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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”.

Don't forget cultural differences!

CyberLord's picture

Differing cultures will fill any gaps in information that a comics creator leaves behind with imagery most appropriate to the reader's given assumptions about human behavior.

This is not trivial.  We tend to view things from an entirely Western European perspective.  The internet is world-wide!  This reminds me of something I read once about how "Kingpin" from Spider-man comics was interpreted in the Netherlands or somewhere in Northern Europe.  They had no word for "Kingpin" so the name of the character had to be changed to Ben Blocky* or something equally ridiculous sounding to someone raised in the United States.

As creators of comics move to the internet we have to keep in mind that our images will be interpreted differently in other lands.  Pantomime is most easily mis-interpreted, but words are also mis-interpreted.  Anyone familiar with the first versions of "Naruto" that were translated into English and posted on the internet will remember the shock of seeing the tame version of "Naruto" that appeared on "Cartoon Network".  I can't watch the "Cartoon Network" version.  It is not just bad, it is wrong!  They change the meaning of episodes.  I can only assume that they are trying to tame it and make it palatable to young children and their parents.  (Yes, that is a cultural assumption based upon what I know about television in the U. S. )

Back on topic: I remember that we are to use all four of your criteria when defining something as a comic and I am keeping an open mind though it may not seem as if I am.  :)

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort but where he stands at times of challenge and discovery. -- Martin Luther King, Jr.---------CyberLord

if different cultures will

marvelouspatric's picture

 if different cultures will fill in the gaps differently, doesn't that mean that if i read something not from my culture (such as manga) i should familiarize myself with how they fill the gaps so I can read it correctly?  


i think you've got a good point about cultural differences in how things can be read.  there will be more about that in an upcoming column.

Absolutely, you must learn

CyberLord's picture

Absolutely, you must learn what a foreign creator intended as oppossed to what you THOUGHT you read, just as they must learn to properly interpret anything created from a culture different from their own.

What I suspect may occur in the future is a great homogenizination of culture.  Whether that will be a good thing or not will be up to future people to determine.  One example of this is spoken English in the United States.  Before radio there were many more distintive dialects and accents.  With the advent of national radio, and movies with sound, the use of language has diminished to the point where it can be difficult to tell where a person is from just by the way they pronounce words.  Most everyone speaks New York or Los Angeles because those are the two great media centers of the U. S.  Southern accents, and others can still be heard (Boston quickly comes to mind), but many have been diluted if they have not been eradicated.  It's amazing for me to hear people from Georgia or other areas of the South who do not have the same accent my cousin had when she came to California from Louisiana back in the 1960s.  People from the South tend to sound a lot like me, which is basic Los Angeles (don't confuse this with Valley Girl).

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort but where he stands at times of challenge and discovery. -- Martin Luther King, Jr.---------CyberLord

a little work is good

Derik Badman's picture

If the creator does their job, there should be little or no effort required to understand what they’re trying to communicate.

I have to disagree with this. Why can't there be effort involved? It's good to work the brain sometimes and certain types of work demand it. The creator can't always spoonfeed the reader.

I remain unconvinced about "non sequiturs". It's easy to make them up in a couple panels, but in a longer work you will almost never find panels that are completely nonsensical/meaningless in the context of a work. In fact, these types of changes from one panel to the next are generally those that require thought, context, and a bit more work.

when i say "little effort" i

marvelouspatric's picture

 when i say "little effort" i mean in assembling the message.  for instance, imagine that you don't read english as your primary language.  you know words and literal meanings, but idioms and such are difficult.  you see that i've written, "The desert was an unending sea of sand."  It should take you little effort to figure out how the words I use fit together and be able to assemble the message.  The true meaning of what I've said, that i'm comparing a desert to an ocean, may take a little more work.  that sort of work, such as subtext, is okay.  but i'm against making the reader work to figure out just what is going on at a literal level.

No more closure please

Neil Cohn's picture

Saying that "closure isn't an exact science" may just be tantamount to saying "closure doesn't actually exist, but against all evidence let's keep on believing it because it's easier than the alternatives." As it's described here and in McCloud, closure has voluminous problems with it.  

The biggest problem is that it's appealing to the unseen rather than simply stating that you're integrating the given information. In fact, your examples provide a great example for this.

For your two panel strip, you provide a guy looking sad and a grave. You hypothesize, under closure, that he either kills himself and that is his grave, or that he leaves flowers on someone else's grave. BUT... if those are potential ways to "fill that gap" then there are an infinite number of possibilities for what can go between them. Why not an anvil falling on his head? Why not an anvil falling on someone else's head? Why not any other gajillion possibilities?

Your explanations is that we take the path of least resistance. I would submit that the real "easiest solution" is simply that he's looking at the grave. All we're given is him and the grave, and so we integrate that information — no "closure" for an "extra event" needed. Don't your described infinite possibilities run directly counter to your claim that "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." Your interpretations are entirely about adding new information.

Even more though, it seems like this "cognitive" handwaving is totally unnecessary for your defining of "comics." If it's about sequence — just say that. You don't need pseudoscience to make that argument.

------- Studying the Visual Language of "Comics" -

ah, yes you are so right,

marvelouspatric's picture

 ah, yes you are so right, neil.  closure does have a lot of issues.  and you're also right that there are a gajillion possible panels that could occur.  for the sake of the example, i gave two.  i reckon, i could have kept going.  

i also think that the easiest solution for any two people may not be the same.  i think people do add new information.  whether they should or not is another issue.  ideally, people should only read what is there and not bring anything else to the table.  but, i think people do.  

it's because of this that the creator of the comic should be very careful about the information they choose to give.  i think it is very much up to the creator(s) of the work to make sure that the give the information that will help everyone reach the same conclusion.  ambiguity is the enemy.

i don't think "closure" as i've described it (and i'm going off a lot of what mccloud said about it) is real the entire picture.  that's why this is only the first part.  I think closure is something that can happen, but it's not enough on its own because people do add new information.  and, sometimes, it's important that people create a new piece of information based on what is given.  but, that's for the next column.