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Closure in the World of Comics

I used to read comics when I was younger – most often Archie comics or X-Men comics. I was fascinated by the stark contrast they provided to books; in a way, they felt more intriguing. I was drawn by the color; the life-like characters; the over-the-top dialogue. Little did I know that I was being drawn by so much more than the superficial elements of these comics. Little did I know how little I appreciated comics and how effective they can be as a medium for artistry and communication.

Many things lie hidden within comics. Between every panel (the “frames” in which comics are created) in a comic book, we’re committing closure – “mentally completing that which is incomplete based on past experience”. Closure is much like when we “read between the lines” in a novel. Closure ranges from very simple to very complex forms. One simple example is how we instantly recognize a colon and closing parenthesis, A.K.A. 🙂, as a happy face.

The act of closure is something we do so often, that in most cases it goes by unnoticed. Closure is something that I take for granted, and I’m sure most of us do; it’s practically second nature. The past few times I’ve read a comic book, I never stopped to think about every time I committed closure. Granted, it’s a lot to think about when you’re committing closure between every single panel. However, it is between these panels, in the gutters of the comic book, where much of its artistry lies hidden.

It’s truly incredible how much unfolds between the panels in a comic book. Time and place can change in the blink of an eye. There is so much that is left unsaid in the negative space between panels, that it’s really up to us – the reader – to draw meaning from them. Scott McCloud elegantly expresses the act of closure as “…an intimacy surpassed only by the written word, a silent, secret contract between creator and audience.” According to McCloud, the art and craft of comics is how the creator chooses to honor this secret contract.

Comics are often relegated to a “lower-status” of intellectual discourse, one that isn’t up to par with the great novels of our time. McCloud makes a strong case for the comic book as an art form that, in my mind (thanks to McCloud) is as powerful and effective as a novel, film, song, or play. Comics are often under-appreciated because of their comical nature (pun maybe intended?), as they’re commonly used to tell the stories of superheroes saving the world from potential disaster, or suburban teenagers playing practical jokes on each other. I believe the lack of appreciation for comics stems from our perception of comic books as merely that – a book with cartoon characters and a predictable storyline. Comics are misrepresented by the popularity of superhero comic books.

All of this harkens back to how comics are defined. Are comics sequential art? Sequential visual art? Sequentially juxtaposed visual art? It’s difficult to define comics – many of these descriptions could be definitions for animation, or film. McCloud defines comics as “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.” I will admit that I greatly underestimated the potential of comics before reading McCloud’s book, and only had eyes for comics as a home for Batman, Wolverine, Archie, and the like. Given McCloud’s definition, comics are vehicles for artistic expression that go beyond superheroes. Comics have existed for centuries, from Egyptian and Mayan hieroglyphs to Japanese scrolls and European “collage-novels.” Comics, in their many forms, have been employing iconography for a very long time. Words themselves are the ultimate abstraction, effectively employed as icons to represent different meanings.

Reading this book was incredibly enlightening and gave me a much-needed deeper appreciation for comics than what they’re commercially and popularly known for. The fact that McCloud wrote this book in 1993, and that it continues to be relevant in today’s media environment, speaks to the book’s insight and profound importance. I’d be interested in hearing other people’s experiences with comics and how they perceive comics’ role in our society today.

3 comments to Closure in the World of Comics

  • Susan Ettenheim

    I’ve never been a comic book reader and yet I would wait every week for the paper to see the newest comics of the week. I idolized the creators of Snoopy and was amused by the creator of Doonsbury. I met and admired the creator of Bathroom Girls when I was first working in online community and it was then that I saw the power of a story told in comics.

    Misako, the creator of popular Manga stories has also been an inspiration to my work. Her stories are an interesting mix of commentary on pop culture, love in the modern world and the global nature of the human condition – understanding and misunderstanding.

    I agree that McCloud’s book remains a relevant and good read but I think it’s as much because he talks about the power of compelling composition as as much as the theory of a good story. How does one instruct someone on dynamic viewpoints or over the shoulder shots? McCloud accomplishes it by strong examples that model the very rhythm and pacing of a good story that we would all like to achieve.

    Today, I picked up the newest New Yorker and there were at least 5 good chuckles and a laugh from just reading the comics. My experience is that comics, like animation today, can be powerful commentators of our society.

  • Nancy

    Read all the other posts on this book… fascinating what you all took from it.

  • As an adult, I’ve rediscovered comics and developed a greater appreciation for the medium. As Sam mentioned in one of the other comics posts, the burgeoning indie scene is kind of eclipsed by the mainstream adoption of comics (ironically through non-comic outlets like TV, movies, and events/conventions).

    When you start to consume different comics from this deluge of publishing you begin to see the breadth of quality: not all comics are created equal. How well they are drawn isn’t the only factor; hell, sometimes fantastic comics are drawn quite poorly. “Cowboys and Aliens” was lauded for its storytelling but the visuals were horrible. Many web comics use very simple drawings (see xkcd) but are praised for their content (often fandom and general nerdery).

    What I have especially grown to appreciate is the importance of layout. Everything from naturally guiding the user to which is the next dialogue bubble or panel to read next, to pacing a story using the constraints of the form to your advantage (most web comics stick to just 3 panels, comic books can do big reveals by using the turn of a page, comics on phones can be constrained to one panel visible at a time) can really make or break a comic, even if the story is amazing.

    I’m interested in where digital comics will head. Mainstream digital comic books are just scanned in versions of the paper ones (yes, Comixology has an office in New York City where they physically scan in paper comics on behalf of the publishers – absolutely ridiculous). Even the “digital firsts” tend to stick to the page-by-page layout of the physical analogs. There has been some experimentation in this realm, but nothing seems to have caught on. I’ve heard that some publishers are plying with augmented reality, where you would use your smart phone with a physical comic to unlock supplemental material. I haven’t read McCloud’s book, so I’m not sure how well his teachings carry over to these experimental digital outlets.