Comic Theory 101: Passing Judgment

By now, most readers of this site know that I have been developing a theory that sequential images can actually be a language. Combined with written language, this visual language is found primarily in the cultural artifacts that we all enjoy call "comics." While this might not sound too controversial up front, I've pointed out that full acceptance of this perspective leads to very different conclusions about the nature of graphic representation than our culture currently has under an "Art" perspective.

Since comics are so graphically rich, the Art perspective generally dominates our perceptions of it. One of the differences from the Language approach is an issue of "acceptability" of various expressions. In Art, we accept everything as being "okay," and make justifications for things that don't seem straightforwardly right. Rather than admitting they are unusual, we make reasons or justifications for how they might make sense with a particular interpretation.

Take for instance the class of "non-sequitur transitions" for panel relationships that don't have any apparent connection with each other, with the reasoning: "Don't worry, its still Art, it has to make sense somehow!" But really, though, do we have to think it makes sense on a direct level of understanding?

Now, I'm not saying that people shouldn't use these jarring nonsense panels. Indeed, they might serve a purpose to the overall "literary" message of the piece. However, this doesn't mean that they connect meaningfully to panels around them. And nor should they have to. This is the illusion cast by the Art point of view.

In contrast, the only time that we allow odd language is when we accept it under this Art perspective – like in poetry or narration in a Frank Miller comic. But, writing a paper or speaking in this way normally would be incredibly weird!

Indeed, in language, we can recognize that certain things are completely unacceptable, in comparison to those that are well formed. For instance, a sentence like this should feel really bad (indicated by the asterisk):

* Himself threw the ball to Kelly.

Now, this sort of ungrammaticality is different from the "grammar" that most of us learned in school, which taught us how we should and shouldn't write. Now, I say this at the risk of upsetting all the editors out there, but, in fact, by linguistics standards most of these aren't actual rules of English!

These "rules" of grammar were actually written in the 1800s by people enamored with Latin. These Latin rules are the ones our "English class" grammar is based on. In Latin, ending a sentence with a preposition jolts the system like the sentence above does for us, but in English, it isn't really ungrammatical. In fact, I just did it two sentences ago.

Ending a sentence in a preposition and other aesthetic rules of grammar don�t elicit the same kinds of gut level feeling of wrongness that the example above does. This is because the one above violates principles in our minds that generate language, as opposed to just the cosmetic rearranging of words that aesthetic grammar gives.

In the 1950s, the linguist Noam Chomsky pointed out that we can use our intuitions about language to figure out about these underlying principles. Because fluency in a language enables us to discern what's bad from what isn�t, our own judgments can act as a tool for figuring out what's wrong with truly ungrammatical sentences.

I believe that we can do this in the visual form as well. There is a reason that people often find non-sequitur panels unusual and jarring: it's because they usually don't make sense in the grammar of sequential images! In various projects of my research, I've uncovered what I think are some particularly odd examples, and have relied on my and others' intuitions to figure out explanations for why. And, given that most of the people reading this column have some fluency by reading comics, you should have these intuitions too.

Now, I have my own theories about why things work the way they do in this visual language, but I figured that these columns should give you all a chance to jump into the realm of theory too. So, here I've presented a series of variations using the same panels in different orders. Some of these I find to be odd, others not so much. Based on this data, see if you can offer an explanation for any judgments you derive (I've made them to be clicked through to prevent peripheral vision from factoring into judgments):

(Click through to view each image. Use your browser's back button to return to the article.)

There you go, theorize away! If possible, try not only to explain what feels wrong, but what deeper reason you think might be causing it (that's why I've presented several examples, so you can hone your analysis). Regardless, I'll be interested to see what everyone comes up with.

Xaviar Xerexes

Wandering webcomic ronin. Created Comixpedia (2002-2005) and ComixTalk (2006-2012; 2016-?). Made a lot of unfinished comics and novels.


  1. Interesting theory. As a linguist myself, I like this idea, though I think that grammaticality is largely dependant on context, both in English grammar and comic grammar. Many if not all of the example comics could be made to make sense in the right context. That, I think, is what makes comics so interesting, the two languages of art and words working together. It’s something that you don’t often see when you’re not bilingual. Thanks for giving me a bit of insight into why I love comics so much!


  2. Oops.
    “the only ones really not working are 2 and 5, because the zoom in isn’t” should read “the only ones really not working are 2 and 5, because the zoom in isn’t smooth”

  3. Well, some of them look odd and some of them are, indeed, wrong from a storyteller point of view.

    The logical, simple sequence is in #9. That is:

    Establishing shot —> setup —-> action!

    The punch (figurative, not literal) has to come out as the last panel, or it will dilute the impact of the scene.

    The other shots (such as a city in the night, or the view of Earth) are gratuitous and confusing. You have an obviously human setting, there’s no need to specify the action is on planet Earth, and adding such a shot is confusing. UNLESS you want to imply things are going to happen in a much bigger scale, and in such case a panel like that can be considered foreshadowing.

    The city in the night shot is not confusing but it doesn’t add anything to the sequence. You don’t see the arena there, and unless it’s important to establish the match takes place in a city, it’s just sitting there.


  4. The ‘punch’ panel doesn’t have to be last. I think #6 works pretty well, and sets up a mood of either imminent world-wide danger or nihilistic insignificance. It’s saying, “This human event…means nothing in the grand scheme of things.”

    I think the sequence only becomes confusing when you shift back and forth between scales. These images, taken together, are like a camera panning and zooming on a mostly-static scene, and you don’t expect a panning camera to suddenly reverse direction.

  5. If you can convince Ryan North to do it, I bet you two dollars I can make these all work in Whispered Apologies.

  6. I agree with Rhemus. A reasonable context could be found for most all of them but when the camera jumps around it is just pretty bad direction.

    I don’t think sending it to Whispered Apologies should count for anything. Adding text to the panels changes them. An odd silent shot from the crowds becomes a panel where people in the crowd make a comment or whatever.

  7. Oh boy! A quiz! Ok, I’ll give it a go…

    1. Establishing shot, action.
    2. Establishing shot, zoom in towards action, then zoom way out for some reason, action.
    3. Establishing shot, zoom in to action.
    4. Action starts, cut to unrelated image, action ends.
    5. Action, then zoom way out, then in, then all the way out.
    6. Action, smooth zoom out.
    7. Action starts, briefly cut to longer shot then back to close up, action ends
    8. Smooth zoom out, interlaced with the action.
    9. Establishing shot, action.

    Now, I’d say that of all of these, the only ones really not working are 2 and 5, because the zoom in isn’t. I suppose it might work if the scale were just right. (that sort of zoom in, then out, then finally catch the action, can give movies a documentary feel, but I think the effect would be difficult to achieve in comics.)

    1 and 9 are fine. Basic. 9 is probably better, just because an anonymous boxing ring makes more sense than an anonymous city, but more panels or narration could change that easily.

    3 and 6 are fine. One gives a sense of consequences (the fight is over), one a sense of place. In both cases zooming out to the earth may be a little far, but I guess the point is to suggest some kind of night on earth thing.

    4 and 7 are also fine. The pause suggests a moment of timelessness before the punch. This is the dramatic moment of the fight, so you kind of pause to savor it. (Niether would be ok if it were an insignificant punch in the first round.) Similar to 1 and 9, cutting to the boxing ring is probably better if there is no other context.

    8 is probably my favorite, because you’ve already started to zoom out when the punch is thrown. It suggests the punch is the final one, and the fight is really over, and makes it seem like everything is happening in slow motion. It would work even better with more panels.

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