Is This A Comic? Closure and Synthesis (Part 1)

So far on our quest to define comics, I have set out my four criteria that I believe best determines whether a given work is a comic or not.  The Four Criteria are: The Intent of the Creator,  Audience Experience, Closure and Synthesis, and The Use of Visual Language.  In previous months, we’ve delved further into The Intent of the Creator and Audience Experience.  This brings us to our third criteria, Closure and Synthesis.  

What is Closure and Synthesis?  Why does this criteria include two distinct concepts?  And just how are these two things related?

To start with, let’s define each term on its own.  “Closure” is something I’m stealing…. err, I mean something I learned from Scott McCloud’s classic (and almost Biblical) Understanding Comics.  McCloud defines closure as “the phenomenon of observing the parts but perceiving the whole”  From Understanding Comics page 63.

“Synthesis” is my own term.  I define synthesis as the process of the human mind as an individual receives the elements provided in a work and then creates from those elements a new, but related element.

On the surface, synthesis looks a lot like closure.  It is true, they are similar.  But, I will contend they are not the same.  My reasons for this, as well as a further discussion of how the two relate, will come after we’ve more closely examined closure and synthesis.

Let’s start by looking at closure.

I always like to think of closure as a simple mathematical equation.  1+1=3.  Granted, I always was bad at math, but I like that equation because it shows a specific something wonderful that happens between the audience and the work.  If I show you one image and one other image, in your brain you will “add” them together to get some totally new thing.  

Your brain fills in all that data between that first panel and second.  You don’t need to see every moment to comprehend the message.  Basically, your brain creates all the panels that look like this:

Closure is based on filling in the gaps between to given known quantities. 

If I see in the first panel a person and anvil in the air above them, and I see the panel next to it containing the person lying on the ground, with an anvil on their head, my brain does the math.  In my brain, even if I am not consciously aware of it, I fill in what the most likely events were to get me to where I am in the second panel based on what I experienced in the first panel.  All of that happens in a fraction of a second, and I’m usually not even conscious that it has happened. 

I say “usually” because there can be times a creator fails to give me sufficient data to unconsciously connect the images.  For instance, there could be two panels next to each other, like this:

Now, I am reasonably certain that I’m looking at two panels that are connected, I’m just not certain how.  I fight and struggle to connect them.  In my brain, I may “close” the sequence a couple of different ways:

But, in the end, I need to settle on one of these choices.  If the sequence is really difficult, I may seek more clues to aid me, such as the context of where I found the sequence (is it part of a page?) or going on to see if there is any more information that I have not yet read (the next page?).  If there isn’t any more data, my brain will most likely settle on the option that is least offending.  By that I mean, I’ll settle on this option:

Simply because it’s the least wrong.  I don’t have to work as hard to make it fit as I would the others.  Since I haven’t seen the person in the second panel, but I see a grave, it’s easier to think that it’s his grave.  It satisfies the one question I would have, “where is the character from panel 1?” that would lead to a simple connection between these two images.  It’s the path of lease resistance, and that’s a key in closure. 

If the creator does their job, there should be little or no effort required to understand what they’re trying to communicate.  There, is, of course, the chance that I have made the wrong choice.  Closure is not an exact science, and the burden falls on the creator to give the audience as much information as possible to lead tthe the right choice as easily as possible.  

However, I probably should mention that humans are odd little critters.  While that’s just a good thing to remember in general, I mean it very specifically right now in reference to comics and closure.  If we are given images in a theoretical sequence like so….

Our little mammalian brains will attempt to close the the sequence and make a meaningful statement out of it.  We do consciously realize that this sequence is a non-sequitur.  It’s rarely used in comics, for obvious reasons, and I only mention it because if I don’t, someone is bound to bring up non-sequiturs in the comments later.  Expect me to mention more about an actual theoretical use for a non-sequitur in a later column.  

Now, the question before us, is closure unique to the experience of comics?  My answer is no. 

The process of closure is everywhere.  Any time we switch scenes in a story, change camera angles in a movie, the creators are relying on their audience to be able to realize that these two different things are connected and to attempt to figure out said connection.   However, the importance of closure to how comics function is unique.

Comics use closure every time you see a panel border or gutter.  When you read comics and you see the border or gutter, it’s like a message to your brain to activate.  You look around the border.  “Is there another panel?”  If yes, you begin that whole closure procedure we just talked about.  If the answer is “no” then your brain realizes that’s all of the data you are given.  The panel border or gutter is like a space between words.  It tells you that what you saw, whatever its makeup is, is to be treated as a single entity.  It also informs you about whether or not there is another entity that you may have to connect to.  It may look like a line or an empty space in a comic, but that gutter or border is like a big sign that says “begin closure procedure”.

Closure, at its core, is about attempting to take elements viewed together and to make a coherent whole out of them without having to add any new information.  It’s important to the definition of comics because it speaks the sequential nature of the medium.  Closure is also important because it refers to the actual process the audience goes through to read the comic.  Closure is the first of the Four Criteria that relies on effort on both the creator’s and the audience’s part to work.  If the creator does not provide enough data, the audience may get lost or have to work work extra hard to make up for it. 

Closure is all well and good when you have multiple panels, but what about single panel comics?  Is there still closure there?  Can there be closure?  To find out my answers to these questions, come back next time, when I talk about my theory of Synthesis and something else I like to call “meta-closure”.


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