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Drawing Conclusions

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In 1993, comic artist Scott McCloud published "Understanding Comics," an influential work in comic theory that closely analyzed the form. In the book, McCloud categorized the different types of panel-to-panel transitions based on the sorts of changes occurring between the juxtaposed panels. Such transitions can portray the approach of a meteor, scenes from various cities across the world, or events taking place between two subjects in a room.

As Cohn studied McCloud's premises about transition, he found it wasn't that simple, particularly when there were relationships between panels that were far away from each other. There were different types of groupings and connections that had to be accounted for.

"You couldn't do it with transitions, transitions didn't work," explains Cohn, who has espoused his theories at various conferences and in multiple publications. "What you needed was a hierarchic system, similar to the type of things Noam Chomsky was talking about in linguistics."

Can You Read Me?

After receiving a master's in social sciences from the University of Chicago, he came to Tufts in part to work with Ray Jackendoff, Seth Merrin Professor of Philosophy and co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies. He is also advised by Professor Phillip Holcomb and Associate Professor Gina Kuperberg of the Department of Psychology.

"Some people might think, 'it's three advisors, that's so many to deal with,' but it's very helpful," he says. "I'm entering a place where there isn't really anything that's been done before, or what has been done has been done in the same way and with the same sort of comprehensiveness. And so, when dealing with something like that, it's good to have lots of people's advice."

In his research, Cohn is puzzling out the grammar of visual language by observing how people process the sequences of images found in comics. Thanks to his contacts in the comic industry, he was able to receive donations of hundreds of comics to use in his research, including the complete works of "Peanuts," Charles Schulz's famed strip.

In one set of experiments, Cohn used strips that did not have text or where the text could be removed and asked people to organize the panels of the strip. Cohn took note of how many times they assembled the panels in the correct order or, when they ordered the panels differently, how they shuffled them and what that new order was. He also asked people to look at four comic panels and pick one to remove.

Neil Cohn

When he examined the results, he found consistencies.

"You see some sort of preferences for the way in which things were distributed. In terms of the organization, I found that certain panels would be moved to certain places in certain times as errorsólike, a certain category that's usually at the end would be moved to the beginning, or the certain thing that was moved to the beginning would be moved to the end, or things like that," says Cohn. "Those give hints that those things might be a narrative category."

Cohn is also working with Nadine Gaab, a researcher Harvard and Children's Hospital of Boston, to see how children, particularly kids with dyslexia and specific language impairment, perform these tasks, and whether there are developmental differences.

Visual language, like all language, is unconsciously processed, says Cohn. It is also learned the same as any other language, through exposure and practice. If an artist switches from reading superhero comics to reading Japanese-style comics, called manga, the artist will likely begin unconsciously incorporating elements of the new art style in his or her own workójust like acquiring a drawl after spending time in the South.

Like any other language, Cohn says, dialects of visual language evolve. In his examination of Japanese comics, for instance, Cohn found that in the past 20 years there has been an increase in the use of panels with less than full scenes, such as close-ups or just one character. (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.