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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Two weeks ago I introduced an approach to plot that harmonized Freytag, Todorov, and Neil Cohn:

Last week I used that approach to formulate Occam’s closure, a principle for determining the inferences produced by juxtaposed images:

The undrawn story content between representational images is only the minimum required to satisfy missing plot points.

The key word there is “representational,” images that, in addition to being ink or pixels, create the impression of something else, something that exists beyond the page, subjects in the real world or a story world or both. This week I’m looking at abstract images, ones that don’t represent anything else and so are just ink or pixels.

So two question:

Can a sequence of abstract images have plot?

Can abstract comics produce closure?

First, plot usually involves characters and settings and actions and events–things not found in abstract images. But a sequence of abstract images–what you can call an abstract comic–does have a set order. That’s the definition of “sequence.” A set of abstract images that doesn’t channel you down a correct viewing order isn’t a sequence. And the thing that turns a set into a sequence is, I would argue, plot.

Look at these three abstract images:

Since you apparently read English, I’m guessing you “read” them left to right. I’m also guessing you experienced them as a progression, as a sequence of transformations:

Reverse the order and you still experience a left-to-right sequence of transformations:

I suspect it’s that perception of transformation that makes it a sequence and not merely a set. So the first image is a kind of “character” and the “actions” or “events” are its changes, which is a plot. But unlike representational plots, abstract plots have no story world other than the page or screen they physically appear on. They should, however, have plots points. Image content determines those points in representational comics. What determines them for abstract comics?

Recall that Todorov divides plot into three primary sections: equilibrium, disequilibrium, equilibrium. Or what I simplify as: balance, imbalance, balance. The other two points, disruption and climax, are hinge points that bridge those major states. That makes the plot of a three-image abstract comic clearer:

But what happens if there are four images?

Is the second image now a disruption? Is the third a climax? And what if there are five images?

Is the middle image now an imbalance? What happens with six?

Are both middle images imbalances? I could keep expanding the sequence in both directions and also insert new intermediate images between the current ones. But each sequence still produces the same story: the first image becomes the last image.

Note the “first image” and the “last image” is different in each sequence, and the intermediate positions are determined by the number of images between them. This is true even if there are only two. The first image always defines the initial balance, and the last image always defines the concluding balance, regardless of how many images there are in total, including only two:

Technically Todorov has one state too many. A story only requires two: equilibrium, new equilibrium. An abstract story always begins in balance and ends in balance because that is the plot curve of all stories. But in a representational comic, opening or closing balance can be implied by image content. Look at the Peanuts example from last week:

The two-panel sequence begins with a disruption and ends with a climax, leaving the beginning, middle, and end implied. Look at the three-panel sequence of the rolling snowball:

Shultz doesn’t draw the snowball coming to a stop and then remaining at rest. We infer it. The plot positions of representational images are determined by their content because we imagine undrawn events occurring in the story world. But the only story world of an abstract comic is the surface of its page or screen. There’s no other place beyond it. A drawing of Charlie Brown is a representation of the character Charlie Brown who exists in a story world and so as a concept in the viewer’s head. An abstract character exists only on the page. The drawing doesn’t represent it. The drawing is it. There’s no undrawn content either. In abstract comics, what you see is all that exists, both physically and conceptually.

That means that closure doesn’t exist in abstract comics. There’s literally no place for it. Look at Occam’s rule of closure again:

The undrawn story content between representational images is only the minimum required to satisfy missing plot points.

Closure is the inferences produced by two juxtaposed images. But if plot requires a minimum of only two states–old balance, new balance–then two sequenced abstract images have no missing plot points to satisfy. When applied to abstract comics, Occam’s razor is more like an axe. It chops out closure entirely. Closure applies only to representational comics. Viewers don’t infer anything between abstract images.


[If you’re interested, this is part of a four-part sequence. It begins here and continues here and then right here and ends here.]

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