Monday, December 29, 2014

Igor Kordey's "Design of comics"

This morning I found this very fun post by Designboom about a talk given by the Croatian comic art Igor Kordey about his page design and storytelling. The post and Kordey's talk are both interesting and entertaining, and Kordey's pages are simply beautiful. That alone is worth the price of admission. However, what I found really interesting was that he identifies several specific designs and techniques throughout his practice, many of which I've discussed in my book and papers. I could talk about every page he shows in a lot of detail, but I'll break down a few of his points.

First off, many of his layouts simply involve symmetrical inversions of structure. So, if there are three horizontal panels on top, he'll have three vertical ones on the bottom. If there is a blockage arrangement on top (two vertically stacked next to a large panel to their right), then he'll do a reverse blockage layout on the bottom (large panel on left, two vertical stacked to their right).

In other pages he prefers to keep the layout constant, with different types of grids, but then to manipulate the content inside. A recurring theme is to keep the panel content from the same perspective (say, a lateral view) with several non-moving objects and one that moves, while then flipping the perspective in only a few panels of the page. (Notably, doing this in his third example page, it violates the 180º rule between nearly every panel on the page, yet he makes no mention or care of it). Across all of these, we might say he follows a rule of "same-except": they're the same, except different in some particular dimension.

He also describes more specific techniques. In one sequence, he describes how the panels shift back and forth between showing a hunter killing a bird and a politician being assassinated (his example two page spread comes after the pages below—no image available, but it's in the video of his presentation). In film theory, this type of flipping back and forth is called "parallel-cutting" or "cross-cutting," but I've called it "multi-tracking," "polytaxis," or "alternation" (depending on certain features of the alternating panels).

I actually spend some space in my book discussing these types of patterns, and show that they recur in several different types of comics (I have a whole folder full of them from different books). As I mention in the book, they are a good example of an abstract memorized pattern found across sequences of images, rather than just patterns found in the the "vocabulary" of images' content (like how hands or upfixes are drawn).

Another particularly striking page that he discusses uses what he calls a "fishbone" layout, which is depicted in the image below on the right side:

This sequence uses alternating horizontal and vertical panels that descend as one progresses through the page. He says that he's never seen it in any other comic, but I got very excited seeing this page, since I remembered drawing pages like this (and his next page) when I was experimenting with my own comics in college a decade ago. In addition, I discussed a similar page specifically in my paper on the structure of page layouts from the comic Scott Pilgrim:

The layout in the Scott Pilgrim page is structurally the same as Kordey's—also with 9 panels!—but Kordey's uses panels of almost equal sizes, whereas those in Scott Pilgrim shrink with every new panel. The effect in Kordey's makes it a fairly "clean design" and his content mirrors this with the horizontal panels showing images of one character looking up at another, while the vertical panels show their vertical relationship (one on top of the other). In Scott Pilgrim, the shrinking panels also mirror the content—the character is getting off of a bus which then drives off in the distance, so the size of panels reduces as the distance grows greater.

To the left of the Scott Pilgrim page, you can see the actual structure of these pages. Layouts in general are structured so that vertical and horizontal structures embed inside each other (see my book or paper on layout for details). While Kordey emphasizes the back-and-forth between the content in his vertical and horizontal panels, what makes these pages interesting is not just that panels alternate from horizontal to vertical, but that each panel creates a new tier in which the later panels are embedded. Layouts like these create a "right-branching tree structure"—and the descent in the tree diagram shows the feeling of the descent in the layout.

There is no image for it on the page, but his next example in the video is the subsequent page where he reverses the "fishbone" so that the panels expand. This then flips the layout, with a more "expanding" feeling resulting. The structure for this would be the exact reverse of the "right-branching tree" and would instead be a "left-branching tree," which again could directly show why the feeling of "expansion" occurs in its structure.

One of his final pages actually belies the system of embedding panels in layouts, since the borders of the panels overlap each other, similar to the Steranko page to the right (again, discussed in my paper on layout). In fact, his whole page design is the same as the five panels in the upper left of Steranko's layout which look almost like a pinwheel, or as Kordey calls it, the "swastika" layout.

As Kordey suggests, these layouts are much harder to navigate, since they belie the normal rules of reading layouts.** However, the content allows this, since there is almost no progression of time between the panels, meaning that the linear order is less important. In my narrative structure, I would say that these panels are "conjoined" within the same clause and thus can be rearranged in their order with little effect on the coherence of the sequence.

This seems to be Kordey's main point throughout: that the structure of the "storytelling" and the structure of the "layout" should reinforce each other. I think my theory would agree with this, since both narrative and layout create "tree structures," and it makes sense that when both have similar structures, it should create either "easier" processing or maybe a seemingly more aesthetic response (we'd have to do experiments to find out for sure).

And... I'd add that having a well-developed theory of these structures allows us to directly show these insights of a brilliant comic artist like Kordey.

** Note: A supplement to my original page layout paper (pdf) shows that, though the whole the Steranko page poses challenges, comic readers still have consistent patterns by which they preferentially navigate it.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Fall projects and complex theory

Alas, these last few months have flown by with little time to post. After recuperating from my flurry of summer/fall travel, I've been diligently working on a few new projects, especially a new brainwave study. I've also been amassing chapters from various authors for my upcoming edited book on visual narrative, on its way this time next year (more info soon...), and have been submitting lots of new journal articles. Busy times!

Several exciting studies have also been underway with my student researchers, who have coded through various comics of the world (previous works of this type found here). Our projects have so far been looking at page layouts, panel framing, and multimodal interactions. Researchers progress through comics one panel at a time and record properties of the panels, and then we tabulate those numbers and compare samples of comics from different countries, genres, time periods, etc. This is the most effective method of seeing what's going on in the structures of actual comics across the world without hand-waving speculations.

Our focus now is turning to narrative patterns. By February, we're hoping to have coding for roughly 200 comics of multiple genres from at least 5 different countries. This should hopefully begin to tell us the scope of various narrative patterns across cultures and what sort of variation might occur between cultures. This study is by far the biggest scope of its kind, but I consider it only a starting point for more extensive works to come.

The other exciting thing this quarter has been my bi-weekly "advanced visual language seminar" with my student researchers here at UC San Diego. Here, we've been exploring complex aspects of my theory of narrative grammar that have extended beyond what is in my prior publications, especially with regard to the "semantic structures"—the components that describe a sequences' meaning.

Once we established the basic theories, we have put them to use by analyzing various pages from comics, like the Calvin and Hobbes page above. Our recent method has been to randomly choose pages from my database of comics and then analyze it across multiple structures: graphic structure (the lines on the page), page layout, narrative structure, spatial structure, conceptual structure. We then show how all these structures interact.

This can all get pretty complex, like this two page spread from Lone Wolf and Cub, above. Compared to theories like panel transitions, sussing out all this structure is fairly difficult and complicated. However, the structure of sequential images (and the brain!) are indeed complex! And, when considering what each of these components do, they all seem necessary. This is truly an amazing system of communication!  (...and brain!)

