Author dictionaries and lexical analysis for comics

Every once in a while I learn something at my day job that I think would be applicable to comics research too. For instance, in literary studies, dictionaries are compiled that contain all the words (or only the nouns, similar to an encyclopedia) used by a particular author, or even only those used in one single literary text. Think of it as a sort of commentary in a critical edition which explains references to real-world entities, or obscure words that aren’t used anymore, only separate from the source text and organised alphabetically.

Applying this method to comics, we would, of course, ignore all the images and lose the information they convey. On the other hand, looking at the words alone might yield interesting results. For instance, by comparing the frequency of words used in a particular comic to the frequency with which they occur in written language in general, we could test common hypotheses such as “author X uses word Y a lot”.

For comics of more than a few pages length, it would be nice to automatically create a list of all the words in digital form (at least those in speech/thought bubbles and captions – sound effects and inscriptions/labels can be difficult to automatically recognise). Unless a script for the comic you’re interested in is already available, a straightforward (though not necessarily easy) way to get such a list would be to obtain digital images (e.g. scans) of the pages of the comic, then run Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software on them.

As an example, consider these two panels from Akira, in which a scientist is introduced to some colleagues:

two panels from Katsuhiro Otomo's AkiraThe OCR software recognises the text in the five speech bubbles like this:

  1. 初めまして
  2. スタンリー・
  3. よろしく
  4. ジョノレジュ
  5. 初めまして

As far as I can see, only two mistakes (ノレ instead of ル and ですノ instead of です) were made. Instead of focusing on nouns (for which there probably are detecting algorithms for Japanese), it’s easier for now to just look at the kanji and filter out all hiragana and katakana characters. (While you can’t simply say that kanji represent nouns and kana represent other parts of speech, the idea here is that kanji tend to carry more semantic information than kana, which are often only used as flection suffixes.) That leaves us with the six kanji , 名, 前, 博, 士, and 初 again.

We can look up their frequency with which they occur in Japanese language in general, e.g. the frequency rank at WWWJDIC:

  • 前: 27
  • 初: 152
  • 名: 177
  • 士: 526
  • 博: 794

i.e. 前 is the most frequent of the five, 博 the least frequent. Compare these ranks to the frequency with which they occur in our slim sample of two panels:

  • : 33% of all kanji
  • 前, 名, 士, 博: 17% each

What we can see here, if anything, is that two kanji, 士 and 博, are significantly more often used by Katsuhiro Ōtomo than by the average Japanese author. This doesn’t come as a surprise, as the compound 博士 signifies the academic title ‘Dr.’, which is the appropriate form of address for the scientists in this scene, whereas the other kanji 前, 初 and 名 are linked to names and introductions in general, and thus more often used in standard Japanese.

However, even if the frequency of 士 and 博 remained above-average if we analysed all of Akira‘s over 2000 pages, that wouldn’t necessarily mean we had discovered a lexical characteristic of Ōtomo’s writing style. What it would tell us is that there is a subplot about scientists in Akira. Of course, topic analysis based on word frequency is nothing new. More interesting from a formal-lexical point of view would be if we discovered kanji used in different frequencies than we would expect with regard to the subject matter treated in Akira. In this situation it might be useful to look at synonyms: when Ōtomo had several options to express the same thing, why did he choose some words over others?

panel detail from Akira by Katsuhiro ŌtomoFor instance, on the same page as the example above, the relatively infrequent (rank 920) kanji 栄 is used as part of the word “honour” in the expression “I’m honoured to meet you”. Instead, Ōtomo could have used the phrase “nice to meet you” for a third time, using the kanji 初 again, but he didn’t. Suppose there was a significant number of further instances of 栄 in Akira, maybe that would be a formal-stylistic choice, rather than one merely implied by the content of the comic?

I’m aware that all this is very hypothetical, and that looking at just a few panels doesn’t show anything, but if I wanted to analyse a comic in this way, I would basically go on about it as described here, only with more scans. If you would like to learn more about this kind of analysis, I recommend Allen Riddell’s tutorial on “Feature selection: finding distinctive words”.

Index to “[theory] – in comics?” blog posts

Wait a minute, isn't it Women's History Month? Oh well...

Wait a minute, isn’t it Women’s History Month? Oh well…

According to the traffic statistics provided by WordPress, the series of “[theory] – in comics?” posts is one of the most popular (or rather, least unpopular) parts of this weblog. I even keep returning to them myself to remember what I read. However, I admit they’re not easy to find: even when using a tag or category, you have to scroll down a long page of posts displayed in chronological order of posting. Wouldn’t it be good to have an index in which you could see all of these posts at a glance, and in a more meaningful order? Or better still, several indices? Here you are: last name | keyword | year of publication | title | comics creator | comic title

These lists will be continuously updated.

