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The visual linguistics of a comic book page
People who read the English written word scan text from left to right. Once our eyes hit the end of the page, we stop. Then ding!, like an old-time typewriter, our eyes shift downward and snap back to the left to start reading the next line. This is known as a “Z-path,” as our eyes whip about like the end of Zorro’s sword.
But that linear track gets derailed in comics with complex layouts and Cohn wanted to know if experienced readers had strategies to follow along.
Cohn rustled up 145 participants at the 2004 Comic-Con International, a comic book convention held in San Diego. Participants had varying experience with reading comics, ranging from “never” to “often.”
Each participant was given a booklet containing 12 pages of blank panels. Each page was independent of the rest and used different design techniques.
I met Neil Cohn outside of the old Comic Relief; Rory Root introduced us. Neil had literally just come from getting his monograph EARLY WRITINGS ON VISUAL LANGUAGE back from the printer. He gave Rory and I a copy each — we spoke on the street for a few minutes and I walked away with a head full of stars. That book, along with Ben Saunders’, Charles Hatfield’s Kirby book, and a few others I’m sure I could think up if I paused to stop typing long enough, are must have, must read, must learns if you’re a comics-obsessed, form-and-function-obsessed, process-obsessed maniac like me. That he’s continued to explore the way we read comics — and writes about it on his blog — delights me to no end. He has no reason to remember the meeting, but it was one of those chance street encounters that changed my life.
Thanks, Neil. And, once again — thanks, Rory.
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