In a recent article at The Comics Journal, Eddie Campbell describes the challenge facing some people who "can't understand comics," and offers "rules of comprehension" to help aid readers along in their ability to read comics. I thought the piece was really interesting, and Campbell intuitively taps into many ideas that are fundamental to sequential image understanding.
Nevertheless, there are several issues here being conflated that it might be nice to tease apart. We can categorize a lack of easy understanding of sequential images to two main things:
1. Lack of visual language fluency
There legitimately are people who cannot understand sequences of images. These people mostly have never had any experience reading comics, and the most compelling I have found are people from non-Westernized countries or have never learned any language (such as deaf individuals who never learned a sign language). These are far from the impoverished conditions that Campbell is talking about, but a lack of exposure to comics would still lead someone to not being able to make sense of sequences of images at all. Not just "be confused," but legitimately have a hard time connecting the meanings between panels.
Even among "fluent" readers of comics, comprehension differs based on experience. These differences can be seen in how people move their eyes across pages, and my studies show differences in brainwave amplitudes correlated with comic reading expertise. While Campbell's rules may aid "non-fluent" people a little, the entire task of reading comics will be difficult for them at a fundamental level.
In contrast, many of the "rules" that Campbell describes are more akin to prescriptive "rules" of "proper English" than the underlying structure of the language. These would be akin to "don't end sentences with prepositions" or "don't split infinitives"—both of which are not actual rules of English grammar. You wouldn't learn these rules in a class on English as a second language.
Rather, real rules of English would be things like "don't put adjectives after nouns" or "don't flip nominative and accusative case when using pronouns" and other rules that significantly impair the structure of a sequence. These rules are rarely produced by fluent English speakers because your mental grammar constrains the language intuitively enough to disallow them.
Similarly, there are significant rules of the grammar of sequential images that can really impair comprehension, and these types of rules are what people who "can't understand comics" really struggle with. Yet, they are rarely violated by authors of comics, who are fluent in their visual language already. Those who are not fluent, on the other hand, lack these core rules of understanding. I plan to discuss Campbell's actual rules in my next blog post.
2. Competition with another visual language grammar
A second type of difficulty in comprehension comes from preferences we have for one type of system over another. Campbell nicely acknowledges this, calling it an "idiom" or "style," and even making the comparison to accents. Accents are the right comparison, but, unlike Campbell's belief about "idioms," accents aren't a choice. They are reflections of the patterns in people's head that they acquire from their language. Furthermore, this may be what leads to distaste in other people's systems.
For example, speakers of one dialect of English (let's say Texan) might grate on the ears of speakers of another dialect (let's say New Yorkers)…and vice versa. This doesn't mean either group lacks fluency in their language, nor are they speaking some degraded form of "pure" English (which does not exist). They simply have patterns in their brains for their languages that differ in certain features, though they are still mutually intelligible. Of course, systems become even more difficult when they are not mutually intelligible—such as English speakers (of any type) and Japanese speakers.
Different "dialects" of visual language work the same. What some may view as incomprehensible storytelling may simply be competition of one visual language grammar (let's say "Indy" comics) with another (let's say "mainstream" comics). To a reader from one camp, it may seem as though the author is "bad" at storytelling or lacks the ability to be a decent visual writer. However, it may just be that the patterns in their head is different than those of the author. They might "speak" different visual languages.
I personally think this accounts for many of the complaints people have made about 1) comics from different countries (ex: people who have trouble with/dislike manga or bande desinée) or 2) younger artists (ex: the old guard's critique in the 90s with many Image Comics storytelling). This latter case simply is an instance of "those kids today are ruining the language," while the former is a cross-cultural reaction to a different narrative grammar.
Nevertheless, the overall idea that there is a fluency to sequential image comprehension—and some people lack it—is just what we would expect from the notion of a visual language. This idea underlies a very different perspective than Campbell's. Rather than believe that sequential images are somehow universal—and thus the problem in understanding is simply certain surface features—the idea of a visual language acknowledges that the production and comprehension of sequential images directly ties to patterns in people's heads. Because of this, despite the mutual intelligibility that iconic drawings offer, these "rules" need to be learned, and they may differ depending on which visual language you read and draw.