Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Indexing Events with Panels

A comment on my review of Magnussen's piece on semiotics in comics asked me to expand on this part:
More interestingly, she claims that the "still-images of actions" are also indexical, because they only show a part of a broader temporal whole action. This is probably the most astute observation of the piece, yet receives relatively little relative attention. This is a key insight, and would be worth expanding on.

First of all, in the semiotics of C.S. Peirce, indexicality is a means through which reference is garnered via causation or indication. For example, an index finger that points to something doesn't mean that thing, it indicates the thing has meaning. The finger is just saying "for the real meaning look over there." Also, if I saw a footprint in the sand, it indexes the person who once walked there, because of the causation stepping there created.

Another aspect to indexicality can happen through part-whole relationships. By showing just a hand, you index the rest of the body (assuming it hasn't been detached....*shudder*).

So, related to Magnussen's point, I'm recalling this particularly salient image in my mind from the book How to Draw the Marvel Way depicting a figure punching in several points throughout the overall action.

What Magnussen seems to imply is that a single snapshot of one part of this event sequence indexes the whole rest of the sequence. I would agree with this in general, though I think it's likely that different places within that progression will be more or less salient as indicating the whole.

For example, in How to Draw..., Lee and Buscema's advice is to use the maximally intense points of that sequence — the ends and beginnings of the action marked "best" or "not bad." These sections of the action seem more representative of the action than the medial parts. In semiotic terms, they would index the overall action better than the parts in the middle, which are less representative of the overall action.

Research seems to have borne out their intuition. Studies have shown that people's comprehension of events is better for the maximally preparatory and completed parts of an action, over that of the middle. In fact, even 10-11 month old infants seem to parse events through these outer boundaries.

Now, it would be unsurprising if Magnussen's statement were attempted to expand beyond the representation in single panels, out to across panels. So, let's say that two panels show both the beginning and end parts of that punch sequence. Here, there is a sense that the whole middle part of the action is indexed by seeing the ends — i.e. you know the middle happened but didn't see it.

This would be, essentially, what McCloud is arguing for with Closure. That, because we know the course of events, we "fill in" knowledge of the whole action by seeing the parts. However, even McCloud acknowledges that not all panel relations are of actions (for example, his Subject and Aspect transitions), though his notion of Closure is extended over all of them.

While I do not believe that "Closure" happens to "fill in the gutter" between panels (for numerous reasons), I do think that part of a represented action might index full actions. I don't know if I'd say that the whole action, including the middle parts, is "manifested" somehow in our minds. However, the reference of a part of an action certainly would index the concept of the whole action, by only being a sliver of it.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Review: Semiotics and comics

Magnussen, Anne. (2000). The Semiotics of C.S. Peirce as a Theoretical Framework for the Understanding of Comics. In A. Magnussen & H.-C. Christiansen (Eds.), Comics and Culture: Analytical and Theoretical Approaches to Comics. Copenhagen: Museum of Tusculanum Press. pp.193-207

Magnussen's paper attempts to apply Peircean semiotics to the comic medium, though little of the actual paper focuses on those intents. Much of the paper is concerned with the definition of "comics", which is too bad, because it is nearly irrelevant for the overall claims attempted to be made. Like others, she conflates the structural aspects of the visual medium with the definition of "comics" though, so that "comics" is a sign type built out of image parts < panel < panel sequence < comic.

She makes a parallel to Van Dijk and Kintsch's 1983 discourse approach, equating panels with propositions and citing "local coherences" between panels created through inferences (which could essentially be the same as McCloud's notion of "closure"). The "global coherence" of panels relation to the whole is interpretted through narrative schemas.

Because she conflates "comics" with stories/sequential images, she states:
"For a comic not to be a story, it should be possible to create a global coherence on the basis of something other than story-structure, and in which the local coherences are made on inferences based on parameters other than actions, actors, time and place" (198).

She then gets into the usual bind regarding whether a comic without a story is actually considered a "comic" or not. If accepting that comics ≠ sequential images, this would be of no concern.

Her main analysis focuses on the semiotic elements of the example comic. She primarily focuses on icons, indexes, and symbols, and leaves out aspects of Peirce's model regarding the nature of the "Sign vehicle" that would change many of the interpretations related to conventionality. For instance, if she had those notions, simplified icons would not be interpreted as symbolic, but just types of "legisigns".

Most of her argument though is that comics use indexical signs beyond just icons and symbols. For example, she claims that word balloons are indexical because of the attribution given by their Tails. More interestingly, she claims that the "still-images of actions" are also indexical, because they only show a part of a broader temporal whole action. This is probably the most astute observation of the piece, yet receives relatively little relative attention. This is a key insight, and would be worth expanding on.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Random Creative Links

As I'm coming up on Spring Break here at Tufts, all seems well as we (hopefully) transition into Springtime (hopefully — a Californian like me can't take much more of this cold before I go batty). Here are a bunch of random links that seem to have fallen my way:

Stricken Pot Pie has some fantastic comics made entirely from embroideries. While I can't say much for the story yet (it's still developing) the sheer idea of it is creative enough to warrant a link.

My friend Alexander Danner pointed me towards this interesting site, where the artist takes children's drawings and then paints/draws them in the same proportions with much more "realistic" representation. Some of the monsters are actually quite unnerving, but again, the idea is certainly a creative one.

Finally, if you're in the creative mood yourself, chalk up Strip Generator to the list of numerous low frills web-based comic creation sites out there.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Faces in comics

Tan, Ed S. 2001. The Telling Face in Comic Strip and Graphic Novel. In The Graphic Novel, edited by J. Baetens: Leuwen University Press.

This study looked at the knowledge of faces and facial expressions in comics assuming that facial expressions are universal and thus comics rely on these universal cues in representation. In the analysis of Tintin comics, consistent basic emotions are depicted, often with hyperbolic exaggeration. In comparison, the emotions in Maus are more downplayed and minimally focused upon. This is hypothesized as due to the “seriousness” of the comparative subject matter.

Ultimately it concludes (like in McCloud’s Making Comics), that comic drawing uses a small set of emotional primitives that are employed in combination for universal emotional expression. Curiously, though McCloud expresses they are universal in his book, his recent blog post on the topic implies that he thinks facial expressions are also a learned behavior.

On the whole, I'm curious what this would do with data from countries like Japan that vary from findings of universal facial expressions. Would Japanese manga also reflect the different interpretations of expressions held by their culture? Does this mean that the facial expressions manga might sometimes be misunderstood by non-Japanese reading them?

On the whole, this paper could have benefited from more systematic coding than the roughshot sampling of expressions in selected pages from a limited sample size. How many expressions were there? Of what kinds? How do people from those different populations interpret the expressions from differing countries? Etc.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Tufts Daily Feature

The Tufts Daily, Tufts University's student newspaper, has a feature article about me and my work in today's edition, which is also readable online.