Tracing back the visual language of comics
UCSD Psychologist and comics enthusiast Neil Cohn believes cartoons have a sophisticated language all their own and a heritage that goes back to cave art.
The drive to tell stories with pictures certainly has deep roots. Stone age paintings in places such as the Chauvet cave in France seem to show scenes of galloping horses and pouncing lions, using techniques that would be familiar to graphic artists today. More advanced picture narratives appeared in works such as the Bayeux tapestry and Paupers’ Bibles. In some indigenous Australian cultures, sand drawings are used as a regular part of discourse; in fact, drawing is so entwined with speech in the language of these cultures that you can’t be considered fluent if you don’t know the appropriate pictures.
Cohn carefully dismantles the language of comics in his new book The Visual Language of Comics. He is passionate about the way his ideas about visual language could influence art education. He points out that children naturally absorb language through imitation and mimicry. But that’s not how we are taught art, where individuality is championed. “Our culture is suppressing the biological desires for imitation.” The result is that we never learn a fluent visual vocabulary, except a few simple symbols, such as stick men.
A better approach, he says, would be to tap into children’s innate language instinct by actively encouraging them to mimic others’ drawing. He speaks from experience: from the age of eight, he obsessively copied figures from Disney until he was fluent in every aspect of Mickey Mouse’s world. “I was obsessed,” he says. “By third grade I was teaching my class to draw them.”
How the visual language of comics could have its roots in the ice age →