Comic Boom - Comics in Education

Comic Boom - Episode 8 - exploring the visual language of comics with Neil Cohn

February 15, 2023 Lucy Starbuck Braidley Season 1 Episode 8
Comic Boom - Episode 8 - exploring the visual language of comics with Neil Cohn
Comic Boom - Comics in Education
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Comic Boom - Comics in Education
Comic Boom - Episode 8 - exploring the visual language of comics with Neil Cohn
Feb 15, 2023 Season 1 Episode 8
Lucy Starbuck Braidley


In this episode I am joined by Neil Cohn, Neil Cohn is an American cognitive scientist best known for his pioneering research on the overlap in cognition between graphic communication and language. He is the author of 2 graphic novels, over 80 academic papers, and 3 academic books, including The Visual Language of Comics (2013) and the 2021 Eisner-nominated Who Understands Comics? (2020). He is an Associate Professor at the Department of Cognition and Communication at Tilburg University in The Netherlands.

Neil's website:
www.visuallanguagelab.com

Links to everything  discussed and the comic for the episode can be found on the podcast padlet.

Follow Neil on Twitter at  @visual_linguist
Host:
@Lucy_Braidley
Contact: comicboompodcast@gmail.com


Music by
John_Sib from Pixabay

Show Notes Transcript


In this episode I am joined by Neil Cohn, Neil Cohn is an American cognitive scientist best known for his pioneering research on the overlap in cognition between graphic communication and language. He is the author of 2 graphic novels, over 80 academic papers, and 3 academic books, including The Visual Language of Comics (2013) and the 2021 Eisner-nominated Who Understands Comics? (2020). He is an Associate Professor at the Department of Cognition and Communication at Tilburg University in The Netherlands.

Neil's website:
www.visuallanguagelab.com

Links to everything  discussed and the comic for the episode can be found on the podcast padlet.

Follow Neil on Twitter at  @visual_linguist
Host:
@Lucy_Braidley
Contact: comicboompodcast@gmail.com


Music by
John_Sib from Pixabay

Lucy SB:

Hello and welcome to Comic Boom, the Comics and Education podcast. If you're an educator interested in using comics in the classroom, then this is the podcast for you. My name is Lucy Starbuck Braidley, and each week I'll be joined by a fellow educator, an academic, a librarian, a a creator of comics to discuss their journey into comics and provide some inspiration to influence your. In this episode, I am joined by Neil Cohn. Neil is an American cognitive scientist, best known for his pioneering research on the overlapping cognition between graphic communication and language. He is the author of two graphic novels, over 80 academic papers and three academic books, including the visual Language of comics from 2013 and the 2021 Eisen Nominated Who understands comic. He's an associate professor at the Department of Cognition and Communication at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, which is where I speak to him from. And his work can be found on Twitter at at visual underscore linguist and online at www dot Visual Language Lab. Dot com. All of that information will also be found in the show notes for the program. But I'm really, really excited to bring you this episode cause I find Neil's work absolutely fascinating. It's helped me to articulate so much of what I've saw happening in the classroom when children were reading graphic novels, and also what I experienced myself as a reader, Looking at comics and getting information from both the visual and the words on the page, and it's really, really fascinating how he brings that, the clarity around what's happening in that process. And this is a really interesting and in-depth conversation about his research. I hope you enjoy it. I wanted to start by, we are gonna delve into your academic interest, your research interest, but I just wanted to talk to you from the perspective of a reader of comics. What's your personal journey with reading graphic novels and comics and what, what drew you to them in the, the first place?

Neil Cohn:

Well, I mean, I, I've been reading comics since I was a child. My oldest memory of comics is my dad pulling out a. a box out of the attic that had his old sixties comics in it and looking at them with fascination when I was probably like three or four. But I mean, I've read comics my entire life and like many people, I went through kind of a common journey of starting with like Disney things and then going to Garfield and then Calvin and Hobbs and comic books and superhero comics, and then in my case, manga and other comics around the world. and by the time I was a teenager I was reading just voraciously things from all over the world and all sorts of things while creating them. And I actively started creating comics when I was, I don't know, eight or nine probably. And I was very serious about it, even as a young child. When I was 10, I made my own comic company and I had an actual mail. There's not a lie. I had a mail order catalog where I would sell my comics to families, uh, family, friends, and relatives. And

Lucy SB:

I love it

Neil Cohn:

the time I was in high school, I was, drawing my own comic series and working for the summer, uh, at, uh, comic-Con for Image Comics and Todd McFarlane. So, I've been creating comics and in the comic industry for decades at this point. I basically grew up in the industry.

