How to Analyze Comics Cognitively
The first Sunday installment of Milton Caniff’s Steve Canyon series (1947– 88) presents readers with a formidable density of narrative information: from patterns of black and white on the page, readers can construct an entire story. They identify characters, understand what motivates them and how they relate to each other, and connect their actions and words into a narrative. How does this process work? And how can we harness insights into the cognitive processes involved when reading comics for analyzing them? Milton Caniff, one of the comics authors who set the standards for storytelling in the medium in the 1930s and 1940s, will be our guide as I propose to outline how to analyze comics storytelling cognitively.
Caniff’s Steve Canyon has performed this service before in Umberto Eco’s article “A Reading of Steve Canyon” (1976). Eco is interested in the same questions as I am (how do we make meaning from the black and white patterns on the page?), but he arrives at a very different set of answers from the ones I am going to propose. Eco looks for codes, that is, conventionalized signs that we can read because we know, from our cultural context, what they mean. I look for clues, that is, elements on the page that prompt readers to draw particular inferences which, in turn, can be based on our cultural knowledge or psychological capacities. Eco focuses on how this comic (primarily) reproduces and modifies cultural conventions to tell its story. I propose to focus (primarily) on how it engages readers’ everyday cognitive capacities for making sense of the world. On Eco’s semiotic account, comics form a system of signification in which readers need to be competent. On my cognitive account, comics dynamically play into our cognitive predilections and put them to particular narrative and literary use.
By shifting the emphasis from culturally defined codes to cognitive clues and inferences, I do not mean to discount the importance of cultural contexts and textual traditions. Rather, I propose developing an ac