Here’s a thought about strategic, spatial arrangement of images


In a gallery, sequence and character are unmoored from an explicit narrative, but that doesn’t make an application of McCloud’s or any other theorists’ ideas invalid. In any case, I predict that our narrative facility is still engaged without it, and I’d argue that much recent, brilliant work in comics allows its gutters, sequence, and associative qualities to thwart clear storytelling.

– Kailyn Kent, in Gallery Cartoonists on Hooded Utilitarian

The article is 3½ years old, but I post the link here in support of my tongue in cheek inclusion of gallery hangings in a comics definition :)

A working definition of comics

A strategic, spatial assembly of separate images

There you go. I’m picking up on my comics studies reading, currently a good way into Nick Sousani’s Unflattening, and as usual when somebody delineates comics I wince just a little and go “Yeah, except…” – so I foolhardily hacked out the short description above. Just a quick note to say that I’m wholly enjoying Sousani’s book, it was just an unfortunate springboard for me to finally write this.

This is not to say that my version above is more “right” than others, but it’s probably more open to different modes of comics making; based on my own experience experimenting with the form (not genre or medium), and may also unveil some new perspectives for comics studies*.

If we dissect the contents and deliberate omissions of my description, we can start with the choice of “assembly” rather than “juxtaposition”, which is an attempt to dodge any notion that the images must be made by the comics maker. Obviously, this is based on my recent collage work methods where I have worked from a base of found materials. Also, there’s enough mixing up between comics making and the act of drawing already, let’s keep that hornet’s nest out of this equation.
I call it a “spatial assembly” to avoid the hoary comparison to film, as well as embracing both sequence and the segmentivity approach to comics analysis (and reading!). That’s why it’s also a “strategic” assembly because that hopefully covers any execution of intent on the maker’s part, whether the message conveyed is linear narrative, poetic or other. I chose “strategic” over “deliberate” to not only emphasise intention but also the considerations involved in the arrangement of panels. Going with “strategy” you may imagine the maker at their worktable in an admiral’s uniform, brooding over whether the next day’s battle should be in the form of a full page spread, or several smaller panels scattered across the page.

The “images” part, then. In When the last story is told, I have a few panels that are just one solid colour, so we’re talking the very basic level of images. You might say “visual information”, or “visual content”, but a) those sound unnecessarily technical for what is meant to be a short, even glib term, and b) once we open for visual information, writing is right outside the door.
There’s the major point of divergence from other definitions of comics: I don’t buy the bit about comics being a hybrid or compound form of text and images. True, most comics integrate the two, but what people forget or overlook is that like music, comics work perfectly well without words. There are surely things you can only tell, not show, or which are less complicated to say than to illustrate, so you write them – or, perhaps, leave them out because you’re making a comic, not a frigging essay. In any case, the assumption that most comics use text, so by default comics must use text, is a logical fallacy. Comics aren’t by definition hybrid, so I’m leaving it out of the definition (without being blind to the obvious).

What I said about putting it short to the point of glibness? At least I may have succeeded with one of those… I hope readers have winced “Yeah, except…” repeatedly during this transmissions. Please post your objections, corrections,  and demands for satisfaction in the comments.

* Or at least new to me, I claim only a limited perspective of that field.

Jan Baetens near name checking my book 4 years ahead of publication


…what abstraction finally shows is also the possible frailty of narrative. Even when it is present in apparently hegemonic ways, narrative can always collapse in order to give way to something totally else.

–Jan Baetens, Abstraction in Comics. Quoted in Bennett, Comics Poetry: the art of the possible

I swear, I hadn’t read this when I concocted the concept for When the last story is told – the sentiment is the same, though. From the description for my book:

[The] very title suggests a potential end of narrative, but also  that something else may fill the gap, a still-fluid substance or undefined fictional construct forming …

Guess I was on the right track? If anyone has Baetens’ contact info please pass it along, I’ll be happy to send him a copy.

The staged problem with closure

Reading Tamryn Bennett’s Comics poetry: Beyond sequential narrative, which argues convincingly for an alternate theory of comics that  may embrace “non-narrative, multi-linear, simultaneous, experimental, abstract or poetic” comics, I was struck by an odd argument against Scott McCloud and his concept of closure:

According to McCloud, the navigational process known as ‘closure’ requires negotiation of ‘gutters’ by the audience. In opposition, [Neil] Cohn claims ‘closure’ is a cloudy term incapable of describing the complex cognitive processes of making ‘meaning’

Bennett goes on to quote Cohn as saying:

If closure occurs ‘in the gaps between panels’ then how does it work if a reader cannot make such a connection until the second panel is reached? That is, the gap cannot be filled unless it has not already been passed over, making closure an additive infereence that occurs at panels, not between them.

