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Review of The Visual Language of Comics: Introduction to the Structure and Cognition of Sequential Images

By A. David Lewis

Cohn, Neil. The Visual Language of Comics: Introduction to the Structure and Cognition of Sequential Images. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014. Print.

Back in 2003, Neil Cohn self-published his own Early Writings on Visual Language, which can now be seen as the precursor to The Visual Language of Comics: Introduction to the Structure and Cognition of Sequential Images. The first book was billed, rightly so, as “breaking new ground” and “providing a reunderstanding” of how the human mind might parse and comprehend images (Cohn). A decade later, Cohn has The Visual Language of Comics stand his ground – with better-organized and codified systems, experimental results, and a greater amount of interconnected research – while always continuing to look forward. The Visual Language of Comics provides the next step in the neurocognitive, semiotic, and linguistic journey that Cohn is pioneering. The claim remains the same: visual language is as much a language as English or Arabic. Now, however, Cohn has put distance between visual language and comics to better show its structures, grammar, and syntax not only in sequential art but also operating in the human brain.

The principle undergirding Cohn’s work is straightforward enough: media like comics and graphic novels employ a visual language that, like all languages, has its own rules of grammar and syntax. It’s demonstrating this principle that proves so laborious, especially as The Visual Language of Comics is a written text and, in turn, readers are likely to (over-)extend their notions of written structure and cognition to visual language. Fortunately, in addition to being a Tufts University-trained cognitive psychologist, Cohn is also an artist and illustrator. Therefore, not only does he, metaphorically, practice what he preaches, but Cohn can also literally provide first-hand examples of the categories and structures he is attempting to describe.

In addition, due to his time at Tufts and work with Ray Jackendoff in the Center for Cognitive Studies, Cohn has enjoyed access to the tools necessary (MRIs, EKGs, etc.) to test some of his and others’ visual language theories. He puts these results to good use in The Visual Language of Comics, neither getting too bogged down in the technology of it all nor overlooking the reader who lacks a doctorate in the field yet needs to know the pertinence of these results. Namely, his lab work with volunteers’ EEG results helps to prove many of the principles he proposes.

Cohn begins by dismantling several arguments against visual language as knowable and observable, followed by outlining its main structures. Unlike Scott McCloud, for whose Understanding Comics he has great affection, Cohn argues that looking only at panel-to-panel transitions is not enough—our brains do not determine the meaning of a sequence of images solely in terms of juxtaposed panels with no thought given to its place in the system. More akin to Thierry Groensteen’s model, Cohn posits that the meaning assigned to images comes from a combination of base units (morphemes) and their positions, manipulations, and focus in a system. Unlike Groensteen, however, Cohn builds his visual lexicon and their interactions from the field of linguistics first, then cognitive psychology (rather than either a socio-historical context or arthrology). As indebted as Cohn might be to McCloud and Groensteen’s influences and investigations, his work is built on more solid theoretical ground, namely that of linguistics and neuropsychology.

The early chapters of The Visual Language of Comics propose basic schema for the visual language of a culture—that is, it may be universal for there to be an image that represents a human or individual, but the traditional stick-figure has been taught and internalized—this is then combined into graphemes with their own rules. These rules may also be known as production scripts. For example, the top half of a stick figure inside a box on the side of a house would more likely be understood through a production script as a view through a window at someone inside rather than a half-man pinned inside a torturous frame. These shared production scripts are then stored in people’s minds to understand, for instance, how shadow affects an image, what perspective should be recognized, etc. Similar production scripts, says Cohn, have been generated and internalized for graphemes in comics: the dotted word balloon means its text is whispered, impact stars denote a collision, and small hearts replacing the eyes should not be taken literally (45).

