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Comic Theory 101: Too Many Twos

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The answer is "mu"

I generally feel that too much is made of panel borders becase they are the most common visual indicator of "comics" in the Eisner/McCloud "sequential art" sense (as opposed to the Robert C. Harvey "pictures with words" sense—the most common visual indicator of that would be the word balloon). But Eisner himself dropped borders entirely in much of his later work without sacrificing clarity, and you can find many examples of multiple-event panels or undivided pages in mainstream manga as well. I believe that putting things inside a panel border just means "these all go together", and any additional meaning to the grouping is entirely contextual.

So I'm not sure that dividing types of panels into "macro", "mono", etc. is really meaningful when analysing meaning (analysing design is a different story). That said, your "Two Neils" example is a macro, but both [w:Sign (semiotics)|signifiers] in the panel have the same [w:reference#Semantics|referent].

In the sentence example, the problem seems to lie in assuming a one-to-one correspondence between nouns and referents. That doesn't make any sense, tough, because where does that leave [w:article (grammar)|article]s (or any other [w:specifier]s/[w:determiner]s)? Clearly, the language module can't work that way. A noun by itself, even a proper noun, [w:Connotation and denotation|denotes] a class of referents. I don't think the mind ever directly connects a noun to a specific entity, only noun phrases.

"Mu" indeed

Neil Cohn's picture

The idea of Macros-->Micros has nothing to do with panel borders precisely, though borders do make them clearer. I don't consider panels as "units of meaning." To this extant, panels are more of an abstract "attention unit" (close to your "these all go together" sentiment) — and these should be fairly definable with or without borders. Don't think of Macros, etc. as substitutes for "panel transition" type meaning identifications, think of them as more abstract formal properties than that.

And yes, both Neil's have the same referent, but that's the riddle of it all: How can the brain handle "dualling signifiers"? The real "Problem of 2" is a question of brain functioning that transcends non-cognitive notions of denotation (though addressing the semiotic issues are admittedly part of the fun of the exercise!). Where's the "mind" in your notions of denotation anyways?

(In Peircean terms, don't forsake the Interpretant by focusing on the relation between Representamen and Object).

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Studying the Visual Language of "Comics" - www.emaki.net

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Re: "Mu" indeed

[quote=NeilCohn]The idea of Macros-->Micros has nothing to do with panel borders precisely, though borders do make them clearer. I don't consider panels as "units of meaning." To this extant, panels are more of an abstract "attention unit" (close to your "these all go together" sentiment) — and these should be fairly definable with or without borders. Don't think of Macros, etc. as substitutes for "panel transition" type meaning identifications, think of them as more abstract formal properties than that.[/quote]

Okay then. Now I'm really not sure what they're doing here. Have you covered this in an earlier column that I missed?

[quote]And yes, both Neil's have the same referent, but that's the riddle of it all: How can the brain handle "dualling signifiers"? The real "Problem of 2" is a question of brain functioning that transcends non-cognitive notions of denotation (though addressing the semiotic issues are admittedly part of the fun of the exercise!).[/quote]

Ah, so it's less about how the text works than how the brain works. Because the mind would seem to do this all the time. Anaphora can't work without it. I'm still not sure why the same word referring to two different entities is something that's supposed to be confusing. If you assume that short-term memory can only hold one piece of information at a time, then it'd be a problem, but I don't see any reason to assume that.

[quote]Where's the "mind" in your notions of denotation anyways?[/quote]

Assumed as where all of this happens. None of this is relevant outside of one.

[quote](In Peircean terms, don't forsake the Interpretant by focusing on the relation between Representamen and Object).[/quote]

Please explain.

Further explanations... (I hope?)

Neil Cohn's picture

I haven't covered Macros-->Micros in a column here before, though I have in essays at my site ("A Visual Lexicon" and "Cross-Cultural Space" being the most notable, though I'd hoped the ideas could stand alone here without background reading). These categories are merely a measurement system for how many "entities" are in a panel, not a measure of meaning.

Quote: Ah, so it's less about how the text works than how the brain works. ... I'm still not sure why the same word referring to two different entities is something that's supposed to be confusing.

Yes, the actual "problem" is mainly a query about brain functioning. And you're absolutely right that the mind does this sort of thing all the time (which I said, right?). The question is "how does it pull it off"? However, I do think it creates a somewhat fun (?) dilemma to mull over outside of the research-needed brain concerns.

What I meant by the "Peircean terms" is that saying "a signifier has a referent" implies that the referent is either some Object out in the world being refered to or some concept in the mind. I was unsure which you meant, and it sounded like the former.

This invokes the ever popular Saussurean sign, which had two parts: "sign/signifier" leaving ambiguous what the "signifier" is. In contrast, Peirce said a sign has three parts: A Sign (Representamen), an Object "in the world" that it refers to, and a concept (Interpretant) in the mind that both connect to.

So, what I meant is that your talk about denotation sounded like it was invoking the Object (non-cognitive) at the expense of the concept (cognitive). Saying that the "Two Neils" share the same Object (me), doesn't address the cognitive aspect of conception. Meanwhile, saying that they share the same concept eventually runs you into the "Problem of 2."

