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Neil Cohn in his Jumbo days
Photo: Joanie Tobin

The Secret Language of Comics


In July, the annual San Diego Comic-Con filled the city’s convention center with pop culture enthusiasts of all stripes: guys sporting Justice League T-shirts, middle-aged women in handmade Avengers costumes, diehards who lined up overnight to glimpse the cast and crew of Game of Thrones or Doctor Who. Amid the festivities—which included a celebration of Superman’s seventy-fifth birthday—it would have been easy to miss the more cerebral goings-on in a second-floor conference room. There, sitting on a panel of academic theorists, Neil Cohn, G10, G12, presented his latest research on comics and the brain. Comics, he explained to an audience of scholars and curious laypeople, are designed according to a visual language that is every bit as dependent on grammar and syntax as spoken language.

At the University of California, San Diego, where he is a postdoctoral fellow, Cohn has been exploring the interaction between structure and meaning in people’s ability to follow comics. He’ll mess up the order of the panels and study EEGs of people’s brains as they attempt to make sense of the story. One thing he has concluded is that understanding comics is an acquired skill. “Being able to comprehend sequential images isn’t universal,” he said in an interview after his talk. “It appears to be learned just like any other language.” He has also found that people grasp comics by taking in groups of images instead of focusing on one panel at a time.

Comics have fascinated Cohn since he was a kid. As an eight-year-old in San Diego, he experimented with different formats for telling stories in his own comic creations. At fourteen he worked for a comic book publisher, Image Comics, running their booth at Comic-Con International and rubbing shoulders with top artists, some of whom became mentors. It was in a linguistics class at UC Berkeley that he got fired up about the pictorial language of comics. He elaborated his theory of visual grammar when he went on to study psychology at Tufts.

Now thirty-three, he’s making discoveries about the relationships among visual and other types of language. Comprehending sequences of images, words, and even musical sounds appears to involve similar brain processes—though he has yet to determine exactly which cognitive resources are shared, he says. The better we understand how the brain processes comics, the more effectively we can use sequences of pictures for basic communication. “Images contain more information than words,” Cohn says. “We could teach how to draw alongside how to write, as a form of broader ‘composition’ and ‘writing skill.’ ”

Lisa Granshaw, A09, is a freelance journalist and media career consultant in New York City.

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