Proving a Point

By | Tuesday, January 16, 2007 3 comments
I've been having an interesting discussion with plok, concerning the nature of comics and communication. That's given me the idea to try an experiment. Let's look at this comic I threw together using imagry pulled from the Internet...

Now let's look at the same artwork, but with different text...

And once more...

We have here three very different stories with varying degrees of interest and/or excitement. But the artwork is identical throughout. Take a look at the comic without any text...

The different images really have nothing in common with one another, other than the fact that I've arranged them in sequence. In the earlier examples, I used the text to tie one image to the next, creating stories (of a sort) but the images by themselves tell no story whatsoever. Any story a reader might suppose exists is only whatever the reader imposes on it him/herself.

So, while the first three images are comics, the fourth is not. A reader cannot suppose with any accuracy what the writer may or may not intend without the benefit of some accompanying text. Maybe it's a story about global domination, but maybe it's just the story of a man who likes to watch British sci-fi on TV. As a reader, you can't know unless I, as the writer, tell you. A story can be invented for the artistic sequence, but it cannot be inferred.

This is an extreme example of a comic ceasing to be a comic when an element of it is removed. But most comics are not created in such a fashion and there's a decided grey area on whether or not a comic can still be considered a comic with certain elements missing. It seems to me that the defining characteristic is whether or not the story "reads" with any clarity towards the authors' original intent. And since that is dependent upon each reader as an individual, that cut-off point is going to vary with each reader as an individual. What may "read" cogently for one person may not for someone else.

And that's probably a big part of why we, collectively, have not been able to definitively define "comics".
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3 comments:

plok said...

Of course, neither can we thoroughly define any other thing in our lives that's complex enough to be interesting...

But that's a whole 'nother topic. Anyway, funny stuff, Sean! However, I note you did provide a bit of a through-line in the serial panels anyway, by making the first two "man and world" (common enough visual shorthand in our network-addicted advertising universe) and then tossing in three images that feature monitor screens. So, not quite a "zero distribution". Was that a deliberate choice on your part, I wonder? It's interesting...I think someone who was told that this was intended to show a particular story would naturally focus on the schematic panel as the only possible "key" to ordering the potential meanings, here...

I'll do one:

Human beings used to be confined to their material lives on the planet Earth, and used technology to try and improve their lot, but once we learned how to upload our consciousnesses we didn't need technology anymore -- now we are technology, and can live any kind of virtual lives we wish to, just as if we'd become our own escapist fantasies.

Gee, that was kinda fun! But the minimal through-line gives me just one moment of pause: that some of the different images do have something in common with each other makes the story inaccurately supposable, but not exactly unsupposable. I think I'd still be curious to see if there could be a serial presentation of images that hands the reader nothing to work with...

Hmm. Must think on't.

The images were basically pulled largely from a top-of-mind search. So while there was something less than complete randomness in which images I chose, that was by design. I intended to select five images that could be interpretted in several ways but would not be completely unrelated.

That said, what you're doing in noting the three-monitors thing is the basic human instinct to see patterns. Your brain, in an effort to make sense in the images you were presented with, noticed a man-world connection, and a screen-monitor connection. This actually leads to why I chose five images instead of three or four -- so that a greater number of free-form associations could be made.

You could also argue that panels 1, 3 and 5 feature a person, while 2 and 4 do not. You could argue that panels 2 and 3 are illustrations while 1, 4 and 5 are photographs. You could argue that panels 3 and 5 have multiple images in them, while 1, 2 and 4 have a single image. You could argue that panels 2, 3, 4 and 5 show an object in its entirety, while panels 1 and 5 show only part of an object. (Panel 5 shows a full TV set, but only a portion of the actors.) You could argue that panels 1, 2 and 4 have colored backgrounds, and are therefore "bounded", while panels 3 and 5 have no background and are open to the rest of the page. All of which are perfectly valid.

BUT they (as well as the monitor-screen association you made) are all arbitrary distinctions made by the viewer which may or may not have been intentional by the original author. You, in your subconscious human need to categorize, imposed an order of sorts where none really existed. You're inventing a relationship -- a story, if you will -- instead of inferring one.

So, to your final point then, ANY collection of images will have some "pattern" if only because the viewer imposes one. Apple caught some minor, early flak with their iPod because people thought it favored certain songs and artists over others; however, the randomize feature truely did select tracks at random, and people were subconsciously assigning music patterns that simply were not there... inventing instead of inferring.

And THAT all goes back to my original point that a story does not necessarily exist with the pictures alone. You can create a story from a set of images, but one is not necessarily presented to you. One might say that a comic is a sequence of images that tells A STORY, not a sequence of images that tells any of A NUMBER OF STORIES.

plok said...

And yet Watchmen does succeed in telling a great number of different stories with the same pictures and even the same words, all of which stories can coexist in the reader's mind fruitfully at the same time, even sparking an awareness of greater connection when they're in there. Many valid stories. One can use multivalence as easily as not using it, in fact Grant Morrison uses little else, since he's so fond of...how did he put it? Roomy stories, full of gaps for the reader to fill in with himself. And yet...not shapeless gaps, that will accept any reading at all as a valid one. Gaps that only fit the connections Grant is looking for. Or Alan. Or, y'know, anyone who likes to employ this device when they're writing.

Not that I disagree with you, of course! But having been neatly refuted in one area, I'll switch to playing devil's advocate over in this new one...

Although, also, it's actually something I believe in: multivalent symbolism, used intentionally to create definite storytelling effects...that is, definite in the sense of not invented. As far as I can see, Moore intended each and every one of his parallel meanings simultaneously -- completely possible to do, in fact I even manage it myself from time to time! Although in my case no one should expect to hear any readers saying "wow, it works on so many levels!"...

Can we call this "allusive strata", maybe?

After I read Jim's Kirby Design Meme entry, I checked out "golem" on Wikipedia -- a stunning amount of material there that suddenly became part of the allusive strata of Fantastic Four in my mind. And yet, clearly not intended. And yet, clearly totally intended!

(Although I don't want you to think I never heard of a golem before, it's just that I never bothered to read up on it...)

Anyway, I do agree with your basic point, however...questions remain, I think.

This was not very well put, but it's late. I may take another run at it.