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."