Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Way I See it

In my last post, I ended on a somewhat ambiguous note that I was interested in what other people's perceptions of comics first were.  I feel that I should probably clarify and expand upon that, since it's a topic that's dear and close to me.

Last year, I was part of an online study to see how people interpreted comic panels.  The test was composed of random Peanuts comics, with some panels replaced with comics from other Peanuts strips, others with the panels rearranged or dialogue removed entirely.  It was difficult to give entirely subjective answers, especially since I could distinctively recall which comics they came from.  The results were seemingly obvious to me, since comics without dialogue were basically exercises in narrative, and I was constantly trying to figure out what kind of story was being told through these tiny pictures.  Below is a transcript of the email I sent to Neil Cohn, the head of the study:

I figure that I might be a bit overqualified for the test, since I've been reading comics since I could look at pictures.  Since I was deaf, I had an unique disposition growing up.  I learned how to communicate by learning how to read first.  Most people tell parents of deaf children that they should learn how to listen, and THEN read, which is based off their perception.  However, this technique is completely backwards for people who can't hear properly.   Rather, they focus on making sure deaf children understand the symbols of the objects before applying sounds to them later.

There's a certain kind of mindblindness in this teaching method, since so many people learned how to read by listening, that any other unorthodox method is completely alien to them.  I have to admit that I'm slightly guilty in this as well.  Until I talked to other people about comics, I had no idea that my reading method was different.  When I read a comic, I convert words to pictures, and pictures to sounds.  The results are varied every time, even if the script is the same.

I've mentioned before how I always thought that people could read comics the same way I did, until I found out that not everybody experiences the world as I do.  There were several activities I engaged while looking at the pictures that I'm unsure is a universal theme.  One of my common practices was to rotate through several panels multiple times on a single page.  For instance, I would constantly cycle through panels 2 to 5 on this Archie page, so Mr. Weatherbee was constantly tripping and falling against the poor woman.  Is this common practice for beginning readers outside of lovers of slapstick or people with sadistic fetishies?

Another slightly modified version of the above is this page from a Tweety & Sylvester comic when the bad-luck cat had a cueballed-sized nose with a distinctive reflection.  Only, in this example, when Sylvester showed up as the "Batboy" in the 4th panel, for some reason, I had him talking at length, rambling on and on to the coach.  To this day, I couldn't tell you what he was talking about, just that he seemed really into speaking about the details.

At the opposite end of the extreme, I would mentally input words where there were none, such as in this silent Archie page where Veronica managed to successfully knock Reggie out with her seductive outfit, only to be condescended to by Jughead.  Even though I wasn't fully conscious of the kind of conversation that would ensued, just awareness that there was some kind of dialogue taking place.  Somehow, in my mind's eye, I subplanted my own dialogue to match the action on the page.
"Now that I've knocked him into submission,
I'm sure you would like to - uh?"
What's interesting to me was that even though there were no words in the whole comic, save for the title and a single text-heavy panel, I subconsciously implanted internal dialogue over the character's heads, when there were none.  In the last panel where Veronica is kicking the tree, in my mind's eye, she was running a torrent of cartoon swears lasting three sentences across the panel.  Even now that I have proof of the actual comic in question years later, I'm still surprised to find out that there's NOTHING up there.

But these are just minor examples.  Where I differ wildly is in how I do the majority of my comic reading.  When I read a comic, I don't just look at the pictures and then the text, or the text, and then the pictures - I look at both at the same time, focusing on whatever is considered important, depending on which is the more dominant figure.  If the balloon overtakes the majority of the page, it'll catch my eye, but my vision will inevitably be drawn to the image.  Whereas when the picture takes prominent over the words, I'll see the image, and text at the same time.

That's pretty much par for the course for most veteran comic readers.  Where I suspect I widely veer off is in how I implement internal sound effects even in scenes that don't have any present.  Comic fans who've grown tired of the overuse of onomatopoeia (Sock! Pow! Bam! having gotten a bad rap via newspaper headlines over the years) have praised recent declined usage, even as their innovative aspects have become overshadowed or downplayed or even omitted entirely due to influences such as Watchmen.

I mentioned earlier that I have an unique way of reading comics in that I convert words to pictures, and pictures to sound.  The overall results of the page depends on the mixture of the quality of the drawings, the words used and the background can become completely different depending on the combination.  One of the most subtle way is that I have a completely different reading of dialogue depending on whether the captioning I see on TV is via close captioning (BLACK BARS WITH WHITE BOLD TEXT) or subtitles (yellow text in lowercase) can "sound" completely different to me, even if I'm seeing a foreign movie or not.

I normally don't pay much attention to the background music of TV shows and movies, since I find them rather distracting, and oftentimes they can be too revealing in setting up the atmosphere.  For instance, during an uneventful lull on a Sopranos episode, when I had my hearing aids on at that particular moment, I had the distinct impression that that guy was going to die, and sure enough, five seconds later, he was.

