Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Art Perspective

A friend of mine got an advanced copy of a book on comics that will be coming out this summer. I'd prefer not to identify it by name here, but it had a great paragraph summarizing what I would call a driving viewpoint of the "Art Perspective":

"The fact that drawing style is the most immediate aspect of comics means that what you see when you look at a comic book is a particular, personal vision of its artist's vision—not what the artist's eye sees, but the way the artist's mind interprets sight. That's not unique to comics of course: it's true of any artist... Since comics are cartooned instead of conventionally drawn, though, they're more obviously distorted by the artist's vision."

Despite expressing that my interest in the Art vs. Language perspectives regarding drawing are only analytical, I have been accused of deriding the Art Perspective. I am "descriptive" insofar as I am not actively "advocating" the practice of one belief set over the other. People are free to do whatever they want in practice (and certainly, as a product of my culture, my own graphic development took the Art perspective).

However, I am most certainly condemning the Art Perspective as an ineffective paradigm for thinking about graphic creation. Here's why...

I don't believe that drawing has anything to do with "someone's vision of the world." I think drawing has to do entirely with formulating a mental storage of "structures of drawing" (i.e. "Photological" structures) that are actively outputted when the context arises.

It works just like the sounds of language. You take in the graphic patterns, store them cognitively (creating a stock of basic schemas), and output them as necessary. If you're taking in only visual perception, you're not providing your mental structures with the building blocks it needs—you have to create them on the fly, which is far harder — especially given that human's (and especially children's) minds/brains are "pattern seeking machines." The main difference is that the structures in speech are symbolic sounds, while those of drawing often resemble what they mean.

Indeed, the belief that children naturally grow their graphic "personal vision" from some pure innateness is ridiculous if you consider a perspective that compares it to other aspects of child development. While the ability to draw is innate, it's maturation is not. This "pure development" stops around puberty for most cultures, Japan being the most notable exception. What seems to be going on here? This is the apex of a learning period, like many other developmental learning periods (the most prominent being language).

Why do Japanese children overcome this drop-off in ability (and seem to have a higher proficiency at drawing than other cultures)? As I discuss in my book, I suspect it's because they 1) read a lot of comics (i.e. have mass exposure to the visual language in manga) and 2) are consisitently drawing in this visual language by imitating it. This is not "talent" or something special about Japanese people — it's purely about stimulus-response.

This is just like any other language: if you have exposure, imitate to learn, and put in the time for learning, you develop naturally. If it's just left up to "nature" to run its course without outside influence and/or consistent practice, you get marginal results.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Comic-Con Report '07

As ever, I had a great time at Comic-Con this year, seeing lots of friends and giving a few talks. My convention floor highlights were pretty subdued I think, as my favorite was perusing the gorgeous original Alphonse Mucha prints at the vintage art dealer. I would have liked to meander the hall a bit more, but having hip surgery two months ago took a little skip out of my step. Though, I did get to saunter about with my grandfather's old pimp-like cane (the top unscrews to reveal a compass and a shaft for a flask!).

Inevitably at the Con I have some random encounters, especially since I'm originally from San Diego and have been at this Con in some professional capacity for 13 years now. Topping the list this year was a friend I'd lived with in Japan and hadn't seen for six (!) years.

My panels seemed to have gone well too, and thanks go to everyone who turned out in attendance! You all are what make the experience a good one. The Comics and Education panel was fun, with a nicely vocal exchange between audience and presenters that made the discussion far more communal. I felt like my theory talk had a lot of good energy, largely drawing off the 100+ people who turned out. Durwin Talon's presentation on color theory that immediately followed mine was fairly cool too.

A couple who heard my talk told me a fun story afterwards. They were next door at a workshop where the instructor said that layouts are read just like text, left-to-right and down, which they found to be a little boring. So, they came next door and heard me, where I presented my experimental data showing that people don't just read comics left-to-right and down! Yay science!

In any case, for all you that missed it, I'm aiming to have the paper for this talk online in a month or so. Next on the docket I'll be flying out to New Mexico to talk about visual grammar. I've heard they'll be taping the talks, so an online lecture may be coming soon...

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Pre-literate understanding of speech balloons

Yannicopoulou, A. (2004). Visual Aspects of Written Texts: Preschoolers View Comics. L1- Educational Studies in Language and Literature, 4, 169-181.

This study assessed preschool aged children’s ability to understand various features of Carriers (i.e. thought bubbles and speech balloons), despite not being able to understand written language. Tests showed:

- 87.1% recognized angular balloons meant anger.
- 83.7% correlated a flowery border to politeness.
- 78.7% recognized increase in volume by increase in size.
- Speech vs. thought balloons were distinguished for their meaning at chance (49.7% speech/47.5% thought)
- Most poor was recognition of other languages as indicated by variation in text.