Lucy SB:

Amazing. And did, did your experience of comics sit quite separate from education or was, did you, did they come into your school life at any point or, or have they always been quite separate?

Neil Cohn:

Um, I mean, I, I always used, I, I never. Had a division between my understanding of comics as a form of literature and, textual books. So, like for example, in high school I was reading very much about, Asian studies and that was my undergraduate major. And I was reading, you know, books on Asian philosophy that were textual, but I would also get. comics by Tzi Chi Chung, which is a, a Taiwanese cartoonist who has these wonderful books about, Asian history and, and adapt adaptations into comics form of, classic Chinese, philosophy. So I was, I was reading them alongside each other. Even, you know, when I was 15. so I, I never really considered them as separate things. And, and even in college, I remember at times, turning in essays that I did in comics form, in, you know, as class papers. And I remember in one case I asked the teacher, could I do this? And they said, No. And I, I did it anyways and turned in two versions. One that was a comic and the other one that was text. And, they graded, uh, both of them. So, it was never something that I really saw as, you know, something separate. It was always something integrated and, and common, about. education. And I think that in my mind that that's always been a kind of motivation for a lot of the work that I do, uh, is, you know, being non-discriminatory about these things.

Lucy SB:

could you go into a little bit more detail of how this sort of early involvement in the comics industry then has morphed into your research interests? Now

Neil Cohn:

Yeah. My intent was always just to be a comic artist and to draw comics, uh, as a, as a career. And I have done several graphic novels in, in various other graphic works. Uh, and I kind of, when I was in college, I just, by happenstance started to take linguistics classes cuz my, my freshman roommate was in them. And I thought, well this sounds interesting though. Why don't I, why don't I take some language stuff? Cuz I, you know, in my, my egotism I was like, oh, I already understand all the stuff about the images part of the comic, so why don't I go learn more about the language part. One was fascinated by the, the study of language and two, started realizing the concepts that were applying to the realm of linguistics were also applicable to what I understood about the visuals. And of course, the more I learned about that, the more I realized that I didn't know quite so much about the visuals. And I started developing theories to try and explain what I thought was going on. and in ways that were deficient in the predominant theories of how sequences of images were understood, which for the time, this was in the late nineties, early two thousands, people largely were still holding Scott McLeod's, understanding comics as kind of the Bible of how, the structure of sequential images worked. And that was my starting point as well, which I read when I was in high school. I've known Scott since I was 18, and I basically used that as a starting point, but then started finding all these ways that the theory didn't hold up and it didn't work, in quite the ways that people purported. And I discovered these things in the course of my studying linguistics and. Taking tools and methods from linguistics to try to then further explain what was going on in visual sequences. And the further I went, the more complex I realized the structure was and the kind of conventional ways of talking about it were fairly, simplistic and actually very inaccurate oftentimes. So. I think a large part of that was, as you asked, you know, how did my, my connection with comic industry and creation, factor into this. And I think it was very central because, essentially I'm a native speaker of the visual language that's used in comics. And so I have the intuitions of someone who is a highly proficient native speaker of that language. And I think that people coming from the outside don't have quite those many intuitions because they're not fluent in the same sort of way. So, a lot of the work that I have done is largely, you know, adapting to the intuitions that I have. the, the thing that I'm able to create in the first place. And I think a lot of my perspective comes from someone who does create these things, not simply as a reader who is looking at it from the outside. And I think that's important because, it's very difficult to say, say something about a language that you're not fluent in. You can, you know, academically study it, but you're not gonna have those deep, gut. Intuitions that you have when you are, you know, you know, swimming in your proficiency, so to speak. And so I, I think that it really benefited, and I think that's part of the reason why the characteristic of the theories that I have proposed are the way they are, is because I come at it from a perspective of somebody who's trying to explain both production and comprehension in addition to the, the particular sort of, academic tradition that I come from and, and the theories that I draw.

Lucy SB:

So if we are thinking about children or young people reading comics, or actually it could be someone of any age really, what is the process that people are going through what does it mean to be fluent in the language of comics? What is the process that people are going through when they're reading that is different? reading a solely prose passage.

