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.
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.
This activity originally appeared on BeetleToothRadish.com, a source for simple living and creative, frugal activities.
Time to settle in and make some comics! This should take a little over an hour and a half, so give yourself some time to be present!
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To start, here’s a thought: Comics is the visual language of encoding and decoding realities. Nibble on that for a little while you work on this week’s excercise.
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Grab a pencil and make four square boxes. These will be your panels. However big you want. I typically make mine 3” by 3”.
If you’d like, grab 4 post it notes and use each note as a panel.
It’s time for some music. Put your audio player (mp3 player, computer, what have you) on shuffle. We’re looking for songs with lyrics. Take a moment and listen for a while. You’re encouraged to doodle on a separate sheet of paper or in a notebook while you listen.
Write a lyric in pencil that catches your interest in the first box. One sentence long, at the most. Single words are OK.
Repeat in 2nd box.
repeat in 3rd box.
repeat in last box.
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It’s time to draw and get our brains to start writing in pictures. I’d like you to make a 10 by 10 grid of 1/2” by 1/2” boxes and doodle out 100 things. One drawing in each box. 30 seconds on each box max. If you think telephone, draw how you represent the idea of “telephone”. Fill up all those boxes. Don’t stop drawing! If you’re lucky you can get to a point where you no longer think in words.(Credit goes to Ivan Brunetti for this activity.)
Your warm up is complete. Look at how many things you’ve drawn!
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It’s time to make the comics magic happen. Give yourself a half hour here. Now go back to your 4 boxes with lyrics. What could you draw in each box to connect these seemingly unconnected lyrics? Draw!
Do you want to rewrite your words? Would editing these words make things click together. How will you write these words? Will they appear captions? Will some character say them? You are welcome to not use the words in one panel.
This is the puzzle. This is where your heart and your wits come in. This is the challenge that only you can master.
It is my belief that if you make the goal of your comics the communication of funny, beautiful and or interesting ideas, you can make comics with anylevel of drawing ability. If you do them for long enough and think about them long and hard enough each time, you’ll make comics that you love to make.
I’ve been exploring animating comics. I’m above all in making comics that encourage the viewer to “read” animations. GIFs in comics tend to be a novelty, a background texture. These thoughts are rough. I’d love to hear what any one reading this has to say about the intersection of animation and comics.
Instead of seeing animations in that way in comics, I want people to see the arrranging of animations as a practice where the animation is an essential part how meaning arises from the sequence. As comics makers we get to be architects of time and space. I’m trying to figure out how this kind of sequencing fits into that architecture.
For example: Reading these sequences feel SIGNIFICANTLY different to me. (Click to enlarge for best experience).
My big concern is that I want people to be reading animations as “words”. (I hope to find a better way of describing this). The animations that I put together occupy a physical space on the screen and their physical relationship to each other affects the way that those “words” are read. In video there is an ever forward moving timeline. By juxtaposing looping video sequences you can embed those timelines into a larger timeline.
Embedding these animations in the grid frameworks conventionally used in comics, that larger timeline can be interacted with by a viewer along the conventionalized reading hierarchies of a given culture. That seems really cool and novel. It’s exciting to me and is the reason why I’ve been making these sequences.
I hope that these comics can expand the 1-dimensional timeline into a 2-dimensional plane where there are co-existing timelines.
(The idea of having gifs sitting side by side with unequal numbers of frames is an interesting idea to me when mixed with the idea of percieved timelines.)
These are my recent animation collage experiments. This is how I’ve been playing around with this. Some are way more successful than others at playing around with this time-space idea!
(my suggested reading practice for these comics is to move through them slowly.)