Roland Barthes’s Rhetoric of the Image – in comics?

Already in 1964, Roland Barthes (1915-1980) published one of his best-known essays, ‘Rhétorique de l’image’¹. It is also a text that’s quite difficult to understand. Here’s what I make of it: according to Barthes, any image (except for those created by “illiterate societies”, e.g. ancient cultures) contains three messages, the linguistic, the literal (or denoted), and the symbolic (or connoted, or cultural). It should be noted that Barthes deviates from traditional communication theory by using the term ‘message’ without necessarily tying it to a sender: “the language of the image is not merely the totality of utterances emitted (for example at the level of the combiner of the signs or creator of the message), it is also the totality of utterances received: the language must include the ‘surprises’ of meaning.” Anyway, let’s look at these three messages in detail:

The linguistic message can be found “in, under, or around the image”. Such textual matter is always there, says Barthes (although I can image at least one kind of image where text may be completely absent). This linguistic message may have either (or both) of two functions: anchorage and relay. Anchorage means, the text clarifies or “fixes” the meaning of the image, which is always polysemous, by choosing some of the possible signifieds and “banishing” others. The relay function is less common and puts the text in a “complementary relationship” with the image – Barthes explicitly mentions comic strip dialogues as an example.²

The literal or denoted message consists of the objects depicted in the image, stripped of all symbolic meaning. It conveys nothing but a consciousness of the “being-there” of the represented things. (Barthes is particularly concerned with photography here, which additionally implies “an awareness of […] having-been-there” and a tension between “spatial immediacy and temporal anteriority”.) According to Barthes, little more than “anthropological knowledge” is required to recognise the objects in the image on this level, although I doubt it’s always as easy as that.

Finally, the symbolic message contains the signifieds (or ‘meanings’, colloquially speaking) of the image. In contrast to the literal message, more specialised kinds of knowledge may be required to decipher this message, but different “readings” of the same image are still legitimate. The totality of signifiers in an image, by the way, is what Barthes calls the eponymous ‘rhetoric’. It’s also noteworthy that Barthes seems to think that in some instances (e.g. advertisement photography, his principal example) we may even realise signifieds invested by the sender/creator of the image, i.e. recognise the creator’s intention (and there we have the good old sender-message-recipient model again).

Let’s see if we can read a panel from a comic in this way.

panel from Kiyohiko Azuma's Azumanga DaiohThis is the first panel of one of my favourite Azumanga Daioh (あずまんが大王) strips, by Kiyohiko Azuma. On the literal level, we can identify all the objects depicted: the face of Osaka (one of the main characters), her hair and part of her neck, and a bed with its various components. We are also able to tell the flower pattern on the blanket apart from ‘real’ flowers-as-objects. I think we’re still within the realm of the denoted message when we say: this is a sleeping girl.

Before we tackle the symbolic message (even though literal and symbolic message are perceived simultaneously, says Barthes), let’s look at the linguistic message. There is no writing in this panel, but in this case, Barthes is right when he says there’s always some writing nearby. Consider the complete four-panel strip (from the German edition published by Tokyopop):

strip from Azumanga Daioh by Kiyohiko AzumaThere is a heading above the panel and a speech bubble in the fourth panel. The heading reads “Osaka’s New Year’s dream” and tells us that rather than just watching Osaka sleep, we are about to learn what she’s dreaming of. The speech bubble says, “Chiyo, how come you’re able to fly?” Now we need to recall the knowledge of writing that is located even further away from our panel: in previous episodes, Osaka already had weird ideas about the character Chiyo and her plaits. With this knowledge in mind, we can almost guess Osaka’s dream (and indeed, in the next strip we see how Chiyo’s flapping bunches enable her to fly in Osaka’s dream). I’d say this is an example of anchorage: without the writing, the meaning of the image would be unclear.

As for the symbolic message, we need to take into account once more previous episodes, which established Osaka as a slow character who often has wondrous or naive thoughts. This strip is not funny because of the absurd idea of a flying girl – after all, such illogical ideas are common in everyone’s dreams – but because it’s such a typical thing for Osaka to think, no matter whether she’s asleep or awake. The symbolic message may well be to invoke Osaka’s characteristics in order to convey humour. In the last panel, the invoked characteristic are her weird ideas, but in the first panel, which is repeated twice almost unchanged, it’s probably Osaka’s slowness. When in a later episode the livelier character Tomo is shown dreaming her own “New Year’s dream”, one panel of her sleeping in bed is enough to indicate that the following panels show her dream.

So that was, if I got it right, a basic application of Barthes’s theory to a comic panel. A more interesting example would be a panel in which literal message and symbolic message are at odds with each other, or in which the linguistic message acts as relay rather than anchorage. I’m sure there are plenty of such examples once one starts looking.