Neil Cohn:

So actually I don't think it's that different on the backend in terms of what the brain is doing when you understand text versus what the brain is doing. When you understand images, they're not that different processes. In fact, much of my early career in, academia in graduate school and then after graduate school was devoted to doing brain science on what the brain is doing while. Process a sequence of images. And what you see is that the brain responses are largely the same for when you process sentences and when you process a sequence of images. The general processing mechanisms are the same. The order in which they go through seems to be the same. So that part is not different. What is different is that there are particular patterns that are used within sequences of images that you have to learn how to understand. And you have to know how to navigate those. And when you read a comic versus text, you're navigating two different signals at once. You have to both be proficient in the text and you have to be proficient in the visual sequences and, and the images. And because there's both of them, it means you also have to be proficient in understanding how to integrate them. And I think one of the trends. Has long persisted is a general belief that images don't themselves have some sort of structure that because images look like the way we see the world to. varying degrees of abstraction. There's a belief that they are transparent and all you need is vision and the capacity to see things in order to understand them rather than understand that images are actually based on patterns. And in order to draw proficiently, you have to build up an inventory of patterns. And in order to understand images, you also have to understand patterns. Now, there might be a lower threshold for the acquisition of that information. compared to, say, learning a vocabulary of words. But we also oftentimes forget the process of, that we go through in order to learn these things in the first place. So what seems like it comes for free, actually took many years of development and just you just. don't remember doing it. largely. Um, and uh, along the same lines, understanding a sequence of images also has conventionalized, patterns, as does the layout. And all levels of structure. There's patterns involved that people have to remember. So when people think they have trouble understanding a comic, it's because they haven't acquired the various patterns that are involved in understanding them. to go back around. To your point in the context of education, the process that is required for understanding is an acquisition process of acquiring the necessary patterns and understanding in order to, to get reading a, a comic. and on, like I said, on the back end, what the brain is doing is largely. the same for, for text plus images versus images. However, it does depend on proficiency and people's brains and eyes will do things differently if you are a proficient reader versus not. So a common example of this is, if you look at studies that have done eye tracking on where people's eyes move around a comic page, whether they are proficient comic readers or. Novice comic readers and what you generally find is that the proficient comic readers tend to focus on the images more often. They tend to skip over aspects of the text more often. Their eyes generally move more fluidly and smoothly from panel to panel. and the novice readers tend to focus much more of their time reading the text, and they tend to move more erratically across the page. And essentially what this points to is that those novice readers are more comfortable with text. So they go to the text to, to get the information from the text as primary and then to deal with the images as secondary to the text. But the proficient readers don't do that. The proficient readers are treating them more multimodal. Integrating more readily and using the text as less of a crutch and comprehending the images themselves a lot more, for their own weight. So, there very much is a, a difference in the proficiency that people come. two things, and oftentimes what you see is proficiency is gained by simply reading more comics. So the more, the more these you read, the, the more you figure them out and the more you acquire those patterns and get used to it.

Lucy SB:

I was gonna ask you if that was, if it was a taught skill or it was. Thing that we are actually, we are sort of absorbing. I was remembering, my son was about three. It's not a comic. There's a picture book we were reading. A Maisy the Mouse, and it was kind of the format of picture on one page, text on the other turn, picture on one page, text on the other. And then in the middle there was a, A a double page spread where Maisie's in a toy shop and she's looking at lots of different parts. So suddenly there's lo and he was completely thrown. He was like, there's loads of Maisie's. He thought it was a massive plot twist. Maisie had multiplied rather than understanding that it was the same Maisie in different times in different places in the shop.

Neil Cohn:

Yeah, that's exactly right.

Lucy SB:

he would do that now a couple of years down the line. So is, is it an an age related, the more we're exposed, the more we understand it. Or is it something we need to be explicitly taught or a bit of both.

Neil Cohn:

Well, I mean, there is a little bit of both. However, there's definitely an age related development and there's not enough research on this. But in my most recent book who understands comics, I broke down and kind of surveyed a, a wide literature of, studies that have done. Things with sequential image understanding, and it's actually exactly what you described. So in order to understand the sequence of images, you have to recognize at the very minimal that, you know, the, the lines in this panel correspond to lines in this other panel and they both signify the same characters. Right? Um, so as you said, Maisie in, in one panel is the same Maisie as the one and another panel, right? Even though the lines might look totally different, thephysical signal is totally different. You have to connect those as both being the same identity. Now this seems really trivial to people who are used to this, but it's really not. And in fact, across cultures, people who are not exposed to visual narratives don't recognize these as being the same character. They'll see them as different characters or like the example of your child. Before around four years old, recognize them as being different characters. So somewhere between four and six years old is when kids start recognizing these as being the same character. And once they have that, they can start recognizing this as being a progression across, say, different states. But otherwise they'll simply treat each image as its own scene and. This does seem to be related to age, but it's also related to exposure. So I don't necessarily think that it has to be explicitly taught. There's not really been any research investigating this, but, it seems that, you know, with exposure, children over time begin to recognize this aspect of a sequence and, The more kids are exposed to these things, the earlier it seems that they, they end up developing this ability, but it is age related and it's, it doesn't just, you don't just get it for free with vision. I don't think it has to be explicitly taught though. that is, sorry, I should say explicitly taught to children. As people become adults, and let's say they have fairly low exposure and they don't really read comics very often, you know, the further you go in life without having gained this acquisition, the more explicitly you'll likely need to be taught in. And that's just like any other language, right? I'm currently learning Dutch where I do my nightly Dutch lesson. If I was a child growing up in the Netherlands, I would just readily acquire Dutch as part of my, my exposure. But, Without that exposure, now I have to learn it explicitly. And being immersed does help. But also now I also need some explicit instruction.

Lucy SB:

You've referred to the kind of the patterns and the sequences as. A, a grammar, I feel like I haven't got the language to explain properly Um, so I'll let you do that. But, um, if there are kind of grammatical rules to sequences of images, if I relate that crudely to the, the grammar that we use in written language, it would mean that if I didn't adhere to certain rules, then perhaps what I've written wouldn't be understood by the reader. Is that the same thing in the sequence of images that if, if. Getting the grammar incorrect. when we are creating a sequence of images, then, somebody looking at them might not understand them as easily,

Neil Cohn:

yeah. No, that's, that's exactly right. That's exactly right. Um, so I should clarify the first, when I talk about the grammar of language, what I mean is the, the, the principles and constraints that, are operating within our minds and our brains that allow us to produce a sequence of words or a sequence of images. The basic rules of language in terms of their grammar. Nobody has to explicitly teach it to you. You acquire it as part of your general acquisition of, of language while growing up. And we generally don't produce things that are completely un grammatical. So, um, you don't do things like say, Yeah, I can say, you know, he punched him, but I wouldn't say him punched. T like that would, that would be truly ungrammatical, in English. But people don't, generally don't produce those sorts of things. However, the same thing does apply to sequences of images. So if you produce sequences of images that are not necessarily following the, combinatorial principles, as we call them, the grammatical structure. You do get these kind of awkward sequences and there are constraints that operate on these that lead to sequences that are harder to understand. Now, as I said, people generally don't produce things that are grammatical, so it's harder to find things that. You know, violating of these principles. But if you know what the rules are, then you're able to produce ones that are off. And we do this a lot within our research where we say con produce something that we say, well, here's, you know, what follows the rules. And now tweaking those rules, we're gonna produce something that seems off. And people go, yeah, that is a little uncomfortable, or That doesn't quite make sense in the, the way that the other version does. And that's evidence that there are these underlying principles that are there. And hypothetically you can use these sort of operating principles to identify when people do produce things that are a bit harder to understand or at least to explain why.

Lucy SB:

I think it varies greatly, but there is a kind of tradition in some forms, maybe more in a kind of comic strip form of, symbols used actually within the image that, might not be universally understood. These are quite stereotypical examples, but things like birds flying around someone's head when they've hit their head, um, or or um, uh, movement lines would probably be more easily understood. But I think that's, obviously some of these are quite old fashioned stereotypes, but then they're also used in a kind of ironic way or subverted, in more modern comics as well. is there an another language in the images themselves that, that we need to be aware of?

Neil Cohn:

