The language of comics

I thought I’d do something different this week. Over the past year or so, I have used this blog mainly as a platform from which to spout my pontifications on language, and how our choices in it affect and are influenced by the world around us. It’s fair to say that this is a blog about words. But not today.

Today I want to take a look at one of my other great loves: comics. Although they often use the written word, comics are a quite separate form of communication to, say, a letter or novel. They use words more sparingly and, as a result, are often viewed as a more inferior form of art. The sense is often that the comic represents a “dumbed down” form of storytelling; that in using both words and pictures, they have somehow voided their right to be taken seriously in either the literary or fine art worlds.

But why should this be? Granted, many comics – including many of those I read – are pure escapism; action-heavy storylines set in fantasy worlds. Many are also aimed at children. Yet the same can also be said of many books and films – and like these other media, comics are just as capable of dealing with deeper social and political themes. The issue, it seems, is that novels contain more words, and are thus judged to be telling a more sophisticated story. Yet comics have a language all their own.

“A picture is worth a thousand words,” it is said. Until recently, however, no linguist has ever seriously considered the true meaning of this old adage. The information relayed to us in paintings is too abstract to recount a structured story, while that of diagrams in instruction manuals is too functional to convey descriptive nuances. As such, the images found in comics are usually seen as depending on the words to tell the story. Yet read a comic in a foreign language or watch a cartoon with the sound off, and you will find that, while the words add detail, it is relatively easy to follow the plot without them.

Neil Cohn discovered this as a child when he was given a pile of manga comics by a friend. The revelation that he understood them despite not knowing a word of Japanese led to a fascination with “visual language” and storytelling that shaped his career, first as a comics artist and then as a cognitive scientist. I hadn’t heard of Cohn until I read this article (only in German, sorry!) a few weeks ago but, as a linguist and comics fan myself, his research gripped me straight away.

When branching out from comics to study linguistics in 1999, Cohn gradually began to see parallels between what he was learning about grammar structures in written language and the threads he had always intuitively been able to follow between the pictures in comic panels. For his PhD, he decided to investigate the cognitive processes that allow us to arrange images into a story, using electrodes to monitor subjects’ neural activity while they read a wordless Peanuts comic strip. His results showed that we use the same parts of our brains to read and understand comics – stories based on images – as we do when digesting novels. When the structure was rearranged, the brain reorganised them to form a coherent story, just as it would with words in a muddled sentence.

Humans, Cohn argues, have an innate capability to comprehend and produce visual language, just as they do for written and spoken communication. Even the least artistically talented of us can manage stick men and smiley faces – enough to tell a rudimentary story. The narrative tradition of Aborigines in central Australia is also based on visual storytelling, the “author” drawing images in the sand with their finger. It is a language with its own grammar, and everyone in the community learns it.

Most modern comics, of course, use a mixture of both words and images to tell their story. The need for pictures is often interpreted as an indication that the story is somehow less sophisticated, yet Cohn’s research proves that this is not necessarily the case; the images speak to us in a different language, but it is one that is just as capable of carrying a story and conveying meaning as the words within and around it. In truth, the relation between the two is symbiotic: they are interwoven threads feeding off one another, each fleshing the other out to provide more detail and nuance than either could on its own.


Craig Thompson’s “Habibi”

The potential of a comic is only truly achieved writers approach the medium on its own terms. Craig Thompson’s Habibi blurs the lines between images and words to tell an enthralling, original tale of religion, language, love, human greed and environmental abuse that would have been impossible to communicate using just one medium or the other. Stepping away from the more text-heavy graphic novels of the modern age, it is a return to the more visual “sentences” of Asterix and Charlie Brown. Yet the themes and plot are more adult and complex, and the borders between written and drawn language blur as Thompson blends Arabic lettering into his illustrations to create a world of incredible depth.

To me, this is the sort of thing all comics should be aiming for. We still live in a culture where they are underappreciated as a medium, and for a while this seemed to have filtered through into the industry itself, with the majority of creators failing to see the potential for a different type of communication. But researchers and writers like Neil Cohn and Craig Thompson show us what is possible, and there are signs it is catching on. More and more bookshops are stocking graphic novels among their textual cousins, and even mainstream publishing houses like Marvel are showing more adventure in their visual storytelling. The innovative art sequences in their recent Hawkeye and Young Avengers series have attracted plaudits from throughout the industry, and hint at a new sense of pride and innovation in the art form. Now all it needs is for the rest of the world to catch on.

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