Challenges of Representation in a Language Comic Book for Beginners

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I often reflect on the content of my comic book, and how I have unconsciously absorbed the default story of a white male character (in my case a group of white male characters) on a quest. In addition I have a wise (white) female character (Chantal), who is an oracle that intends to change the likely outcome if the quest continues as it normally would.

I’ve been made aware that people of colour want to see more people like themselves in stories and movies. I must admit that I have yearned for more female perspectives in literature and movies at times, which is as close as I can come to imagining how people of colour feel about being left out of mainstream media. Similarly for people who are queer, obese or disabled.

The difficulty with comic books is that the illustrations are often caricatures that exaggerate features. It would be tricky to create a PoC character without it seeming racist. There is no opportunity in a comic book for beginners in French, which has an extremely constrained vocabulary, to make things nuanced. I think the best I can do is have a variety of skin colours across the cast of characters, and not make the bad characters the dark-skinned ones. Having a queer character _might_ be possible (more likely a queer couple, as that’s easy to do visually without resorting to stereotype appearances). Given it’s a fantasy world, I could potentially do a genderqueer character that magically goes back and forth between genders all the time. After all I have a python that can make itself look like a dragon and a large gnome. Theoretically, the same could happen with skin colour.

I received only one star from one reader on Goodreads for Episode 1, without explanation. I can only guess why, but my guess is it’s to do with it being an entirely white male cast in the first episode – apart from the griffon, which is a mixture of white, blue and brown. This is partly due to unconsciously absorbing this default – even though my various influences (mainly fairly tales, Astérix, Smurfs, and Uncle Scrooge) do have more female characters than I do in Episode 1, partly as an artifact of being a slave to word frequency lists and my rules about what to include in each episode. In Episode 1 I only use French-English cognates that look identical in both languages. As such I only use adjectives that are either identical for both genders, such as “visible”, an exact spelling for masculine nouns only, such as “certain”, or exact for feminine nouns, such as “complète” (first occurs in Episode 2). I also chose to use a very limited palette in the drawings, roughly equivalent to a typical 12-colour set of coloured pencils, crayons or felt pens.

I think my comic books will evolve to have more diversity through the series. Episode 1 is already published, so it is what it is. Episode 2 at least introduces a main female character, who, like me, tends to work on her own to solve problems – at least at this stage in the plot. Episode 3 includes new characters, but since they’re not “good” characters, I won’t make them PoC. I haven’t written the Taxi and La Question du Moment for Episode 3 yet, so there is a bit of scope there to increase diversity. At least now I’m more aware of this, and can consider it in my writing/drawing process. Stay tuned for Episode 3… Meanwhile, here is a first attempt at a PoC for my comics – a recolouring of a panel from Episode 2. Is it OK?

g2croppedp17excerptrecoloured

Recoloured panel from Episode 2’s La Question du Moment. I think this is ok. Let me know if it isn’t.

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What is the target age range of your writing?

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In writing my Gnomeville comic book series, I was mainly focused on making an entertaining story that used French-English cognates and highly frequent words like “le”. As it was a comic book format I seem to have automatically written and drawn in a style that is similar to the main comics of my childhood: Donald Duck, Asterix and the Smurfs. Perhaps that is why people believe it to be targeted at children.

When my fellow French students at the Alliance Française read a draft of Episode 1 of my comic book I heard the occasional chuckle. These were all adults. A recent customer said “BTW, my 11yo read your book and I saw him giggling.” so I guess it works for at least some 11-year olds. It certainly is a general audience work at the very least. It does, however,  include a few challenging words for the very young. such as “matérialise”, which led one native French speaker to rate the book as more difficult to read than other French children’s books. Though in my experience, children have fewer hang-ups about unfamiliar vocabulary than adults do.

In the world of readability measurement, a reading age is often calculated. This is usually based on vocabulary and grammar measures, often approximated by average word length and sentence length. Some vocabulary difficulty measures are based on a set of words that are generally known by children. These measures don’t directly capture conceptual difficulty or age-appropriate content. I may know quite a bit about readability research, but my knowledge of age-appropriate content is purely based on personal experience.

