C. Augmenting Meaning: Images and Words

    The next stage of refinement concerns the graphic relationships of images and words. As previously noted by Bowman, graphics has benefited from developments in a number of independent disciplines, referring to and creating different visual experiences, acting as different sources of principles and values for designing more articulate forms. Kuchka graphics is an example of this in that it draws upon the creative process and art-forms of the broadsheet cartoon and strip comics, and the rediscovered principles of Maya graphic exposition (following McCloud 1993, Tedlock 1996). This is particularly true of our philosophy of the nature of the interaction of images and words. It also includes our understanding of how the mind processes the language of graphics, the idiom of the panels, and the psychology of perception and closure when we read a graphic figure or model. Scott McCloud’s 1993 treatise Understanding Comics:The Invisible Art is used here to augment the meaning of graphics introduced by Bowman (1968). But first, a brief introduction to some Mayan principles of total graphic communication.

Contributions from the Maya

From Dennis Tedlock's (1985:27-28) introductory remarks to the Popul Vuh we learn that the pre-Columbian hieroglyphic books of the Maya (which were all but completely destroyed by colonizing European Christians)

…combined writing (including signs meant to be read phonetically) and pictures. In Mayan languages the terms for writing and painting were and are the same, the same artisans practiced both skills, and the patron deities of both skills were twin monkey gods bearing two different names for the same day, translatable as One Monkey and One Artisan. In the books made under the patronage of these twin gods there is a dialectical relationship between the writing and the pictures [emphasis added]: the writing not only records words but sometimes offers pictorial clues to its meaning. As for the pictures, they not only depict what they mean but have elements that can be read as words. (pp. 27-28)     The writing of words in ancient Mayan books was done by means of a script that combines logographic and phonetic principles. Logographic signs… stand for entire words and sometimes carry pictorial clues to their meaning… (p. 28)


Figure MB.

Figure MB. Page from the Maya hieroglyphic book known as the Dresden Codex, dating from the fifteenth century CE. The left-hand column describes the movements of Venus during one of five different types of cycles reconvened for that planet. The right-hand column describes the auguries for the cycle and gives both pictures and names for the attendant deities. [Caption from Tedlock 1996, p.25.]

    Tedlock's introduction includes a page from the Mayan hieroglyphic book known as The Dresden Codex (see Figure MB). Its device of the dual columns, separate but related text on the left and right side of the page, is seen in Derrida’s post-modern word-book Glas, five centuries later. For the Kuchka, the Mayan script inspires a richer relationship between images and words.  

Synergism of Images and Words

When we design a mixture of images and words our aim is to create something that is more than a hybrid. The relative dominance of either the images or the words is not as important as their interdependence, their ability to work together to achieve an effect, to convey an idea, that neither is capable of, or could convey, alone. If we get it right this is a synergism emergent from the dialectical relationship between the written word and the pictorial imagery.

The Idiom of the Panels

McCloud acknowledges the genevan Rodolphe Töpffer (1799-1846) as the father of the modern comic. In the second quarter of the 1800s Töpffer created whimsical, satiric, well-developed picture stories employing the popular medium of cartooning, the centuries old technique of panel borders, and the interdependent combination of pictures and words.1 In modern comics we commonly see word panels in the traditional form of boxes and balloons. In Töpffer’s work the words usually appeared below each cartoon, as a running commentary or caption, within formal panel borders, a graphic technique seen in pictorial social commentaries in Europe from the late Middle Ages onwards. Nowadays we are also familiar with the Late Modern graphic practice of words floating above, below, adjacent to, and inside images. Their panel borders are implicit, invisible, achieved by virtue of their content and unique form-character as elements, and by the manner of their placement with respect to the other figurative forms. Each block of words, whether it is a label, caption, or set of notes, appears to occupy a place of its own. Bowman (p. 54) notes that effective placement is achieved through alignment, proximity, separate reference, centering, and conformity. The same design techniques, modes of visual phrasing, use of multi-plane space and perspective, allow a number of image panels with invisible borders to be integrated into a coherent whole, without the requirement of a linear narrative or a sequential time line. The graphic design model can also employ the principle of a hierarchy of panels, panels within panels.2     Figure CM illustrates some of the idioms of panels. Some of the word enclosures have borders and some do not. The master word panel is the caption Censorship Moiety; its borders are invisible but known to include the entire figure. We perceive this, in part, because of its central overarching placement, and the empty white plane space of the imaginal margin or surround. The figure as a whole is divided into two panels, The Self and The Other. These two main panels share the centralized source of focally dominant Paranoia and propaganda. The left panel, The Self, has an upper and a lower subpanel, Voluntary and Involuntary (with self censorship implied), respectively. These subpanels are joined at the secondary focal hub of the resulting Self Censorship coffin. The right half of the moiety, The Other, has a dual focal field, the Censored Book (unlabeled) and the Power subsystem (a strong-box word panel). At the top of The Other imagery we see an institutional secondary-level panel made up of the Censorship Authority and the architecturally joined storage icon of Taboo. More than one sequence of readings is possible (and encouraged) within and between the various panels. Also, more than one level of meaning is implicated in the relations expressed by the flow pathways connecting elements directly, and indirectly, via ambient space, in the main and lower level panels.

