Thursday, June 15, 2017

New paper: A picture is worth more words over time

I'm excited to announce we have another new paper, "A picture is worth more words over time: Multimodality and narrative structure across eight decades of American superhero comics," now out in the journal Multimodal Communication. This paper examines the changes in text-image relations and storytelling in American superhero comics from the 1940s though the 2010s.

This was a project first undertaken by students in my 2014 Cognition of Comics class, which became expanded into a larger study. My co-authors, Ryan Taylor and Kaitlin Pederson, coded 40 comics across 8 decades (over 9,000 panels), complementing Kaitlin's study of page layout across time in superhero comics.

We examined three aspects of structure: multimodality (text-image relationships and their balance of meaning and narrative), the framing of information in panels (image above), and the linear changes in meaning that occur between panels.

Overall, we found evidence that American superhero comics have shifted to relying less on text, and more towards the visual narrative sequencing carrying more weight of the storytelling. This has accompanied changes in the framing of information in panels to use fewer elements (as in the example figure), and to use fewer spatial location changes with more time changes across panels.

In addition, this trend is not new, but has been steadily occurring over the past forty years. That means it cannot just be attributed to the influence of manga since the 1980s (and indeed, as we discuss, our results suggest the influence of manga may be more complicated than people suspect).

You can download the paper here (pdf), or along with all my other downloadable papers. You can also see Ryan presenting this study at Comic-Con International in our panel in 2015:


The visual narratives of comics involve complex multimodal interactions between written language and the visual language of images, where one or the other may guide the meaning and/or narrative structure. We investigated this interaction in a corpus analysis across eight decades of American superhero comics (1940–2010s). No change across publication date was found for multimodal interactions that weighted meaning towards text or across both text and images, where narrative structures were present across images. However, we found an increase over time of narrative sequences with meaning weighted to the visuals, and an increase of sequences without text at all. These changes coincided with an overall reduction in the number of words per panel, a shift towards panel framing with single characters and close-ups rather than whole scenes, and an increase in shifts between temporal states between panels. These findings suggest that storytelling has shifted towards investing more information in the images, along with an increasing complexity and maturity of the visual narrative structures. This has shifted American comics from being textual stories with illustrations to being visual narratives that use text.


Cohn, Neil, Ryan Taylor, and Kaitlin Pederson. 2017. A picture is worth more words over time: Multimodality and narrative structure across eight decades of American superhero comics. Multimodal Communication. 6(1): 19-37.

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