Neil Cohn has developed a detailed and original theory for a new domain of cognitive science research (including cross-cultural investigation); mounted an extensive experimental program testing the theory; made meaningful connections to other domains such as linguistic theory, psycholinguistics, and experimental work on verbal narrative – an exceptional record for a researcher only seven years out of graduate school.
Cohn’s basic questions are how readers conceptualize drawings, and how they unify a sequence of individual wordless cartoon panels (comics and other sequential images) into a narrative. A gifted cartoonist himself, he approaches these questions through the methods of theoretical linguistics and psycho/neurolinguistics. He explores numerous aspects of narrative structure and their contribution to the reader’s understanding, many of which have parallels to verbal and film narrative. He proposes that narrative structure has a basic “Arc,” built around four constituents: “Establishers” set the scene; “Initials” mark an action’s onset; “Peaks” mark its culmination; and “Releases” mark its aftermath. Moreover, these four basic constituents can each be elaborated as a subordinate Arc. Hence narrative structures are potentially recursive, enabling them to be expanded to arbitrarily large size and complexity.
Crucially, the grammar of individual panels goes well beyond iconicity. Comics also make use of conventionalized symbolic devices such as thought bubbles, speed lines (representing motion), and light bulbs above a character’s head. Moreover, many of the connections between panels must be inferred by the reader. Cohn compares the construction of panels in Japanese and American comics, as well as the semiotics of Australian aboriginal sand drawings, which convey information quite differently from more familiar visual depictions.
Cohn’s experimental work tests the psychological validity of his theoretical constructs. His techniques include subjects creating a narrative from individual panels, subjects’ timing in recognizing a probe panel, timing in self-paced reading, eye-tracking, EEG/ERPs, and more. The experimental results in large part parallel comparable results with language, suggesting that Cohn’s theoretical analysis reveals genuine structure in readers’ comprehension of sequential images.
According to Ray Jackendoff, Cohn is the most original and enterprising student he worked with. Since receiving his Ph.D., he has more than fulfilled the promise he showed then, more or less single-handedly inventing a new and important subfield of cognitive science.
Neil Cohn is the author of “The Visual Language of Comics,” which presents his approach in layman’s terms. It is regarded as ground-breaking not only by cognitive scientists, but by comics scholars and comics creators. He is a presence at the huge annual meetings of Comic-Con International, giving talks and taking part in panels. He has been frequently interviewed or mentioned in such venues as BBC Radio 4, Atlantic Monthly, The Japan Times, Sputnik Radio, Der Spiegel, Discover, WGBH, and Slate. He has made many presentations to the general public on the science of sequential images, including on drawing and learning to draw, and on effective graphic communication. He has been a consultant to the BBC News Labs, Microsoft, CAST, Inc., and LingoZING! on the creation of news comics and the use of comics in education. Most recently, he has become involved in research on how individuals with autism spectrum process visual images. I am sure that coupling cognitive science with a subject matter as popular as comics has brought the science a good deal of attention, especially when done with the energy, spark, and humor of Cohn’s presentations.