Figure CM.

Figure CM. Censorship Moiety. Kuchka nd, unpublished.

    What are the visual principles that aid in our design of panels without visible borders, and yet create hierarchies of meaning?  

Gestalt, Visual Closure, and Panel-to-Panel Transitions

In the 20th Century CE, Gestalt psychology addressed the question of how is it that we visually perceive a whole when what we see are arrays of parts. The Gestalt perceptual Grouping Laws are a description and partial explanation for this ability to visually organize parts into wholes. The five visual grouping laws that are of direct consequence here are summarized in Box GG.

Box GG.

    A broader completion principle, beyond Gestalt, is discussed by McCloud (1993) in his chapter “Blood in the Gutter.” Not only do we complete the meanings of images by supplying missing lines and words, we rely upon the application of many forms of mental closure to make sense of a fragmented and incomplete sensory world. We will follow McCloud’s usage of closure for the phenomenon of observing the parts but perceiving the whole. As he notes, in an incomplete world we depend upon closure for our very survival.     McCloud agrees that comics are a medium of visual communication where the audience is a willing collaborator and closure is the agent of change, time and motion. In the graphic language of comics, the space between two sequential panels in a narrative is referred to as the gutter. The gutter is where the magic in the art of comics takes place. It is in the gutter that human imagination takes two separate figures and transforms them into a single idea. Nothing is depicted between the two panels but experience tells us something has happened in the space and time represented there. As McCloud states it, “If visual iconography is the vocabulary of comics, closure is its grammar” (p. 67). Closure in the gutter is central to our understanding of comics as an invisible art.     There are numerous aspects of the design craft of comics that are important for the development of Kuchka graphic language. Panel-to-panel transitions are at the heart of it. McCloud (1993) recognizes six common categories of panel transitions, and illustrates their use in comic book storytelling. Box PP summarizes these six types of panel transitions. Of the six, subject-to-subject, aspect-to aspect, and action-to-action are arguably the common panel transitions in technical and scientific graphics. Action-to-action, subject-to-subject, and scene-to-scene are the most common panel transitions in mainstream American, European, and (except for the last) Japanese comics. The third partner in mainstream Japanese comics is aspect-to-aspect. Moment-to-moment transitions also figure significantly in the longer, slower mood building, Japanese comics.

Box PP.

    McCloud primarily discusses the modern comic panel as seen in the post-Töpffer comic strip or comic book era. Typically a few to several of these panels are used to create a larger meta-panel marked by page and chapter layout. The chapters are commonly aspect-to-aspect transitions and closure provides an increasingly holistic view of the subject matter. This hierarchy of panels goes mostly unnoticed, it seems so natural.

Figure PMC.

Figure PMC. PoMo Carpentry. Cartoonist unknown: unfortunately the name/identity of this cartoonist remains unknown to the Kuchka. Perhaps a reader can help us out here.

    Transitions between word and picture panels are an additional rich field for the practice of closure. Figure PMC, PoMo Carpentry, exemplifies some of this type of closure. If we view the image panel alone, before we read the caption panel, we may see it as incongruous. Then we read the caption panel. We conceptually bring them together in the gutter between, and there we create a closure of twisted irony, and acknowledge that we have a satirical commentary. We may go on from there to agree, disagree, or suspend judgment on the veracity of the gutteral commentary. Closure of the type experienced in these two panels is akin to syncretism: the viewer creates a fusion or reconciliation of two different meanings. Because the image is recurrently dominant, the figure-of-thought is crude sarcasm. The viewer unwittingly creates the propaganda. The broader implicative is cosmic irony. The young man is fated. The gods of post-modernity are jocose.

Figure MC1.

Figure MC1. Mandala of Creativity. Free-hand graphic combining Kuchka versions of de Bono’s green and blue thinking hats in order to depict the divergent (green hat-like), and convergent (blue-hat-like) duality of individual creative thought. See Box 6H for de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats idiom. This Mandala of Creativity (MC1) also reflects elements of the phenomenology of imagining, critical thinking, and a minimalist epistemological hierarchy.

    Figure MC1 ‘Mandala of Creativity’ provides examples of picture and word panel hierarchy. It is a conceptual model of the individual’s role in creativity that draws upon Edward de Bono’s (1990a,b) program of lateral thinking and his idiom of the six thinking hats (Box 6H), in order to depict the divergent-convergent duality of creative thought. Kuchka conceptual representations of two of the hats are employed: one, the green hat, i.e., lateral thinking; two, the blue hat, i.e., the executive function represented by the flight control tower. This duality reflects the meaning of the concept of creativity in the West. To be creative means to show imagination as well as routine skill. From the time of the Renaissance we see this sense of the term in the English language (OED). When we see craft skills and imagination brought together in action we use the term ‘creativity’ to describe and acknowledge this process.

