I keep thinking about Tom. I barely knew him. And yet, I’ve been thinking about him everyday. I miss him. I couldn’t exist making, reading and theorizing about comics and visual language in America without someone like Tom, building the internet.
I am currently in the home stretch of finishing my degree in Linguistics at Carnegie Mellon University. This shit is grueling on top of my day job. I’m tired, sad, and often angry. But I’m moving forward and I won’t stop until I’m done. Jenn is by my side. I have a sweet cat with us at home named Fran. She is kind and sweet and spending time petting, playing and resting with her has helped me so much this fall.
I feel like I’m hanging in there by a thread of energy and sanity. Everyday is a climb. Problem sets, tests, presentations and my Thesis. I’m just so tired. This post is to serve as a smoke signal for you, friend. It’s also for myself, for my future self to remember how hard this has been. I’m ok. There is light up ahead. I just need to keep moving.
This is what I listen to to stay awake and focused after work and into the night:
The other night, over dinner here in Pittsburgh, Jenn and I were talking about making autobio comics and she asked “Are comics mostly writing? Only?”. It made me stop in my tracks.
That’s a good question.
To me, comics are more writing than they are drawing. That writing process, though, is one that far different from this common notion:
And the drawing? In comics, the drawing is really about the recording of images. The drawing is the creating of a signal and the “writing” is drawn. To clarify, the writing in my view is how those recorded images are arranged and presented. This is a semiotically driven view.
I just heard someone say that the dirty secret of comics is that it is mostly writing and if you haven’t done good writing all you made was a pretty picture.
And everything in me wants to dispute that.
It isn’t that cut and dry to me. – Jenn Lisa
I agree with Jenn. It isn’t that cut and dry to me. That is because the only people that I ever hear tout that idea usually have a very narrow definition of writing. This is where that idea is wrong.
If you use a broader notion of understanding visual language, you might see things differently. When we make comics we are “writing” via arrangement, mark-making and coloring, not just through writing scripts or thumbnails. When people talk about writing, they are talking about scripting, they are talking about the comics in which the drawings are manifesting an already decided meaning, according to an intuitive set of aesthetic and styling rules that vary from maker to maker according to their abilities and interests.
The turth is that we are encoding meaning through signals that can travel across time and space. Sometimes that encoding happens in a mode that uses no “words”. It may include “words” and if it does, there can be more going visually on that is not verbalizable by a reader, though it may be understood.
I do believe that the dirty secret is that comics is mostly writing, but just as there is a difference between speech and speeches there is a difference between writing and writings.
So how does that affect one as a comics maker?
If you would, please indulge me in a tangent. It’s an idea you might already be familiar with, but I just want to sing the song more fully into the ether.
We don’t hone in on meaning by having a creative process that follows a straight line, the reality is that most of us spiral in on that meaning, by diligent work. But what if you don’t know what you’re trying to say? That’s ok. You can still make comics without knowing what you’re trying to say, so long as you know that you’re trying to say something. Your comics will still have an impact, even if you’re not communicating exactly what you intend.
How do you get to that meaning? There’s this thing that happens, in comics making, and art in general that I’d like to talk about. What is the nature of the back and forth between the work a reader does and the work a writer does? Writer here being the operative name for the person making the comic.
Sam Ombiri and I have talked about it at length during the Pittsburgh Comics Salons monthly meet ups.
If I take 14 random drawings from my pile of post-it notes and arrange them across 4 pages, and I give it to you in a little booklet, your brain, the reader’s brain, stitches together a patter of cohesion. That pattern will vary connect disparate elements. Make order out of chaos.
They try to figure out a pattern. Why are these images together? The reader does all this work without trying. They can’t help it. Our brains can’t help it. We are trying to understand according to the grammars we know and trying to find semantic relevance. Sometimes we do. And it feels good. Sometimes we don’t and we don’t usually like it. Is it our decoding? Is their encoding? Were they encoding anything at all? (We can talk at another time about encoding-less comics experiences, they exist and are interesting in their own right.)
