Just as any art form prides itself on its particular rendering(s) and consequent reception, the understanding of comics also relies on the medium-specific elements. Randy Duncan and Matthew J. Smith propose a system of comprehension of images within the comics pages, which is essentially tripart: distinguishing between sensory and non-sensory diegetic images and hermeneutic images. Sensory diegetic imagery refers to aspects that can be perceived by the senses: pictures and words portraying characters, objects and the environment of the story (i.e. dialogue). Non-sensory diegetic imagery depicts aspects that would normally be unnoticeable, such as emotions and sensations of the characters, but the visual nature of the comics given the reader insight into the characters (i.e. thought balloons). Hermeneutic imagery, on the other hand, is placed outside the story world, yet influences the interpretation (i.e. psychological images, visual metaphors and intertextual references). All of these perceptual elements are, nevertheless, under the influence of personal and social stimuli that may result in inattentional blindness, hence inadvertently limiting the response to the work.
Reception of comics depends heavily on the complexity of a given work. While various guiding traditions of narration, image-building and techniques exist, every comics panel is as unique as every written work is exclusive. Despite the fact that theoretically the vast majority of words used in a novel are for example available in dictionaries (unless you’re Shakespeare, of course), words are nevertheless used and described there in isolation. Equally, some of the charm of the imagery used in comics is its very appeal and recognition; yet, it is the newly created world where these pictures and words are given the platform to interact with where the ingenuity of authors comes into play. Together with the comprehension of the readers, the work is taken to the final level of recognition, where it is taken through a tailspin of interpretative grandeur by the numerous ways of readings, providing the ultimate interplay of the individual and the social.
Before the reading process becomes too idealized, it must be stressed that there is always a degree of confusion (noise) and deviation in the interplay of author’s creation and reader’s reception (the interplay between intended and perceived meaning), varying from the beliefs and technical abilities of the author to the expectations and willingness of the reader to perceive the work as a whole. This, however, is true to all art products, since they are inherently an individualistic expressive design. Suspension of disbelief thus becomes a prerequisite for the enjoyment of not just every work, but is part of life’s perception as well, pertaining both to subjective views and objective representation. As we suspend disbelief to not see the drawings as merely colored lines on paper and to perceive images on a screen as anything but hyperrealistic binary code, we are doing so inherently. We do not perceive the world through its components; like general shapes or atoms to be even more precise. In the latter case we are physically unable to see at such peering close proximity, just as much as we can’t see radio waves because of the limitations of our perception of the visual field. Similarly as our brain transforms two images from each eye into a united whole, we take reality as a complete image as well – like a board with chess figures of life that require our undivided attention in order to play the game right.
Pragmatically, the suspension of disbelief is the essence of our whole existence, since even growing and learning demand of us a certain degree of “blind acceptance”, either from what our parents teach us or what the texts we read try to point out. We can become critical and learn to evaluate things only after we have gained a certain amount of knowledge of ourselves, the world we live in and (crucially) their interaction ... And, to complicate things further, this doesn’t mean that all of a sudden everything becomes clear and you can comprehend life to the fullest. No. That’s an ongoing process. Call it a kind of hermeneutic cycle of life experience.
The reading process requires us to understand spatial relations within every comics page and apply temporal notions, creating the illusion that the work is animated and comes to life. We do the same when watching film (connecting the frames to form continuous action – but in this case most of the work is already done by the creators) or reading a book (creating images in our mind from the symbols we read, making the subject-matter of the work come to life in a fascinatingly abstract fashion).
Picture 1 (P1) reveals a spatial location with the characters walking along a path in the forest. The illusion of time is created by reading the words; namely, as you read, you imagine the characters walking along. The panel ends by capturing the moment in time as we walk off to the next panel. In such a way, as we begin reading, the position of the characters (were they not standing still) may have been more to the left. Therefore, what the picture reveals in the final frame is the animated process that occurs in the gutter between the panels and in the panels themselves.
