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, Qu├ębec 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.