Either because or despite this complexity, this practice is actually fairly fun. I think working through these structures may be the best way to appreciate and get a handle on what is actually going on in the structure of this visual language.

For those interested in more, further examples and descriptions of these interactions can be found in my recent review paper, online here. Hopefully papers (and maybe a book?) can better address all this in years to come.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Using the theory of narrative grammar

As people have now started reading my book and papers, they've naturally started to try to apply my theories of "narrative grammar" to sequential images found in comics. My "narrative grammar" is a model of how the "storytelling" of sequential images is understood, which extends beyond previous approaches like Scott McCloud's theory of panel-to-panel transitions.

As people have now opened up comics, and tried to use the theory to describe randomly found pages and sequences, they have no doubt discovered that it is not easy. In fact, they may have thrown up their hands in frustration. If this theory is psychologically real then, why is it so hard to analyze sequences? Does this mean the theory is wrong?

No. There are many reasons why analysis may be challenging...

1. Multimodality

First, the theory is designed to account for sequences without text. Once text is introduced, the sequence must balance both structure (i.e., grammar) and meaning in multiple modalities, and it becomes manifestly more complex. I'm hoping to have a paper detailing this out soon.

2. Procedures

Ok, so what about wordless sequences? Just as it would be really difficult to just read a paper about linguistic syntax and analyze sentences, this theory requires some training to do it properly. At the very least, it helps to follow procedures for how to go about analysis.

Even I don't just look at a sequence and immediately know what the analysis is. I go through a series of procedures that tests the structure at each step of the way (these procedures are found in both my book, in Chapter 6, and the section on "diagnostics" in the "Visual Narrative Structure" paper, though not enumerated for how to go through them. EDIT: This tutorial instructs how to use them.).

Here's how I train students in my classes and workshops to analyze sequences: the first thing we do is find the Peak panels. The rest of the sequence hangs around the Peaks, so it's the first thing we find. How do we know what is a Peak then? We test panels by trying to delete them (if the sequence is weird without them, then it's likely a Peak) or replacing them with an action star (if it does replace, it's likely a Peak), or deleting everything else except them (Peaks should be able to paraphrase a sequence on their own). From here, other procedures are then used to determine the other categories and the hierarchy of the sequence.

The point being: you can't just look at a sequence and intuit the structure (even me). That's why I describe tests and diagnostics, so that you can do it without just relying on intuition at every step of the way. Procedure matters.

3. Theory as framework

Third, the theory is a framework, not a catch-all. Theories of syntax in language are not "fully formed" when they are written about, and no theory of syntax in any book or any paper—of any linguistic model—is designed to immediately encompass every sequence one could encounter "out of the box." Rather, the theory provides a framework by which to account for the various diversity found in sentences. One then uses the framework (or changes the framework) to describe the various phenomena that are found in actual language use.

I consider a theory to be "good" if it can do two things: 1) account for more phenomena that is found in a structure (here, visual sequences) than other theories, and 2) can be revealed in experimentation to have psychological validity.

Much of syntactic theory about language is not simply finding things in sentences and then describing them using a particular theoretical model. Rather, the examples found in sentence structures are both described with theories of syntax, but also are used to illustrate how they pose challenges to theories of syntax such that those theories must grow and change. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, much of the "wars" that were fought throughout linguistics had this characteristic—finding various patterns of syntax that would force changes towards preferring one theory of grammar or another.

That said, my theory of "Visual Narrative Grammar" is not meant as an "out of the box" analysis tool that should apply to every sequence of images from a comic based only on the chapter from my book. There are many, many more traits of the theory that have yet to be published, all of which deal with more complicated sequences and the non-trivial issue of combining sequential images with text. What is in my book and papers so far is less than what I even teach in an introductory class on visual language: I have a draft manuscript of over 300 pages (and growing) detailing various phenomena with the theory, most of which hasn't been published yet.

In addition, various sequences should challenge the theory, which is exactly the method I've used for the past 15 years to build the theory in the first place. I've had a theory, then found sequences that force changes to the architecture, and then altered the theory to be able to account for those issues. It's an organic process. The theory gives us a way to discuss and analyze such complexity and see how it might work. It's a framework, not a catch-all, just like all linguistic theories.

This is exactly the opposite of something like panel-to-panel transitions which are based solely on the low-level changes in meaning that occur between images. Such a theory is simple—there will always be meaningful changes between panels, and so it always seems to work. That's its appeal. The problem is that such an approach doesn't explain much of the data, which is far more complex than such a simple approach can manage. Indeed, my approach first started by expanding McCloud's panel transitions, and then altering it as I found sequences that it couldn't handle.

The fact is, the way we express meaning—be it through verbal language, visual language, or their combination—is very complex. There are no simple answers, and we should distrust the simple answers that might be offered. Recognizing this complexity, and building a framework that can let us study it, is the first step to exploring how it is understood.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

New paper: The grammar of visual narratives

I'm very excited to announce that I have a new paper out in the latest issue of Neuropsychologia on how the brain understands sequences of images, "The grammar of visual narratives: Neural evidence for constituent structure in visual narrative comprehension." This was actually one of my dissertation projects, so I'm very happy to finally have it published.

In this paper, I provide evidence that sequential images are processed by creating "constituents"— groupings of panels—rather than just "transitions" between the meanings of panels. Furthermore, disrupting these groupings in the "narrative grammar" of sequential images evokes the same brain responses as when you violate the grammar of sentences.

You can download the full paper here (direct link to pdf). I've also made a video summarizing the paper:

Official abstract:

Constituent structure has long been established as a central feature of human language. Analogous to how syntax organizes words in sentences, a narrative grammar organizes sequential images into hierarchic constituents. Here we show that the brain draws upon this constituent structure to comprehend wordless visual narratives. We recorded neural responses as participants viewed sequences of visual images (comics strips) in which blank images either disrupted individual narrative constituents or fell at natural constituent boundaries. A disruption of either the first or the second narrative constituent produced a left-lateralized anterior negativity effect between 500 and 700 ms. Disruption of the second constituent also elicited a posteriorly-distributed positivity (P600) effect. These neural responses are similar to those associated with structural violations in language and music. These findings provide evidence that comprehenders use a narrative structure to comprehend visual sequences and that the brain engages similar neurocognitive mechanisms to build structure across multiple domains.

Cohn, Neil., Jackendoff, Ray., Holcomb, Phillip. J., & Kuperberg, Gina. R. (2014). The grammar of visual narrative: Neural evidence for constituent structure in sequential image comprehension. Neuropsychologia, 64, 63-70. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2014.09.018

Thursday, September 11, 2014

New Paper: You're a good structure, Charlie Brown

Wow, big week for new papers! I've got another one officially out now in the latest issue of Cognitive Science, "You're a Good Structure, Charlie Brown: The Distribution of Narrative Categories in Comic Strips" (pdf). This one actually reports on the first studies I did on comics during grad school, way back in 2007! (Sometimes science takes awhile to get out...).