P1 (Mignola et al. 2008b: 25)
Arguably, panels can be static as well, especially when using a silent (wordless) panel as an establishing shot, where building a scene itself is more important than reflecting on its temporality. The reader, however, applies motion and time to the scene (in film this would be achieved with a zooming effect) because we know the world is not static but brimming with life and movement. Paradoxically, a complete comics image is immediately followed by the gutter and the following panel(s), further stressing the momentary aspect of reception and consequently emphasizing the astonishing ability of the human mind to comprehend complex meanings and depictions in a matter of moments.
The final words in a panel generally reflect the final depiction of events. In this process every spatial and temporal element in the panel beforehand leads to that final moment when the complete image is perceived by the reader. If we look at P1 again, this means that when you read the text that ends with “against his”, that’s when the time freezes essentially and that is what the picture shows. The picture is just the final representation. I say just, because as you begin reading the text that begins with “you’ve heard of him”, time passes for the reader and as well as the perceived events in the panel, which means that at the beginning of the text, the characters should ideally have been on the left side of the panel. This creates the illusion of movement as much as it is the illusion of “turning back the visual elements”. Plus, the more back-and-forth dialogue you have between the characters, the greater the disparity and the potential for either confusion or just logical pictorial oddities. Coincidentally, this is why Eisner was such as big proponent of using one panel to show one scene, not prolonging action (even if it is just dialogue). This is why the dialogue in comics is often “relegated” to medium shots and close-ups to avoid (drawing) background noise, to place more emphasis on expressions and to create a sterile environment, where the reader is for example focusing only on character’s encapsulated timeless facial demeanor.
When pictorial and verbal elements are at temporal odds, especially when the action depicted is more crucial for the development of the story, the reader’s suspension of disbelief can be shaken. P2 is clearly meant to be the final frame, since the creature’s hands are about to engulf the protagonist. We notice the picture right away; however, as we begin reading, we are actually taken back in time, forced to imagine the hands ever so slightly moving forward before reaching the apex of what is actually portrayed. Since visual experience is a process of space and time, this creates a spatio-temporal distortion that is common in many comics and can result in the “grip” of the narration to be loosened.
P2 (Carey et al. 2013: 203)
The reason for this “awkwardness” may be twofold: Lucifer was created in the mainstream comics environment, which means that individual issues of the comics ware for the most part “relegated” to 24 pages, in which case the authors were physically unable to divide the panel into two, with the first for example focusing on the dialogue and the second on the danger element to achieve a greater shock value of the scene. On the other hand, the panel may have been intended as such to create the lingering effect of impending danger even as you read the dialogue. The fact that the dialogue is spread on the right side of the panel and the hands appear on the (more immediately seen) left indicates that this might be the case. Although time per se in not a quality of vision, semblance of time is presented visually (cf. P2 and P3), while the interplay of space and time becomes a prominent factor both in comics as well as art, not to mention our constant daily struggle to fight off the proverbial hands of time.
If we consider the dual aspect of de Saussurian logic, reading comics is both immediate and gradual. The latter notion is probably the more obvious one. Reading comics for the most part follows a panel-to-panel progression, similar to a sentence-to-sentence stricture. Jumping from one panel to another, the reader is gradually revealing the overall picture that the comic is urging us to complete. The path of reading is directed by the author who constructed the design (like a successful chess player needs to calculate numerous moves ahead of time), but the response from the reader can be anything but linear and straightforward (as the other player uniquely responds to the position on the board). Immediate reading, on the other hand, refers to the fact that we notice pictures at a moment’s notice, since action precedes words, so the dialogue for example takes generally more time to devour. Every observed page in a comic is immediately scanned in a sort of top-down approach, moving from the most noticeable elements on the page as a whole (such as strong outlines, color, contrast and striking, unexpected shapes) towards individual panels where detailed (gradual) reading follows in greater detail.