Generally speaking, stories for children tend to be full of fun, adventure, magic, mystery and silliness. Stories for adolescents start to include relationships as part of the plot, and then stories for adults have more of the complexity of the adult world, such as politics, law, medicine, finance, ethics and bureaucracy. Having stated that, it makes it clear that my stories are written for children without me realising it. While that isn’t a bad thing, I guess it makes sense. It is difficult to express complex and subtle ideas with a small vocabulary.

In other news, my Episode 2 comic book launch was a success. Episode 1 is still available as a countdown deal if you are in one of the few lucky countries that can enjoy those deals on Amazon. The next phase for me will be converting Episode 2 into an ebook.

Reader Levels: Thoughts as I do another Tadoku month

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Level 0: Single-word nouns or adjectives – if the book is nicely illustrated in a way that makes the words identifiable, not too long, and maybe has some punchline equivalent at the end, as some do, then these are good for practising an unfamiliar alphabet such as hiragana and katakana.  The words are typically not high priority words, but tend to recur in stories anyway.  I have had enough repetition of certain animal words that I know them, even though they are not very useful for me when communicating to others.

Level 1: Repeated sentence structure – as above, these are excellent reading practice, and can help people learn some basic grammatical structures, while a story of some kind is told via the repeated sentence having different substituted nouns that are identifiably illustrated.  The LOTE series by Nelson Price Milburn are very good in this regard.  If they were longer than they are, then they would be tedious, but there are about 6-7 repetitions with minor variations, followed by a punchline of some sort.  The books by Evrat Jones, published by PCS Publications, are not as good, largely because of the illustrations.  Maybe I’m biased against old-fashioned repetitive images that look like dorky Grade 1 readers from the sixties, but their lack of appeal makes them more of a chore to read through.  They would also benefit from a glossary at the back.

Level 2: Small vocabulary and a small set of grammatical constructions.  Here is where the typical vocabulary-controlled reader fits into the scheme of things.  Within this level are all the stages of most published reading schemes, taking readers from around 300 words of vocabulary to 2,000, and from present tense to all the normal grammatical constructions.

Level 3: Native text.

Reading at levels 0 and 1 for the past week or so has me thinking there is a niche for books at these levels for adults.  Given an adult’s greater world knowledge and sophistication, it should be possible to create a more interesting narrative with these levels than is currently seen.

Children’s Books

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In my French reading, partly to continue using extensive reading, and also partly research for my writing of comic books in French, I’ve started reading more children’s books.  The J’Aime Lire series from Bayard was an excellent place to start.  They publish for specific ages: 6, 7, 8, 9, etc.  While the difficulty for a foreign language learner varies sometimes, the books for 6-8 year-olds mostly work for me, and seem to match a ~1000 word vocabulary or A2/B1 level.

One thing I found with reading children’s fantasy novels is that they are very vivid, and it is easy to become engrossed in this fantasy world, with a feeling of wonder.  I had the same experience when reading the first volume of Harry Potter (and as a child when reading Enid Blyton).  My comic book also has this vividness about it – partly because it is a brightly-coloured comic book.  I’m not sure if it is the fantasy element, the illustrations or a property of the writing that makes it so.  In the case of Harry Potter it can only have been created via the text, as I read it before seeing any movies of it.

Thoughts on Up Goer Five and Constrained Vocabulary Writing

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When I first saw the Up Goer Five comic by xkcd, I loved it.  It epitomised what I do with my comic book and my research, and is a convenient example to show people, when explaining the idea of constrained vocabulary writing.

Fans figured out that the 1,000 words used by xkcd for it were the contemporary fiction list, shown in Wiktionary.  This frequency list is based on over 9 million words of on-line contemporary fiction.  It combines plurals and simple verb forms into one listed word (lemmas), which is a good choice, since if the root word is known, then the plurals with s, and simple verb forms are usually also understood.

