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Comic Theory Essays

Essays on the internal structure of the comic medium.
These are essays on "visual language" and the ways that comics communicate. If you're interested more in works like this, check out my website and my ongoing blog. Click on title or image to download pdf.
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NEW Navigating Comics • Spring 2008
Most people believe that the reading of comic pages moves along the same order as text: the "z-path" of left-to-rigth and down. However, what happens when layouts are more complicated than simple grids? This paper reports the findings of a psychology experiment which found that readers follow a far more complex process of page layout navigation than the z-path. (30 pages, 1.6MB)

NEW Japanese Visual Language • Fall 2007
Over the past two decades, manga has exploded in readership beyond Japan, and its style has captured the interest of young artists all over. But, what exactly are the properties of this "style" beyond the surface of big-eyes and "backward" reading? This paper explores the structural properties of the visual language underlying the "manga style," how it works, and how it differs from the visual languages in comics from other parts of the world. (21 pages, 1.4MB)

Cross-Cultural Space • Fall 2005
Comparisons between Japanese manga and American comics have often been made, yet only a few studies have actually tried to quantify these differences. This study examines the "spatial" qualities of panels in a variety of American and Japanese books (17 pages, 952K)

A Visual Lexicon • Summer 2005
The most recognized unit in visual language is the "panel," though meaningful units do exist that are both smaller and larger than panels. This is similar to spoken languages, where lexical items can be both above or below the level of the "word." This paper will address these varying levels of representation in visual language to lead toward a general understanding of what it means to have "visual lexical items." (19 pages, 725K)

¡Eye græfIk Semiosis! Summer 2005
Written as my Masters Thesis for the University of Chicago, this piece challenges the common classifcation between "sound" and "idea" based writing systems. I argue that all graphic signs lie on a cognitive continuum, the ramifications of which beg for reconsidering their analysis as homogenous systems, the conception of their invention, the nature of their relationship to other visual signs, and the universality of the category of "writing" in the first place. (61 pages, 1.5MB) Cognitive Map

Generative grammarVisual Syntactic Structures • Spring 2003
Straightforwardly, communication made by a sequence of images might be viewed in terms of linear "panel transitions." However, while intuitive, a linear approach ultimately has many problems with it.

Part 1 addresses the problems found in a panel transition model (22 pages, 452K)
Part 2
proposes an alternative method of analysis in the form of hierarchic rules, and can be found in my book, Early Writings on Visual Language

A Time Frame of Mind • Spring 2002
Written as my undergraduate honors thesis at UC Berkeley, this work has been published in the Spring 2003 edition of the Berkeley Undergraduate Journal. This somewhat esoteric piece offers a look at the relationship of the Dharma Theory of ancient Buddhist philosophy to the understanding of visual language temporal mapping. (42 pages, 521KB)

Early Writings on Visual Language
More writings are included in this 120 page book which collects, refines, and expands on the earliest of writings on visual language theory. It covers topics such as the muddled definition of "comics" and its relation to visual language, how sequences of images communicate, and child visual language learning, plus a lot more. Want one?

These links go to Comixpedia site, not pdf. files:

Interactive Comics? (February 2005) - Usually, when people think about language, there is an aspect of face to face intaction and exchange that springs to mind. This piece addresses how social interactivity factors into visual language structure and use

Art vs. Language (July 2004) - This pieces discusses how the cultural conceptions of "Art" and "Language" might affect the structure and usage of visual language in American society.

Short essays about the intersection of comic theory and linguistics hosted by

Loopy Framing (March 2007) - Examines the similarities between word balloons, thought bubbles, and panel borders to reveal an essential part of human cognition. With illustrations by Tim Godek.

Visual Poetry (November 2006) - Theorizes what formal "native" visual poetry would be like, without connections to patterns from verbal poetry

Seeing Rhymes (June 2006) - Looks at the potential of visual rhymes and their practical application for visual poetry

Too Many Twos (March 2006) - Probes the "Problem of Two" – how the brain can understand two identical signals in the same context

Passing Judgment (January 2006) - Shows how intuitions can be used to determine formulate theory, and poses some examples for the reader to experiment with

In place of another (October 2005) - Discusses visual metonymy, when one thing is expressed by showing a related thing

All essays are © 2007 Neil Cohn
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Neil Cohn has been gaining attention for his research on how comics communicate. He has written extensively about the structure of the comic medium, and has lectured in the US and Europe. ... full profile