Tourist traps in comics land*: Unpublished comics research

In a series of Twitter posts, I recently reflected on the pitfalls of various comics research that hasn’t been published. Since I think it contains some valuable lessons, I’m going to repeat and expand on them here…

Though I’ve written the most about psychological studies about how people understand comics, other people have been doing these types of studies before me. What’s interesting is that many of these studies were not published, because they found null results. There are a few trends in this work…

Space = Time

The topic I’ve heard about the most is the testing of McCloud’s idea that panel size relates to the duration of conceived time, and that longer vs. shorter gutters relates to longer vs. shorter spaces of “time” between panels. I critiqued the theory behind this idea that “space = time” back in this paper, but I’ve heard of several scholars who have tested this with experiments. Usually these studies involved presenting participants with different size panels/gutters and then having participants rate their perceived durations.

In almost all of these studies, no one found any support of the idea that “physical space = conceived time”. I can only think of one study that did find something supporting it, and it was only for a subset of the stimuli, and thus warranted further testing (which hasn’t been done yet).

Because these studies found null results, they weren’t deemed noteworthy enough to warrant publication. And since none got published, other labs didn’t know about it, so they tried it too with the same null results. I think it’s a good case for importance of publishing null results: they serve to both disprove hypotheses, and inform others not to try to grab at the same smoke.


The other type of study on comics that usually doesn’t get published is eye-tracking. I know of at least half-a-dozen unpublished eye-tracking studies looking at people reading comic pages. The main reason these studies aren’t published is because they’re often exploratory, with no real hypotheses to be tested. Most comics eye-tracking studies just examine what people look at, which doesn’t really tell you much if you don’t manipulate anything. This can be useful for telling you basic facts about what people look (types of information, how long, etc.), but without a specific manipulation, it is less informative and has lots of confounds.

An example: Let’s say you run an eye-tracking study of a particular superhero comic and find that people spend more time fixating on text than on the images (which is a frequent finding). Now the questions arise: Is it because of the specific comic you chose? Is it because your comic had a particular uncontrolled multimodal interaction that weights meaning more to the text? Is it because your participants lacked visual language fluency, and so they relied more on text than images? Is it because you chose a superhero comic, but your participants read more manga? Without more controls, it’s hard to know anything substantial.

Good science means testing a hypothesis, which means having a theory that can possibly be tested by manipulating something. Without a testable theory you don’t have any real hypothesis to create a manipulation, which results in not a publishable eye-tracking study about comics. Eye-tracking is an informative tool, but the real “meat” of the research needs to be in the thing that is being manipulated.

I’ll note that this is the same as when people do (or advise) using fMRI or EEG to study processing (visual) narratives in the brain. I’ve seen several studies of “narrative” or “visual narrative” where they simply measure the brain activity to non-manipulated materials and then claim that “these are the brain areas involved in comics/visual narrative/narrative!”

In fact, such research is wholly uninformative, because nothing specific is being tested, and such research betrays an ignorance for just how complex these structures actually are. It would be inconceivable for any serious scholar of language to simply have someone passively read sentences and then claim that they “know how they work” by measuring fMRI or eye-tracking to them. Why then the presumption of simplicity for visual narratives?

Final remarks

One feature of unpublished research on comics is that they are often undertaken by very good researchers who had little knowledge-base for what goes on in comics and/or the background literature of that field. It is basically “scientific tourism.” While it is of course great that people are interested enough in the visual language of comics to invest the time and effort to run experiments, it’s also a recipe for diminishing returns. Without background knowledge or intuition, it’s hard to know why your experiment might not be worth running.

Nevertheless, I also agree that it would be useful to know what types of unpublished studies people have done. Publishing such results would be informative for what isn’t found, and would prevent future researchers from chasing topics they maybe shouldn’t.

So, let me conclude with an “open call”…

If you’ve done a study on comics that hasn’t been published (or know someone who has!): Please contact me. At the least, I’ll feature a summary (or link) to your study on this blog, and if I accrue enough of them, perhaps I can curate a journal or article for reporting such results.

*Thanks to Emiel van Miltenburg for the post title!


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