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Review of Who Understands Comics? Questioning the Universality of Visual Language Comprehension

By Jason DeHart

Cohn, Neil. Who Understands Comics? Questioning the Universality of Visual Language Comprehension. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020.

As an educator, I sometimes encounter pushback on comics as a medium worthy of reading and study in the K-12 classroom. While this conversation has changed in some spaces, I continue to hear comments in some circles that suggest that comics are a lesser work. Neil Cohn’s book, Who Understands Comics: Questioning the Universality of Visual Language Comprehension, continues this scholar’s work on the depth and possibilities of visual language. He identifies the intricacies of visual texts in ways that are at once accessible and yet speak to the deeper levels of this topic. 

This book, along with Cohn’s published corpus, examines visual language critically, exploring the affordances of texts to explore how comprehension occurs with visual reading. Cohn continues to expand my thinking about the complexities found in comics, and this is useful work for a variety of reasons as both a teacher and researcher who examines and utilizes visual text. The text includes images and text features that help the reader think critically about the morphological aspects of visuals across media. Cohn’s close attention to individual features equips readers with an analytical guide for close reading texts that include few or no words. The author encourages expanding beyond word-only definitions and reflecting how understanding is built across types of texts. In this way, the author counters the sense of disparagement that critics of comics and film sometimes inaccurately impose on visual texts. While the work focuses on comics, the author considers a range of media. I was particularly pleased to find a chapter dedicated to the film medium, in which Cohn helpfully delineates the differences between the two media. Cohn examines the static image of the comic and the affordances that are part of the natural percepts employed by the use of a camera.

There are several possibilities for using this text and applying its content. Based on this book’s presentation, I can see possibilities for applications to a myriad of ways of composing for students of all ages, helping educators and researchers examine the layers of digital and print work with care and attention. One particular example of this kind of layered thinking, clearly described in the book, are the structural predictions that readers engage in when reading a visual text, including rule-based ordering, perceptual constraints, layout schemas, and assemblage structure (p. 28). These insights offer a close look into the cognition and processing when encountering a text that includes visual semiotic structures – a process that might be taken for granted in the absence of a theoretical guide like this one. 

In terms of literacy practice and research, the book includes notable insights, including a direct and systematic understanding of how meaning is made on a comics page. This work holds implications for those who either examine comics in their research practice or utilize these texts for instruction at all levels. Even the casual comics reader can understand the complexities in the medium. Readers who engage in similar research and teaching related to semiotics, literacy, and visual cognition, will be a likely audience for this book. However, I can also see the possibility for long-time comics readers who want to know more about how these books work. While reading comics is something that I have done since early childhood, I continue to be amazed at the ways that these books work and at the many processes that occur when encountering these texts. 

Cohn peels back the curtain on some of the processes. There is a depth of detail in the book, but the text is not so esoteric that researchers working in various fields would have difficulty applying its content. I would further suggest that scholars who have not considered the role of comics in their work may find surprising applicability in the book’s contents across disciplines concerned with semiotics. Moreover, the book helps to extend thinking about how meaning-making changes depending on the cultural context and composition of a visual text, which can vary, just as dialects may vary in spoken language. As an example, Cohn examines manga, expanding the umbrella term “manga” and dividing the approach into four separate categories of composition. By including such analysis, the book is not only a rich resource for those who might be new to the comics medium but also for those who have had some considerable experience with particular types of comics. Readers who may be interested in further exposure to new ways of thinking about comics and/or new ways of composing and analyzing comics from a range of cultural contexts can benefit from this work. 

Cohn extends thinking about visual comprehension to work toward a consideration of visual fluency, which is further explored at the end of the book. This notion of fluency entails a need for more awareness of visual texts as rich sites of literacy development in practice and policy, presenting a call for further exposure to a range of texts in classrooms. The central question of developing such fluency is to what degree readers can navigate visual texts and make meaning as they engage in this navigation with ease and automaticity. Cohn positions the relationship of comics to the range of visual language as complex, noting, “comics are a context in which certain fairly sophisticated visual languages are used” (p. 5), and this language necessarily entails exposure to the medium. Later, the author examines the complexities of comics comprehension using quantitative measures (i.e., the Chiba University Comic Comprehension Test). This work lends an empirical nature to reading studies with comics – a sorely needed area in the literacy and educational/instructional domain of study.

By beginning with a visual literacy positioning, Cohn notes the nature of comics as a medium, or textual space, in which particular aspects of visual language are employed. The conversation is not limited to comics for scholars and teachers who focus on other visual/multimedia/multimodal works. In this way, the implications of the book begin with comics but can be applied to additional elements and areas of literacy. Of course, only so much can be contained within one volume. For those who find themselves wanting more, Cohn has many additional publications to expand on this content. His work is an important contribution to pushing back on disparaging views of comics.

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