This study examines whether the narrative categories I've proposed for sequential images use patterned roles in sequences. There are four experiments we used:

Experiment 1: People took 4 unordered panels and ordered them into a sequence
Experiment 2: We measured how long people viewed panels in sequences where two panels were reversed in order
Experiment 3: People took 4 unordered panels, ordered 3 into a sequence and deleted 1
Experiment 4: People viewed 3 panel sequences where one panel had been deleted, and guessed where it was deleted from

Across all tasks, we found complementary results for how different types of panels behaved, showing that there are certain "distributional trends" for the roles that panels play in a sequence. For example, panels that were freely chosen to be deleted were not recognized when they were missing, but panels that were not often deleted were noticed when gone.

Plus, some panels can play multiple roles in a sequence, but not all panels have this ability. This confirms that some types of panels are flexible in the role they play in a sequence, but not all panels can go in any location in a sequence. This goes against the idea that "any panel can go in any position" in a sequence and still be meaningful.

Here's the full abstract:

Cohn's (2013) theory of “Visual Narrative Grammar” argues that sequential images take on categorical roles in a narrative structure, which organizes them into hierarchic constituents analogous to the organization of syntactic categories in sentences. This theory proposes that narrative categories, like syntactic categories, can be identified through diagnostic tests that reveal tendencies for their distribution throughout a sequence. This paper describes four experiments testing these diagnostics to provide support for the validity of these narrative categories. In Experiment 1, participants reconstructed unordered panels of a comic strip into an order that makes sense. Experiment 2 measured viewing times to panels in sequences where the order of panels was reversed. In Experiment 3, participants again reconstructed strips but also deleted a panel from the sequence. Finally, in Experiment 4 participants identified where a panel had been deleted from a comic strip and rated that strip's coherence. Overall, categories had consistent distributional tendencies within experiments and complementary tendencies across experiments. These results point toward an interaction between categorical roles and a global narrative structure.

Full Reference:

Cohn, Neil. (2014). You’re a good structure, Charlie Brown: The distribution of narrative categories in comic strips. Cognitive Science, 38(7), 1317-1359. doi: 10.1111/cogs.12116

Monday, September 08, 2014

New paper: Building a better "comic theory"

I'm happy to say that I have a new paper (pdf), "Building a better "comic theory," in the latest issue of the journal Studies in Comics. In this one I critique the existing theories about "how comics are understood" and provide a framework for better research to be undertaken. Longtime readers of this blog will certainly recognize some of my advice for researchers, now presented here in a coherent fashion.

Here's the abstract in full:

Research on the understanding of ‘how comics work’ has grown tremendously over the past twenty years, with more articles and books emerging each year. Much of this research has discussed comparisons between comics and language, and/or has speculated on comics’ cognition. However, much of this research faces limitations, which hamper the seriousness of the endeavour and reflect the youth of this emerging field. This article points out these deficiencies that pervade theories about comics. These include inadequate background research, overly general and unsupportable claims, a lack of adequate evidence, and limitations for research methodologies. To address these concerns, I draw from over 50 years of research from linguistics and cognitive science to inform how the field of ‘comic theory’ can move forward. In particular, I outline two primary ways of progressing with this line of research: (1) explicit manipulation of the component parts of the structure used in comics and (2) cataloguing actual comics for various theoretically relevant phenomena. This data-driven approach is offered as a guiding vision for future works on the understanding of ‘how comics work’.

Full Reference:

Cohn, Neil. 2014. Building a better “comic theory”: Shortcomings of theoretical research on comics how to overcome them. Studies in Comics. 5(1), 57-75

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

New book on Australian Sand Narratives

Anyone who has read my new book or followed my work online for the past several years knows that I frequently talk about sand narratives created by Australian Aboriginals as a counterpoint to the structures found in the visual language of comics. I find these drawings made in sand to be extremely interesting and important for the study of sequential images and drawing in general.

In fact, learning about them has been pivotal in forming my broader ideas of visual language, which is why I included a whole chapter about them in my book.
I first learned about Australian sand narratives from my post-undergrad advisor Dan Slobin, who introduced me to David Wilkins, a linguist who had written about the sand narratives of the Arrernte. This led me to read lots of papers by anthropologist Nancy Munn about the similar systems created by the Warlpiri. I'm happy to say that seminal papers by both of these authors will appear in my upcoming edited collection on visual narratives, out in late 2015/early 2016.

However, for the past several years I've corresponded with Jennifer Green, who has actively been doing extensive research on sand narratives and how they interact with spoken and signed languages. Her work is amazing and thorough, and is wonderfully now available in a new book:

In the chapter on my book, I attempted to distill the information about sand narratives regarding the features of the graphics alone. However, as with images in comics, they rarely appear isolated, and are usually embedded within a broader system of speaking, drawing, and signing. It is these broader multimodal interactions which Jenny is most concerned.

If you are interested in how these systems work beyond the broad overview I present in my book, I highly recommend checking out Jenny's new book. It is extensive, enlightening, and is now the first comprehensive work discussing these systems. Hopefully it won't be her last.

Here's the synopsis:

"Sand stories from Central Australia are a traditional form of Aboriginal women's verbal art that incorporates speech, song, sign, gesture and drawing. Small leaves and other objects may be used to represent story characters. This detailed study of Arandic sand stories takes a multimodal approach to the analysis of the stories and shows how the expressive elements used in the stories are orchestrated together. This richly illustrated volume is essential reading for anyone interested in language and communication. It adds to the growing recognition that language encompasses much more than speech alone, and shows how important it is to consider the different semiotic resources a culture brings to its communicative tasks as an integrated whole rather than in isolation."

Thursday, August 28, 2014

An update: Talks of future past

I've got roughly a month left of my summer (yay quarter system!), and it's been a wild ride so far. I've given talks in Germany, Québec City, and Seattle, and by the time summer is over, I'll have given roughly 10 talks over three months!

To cap off this tour, I'm about to head back to Germany for a few more talks at the end of September. The first will be for the "Empirical approaches to comics" workshop in Berlin. They've recently posted their schedule online and it looks like a very fun line up!

After that I'll be speaking at some researchers' labs in other parts of Germany, before heading back to Berlin for the academic ComFor conference on comics. There I'll be giving the keynote discussing the relations between comics and the brain. (For those of you going, if you have requests for which research you want to hear about, let me know!)

Speaking of talks, I'm excited to say that my recent talk up in Seattle at Microsoft's FUSE Labs is now online! You can watch it with additional slides on their site here, but you can also just watch it below.

Finally, Happy Birthday to the "King" of comics Jack Kirby! He'd be 97 today.

Friday, August 22, 2014

"Bad anatomy" and body objectification in comics

Greg Land cover and redrawn version from
The recent uproar over the covers of Spider-Woman books by Marvel has lead to cries that they are both sexist and poorly drawn. I think that these covers, and especially the responses to them, make for a good opportunity to examine the idea of "bad anatomy" in drawings and how bodies are drawn.