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Studying the Visual Language of "Comics" - www.emaki.net

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Re: Further explanations... (I hope?)

[quote=NeilCohn]This invokes the ever popular Saussurean sign, which had two parts: "sign/signifier" leaving ambiguous what the "signifier" is. In contrast, Peirce said a sign has three parts: A Sign (Representamen), an Object "in the world" that it refers to, and a concept (Interpretant) in the mind that both connect to.

So, what I meant is that your talk about denotation sounded like it was invoking the Object (non-cognitive) at the expense of the concept (cognitive).[/quote]

Actually, I was mostly ignoring the representamen, IIUC. Since with comics we're usually (but not necessarily) talking about fiction, a drawing of a chair in most cases does not correspond to an actual chair in the real world.

Signs are for meaning

Neil Cohn's picture

Actually, it doesn't matter when something is fiction or not. These parts are involved for any meaning-making context.

It doesn't necessarily have to be a "real life chair" (Object) represented by the drawing (Representamen). We recognize that drawings of chairs correspond to some generalized notion of chairs out in the world. The concept of chairs (Interpretant) connects to a drawing of a chair (Representamen) and both connect to "real life" chairs (Object).

This is the same as with any concept, like "love": a heart shape (Representamen) represents the concept of love (Interpretant) which connects to a known feeling/emotion/action/etc. "in the world" (Object).

All three parts are necessary for any meaning to be conveyed by anything.

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Studying the Visual Language of "Comics" - www.emaki.net

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In terms of conventional

Joe Zabel's picture

In terms of conventional comics, each of the four panels at the end are macros, because of the panel borders. You would need panel borders between the two figures in order to consider them as being one figure.

But more progressive comics (or comics from different traditions, perhaps) sometimes invoke a variation of futurism, so that two figures appearing in the same panel are actually the same character. This goes back at least as far as the Ditko Spiderman and the Kirby X-Men, in which futurism is used to show the superheroes going through a series of actions. I recall at least one Burne Hogarth Tarzan page that used this technique, though I don't know when it was created.

So perhaps the question is, what tells the reader that the artist is employing futurism?

By "futurism" I'm assuming

Neil Cohn's picture

By "futurism" I'm assuming that you mean what I call "Polymorphic" (also called "stroboscopic"), or a panel that contains a single entity engaged in the parts of a single event or action (as in the final panel of this comic). I usually include this as a category above Macro in other taxonomies (I was keeping it simple here). Shooting back to your observations I question:

Why should you assume that this is employing "futurism" at all?

Why should you assume that panel borders dictate it being a Macro, simply because there are two visible figures in the panel?

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Studying the Visual Language of "Comics" - www.emaki.net

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Polymorphism or

Joe Zabel's picture

Polymorphism or stroboscopism are both good terms. Did you establish those terms in your own writing, or were they proposed by somebody else?

Why should one assume this is employing polymorphism? That's just my point-- there isn't a well-established signifier to indicate this technique is being used. In the case of your comic, I for one inferred it from the context. But the last panel provides a new context that contradicts the inferrence.

"Why should you assume that panel borders dictate it being a Macro, simply because there are two visible figures in the panel?"

Well, actually I didn't. I assumed that it was polymorphic. But a panel border is a signifier of a unit of time, a "moment" captured from the ongoing action.

Which makes me think about how the presence of polymorphism inside panel borders is a modifier of the meaning of the panel border. It inherently means that the "moment" is extended, as if it represents two moments instead of one. Of course, the "moment" of a panel has no specific length anyway. It can be a split second, or it can be however many seconds it would take for the characters to recite the dialog in it.

Terms and more

Neil Cohn's picture

"Polymorphic" is a term I came up with myself using common roots found in linguistics. "Stroboscopic" I found in a paper on perception. Glad to hear you like the term. :-)

I actually argue against the belief that panel borders are signifiers of a segment of time (see "A Visual Lexicon"), and see it as a hinderance to getting at real meaning. (I'd actually go so far as to say that there is no such thing as "time" in comics' panels at all... essay coming soon, though I touch on it here). It's an assumption that is made a priori to actually investigating the contents of panels, which often defy it. It would make less sense to me for the contents of a panel to modify the "meaning" of its border, and more sense that the border doesn't have such a meaning in the first place.

So, just to play the "probing teacher" role: In light of your comments, what would make the final panel polymorphic? And, if not polymorphic, what would it be?
.
.
.
.
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...btw, you don't have to find a "logical" answer. That was part of the intent of the essay. Think of it as a "visual language koan" if you will. Though, exploring the "logical" answers could be fun too perhaps?

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Studying the Visual Language of "Comics" - www.emaki.net

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"Polymorphic" is a term I

LineItemVito's picture

"Polymorphic" is a term I came up with myself
Since Polymorphic is a term that is already in use by mathmaticians (the term predates object-oriented computer programming), I'd suggest that you don't use it here unless it means the same thing... which it doesn't.

I prefer the term "stroboscopic" anyway. It sounds like what it means.

