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Drawing Conclusions

Neil CohnComic books aren't kid stuff to psychology graduate student Neil Cohn, who is studying the grammar of visual language.


Odie is perched happily at the edge of the table, his tongue wagging obliviously. But who is this sneaking into the frame? It's none other than Garfield, the iconic orange tabby, wearing a devious grin and offering a sarcastic remark. Before you know it, there goes Odie, plummeting to the ground with a whoosh as Garfield smiles, triumphant.

When we read comic strips like this, whether they are in the newspaper or the racks at the comic shop, we are pulled into a narrative crafted through a sequence of images and words organized into panels. But how exactly do our brains process this form of communication?

According to Neil Cohn, a doctoral student in psychology at Tufts, comics and other graphic forms of communication are written in a visual language with rules of grammar just like the language you are reading right now.

"Visual language is to comics what English is to novels," he explains.

Humans, says Cohn, convey meaning through one of three ways: sound, body motion or written form—which includes drawing.

"My underlying theory is that any one of these three modalities take on a structured sequence that is governed by a rule system that controls whether or not that sequence makes sense," he explains. "Those modalities become languages, types of languages."

Neil Cohn

Cohn has spent the past eight years developing a model of visual grammar. He believes that if visual language is treated as just that, a language, it no longer becomes something confined to the art class but rather is taught as a communications skill like any other.

"It wouldn't be English class, it would be composition class, and you'd be learning to write in both words and pictures at the same time, essentially," says Cohn. "If you were able to have, say, a populus that was graphically fluent, you'd start seeing more things written in this way beyond the niche culture that we have of comics."

To those who assert that comic books are just kid stuff, Cohn says they just don't understand how much ties into comprehending the graphic form.

"It's amazing how much looking at this one little field provides a kind of lynchpin to so many different aspects of psychology," says Cohn. "It gets to the heart of what is language, and what are the things that are common between language and other aspects of cognition."

Panel Discussion

Cohn had drawn comics since he was a young boy, but he took his interest to the next level when he started working for the publishing company Image Comics and "Spawn" creator Todd McFarlane. He only found his true calling, however, when he started reading between the lines.

"I always had kind of a formalist bent to my work where I was just interested in how the medium worked," says the 29-year-old California native. So after taking a couple of linguistics classes at the University of California, Berkeley, where he majored in Asian studies, he began noticing relationships between the structure of the comic book medium and certain principles of linguistics.

One of his first realizations was that cartoon imagery was more prototypical in the human mind than realistic imagery.

"I started making correlations and pushing the theory, such as I knew it about comics, kind of past the point where it was, developing something that looked totally unlike where the comic theory was before."

"If I say the word 'bird,' you think of things like robins. You have this prototypical bird that is something close to a robin or a sparrow," says Cohn. "The thing I noticed was that cartoony images, given that they are more stripped down and conceptually less dense, are closer to prototypes than they are to non-prototypical; that realistic images, by virtue of being more specific, are less prototypical."

As he continued studying comics from a linguistic perspective, transitioning from comic artist to comic theorist, he began examining some of the basic understandings of the comic form that had been posited to that point.

"I started making correlations and pushing the theory, such as I knew it about comics, kind of past the point where it was, developing something that looked totally unlike where the comic theory was before," says Cohn. (continued)

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Profile written by Georgiana Cohen, Office of Web Communications

Photos by Joanie Tobin, University Photography. Top image courtesy of Neil Cohn.

This story originally ran on Jan. 26, 2009.