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Comic Strip Structure as a Visual Language

By Wesley Fenlon

Psychologist Neil Cohn says we "read" comic strips the same way we read sentences, and comics have a grammar like any other language.

Anyone who has read Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics knows that comics have a vocabulary, much like the written word. Iconic and detailed images have different effects. The spaces between panels have meaning, and readers instinctively understand how to fill in those gaps with their own mind and connect one panel to another.

Now science is more or less backing up McCloud's observations. As Fast.Co Design writes, psychologist Neil Cohn has published a book called "The Visual Language of Comics" that equates our understanding of them to our understanding of written language. Comics, Cohn says, have a grammatical system just like sentences. He's not exactly saying that comics have a language. It's more like they are a language.

Photo credit: Flickr user danielygo via Creative Commons

"Cohn says any language has a 'holy triumvirate' of elements: expressive form, grammar, and meaning," writes Fast.Co. "Comics, he argues, meet all three requirements. Their expressive form is the visual strip. Their grammatical structure consists of a basic vocabulary (such as stink lines or speech bubbles) and a syntax (a hierarchical panel structure). And, when done right, the images have a semantic relationship--a clear message."

Cohn has research and testing to back up his argument. He performed a study in which participants looked at four types of comic strips: Normal, semantic only, structural only, and scrambled. The normal strip, from Peanuts, depicts the logical sequence of a baseball game. The semantic only strip shows semantically related panels (each one depicts a baseball game in action), but no structure. The third shows a narrative structure based on Cohn's breakdown of how comics work--he breaks down comics into an arc, which is explained in detail in the study--but the panels are unrelated. The scrambled panel is has no relationships between panels.

Image credit: Neil Cohn

Participants started by looking at one target panel on a computer. Then they were shown the entire strip, and pushed a button when that target panel appeared. "The study was designed to echo a famous sentence structure experiment conducted in the 1970s, which found that people process 'normal' sentences more quickly than ones that violate linguistic rules," Fast.Co writes. "Cohn wanted to see whether his participants reacted to comics the same way.

"Sure enough, they did. Cohn and his fellow researchers found that reaction times to the target panel were fastest in the 'normal' sequence. Target reactions in the semantic- and syntax-only sequences, shown second and third above, were slower than normal (though similar to one another). Reactions in the scrambled strips were slowest of all. At a strictly cognitive level, people did seem to treat normal comic strips as a normal sentence."

Brain monitoring in another test showed that people processed the relationships between panels in a normal comic much like they processed standard sentences, and they registered a blank space inserted into a comic much like a grammatical error. It all sounds like a very complicated way of proving the fundamentals of an idea we already understood: the images and form of comics can be "read" just like words.