As a comics maker, that idea is a tool that we are using.A reader is naturally going to be interpreting what we assemble together. As a result, we can be playful, intuitive in what we draw and how we arrange what we draw. It will be stitched together by the reader. You don’t need to shove the connective tissue of narrative and symbolism down a reader’s throat. You don’t need to know everything you are trying to do.
That’s all pretty explored territory conceptually among many comics makers. The part where my conversations with Sam get interesting is when we talk about signal processing a little more in-depth.
The signal interpreted by the listener’s brain CAN be the same one that you are making. BUT, it can also not be that, while still being an interesting signal. The meaning you intend can be communicated, and you can work at figuring out how to effectively communicate that meaning so that they get what you intended them to get out of the written sequence. There’s a beautiful dance between signal and noise that we are working through when we create art for others to interpret.
But no matter what, their brain is going to interpret a signal. The realization was a breakthrough. You don’t have to worry about there not being anything on the other end. There will ALWAYS be something. You just have to focus on how accurately and uniformly you want that something to be experienced across readers.
You can choose how intentional you are about the signal you are transmitting.
With that knowledge, you can allow the process of drawing and writing and editing to flow more intuitively. Allowing yourself. You can choose to simply be a radio antenna with your drawings on the page, and how you arrange those drawings on the page in ways that feel intuitively, “right” or “good” to you – your comic will beam a signal to the brain of the other through the reading experience, whether you are aware of that signal or not.
Don’t be afraid to allow the process to be a Rorshach test of your subconscious. You can see what comes out in your drawing, your arranging. Allow for the accidents! Keep moving. Keep making marks, keep tracing, keep moving your index cards. You don’t have to know what you’re looking for, you just need to know that you’re looking for something. The paper trail you leave in your search for your work’s “truth” in comics, that’s your writing.
All that said, in a more grounded sense,the process of editing, that traditional refining that we do as cartoonists, that’s where writing is also happening. Every step of the way, where you change, add or subtract meaning, that’s writing. Color blocking is writing. How you scoot images, how you erase, what you add after initial drawings and after you let work sit for a little while, that’s all writing.
The intentional arrangement of anything, to be parsed and understood a certain way, that’s writing.
So yes, comics are mostly/only writing. But not in the way you may think they are.
* It’s funny to me that the “writing” in panels and across pages in comics found as the lettering is fundamentally a kind of drawing. That’s a point Kevin Huizenga drives home to his students. More on that, another day.
I look at comics a lot. But I don’t look at them the way I think you think I do.
Deep down I’m a linguist trying to understand language, particularly interested in visual language. I’m convinced that comics are attractive to us as a mode of expression because they allow our human eyes to read images that line up with the mental models that we create for how we “see” the world. You can think of cartoons as diagrams of our existing, procedural abstractions of the world and comics sequences as visual abstractions of how we model the passage of time in our minds.
Why do we cartoon the way we do? Is there a biological reason for it? I believe so.
I recently read an article on the first anatomically accurate mathematical model that explains how vision is possible. It was interesting. It’s a model that recognizes how we can create such seemingly rich visual depictions of the world in our mind despite there only being just 10 or so nerve cells that connect the retina to the visual cortex. The part that really got to me was the idea that these 10 Lateral Genticulate Nucleus cells are scarce and can’t do much. They send a pulse to the visual cortex when they detect a change from dark to light, or vice versa, in their tiny section of the visual field. And that’s it. On. Off.
From blips of information, we build the world in our minds. This struck me.
In essence, the world that we “see” is a reconstruction that your mind makes up. Therefore, the neural cortex must process these simple signals in a way that builds + creates representational models of the world. I imagine that there might be a procedural grammar to vision. What does the process of this reconstruction look like? What abstractions are used to model it in our “mind’s eye”? How can we understand what this might look like?