Concern #1: Bodies are depicted "unrealistically" in comics

The first critique of drawings like this is that they show "bad anatomy." This critique is common of course to many comic artists—whether there are claims that their work is sexist or not. For example, Rob Liefeld is basically mocked on regular occasion for his drawing of bodies and feet to the point its become a culturally accepted meme that he's a bad artist (he's not).

From a cognitive perspective, none of these works are "bad drawings." As I argue in my recent book, The Visual Language of Comics, and in several articles, drawing is not now—nor has it ever been—about drawing "realistically." The idea that drawings should somehow mimic our perception and align with "the way things are in the world" is pure fallacy (I previously called this idea "Iconic Bias").

This can only be addressed by considering "what are drawings?" in the first place. Drawings are a collection of graphic patterns stored in the head of an "artist" who combines them to form depictions. People draw faces by combining their learned head patterns with eye, nose, and mouth patterns. Feet (including those by Liefeld) are drawn using feet patterns, as are everything that a person draws. The same is true of "cutting off" legs at the knees to imply they are behind a person—it's just a pattern stored in the head of the artist. I have several examples of these—from many well respected comic artists—throughout my book.

This has nothing to do with how things look "in real life." It is about the patterns that an artist has learned over time and the ways in which they then use them in drawings. Why do so many people feel they "can't draw"? It's because they haven't built up a "visual vocabulary" of these patterns to be proficient at drawing.

In this cognitive point of view, there is no "bad anatomy" in these works. These artists—including Liefeld—are merely using the patterns of their "visual language." And they are doing so with high "fluency." The same is true of Peanuts characters or The Simpsons, which are more cartoony representations—where's the outrage that they only have three fingers? Or giant eyes? Or have elbows that appear and disappear? The cognitive fact is that drawing is not about "accuracy" to the "way things look in the world," be it in comics, manga, airplane safety guides, or art from any culture of the world and any time in history.

So... what's the issue with these bodies then? It's an issue of societal opinions about the representations of bodies—particularly women's bodies. This is not an issue of proficiency or anatomy—they are not "bad drawings" and in fact these artists (including Liefeld) show extremely high proficiency.

Rather, it's the fact that the way that artists of the "American Visual Language" used in superhero comics draw women is offensive to some people. This is directly analogous to the way that various words in spoken languages are offensive to some people. The "visual vocabulary items" used to draw women are on par with calling women any number of distasteful words.

People must accept that these patterns are merely a part of the learned visual vocabulary within a broader "visual language" in which that artist partakes. And, of course, that visual language is embedded in a broader culture in which women most certainly are marginalized and objectified. In order for that artist to draw women differently, they would have to learn new patterns, in the same way that they would have to use different words to speak about women in less offensive ways (which I discuss in length in this post).

Note, we've seen this before. African-Americans in the early 20th century were drawn in wholly offensive ways as "tar babies." These artists were not necessarily trying to be racist, but they used a graphic pattern that was inherently racist—and they were embedded in a culture that was also inherently racist. As people realized this about the images, the culture reacted to change the visual language such that people thankfully no longer draw this way. This is directly parallel to ostracizing the various racist words for African-Americans in our spoken language.

Again, this is not an issue with "anatomy" or proficiency in drawing—it is about the sociocultural use of different patterned representations which may or may not be offensive to people.

Concern #2: The depiction of bodies in comics

This leads us to the second issue, which is that women's bodies are drawn to be objectified in comics. As it happens, we have some data about this...

Last quarter at UCSD, I taught a class on the "Cognition of Comics" where all my students did original research projects. One student, Bianca de la Garza, decided to study the sexualized depictions of both female and male bodies in 15 American superhero comics randomly selected from the 1940s through the Present. She coded bodies using a scheme that ranked the "sexiness" of whole characters and their body parts (chest, butt, face, arms, legs, hip to waist ratio, etc.) and assessed the feasibility of their poses. Her 1-7 scale ranged from a 1 being "unhealthy" both obese or undernourished (i.e., the Blob or Plastic Man), a 4 being "normal", and a 7 being grossly hypersexualized (i.e., gigantic muscles, enormous breasts, etc. to the point of disfigurement). Thus, a 5 or 6 would be a highly sexy but not disfigured depiction.

Now, going into this, we both predicted that, as is the cultural belief, women would be far more sexualized than men in their depictions. In fact, we were totally wrong. In almost every category, females and males appeared to have the same ratings of sexualization, and this relationship between genders did not change over time (though the sexualization of certain body parts did change over time).

(Note that these findings differ slightly from those in other studies, discussed below.)

Interestingly though, across all time periods, the numbers of women represented in our sample were vastly lower than men: Women were underrepresented in the books (including some where a woman was the title character!). While we did not code for the content of the stories, my suspicion is that the underrepresentation of female bodies (i.e., female characters) also correlates with women playing less significant roles in those books, which of course reflects a marginalization of them.

So, our data showed that while women's bodies may indeed be drawn in objectified and sexualized ways, the same is true of men's bodies. Furthermore, I'll go so far as to say that this is not an issue about comics, but about the depiction of bodies—regardless of sex—in media throughout our culture. How often do you see ugly people of either sex on television or movies? Did I miss the uproar about the sexism about Chris Pratt having to bulk up his body for Guardian's of the Galaxy? His shower scene was clearly a gratuitous look at his body, and Dave Batista spent that entire movie without a shirt on! (Of course, as in our sample, there was also only one woman on that team, and she wasn't the lead star).

Now, I happen to be particularly sensitive to these issues because my parents have written and published books about eating disorders and body image issues for over 30 years. They were the first to write a book for laypeople about bulimia, my mother was the first openly recovered bulimic on television, and my father wrote the first book about men's body issues (which happens to be dedicated to me).

While the objectification of women's bodies in our culture is certain true, it is also true that men's bodies have become increasingly objectified and scrutinized over the past decades. The question for comics then, is whether it's acceptable to maintain a visual language where all bodies are shown in this manner, or whether people want to push for "visual language reform" along the lines of changing American culture's visual vocabulary.


Addendum: Two other studies have looked at bodies in American superhero comics (citations below), and here is what my student Bianca noticed about them: Cocca finds that many women are depicted in unfeasible poses. However, her analysis largely ignores mens bodies. Healey and Johnson meanwhile found that male bodies were closer to "average" than females', which were more underweight, according to the "stats" for male and female bodies for Marvel characters by calculating their BMI. However, this study didn't look at actual drawings (just character stats), nor did it differentiate between body types—an underweight character could be malnourished and an overweight figure could be fairly muscular (a problem with the BMI in general).

If you want to explore this topic more, I encourage you to do your own corpus study!

Cocca, C. (2014). The‘Broke Back Test’: a quantitative and qualitative analysis of portrayals ofwomen in mainstream superhero comics, 1993–2013. Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, 1-18.

