Wednesday, August 25, 2010

New Essay: Extra! Extra! Semantics in Comics

I'm excited to say that I've just had another article published. This one is entitled "Extra! Extra! Semantics in Comics!: The conceptual structure of Chicago Tribune advertisements" and appears in the latest edition of the Journal of Pragmatics. Here's the abstract:
Recently, increasing attention is turning to comics as a graphic domain using similar cognitive processes to linguistic forms. As in the verbal and manual modalities of expression, various semantic structures arise across sequences of images in interesting and effective ways. This piece examines metonymy, conceptual metaphors, and blending across a three-panel pattern used in strips from an advertising campaign by the Chicago Tribune newspaper.


I originally had the idea for this paper when I was living in Chicago. I kept seeing these comic strips as advertisements all of the city and they really struck me as interesting since they were using principles I knew from linguistics. As it turned out, I had a class with professor Christopher Johnson (a former advisor of mine) where those ideas were being studied, so I brought in the strips for class discussion and wrote the paper as a final essay.

I think many of my papers end up plotting out new ground for research, or developing some new theoretical tools. This is a rare case where I simply saw interesting phenomena out there and applied existing ideas to illustrate it. That made it fairly fun though.

This paper was originally posted on this site for several years under a different title. This version has been overhauled and updated, so I recommend it for any who are interested in meaning-making in sequential images. Enjoy!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Reading comics for work

I admit it, I have a pretty sweet job. Among the paper writing, class teaching, and data gathering (all fun), it is true that at least a portion of my time is devoted to reading comics. A lot of comics. I end up combing through hundreds of pages of comics just to find examples that might be worth discussing in my papers.

For example, this summer I've been working on a massive paper detailing the inner workings of how people comprehend sequential images. And by "massive", I mean that I still have numerous sections left to fill in, and the paper is already 130 pages.

I spent last weekend combing through a giant stack of Calvin and Hobbes looking for interesting strips. Unsurprisingly, there were many. (It's a rough life...)

One of the things I've noticed recently is that very few comic sequences really faze me anymore. I seem to be able to account for most everything I come across in my existing theories, which is both cool ("yay, my theories seem to be working!") and troubling ("I need to find more strips with things I haven't thought of!").

So, if you happen to have any sequences that you think are a little strange or challenging (especially strips), please send them my way! Maybe I'll even post them here and give them some analysis...

Monday, August 16, 2010

Lightbulbs over the head actually do give insight!

A friend of mine and fellow grad student in the Tufts Psychology Department (Mike Slepian) recently had a paper come out that's been getting some press lately. Interestingly enough, it relates to the common cartoony emblem of the lightbulb above the head. This symbol is a conventional sign for "inspiration" in comics and cartoons, so the authors wanted to see if real lightbulbs could actually give people inspiration.

Lo and behold — they did! In a series of experiments, participants were asked to do logic problems and near them light was turned on from either a lightbulb or an ambient overhead light. Participants with a lightbulb consistently completed more logic problems correctly than those with the overhead light.

This indicates that, not only do the conventional signs of a lightbulb represent inspiration, but that meaning has become entrenched enough that it actually feeds back on performance in cognitive tasks. That is, the graphic symbolism has affected the way we think and behave.

The idea that language effects thought and behavior is called "linguistic relativity" or Whorfianism and is a highly contentious debate. The vocabulary of visual language may have some degree of linguistic relativity as well — at least for this particular sign. I'd love to see more research like this with other graphic signs. I'm not sure what my prediction would be, but it'd certainly be interesting...


Slepian, M.L., Weisbuch, M., Rutchick, A.M., Newman, L.S., & Ambady, N. (2010). Shedding light on insight: Priming bright ideas. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46, 696-700.

Monday, August 09, 2010

New Book: Meaning and the Lexicon

It slipped my mind to post this a few months ago, but my advisor Ray Jackendoff has just a had a new book come out that is worth picking up entitled Meaning and the Lexicon. It features a collection of his papers tracing the development of his theories over the past 35 years. Pertinent to me, not only does this work frame the work that I am doing, but the book features new illustrations by yours truly!

There are several great and interesting chapters in this book, particularly one on the relationship of the conceptual system and language to the visual system, addressing the question of "how do we talk about what we see?" This is of course interesting to me because the bulk of the things I talk about are visual.

There's also a classic article about "Parts and Boundaries" which concerns the underlying principles guiding concepts having to do with whether things have internal parts (are they divisible into pieces and can retain the same idea? Ex. "water" broken apart is still water, but a "dog" is not...) and do they have boundaries (ex. a "lake" has a fixed boundary, but "fog" does not).

This latter article was very influential on me long before I even came to Tufts to work under Ray, and it inspired my approach to explaining the underlying semantics behind word balloons and thought bubbles (formerly online in the essay "Interfaces and Interactions", now taken down, retooled and hopefully appearing in a journal soon). Amusingly, I didn't know it when I was drawing the pictures, but it turned out that I drew illustrations for this refurbished chapter in the book. I've come full circle!

Monday, August 02, 2010

Picasso's Ghost

I've got some other posts in the works, but in the meantime an old friend of my father's made this fun video about Picasso, Cezanne, and the inspirations of great art. Enjoy!