As someone who writes using lists generated based on frequency, I’ve noticed that several problems arise.  One is that, typically, male pronouns and nouns occur at higher frequencies than female ones.  The Wiktionary list is not overly biased in this way, possibly because it is based on contemporary fiction.  “he” is ranked at 8, “her” and “she” at 12 and 13 respectively, and “his” at 16.  However, we find “man” at 163 and “woman” at 452, but “girl” is at 133 and “boy” at 217.  This hints at what has been termed the systemic “infantilization” of women in society.  The figures are probably quite different due to the common pairing of “guy” (at 178) with “girl” in colloquial speech.  Google’s auto-suggest, which is also based on frequency, has occasionally come up with phrases that are considered racist, sexist or otherwise problematic – and it is purely a reflection of what we as a society tend to write.  When writing in a principled manner for language learners, it may be important to balance what word frequency lists tell us, with what is a more equitable representation.  I didn’t really think very much about this when I started writing Gnomeville years ago, but have become more aware of these issues thanks to some of my friends who are more knowledgeable in them.

Another issue that needs to be considered is what is culturally appropriate to write for the target audience.  For example, I have recently been made aware that it is inappropriate to use words referring to alcoholic beverages when the audience is Islamic.  Obviously for work intended for children (or for experimental subjects) it is customary to exclude expletives.  For this reason, several words on the list would need to be excluded.  There seems to be an expressive set of expletives in the list.

For the method of writing I employ in the Gnomeville story, I  introduce one new high frequency word per page of story, and somewhat less frequently I introduce a grammatical pattern.  Sometimes I’ve changed the order in which I add words due to the story.  This happened in episode one, in which I introduced “se” very early instead of after about a dozen other words.  Also, I recall that “le” was added before “de”, even though their ranks are reversed.  Having said that, my first 20 words were based on a corpus of newspaper articles.  Every corpus gives a different ranking of words.  There are some similarities across corpora however.  For example, if the corpus is large enough, the frequency of the word “the” is likely to be about 7% for English text.

Anyway, back to Up Goer Five.  The upcoming book “Thing Explainer”, as well as the text uploaded to the up goer five text editor provide some good practice at reading for people still consolidating their first 1000 words of the English language.  If going beyond that, the writing should have less than 5% of words outside the vocabulary set to be suitable for improving language skill while fluently reading for comprehension.  A text editor with more flexibility is the OGTE Editor, designed for writing English text for different language learner levels.

Children’s books

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While searching for books that are simple enough for me to read in Japanese, I’ve been musing about the attributes that make these suitable for language learners.
If starting from scratch you need repetitious text with obviously illustrated nouns. This describes some of the books I purchased. The downside of the simplest books is that they become an illustrated list of nouns (or adjectives like colours), and therefore have no narrative.
In Japanese you have the added complication of the writing system. Beginner books use hiragana only. Then there are some that have katakana with hiragana transliterations. Then there are a few that use both the alphabets without guides. At the next level kanji are included with hiragana guides. The level of support for kanji varies.

Constrained Writing

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In 1996 I first heard about a book written without the letter E (Gadsby, by Wright, published 1939). Then a couple of years later I met a French colleague and was telling him about my comic book in French that exclusively uses French-English cognates and one new French word per page. It reminded him of constrained writing, particularly “lipograms”, and he introduced me to the work of Georges Perec, who wrote various works with or without certain vowels. We exchanged DNA poetry. More recently I dabbled in pilish, adding the constraint of writing in haiku verses.

A recent blog post about OULIPO reminded me about my fascination with such things.

The experience of writing my comic in French is quite different to my dabblings in German and Dutch, due to the differences in cognates (similar looking words with similar meaning) in the different languages.  In French it is hard to generate much text initially, but there is soon an abundance of identically spelt nouns, adjectives and verbs (albeit with slightly different endings).  In Dutch and to a lesser extent in German it is possible to write 20-odd words of meaningful text entirely using exact cognates.  But eventually you hit a wall where there are not many verbs to work with.  I’m still figuring out how to get past that wall before I commit to drawing the (publishable) artwork for and publishing a first episode in those languages.