Yeah. So th this would be Those are good examples. These would be what I would call the morphology, parts of the morphology or the visual vocabulary of, visual languages. And I wouldn't say that they are separate. Languages. They're just one part of a larger architecture, right? So in the structure of language we have, you know, there's the phonology, which is the sound structure of language. There's the morphology, which is the, the way in which words are built and the pieces of words are built, there's the grammar or syntax, which is how you. Put words into sequences and organize words, and there's the, the semantics or the meaning, which is the, the meaning that those things convey, whether it's the meaning of individual words or the meaning of words in combination. Now, visual languages of images have all of those same. you know, analogs of all those same parts. So you don't have the sound structure of phonology, but you have a graphology that is the organization of the visuals themselves. You have a morphology, which is the structured pieces of images, and that has a wide range of levels of structure from, the way in which people draw eyes and noses and mouths and hands. Up to the way people draw whole figures and these other elements that you're talking about, like, things that float above character's, heads and motion lines and speech balloons and things like that. And even to how you construct an entire image. Those are all parts of the, the general way in which you create units out of, images. And then you have the grammar, which would then be the, the sequencing of that, and then undercutting or, or connecting. All of that is, you know, the semantics or meaning. So all of these things can convey meanings. so I would say that these what people generally call symbols signs, which I would call visual morphology is simply one part of the overall architecture of the system. I think things that people key in on as being more, you know, what they understand is language like, because they might not be transparent all the time. And they do seem to be requiring, learning and conventionalization and you can often recognize that if you're familiar with say, American or European comics and you've never read Japanese, manga, manga used a very different set of inventory of these, you know, pieces of morphology. So, people have blood in the noses, and that means lust. And there's bubbles coming out of noses, and that means sleep. And these are just unfamiliar sorts of, conventionalized patterns. but. In fact, you know, this is only one part of a larger system, and all parts of the system are highly patterned. It's just that they're less overtly recognizable in their patterns because oftentimes they're more subtle or they do things in ways that are, not as overtly recognizable to the surface structure of, of what you're reading. So, uh, these things are very apparent to you. So you go, oh, of course. I know that these things vary across cultures, but it might be something different. For example, the sequencing structure, the framing structure of panels, which does differ across cultures, ends up being something that's just not as, you know, openly apparent to people.

Lucy SB:

Yeah, that's also something I was gonna ask you about, actually, about the cultural variance in comics. Again, making a parallel to different languages if we are fluent in our. the structures of, comics coming from our own culture? Or, or does that necessarily mean we're gonna be able to understand the, the structures and sequences of comics coming from a different culture?

Neil Cohn:

Yeah. Well, of course it's worth pointing out that. So first of all, yes. When I say the phrase visual language, I say it in the same way that I would say the phrase spoken language. It's not a specific. language. So when I say spoken languages, I'm abstracting across the differences between say, English and Swahili and Japanese and Mandarin. Those, you know, spoken languages have specific manifestations, and the same is true visual languages. So there's not just one visual language, it's, there's multiple different visual languages around the world, depending on their contexts, both within and outside of comics. So, Manga are using generally what I have called Japanese visual language compared to, say, American comics, which use, what I would call American visual language, or there's actually several different, varieties of American visual languages, depending on what they look like. Oftentimes depending on, you can recognize from their different styles, but also from other aspects of their structures. So, To that degree. Yeah. There are different visual languages and we've been doing research showing indeed that they vary in their structures across a number of different dimensions, not just their drawing style or these sorts of little. symbols and visual pieces of morphology that we talked about, but they also differ in the structure of their framing and the, the differ in the, the ways in which they sequence information, the ways in which the, the layouts of panels, across a page, vary. So they actually have quite a lot of variance. Now the structures of these, Does then warrant the idea of there being different visual languages. And so if you are proficient in, visual language broadly, what that means is you're proficient in a visual language, not all visual languages. So if you are only used to reading American superhero comics, you're gonna have one set of patterns that's stored in your head about the expectation for the way the structure should work. And thus, if you read a manga. read awkwardly to you because you're not, they're doing things that you're not used to. Now I think that there. degree of proficiency that's easier to understand between say, reading an American superhero comic and reading manga, because they are closer in their structure than say, spoken English and spoken Japanese. Those are further apart and there's a variety of reasons for the. Why American visual Language and Japanese visual language are, at least cousins to each other. So some of that's historical. They share common origins in having been developed based on the structures of, newspaper comics from the early 20th century. And in more recent times then the structures of Japanese manga have then influenced those of American comics having, Manga than coming into the American market in the eighties and nineties and after that. So, they have more similarities than, spoken Japanese and, and spoken English where you have very different structures. And so I think what the, the, the similarities of these is not. To say that they is no such thing as a visual language because they have these similarities. But rather, I think we would say that they belong to a common language family in the same way that, various spoken languages belong to a common language family, like, English, Dutch, German, Swedish, all belong to Germanic languages. So here where I live in the Netherlands, you know, people speak Dutch, but most people can, are pretty good at understanding German even though they might not speak. So it could be that that's the kind of relationship that is held between, say, Japanese visual language and American visual languages, that they belong to a common language family. Where they are closer, despite the cultural differences. And those visual languages are gonna be closer to each other than they will be to other visual languages that don't share historical and contextual. similarities. For example, the visual languages that are produced by Australian aboriginals, that are drawn in the sand are very robust. Visual languages have extremely different structures than what we find in the visual languages of comics. So, um, you know, that's a different family tree of visual language. And in that regard, you know, it would not be so mutually intelligible So, um, I think those are the kinds of relationships that I would, I would perceive. But to bring it back to your broader concerns about education, you know what that means is if you're using, say, comics in the context of education, it also makes you question what comics you're gonna use. What are the structures of those comics? You know, what are the visual languages that are being used? If you just introduce Manga, but your students are not used, manga at all and are only used to reading, say, European or American visual language, then they're gonna be faced with structures that are a bit varying from what they're used to. and then they will have to make, some, strides to understanding those structures. Whether they have to be taught or whether they figured them out is, you know, different. An open question.