I honestly don’t see what they’re arguing about; Scott McCloud is a populariser of the mechanisms that make comics tick, but I missed the part where he claimed to give hard scientific definitions? As for the nitpicking of where exactly closure takes place, don’t underestimate McCloud’s rhetorical slight of hand: Saying that closure occurs in the gutter is simply his visualisation of the language idiom of “filling in the gap”. A reader would necessarily have to read both panels to make any connection between them, linear or otherwise. Besides, as David Mazzuchelli illustrates it, there can be no gap between one panel; there can’t even be a “between”:

Asterios Polyp - Transitions

For me, though, the point of confusion about Bennett’s argument is that whereas McCloud’s gaps don’t apply, the concept of segmentivity (adopted from poetry studies to augment the narrative/cultural studies approach in comics scholarship) emphasises gaps as an integral part of the analysis:

In poetry, as in comics, there is a greater emphasis on segmented ‘matter’, spatial arrangement and ‘ gaps’ than in prose. In both poetry and comics formal analysis of material components is encouraged, as ‘segments’ can be examined independent of narrative ‘closure’.

I hope this doesn’t come off as snarky, I just struggle a bit with why this exactly becomes a point of contest. Bennett’s aversion toward closure may be due to its lack of academic refinement, or to the sequential baggage that McCloud loads it with. She writes of his panel-to-panel transition types, essentialy closure subcategories:

Five of the six examples given by McCloud illustrate a linear interpretation of panels that restrict sequences to ‘moment to moment’, ‘action to action’, ‘subject to subject’, ‘scene to scene’, and ‘aspect to aspect’. By focusing on the immediate panel relations of sequential images critics like McCloud have overlooked the possibility for comics to operate outside of linear grids and conventional narrative structures…

– which I happily co-sign to. My own problem with McCloud’s list of transitions is that last category which Bennett doesn’t mention, dismissively named the Non Sequitur. Here it is presented in Making Comics:

McCloud - making comics_trans 6

“Look, he drew himself as a metronome! You can tell those non sequiturs are only for whacked-out artistes, better steer clear of them!” It’s obvious that McCloud doesn’t find much use for this transition form, tucking it away at the end of his list and writing it off as nonsense gags (though it isn’t quite clear to me from the phrasing if that’s the role he sees it playing, in “otherwise rational” experimental work? Perhaps not even McCloud himself knows). His examples do read as the stereotype of a Tourette’s patient shouting incoherent profanities, and might discourage readers from lending any credence to this type of transition, but again we shouldn’t overlook McCloud’s rhetorical deftness. The category doesn’t fit his theory of comics as a basically narrative art form, and must therefore be painted as a cul-de-sac.

In one last salute, from Understanding Comics, McCloud concedes that there may be something to the juxtaposition of more disparate images, and that even though “such transitions may not make sense in any traditional way, […] a relationship of some sort will inevitably develop.” He leaves the category name as an indication of how much more the reader can expect to hear about it. This omission, in turn, stands out in his work as much as the dismissal of closure does in Bennett’s study, and unfortunately closes the door on a motherlode of potential for expression in comics.

McCloud - understanding comics_trans 6

What McCloud barely scratches the surface of above – and still in that dismissive (BANG!) tone revealing his eagerness to go on and tell stories – can in fact be seen as a parallel structure to the concept of sequence. In Bennett’s segmentivity model, derived from poetics, it would amount to seriality, but in cinema it is established as a form of montage, specifically the Kuleshov effect. It’s a classic example of early experimentation into the possibilities of visual expression:

Essentially, Soviet film director Lev Kuleshov found that by cutting between two unrelated images he presented them in a context that an audience would interpret as a whole larger (or at least different from) its parts. Representing his temporal cuts instead as spatial arrangements, we get comics strips that look like examples of the “aspect to aspect” transition introduced in Understanding Comics, but in their collected context reveal the first and last panels of all the strips to be the same, neutral facial expression. Only the central panel, or cut, is swapped for different contextual interpretations. The “alchemy” McCloud talked about is at work, “endowing the images with a single, overriding identity” – in the below examples hunger, sorrow, and lust, respectively:


Once this effect is established, one can’t help but wonder just how dissimilar images might be juxtaposed to produce more free or ambiguous reader association, or instilling sensation rather than logical context (“otherwise rational stories”), much as Bennett argues for in Comics Poetry.

…segmentivity doesn’t discount narrative possibilities or the value of sequence, instead it enables visual and veral components to be understood as a series of pieces that can contain both narrative and non-narrative elements depending on cognitive inclinations.

It appears stranger still, then, that she criticises the five sequentially oriented transition types but opts not to delve into the potential for comics as a form of (poetic) expression represented by Kuleshov’s montage. As with McCloud dispensing with the wider potential of seemingly discontinuous juxtapositions, I suspect that acknowledging that near-sequential function might blur Bennett’s rationale for multidirectional and spatially arranged comics readings? Not logically blurring the soundness of her point, I mean, but in terms of the rhetorical construction of the study’s argumentation.

I’ve nitpicked a bit myself at Bennett’s article, but as I wrote the other day, I’m quite convinced by the brunt of it. Mostly I took the opportunity here to air some of my own thoughts on comics, and will continue in another upcoming blog post.

