Neil Cohn’s love of comic strips began in his family’s attic. In one of his earliest memories, he recalls his dad climbing the stairs and pulling down a box of 1960s Batman and Superman books that he had stashed away from his own childhood. To Cohn’s four-year-old self, it was as if they’d been imported from a strange and foreign place. “They had this kind of mystery to them,” he says. Instantly he was hooked.
It was not long before he became a compulsive comic artist himself; in his teens he even started his own mail-order comic company. As he set about his creations, he would often wonder how the brain makes the huge cognitive leap to piece together a story from the fragmentary, stylised pictures on his drawing board.
Now a psychologist at the University of California, San Diego, Neil Cohn is finally getting the chance to answer that question, as he carefully dismantles comic strips such as Peanuts. His theory, presented in The Visual Language of Comics (Bloomsbury) next month, is provocative. At a neural level, he says, the pictures of comic strips are processed as another form of language, with their own vocabulary, grammar and syntax.
“Human beings only have three ways to convey our thoughts,” he explains. “We create sounds using our mouths; we can move our bodies with hands and faces; and we can draw things… My idea is that whenever these meaning-making channels get structured in a coherent sequence, then you end up with a type of language.” If he is right, the hidden logic of cartoon panels could provide new vistas on art, language and creative development.
Cohn’s theory builds on a growing acceptance that the brain’s language toolkit is a kind of Swiss army knife for many different kinds of expression, such as music or dance. In some ways the ties with art should be stronger, however – since, unlike music, pictures encode a definite meaning. “Drawing has always been about communication – to express an idea in your head to other people,” says Cohn.
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.
Read more: The Guardian