Healey, Karen, and Terry Johnson. Comparative Sex-Specific Body Mass Index in the Marvel Universe and the "Real"World.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Violating your drawings!

Here's a fun blog post by Chris Schweizer on spotting "compositional tangents" while drawing comics. For those unfamiliar, Chris does the excellent "Crogan's Adventures" series (Crogan's Loyalty, Crogan's March, and Crogan's Vengence) which I highly recommend.

So, what are these "tangents" that Chris is talking about? He describes tangents as "when two or more lines interact in a way that insinuates a relationship between them that the artist did not intend."

These include things like when one line runs into another line (as in the example image, taken from Chris's article), or when lines all come to a single point unintentionally. He lists quite a range of them.

While it isn't true of all of them, what he's describing are essentially "illegal" line junctions of "graphic structure"—the component part of the drawing system that guides how we produce lines and shapes. The tangents that Chris discusses aren't horribly bad junctions, which I'll talk about below, but they are illegal combinations nonetheless.

In my book, I've compared the way that lines combine in drawings with each other to the way that sounds combine together in speech. For example, in English, it's illegal to combine a "t" and "g" sound at the start of a word or syllable.

Similarly, the way that lines combine in line junctions is how graphic structure creates shapes, and different junctions imply different meanings. For example, a T-Junction looks like a "T", and implies that one object is placed in front of another object. You can see some of these in the lines of the barn above, and of the interaction between the barn and the background shrubbery. The "T" shaped junction between these lines gives the meaning that the barn is in front of the background.

Certain combinations between lines thus lead to "illegal" junctions analogously to illegal sound combinations in speech. For example, the "continuous line" junction shown in the image above is weird because one line runs directly into another as a junction. You can very much mess up an image by altering its line junctions, as in the image below, which comes from my book.

I always like pointing these out, because they nicely fly in the face of the idea that you can't make an "ungrammatical" drawing. Something is clearly wrong here! These junctions are discussed at length in the excellent book, Art and Representation by John Willats.

So, most of these problematic cases reflected in Chris's article are problems with line junctions, and, as he says, they are easily remedied. The easiest solution is simply to make one thing overlap another—to create a T-Junctions—so that one thing appears to be in front of another. Go read the article!

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Visual style and visual morphology

While I was on the University of Bremen campus in Germany last month, I stumbled on a very appropriate poster hanging in the linguistics department (right) which sponsors a nice thought experiment about the relationship between conventionalized graphic "morphology" (like motion lines, thought bubbles, or lightbulbs/gears/hearts floating above people's heads) and the visual "style" they are represented in.

Of course, what caught my eye was that it plays on the "lightbulb above the head" convention, which I call "upfixes." In my book, I've argued that upfixes form a class of "visual morphology" where some sort of object floats above a person's head to create an even larger meaning. These can be gears for thought, hearts for love, ?! for surprise, lightbulbs for inspiration, and many others.

What caught my eye here is not just that it playfully evokes an upfix by having a person holding a lightbulb, but that the act of holding it doesn't interfere with the meaning. In fact, the holding of the lightbulb somewhat allows for the fact that it's a photo to be ok.

For example, we might suspect that having a realistic photo of a person trying to evoke a drawn convention might look weird. And, of course, someone holding a lightbulb does seem a little weird, but not horribly bad. We still get the sense of the "inspiration" meaning out of it.

However, compare this to the poster when we fully get rid of the hand (left)—now resulting in a realistic lightbulb floating above his head. To me at least, this looks a little weirder, even though it's actually more "accurate" to the upfix!

My suspicion is that we're more ok with the use of visual morphology in realistic photos when they retain their "realism" using the physics of the "real" world. However, doing the same thing when the morpheme is more similar to its actual graphic equivalent is weirder (i.e., just floating), because it violates the principles of the realism? (I dunno... Maybe it would be better if the lightbulb was lit up?)

I don't think that it worked all too bad with the upfix cosplay that I stumbled on at WonderCon earlier this year with the exclamation mark, but I'm not quite sure how far we can push this... Clearly, drawn hearts replacing eyes ("eye-umlauts") are a convention to mean love. I think it'd just look strange to have hearts placed over someone's eyes in a photo, right? What about holding actual gears above someone's head?

There seems to be something interesting here about how far one can go with non-iconic elements of visual morphology and their "stylistic" realism. Perhaps this is also why superhero comics don't use morphology like eye-umlauts or upfixes: they often attempt to maintain some degree of "realism" despite their fantastical powers and those associated conventions (like motion lines, x-ray vision, etc.). This seems like a corpus study and/or an experiment just waiting to happen...

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Page layouts with the Golden Ratio

I was recently sent a link to this blog post from back in May that discusses the "Golden Ratio" in the creation of comic pages by Bizhan Khodabandeh. He has some interesting ideas about how basic geometric shapes can underlie page composition in a way that's pleasing to the eye. He therefore advocates using the "rule of three" to divide up pages and space, coming at the issue from a very "graphic design" perspective.

I'm not sure if I'm convinced that these pages are aesthetically more appealing or easier to understand than pages that may not follow these exact ratios, but the idea is interesting nonetheless. Following such ratios may lead to some unintended consequences though... by so rigidly following the underlying shapes in the example above, it looks like the bird's legs are at an awkward angle such that the body weight wouldn't be supported by them. But, this is a very minor issue I'd think, and the ideas are definitely worth checking out.

Essentially, what the author is talking about is the relationship between External Compositional Structure (ECS)—the physical relations of panels on a page—and Internal Compositional Structure (ICS)—the organization of elements within a panel. The ideas of making these elements interact has long been a focus of both comic creators and comic theorists (Groensteen talks about this a lot).

What I find interesting here specifically is how far it pushes this interaction in treating the page as an aesthetic canvas. In research on ECS specifically, one of my students coded American superhero comics from the 1940s through the Present and argued that page layouts have been growing in their treatment of "pages as aesthetic canvases" rather than treating them like containers of "panels in a flow of information."

That is, authors are becoming more sensitive to how the page as a whole works as an aesthetic whole. The ideas in this blog post make such ideas very explicit.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Recap: Cognitive Science 2014

This past weekend I got to enjoy the annual Cognitive Science Society conference in Québec City, Canada. Unfortunately, this year's conference conflicted with ComicCon, but in the end it was definitely worth heading up to Canada than just going a few miles down the road here in San Diego.

I had several presentations throughout the weekend, but the highlight was the "Cognition of Comics" symposium on the first morning. Over the past few years, I've started collaborating on visual language research with a few other researchers, and I assembled everyone together to talk about our work.

I offered both an opening overview of my/our line of research, and at the end of the symposium I presented a wides scale view of how cognitive science issues can be studied using comics. In-between, my collaborators presented. David Wagner (University of Stavanger) and Tom Foulsham (University of Essex) both presented the work they've been doing using eye-tracking to see where people look while reading comics. Then, John Drury (Stony Brook University) presented work of ours looking at brainwaves in the comprehension of visual narratives, math, sentences, and music. This work seeks to explore whether the same brain mechanisms are involved in processing all of these domains.

