Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Violating comics... for science!

Every now and then, I see or receive commentary from people about my studies where they object to some of the stimuli in my experiments. They exclaim things like, "But, actual comics don't have sequences/pages/images like those!"

For example, in my study of page layouts (pdf), they might complain that the strange arrangements of panels (right) don't typically appear in comics. The implication of course is that doing a study that includes examples like this would not be informative because of the "weirdness" of these examples.

What these critics might not realize is the motivation for doing such "weird" manipulations...

I've had the pleasure of teaching Introduction to Linguistics at UC San Diego this quarter, and on the first day of class I showed the students how there are lots of interesting aspects of language structure that they weren't aware of, yet their brains "know" these phenomena because they are speakers of language. This creates a weird paradox, because you "know" the rules of language, but you don't have any conscious access to them. If you did, linguistics as a field wouldn't exist!

"So," asked one of my particularly astute students, "how is it that we can study this stuff if we don't have conscious access to the rules?"

The answer, I said, is by violating that structure. If we create bad examples of language, then it can tell us about the constraints involved on language that make such productions ungrammatical. For example, I can say He likes her or She likes him, but not *Him likes she or *Her likes he (*=ungrammatical). These latter sentences should sound like garbage! Yet, these violations provides us with evidence that different pronouns are used for the subject and object positions of sentences (nominative vs. accusative case), even though they essentially contain the same meanings (he/him = masculine noun, she/her = feminine noun). By violating the structure, we can figure out the rules.

The same principle applies to studying the visual language used in comics. By manipulating and violating the structure, we can see people's reactions and thereby deduce the rules and constraints that might be operating on those structures.

So, it is true that most of my manipulations to stimuli wouldn't be found in "actual comics," but that's exactly the point. People don't generally produce things that truly violate the constraints of the structure.  However, by doing such violations we can learn about how that structure works and is instantiated in people's minds and brains.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Guardian Article

David Robson discusses my research and my upcoming book, The Visual Language of Comics (out in less than 2 weeks in the UK!) in a new article for the UK's Guardian newspaper.

He interestingly ties my work to aspects of cave paintings, which I've discussed on this blog just a little. However, the article does a very nice job of summarizing a lot of the aspects of my research program. Go check it out!

Monday, November 11, 2013

Review: Indonesian manga analysis

I recently found this interesting paper, "Impacts of manga on Indonesian readers' self-efficacy and behavior intentions to imitate its visuals," that attempts to dissect the factors influencing why Indonesian comic fans imitate the drawings in manga (pdf at academia.edu...account may be necessary to access).

They gave readers a copy of a manga (Naruto) and a non-manga comic (Tintin) and then had them rate the attractiveness of their visuals, the intentions behind imitation, and other factors. They found that people rated the manga as more attractive, more engaging, and eliciting more "psychological" responses. They conclude that "emotional attractiveness" is the primary factor for why people prefer manga to non-manga comics.

First, let me say that I really like that people are doing these types of sociological studies looking at these issues. I like the overall aims of this study, and especially the use of a data-driven methodology, and would like to see more approaches like this.

However, I think that the actual results are pretty confounded. The authors admit, for example, that the participants in the study already read comics, particularly manga (and some even had already read this issue of Naruto, but not Tintin!). This means that the results aren't actually finding information about "blank slate" preferences for some inherent quality of manga vs. non-manga (here, a European comic). Thus, the results are a bit confounded for the intent of the study. So, this study doesn't necessarily tease apart the influences on why they like and imitate manga.

Rather, these opinions reflect participants' tastes having already selected manga as having their visual language of choice. Given this, I think the results more provide evidence that people who are already have preferences for comics using a particular visual language will therefore deem it more positively than comics using a different visual language. This might seem fairly trivial (of course people like the things they already like!), but providing in-group vs. out-group effects for a type of visual language would be consistent with the same effects that occur in spoken languages, where people have more positive views of their own dialects to others.

This of course leaves open the question of "why?" people are so keen on imitating manga across the world (Indonesia included). I personally think there are many factors, including sociocultural factors (the "coolness" of Japan and/or the types of people in the new country that read them), economic factors (price of books, etc.), story factors (subject matter, differing genres etc.), and others. However, as I have argued in several papers and my upcoming book, I think there's also a cognitive factor based on the consistency of the visual vocabulary. Essentially, since the same visual language (i.e., "style") is used across most all the books, it creates a consistent template for people to imitate. Compare that with the relative diversity in American and European comics—it's much harder to identify a "group style" to associate with (and thereby become an in-group member of that "visual linguistic community").

So... while I don't think that the results really support what they set out to look at, I think this is an interesting paper nonetheless and I'd like to see more approaches to analyzing these sorts of issues using similarly data-driven approaches.


Ahmad, Hafiz Aziz, Shinichi Koyama, and Haruo Hibino. 2012. Impacts of manga on Indonesian readers' self-efficacy and behavior intentions to imitate its visuals. Bulletin of JSSD 59 (3):75-84.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Tufts Magazine

The latest issue of Tufts Magazine has a nice write up about my talk from this year's Comic-Con. Go check it out!