P3 (Mignola et al. 2008b: 38)
Taking the above page for example (P3), the strong contrast is immediately achieved by the color red, which is noticed at once and especially because of the rest of dark, blue, melancholic tones. Upon gradual reading, you are drawn in further by the two smallest middle panels that act like the glue that keeps all but the last panel together both visually and thematically. Symbolically, the first six panels play off of the visual metaphor of the watch in the central panel by acting like a clock, moving from one element to the next. By striking midnight, the watch symbolically marks the end and a new beginning, reflecting on the dead body coming to life. The beauty of the layout is evident in the fact that we can actually read these panels in any way we want, since they all lead to the final long shot panel, where the hands of the corpse (through light contrast and position) lead the eye out of the panel into the next page. Since this design is pictorially dominant and the transitions are masterfully done, the reader can generally read through the page quite fast, but the “loop” of the two smaller red panels and the strong contrast makes you linger on these details (more and more through each rereading).
Reception is obviously a complex principle that works on the most extreme subjective levels of any reader. To those for example not acquainted with Mignola’s Hellboy and distinctive expressionistic style, let alone not versed in reading comics, this page might seem merely a gritty, verbally-sparse product that you can go through quite fast. The crucial element why the page reads fast, however, is due to excellent pacing and mastery of Mignola’s craft. Misconception clearly breeds unappreciation. The followers of the Hellboy canon not only carry an unprecedentedly larger amount of emotional investment in the work as a whole, but can notice intertextual references. On a personal level, it is beyond rewarding to notice such grand elements of structure, composition and comics mastery in relation to what a newbie comics enthusiast can for example feel, but not quite understand. Rereadings, attention to detail and love of the subject matter can thus broaden one’s horizons beyond words … I would say beyond pictures as well, but it would seem counterproductive and too cheesy, so scratch that.
Anyway, even art enthusiasts can for example more readily notice the spatial technicalities that are conveyed on the above panels of P3. In other words:
for visually oriented readers, the art tends to dominate the initial attention, whereas prose readers not accustomed to the comic book form tend to move from one block of text […] to the next, and often miss important visual clues in the process. (Duncan and Smith 2009: 119)
Perhaps the greatest attribute of reception is the fact that we can distinguish so many nuances and convey such a wide array of readings. The interplay between author and reader in comics is arguably subject even to interpretations that may or may not have been intended by the author. Over-reading can be always pesky, especially when you’re analyzing works and authors that are close to your heart and mind, but it goes without saying that when you do get it right it’s a jolt of positive energy that reaffirms your hard work was not in vain.
Affective visualization allows authors to create elements that are less clearly observable (whether through subliminal elements or references to other works and the like). In such a way, the complexity of the narrative is further increased and the hermeneutic cycle propitiated. The reason for this is because pictorial portrayal varies (with author’s style the most). Mignola for example does not have a specific way to write SKELETON, or even of writing about or describing a skeleton (he does not have to), but he draws a distinct, unique skeleton that is immediately recognizable and unmistakably his. Reception of comics thus becomes an intimate process, uniting the two players like no other game. As every chess game can be played differently, more complexly forever again and again (as you adapt to the tactics used), so are comics a well of everlasting interpretive levels, since the spring of readership constantly renews and enriches its (mythic) potential.
In closing this chapter of readership, the general assessment of comics as imagination-stirring objects, which has to a large extent carried over from its satirical, easy-going origins, refers back to comics as pure and simple being fun. It’s extremely pleasurable to allow your imagination to run wild with possibilities … when visualized in comics, that much better. Either through promise of an escape into more exciting, peaceful, fair, different worlds or enhancing the present world through factual means and insightful imagery, comics elucidate the human condition in a startlingly similar way as myths do. And that’s what you can call the eternal game of chess.
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No form of communication is merely a one-way street. You always have at least two participants: the author and the reader. In the case of comics, a more personal, intimate art form, the approach towards readers is much more than obvious and becomes a shared relationship. Reading (any work of art) thus becomes a cooperative process of adding layers upon layers of comprehension and depth of a given work. The more renowned a work, the more it will partake in the conversation of public domain and the more nuanced its role in the “public unconscious” will inevitably become.