I believe that comics offer us a mirror to see an expression of the tendencies and limits of our biology. That we can glean the beginnings of what such a grammar may look like by analyzing the cross-cultural visual syntaxes of comics from around the world. It can offer theories that can guide further research.
In a sense, comics are especially equipped to help us see how we see. I wish to clarify my use of the word equipped. Comics don’t exist outside of us. We created them. As such, it is our mental apparatus that has equipped them with this capacity.
What is especially interesting to me with comics as a lens through which to observe human thought and perception is that it’s a universally accessible and naturally occurring petri dish. The reason for this is that comics, in my mind, happens to be an egalitarian stage of expression that allows for us as individuals and also as a society to make high-level abstractions with accessible, immediate tools and technologies. This mode of creation cuts across race and class on Earth. All you need is a mark-making tool and a surface to make marks on.
Comics help us see how we are collectively and individually “seeing”, most notably how we experience and structurally breakdown our experience of space and time. Through comics, we break down the visible world into simple marks, into images that encode reality. As I mentioned earlier, my understanding of cartooning is that it diagrams our existing, procedural abstractions of the world. And comics sequences visually abstract how we model the passage of time in our minds. We break it all down on the page and then a reader reconstructs a model of what we were trying to express.
I believe there is usually a conscious or intuitive understanding of this process when a creator is making a comic. It is when this process is understood as a communicative act that successful comics emerge.
This is important in that it provides an analogous process to how we process sound to understand oral language and music. We don’t hear words, or notes, we decode them from complex signals. This means that we have a way of decoding. And in this decoding, there is an order, a grammar. That is perhaps innate or developed over time through socialization.
Ray Jackendoff‘s research is especially interesting in this front – He has always straddled the boundary between generative linguistics and cognitive linguistics, committed to both the existence of an innate universal grammar (an important thesis of generative linguistics) and to giving an account of language that is consistent with the current understanding of the human mind and cognition (the main purpose of cognitive linguistics).
So what? How does affect us on a level of readers and makers of comics?
I find that an immediate use for this idea is that it helps us see comics as a cognitive bridge. It is a cultural tool that allows us to cross the gulf and better understand others. Particularly, it helps us understand how others experience and perceive the world. If it is true that comics allow us to see the ways that others encode their perception of reality into the two-dimensional substrate, we can better understand how their minds genuinely see and construct their experiences of the world.
When we look at someone’s comics, or even our own, we can ask: What is there? What is not? Why might this be?
Through comics, we can “step into someone else’s shoes” at a level that is unavailable through other media, including writing. That is something that I find fascinating.
Now everyone has the freedom to enjoy, modify, reuse and share the materials in almost limitless ways! NYPL now makes it possible to download these items in the highest resolution available, directly from the Digital Collections website. They’re BIG files.
It’s true that “the interactive visual library” has been upon us for a while thanks to search engines that could deliver images. Nevertheless, searching in that kind of library is for the most part garbage. You have to sift through mountains visual of information just to potentially find what you need. Bummer. Web art that is allowed to grow wildly from that collective visual library, in an art-for-its -own-sake kind of way, has for the most part been visually chaotic and noise of visual resolution has usually been used as an aesthetic tool. Think Paper Rad. (Of course, there are lots of interesting exceptions like Dina Kleberman’s I’m Google project, not chaotic at all!) What kind of art is possible with tools like Public Domain visual collections? You tell me.
More broadly, this is kind of thing reveals one of the many reasons why public libraries are so important. They point to a simple truth that everyone is denying. Searching via tools made by creators that work hand-in-hand with corporate interests sucks. It’s never deep enough. It’s never a rich enough experience.the paths to finding high quality, curated collection of visuals, for free are long, windy, and sometimes non-existent. A private browser like google, isn’t the most stable place to reliably find images across time. Sorry, private browsers.
What we have is the exciting arrival of another institutionally supported manifestation of archive-able visual memory. I’m very thankful. We have Wikipedia, Archive.org, and others, but we still need more. Yes, this news from last January, but I want to shout about these kinds of projects from the hilltops. Especially in these times of “#alternativefacts”.