Beyond the incredibly interesting talks themselves, as far as I know, this symposium is the first time multiple empirical psychology studies about the cognition of comics has ever been put together. To me, it felt like the starting point of the nascent field of visual language research—very exciting!

This feeling was only reinforced because we had ongoing discussions about research and comprehension of visual language for basically four straight days. Looks like there's going to be some great research up ahead from all of us, and a lot of work to be done! Because of this, I imagine we might look back on this conference as a seminal point in the history of this research.

The other special thing about this conference was that my mentor, Ray Jackendoff, was awarded this year's Rumelhart Prize, which is the "Nobel" of the cognitive science field. It's hard to think of a scientist who is more deserving. The award not only honors his extensive scholarly contributions to areas across cognitive science (language, music, perception, consciousness, social cognition, etc, etc.), but also his teaching and mentoring. This is also quite deserved, as I can say as one of the few individuals to graduate with a PhD with him as my primary advisor.

As part of the award, Ray gave an impassioned talk about the need and benefit of "theory" in the cognitive sciences. I recorded video for the talk, and we're going to try to get it posted online for all to see. Link to come.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Rules of Emoji

A friend passed along this article recently which describes research by Tyler Schnoebelen that explores the rules people use when writing with emoji/emoticons. When people hear that I work on "visual language" they often think of things like this. However, Schnoebelen actually did study these things, scouring through roughly 500,000 tweets and analyzed the types of productions that people made.

For example, he noted that people tend to place emoji at the end of clauses and sentences rather than the beginning. This makes sense, because people won't want to divide up their syntactic clauses. Instead, they'd prefer to use emoji like punctuation to divide up those clauses.

There also seems to be at least some linear causality when people are trying to communicate in emoji alone. The article notes that a story told through emoji would have to go in sequence, like this:
But, rearranging the order creates a different story, possibly less comprehensible:
This type of ordering could possibly use the rules in my visual narrative grammar, but in fairly stripped down and choppy form. Scrambling the order of units though is a common technique we've used before in studying the structure of sequential images.

These are particularly interesting for me because this type of things is what people often mistake my research for. However, emoji are not actual "visual language" as is laid out by my theory. Rather, they are at the intersection of visual language with writing—a conversion of sound into graphics (a learned synesthesia). They can act like "visual gestures," supplementing or enhancing the expressions of the text. Or, they can be like a pidgin, a hybrid communicative resulting from the intersection of rules of different systems, often using combinations based on basic rules of meaning without a complex grammar.

Nevertheless, emoji are particularly interesting because they still can reveal various preferences that people have for ordering meaningful information that is likely shared across various domains. For example,  another thing discussed in the article is that people will generally show an emotional state first, then show the cause of it, as in the laughing-monkey-poo example above and this one, where sadness precedes the reason why (a broken heart):
These examples use a structure common across communicative systems, which is to express the Agent (the doer of an action) prior to the Action. In this case, the Agent is sad, and the sadness is caused by the action of a broken heart. Often, this pattern will have a Patient (a receiver of an action) as well, in a canonical Agent-Patient-Act order. This pattern occurs very frequently in both full languages (such as Subject-Object-Verb ordered grammars), and in communicative systems that lack a full grammar (such as when non-sign language speakers are asked to communicate with only gestures).

I think there could likely be some interesting work done using experiments that ask people to communicate with emoji alone. That might be a nice follow up to Schnoebelen's work. He's done the corpus analysis of looking at what people have done in naturalistic expression. An interesting next stage would be to test various rules in experiments.

So... are emoji "visual language"? Not really in any full blown sense. However, they can tell us about verbal and visual languages, and the rules of communicative systems more generally.

(Wayback machine note: A long time back I did this related post about emoticons and the brain)

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Germany workshops recap

I'm a few weeks late to post on it, but my workshops in Germany were wonderfully fun! I've spent the intervening week traveling throughout the East Coast, so I'm only now able to get to posting photos and whatnot from the trip.

It was a great time, and I greatly appreciated everyone's enthusiasm, energy, and curiosities. The workshops were especially fun since I really only planned an introductory slideshow, and then I took requests for whatever the attendees wanted to learn the remainder of the day.

My first stop was Freiburg where I had a packed house of students and faculty from lots of different fields. We focused a lot on narrative grammar and page layout (as we did later in Bremen), but also quite a bit on cross-cultural studies. Here's a group photo of those who survived the whole 8 hour workshop!

A few days later I made my way up to Bremen, where we had my second full day workshop. We again focused on narrative grammar and page layouts. But, I got to present some as-yet-unpublished theoretical work on multimodality (the paper for which I later ended up writing on the plane ride home). Alas, by the end of the 8 hours, I forgot to take a group picture, but it was quite the fun time. It also got covered by a German radio station, which you can listen to here.

I then gave my last talk as part of a series on film, which meant I had to discuss at least some ideas about how to apply my narrative grammar to film. That talk was in an amazing circular room at the University of Bremen that made me feel like I was an old Greek scholar or something (bring me a toga!). Also quite a fun experience, but only 2 hours so not nearly the marathon of the workshops.

All in all it was a fun and educational trip, definitely for me and hopefully for the people who came out to learn and work with me. So, special thanks to John Bateman, Janina Wildfeuer, and Stephan Packard for bringing me out there and for being such great and hospitable hosts, and thank you to everyone who came out to participate and listen to the talks!

If you couldn't come see me this trip to Germany, never fear! I'll be back again for a conference on "Empirical approaches to comics" in Berlin this September 19 - 20. I would of course love to do more workshops during that time, so contact me if you'd like to have me!

Monday, July 07, 2014

New article: The architecture of visual narrative comprehension

I'm happy to announce that I have a new article out in the journal Frontiers in Psychology titled "The architecture of visual narrative comprehension: the interaction of narrative structure and page layout in understanding comics."

This is a "Focused Review," so it summarizes the research that has been done on narrative structure, page layouts, and panel framing… and then tries to integrate them together! The intent is to show that each of these structures operates independently of each other, but that they all interface to create a larger whole than just the parts.


"How do people make sense of the sequential images in visual narratives like comics? A growing literature of recent research has suggested that this comprehension involves the interaction of multiple systems: The creation of meaning across sequential images relies on a “narrative grammar” that packages conceptual information into categorical roles organized in hierarchic constituents. These images are encapsulated into panels arranged in the layout of a physical page. Finally, how panels frame information can impact both the narrative structure and page layout. Altogether, these systems operate in parallel to construct the Gestalt whole of comprehension of this visual language found in comics."

Cohn, Neil. 2014. The architecture of visual narrative comprehension: the interaction of narrative structure and page layout in understanding comics. Frontiers in Psychology. 5:680. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00680

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Travel plans and Mailbag

I leave for my upcoming Germany trip on Monday! I'm very excited about the workshops and can't wait to jump into them. As it turns out, I've been invited to yet another conference in Germany held in Berlin this September, so I'll be headed back out there in a few months as well! I'll keep people posted as that develops.