In the same way that music and sound effects are constantly reused without variance, I have a somewhat limited range of sounds pertaining to the usage of facial expressions and body language.  But don't let that limit fool you.  There are only twenty-six letters in the alphabet, but the number of combinations is perpetually limitless.  This was most evident in comics relying in simplified character designs such as Peanuts and other strips.  When there were exaggerated expressions used on a regular basis, I would use the same sound effect whenever it showed up, leading to cacophony of noise making up the story.  For instance, the following Cathy would be composed of the following sounds:

Panel 1: Eeyoooh
Panel 2: T-wuh (turning noise)
Panel 3: Eeyoooh
Panel 4: Kweh
Panel 5: Ptmpk
Panel 6: Aaaaaah
Panel 7: Eeyoooh
Panel 8: Gheh (grinning through clenched teeth)
Panel 9: Aaah
Panel 10: t-dih (going from Cathy's exit stage right to looking at audience)

Keep in mind that this is not an accurate representation of the internal sounds in my head, but the closest noises I'm capable of conveying without any audio present.  It's difficult to give a full description to some of the panels (especially #2, #4, #5 and #10), since there's no real phonetic equivalent to what's in my head, and would be mainly composed of Seussian sounds without any frame of reference.  It would be very much like having the lyrics to a MAD satire version of a song without any knowledge or experience of the original.

Pay particular attention to the difference between the "Aaah"s of panels 6 and 9.  The former lasts longer than the latter, since it's in conjunction with the amount of text appearing during the mouth movement.  Consciously, I was aware that Cathy's mother was talking at length, while Cathy was not.
Hagar's got the same weird facial expression throughout,
so he looks kinda stoned.
When I found some of my missing Sunday comics from my youth, I was amazed to find out that I still had memories of how some of the comics I'd read "sounded" visually.  It was something of a shock to find out what the characters were actually saying.  I can still recall how pictures I've seen in my youth "sound", even though I know what's going on.  I'm now immersed into that strange realm where my prior first experience and the new revelations exists simultaneously.  I have no way of knowing if this kind of Synesthesia is identifiable with other people, so I figured I might as well describe it as best as I can.

Even now that I know the actual lyrics to the Whatchamacallit commercial, I still retain the visual song memory that I always played in my head while watching the motions on the TV screen.  What concerns me is that I have no memory of the interval between when I "read" the pictures to "reading" the comics so that they made sense.  This worries me because if I can't remember the mental pathways that lead to this, than I'm incapable of giving a rough guide for others to follow.

What I can do is give a more detailed overview of some of the more easily explained aspects of my reading.  When I read a page or panel, I implant a indistinct kind of "sound" to each element, which I can subtly notice if it's repeated multiple times throughout a book via blatant photoshopping or re-editing as pointed out in some of my previous examples, especially Fables.  (Just found a few more after borrowing my sister's copies)  In other instances, I can detect similarities between obvious influences.  To me, these two pages from Please Save my Earth and Moon Child essentially "sound" alike in page structure and design, even when the content is drastically different in each.
There's the iconic usage of "thought bubbles" to emphasis when a Manga character is thinking, but not thinking of anything specifically.  I always "hear" this somewhere in the realm of a muted submachine gun and a cat's purr.

One of the many stylized traits of Manga is their usage of speedlines to denote action or emphasize an important focus or plot element on the page.  Though recently, there's also been the use of small grouping of lines facing away from the person's head to give the iconography of a subtle notice of surprise which I always lable as a "tk" sound.

Unlike the majority of the MTV generation, I was never privy to the numerous Music videos that were popular at the time.  But I compensated for this loss with numerous fansubbed Anime openings and endings which with their lyrics displayed onto the screen gave me the closest equivalent to those bouncing ball songs that populated the middle half of the Famous Studios cartoons.  They say that every generation has their own particular bias in their taste in music, claiming that their generation was the best, and the recent output by these newfangled rockers and rappers don't have the same lure or appeal as the quality of musicians in their youth.  I have no idea if this is a product of the ages, but I find the Anime lyrics of the 80's and 90's to be quite catchier than most of the recent stuff.

Once I got used to knowing how long the lyrics were for each frame, I would either pace myself or read rapidly with various intonations depending on what was shown on the screen.  In particular, the third Bleach ending theme, Houkiboshi (Comet) is unique in that there are 13 different animations, each showing the members of the different companies making up Soul Society.  And although the lyrics remain consistent throughout, to me, the rhythm and tempo is completely different for each, depending on what's shown in the background.
Unlike the majority of people who have a craving for hearing their childhood music and can simply resolve their fix via downloading their favorite melody off Napster, I have no such equivalent, and finding my favorite songs is made even more difficult with Youtube's removal of Anime openings and endings.  At times like these, I keep hoping I'll find a site that'll have a comprehensive list of my nostalgic show sequences and bumpers, or even better, find somebody with access to same.  But with a lack of access to such resources, and the Otaku honesty mentality to remove fansubbed tapes once they've been licensed, my chances are looking increasingly dim.

Actually, it's uncertain if what I've got can accurately be described as synesthesia, since it's basically another form of reading, which is kind of Synesthesic in itself.  A philosophy class brought up the disturbing notion that the very act of reading is considered unnatural, since moving the eye across a defined area on the page isn't something that would be considered genectic - it has to be learned.

To explain where this fixation on images came from, I might as well start at the very beginning.  As a kid, I had a great craving for apple juice which remains to this day.  Yet if a container of the stuff was placed right in front of me, I would show practically no interest in the impressive package.  But if I was shown a cut-out advertisement of the very same item, I would become animated and point at it to express what I wanted.  It was as if I were operating on a plane where I could only understand concepts represented on a 2-D platform as opposed to the actual thing in reality.

Is there anybody else out there who thinks along these lines, or am I the only one?

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