With the explosion of instantaneous visual communication across the internet, visual forms, digitally transferred, can essentially be considered as shared experiences. The shared experience of “having seen”. This aspect of highly networked communication allows for users to collectively “see” the world through a shared viewpoint. Permission to transform artifacts of visual ephemera, of past visual memories, invites us to step across time and create and modify languages using pre-existing systems of visual communication. It is the power to create knowledge. Captured thought held into stable states that can be comprehended by another person across the network. Truth as recordable and transferrable. Props to the late John Berger for helping me understand this. My hope is to expand these thoughts from the seventies into the present day.
Expanding this all out to copyright, websites ARE the expressions of that thought. And, as such function as the basis for the merging of idea and expression of idea. Everything expressed in “recordable” communication IS an idea within the legal framework. Organizations with corporate money have the power to take away certain “sides” of information. Duh. Information nowadays essentially being the mass of recorded experience. That kind of power can shape the mass of collective knowledge, that is the basis from which we collectively determine “truth”. Turning the creation of ideas into a commodity form.
As a society, it is only through collectively supported libraries, physical and digital that we can expand what it means be creating, sharing and finding Truth. Commodity form as community form.
Please visit your local library today. It may have been a while since you last visited… It may have been just yesterday! Either way, do yourself a favor and open yourself up to serendipity. Get out there, find something interesting and check it out.
This weekend Jenn and I took a trip to visit her parents in Garrettsville. It was quiet little weekend. We got in late Friday night as we usually do, traveling from Pittsburgh via the Turnpike. The sunset was especially glorious that night. Clouds tipped with fluorescent pink.
On Saturday, Jenn and Joyce went out to Goodwill, as they are want to do. The thrift store goods shown their light on Jenn. She found pair after pair of pants, exactly her size. Great brands. All for around $3 each. Ace. I spent some time walking around outside while they were gone. I poked around in the garden. Joyce’s garden is bursting, though a little overgrown at the moment, it’s full of life. In the nearby coop she has new chickens that she and her neighbor have been incorporating into their flock. They seem to be getting on well. Saturday saw 5 eggs. Sunday just 1.
While they were out, I watched an incredible talk presented by Bret Victor at the MIT Media Lab in 2013. It was called “Media for Thinking the Unthinkable“. It was recommended by my friend Max Krieger, who is a current undergraduate in Mathematics at CMU. It was amazing.
The big take away was the inspiration of thinking about looking and creating for new tools to express and capture the systems that we use notation systems to represent. Computers allow us to create dynamic, interactive system representations that can adapt to our modifications. Real Time. And in the playing around with these models, we gain intuitions about the system that are invisible to us. These depictions expand what we can understand and make the unthinkable suddenly thinkable. (Needless to say this makes my mind immediately jump to thinking of Lynda Barry’s Writing the Unthinkable talks.)
Just as we augment the range of our observable reality via microscopes, telescopes, infrared and UV light detection, we can augment the range of our thinkable reality by rethinking how we represent the world.
I mention all of this because earlier int the day I had read an article on the first anatomically accurate mathematical model that explains how vision is possible.Max had recommended Victor’s talk after I shared my initial impressions of this article via Instagram. It’s a model that recognizes how we can create such seemingly rich visual depictions of the world in our mind despite there only being just 10 or so nerve cells that connect the retina to the visual cortex.
Not only are Lateral Genticulate Nucleus cells scarce — they can’t do much either. LGN cells send a pulse to the visual cortex when they detect a change from dark to light, or vice versa, in their tiny section of the visual field. And that’s all. The lighted world bombards the retina with data, but all the brain has to go on is the meager signaling of a tiny collection of LGN cells. To see the world based on so little information is like trying to reconstruct Moby-Dick from notes on a napkin.
In essence, the world that you “see” is a reconstruction that your mind is just making up. We are creating representational models of the world. What is the process of this reconstruction? What abstractions are used to model it in our mind’s eye?
