That went over my head: Constraints on the visual vocabulary of comics

Abstract

“Upfixes” are graphic representations originating in the visual vocabulary used in comics where objects float above a character’s head, such as lightbulbs to mean inspiration. We posited that these graphic signs use an abstract schema stored in memory. This schema constrains upfixes to their position above the head and requires them to “agree” with the expression of their associated face. We asked participants to rate and interpret upfix-face pairs where the upfix was either above the head or beside the head, and/or agreed or disagreed with the face. Our stimuli also contrasted conventional and novel upfixes. Overall, both position and agreement impacted the rating and interpretations of both conventional and unconventional upfixes, and such understanding is modulated by experience reading comics. These findings support that these graphic signs extend beyond memorized individual items, and use a learned abstract schema stored in long-term memory, governed by particular constraints.


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