You’re a good grammatical construction, Charlie Brown

I’ve recently been thinking quite a lot about how best to start testing my theories of visual language grammar. Since I’m in a psychology program, I’ve got to actually think of experiments that might yield reliable and significant results (hopefully).

One of the main ideas I had was starting off using a corpus of comic strips, so I wouldn’t be biasing the study with my own drawings. I hit on the thought that Peanuts strips would be perfect for this since 1) there are a ton of wordless ones, 2) they’re well recognized culturally, and 3) they use a fairly simple bare bones structure with 4) nearly always with 4 panels.

So, thanks to a very kind donation from Fantagraphics, I am now pouring through several volumes of The Complete Peanuts strips in search of all the wordless/minimal text ones I can find (there are a lot!). Hopefully, by summer I should be testing peoples intutions on the grammar of these strips, and eventually looking at their brainwaves while processing them (fun!).

One of the things that has jumped out at me is how so many of the strips use systematic patterns that I haven’t noticed before. Previously, I’ve talked about the visual grammatical pattern of the ‘Set up – Beat – Punchline’ construction (as coined by Neal VonFlue). This is the pattern that sets up the joke with dialogue, then has a pause panel, then ends with the punchline. Well, Schulz seems to use a few other patterns a lot as well.

The most intruiging to me is one that is almost exactly like the SBP pattern, only the “beat/pause” panel isn’t actually a pause: it’s an “action” panel (SAP?). Instead of a passive type “rest,” the space is filled by some wordless action that sets up the payoff with the final panel punchline. I’ve only looked at the oldest of the collections (the 1950s) and have only seen a few actual SBP constructions. I’m curious whether or not this SAP pattern preceded/led to the SBP one.

Another pattern has the first three panels as wordless depictions of an event, only to have a final panel with a punchline that explains or comments on the actions. This one happens extremely frequently, and sometimes takes on an additional characteristic of having the first panel depicting an action as well. It starts with an event that sets up the primary event that unfolds in the rest of the panels.

Patterns like this are fun to find, but can also be challenging theoretically. At least as far as developing a model for my visual grammar, sometimes I’m hesitant of how to notate certain panels, and often debate which is more correct. Imagine not only trying how best to describe how nouns and verbs combine, but also whether or not things are nouns and verbs in the first place and/or whether those categories are appropriate at all (when there’s good evidence for all).

And, unlike with homework, there is often no answer key that I can check with someone else (except, hopefully, what my experiments will reveal). I’ve always found this “working without a net” to be a little scary, but at the same time exciting since it portends new and uncharted territory. I suppose it’s the feeling of truly doing science instead of just learning it.

Note: As long as I’m giving thanks for donations, I should also mention the kind contributions of TopShelf, Drawn & Quarterly, Top Cow, Oni Press, and Dark Horse Comics. Their generosity will make a huge difference in these visual language studies and are greatly appreciated!! If you are from another company and would like to donate to this cause, please contact me…


  • I am a really recent comics reader, but I am defenetely going mad about everything even remotely related to them… I have been a fan of many kind of languages (not as much as now for comics, anyway), and each time my intrest in the language itself overcomes the enjoiment of the fruition of any piece of art… I think the magic is there, in the art it-self. This could be why I like this blog. I cannot possibly believe the comments to be so rare (butmaybe this is not very diplomatical to say)… I’d like to know more about your experiments. I suppose that to know the way common people process a strip you got to submit the strip to someone. do you? who? … well, I am saying that just because, being a newbie, my only opportunity to partecipate to such a thing is to be the common reader, which means your guinea-pig.
    congratualtions, and pardon for my english.

  • Well, I have yet to actually do experiments with comic strips. I’m still in the planning stages for this, which involves trying to think of good ways to test my theories. A lot of my ideas involve playing with the order that panels are put in, how many panels those are, and where they are in original sequences.

    I plan to start with some “behavioral” experiments with decisions people will make while interacting with various manipulated strips. Eventually I’ll use that data and design some to look at brain function too.

    Don’t worry, I plan to write more about this as I’m working on it!

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