Eddie

P.S. For the non-geeks, "polymorphic" in math refers to functions that —- depending on the input terms -- operate differently and can produce completely different results. For instance, the function ADD operates differently if you are adding two numbers versus adding two eggs to a cookie batter recipe. Thus the function ADD is polymorphic: it potentially changes (morphs) into different (poly) forms.

Note: I'm not a mathematician, dammit. I'm a doctor. Well, actually, I'm not a doctor either. I'm a webcomic artist. Well, actually, if you've seen my comic you know I'm not much of an artist. So, actually, it's not clear what I am.
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Vote Vito: Line Item Vito

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Vote Vito: Line Item Vito

Polymorphic

Neil Cohn's picture

"Stroboscopic" emphasizes different things in its meaning than I want. I have certain things that I want to invoke with Polymorphic. There are many fields with overlapping terms. The root "morph" is used in math, biology, and lingustics, just to name a few... all have their own permutations on it. I'm using in its linguistics context where a "morpheme" is a unit of meaning, so: "poly" - many, "morphic" – meanings.

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Studying the Visual Language of "Comics" - www.emaki.net

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I'm pretty sure the "morph"

I'm pretty sure the "morph" root in "morpheme" is because it is a unit of the form of a word, and has nothing to do with meaning.

Oops... my bad

Neil Cohn's picture

Yah, you're right, I realized that the other day too. That should be "morph"-"form"... though a "morpheme" is a unit of meaning. I had chosen "polymorphic" because there are "many forms" in it... sorry for the previous misinformation, that was my mental lapse.

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Studying the Visual Language of "Comics" - www.emaki.net

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Well, I meant the root

Well, I meant the root "morph" wasn't in there because it had anything to do with meaning, not that morphemes have nothing to do with meaning. My wording was ambiguous. I apologize.

IIRC a "seme" is a unit of meaning.

Polymorphism - One of the 3 Pillars to object-oriented comics...

Fabricari's picture

Since Polymorphism is one of the 3 pillars of object-oriented programming, does this mean that webcomics can be autonomous, encapsulated and support inhieritance, too??

Ahem, sorry, had a geek moment there...


Fabricari - Sexy Robots and Violent Cyberpunk Comics

Steve "Fabricari" Harrison

Not to shave with Ockham's razor or anything, but...

Aleph's picture

Given that in general most comic readers are familiar with comics and comic styles in which characters are nigh indistinguishable from one another-- these being the cheapest and most numerous of comic styles-- the reader is likely to go to the very simplest explanation and decide that two extremely similar characters are in the panel, rather than ponder the idea of duality. Separated by subtle differences in expression rather than perfectly mirrored, there is enough dissimilarity to classify the characters, on first glance, as separate but identical entities. When the figures are interacting with each other in a way that defies sequential action (such as a polymorphic panel) this strengthens that simpler interpretation.

I think in order to cause a real cognitive dissonance here you'd really have to work to overcome the simpler interpretation and make it really hard to separate the two, because it's more reasonable to default to the macro here. Inserting something that could be a window or could be a mirror, for instance, and making them perfect mirror images, might do the trick.

Pluralitas non est ponenda sine neccesitate -- because it amuses me to no end that the actual statement known as Ockham's razor means, "entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily" ^^

"good comic" is not

"good comic" is not contextually the same as "bad comic." There's no quandary there. It's only recieving "comic" in the same context when you ignore the things that change it =\ Also I decided that the last four panels each contain 2 figures who have/represent the same identity which is perfectly reasonable in comic-land. Different explanations can be applied and would work just as well, so I don't think it's worth a lot of thought.

I did think it would be funny if you drew two completely different looking people though, and then had them claim to be the same person. Would it be one character in the panel, or would it be two characters who are LIARS? And if one of them was pretty, would we forgive that one while hating the ugly one forever?

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Brains!

Neil Cohn's picture

According to the "Problem of 2" the words "comic" in the sentence are the same. The "things that change it" are what makes this a challenging cognitive problem. I didn't want to go into it too much in the column, but let me expand here...

When the brain receives the first signal of "comics" it must activate the word as it is stored in long-term memory (LTM). But what happens with the second word "comics"? It can't just activate that word in LTM again, because the first instance has to remain activated in order for the full sentence to be understood. It also can't just activate that word even stronger, because then the two instances would be indistinguishable.

Its not a concern about conscious understanding, its about how the brain understands the signals.

(A reference: This is all taken from Ray Jackendoff's excellent Foundations of Language pp. 61-63)

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Gotcha. I am very curious

Gotcha. I am very curious now, does the book come with an explanation?

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An explanation for how to

Neil Cohn's picture

An explanation for how to resolve the issue? No... its listed among things for research to work on. Why, have any good ideas??

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I decided that "comic" is

I decided that "comic" is brought up from LTM and used as a component in the formation of two distinct short term variables. But that is just my opinion as a master linguist.

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Great! Those last 4 panels

Fabricari's picture

Great! Those last 4 panels left my brain in a dead-lock. Now I'll be pondering that all week.


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Steve "Fabricari" Harrison

Great column! You should do

Gordon McAlpin's picture

Great column! Interesting topic. You should do more non-fiction comics... (Please?)

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