¹ I’m using Stephen Heath’s translation, “Rhetoric of the Image”, in: Roland Barthes, Image – Music – Text, New York 1977, pp. 32-51.
² Comics Studies have later developed more elaborate systems of the relationship between scriptorial and pictorial elements in comics. See e.g. Nathalie Mälzer’s recent conference paper.

Review: When Manga Came to America

"When Manga Came to America" book coverTitle: When Manga Came to America. Super-Hero Revisionism in Mai, The Psychic Girl
Language: English
Author: Julian Darius
Year: 2014
Publisher: Sequart
Pages: 69
Price: $6.99 (US)
ISBN: 978-1-9405-8903-9

When I first heard about this book, I was looking forward to it (even though most of it had been published before as a series of blog posts), because it seemed to be about roughly the same topic as my PhD research project, or at least some aspects of it. The more other people write about it, the less I still need to write. However, When Manga Came to America turned out to be of not very much use to me, and I doubt it’s of much use to scholarly research in general.

Darius’s book is divided into three chapters, plus an Introduction (pp. 1-11). The very first sentence of this introduction is already telling: “In early 1987, Eclipse introduced American comics readers to manga with three translated series” (p. 1). This sentence tells us that the book isn’t really about the manga Mai by Kazuya Kudō and Ryōichi Ikegami per se, but rather about its American edition. Granted, the title of the book is When Manga Came to America, but it is striking that Darius doesn’t say anything at all about the original Japanese publication – even though sometimes he really should, e.g. when he critisises the narrative structure of the comic on p. 7 (which may be better explained by its original serialised magazine publication than by the three ‘acts’ Darius has made up), when he compares it to other comics published in the US at the same time on p. 41 (instead of comparing it to other manga originally created at the same time), when he talks about Mai as an example of an “extended finite” comic book series on p. 49 (thus again ignoring its original publication format), or when he says that a dialogue “simply feels off” on p. 53 (without mentioning that it’s only a translation).

It’s also noteworthy that Darius says “American comics readers” in that first sentence. Rather than considering the reception of Mai among Americans in general, including those who haven’t read comics before, Darius imagines a specific type of reader who is familiar with superhero comic books and who sees Mai in this context. (It should be noted that Darius doesn’t talk about the actual reception history of Mai - i.e. no empirical evidence is presented, such as contemporary reviews or interviews -, and probably not even his personal reception as he was only 10 years old when Mai first came out in May 1987. Instead, he speculates about what the reading experience must have been like at that time.)

The first two chapters must be read with this particular angle in mind. In the chapter “The Depiction of Super-Powers in Mai, the Psychic Girl” (pp. 12-40), Darius offers a lengthy summary of the plot of the series with an emphasis on its supernatural, psychic elements in comparison to superpowers in standard American superhero comic books. While doing so, Darius dishes out his subjective, ungrounded opinions, e.g. “there’s no doubt that the third act is rushed” (p. 30).

The second chapter, “Mai, the Psychic Girl and Revisionism” (pp. 41-49), is much shorter and examines Mai in the context of superhero comics of the late 80s, above all Alan Moore’s Marvelman/Miracleman. Again, I find this comparison somewhat pointless without considering the original publication, as the American readers must have been well aware that Mai was a Japanese comic. Darius makes quite a bold statement again when he says, “Mai was published in English at the height of the revisionism, and it couldn’t help but be understood in this context, even if this wasn’t the context in which Mai had been created in Japan” (p. 41).

In the third chapter, “Sexuality in Mai, the Psychic Girl” (pp. 50-66), Darius thankfully does away with the superhero comparisons. He identifies several scenes with nudity or other sexual content and comes to the conclusion that Mai, even though it “is pretty restrained” (p. 63), is really “a story of sexual self-discovery” (p. 65), and “a story in which this [Mai’s psychic abilities] is linked to sexual maturity” (p. 58). This looks to me as if Darius misses the mark and over-interprets the story in a desperate attempt to make sense of the occasional suggestive imagery (which definitely feels out of place in this comic). The question is indeed “whether Mai is entirely of good taste” (p. 63). This chapter gets more awkward the further Darius digresses from the comic, saying things like “breasts, in particular, are a traditional symbol of nature’s bounty” (p. 61), or “healthy male brains often find girls attractive at around the age that girls become capable of reproduction” (p. 62). (Why male, by the way? What about female readers?) This excursus on paedophilia, by the way, contains the only footnote reference in the whole book. I’m not saying a text without formal literature references can’t have any scholarly merit, but it is certainly indicative.