I'm also very proud of how well my students did this quarter in my Cognition of Comics class at UCSD. My 24 students all did research projects on some aspect of visual language theory, be it running experiments or coding through lots of comics to see their properties. We ended the quarter with two weeks of presentations where they shared their work with the class. All the projects turned out great, but we'll now be working on transforming several exemplary ones into publications. Really looking forward to sharing this work with people.

And finally, I got an interesting question over on my Facebook page. I always enjoy answering people's questions, so I figured I should bring it over here too. Ryo Infinity sent me this message:

"Research by the University of College London asserts that anyone can learn how to draw - which contradicts some of your claims about improvement after the "critical stage". "In fact, say scientists, while some are born with natural talent, anyone can learn to draw well. In research presented at a recent symposium at Columbia University and soon to be published by Columbia University Press, Chamberlain and her colleagues found practicing drawing significantly improved people's abilities over time, as rated by other people who participated in the study. " What are your thoughts on this? The researchers opine that anyone can learn how to draw well after thousands of hours of practice - even if they start after puberty"

And here's my now slightly-expanded reply:

"Thanks for the question. I don't think of a "critical period" as a hard line that then prevents you to draw (it's not a switch that turns off). It's a diminishing ability to acquire drawing skills as you age. But, the decline seems to happen around puberty (just like in language acquisition). 
That said, I don't know of the work you're discussing, but my instinct is to say that yes, some people will naturally be better than others (just like some people naturally have a knack for languages) and practicing something over time will help improve it (just like languages). However, I'd want to know what the criteria are that they are using to judge proficiency. If it's just "other people in the study" then those aren't "fluent drawers" either—essentially like asking people who are learning Mandarin to judge the fluency of other learners. That makes no sense as a test of proficiency. I'd also likely challenge the basic foundations of what they believe drawing to be (and what they believe "good" drawing to be), since that's at the heart of the issue really."

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Coming soon to Germany...

I'm very excited that my workshops in Germany are only a month away! I'll first be making a stop at Saarland University for a talk about the structure of events  on June 18th.Then the more extensive visits begin...

I'll be speaking on Saturday, June 21st at the University of Freiburg for an all day workshop. You can find more information here and a pdf poster here.

I'll then head over to the University of Bremen for a few events. First, I'll be doing another all day workshop on Monday June 23rd. As in Freiburg, I'll be discussing the basics of visual language theory, advice on how to go about doing research, and an extensive discussion of the structure and cognition of comics and visual narratives. I'm fighting the urge to over-plan too much, so that a good amount of the material can also be guided by the interests of people in attendance (if you know you'll be in attendance and want to influence the direction of discussion beforehand, let me know!).

Finally, I'll be speaking as part of the lecture series, "Recent Paradigms of Film Studies" on Wednesday June 25th. Here, I'll be talking about the structure and cognition of my theory of narrative grammar, and how it can apply to comics, films, and written discourse.

If you're in or nearby Germany, I hope to see you soon!

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Visual Language research galore!

Can I brag for a moment? Not about me, really, but about my students!

This quarter I'm teaching a course on the "Cognition of Comics" for the UCSD Cognitive Science Department. While the classes do discuss experiments and studies that have been done related to how people understand comics, and how they differ across cultures, I wanted this class to give students the opportunity to do science rather than just learn about it.

So, the course actually revolves around students doing their own research projects related to topics in visual language. While I've tried to help guide them towards interesting projects, they've mostly come up with them on their own, and boy do they seem exciting!

We have 7 experiments that people are doing, investigating the cognition of "upfixes" (symbols that go above characters heads), how people use systematic representations in drawings, how people navigate page layouts, and even how color might affect emotion in comics.

We also have projects coding across many comics to see what the properties of various structures are. Before this class, there were less than ten studies doing this sort of corpus analysis on the structure of comics. There was a dissertation by Neff, McCloud's study of panel transitions, a few done by Charles Forceville, and two done by me. In this class alone, there are roughly 14 corpus studies!

The comparisons of populations range from looking at how various structural aspects of American Visual Language change over time in superhero comics, how structures might be similar or different between genres of Japanese manga (shoujo, shonen, sports, etc.), how structures might differ between comics done by English vs. French vs. Spanish speakers, and differences between American, Japanese, and/or Chinese comics. (among others)

These comparisons are looking at how panels frame information, the constraints on how manga use super-deformation, how "visual morphemes" and symbols are used across comics of different cultures, how schematic graphic information (like the way people draw eyes or hair) are systematically used across different authors, how page layouts are structured, and how text and images interact with each other. Plus, quite a few other topics!

Hopefully, many of these papers will find information that will be significant enough to publish, suddenly increasing what we know about the structure of different comics across the world by over 200%! It's going to be a very exciting quarter!

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Post-talk and new Spanish article

Thanks to everyone who came out to hear my talk at WonderCon on Sunday! I got great questions and really enjoyed the discussion after the talk with people who hung around. The Con itself was pretty fun as well. As I commented with several people, it felt like ComicCon was back 20 years ago.

And, as you can see in the photo... I found someone walking around with an upfix! I think he was confused why I was so excited. Are you confused why I'm so excited? Then go check out my book, where discussion of "upfixes" (stuff floating above character's heads) receives a nice lengthy discussion!

In other news... the latest issue of Revista Exégesis is now out! This Spanish-language comics anthology has lots of good short stories, and, like all their issues, it features an article by me, translated into Spanish! This issue has a Spanish version of part of my Visual Language Manifesto, which discussed how visual language theory can inform a restructuring of the comic industry (originally written way back in 2004). Enjoy!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Wondercon and updates

Just a reminder that I'll be speaking at WonderCon in Anaheim this weekend! My talk on the Cognition  of Comics is going to be at 11:30 on Sunday. Hope to see you there!

Here's the description:

What happens in people's minds and brains when they read and create comics? Neil Cohn (University of California, San Diego) will present an overview of his new book, The Visual Language of Comics: An Introduction to the Structure and Cognition of Comics, which provides an extensive introduction to the cognitive science of comics comprehension. This discussion will cover the systematic components that make up unique and different panels, the grammar of sequential images and page layouts, cross-cultural differences in structure, and the newest neuroscience research on what the brain is doing while comprehending comics.
Sunday April 20, 2014 11:30am - 12:30pm 
Room 210BCD

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Visual Language Fluency Index

One of the interesting findings throughout many of my experiments is that the comprehension of sequential images seems to be modulated by participants' "comic reading expertise." These effects are predicted by my theory of "visual language"...

If drawings and sequential images are indeed structured like language, then we should expect varying degrees of "fluency" across individuals based on their experience reading and drawing comics. Previous studies in Japan have supported this, finding that various aspects of comic understanding correlate with age and frequency of reading comics. Not only does this support my idea of "visual language," but it flies in the face of the assumptions that all (sequential) images are universally understood by everyone equally.