Reading is the process of interplay between (at least) two participants, even somewhat resembling a chess game, a game of what the author means and what the reader reads, a game of what is envisioned in a particular way by the writer, of what gets depicted in that exact way by the artist and of what gets understood appropriately by the reader to whom (for the most part) the work is made. To continue with the chess analogy, if the author is the grandmaster who starts with the white pieces (reflective of the author’s unique position of having the upper hand in the making of the comic), your reaction is a response to his or her move (simultaneous displays not excluded), playing a continuous exchange in a game of one-upmanship until checkmate or the conclusion of the last page. The reader matches the moves of the author by his or her awareness of the position of the pieces on the board (i.e. the panels, the transitions, the characters, the plot). The subsequent handshake, however, does not indicate the end of the game, since revision and analysis (interpretation) follow in chess as well as comics.
Reception of comics is obviously a process that depends the most on visual literacy. Once the reception theory or reader-response criticism opened the door to a previously unseen factor of readership, the paradigm shifted to what author’s work means specifically beyond itself and beyond the author’s perspective. We have to also take into account that the participant in any art form is exposed not just to that field of expression, but to various other mediums which in one way or another influence each other and affect the reader through artistic stimuli. The respective artistic environment creates a transference of experience beyond any single artistic exposure. This means that your method of playing the game is subject to the rules of said game AND thinking outside the (narrative) box, which can result in deeper awareness of the tactics in play.
For the purpose of my research, reception essentially coincides with interpretation … as observed by the theory of hermeneutics, whose original philologically theological origins evolve into philosophically existential meanings over time. Essentially, all of this brings together the three major methodological paradigms we discuss through interpretation and analysis; the author, the work and the reader (reception). While it may seem quite obvious, the consequent result is not merely (a better) comprehension of the work, but actual communication with it. Any given work is inevitably the product that will forever be the crux of any research and the key factor in social comprehension of it. Even if you’re a genius like da Vinci or Shakespeare, it’s still your works and your output that carry your legacy.
Within the pervasive hermeneutic sphere, specific focus needs to be placed on the notion of the hermeneutic cycle, which postulates that the understanding of a given work gains more concrete and specific meaning(s) with every (re)reading. The more you read, the more you know? No shit, Sherlock! But the hermeneutic meaning still differs a bit. The implication of a potentially endless frame of interpretations becomes more than just a possibility. This paradox of the (hermeneutic) cycle as an endless, conceivably meaningless loop of possibilities that cannot be factually grounded and finalized may seem scientifically daunting; yet, we must remember that such academic work is always relevant within its time-frame. Any kind of hermeneutic research offers an interplay between the past and the present. Both theoretically and pragmatically, reception (of mythology in particular) uncovers veils of understanding of the analyzed works and enriches them with a temporal dimension which renews its (endless) life and meaning.
(Because once we stop reanalyzing Plato, reevaluating Dante, forgetting the great artistic, expressive nature of humanity, which spurred our understanding of ourselves and our world, we lose the connection with the past, we become lost in our present without even enjoying that elusive present moment and the future becomes a cycle not of positive reevaluation, but forceful rediscovery. While the very commercially and passively oriented world of today may not care about the greater value of Nietzsche for example, the internet as the great virtual library of our Being or even electricity as its conduit become a different matter. Intellectual and pragmatic works are as intimate as are science and religion, as they both stem from the same expressive potential and desire for comprehension that we have formed from our basic instincts of survival and reproduction.)
Comprehension of specific parts of a given text depends on the understanding of the work as a whole, yet the work itself relies on the understanding of the individual parts that it is comprised of. This again seeming paradox echoes not only the Daoist unity of the individual to the whole, but stresses the interaction of the personal and the social in general. The importance of numerous readings may be very pragmatic, scientific and psychological, since humans for the most part do not possess instantaneous storage of information without any memory leaks, but on a meta-level each reading of a work is further enhanced through the growth of the reader and deeper realization of what we might already know about the text. Relating these observations to visual literacy, “hermeneutic mastery” of a particular work, the world in which it was created and the consequent world it further creates and exenterates, we can speak of a specific kind of literacy here as well, since expertise of a given subject matter becomes the only real proficient means of further evaluating its content.