Lucy SB:

It could be a nice activity to actually look at them and compare them and, and explore some of the, say, how some similar scenarios have been, represented in different,

Neil Cohn:

Oh yeah. That's a great, I think that's a great point. There are, you know, some comics that have been adapted in the visual languages besides just say, translating the text where you have the same scenes are drawn by different people and or the same scenes are drawn by, different visual languages. Where it's, you know, you have a manga that's essentially an exact adaptation using the story, you know, beats originally from a Western comic. And that would be fascinating to do those sorts of direct comparisons. I think, yeah, absolutely.

Lucy SB:

One of the things that strikes me is that, in education. I think we're a lot more confident using film, and reading film in a kind of, a literature or an English lesson, as a sort of multimodal text in the classroom. But, For me and how I perceive it is that almost comics sit in the middle of the two, the pros and film. My perception is that comics are like a book version of the film. Um, that's how you probably disagree. But that's how, that's what was going in my mind When I'm, reading them, I'm kind of almost seeing it as a film playing out in my mind and with different shots. But they are different. Is that another visual, different visual language again, and what, what separates film and comics?

Neil Cohn:

so there, there's obviously several differences between comics and film. First of all, I think that there's. Perhaps overlooked connection between comics and film that, people don't usually acknowledge that I've been kind of banging a drum about, especially recently, which is, a lot of people talk about, well, the, you know, filmic influences on comics and, things like that when they call comics. Things like cinematic and I think largely, Discussion is because of the greater prominence culturally of films than comics. However, there's a greatly overlooked connection that people don't make, which is that in most contemporary films, and even going back many decades at this point, films before they are filmed are storyboards and storyboards are an example of visual language production. They are drawn sequences of images. Now, in addition to that, storyboards are often drawn by comic artists, who are using their visual language fluency just in a different context. So a lot of times the foundations of filmic storytelling begin as drawn visual storytelling through the visual language and the, and the grammar of. Draw on visual languages. So, oftentimes when people say, oh, wow, you know, these films have the structure that is like a comic, well, it should not be a surprise because they've been storyboarded first. They're being produced using the same structures in the beginning, it's just that we no longer acknowledge story boarding as the important part of the process. But, you know, editing is a backend. Application of, you know, what I would call the narrative structure compared to, the initial creation of that, which is in storyboards. Following on that, I would say, you know, film also do many things that are just not in comics, I should say, on both sides, right? So comics are static. They use a spatial layout. You have to know how to navigate the layout. You have to know how to link individual non-moving pictures together. You have to be able to understand. Pictures and their connections. And in film it's dynamic. It's largely in a single spot. It's moving, it has a temporal sequence. There's not typically a, a layout that you have to know how to navigate. And it's even more multimodal in that you're combining not only, you know, pictures and words, but you're also combining music spoken dialogue and sounds, and, a much. More complex multimodal signal. Now, even though it has that greater complexity, it's also more saturated in culture. So people are probably, or almost assuredly, more fluent in understanding films than comics because they're so much more exposure to them. And also because films predominantly are capturing. you know what we see, they have a lower threshold for understanding. So that sort of aspect of continuity that I talked about before where you understand that, okay, this character in this panel is the same character as this oth this other panel, and now I need to make a connection to realize that across panels there's some progression. Well, you don't need to do that with film because films look like natural per percepts. You're not having to decode the visual images, and make connections between them. You know what a person looks like because you have, you know, basic understanding of vision. And, so there is none of that acquisition of making that recognition of identity across units, across film shots, you don't need to have that, that additional understanding. So there's somewhat of a lower bar to, acquiring the structures that are involved in film. And even though film uses a, a similar, if not, you know, modified version of the same grammar. Comics in terms of their visual sequencing. There doesn't seem to be easy transference by which I mean to say that people who have been exposed to film and readily understand films don't necessarily translate that knowledge to understanding a comic. And, being a high viewer of films doesn't mean that you have a any. Ability to produce a comic. Even though they're using similar structures, it doesn't mean that they're translatable or transferable in their proficiencies.