Beyond sequence

After reading Neil Cohn’s 2013 paper Navigating Comics, I was going to write a piece about the big sequential pitfall in most comics scholarship, but through no effort at all I came upon Tamryn Bennett’s Comics poetry: Beyond ‘sequential art’ (pdf link) which pretty much sums up my thoughts:

While there’s no doubt narratology has formulated useful ways of understanding comics, it must be recognised that sequential narratives are but one piece of the comics puzzle. By concentrating on narrative elements scholars have often overlooked fundamental features of form, privileging ‘story’ and ‘reading’ over all other experiences and interpretations of comics. The danger of this narrative colonisation is the critical neglect of emergent comics that don’t fit sequential formulas as well as a lack of alternative modes for comics analysis.
[…This study proposes] an alternative theory of comics; a theory capable of analysing a spectrum of comics, be they narrative, non-narrative, multi-linear, simultaneous, experimental, abstract or poetic.

That’s more or less the entire introduction there, and I’m looking forward to finishing the article. Let’s see what Bennett has to say about text in comics…

Here’s a thought about comics being far too many things to make any sense


Indeed, “comics” as a social artifact refers to numerous qualities, including 1) physical objects (strips and books), 2) a collection of genres, 3) an industry, 4) a culture/community, and others that are all tied to a context of the modern era. On the other hand, sequential images do create a language: a “visual language” that combines with text to be used within those social objects called “comics.”“Comics” are not this visual language. “Comics” are a social object written in a visual language that combines with text. If novels or magazines are written in English, why should “comics” be a language, instead of be written in a language?

Neil Cohn, reviewing Thierry Groensteen’s The system of comics here.

A bit of summer reading from @visual_linguist

Late to any party, I’ve just finished Neil Cohn‘s 2013 paper, Navigating comics: an empirical and theoretical approach to strategies of reading comic page layouts, a thorough and sharply analysed research on the principles that direct readers of any level through a comics page.

I suspect most advanced readers or makers of comics already have some sense of what works or not, but Cohn is the first to put it into terms and structure, based on reading direction (from writing) and Gestalt theory, and that effort alone makes the paper essential reading.

A couple of longer posts are brewing in my head, inspired by his research, but for now I’ll mention a few things that struck me reading the article:

The research is based on a survey presenting 145 participants with 12 different “blank” comics layouts (ie, the pages consisted of empty panel borders, or frames), 10 of them designed to test Cohn’s theories about reading order. Participants would then number the panels of each page according to individual reading order.

The test layouts are presented that way to avoid interference from the panel contents, of course, and Cohn does note that “layout and content likely interface in important ways, [but] they are ultimately independent structures.” Toward the end of the article, however, he seems to expect the page layout to singlehandedly direct a reader through a comics page, whereas other researchers have pointed out how composition and image vectors also direct the reader’s gaze from panel to panel.

The point of the article is the navigational aspects of layout alone, of course, and I’m sure Cohn didn’t want to dilute that focus in his first(?) article on the subject. I’m pretty confident that he has taken the image content into account in his later work on the subject, but reading this one I was somewhat disturbed by the one-sided focus.

The other thing that made me pause is really pedantic, but I notice that in a few example layouts where manga-like, slanted panel borders are applied, they divide a rectangular “superpanel perfectly diagonal, leaving the two halves triangular, like this (cropped from one of Cohn’s illustrations):


The orange spot indicates the reader’s entry point into the page, and this example was made to find out if participants would start by reading the topmost or the leftmost panel. Here, as well, I see the point of research that may shed light on readers’ predilection, but there’s just one thing: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a combination of panels like this outside of beginner’s classes.

The reason an artist goes for slanted borders is to achieve dynamics, and a gutter that in effect divides a rectangle from one corner to the other is anything but. Furthermore, triangular panels are a headache — especially the narrowest angle which inevitably turns into dead space.

The experiment results about these ambiguous entry points demonstrate rather clearly why nobody places a gutter in the top left corner of a comics page; readers won’t know where to start. I suppose the question was worth asking, anyway, and now we know.

Neil Cohn presented his research at San Diego Comic Con recently, and in this blog update he posts a video of the presentation as well as a few links to more recent papers than the one I just read. I’m looking forward to all of those, and to seeing what results his research has uncovered.

You won’t believe it’s not comics! Post by @comics212


Re: what’s comics and what isn’t, Chris Butcher wrote an insightful piece on trench digging and Othering within mainstream comics:

The success of [the early manga publications in the West was] the proof to the theories that comics could be for everyone, for women and for girls especially, and could sell in numbers that were comparable to how they sold overseas. […]
So how did the rest of the comics industry react to this sea-change? In the pettiest way possible of course, by othering the success of that material as much as they could. “Manga aren’t comics,” went the discussion.

Go, read.

Morning sermon from @therealkim__


too many superheros in comics studies. please write fan reviews on superhero forum, not on scholarly journals.

— @therealkim__, at 30 Jun 08:31, and

i want #comics to lose the burden of narrative and study its own spaces: pages, representations on pages, grids, lines, colors, pixels etc.


Thank you, and I’d extend this to comics reviews. Comics are exciting as hell on a purely formal level, the endless line of superhero soaps… dramatically less so.