compared to McCloud’s Big Triangle.

He treats the sequential aspect of panels as equal to sentences, giving them a “discourse theory” type analysis (like the dissertation by Stainbrook). Saraceni claims meaning is created through commonality between elements in panels, alternating with successive new and given information. He also uses "semantic fields" (connected meanings: like how "snow, caroling, pine trees, and presents" invokes "Christmas") to unite panels not encompassed by this information structure.

However, in doing so, he eschews the role of linear sequentiality, yet provides no argument for why people do indeed read in consistent sequences. The result is essentially a watered down version of McCloud's closure — which it is: his dissertation has the theory in full, and exactly does shoehorn discourse theory onto McCloud's transitions. Some of his insights here are useful and enlightening, yet they deal entirely with "exceptions." He rarely discusses "run of the mill" things like the depictions of events, instead culling his examples from very experimental comics storytelling, like Peter Kuper's The System.

Other chapters cover things like word balloons (perceived as equivalents to direct quotes) and drawings of eyes to buttress a discussion of subjective and objective viewpoints. The final chapter is about computers, which seems out of the blue and has next to nothing to do with comics.

Since it uses applied linguistics, much of the book feels attuned to what might be useful for literary studies. To this extant it might work very well. However, as a theory of "meaning" it falls short, largely because it does not address any type of cognitive system, and lacks even McCloud's precision of surface categorization.

My biggest gripe about the book is that it is presented as an introductory textbook as part of the Intertext textbook series, has no citations outside a "recommended reading" list in the end, and is written with a matter of fact tone that presents it as an authoritative stance on the body of knowledge of this field. The truth is that no such body of knowledge exists at this point for "comics theory." Right now, we're in that period of science where lots of different viewpoints are popping up, just waiting for an encompassing paradigm shift to sweep in and take over.

Even if I were to come out with a book of my full theories, it wouldn't be a de facto textbook because it would be my views drawing upon that body of research. As a result, to those "in the know," the format and style make this book seem misleading in its intents for fronting Saraceni's views as well established scholarship.

To end on a good note: Though I think it fails in not using a cognitive approach, I do like that the book tries to use concepts from linguistics with "comics." It shows that this type of approach is not just intuitive to me, but to others as well, and locating the book in the broader field of linguisics is good for the field as a whole.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

More on Imitation in Drawing

Brent Wilson and Marjorie Wilson have done a lot of great work on child drawing that has influenced my thinking, especially since they take comics and manga into account a lot. I got to meet Brent last year at a manga exhibit, and he was a really nice guy. Here's another good (old) article that I recently read (it won't be the last):

Wilson, Brent, and Marjorie Wilson. "An Iconoclastic View of the Imagery Sources in the Drawings of Young People." Art Education 30.1 (1977): 4-12.

Wilson and Wilson present findings that contrast the century-old belief that imitation is bad for learning to draw. This view focused on the belief that children have an innate purity to drawing that emerges out of their natural tendencies. Imitation is thought to defile this purity. Additionally, due to their iconicity, drawing has been seen as the correspondence between the world and mental equivalences of those objects.

The Wilsons' data counteracts this with the observations that of the hundreds of drawings gathered from high school students, virtually all of them could be traced back to imitation of some other source of representation (especialy comics and cartoons, but not much fine-art). They note that the learning of drawing might be more similar to learning words (though they don't seem to really know what that means beyond common sense knowledge).

They propose that people are using/creating mental models for drawing, and that minor modifications to generalized structures can aid in creating specific representations. At times, these models would be begun to be employed, yet abandoned part way through if the drawer couldn't produce the desired result with that schema.

People might also have mental models for one type of representation, but be unable to do drawings outside of that model. So, drawing novel objects either results in sub-adaquate ability or deploy existing models from other domains.

In total, people seem to be able to store hundreds of these types of mental models. For instance, one subject who drew comics could create figures in innumerable ways. When drawing a figure he hasn't before, they hypothesize that he "averages" several of the models together to produce the new form. To me, this raises the question whether the aggregation of these models creates a singular more abstract schema or whether it remains a catalogue of numerous "malleable" models.

This means the mind has a place to store such visual schemas, a "photological" component akin to a "phonological" component for spoken language. As I've said before, if perception is the desired stimulus for drawing, models aren't created from existing models — so the system never creates a conventional set of signs.

And just to riff on my previous post, this is also the reason why drawing perspective might be "awkward" for learners — because it sidesteps metal modeling in order to exact a system of depth through measurement (as opposed to schemas... though "loose" drawing of perspective might involve some level of mental modeling created by learning how to do it. I'll have to see if there's research on that...).

I had a 13-ish year old student when I taught "drawing comics" in an afterschool program, who could not draw perspective for a tile floor in a hallway. He drew the receding lines of the hall walls with us as a group, then when drawing the floor on his own he drew it flat — like an aerial view. My interpretation: he couldn't override his existing mental models for spatial representation with new ones for perspective. That's not to say he couldn't if he worked at it, but at that moment he couldn't do it.

Finally, note that perspective and schemas are both learned — the difference is that one is acquired "effortlessly" through imitation (as they'd say in language acquisition) and the other is taught explicitly.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Art 'n' stuff

Apparently, I've inspired Nathan Sandler enough that he devoted his inaugural blog posts to critiquing my thoughts on Art vs. Language. I'm flattered that he's spent the time to write out his thoughts, and even more that he found my work thought-provoking enough to mull so much about them.

Unfortunately, I don't think he quite got what I was aiming at with the ideas of Art vs. Language. In lieu of what would assuredly be annoying, I won't make a direct rebuttal, but try to clarify my position a bit since any confusion out there might just be because I haven't explained it well enough.

There are actually two separate issues involved in my discussions of Art vs. Language. The first involves socio-cultural labeling, the second is about how people treat images in our culture especially in regard to learning to draw. Let's start with the first one...

1) Art as an identifying label to justify comics' worth

My notion of visual language is largely about drawing — and moreso about drawing sequences of images. Those drawings (and sequences) are governed by mental rules, and by nature are what I'd call a "visual language."

Whether you want to call that use of the visual language "Art" largely depends on its context. Not all drawings are conceived of as "Art" (though they are sometimes terminologically conflated) — but nor are all uses of the English language called "Art." (...unless you're post-modern enough to say that everything is "art," which is fine, though I think it fails as a useful notion if it's so all-inclusive).

The point is that the label "Art" is applied interpretively to whatever it's talking about — be it process or form (issue #1).

I have no real desire to "define" the notion of "art" — I agree with the cliché that "I know it when I see it," and I generally think that's true for most people. But, for a notion so categorically vague, how can it inherently apply to anything? Why should this notion of "comics" (the socio-cultural context that this visual language is used in) be inherently "Art" at all?

And, perhaps more important to people's concerns usually... how can such an ephemeral concept be used to defend the notion and status of "comics" in society?

This idea is prescriptive: Playing the role of a critic, I think defining "comics" as "art" is less effective toward their gaining public acceptance than a notion of visual language.

2) "Art" as a sociocultural frame for treating drawings

Issue #2 of my "art vs. language" track has to do with the forces of influence on how people (and especially children) learn to draw. This is where I trot out the "Art Perspective" as a notion of the cultural forces of a particular mentality that work to temper the way people in our society draw, but I'll leave that to other posts.

This idea is descriptive: Playing the role of an academic, I'm only making analysis of the various evidence and concepts involved, and am not advocating for any type of practice per se.

In any case, I love that Nathan devoted such a long post to all this (and seems to continue to prod my stuff), and look forward to reading what else he comes up with.