The Visual Language of Comics

The Visual Language of Comics

Introduction to the Structure and Cognition of Sequential Images

Drawings and sequential images are an integral part of human expression dating back at least as far as cave paintings, and in contemporary society appear most prominently in comics. Despite this fundamental part of human identity, little work has explored the comprehension and cognitive underpinnings of visual narratives—until now. 

This work presents a provocative theory: that drawings and sequential images are structured the same as language. Building on contemporary theories from linguistics and cognitive psychology, it argues that comics are written in a visual language of sequential images that combines with text. Like spoken and signed languages, visual narratives use a lexicon of systematic patterns stored in memory, strategies for combining these patterns into meaningful units, and a hierarchic grammar governing the combination of sequential images into coherent expressions. Filled with examples and illustrations, this book details each of these levels of structure, explains how cross-cultural differences arise in diverse visual languages of the world, and describes what the newest neuroscience research reveals about the brain’s comprehension of visual narratives. From this emerges the foundation for a new line of research within the linguistic and cognitive sciences, raising intriguing questions about the connections between language and the diversity of humans’ expressive behaviours in the mind and brain.

ISBN: 9781441181459

2013 / 224 pages 

Japanese edition available with translation by Jun Nakazawa.

“A new area of manga theory based on cognitive science and linguistics! Shaking in the power of cartoonist and researcher Neil Cohn. How does the Japanese manga research community take it?” 
–Fusanosuke Natsume (manga columnist)

Praise for The Visual Language of Comics

Comic Creators…

“Neil Cohn is diving deeper into comics & the brain than anyone I know now.”
– Scott McCloud, author Understanding Comics

“Neil Cohn thinks about the comics medium and visual literacy on very deep and enlightening levels. In The Visual Language of Comics, Cohn shares his research and insights on how the mind works when processing sequential visuals. It’s fascinating reading for anyone interested in visual communication.”
– Carl Potts, Former Executive Editor, Marvel Comics and Author of The DC Comics Guide to Creating Comics: Inside the Art of Visual Storytelling

“Neil Cohn introduces a new and rigorous set of tools for discussing comics and visual narrative that will influence practitioners as well as academics. His arguments confirm many intuitions of cartoonists about the way comics work while at the same time deflating numerous others. I believe it will significantly enrich the discourse in this still-developing area of study.” 
– Matt Madden, author of 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style and co-author with Jessica Abel of the textbooks Drawing Words & Writing Pictures and Mastering Comics

Cognitive Scientists…

“In this pioneering book, Neil Cohn opens up a whole new domain of cognitive science: the study of how we derive meaning from sequential images.While borrowing much of his approach from theoretical linguistics and psycholinguistics, Cohn is careful to let the character of the phenomena speak for themselves, appealing to a rich and fascinating selection of examples from a wide range of graphic traditions.His results illuminate the parallels and sharpen the differences among different human cognitive systems.” 
– Ray Jackendoff, Seth Merrin Professor of Philosophy and Co-Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies, Tufts University, USA

“After reading this book you’ll never look at comics the same way, and your view of language will be broadened as well. Neil Cohn is a linguist, a cognitive psychologist, and a graphic artist. In this pathbreaking book he brings his diverse skills together to explore and reveal underlying structures of visual language. Careful study of visual narrative in several cultures shows that comics are beautifully patterned and generative, comparable to language and music. Cohn elaborates what he calls the “visual-graphic modality of language,” pointing to a wealth of research possibilities in cognitive neurology, psycholinguistics, and cultural anthropology.” 
– Dan I. Slobin, Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Linguistics, University of California, Berkeley, USA