It’s not as if When Manga Came to America wasn’t worth your time or your money, as it is both short and affordable. The reason why I’m reviewing it at all is connected to a larger issue within Comics Studies, as well as within Humanities as a whole: there is a widespread attitude that a researcher may choose which secondary literature to read and cite, and which to ignore – unlike in the Sciences, where it is usually clear which literature needs to be cited in a text on a specific topic. I’ve always felt the Humanities could and should do better in this regard. Therefore, I’d like to suggest how to deal with Darius’s book in a scholarly context, because it is a piece of secondary literature that isn’t easily defined as either a scholarly book or a journalistic review. Its merits notwithstanding, in my opinion, this book may be safely ignored in scholarly discourse, at least as a secondary source alongside proper scholarly texts. Of course, the author probably never intended it as a contribution to scholarly discourse in the first place. And who knows, When Manga Came to America may still serve as an entertaining book for fans who can’t stop thinking about Mai, the Psychic Girl, and who appreciate the opinions of another well-read fan.

Rating: ● ○ ○ ○ ○

Akira Lego

Already in October/November last year, on the occasion of Designer Con in Pasadena, California, some people re-created comic book covers with Lego bricks and put pictures of them online, mostly on Flickr in the group Comic Bricks! and/or using the tag “comicbricks” (Nerdist and several other websites reported). Some of these pictures are fascinating in the way in which a three-dimensional object was extrapolated from a two-dimensional cover, e.g. the iconic “Demon in a Bottle” Iron Man cover.

The most interesting Lego cover from my perspective is, of course, the only one in that Flickr photo pool that is based on a manga cover: Akira #31. Its mere existence among otherwise American comics is remarkable. Then again, an issue from the old, coloured, 38-part Epic Comics edition was used, which was more like a US comic book than the later black-and-white collected volumes.

detail of Akira #31 photograph by Tommy Williamson

The creator of this Lego cover retained the abstract elements of the cover and interpreted them as a sort of window frame through which we see Kaneda and Kai riding the ‘caretaker’ robot. In contrast to the original cover, though, one leg of the robot extends through this frame in the front, while another robot leg can be seen extending to the right behind the frame (and also parts of the wall in the background to both sides), making for an imaginative compromise between 2-D and 3-D elements which, as far as I’ve seen, hasn’t been tried in any of the other Comic Bricks covers.

Manga in #fourcomics

screenshot of Scott Snyder's #fourcomics Twitter postA week ago, Twitter users started posting cover images (or sometimes interior pages/panels) of “four comics that influenced you when you were growing up” (Jim Zub’s original wording). The Beat posted a summary of participating comic creators. Most of them are middle-aged Americans, so I wondered if they had selected any manga at all. And indeed they had:

  1. Akira (Scott Snyder, Jim Demonakos)
  2. Battle Angel Alita (Jake Parker, Jennifer de Guzman)
  3. Appleseed (Brandon Graham)
  4. Blade of the Immortal (Becky Cloonan)
  5. Children of the Sea (Sarah Horrocks)
  6. Jing: King of Bandits (Zachary Clemente)
  7. Ranma 1/2 (Becky Cloonan)
  8. Sand Land (Zachary Clemente)

Clearly, some people interpreted the challenge differently and chose comics that they must have read as adults. Interestingly, while Akira was chosen twice, no one chose Lone Wolf and Cub. Then again, the selection of comics creators (32 people) in this The Beat blogpost is quite limited. Unfortunately, most Twitter users posted only images and not the titles as text, so it’s not feasible to automatically compile them into a list.

30 day comic challenge, days 29 + 30

A little bit delayed, but here are the final items on the list:

Detail from Azumanga Daioh by Kiyohiko AzumaDay 29  – A song comic currently stuck in your head

Now that I’ve seen part of the adorable anime series, I keep wondering what Kiyohiko Azuma’s manga Azumanga Daioh looks like (or, generally, how a yon-koma (4-panel strip) manga can be adapted into a continuous anime at all). This might be the next comic I’ll buy.


cover detail from a Les petits hommes album by Pierre SeronDay 30  – A song comic that you haven’t listened to read in awhile

As a child I read a lot of Franco-Belgian humorous adventure comics, many of which I only borrowed from the library instead of buying them (or having them bought for me). One of these series was Les petits hommes by Pierre Seron. I vaguely remember that it wasn’t that great, but apparently there are many more albums in this series than I’ve actually read. Maybe I should give it a second chance.

And that’s it. I almost managed to finish this ’30 day comic challenge’ in time. Looking back, I realise that this format has some issues, mainly because some of the items on the original “30 day song challenge” list don’t translate well into comics. Furthermore, the list items would be more interesting if they weren’t so personal – “a song that reminds you …”, “a song that makes you …” – because you can’t really argue about these things. Instead, I would have preferred less subjective and more absolute statements, e.g. “the longest song/comic you know”, or “the song/comic that best represents globalisation” (or what have you), “the song/comic with the most unexpected twist”, etc. Who knows, I might create my own “30 day comics challenge” one day.


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