These results were fairly interesting, especially since they imply that children can recognize aspects of manner of speaking (politeness, anger, etc), yet can't differentiate plain thoughts versus speech. Part of this might relate to a general developmental trajectory though — that children don't yet have "theory of mind," the recognition that other individuals' have thoughts of their own. Preschool children are roughly at the age where this ability is developing, so the problems they had recognizing thought bubbles might be due to their lack of understanding thoughts in other people in general.

However, these data contrast with other studies in this regard that I'll be posting sometime soon.

Monday, July 23, 2007


As I've mentioned before, I'm currently designing a series of experiments that will use Peanuts strips for stimuli (kindly donated by Fantagraphics). Lately, I've been doing the arduous process of scanning them in and coding them.

Since I'm only trying to look at how sequences of images create meaning, and because the inclusion of text changes things, I've been trying to only use silent strips. Luckily, Peanuts has a lot of those. Additionally, I've also been using strips that have minimal text or could be (gasp!) manipulated to have no text.

I've been taking these strips and deleting the text, then touching up the mouths, etc. so that they work alright silently. It's been quite fun to make sure it all looks like Schulz's style. On the one hand I keep thinking "this is so cool!" and on the other I can't help but think, "Blasphemy!" for defiling the originals.

Most of the time I cut and paste from one panel to another, like putting a frown over an open mouth. In most cases, not much at all is lost in the meaning. It's usually like erasing a word balloon saying "Good Grief!" to just Charlie Brown frowning. The meaning (and humor) stays pretty much the same. I think this is actually a testament to how great Schulz's visual humor was, that I could go in and muck with things, yet the original meanings still come through.

Now... once I start swapping panels around or creating new strips out of panels from a variety of strips, then that might be another story...

(Amusingly, my father actually asked me if there were ethical issues with doing that... my advisor just thought it was pretty amusing. I'd have to think there are less ethical issues involved with retouching comic strips than experimenting on animals like the lab next door, but if I start seeing protests out front I'll reconsider).

Monday, July 16, 2007

Talk talk talk... at ComicCon '07

Just like every year, I'll be talking next week at ComicCon. This year I've got two appearances lined up (with a booksigning on Friday):

Thursday- 10:30-11:30 Comics Arts Conference Session #1: Comics in Educational Settings—Comics have long been stigmatized as a lesser medium of communication than text. However, for many years comics have been making inroads to classrooms as an effective medium for learning, from analyzing graphic novels as literature to using superheroes to teach philosophy and writing textbooks in the comic medium. Neil Cohn (Tufts University), Diana Green (Minneapolis College of Art & Design), Leonard Wong (Templeton Secondary School, Vancouver), and Danny Fingeroth (Disguised as Clark Kent) discuss the various roles comics and the comics medium can and do play in education. Room 30AB

And then my theory talk....

Friday- 2:00-3:30 Comics Arts Conference Session #8: Storytelling and Visual Language—Neil Cohn (Tufts University) reports the findings of a psychology experiment showing that readers navigate comic layouts by using systematic rules that rely on subtle cues of panel sizes and relationships while often defying the stereotypical Z-path, "left-to-right and down."...Room 30AB

This one is actually just my talk on a bigger panel, but I'm actually really looking forward to it. I did this experiment from a booth at ComicCon a couple years ago, and I'm excited to have finally analyzed the data. I've actually got cold-hard numbers that hint at how people read comic page layouts, so the talk is going to be a fun one (as if they're all not!). I'm still tinkering with the essay, but I hope to have it online not too far off.

Following this Friday talk I'll be signing at the Comic Relief booth, hawking my usual wares and looking to engage in lively conversation. Hope to see you there!

Saturday, July 14, 2007


Every now and then I come across people who really resist the sort of work I'm doing. They dislike the idea of academic investigation of "comics," as if it somehow degrades the value of the works that are produced.

I'm also confused at the general meme that claims academics are so enveloped in their work that they have "lost touch with the real world." I've often found that people in academia are more in touch with the issues going on in the world (or at least try to be), and often are committed to making it a better place, not holing up and ignoring everyone in their study in their non-existant "Ivory Tower."

What I find even more amazing is the vitriol that some people enamoured with McCloud's work sometimes have against mine. I've heard that I'm "overanalyzing" or "missing the obvious" etc. The funny thing is that McCloud's work was accused of exactly the same thing when it came out. Many people did (and still do) hate it for trying to open a dialogue about this stuff. Now McCloud's work has such a dogmatic following that people have once again closed off their minds to that "debate" that he so willingly opened to everyone.

At this point, I've spent as many years out of academia doing this work as I have in it. And, I'll say that doing it within academia sure beats out, because of the availability of resources to use, people to discuss with, time you can allot to the work, etc. It's great to be on the outside changing the system, but sometimes being on the inside is a good thing. (and sometimes you'll always be on the outside, no matter how inside you are).

It baffles me, what sort of rational thinker would believe that any type of scientific or scholarly investigation is a bad thing?

It is the nature of discovery and exploration that help define being human... Even exploration into the cognition of the "comic" medium.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

I'm a winner!