In order to study this type of "fluency," I created a measurement that calculates a number that can then be correlated with experimental results. In the first use of this metric, I found that brainwaves and reaction times correlated with people's fluency, and several studies since then have also found similar correlations. This study was predated in time (though not publication date) by my study of page layouts, which also found differences based on people's backgrounds, which was a precursor to the changes in the way I gathered this type of information.

I've now decided to name this metric the "Visual Language Fluency Index" (VLFI) and have decided to make resources available to anyone who might want to use it in their own experiments. Hopefully this can be helpful to anyone who is doing research or is planning to do research on sequential image comprehension.

You can now download a zip folder (direct link) from the Resources page of this site which contains a questionnaire for participants to fill out and an Excel spreadsheet to enter in this data, which will also calculate the VLFI scores. There is also a "read me" file providing documentation about the metric.

I'll make a final note as well that, although the VLFI score as it currently stands is very useful and has been proven to be a reliable predictor of comprehension in several studies, I'm not satisfied to leave it alone. Studies are already underway looking into how to improve the measurements and scale, which will hopefully make it even more reliable. Should anything change, I'll post about it here and update the files on the Resources page.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Classes, speaking, and books... oh my!

I'm currently enjoying getting work done on my spring break, and have lots of fun news to report!

1. Classes!

First, I just completed grading the final exams for my very fun course on the "Language of Comics" for UCSD's Linguistics Department. Finals are always a chore to grade (even with my trusty TA), but they were made a lot more fun because they were filled with my theories and had awesome student drawn comics created to illustrate VL theory!

A class like this is pretty much one of a kind at this point, since I'm probably the only one teaching these sorts of classes. So, in order to help encourage and facilitate more classes like this, I've posted the syllabus on my "Resources" page. A direct pdf is available here. If you are looking to start teaching a class of this type, please feel free to contact me about listed readings that aren't published and/or for suggestions about homework assignments and exams.

Next week I start a new class on the "Cognition of Comics" for the UCSD Cognitive Science Department. This class is going to be a lot more research based, and will be based around students doing their own research project related to visual language theory. I'm very excited about it, and I'm looking forward to seeing all the great work they'll no doubt come up with.

2. Appearances!

While I'll be out in Germany to give several workshops in June, much sooner I'll be here in the States giving a talk at WonderCon in Anaheim in a few weeks. I likely won't be at Comic-Con this year due to a conflicting date, so this looks to be my big comic convention appearance of the year. My talk will be on Sunday morning of April 20th, at 11:30. I've got a whole hour where I'll be giving the basic overview of visual language theory and then answering lots of questions. I'll keep posting more info as the date gets closer, but come on out and see my presentation!

3. More books!

Finally, I'm excited to say I just received a contract for my next book! This one will be an edited volume that will act as a companion to The Visual Language of Comics, and can serve as a reader for future classes on visual language (I'll need to post an update to the syllabus when it's out!).

The book will bring together chapters from several world class researchers from various diverse fields who have all investigated some facet of visual narratives with regard to how they are structured, comprehended in cognition, or developed by children. Being able to integrate them into a cohesive volume will provide a great way to make these authors' work known to a broader community, and hopefully help sponsor the growth of this field.

Stay tuned for updates on its development, but I'm hoping for a release in late 2015.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

June workshops in Germany!

I'm excited to announce that I have several upcoming appearances in Germany this June! It looks like I'll be having two main open workshops...

The first will be at the University of Freiburg throughout the day on Saturday, June 21st. I was invited to do this event by Stephan Packard, and it will be sponsored by the Institute for Media Culture Studies.

This workshop will be a compact and content filled introduction to my theories of visual language. I'll cover the basic ideas of this broad architecture, how it connects to other aspects of cognition, and how it can be used in practical analysis of comics and other phenomena. I'll be posting more information about this workshop in the coming weeks as we hammer out a few of the details and a website goes online for it. All are welcome to attend!

Finally, my most extensive stop will be at the University of Bremen, where I'll kick things off on June 23rd with another open workshop stretching throughout the whole day! (EnglishGerman) I was kindly invited here by John Bateman and Janina Wildfeuer for this event hosted by the Bremen Institute for Transmedial Textuality Research.

This workshop will again cover the basics of visual language theory, and will involve hands on discussion of how these principles operate throughout different comics and graphic communication.

As with my workshop in Freiburg, people are welcome to attend from all over. So, if you're in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium or any other place nearby and want to learn about visual language theory, please come out for the workshop! Additional information about the workshop and registration can be found at this website.

Then, on June 25th I'll give an additional talk at the Bremen University lecture series on "Recent Paradigms of Film Studies" (EnglishGerman). This talk will provide an overview my theory of "narrative grammar," what the research on behavior and the brain can tell us about comprehending sequential images, and how these structures apply beyond static visual sequences like those in comics, but also to film, and verbal discourse.

I am very excited about these upcoming events, and to have the opportunity to share my work with so many diverse people. I'll be posting reminders and more information as the dates get closer, but if you're interested, please come to the workshops!

Friday, March 07, 2014

New article: Framing "I can't draw"

I'm happy to say that I have a new article (pdf) published in the journal Culture & Psychology! This one continues with my theories about how people learn how to draw.

In my previous article (pdf), I argued that drawings were structured like languages, and that learning how to draw involves learning a "visual vocabulary" from an external system. I also argued that the reason people feel that they "can't draw" is because they do not sufficiently have exposure and practice with these visual languages, and thus don't learn how to draw with "fluency" before the end of a critical learning period.

This new paper pushes this idea even further, and proposes that people's ability to draw is actually hurt by the way in which our culture thinks about drawings and graphic expression. As I've argued for a long time on this blog (with the tag "Art vs. Language") there is a perspective held about "Art" that pushes people towards drawing in unique and individualistic ways, admonishing imitation as a means of learning. This paper argues that the cultural set of assumptions including these ideas actually inhibits people's ability to learn how to draw.

A pdf of the paper is available here, while the official abstract and information from the publisher is here. Here's the abstract:

Why is it that many people feel that they “can’t draw”? In a recent article Cohn, 2012, I put forth a new theory that compared the cognitive structure of drawing to the cognitive structure of language. Like language, drawing uses schemas that combine in innumerable novel ways, and thus children learning to draw must acquire these schemas from the drawings in their environment. However, while most people in the United States and Europe “can’t draw,” Japanese children have far greater proficiency in drawing. This paper explores reasons for this cultural disparity in graphic fluency originating in the structure of the drawing systems in those respective cultures and the beliefs that frame ideas about drawing and art education. In particular, I explore the intriguing possibility that cultural assumptions admonishing imitation of other people’s drawings prohibits the acquisition of graphic schemas, thereby leading to people feeling that they “can’t draw.”

Cohn, Neil. 2014. Framing “I can’t draw”: The influence of cultural frames on the development of drawing. Culture & Psychology. 20(1): 102-117.