16 panels that are Still Conventional whether you think they work or not

I neglected posting this ealier in the week, but John Morris has a parody/homage to Wally Wood’s 22 Panels that always work over at Comixpedia entitled 16 Panels That I Don’t Think Work All That Well. There are a couple things I find theoretically interesting about it.

First off, it is a great compilation of conventionalized patterns used in many comics. Just like WW’s 22 Panels and the Peanuts patterns I’ve been finding recently, this list excellently shows how there are systematic and conventionalized patterns in the visual language used in comics. This is in contrast to the view that graphic creation is unrestrained because it mimics perception, and thereby lacks an experss system of mentally stored patterns. Astute observations like these 16 panels excellently show that there is systematic and patterned visual vocabulary used by “visual language speakers” (and I wish more people would do work like this!).

The second thing this list shows is a preference for the use of some representations over others (WW’s 22 Panels does this too, though positively as opposed to negatively). Linguistics has often been in perpetual debate with journalists/English teachers/etc. that believe there is a right or wrong way to use language. We are often told “not to end a sentence with a preposition,” or “not to split infinitives” — though these are not in any way real rules of English grammar. (They were prescribed by grammar book writers in the 18th century who were enamored with Latin — so they advocated Latin’s rules for English, not at all being sensitive to the fact that, y’know, they’re totally different languages!!).

This list’s intent is prescriptive in the same way. Despite these being consistent conventional trends used in this visual language, they are gauged by their value in usage. An additional aspect to this is the Art perspective most invoked in the comments below the article. Most people object to these panels simply because they are conventional! They’re “overused,” which means they aren’t new and innovative/original — which makes them undesirable to the Art viewpoint.

However, none of this mitigates the fact that these panel types are conventional. The linguist would say “they’re all part of language, let’s observe how people use them” while the prescriptivist says “they’re part of language, but they really shouldn’t be, and those who use them are less sophisticated speakers.”

It’s interesting to note also that no matter how loudly prescriptivism might object to such “bad” usage, it never has an effect on shaping language usage. It’s not like split infinitives have gone away because people advocate against them! Nor do I suspect these 16 panels to go away either.

In some ways both aspects of a list like this shows some good headway in recognition of this visual language as a language on the whole. Not only are people recognizing the patterns, they’re also judging them prescriptively, just like any other language!


  • I think I agree that the prescriptive approach doesn’t change spoken language in certain contexts, but wouldn’t you say that it has a powerful effect on written language and even spoken language in other contexts?

    These contexts, of course, are largely connected to social class. You wouldn’t use certain verbal colloquialisms (ain’t, or perhaps even any contractions at all) if trying to come across as upper-class and educated in, say, academic papers or as an expert on the evening news.

    Or, looked at another way, certain image sequences might be more analogous to common overdone cliches and turns of phrases in creative writing. It’s not a big deal if you use phrases like “turned tragic” in casual conversation, but if you’re trying to write an interesting novel or essay, that sort of thing sounds trite and hackneyed.

    I’m not sure I agree with the cartoonist that just because a visual sequence is established in its usage that it necessarily follows that it’s overused. By the same token, though, I also think that being commonly used doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to use it.

  • I think you’re talking about a different issue than I am. The types of effects you’re talking about are changes in “register” — the way we use language based on the social context, like level of politeness or formality.

    This is different from changing the actual structure of the system. Some may shift registers to appease prescriptivist judgments, but it doesn’t mean that the cognitive system of language itself is changing.

    Regarding creative writing though, you perhaps are correct that authors may be trying to avoid cliches. However, part of my point was that in the graphic realm, people seem to see most things that are conventionalized as inherently cliched!

  • Write a Reply or Comment