Is This A Comic? Audience Experience

Previously, we’ve been trying to nail down a better way to define “comic” or “comics.” This led me to the creation of the Four Criteria: Intent of the Creator, Audience Experience, Synthesis & Closure, and The Use of Visual Language. Only when all four are met would I consider something to be a comic. Last month, we took a closer look at Creator Intent (which I’ll admit is the weakest of the four and the hardest to explain at this point in time). For our purposes for now, let’s just say that Creator Intent means that comics don’t happen by accident, but are purposefully created. This brings us to the second Criteria, Audience Experience.

While each of the other criteria directly affect how the work is made and almost solely rely on the choices the creator of the work makes, this is the one criteria that has very little to do with the creator. I propose that Audience Experience means that a comic must be experienced by the audience in a very particular way in the work’s original published iteration.

Warren Ellis once said that comics are unique because when you read a comic, you “come in alone.” What Ellis meant by that was comics are, by nature, meant to be read by an individual. Comics are not a medium that a group experiences together. Unlike movies, television, or even galley shows, comics are meant to be experienced individually. Granted, more than one person can read a comic, but people do not read comics together.

There is a very simple reason for this, that I think is at the core of my Audience Experience Criteria. People read at different rates. I think the key of Audience Experience is the fact the individual is controlling the rate at which they experience the work.

When I read a comic, I can decide to linger on certain panels longer than others. I may choose, when I read a comic, to linger over the top panel of the page. Someone else may choose to linger over a different panel. A third person may just buzz through all the art, focusing on the text. A fourth may not give much importance to the text and instead study each and every panel on a page. Each of these four people is experiencing the same piece of work, but each is controlling their own rate of experience. If two people are reading a comic together, invariably, one will say to the other, “Are you ready?” The odds that both readers will finish a page at the same time are incredibly small. And, even if they finish one page (or screen to be scrolled through or clicked through) at the same time, there is virtually no guarantee the next page will be the same.

The power to control the rate is given to each individual audience member. Certainly the creator can use certain tools (which we’ll talk about in depth in our section on Visual Language) to make the audience member realize different amounts of time have passed. However, how much time has passed in a comic is not the same thing as how long it takes the audience to experience it. I may read a comic in five minutes, and you may read it in ten. However, if we were both asked how much time was covered in the comic, we would both give the same answer, despite the fact that we both experienced it at different rates.

Now note, that I have said that the audience must control their rate of experience in the work’s original published iteration. There are two reasons for this. First of all, as classes about comics and gallery exhibitions of “comic art” become more and more commonplace, there are times an audience member may experience a new work en masse, as opposed to individually. The work didn’t suddenly stop being “comics” just because each page of artwork was put on a wall in a room, or it was projected on a screen for a class. However, I think this is because the work was not designed for that. The creator of a comic rarely (if ever) designs a work to be hung in a gallery or projected on a screen to a large audience. Granted, these are two very different situations and both have different impacts on how the audience experience a work.

Let’s talk about the gallery setting first. Galleries are usually full of people who walk around and look at the work presented to them. In comics, let’s assume for our example, these are individual pages of work hung on the walls in a room. In an ideal setting, a person can take all the time they want in a gallery. However, from personal experience, i’ve learned this isn’t always the case. Galleries often have crowds in them. Crowds can affect the rate of experience in two ways. The first way is if you are part of a large group or taking an official “tour” of the gallery. You may even have a tour guide or a headphone telling you things about the work. The minute you introduce any kind of outside influence to your experience, you surrender your control over the rate of experience. The guide makes those decisions for you. They may tell you to focus on a certain page or panel, and they may even skip over other pages or panels completely. Even if you do not have an official guide and are just part of a random mob of people, you may have trouble getting close enough to a piece to view it, get pushed on by the crowd before you’re done, or have to miss a piece entirely just because there’s too many people by it and you can’t see it.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s really cool that galleries and the official Art World are paying attention to comic art and putting it on display. However, I don’t feel it’s the ideal or even adequate way to experience comics. The creator designed each of those panels and pages to be viewed in a sequence or pattern. In a gallery setting, there is a good chance you will not experience it that way. Not only that, but often times (less so in our digital age), pages are created in black and white with the color and even the lettering added at a later point in production. What you see on the wall of a gallery might not even be the complete comic that the creator wanted you to experience. What you’re seeing in that setting is not “comics” but “comic art”. I would classify this experience squarely as para-comic, simply because it is not the whole thing that the creator meant for an audience to see. If something is deliberately left out by a third party that you were supposed to see, then the work has become something else, (something I classify as a para-comic). It may be related to comics, but it is not comics.

The second setting I want to talk about is another that is becoming more and more common, the experience of comics displayed as part of a lecture. We’re getting to the point where being able to take a class or even earn a degree majoring in comics is not unusual. Heck, even I have a BFA from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, where I majored in Comic Illustration. (Please hold all jokes about how good of a school it can be if I graduated.) MCAD also has been known to host various guest artists and lectures, and even seminars. It is an event from one of these seminars that really brought to my attention how important the way an audience experiences a comic is.

I was attending a week-long seminar taught by Scott McCloud. The usual course structure was a Keynote slide presentation to start off, with hands-on exercises to follow. One morning, McCloud showed us a beautiful comic, projected on the big screen. In this comic, there were no words, and it was incredibly dense and abstract. (I wish I could tell you the name of it…. if anyone reading this comic was there and knows what the comic was called, let me know.) We, as a group, would stare at the screen until McCloud clicked away the image and brought the next one up. At the end, our interpretations of the comic were all reasonably varied. One page, especially dense and abstract was a particular sticking point in the discussion. The point was brought up that you could give different parts of it emphasis, depending on how much time you focused on it. Which then made me realize, that control was taken out of our hands! We, the readers, were forced to allow someone else, in this case McCloud, control the rate of experience. I said, “We failed the comic.”

What did I mean when I said that? Quite frankly, when I thought about it, I realized that the cartoonist had built the comic to be experienced by everyone differently, which included the amount of time they spent on each image provided. Now, sure, I may have chosen to spend the time McCloud gave me had I been left the choice, but I do not believe everyone would have made the same choice. By taking the control of rate away from each individual, we did not experience the comic to its fullest extent. Not only that, but, we also did not experience the comic in its original published form. Some comics are designed to be scalable, seen at different screen resolutions, or on different sizes of paper. Some are not. In this particular instance, the comic was not designed to be up-scaled or projected. I dare say, that because of this second-generation viewing of the comic, something was lost in the translation.

The obvious question now is, “Should comics never be displayed in a way other than their original published form?” The answer is, of course, no. I’m not suggesting that. What I am suggesting, however, is that one should be aware of what the original published form of the work is. Keep that in mind in the other instances it is displayed, whether it be as part of a gallery show or a lecture.

Comics have long been a solitary audience experience. Perhaps this comes from the fact that comics have always been presented as something to be read. A lot of the terms used in comics come from the world of reading. We have “comic books,” “graphic novels,” and while we may “watch” television or “see” a movie, we “read” comics. Reading is a very individualized ability. Many people may read in a similar fashion, but it is rare that two people will read, and interpret what they’ve read, the exact same way or at the same rate.

The Criteria of Audience Experience is important, because it speaks to that solitude of audience. It is about not only how one controls the rate of their experience, but how the individual is allowed to choose his or her own moments for emphasis. It is the individuality of experience that is unique to comics, and that is what this criteria celebrates.


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