When he advances the discussion from individual images to full sequences of comics strips, Cohn spotlights two phenomena. First, as in Early Writings on Visual Language, he proposes that panels are individual “attention units” (56), focusing the reader’s attention on a particular detail or expanding it across a number of balanced graphemes. Similar—though not equivalent—to the cinematic long, full, medium, close, and close-up shots, these attentional panel types can be categorized as the active macro, mono, micro, and the inactive amorphic (i.e. an item or scene outside the sequence’s action). Second, these panels/attention units compose a narrative structure when placed in deliberate sequence. Once there, the panels are recognized by the brain as serving one of several core functions. These six categories constituting a coherent sequence or phase are designated by Cohn as Orienters, Establishers, Initials, Prolongations, Peaks, and Releases; each of these panels is either moving towards or concluding the Peak, the necessary “disruption of narrative equilibrium” to advance narrative (92). In short, the attention units direct us where to look, and then the sequence grammatically builds to show us an action ensuing.

Figure 1

The Visual Language of Comics maintains Early Writings on Visual Language’s notion that strings of panels may be embedded within overall arcs. A phase could, say, be made up of several Orienters—images of the landscape—packaged together as one mass Orienter for the total arc; several smaller Initial-Peak duos might be subsumed under the greater Peak for the arc (see Figure 4.9, Cohn 81). When, in such an arc, a necessary phase is absent or presented out of predicted order, event-related potentials (ERPs) in the brain signal the discrepancy. This is a stunning finding, at least to those readers and scholars of comics outside the laboratory: our brains not only appear wired for the sorts of visual language rules that Cohn presents, but he and his colleagues have generated and analyzed specific data (e.g. the brain’s N400 effect, a P600 effect) that offers empirical evidence to prove this: “[A]n N400 effect could be evoked by violations of meaning, a P600 effect could be evoked by violations of narrative grammar” (126). After monitoring and reviewing the brainwaves of experiment volunteers via EEG (electro-encephalograph), these two ERP (event-related potentials, i.e. the N400 effect and P600 effect) could be detected. In the case of the N400 effect, the same area of the brain that detects unexpected words in a sentence (e.g. “He spread the bread with socks” instead of “butter”) also peaked at a similar 400-millisecond point when a visual sequence included an out of place image. The P600 effect occurs at the 600-millisecond mark for alike violations in written grammar as it proved to do with violations in Cohn’s proposed visual grammar. In short, this is beyond theory: Cohn’s is tested comics cognition.

Of course, the same rigor and technical ability with the lab testing that helps to prove Cohn’s case can also be its downfall, at least in terms of reaching extended audiences. His explanations for visual language will likely take most comics scholars, except for those who already have a background in lab-based experimentation as well as semiotic and linguistic principles, outside of their typical comfort zones. The book is structured so that the immersion is not immediate nor without warning: Cohn warns in the “Introduction” that his book leans more on the first half of the title (The Visual Language) than on the second (of Comics). While Cohn himself is plainly a fan of the medium and the industry, as exemplified in the treatment he gives to artists like Jack Kirby and Erik Larsen, his text does not target fandom whatsoever.

The book’s finest quality, however, is neither its fresh-from-the-lab contentions nor its clever and illustrative use of images themselves to accompany its text: The Visual Language of Comics excels in its welcoming invitation for further research and engagement. In chapter after chapter, Cohn, rather than firmly making declarations of decisiveness and permanency, speaks of all there is yet to do: “I leave it to future researches to ultimately make this labeling decision” (49), “Further patterns within and between authors would be worth exploring” (89), “[T]hese studies just provide first steps” (128), “This research is only an initial foray” (133), etcetera. Cohn opens the future applications of his revelations to questions of geography and culture, historical shifts, and multimodality (thereby attempting to avoid McCloud-like accusations of “logophobia” with his own intentional omission of written language in his paradigm). True to the words of his Introduction, The Visual Language of Comics is “an invitation […]a starting point” (xv) and a startlingly inviting one, at that.

Works Cited

Cohn, Neil. “Early Writings on Visual Language.” Visual Language Lab. n.d. n.p. Web. 17 July 2015.

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