Monday, January 25, 2010

Action Stars and Smoke-veiled fights

I've posted every now and again about a convention in comics that I've called "action stars", where a whole panel is replaced by a star shaped "flash" that essentially represents "event happens here!" but doesn't show that event. I've likened this to being like a pronoun in the visual grammar, since it can replace the Peak events of the sequence, just like a pronoun can replace a noun (or noun phrase).

Over the past year I've run some successful experiments using action stars, and am planning a few more of them. But, I've also had the lingering question whether there are any more of these "visual pronouns" out there...

And I think I've found one.

Another common piece of visual morphology is the "smoke-veiled fight" (alternative names welcomed), where a big puff of smoke is shown with arms and legs sticking out, to stand for a fight occurring, which can also take up a whole panel:

Some interesting contrasts can be made between the smoke-veiled fight (SVF) and action stars. First off, SVF panels are much more restricted; they can only appear for fights, whereas action stars can go on almost any Peak panel. We might write this out this difference in meaning formally as:

Action Stars: [Event: X]
SVF: [Event: FIGHT(A,B,...n)]

This basically says that an action star carries the unspecified meaning that an Event "X" occurs, but SVF panels show an Event of "Fighting", consisting of at least characters A and B up to "n".

Also of interest is that while both depict "events", the nature of those events is intrinsically different. Action stars show a single event, while SVF panels show a duration. Notice, you can't glean the sense of duration from an action star, nor can you interpret the SVF as a single event. But, the difference is there — even though in neither one can you actually see what events are "actually" happening!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

"Defining Comics" video

Patric Lewandowski offers this video lecture of his attempt to define comics, based on his earlier column from Comixtalk. He covers a lot of ground, meshing numerous memes of comics theory.

Ultimately, I do disagree with most of his points, for reasons I've described elsewhere**, but it's at least interesting to see him present it all together, and I do like that other people are at least trying to address these issues.

While I've defended people's attempts to define comics before, from the visual language perspective, the whole issue of "defining comics" does seems a little strange, and likely stems from McCloud's big thrust to do so in Understanding Comics.

McCloud's guiding rhetoric was a division of form and content. For him, the form was comics and the content was the genres that appear in comics. But, you can take this one further, since comics are only a "form" if you presume them to be.

Really, comics are made of two mediums: text and sequential images. These can be the "form" and the notion of "comics" is the content. Truly, as Patric tries to get at, text and/or images appear in lots of places, but only sometimes are they called "comics." This says to me that "comics" are not a thing definable by those elements at all as a type of "form."

Rather, comics are written in text and images the same way that novels or magazines are written in text. From this perspective, debates over "what are comics?" are rendered similarly to "what are novels?" or "what are magazines?"

**Though I will add emphatically that my theory of visual language as he presents it there is fairly misleading. Visual language is NOT just about iconography!!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

5 Card Nancy and Panel Transitions

One of Scott McCloud's more wacky inventions is the game Five Card Nancy which is based on the old comic strip Nancy. The basic premise of the game is that you can create lots of different (and fun) novel strips by combining random panels together. Scott recently posted an old collage he did that led to the game.

Of immediate note in his collage is that the sequence doesn't exactly make much sense, despite some cohesion between the panels. I'd say that it may have a narrative structure (i.e. visual grammar), but no meaning (semantics).

In some cases though, the juxtaposed panels do make sense, but the global meaning does not. In linguistics (borrowed from math), we'd call this a "first-order Markov chain", since only the units right next to each other have a connection. If a panel had a connection to two panels next to it, it'd become a "second-order chain", etc...

Markov chains were the primary way that people thought about language's grammar up until the 1950s, when Noam Chomsky then showed that grammar needed to account for connections farther than just countable individual word relationships (an approach I then applied to comics' sequences).

Essentially, McCloud's theory of panel relationships is a first-order Markov chain theory. It only looks at juxtaposed relationships. Interestingly, his Five Card Nancy game follows the same characteristic. Since players put down one panel at a time, it appears as though they are just making choices linearly. However, I'm guessing that the higher scoring combos are all ones that gel on a global scale, not just a local connection.

Also, the limitation of the panel transition viewpoint is really highlighted by McCloud's Nancy collage. How can panel transitions be correct if only local connections make sense but ones further down the sequence do not? Though we may draw and read comics one panel at time, it doesn't mean we don't build or project a bigger structure in our minds beyond the linear relations.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Storycards and visual grammar

My friend Alex sends along this link to a gift pack of "storycards". Basically, you can use these cards in sequences to create lots of different novel stories. The idea is similar to McCloud's Five Card Nancy game.

I'm interested in it for a few theoretical reasons. For example, having a stock set of units that can be combined in different ways is similar to language, where you have a set of words (vocabulary) that are combined in various ways (grammar). As the main thrust of linguistics in the last 50 years has told us, infinite possible sentences can be made with just a small set of vocabulary items, and that's basically the fun of such a card set!

However, even more interesting, its very similar to a study I finished running a few years ago and am still working on getting written up. In it, my participants were given four panels from a Peanuts strip and asked to arrange them in an order that makes sense.

People were very good at getting the original order of the strip (around 90% if I remember correctly), though that's not what I was interested in. I was more interested in the errors that people made, and whether there were patterns to them. And, indeed, there were. Prior to testing, we had coded the panels for numerous narrative properties, and found that certain narrative categories got moved around in particular patterned ways.

What this showed was that people don't just make up sequences one panel at a time as this game suggests, but that elements of that order are conditioned by roles of panels. These roles are determined both by properties of individual panels, and the relations between images.

So, one-by-one reading/drawing, but guided by underlying complexity (grammar) beyond just linear relationships.