Unsurprisingly I started to think about comics, especially along a framework of Expanded Comics as Kim Jooha has recently invited contemporary makers and readers to think along. Why comics? Why do we care about them and why do they keep appearing with us as mode across human history?
I’m convinced that comics are attractive to us as a mode of expression because they allow our eyes to read images that line up with the mental models that we create for how to see the world. Think of cartoons as diagrams of our existing, procedural abstractions of the world. And comics sequences as visual abstractions of how we model the passage of time in our minds.
Why do we cartoon the way we do? Is there a biological reason for it? I believe so. I believe that comics offer us a mirror to see an expression of the tendencies and limits of our biology. This is not to say other forms of culture don’t allow for that, but just that comics are especially equipped to help us see how we see. Comics, in my mind, happens to be an egalitarian stage of expression that allows for us as individuals and also as a society to make high level abstractions with accessible, immediate tools and technologies. This mode cuts across race and class on Earth. All you need is a mark making tool and a surface to make marks on.
Comics help us see how we are collectively and individually seeing, most notably how we experience space and time.
I feel this ties into the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in some way but I can’t articulate it at the moment… The concept of Linguistic Relativity is extremely controversial, so I’m not making any claims this way or that. Just that there’s something here. It’s something that I would like to explore. Unlike the strong hypothesis in Linguistic Relativism, that says that language determines thought and that linguistic categories limit and determine cognitive categories, I believe there’s a flex and flow with it all. Taking up the idea of Visual Language, there’s an inevitable creep of signifier and signified relationships. These relationships can morph due to accidental depiction in drawings that inevitably shift how we see what we see. I hope that makes sense. We depict via representation, but we also wind up abstracting, simplifying, transforming. These transformations, accidental or intentional in turn have an influence in how we see what we were depicting when we experience it in the future. This is a powerful quality of the back and forth between the world and the model of the world that we build with language, one that can be seen extremely vividly in the use of racial caricature. Needless to say I need to think about this more.
Pulling back, though, comics and cartooning endlessly amaze me as I see them as an accessible, evolutionary rich linguistic lens onto our cognitive apparatus through our very cognition.
So that’s where my mind was Saturday. Joyce and Jenn came home. We had a comforting dinner of macaroni and cheese. We stepped out with Jeff to enjoy the cool late August air with a fire. In the garden by the chicken coop.
It’s difficult to get things done after work as an adult.
And I want to do so much. I need to do so much. This isn’t me being overly ambitious. I need to do so much if I want to be able to change the material conditions of my life and those of those around me.
Capitalism is a bloodthirsty vampire. It wants all of me. It sucks. The society we live in is trying to extract as much out of me as a worker and consumer as it can, and in that extraction there is so little room to breathe. It doesn’t have to be this way. But at the moment the self perpetuating system that benefits few at the cost of many wants to keep it that way.
There’s so much I want to learn how to do and so much I want to just experience. But there’s so little time to take care of myself and Jenn outside of work. Let alone rest.
In this current battle and hunt for time I’m reminded of my anxieties as they relate to time, time management and rest, or lack there of, when I was in college.
When I was at Carnegie Mellon University I would stay up all night all too often. I don’t know why that was. Naturally, I wasn’t awake all night, rather I resisted going to bed, going back to my apartment. I spent many of my nights at the University Library or the campus radio station. Its definitely a bad habit I developed around other Carnegie Mellon students, with their sleep deprivation competition. I would stay up until I ebbed in and out of waking. Cloudy half finished sentences on a screen. Cryptic calculations on homework. It was a bad habit.
It was a habit that had me exhausted during the day and essentially drunk off of sleep deprivation. The internet played a big role in this as it would be “open for business” all night. Yet, even that space got quiet and I was left with my own thoughts. It got really lonely.
