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”.

Top 10 words from Frederik L. Schodt

Cover of Frederik L. Schodt's Dreamland JapanOut of the many authors who publish on comics, Frederik L. Schodt is one of the few with a truly distinct writing style – neither academic nor fannish, neither highbrow nor colloquial, his writings are full of rather obscure words, some of which I have never seen anywhere else. Recently I re-read the beginning of his book Dreamland Japan, and while doing so, just for fun,* assembled this list of my favourite eccentric words therein and their meanings (as far as I could find out):

to accord – p. 19: “Japan is the first nation in the world to accord ‘comic books’ […] nearly the same social status as novels and films.” – to grant, to give.

bone-crushing – p. 28: “Yet along with this celebration of the ordinary is the bone-crushing reality that the vast majority of manga border on trash.” – back-breaking, depressing (cf. German: ‘erdrückend’).

hari-kari – p. 11: “in due time both words [manga and anime] will undoubtedly be listed in the standard English dictionary along with other Japanese imports like ‘hari-kari’ and ‘karaoke.'” – variant of harakiri (ritual suicide).

finicky – p. 13: “In Japan, people’s names are usually listed with the family name first and the given name last. Certain academic types in the English-speaking world are rather finicky about this convention and insist on preserving it even in English texts” – difficult to please, demanding.

to flounder – p. 34: “Japanese people have floundered about trying to the right term to describe the sequential picture-panels that tell a story.” – to struggle.

full-figured – p. 26: “Japanese manga offer far more visual diversity than mainstream American comics, which […] still reveal an obsession with muscled males and full-figured females” – according to Wiktionary, ‘full-figured’ means ‘fat’ or ‘plump’, but here it’s probably used in the sense of ‘curvaceous’ or ‘voluptuous’.

persnickety – p. 14: “Fans of Japanese manga (even more than academics) can be a rather persnickety and unforgiving lot” – see finicky.

profuse – p. 15: “Profuse thanks are offered to all who helped.” – plenty, abundant.

raga-like – p. 14: “[…] with raga-like stories that may continue for thousands of pages” – maybe Schodt means, ‘as lengthy as an Indian epic (raga)’?

satori-like – p. 21: “his face lit up in a satori-like realization” – (Buddhist) enlightenment.

* On the other hand, this little exercise can also be seen as a tentative reflection on the serious topic of academic writing style and the way in which we, as scholars, communicate our findings.

Heinrich Wölfflin’s plane and recession – in comics?

Welcome to the second installment of what might become a series of blogposts on classical theories in art history and their relation to comics. Twenty years after Franz Wickhoff’s Wiener Genesis, Heinrich Wölfflin published his seminal book Principles of Art History (Kunstgeschichtliche Grundbegriffe, München 1915), in which he introduced five pairs of terms with which the formal differences between Renaissance and Baroque style can be described.


Let’s focus on one of these pairs, plane and recession (“Fläche und Tiefe”), which achieved additional notoriety through the excerpt reprinted in the textbook Methoden-Reader Kunstgeschichte. According to Wölfflin, Renaissance painting is characterised by planar composition in layers parallel to the picture surface, whereas in Baroque painting, the depth of the pictorial space is emphasised. In order to find other whether these different modes of composition can be found in comics, I’ll now turn to two more or less randomly selected examples from titles I had been reading lately.

Page 7 of chapter 26 (in volume 6) of Tsutomu Nihei’s シドニアの騎士 / Shidonia no Kishi (Knights of Sidonia) consists of four panels, each of them an example of planar composition. In the first panel (in “Japanese” reading direction from right to left), the space ship crew members are arranged in a row nearly parallel to the picture surface, which only slightly recedes to the right. Panels 2 and 3 show computer screens, the first one being tilted sideways but still, again, parallel to the picture surface (the English lettering is somewhat misleading). Finally, in the last panel of the page, the figure is almost exactly frontally orientated towards the picture surface, while the background is largely undefined.


In contrast, .hack//黄昏の腕輪伝説 / Tasogare no udewa densetsu (.hack//Legend of the Twilight) by Rei Izumi and Tatsuya Hamazaki employs quite a different style, for instance in the first three panels on page 2 of chapter 7 (in volume 2). In the first panel, the ground is tilted towards us, so that we look down on the wolf at an angle, which allows us to perceive the wolf and the space in which it is placed as three-dimensional. In the second panel, the four characters are arranged in three tiers, receding from left to right so that we are pulled into the depth of the pictorial space. Likewise, in the third panel, we look onto and over the wolf’s head and follow its gaze towards the character Mireiyu, thus experiencing once more a pull diagonally into the picture.

What do the differences between those two examples tell us? I wouldn’t go as far as saying that Nihei’s personal style is planar, while Izumi generally favours recession. In fact, even within these two volumes, both compositional modes can be found. What we can see, though, is that plane and recession fulfil different tasks: planar compositions are useful to convey information to the reader, whereas recession puts the reader into the midst of interactions between characters. I still think Wölfflin’s principles are useful for stylistic analyses of comics, but the samples would have to be much larger.