Apparently, I've won an award. I just got an email saying that my "paper, The Grammar of Comics, was selected as the winner of the M. Thomas Inge Award for Comics Scholarship for the Comic Art & Comics Area at the 2006 Popular Culture Association conference in Boston."

So... yay!

Monday, July 09, 2007

Blindfolded patterns

Dirk links to this interesting post where cartoonists were asked to draw their characters blindfolded (versions on the right). This Chester Gould one is pretty impressive...

What's interesting to note is where most had problems and where they were fine. Most of the linework between the blindfolded and sighted versions are the same, it's putting them all together that they had trouble with. I like this a lot since it shows that authors are using consistent patterns when drawing (as if people didn't know this), even when they can't see the page!

This all reminds me of some citation I saw that claimed blind people also use/conceive of speed lines to indicate motion, but I never fully got the chance to read up on it. Perhaps I'll hunt that one down...

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Essay in The Public Journal of Semiotics

Way back in January, I had a piece published in the innaugural issue of the online Public Journal of Semiotics, yet kept forgetting to post about it. The essay there is an expanded version of my downloadable essay "A Visual Lexicon", which people seem to find as one of the most interesting of the papers posted (at least, that's what the vocal feedback says).

Naturally, I think the PJOS version of the paper is much better than the original, though the interface is a little funky since they're experimenting with electronic delivery beyond simple pdfs. Unfortunately, that means they lost all of my formatting, in addition to putting my images in places that don't always make sense for the flow of reading. Grr...argh.

Neverthless: an expanded essay for your reading pleasure.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007


As I've probably mentioned before, I'm currently building a corpus of comics to be used in research related projects. I've had some donations from companies already, and Dark Horse just about doubled my collection in one fell swoop! They are thanked tremendously (as are everyone else who's donated). I'm still interested in expanding the collection, especially with international books, so if you can help out with that, shoot me an email.

The ultimate goal, which we're inching towards implementing, is to create a massvie database of books. We will code various properties of the books, then be able to mine the data to come up with lots of interesting statistics about the structure of comics — cross-listed by country, genre, company, etc. This can tell us about the trends and patterns in visual languages of the world. Plus, all the information will also store coding information about the panels, strips, and books that I will be using in experimentation.

Hopefully I'll be able to get this set up to start having data entered by the Fall (most likely by enterprising undergrads... anyone out there go to Tufts or nearby schools and want to do research for course credit??).

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Comics definitions and distribution

A friend of mine and I were talking about comic distribution and some interesting points came up, including how McCloud's definition of "comics" might actually hurt the growth of the medium.

I'll get back to that one.

My friend noted that "comics" are coming to be split into two major groupings of mainstream works and graphic novels (largely dominated by memoir), and that "comics" were once again coming to refer to the latter as a more niche label of superhero/fantasy/sci-fi/-ish genres.

Part of our discussion focused on the inadequacy of the distribution to "comic stores" for appealing to customers who might not have any interest in that niche. I've argued at length before about how if someone were to write a compelling baseball "comic" that would appeal to baseball fans (which outnumber "comic" fans by a lot I imagine, when they aren't overlapping), only selling it in a "comic" store would not reach the real audience intended to buy it — you'd need to sell it in sporting-good stores, batting cages, baseball games/stadiums, etc. (in addition to non-niche places like grocery stores).

Now, when McCloud tried to define "comics" back in 1993 as "sequential images," I think (?) his intent was to move the label beyond its stereotyped niche. Using such a formalist/structural definition would seemingly let so many other things into the fold that superheroes/etc. would become just another genre.

But instead of "comics" becoming the superordinate category to the benefit of the medium, I think this has actually had a negative impact for those that have adhered to it. Instead, it seems as though it only cast a wider net for all those things that break the stereotype to be sucked into the associations of "comics." My hypothetical "baseball comic" would only get hurt by being called a "comic" and being carried in "comic" outlets because readers of said genre already have predispositions toward things called "comics."

Indeed, the only real growth areas in the industry right now are things that have both evaded those stereotypes and use new labels altogether: "manga" or "graphic novels."

With those new labels they have appealed to audiences outside the "comics" markets. I've heard stereotype-avoiding readers say "it's not a comic, it's a graphic novel" — which is why Marvel and DC are now trying to give a post-hoc association of their products ("comics") as being "graphic novels" so they won't be left behind by the new wave of readership. (I doubt it's working)

I actually think it's fine for "comics" to refer to a niche, since it gives it a reliable label. And, there's nothing wrong with that, especially if we have a notion of the sequential graphic communication system that is separate from the notion of how that graphic system appears socially. It's also fine for that niche to be found reliably in "comic stores," while other graphic works that don't need to be called "comics" can viably be sold in other marketplaces.

We shouldn't limit potential graphic stories and books to the labels and distribution venues of a niche they don't belong to. Doing so would only ensure that they never sell to their potential and that the medium never reaches beyond niche works.