Is This A Comic? Closure and Synthesis (Part 2)

Last month, we began delving into my third of Four Criteria which I propose help to define comics, Closure and Synthesis.  We looked at what has been a widely (though not universally) accepted concept of closure, best defined by Scott McCloud as “the phenomenon of observing the parts but perceiving the whole.”  This time around we’re going to be further exploring the other half of the criteria, synthesis.

I define synthesis as the process of the human mind to take the elements provided to them in a work and to create from them a new, but related element.  Closure was about taking parts, specifically individual panels, and realizing they were part of a larger whole at the same time.  Closure causes us to combine the panels into the message.  Closure says nothing, however, about what happens inside the panels themselves!  Closure only deals with assembling whole panels with other whole panels.

Synthesis is a lot like closure, only it also speaks to what is happening inside the panel as well.  For instance, in any given panel, you can have several things; a character, a caption, a word balloon, scenery, props, or a sound effect to name a few.  Further more, let’s assume we actually have more than one in your most typical comic panel.  We can have a panel of a superhero, or a panel of a building, or a panel of a guy holding a gun.  Or, we could have one panel where the superhero is on top of a building where a guy is pointing a gun at him with a caption that says, “Joey got the drop on Doc Wonderment” and a word balloon coming from Doc with the text “What the…”, with a “bang” sound effect coming from the gun.  Wow, that’s a lot of stuff!  But, in your head, you’ve already assembled it all into something coherent.  That, my friends, is synthesis.

Let’s step back and take it all apart again, this time synthesizing the pieces into a whole in slow motion.  It should be noted that my brain’s sequence of assembly may very well be different than yours in the minor details.  This is just an example of how one may synthesize a particular scene.  Your mileage may very depending on your own reading style.

Okay, let’s begin.  Now, one of the first things I glom onto when I read a comic is any actual words, be they in captions, word balloons, or sound effects.  In my brain, I tend to give them the hierarchy of "word balloon > caption> sound effect" — but that’s just me.  Since I read English, and hey, these words are in English, I would probably start at the top left hand corner.  Thus, the first element I read is “Joey got the drop on Doc Wonderment.”  Next, I would read “What the…?”, and lastly the “bang” sound effect.

While not the focus of this month’s discussion, I would also realize that the “Joey got the…” caption is in fact a caption, and not spoken by any characters in the panel.  Doc’s “What the…” I would attribute to him because I understand the function of a word balloon.  And finally, I realize the “bang” is a sound not a spoken word because I know how to read sound effects.  (Let’s leave to a future essay more about why we know these things when we read comics.)

Now, let’s look at the objects in the panel.  By objects, I’m referring to everything that is not a word or a location.  In our example, I see an object of a man in a costume, another man jumping, and a gun in the jumping man’s hand.  Finally, let’s take a look at the “set”.  The set is everything that I haven’t yet mentioned.  This would be the rooftop the three objects on are as well as the background behind them.

All of these elements have now been read.  My brain is processing the data.  In this case, a couple of things happen, in no particular order.  My brain realizes that “bang” is a sound, particularly a sound associated with a gun.  Since my brain identified an object as a gun, it would probably pair those two things up.  Since I’m at the gun, let’s look at who is holding the gun.  My brain recalls that someone named “Joey” got “the drop” on someone named “Doc Wonderment”.  My brain realizes that “getting the drop” on someone is an euphemism for surprising someone, more specifically, a surprise attack.  Guns are used to attack, so my brain comes to the conclusion that the person using the gun must be Joey.  This is further confirmed by the fact that Joey is read to be in motion, jumping down from above.  Finally, that can only mean that the last object in the panel is Doc Wonderment.  My brain understands that he is saying “What the…?” which would be a term of surprise.  If he is surprised, it must be because Joey “got the drop” on him.  Thus, my brain now concludes that Doc Wonderment is surprised because Joey jumped out behind him and shot a gun at him.  Which is probably the same conclusion you all reached as well.  And, of course, this all happened inside our heads so fast that we weren’t even conscious of it!

It seems obvious, doesn’t it?  Of course our brains put all these things together.  And, it’s not something really all that unique to comics, is it?  Our brains are constantly pulling different data from different senses to give us a complete picture.  Our brains are always synthesizing all this data into a coherent whole.  

Yet, there is something about synthesis that is unique to comics, and that is the fact that we also synthesize data that we are never presented.  Think back to the example above.  We only have this one panel to go on, but yet we all assume that Joey is jumping down.  Why?  We never had a panel of Joey up above.  We also assume that if Joey is jumping down, he is also going to land.  Once again, we have not been presented with any evidence of this.  Yet, our brains fill in those gaps.  If Joey is coming down, at some point he had to have been up.  So, our brain, if asked for it, synthesizes a panel of Joey up above, preparing to leap.  Once it has synthesized that panel, it performs the closure procedure to get us to this panel so it all makes sense.  But, it’s not really closure, because it’s based on our own synthesis, which is based on our own speculation.  I like to call this event “para-closure”.  Para-closure is when our brains create a second (or third panel and then connect it to the given panel via the typical closure procedure.

Another term I’d like to throw in at this point is “meta-closure”.  Meta-closure is two or more specific elements in a single panel are tied together, such as a word balloon and the person speaking it.  If para-closure helps us to read a whole panel after everything has been synthesized, meta-closure helps us to pieces together elements during the synthesis process.  Meta-closure is about helping our brain related the visual elements we’re given to the correct sense.  If there is a bang and a gun, meta-closure tells us that the bang came from the gun and that “bang” is a sound, which would engaged our sense of hearing if we encountered a real gun being fired.  The cool thing about this is it allows our brain to conjure up that sound for us to “hear” inside our own head.  It engages our sense of hearing, even though the medium accesses our brains only through our eyes.  

We’ve defined closure and now synthesis.  The big question now is why are these two part of the same criteria and how do they both work together to define comics?  Come back next month as we pull it all together!


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