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 …