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.

Thinking the Unthinkable

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 was nice.

Great piece on the significane of materiality

As you might know, I’m an advocate for print. You might also know that when I’m trying to come up with new stories, the way in which I typically dive into the endeavor is to choose a form that I’d like to work in. Form always dictates a new story. If I’m unsure of whether or not the story works, I simply ask myself if  it feels right in the vessel that’s transmitting the story. More often than not, this is the reason why my stories don’t cross over too well on the digital landscape. Nevertheless, it’s a fluid creative process that avoids insurmountable creative blocks.

In light of this process, I often times find myself thinking about the constant talk of the digital world supplanting the analogue. I feel that those kinds of conversations sensationalize the issues, imagining that we are humans that transmit stories perfectly as pure information.

We don’t and we can’t.

The specifics of the reading experience are integral to how we understand and contextualize a text. That’s why I think a lot about a text’s materiality.

Screen shot 2013-02-28 at 10.19.22 AM

Aaron Kashtan recently uploaded a talk that he gave at Georgia Tech regarding the reasons why he teaches Materiality. If you’re interested in notions of bridging the analogue/ digital divide, I’d recommend reading the talk while looking at his presentation. If you’re into that, you should definitely delve deeper into his blog.

I use these sorts of texts in order to model the sort of thinking I want the students to engage in when they do their own writing, because my real goal is to get the students to understand writing as a material, embodied process. Again, our instinctive belief is that writing is all about the expression of ideas, the expression of semiotic content, and that the container in which those ideas are embodied is irrelevant. I want them to realize that that’s not the case, that writing is always an embodied and situated process and that it always results in the creation of some sort of material artifact.