Part of my fears was that if I genuinely went to sleep, I didn’t know if I could wake up when I needed to. I doubted I could make my morning commitments. In truth I knew that my body and mind were so tired that if I did go to bed properly I wouldn’t wake up in time. I had a track record of it. And that grounded my anxieties. So I found myself “resting” along that razor’s edge of drowsy wakefulness.
Throughout this period there were only 2 moments that I was concerned with: tomorrow, after tomorrow.
I could understand tomorrow. I could understand it’s scope. Short term frantic action planning for the next day. I was young and I could manage it. For the most part. Clearly I was running on empty but I could pull from some strange reserves to keep moving and keep most things in the air. Until I couldn’t. Unfortunately working this way meant that it was always a serious of scurried today’s planning for tomorrow’s that snuck up on me.
I didn’t know how to think past tomorrow: After tomorrow caused me a lot of anxiety. I had no control of it. I couldn’t manage the scope of the work that needed to be done to make things ready for after tomorrow. I couldn’t calculate how much inconvenience it would be to have 2 deadlines and and event to attend on the same day when it was happening after tomorrow. Friends suggested I use google calendar, or keep a daily planner. I tried both but it never worked. I could stick to a single system they documented the future and commitments. Because of these continued failures I kept on focusing on tomorrow and just letting the future become tomorrow and deal with it as it came. Clearly there are things that can’t be overcome with a single days notice: projects, exams, family plans, applying to jobs, etc. I couldn’t overcome these things and I wound up burnt, burnt out once the youthful energy evaporated.
I wonder about the damage that I caused my body during this time. Did I do brain damage moving through the world in that sleep deprived delirium?What’s done is done.
I have a hard time having clear memories of this time. Stitching the timeline of the years 2008-2013 is difficult. Granted, it seems that my memory is not generally nearly as clear or vivid as that of others. Especially those of childhood. It is what it is.
It’s 2019 and things have gotten better. A lot better. In the next post I’ll write about the things that happened between 2013-2019 that brought me back into alignment. Until then though, I want to leave you with a deeply comforting poem by the late Mary Oliver, Wild Geese. This beloved poem touches on several of the ideas that helped me heal psychologically, physically and spiritually. I’ll dig into them next time. Until then, I hope you enjoy it and find some light in it.
You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile the world goes on. Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain are moving across the landscapes, over the prairies and the deep trees, the mountains and the rivers. Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again. Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting — over and over announcing your place in the family of things.
I’m back on campus at Carnegie Mellon University. Can you believe it? It’s really strange to be back here. I rode the bus from where I live, in Greenfield, and to my surprise I wound up catching the ending of the Freshman Orientation Event. There were hordes of 18 year olds. Loud, overly peppy, semi-euro sounding pop. Bright lights, big sounds.
I was hoping to get to the Hunt Library after work, but alas, it seems that they aren’t open late this week. During the school year they are open 24-hours a day. It’s a little unhealthy… But it is good to have a space like that here, where people will wind up all night anyway.
What am I doing here at CMU? Research on Visual Language Theory. I’m exploring it’s intersection with comics and seeing if I can create a thoroughly researched treatise on how comics can or cannot manifest the things that we expect traditional notions of language to do. Embedding clauses, representing epistemic knowledge, indirect reference, indexicality, among other things!
At the moment I’m trying to accumulate a big pile of research materials. Among these materials are core linguistic texts to re-establish my footing as it pertains to syntax, morphology, and semantics. More on this research soon.
Things were really quiet at work. It seems that there are many big changes underway where I work, despite the workdays being relatively calm. Jenn is doing good. She’s working on an a t-shirt design that we will be selling online soon for Comics Workbook. We did a lot of meal prep yesterday so it was a calm night eating together and watching a little TV.
I’ve started listening to Brian McCollough’s Internet History Podcast. The narratives between the oil, rail and steel barons + the colonial conquest of the world by Europe and the capitalization of early structures on the web. Claim the land. Rent the land. Rule the land by economics… Relatively unformed thoughts right now, as I’m only up to at Netscape’s 1995 IPO.
talk to you soon. take good care of yourself, now.