I’m sure we have all had the soul-sucking experience of having to labor through a book in school or college that was deemed “enlightening” by the powers that be, but we either didn’t see it (at that time) or couldn’t have cared less. Life experience comes into play as well, of course, but mastery of a given subject matter often has a funny side effect of sometimes suddenly beginning to put those pesky puzzle pieces together and seeing the bigger picture … I mean seeing the position on the chess board more clearly. I can personally acknowledge this hermeneutic comprehension through my rereading of for example Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces. Having first read the work at the outset of my mythological research, numerous facts and cultural details flew by me. When returning to the text a few years later, however, as my research enhanced my understanding of mythology, the seemingly nonsensical details and nuggets of stories exemplified by Campbell, more profoundly echoed through my mythological subconscious, uncovering new layers of his work and intertextually tying various loose end. And the beauty of all of it is that Campbell’s work in general echoes the depth of mythology itself, so rereadings become the norm and the necessity (especially if you’re really trying to make heads and tails of sometimes convoluted myths). Not necessarily just for the totality of your comprehension, but for the social transference of that knowledge … so you can apply a given move/position on the board in future plays.
Despite the more religious, literary background of hermeneutics, this kind of analysis can be readily applicable to comics as well, since (unlike the passive experience of movies) the reading process of a comic is active (as with literary works). This means that the reader is in charge of the “consumption” of the work in front of him or her, becoming the co-director in the interplay of intended and perceived meaning. Of course taking into consideration pacing and the flow of a comic for example, since the story may be designed to be read fast (indicating action) or with a more conservative pace, which can be reflected in both the greater amount of pictorial detail (on which the reader lingers) and more extensive (or more philosophically demanding) linguistic elements which by their symbolic nature demand greater attention from the reader.
Humans have a specific ability of taking even the most outrageously different elements and trying to find a thread that allows us to connect them, again in a sense constructing a puzzle. (This echoes Kant’s philosophy of having to artificially construct the reality around us, with which we struggle, since all the information constant whizzing all around as can often feel like ideological bombardment … and is further incomplete, because of our inherent incapability of focusing on every single element around us.) To a large extent, this puzzle solving is exactly what the experience of comics can be paralleled to. Such “reading between the lines” is less obvious in writing alone, since the reader is more meticulously guided by the author, who has to describe everything the reader is to observe and construct into an image during the process of decoding the linguistic symbols. Comics allow for a more fine-tuned approach: subtle realization through the pictures, as opposed to being directly steered by the words: in other words being concisely “fed” every word, phrase and sentence. We can call this dramatization: the ability to depict information through action. This is a powerful tool that allows interestingly complex interplay between pictures and words such as intentional conflict, as will become clear further on.
I should note that understanding of any given occurrence that is not directly connected to our personal being and to which we have no intrinsic power over, is crucially rooted in empathy. Empathy in this sense will not be seen as compassion per se, since this implies a degree of patronization, or in the words of the great Buddhist philosopher Shantideva as “sloppy sympathy”, which merely reflects one’s personal ego and sees the social sphere as subjugated to false/forced, uncommitted misunderstanding. I see empathy as part of larger social understanding and social undertaking. We can find parallels in the psychological theory of mind, the capacity to interpret the emotions and actions of others. Empathy thus becomes the necessary factor, or rather ability, to comprehend any kind of activity or work not merely through our default personal expectations and beliefs, but extending the subject matter to a broader, social sphere.
Empathy can be thus extended beyond personal means to art in general, through which it paradoxically refers back to understanding the author and in turn his or her artistic creation. While the connection to the first methodological paradigm is quite obvious, this principle also prominently relates to the work and the reader itself. Thus, the reaction to a given work becomes more complex and holistic, since we are able to understand the complex web of social interactions better by applying our own personal views as part of the broadest possible context.
TO BE CONTINUED …
For reasons of extreme prejudice, the author of this blog wishes to remain anonymous …