VLOC released in Europe!

The day has finally come…My new book The Visual Language of Comics is now available for sale in Europe! My publisher (Bloomsbury) has an interview with me over at their blog to mark the occasion.

The US release is still a little ways to go (January 30), so across the intervening time I plan to do several posts discussing some of the book. So, let’s start with a little overview…

The book is divided into two main sections. Part 1 discusses “Structure and cognition” while Part 2 discusses “Visual language and the world.”

The first part of the book lays out the basic structures involved in visual language:

What are the structures of drawings? Is there a lexicon of images? How do sequential images form coherent narrative sequences? What are the rules for navigating page layouts?

This first half also has a chapter summarizing the various research that has been done on cognition and comprehension. I believe that any theory about the understanding of comics should be able to be backed up by psychology experiments, both on behavior and the brain. So, this chapter summarizes this work done by me and others.

The second half of the book spends three chapters exploring how visual languages are different across the world. Visual language is not universal, and just like spoken and signed languages are diverse across the world, so are visual languages.

Why do American and Japanese comics differ in how they look? It’s because they are written in two different visual languages: American VL and Japanese VL. So, there is a chapter on each of these systems, using them as platforms to discuss a variety of other issues involved in the learning and diversity of visual languages.

The third chapter in this section then provides an overview of Australian Aboriginal sand drawings—a visual language far removed from the context of comics, yet still a visual language in the sense of my theory. This chapter is especially important for clarifying how visual language is not just about comics, and it also provides a nice contrast to the systems found in comics. If we are to get at what might be “universal” about visual languages and drawing systems, then its important to look at these types of comparisons in detail.

That’s the overall layout of the book… in future posts I’ll try to discuss other “behind the scenes” aspects of the book’s content, intentions, and preparation.


  • Good day, sir.
    Just finished your work. A wonderful, detailed examination of comics. I do find it somewhat perplexing that despite arguing at the very outset that comics are not a language, the bulk of your research (through structural similarities with language per se) basically disproves your hypothesis.
    My doctoral research is on the mythology in comics, pertaining to the storytelling elements, sharing of ideas and (pictorial) communication in the two respective fields. From this POV, I found it interesting how your schemas may be linked to archetypes for example.
    All in all, this work is a definite theoretical gem to which I'll proudly refer back in my own research.
    Have a wonderful day,
    Davorin Dernovsek from Slovenia

  • Davorin, thanks very much for the comments!

    My statement that "comics are not a language" is actually very important and nuanced. As I try to say in the book, it's not "comics" that are a language, but rather than "comics" USE a visual language.

    This is the same relationship as magazines or novels USING English (verbal/written language). We wouldn't say that magazines "are" a language—that'd be crazy. The same is true of "comics" being a language—they aren't a language, they use one. I believe this is the key insight of my research program.

    In any case, I'm glad to hear that you got so much out of the book and hope your own research goes well.


  • No, I understand your arguments and they are indeed insightful. Your statement of comics as not a language just made a big impact on me. I've been reading about comics as a language and/or medium to the extent that these conceptions are taken for granted and taken as doctrine (just as once comics were de facto considered a form for children). Thus, we become less critical of what comics actually are or might be. On the other hand maybe this is still part of a subconscious desire in those of us who would like to see comics elevated to the "ninth art" throughout the world.
    Maybe the main distinction in my mind stems from the fact that both words and pictures are visual, so it becomes easier to label comics as a visual language. They are in fact a cultural construction for sharing of ideas. The difficulty in a precise definition of comics for me lies in the fact that they can be pictorially connected to cave painting as one of the first modes of communicating and sharing of ideas, visually to film, as well as to literature in their shared book form and required active participation from the reader. Comics are a hybrid, whose presence or shared modes of communication can be seen everywhere.

    Before I get sidetracked even more, thank you for your comment. I think your research has been profoundly important and has shaken the conception of comics the most in recent years. It's a real honor to share a couple of words with you.
    Thank you for your wishes. Hopefully, I can finish my doctorate in a couple of months so I can focus more on other topics. The conflict of pictorial and linguistic elements within panels has been especially intriguing. But that's a topic for another day.


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