Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Manga "decompression"

In Understanding Comics, McCloud made the claim that manga supposedly uses more circuitous storytelling because of the formats of their books.

In my paper on Japanese VL, I dismiss this on the grounds that nothing about longer formats gives people the drive to make slower paced narrative. Just because you have ample space doesn't mean you're going to use it to let the story linger more. You could use that space to fill in even more "compressed" storytelling.

Thinking more about this, webcomics are another good example against this theory: from my knowledge, we haven't seen a vast decompression of storytelling on the web due to the completely unrestricted "infinite" space allowing authors to freely use (though feel free to prove me wrong!). On the one hand, you could say that they aren't effectively using the space that they have at their disposal. However, the other side could say that they're using it to achieve just what they want: they have no restrictions, so what they're producing is entirely their preference.

Personally, I think that there are numerous explanations for what might be going on in manga storytelling. Here's a few, some of which were in my paper...

1) It's just an inherent part of the difference between Euro-American VLs and Japanese VLs. We don't expect spoken languages to be the same, why should visual languages? Could "decompression" simply be a result of the development of how JVL evolved?

2) They're using the VL as a language: Manga use less text than American and European books. With more reliance on visual modality over the written requires it to take on more expressive weight. The result is more complex structure in the visual sequences. This is comparable to studies asking people to only gesture with no speaking. The result is something that looks closer to patterns like in sign languages (though still not SL).

3) The cross-cultural differences focusing on environment over action requires more space devoted to "setting a scene." Research seems to suggest that Asian minds are more interested in the broader environment than the specifics and individuating different elements of the environment take up more panel space than simply presenting it as a whole, backgrounded to the actions.

Notice that in all of these cases, formatting is entirely secondary. Indeed, it's somewhat interesting to think that formatting is one of McCloud's explanations, because much of his work is about transcending formatting. Here, the explanations focus on cognitive reasoning — meaning we should see the effects no matter what the format.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Garfield experimentalism

Apparently we're upon the 30th anniversary of Jim Davis' Garfield strip. As a ten year old I was pretty obsessed with the Garfield books, and can probably mark meeting Jim Davis at the ABA as a highlight of my fourth grade life.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I've gotten about seven emails from people linking to the Garfield Minus Garfield strips, which I first saw a few years ago even. I was always partial to the Is Garfield Dead? premise, though Nothing Garfield strips are interesting too (though Barfield does give me a good chuckle).

More theory related, the Garfield Generator is a great example of a few points of my research. It shows that there is an overarching coherent structure built into the whole strip (at least sometimes in this case), even when the immediate linear relationships don't make much sense. This is somewhat similar to the famous Chomsky sentence "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously", and I'm actually basing my next big experiment out of 6 panel long Peanuts panels of this same nature.

In some cases with the generator though, you can easily tell that the position of the panel is somewhere it doesn't belong. The thematic role of the panel belies it's canonical positioning.

Anyhow, Happy Birthday Garfield, and thanks for the early influences on my comics obsessions!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Comics and the Brain... almost

Nagai, Masayoshi, Nobutaka Endo, and Kumada Takatsune. 2007. "Measuring Brain Activities Related to Understanding Using near-Infrared Spectroscopy (Nirs)." In Human Interface and the Management of Information. Methods, Techniques and Tools in Information Design, 884-93. Heidelberg: Springer Berlin

Looks like I was beat to the punch... I've found a study from last year that analyzes the activity in the brain while reading comics. However, it doesn't say much.

The authors use near-infrared spectroscopy to measure blood flow in the brain while reading comics. This technique uses infrared light to measure where blood flows in the brain, which can thus indicate the brain regions involved in various behaviors. They find that "the left prefrontal lobe region is activated when people actively try to understand the comic stories and to memorize their contents for reporting in the future."

However, there are extensive problems with this study. First, the number of stimuli they use is extremely small (only 6 strips) as is their population (13 people... which does not add up to counterbalancing). Comparatively, the study I'm planning will use 180 stimuli per trial (720 strips total) and use somewhere from 24 to 36 people.

Additionally, the increase in blood flow that they observe only occurs in "reported" conditions — where subjects are actively making a judgement about the stimuli, as opposed to scenarios when they are not. This seems more to reflect the well-reported cognitive activation for making judgements than anything about the structure of the comics themselves.

So... this really doesn't tell us much about comics and the brain, but its nice to see other people are at least taking stabs at it as well.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Collaborative drawing

Last weekend on public television I saw a fantastic biography about Pete Seeger, the influential folk singer and activist. Throughout, Seeger stressed his desire to sing with people, not to people — motivating music as a collaborative endeavor. This sentiment is echoed in the accessible book, This is Your Brain on Music, which points out that music as "performance" by people on a stage to other people seems to be a fairly new thing. Traditionally, music was a group activity that was not reserved for those of express "skill" and training.

Drawing is much the same way. We often make a huge break between those with or without "talent" — resigning people to the misperception that they "can't draw", when really our biological endowment ensures that we all can draw. Really what is at issue is a level of fluency, and most people just don't develop with the proper exposure or practice.

Language, like this sense of music, is entirely collaborative. And, it is learned collaboratively, unlike most learning of drawing. In some cases, drawing might be instructed, often very well, though this is far from simply being interactive in the sense that you learn just by participatory immersion.

On a productive sense, drawing also is highly non-collaborative in our modern life. Belonging to a print-culture, most drawers and readers are separated by huge distances of space and time. This isn't always the case though. Sand narratives by native communities in Australia are highly interactive, drawn in real-time communication.

Humans are an intensely social animal, and my gut tells me that nearly all of our expressive capacities developed and thrive in such collaborative interactions. The question is: how in our modern ecology can we facilitate such usage for visual language? Will we have to rely on technological breakthroughs (ex. digital whiteboards), or can it grow organically without the crutch of engineering?

For those interested in more about this, my article from a few years ago "Interactive Comics" probed a lot of these ideas.