Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Full year of comic theory books

2013 seems to be quite the year for books about theories of the comic medium! There've been at least four volumes that have come out this year, plus my own, The Visual Language of Comics, which is due out in December.

We started earlier in the year with Thierry Groensteen's Comics and Narration, the anticipated follow up to his The System of Comics. I planned to do a full review of this new book, but after awhile, I realized that there wasn't much I had to say that wasn't already articulated in my review of System of ComicsYou may recall, I was not overly impressed. On the plus side, the writing in this new volume is much better—whether this is attributable to Groensteen or his translator, Ann Miller, is unknown, but either way it's a great improvement that should be lauded. Beyond that, my previous critiques with regards to the content all still stand.

More recently, we've seen the publication of Barbara Postema's Narrative Structure in Comics and Hannah Miodrag's Comics and Language. Both books take umbrage with the idea that the visual language in comics can be structured like language. Miodrag actually devotes the whole book to arguing against this view! I will likely post focused reviews of both these books in the coming weeks/months.

A similar viewpoint is taken by several of the chapters of the recent collection From Comic Strips to Graphic Novels, which features a wide range of articles about comic theory, all from perspectives in the humanities. I may or may not make posts discussing all or some of the chapters, since I only recently began reading it. As is often the case in big collections like these, some of the chapters seem much better than others.

Outside of Groensteen's books, it's actually surprising how nearly all of these books have some sort of disparaging viewpoint on "linguistic"-styled approaches to describing the structure of sequential images. Among these, Miodrag's Comics and Language is the only one that is actually grounded in any sort of logical and reasoned argument in this regard (though it too has some limitations). The rest seem to have no idea what language is, how it might work, or how a "grammatical" system would or would not behave (though, this goes for Groensteen too—and he actually does claim comics are like language!).

I plan on addressing many of these concerns in my focused reviews for the books, but my broader response will appear in my own book at the end of the year.

Opinions aside, it's nice to see so many books emerging that attempt to broach the topic with seriousness. Now we just have to work on the approach...

Thursday, August 22, 2013

New paper: Prediction, events, and the advantage of Agents

I'm excited to say that I have a new paper out in the journal Cognitive Psychology with my good friend Martin Paczynski! This one looks specifically at the structure of events in visual narratives, particularly how people process characters acting as agents or patients.

As with all my papers, you can find a link to it on this page, or a direct link to the pdf here.

Here's the abstract:

Agents consistently appear prior to Patients in sentences, manual signs, and drawings, and Agents are responded to faster when presented in visual depictions of events. We hypothesized that this “Agent advantage” reflects Agents’ role in event structure. We investigated this question by manipulating the depictions of Agents and Patients in preparatory actions in wordless visual narratives. We found that Agents elicited a greater degree of predictions regarding upcoming events than Patients, that Agents are viewed longer than Patients, independent of serial order, and that visual depictions of actions are processed more quickly following the presentation of an Agent vs. a Patient. Taken together these findings support the notion that Agents initiate the building of event representation. We suggest that Agent First orders facilitate the interpretation of events as they unfold and that the saliency of Agents within visual representations of events is driven by anticipation of upcoming events.

ResearchBlogging.orgCohn Neil, & Paczynski Martin (2013). Prediction, events, and the advantage of Agents: The processing of semantic roles in visual narrative. Cognitive psychology, 67 (3), 73-97 PMID: 23959023

Monday, August 19, 2013

El Lingüista Ilustrado

Hey Spanish-speakers! I'm excited to announce that some of my articles will now be translated to Spanish in an ongoing series in the digital comics magazine Revisita Exégesis starting with the current issue #24.

The magazine features several great original short comics by various authors, articles, interviews and a lot more. You can view the issues online or download them as pdf or cbz files.

My contribution—"El Lingüista Ilustrado"—reprints of several of my blog posts and articles from my website translated into Spanish for the first time by the editor Simud. Different articles will appear with each issue.

It's quite an honor to have them translate my works to Spanish in such a venue, so go check it out!

Friday, August 09, 2013

Eurotrip 2013

I've just returned from an exciting trip at the Cognitive Science Society conference in Berlin. My presentation was a brief version of my dissertation work (amusingly, roughly the same material from my talk at Comic-Con two weeks prior). My dissertation was actually awarded the Glushko Dissertation Prize this year—named (and funded by) the ever-enthusiastic Robert Glushko.

Even more exciting than that though, at the conference it was announced that my mentor, Ray Jackendoff, will be awarded next year's Rumelhart Prize! This award is essentially the "Nobel Prize" of cognitive science—the field's most prestigious and highest honor. So, I'm incredibly excited and proud that it's being awarded to Ray next year, and I can think of nobody more deserving.

After the conference in Berlin, I spent a few days over in Amsterdam. While I was there, I not only got to experience the fantastic comic book store Lambiek, but had a great time finally meeting Charles Forceville.

As I've mentioned on the blog before (here and here), Forceville is one of the few other scholars who has looked at the overlaps of contemporary theories of linguistics to the visual language of comics. Specifically, his work examines how images and multimodal interactions involve underlying conceptual metaphors—mappings of one conceptual frame onto another

If you're not familiar with his work already, I highly recommend checking it out (this article is a good place to start, as is his edited book, Multimodal Metaphor). Hopefully he and I will be working on several projects together in the future.

Friday, August 02, 2013

Scott McCloud and the scientific method

After my talk at Comic-Con I was delighted to be able to chat with Scott McCloud for awhile. He actually came to my talk, and I think it was one of the first times he's ever seen me present my research live, despite our having known each other for about 15 years now.

One of the things we talked about was the use of scientific method to study the visual language of comics. My approach of course is based on a scientific view of this research.

McCloud's work often gets flack from various people within academia for not being theoretically rigorous enough, being ignorant of "the literature" that came before it (mostly outside of English), and for essentially not being "scholarly" enough.

However, I think that McCloud's ideas—as basic as some of them are—are perhaps the most scientific approach to comics up until that time. In this way, this work distinctly separates itself from other theories, like Groensteen's System of Comics, which are distinctly un-scientific.

What I mean is that McCloud's theory is based out of a desire to understand how certain aspects of comics were different in the world. Unless I'm mistaken, McCloud's theories greatly grew out of a desire to explain how the things he was seeing in Japanese manga were different from those in American comics. This was the observation that provided a problem, the theory provided the solution.

But, here's the key thing: he then used his theory as a tool to actively quantitatively analyze the properties of actual comics. This is especially salient in his cross-cultural comparisons of panel transitions. He actively used his categories in a useful way to 1) confirm the hypotheses of his original observations, and 2) to illuminate aspects of the medium in interesting ways.

This was what was so novel and interesting about McCloud's book when it came out. Regardless of whether he got the actual theorizing right, or if his work paid lip service and connected to a scholarly tradition, the most important insight was in its methodology. Very few approaches to theories about the visual language of comics have done this prior to McCloud, and very few other than mine have done it since.

On this point, I should mention that my work has largely grown out of this same trend. Besides the empirical experiments and data collection, my theory has grown by looking at actual examples and then applying the theory—seeing where it goes wrong—and then revising the theory.

In fact, this is how I first noticed that I needed to expand the number of transitions beyond McCloud's six, and eventually how I realized that transitions did not work and that an alternative approach was necessary: I was trying to apply McCloud's transitions to actual comics using the same type of quantitative analysis that I found in Understanding Comics.