Box 6Ha.Box 6Hb.

    The duality of the Creativity Mandala expresses both the control ability and spontaneous dimensions of imagining (Casey 1976, 2003). The spontaneous dimension is represented in the panel of PO: po is the opposite of no, a provocative pattern of thought and the movement of ideas are its goals. Spontaneous: the content of this type of imagining arises instantaneously, without conscious effort, unsolicited in detail. We are mildly surprised at what happens. We suspend disbelief when we invoke the “sheer supposal,” the pure possibility posited for its own sake and not for the sake of anything external to imagining. The original meaning of brainstorming was that of temporary insanity. This is autonomous imagining. There are a variety of ways to increase one’s skill at this type of thinking (e.g., de Bono 1990a). The apparently unrelated autonomous products of this kind of thinking are represented with the visual cliché of the puzzle pieces.     The control ability of imagining is expressed in the upper panel of the Mandala. Control ability: we can, within broad limits, at almost any moment, summon up what we desire to imagine and guide the course of its continuation. A variety of skills, including those of being reflexive, concentrating, jumping over mental hurtles, playful association, and Samurai editing, are involved in the synergisms and syncretisms that lead to meta-mapping. The outer ring of the upper panel expressed the skill of working the epistemological hierarchy, in the practice of mindful thinking.     The eight elements of critical thinking (link to Richard Paul's Foundation for CT) are emergent across the entire figure, beginning with the underlying problem or question at issue. It has no known solution or answer. The goal then becomes a creative solution. We enter into the realm of pure imagining. Our point-of-view is intellectual. Both halves of our brain are working. Autonomous imaginings generate a base of potential information. We move upwards into the realm of controllable imaginings. We playfully put some of the parts together and take apart our assumptions. We make interpretations and inferences, creating preliminary models and them evaluating them. At higher (fifth and sixth) levels of the epistemological hierarchy (see Tool Box on the Main Menu), we create new conceptualizations, re-evaluate old ones, and examine the implications/consequences of our superlative conclusions or solutions.     The embedded hierarchy of image and word panels in the Mandala provide a rich field for multiple viewings/readings and the gestalt organization of the parts into a whole. The higher product of creativity, the meta-mapping as a transformation of thought, is represented as the Atlantic jigsaw-puzzle fit of the Americas and Africa (a new and wondrous 17th Century conceptualization) in the upper Mandala. The creation emerges at the top into a broader social and cultural environment represented by the opening bars of Leonard Cohen’s song Hallelujah. In the intellectual environment of this Mandala figure as a design model, this text that you are reading is also another panel. This multilayered richness of manner and method is typical of total communication, as is the background experience of the reader in the subjects of imagination, critical thinking, epistemology and creativity. There is more blood in the gutter than you may have consciously imagined.

  • 1. Kunzle (2007) describes Töpffer’s unusual combination of literary and artistic virtues and skills with regard to the development of the comic strip. Töpffer combined mastery of the physiognomic doodle, a touching nervous speed of the graphic line, cryptic wit of the caption, and surreal craziness of the plot (with the caprices of Fate driving the narrative), saying less to express more in the service of light satire regarding social and intellectual pretentions. His comics “were initially written and sketched for and under the laughing eyes of the [teenage] boys of his school……offspring of highly educated families who expected first-class, sophisticated teaching. They were teenagers with a keen appreciation of social and political satire such as might speak to the high spirits, irreverence, and rebelliousness nature to their time of life. At the same time, they loved plain silliness, a virtue only the most fortunate adults retain.” (p. x)      Kunzle (2007) also notes that “If Töpffer is the father of the comic strip, Hogarth is the grandfather” (p. x). Töpffer was, as he himself acknowledged, inspired in part by the graphic social satires of William Hogarth (1697-1764). As George (1967) rightfully puts it, Hogarth’s part in the development of graphic satire is fundamental. His minutely crafted engravings (1724-1762) vividly satirized the vices of virtually all walks of life in 18th Century England. He revives the practice of treating seriously critical moral and social themes (a practice that had flourished in the European broadsheets of the 1600s), gave the graphic satire a new narrative coherence and a renewed aesthetic respectability in the European tradition of the best of his Italian, German, and Dutch predecessors (Kunzle 1973). He is the apex of the art and craft of the pictorial moralizing graphic satire. We see in his work a nuanced, richly detailed, information dense, pictorial art that is lost in the subsequent centuries of social commentary in cartoons and comics. Kunzle (1973) provides useful close ‘readings’ of some of Hogarth’s pictorial satires. Reconsidering Töpffer in this light, the latter was the creator of the infantilized graphic satire, and the founder thereby of the modern comic.
  • 2. In the 20th Century, Will Eisner's enrichment of the art and the craft of the comic book paneling was unsurpassed. See his 1985/2008 book Comics and Sequential Art for many creative examples of hierarchy and transition.

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