Comics Scholars…

“Neil Cohn’s The Visual Language of Comics is a smart, carefully organized, and exceptionally well-argued work of comics scholarship. I suspect it will become one of a very small number of truly crucial texts in the burgeoning field of comics studies. The book provides an original yet persuasive account of the relationship of comics and language and introduces key terms and conceptual distinctions that are likely to become part of the common sense of comics analysis and criticism. It also explores the ways in which comics have been used as tools of communication and self-expression across a variety of cultural contexts. Over the past decade Neil Cohn has published a number of important research articles on comics that make use of his training in linguistics, psychology, and neuroscience. The Visual Language of Comics builds on this interdisciplinary scholarship but it also offers new insights and opens up new avenues of inquiry. Recommended for anyone with an interest in comics, language, and what Richard Gregory calls ‘the eye-brain system.’” 
– Kent Worcester, Professor of Political Science, Marymount Manhattan College, USA

“Being able to tell stories with images is an important and perhaps unique human ability. Neil Cohn has done us all a favor, by analyzing how we can use a visual language theory to analyze comics and other forms of graphic communication; to think deeply about language and the mind. His years of deep thinking, and research, show in this new and provocative book” 
– Frederik L. Schodt is an award-winning writer and translator, whose books on Japanese manga helped trigger their current popularity abroad

“Combining expertise in psychology and linguistics with skills in draftsmanship, Cohn explores the analogies between comics and verbal language with exciting results. By unveiling patterns in all stylistic dimensions of comics’ visuals, this book is not just indispensable reading for comics scholars, but also constitutes a major contribution to the discipline of visual studies more generally.” 
– Charles Forceville, Associate Professor, Department of Media Studies, University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands, editor Multimodal Metaphor

“This book offers more than the title implies, transcending The Visual Language of Comics to reveal the structural, rule governed system that constitutes the visual language used in many forms of contemporary communication. One of the most interesting aspects of Cohn’s work is his exploration of the lexicon and grammar of visual language as employed in “dialects” that vary across cultures. Cohn’s arguments are rigorous, but clearly, even entertainingly, supported with scores of visual examples and explanations.” 
– Randy Duncan, Professor of Communication & Theatre Arts, Henderson State University, USA, and author of The Power of Comics


The Visual Language of Comics… makes a perfect candidate for a primary textbook on any course which aims at approaching the study of comics from a cognitive perspective…which seems to be equally useful to both a layman and a comic scholar…Almost every chapter can serve as a stepping stone towards a comprehensive approach that would account for a variety of visual traditions and the underlying cognitive mechanisms.”
– Dušan Stamenković, FACTA UNIVERSITATIS, Series: Linguistics and Literature, Vol. 12, No 1, 2014, 

“Neil Cohn’s The Visual Language of Comics (2013) is a provocative and readable work, making interesting inroads into the study of comics through the perspective of linguistics…The broad scope and the highly generative nature of the work Cohn outlines here is generous and ambitious, and it is clear that this book represents the inception of a project with a productive and provocative future.”
– Paul Fisher Davies, Studies in Comics, Vol 5, No 1, 2014

“[Neil Cohn’s] theory, presented in The Visual Language of Comics, is provocative. If he is right, the hidden logic of cartoon panels could provide new vistas on art, language and creative development.” 
– David Robson, The Guardian, Nov. 23, 2013

“Neil Cohn has developed his concept of a visual language by applying psycholinguistic principles to the cognition of comics. His latest monograph, The Visual Language of Comics, collects much of his comics-related scholarship from the past decade… Cohn’s main ambition is to address the cognition of sequential images using linguistics as a theoretical and methodological framework…[and] exhibits a dogged quest for rigour that gives this book an authoritative tone. Perhaps the biggest question the book asks is one that demands consideration by any current or future researcher: ‘why should the brain create several unique and diverse ways to handle different behaviours when it can efficiently make use of various general underlying structures’? Those with the desire to answer, either in corroboration or to the contrary, will find this book a thoughtful and useful companion to their studies.”
– Anthony Farthing, The Comics Grid, Vol 4, No 1, 2014 

Other books about Visual Language and Multimodality

The Patterns of Comics
Who Understands Comics? Book
The Visual Narrative Reader
Early Writings on Visual Language