Lucy SB:

That's really, really interesting and I think that there is a perception, I think lots of practitioners across the world are using comics in their classrooms. I'm not suggesting that, that they're not being used, but I think film is definitely more prevalent definitely in English, as a text. And I think that there is hesitance around using comics, thinking that they are maybe. too easy, or there don't offer enough challenge to children in the classroom but what you're saying would suggest that they're, they're actually harder to, to understand than

Neil Cohn:

films Oh yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. So that, that's not to say that, you know, films aren't comp complex, complex films are very complex oftentimes. But, I think that there is a general underestimation of the complexity of comics and drawings because there's a general belief that pictures are easy and that you understand pictures transparently. and that's simply not true. And there's also a belief that we understand sequences of pictures transparently, and that's also not true, which was one of the, the main points of the last book that I did, I think. part of it can be phrased in this way is that, you know, the pictures are not there just to support the words. The pictures are there because they are conveying their own information, either in combination with the words or independently from the words. And in order to understand the pictures you have to acquire, A proficiency in understanding sequential pictures, and you also have to acquire a proficiency in understanding the combination of pictures with words. So in fact, you know, comics as a multimodal piece of literature are more complicated structurally than text only books. They're not easier, they're more complicated in terms of the proficiency that's required. However, because of their complexity that on the backend might make them ultimately more able to communicate effectively because they're using multiple channels at once. So what might be perceived as ease is actually, you know, the richness of, adding together, even though they involve more complex parts in order to get meaning across in the end. The other thing I will say about this is that I think there is also a general belief that, spoken and written languages are sort of our core and primary communication system. And while that's certainly the case, in terms of. Our usage, it doesn't necessarily mean it's the case in terms of our cognition. So there's a, the general treatment is something like written language is the core and important thing, and pictures are secondary and are just kind of ancillary and supportive. Of that core thing. And, the same is often when people think about, say, gesturing, people think, well, what you're saying is the most important thing and what the gesturing is actually less important. You know, that's, that's the peripheral thing. And what research has been showing largely is that this is just not true. There is no core versus periphery and in fact, all of our expressive channels, um, whether it's vocal or graphic, are complimentary parts of one larger system. So, this idea that. You're supplementing words with pictures comes from a position that views this in a kind of discriminatory way in the first place, as opposed to perceiving the overall system as actually being a whole. That whole contains both our verbal expression and our visual expression, and in that light, what you're doing when you use both of them is providing a more holistic, Communicative nature that is more reflective of our actual communicative system, our actual system being a multimodal system, not a unimodal system.

Lucy SB:

That is brilliant and so, so interesting and just sums up so much. Thank you so much. That's excellent. I wanted to end each podcast with, three key takeaways That teachers can just have a little think about, put into practice or just something, to consider.

Neil Cohn:

Three takeaways. Let me see if I can summarize, attempt to summarize things that I said, um,

Lucy SB:

you've given so much food for thought. I think it would be quite challenging for you

Neil Cohn:

Yeah. Yeah. Uh, so first thing I would say is number one, that, pictures are not transparent. And they're not secondary to text. They have their own system with its own patterns and rules that needs to be, acquired, in order to be understood. Number two is that it requires proficiency in that. People need to be, have that proficiency in order to get an advantage out of it. So one of the things that we find in studies of education is that, you know, comics versus text only, formats. Sometimes, one is better than the other, but oftentimes they're scoring around equally. But what we do find is that, when people really have an advantage, You know, learning with comics, it's because they're proficient in them. So in order to get the advantages of using comics, you also have to make sure that people have proficiency in them. So the first one is non-transparency, the second is proficiency. And the last one is, um, what would I choose for the last one? Well, there are different visual languages and to be sensitive different visual languages, is perhaps a good one. Um, I'll, I'll go with that one for now. Um, the, I think those will be my three takeaways.

