Thursday, September 12, 2013

Methodological advice for comics scholarship

In my previous post, I drew a distinction between the type of scholarship often done by people who are creators of comics (i.e., fluent in the visual language they study) and scholarship by those who lack this fluency. I argued that there are certain things that non-fluent scholars are unable to recognize, and that such impairments can significantly limit their viewpoint on studying the structure of sequential images.

However, there are ways in which these limitations can be overcome and significant contributions can still be made. Much of this comes down to methodology (important also for those who are fluent creators as well), which is a more important critique I often have about scholarship on comics:

1) Be specific — Sweeping generalizations about "how comics work"—especially those based on specific exceptional examples—are almost of little contribution in understanding the structure of the visual language. Papers in linguistics or psychology almost never try to generalize to "all of language" or "all of cognition," but rather pinpoint a specific structure and then rigorously detail it. Scholars of the structure used in comics will be far better served by finding a very specific instance of something of either 1) theoretical or 2) empirical interest and then rigorously investigating it.

1.1 - Things of theoretical interest might be a particular idea or theory about the structure of sequential images, such as "how panel transitions (don't) work" or "how panels structure space" which can then be rigorously examined across many comics—both "normal"and "artistically exceptional." It always amazes me that so many scholars subscribe to McCloud's theory of panel transitions, yet practically none of them follow his methodological lead in trying to apply those transitions in quantitatively in the way that he tabulated transitions in various comics. Every time I did this, it directly poked holes in the theory of transitions.

1.2 - Things of empirical interest would be seeing a phenomenon in a comic, and then rigorously analyzing how it operates in other books (if it does) and exploring the theory behind why it might occur. A good example of this method is Abbott and Forceville's examination of why some character's hands turn into stumps in a manga. They noticed a curious phenomenon, then detailed why they thought it—specifically—happened.

2) Manipulate and test — Following the need for specificity, you should then manipulate structures and test them on people. If you aren't fluent in the visual language and can't just manipulate it in your mind (or even if you can...), manipulate things based on assumptions of your theory, and then give those creations to people who are fluent.

For example: I've often seen people claim that "sequences in comics can't just be strictly linear" or "sequences/narratives can't be governed by a rule system like a grammar because nothing constrains the sequences in such a way." Yet, not one of the papers I've read that claims this ever provides actual evidence supporting such critiques (compared to, say, my psychology experiments which directly test this and say otherwise).

Here's what they should do with the most simple of manipulations: take a sequence of images that they claim "isn't constrained" and then scramble the images into random orders. If every possible order makes sense, then they might be right that there are no constraints. If even one order doesn't make sense, then 1) there are constraints, 2) their critique/hypothesis is wrong, and 3) it then behooves them to follow up and figure out why that one order doesn't make sense (i.e., figure out the constraints!).

Even if you don't have the intuitions to create the sequences by drawing them, you can still manipulate existing sequences based on a thesis (again, of a specific phenomenon), and should have the intuitions to notice if what you did has an effect. Similarly, you can show many manipulated sequences to other people and start to derive data that tells you which manipulations might be behaving in different ways.

...and congratulations, at this point you're doing science!

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