Violating comics… for science!

Every now and then, I see or receive commentary from people about my studies where they object to some of the stimuli in my experiments. They exclaim things like, “But, actual comics don’t have sequences/pages/images like those!”

For example, in my study of page layouts (pdf), they might complain that the strange arrangements of panels (right) don’t typically appear in comics. The implication of course is that doing a study that includes examples like this would not be informative because of the “weirdness” of these examples.

What these critics might not realize is the motivation for doing such “weird” manipulations…

I’ve had the pleasure of teaching Introduction to Linguistics at UC San Diego this quarter, and on the first day of class I showed the students how there are lots of interesting aspects of language structure that they weren’t aware of, yet their brains “know” these phenomena because they are speakers of language. This creates a weird paradox, because you “know” the rules of language, but you don’t have any conscious access to them. If you did, linguistics as a field wouldn’t exist!

“So,” asked one of my particularly astute students, “how is it that we can study this stuff if we don’t have conscious access to the rules?”

The answer, I said, is by violating that structure. If we create bad examples of language, then it can tell us about the constraints involved on language that make such productions ungrammatical. For example, I can say He likes her or She likes him, but not *Him likes she or *Her likes he (*=ungrammatical). These latter sentences should sound like garbage! Yet, these violations provides us with evidence that different pronouns are used for the subject and object positions of sentences (nominative vs. accusative case), even though they essentially contain the same meanings (he/him = masculine noun, she/her = feminine noun). By violating the structure, we can figure out the rules.

The same principle applies to studying the visual language used in comics. By manipulating and violating the structure, we can see people’s reactions and thereby deduce the rules and constraints that might be operating on those structures.

So, it is true that most of my manipulations to stimuli wouldn’t be found in “actual comics,” but that’s exactly the point. People don’t generally produce things that truly violate the constraints of the structure.  However, by doing such violations we can learn about how that structure works and is instantiated in people’s minds and brains.


  • These posts are great and wonderfully helpful. As a college junior at a Great Books Liberal Arts school and a huge fan of comics, I am fascinated in taking the critical language I've learned and using it to approach the world of sequential art. Thanks again for the tips. I look forward (as a non-comic creator) to applying them to my own studies.

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