Lucy SB:

There's something just in terms of proficiency. I was talking to someone, the other day and they were saying that they had been doing. some work exploring comics in a school, and then a few weeks later, the sort of first aid course was happening and the instructor was really surprised at how quickly all the children were understanding what they needed to do in various first aid procedures and all the information was in. so a sequential image form, and it was only afterwards the teacher suddenly put two and two together, that actually the, what had happened was that the children had become more proficient in reading the comics, and then it meant that their, their first aid lesson had gone much smoother than, than in

Neil Cohn:

total sense. And I would say, uh, just to connect back to the previous discussion about family trees of visual languages, instruction manuals, you know, are not a subpart of comics. They are another branch on the family tree of. Contemporary visual languages. You know, essentially American visual languages in Japanese visual languages would be cousins to an instruction manual, visual language, but they share enough common structure as belonging to the same family tree as to make them, you know, have transferrable understanding, at least to some degree. So, totally makes sense what you're saying.

Lucy SB:

It's so interesting. So the final thing we like to leave people on is if we were to add one comic or book to our to be read piles tomorrow, what would you recommend?

Neil Cohn:

Well, I think I might give a a, a comic that is not often talked about. You know, people often give the, the canonical answers of great comics that people should read, and I'm gonna give one that is also a great comic that people might not know about, which is called Bean World. By Larry Martyr. Uh, it is incredibly difficult to describe it because it's kind of a surreal, quirky book, but it's basically about, beans who live on an island and have a society and they, it's about the oneness of nature and, the way in which the life, spans of creatures occupy. And it's got all sorts of very. Lessons and it's all ages. Kids can read it and get a ton out of it. Adults can read it and get a completely different thing out of it, and everybody seems to get something different about it. And it's a, a wonderful book that I highly recommend, to everybody. So that's Bean World by Larry Martyr.

Lucy SB:

That sounds brilliant. Thank you. I have not heard of that one. And, I'm gonna, definitely gonna get a hold of a copy, so thank you. This has been absolutely fascinating. I have learnt so much. I'm a massive fan of your books, and all of your work. It is just, it really opens my eyes to a. How complex and exciting the world of comics is and just, yeah, it's brilliant. So thank you so much and imagine being you and knowing all this stuff. It's amazing. Um, how do you have space for all this in your brain? It's incredible.

Neil Cohn:

flattering and, and and lovely to say. Um, I, I enjoy knowing all this stuff. Sure. Yeah. And, and it's my goal to make everybody else know it. So, I appreciate you having me on.

Lucy SB:

Thanks so much to Neil for taking us through so many key theories in that episode. If you found that introduction to his work interesting, I would definitely recommend looking at both of his books. You find the details in the show notes. I have. Really, really valued being able to dip into those and, and return to them frequently. So definitely recommended. They are very in-depth academic texts, so you need to have your, your brain switched on for them. It's not exactly light reading, but it's fascinating reading. And in that vein, I'm gonna recommend another academic book for you today as well. An American text, which I've just discovered and started reading, with the excellent title. With great power comes Great Pedagogy teaching learning and comics. It's a collection of essays, by high profile comics, theorists, and academics and educators about their different approaches. And I found it really interesting. There's lots of food for thought and how I have been accessing this text is through the 100 pages that are available for free to download as an extract. So it's a really sizable extract that's available for free, which has been a really good starting place for me. I think I am gonna buy it because I found it really interesting. That's how they get you. But yeah, definitely recommend that. And again, I'll put the link in the show notes. In the show notes, you will also find the link to the Padlet, which is where you'll find all of these recommendations, anything that's been mentioned today, the links to all of the guests, different things that they've talked about in their episodes. And you'll also find the comic for each show. So one of the strange things about the podcast is that we are talking about both visual and written communication, but it's all done. In the sound space. So, I'll make a comic to go alongside it. So you'll find those comics there. Just focusing on whatever little snippet appealed to me the most, try not to overthink it. I'll just go with whatever, whatever I, I feel inspired by about what the people have been saying. Um, so thanks very much for listening. Please do share comments. I love to have comments on Twitter. You can reach me@Lucy_Braidley. And you can also leave reviews on whatever platform you're listening to. We've absolutely loved to have those five star reviews, and it really helps to promote the podcast, especially as we are now getting guests lined up for season two. So, I'm sending them links to the reviews so, it's great to have that positive feedback from listeners there as well for potential new. As well as potential new listeners. So thanks very much. Next week we're back in the creative space with Mark Bradley, creator of the Bumble and Snug Comics, and I'm looking forward to sharing that conversation with you cuz he is absolutely lovely and very interesting guest thanks very much. you've been listening to Comic Boom. See you next week.