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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!

Re: Is This A Comic? Closure and Synthesis Part 2

Gordon McAlpin's picture

 "the unique part is we actually synthesize new panels so we can perform a closure sequence..." (emphasis mine)

It's ludicrous to call them panels. Panels are a physical, extant thing. We're not sitting down drawing new pictures to fill in the gaps, are we?

You're right that we synthesize "new" events, but these are simply implied events, and an implied sequence, not actual (depicted) events in an actual sequence.

The single panel cartoon you have there is not a comic -- a sequence of panels (or whatever) -- any more than the number 1 is a sequence of numbers.

And Derik is right; this is not at all unique to comics.

Multiplex is a twice weekly humor comic about the staff of the Multiplex 10 Cinemas and the movies that play there.

Re: Is This A Comic? Closure and Synthesis Part 2

"the idea of pairing thesis and antithesis is interesting, but i don't think it really has much to do with the definition of comics."

Coming at this from a viewpoint of argumentation theory, most theorists are with the Arisotilian thinking that there are two general forms of persuasive discourse.

Back track slightly, comics are a form of persuasive discourse in that you (as the author) are presumably attempting to persuade your readers of something or are attempting to bring them into some alternative way of thinking... Note: This statement is problematic as Hell, but should serve for present purposes.

The first general method through which to make your argument is the rhetorical method, and is the one that you are actually advocating here. Rhetorical persuasion could be understood as a process of building synthesis and cohesion that concludes in an commonality of understanding between the rhetor and his/her audience.

The counterpart to rhetoric is dialectic. Dialectic is an exchange of argument and counter-argument (thesis vs. antithesis). In contrast to rhetoric, it does not aim to draw closure between the author and the audience. Rather the goal of dialectic is simply to fundamentally shift the direction of a given dialogue.

Now it might be valid to say that comics are a fundamentally rhetorical medium (as you seem to be doing), but this would require proving that comic can be essentially dialectic.

Re: Is This A Comic? Closure and Synthesis Part 2

Why are you talking about comics in terms of arguments? There are some examples of comics as arguments, of course-- Jay Holser's "The Sandwalk Adventures" comes to mind-- but comics are, by and large, storytelling vehicles.

Okay, so technically all media are used for storytelling, and stories usually involve getting points across... but I'd rather get an answer from you than make up your response.

(Wait. This comment was made a week ago. No, six weeks ago. Darn, I missed it.) Well, I'd appreciate if anyone could answer my question. More accurately, I'd like to know when and why it would be okay to make blanket statements calling certain things arguments.

Re: Is This A Comic? Closure and Synthesis Part 2

marvelouspatric's picture

 okay.... a lot of good comments.  and, honestly, a good bit of this stuff gets talked about in part three.  still, i'll try to hit a few clarifications...


1.)  when i say we "synthesize new data" and that's what unique, the unique part is we actually synthesize new panels so we can perform a closure sequence.  

2.)  i'm not really interested in what the sequence is that people read in.  i don't think that's too important.  i assume we all take it in at a different rate and emphasize things differently when we do.  ( i do think it's important the creator of the comic leaves at little wiggle room for interpretation as possible when it comes to clarity.)  Also the issues of iconography and symbols are something I want to talk about a bit more, but not here and not now.

3.) the idea of pairing thesis and antithesis is interesting, but i don't think it really has much to do with the definition of comics.  definitely some cool stuff could be had there, which would probably the kind of stuff Formalists and Iconoclasts would do (if you're into the whole Four Tribes theory).  


thanks for reading everyone!


Re: Is This A Comic? Closure and Synthesis Part 2

Just a few quick thoughts:

I'd agree with Derik. To varying extents, every form of media & communication is susceptiple to semantics. Symbols/Icons/etc. may be defined diagetically in a dennotive sense, but the viewer/user/whatever will always connote additional cultural meanings upon those same symbols. If I recall, McCloud outlines this nearly verbatim in U. Comics.

Additionally, I'd say your agrument is very rooted in a comics as a rhetorical medium. The concept that synthesis must smoothly and coherently arrive at a point of closure/conclusion is valid, but I wonder if there aren't more interesting ways to approach comics.

What about comics as a dialectical medium? Instead of conviently pairing a thesis with an easily digestable conclusion, why don't we collide thesis with its antithesis...then we can take the newly formed thesis and collide with another antithesis?!? What would Eisenstein or Vertov produce if they were comic artists rather than filmmakers?

Re: Is This A Comic? Closure and Synthesis Part 2

CyberLord's picture

I completely agree with Derik A. Badman here.  This is not unique to comics.  Any mixed media will have these same features.  Television, movies, magazine articles that mix images with text.

Students of Design spend a lot of time trying to figure out the sequence people will view things.  I find it humorous to read about comics creators who spend inordinate amounts of time trying to block out the blacks and whites of their composition not knowing how the letterers and the colorists are going to change the image.  For instance the colorist might make a certain area of the panel, or page, bright yellow while the remainder is dark.  The eye will be drawn to the area of highest contrast first regardless of all the painstaking work of the penciller.

Typically, if you have large areas of text, the white of the word balloons is the area of highest contrast and, MOST, people will have their eyes go there first.

It might help to watch a beginning reader read a comic.  Comics are definately a learned process.  Two and three year olds can watch television and movies.  It is a rare child under the age of six that can comprehend a comic.  Even then it takes a while to understand the flow of a panel and a page.  I think that's why newspaper comics still have that straight across flow of panels or a single panel.  It's easy to learn.  The convoluted crap that crowds out some comics pages would not be tolerated by people not fluent in the medium.  

Now that I have spouted off about all of that, I must say that most of the time flow is not important.  I sometimes find that I have viewed things on a comics page in the "wrong" order.  It's not a problem.  I just go back and read it again, or view the panel or page, in the proper sequence and continue as if nothing had happened.  I have that freedom with comics and print media.  Movies and television can be frustrating when they have poor composition that leads my eyes away from needed information.  I suppose that's why Directors and Cinematagraphers get paid so much better than comics professionals.

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

Re: Is This A Comic? Closure and Synthesis Part 2

Derik Badman's picture

"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."

I'm not seeing how this is unique to comics. These same processes are used in film or reading or even a static image. It's almost inherent to any narrative that the reader/viewer fills in gaps and information that is not directly presented.