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Multimodal Communication

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A Picture is Worth More Words Over Time: Multimodality and Narrative Structure Across Eight Decades of American Superhero Comics

Neil Cohn
  • Corresponding author
  • Tilburg center for Cognition and Communication, Tilburg University, 5000 LE Tilburg, Netherlands
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  • De Gruyter OnlineGoogle Scholar
/ Ryan Taylor
  • Tilburg center for Cognition and Communication, Tilburg University, 5000 LE Tilburg, Netherlands
  • Other articles by this author:
  • De Gruyter OnlineGoogle Scholar
/ Kaitlin Pederson
  • Tilburg center for Cognition and Communication, Tilburg University, 5000 LE Tilburg, Netherlands
  • Other articles by this author:
  • De Gruyter OnlineGoogle Scholar
Published Online: 2017-04-20 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/mc-2017-0003


The visual narratives of comics involve complex multimodal interactions between written language and the visual language of images, where one or the other may guide the meaning and/or narrative structure. We investigated this interaction in a corpus analysis across eight decades of American superhero comics (1940–2010s). No change across publication date was found for multimodal interactions that weighted meaning towards text or across both text and images, where narrative structures were present across images. However, we found an increase over time of narrative sequences with meaning weighted to the visuals, and an increase of sequences without text at all. These changes coincided with an overall reduction in the number of words per panel, a shift towards panel framing with single characters and close-ups rather than whole scenes, and an increase in shifts between temporal states between panels. These findings suggest that storytelling has shifted towards investing more information in the images, along with an increasing complexity and maturity of the visual narrative structures. This has shifted American comics from being textual stories with illustrations to being visual narratives that use text.

Keywords: visual language; multimodality; narrative structure; comics; discourse


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About the article

Published Online: 2017-04-20

Published in Print: 2017-05-24

Citation Information: Multimodal Communication, Volume 6, Issue 1, Pages 19–37, ISSN (Online) 2230-6587, ISSN (Print) 2230-6579, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/mc-2017-0003.

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