On “writing” in comics.

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.

1. Signal initiates in speaker’s brain. 5. Signal interpreted by listener’s brain. 2. Signal articulated by the speech organs. motor. neurons. ear. sensory. neurons. 3. Sound waves travel through the air. sensory. neurons. 4. Listener detects the sound waves. feedback loop. ear. Linguistics 450/550: Introduction to Phonetics Slides by Richard Wright & Dan McCloy, University of Washington.

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.

This is a model of aural communication, just swap out aural for visual 😉

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.

Comics as a Tool for Understanding Cognition

These are further reflections on thoughts from a previous post to help me prepare my thoughts for a talk that I’m giving at the Small Press Expo in Bethesda, Maryland.


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.

Information from the eye passes through a bottleneck before it gets to the brain’s visual cortex, which heavily processes the sparse signal. – DVDP for Quanta Magazine

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?

Figure 3.7
Reading in the Brain – Stanislas Dehaene Figure 3.7

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).

Ray Jackendoff - Foundations of Language: Structure of a simple sentence. Fig. 1.1
Ray Jackendoff – Foundations of Language: Structure of a simple sentence. Fig. 1.1

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.

Digital Ways of Seeing and a call for Serendipity

Lately, I’ve been really interested in how we create and share information (and truth) across the web.

Did you know that more than 180,000 of the items in the New York Public Library’s Digital Collections are in the public domain? It’s true! My friend, Aaron Cockle, showed me that a year ago, the NYPL had announced this new part of their digitally accessible collection. Thanks Aaron.

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.

Explore the NYPL Public Domain Digital Collection with their visualization tool.

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.

Screenshot of Dina Kleberman’s “I’m Google”

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”.

Why? Because.
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.

Simple Net Art Diagram by MTAA

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.