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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Viewers tend to imagine the simplest solution to the puzzles created by placing two images next to each other. Since Scott McCloud published Understanding Comics in 1993, those puzzle-solving inferences have been called “closure.” To apply it to comics, McCloud focuses on the gutter, “that space between the panels,” as the site where “human imagination takes two separate images and transforms them into a single idea.”

McCloud borrowed the term from Gestalt psychology, which describes how, for example, a viewer mentally fills in the gaps between dots to perceive a dotted line as a “line” and not simply disconnected dots. In comics, viewers fill in gaps in a metaphorical sense—even though there’s usually a literal gap between the images too. But filling that conceptual space doesn’t involve imagining more images. We don’t mentally draw new panels. We just understand the implied content. The information is image-less.

In other visual arts, diptychs often create the Gestalt effect of closure by dividing a photograph in half or painting across two abutting canvases to create one visual field that is then physically framed in two sections and hung side by side. Medieval diptychs include literal panels joined by hinges—another metaphor for the gutter (which is itself a metaphor). Since “closure” has been the working term for three decades, I’m giving it a vacation this week and using “hinges” instead.

So in comics, hinged panels are any two-side-by-side images that connect in the viewer’s mind. Usually that connection is spatiotemporal. Unless forced to think otherwise, we tend to assume that the second image depicts the same setting after the shortest likely interval has passed. I was on vacation with my family in Europe last month, so I”ve created some hinged panels to illustrate. We were in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Austria–though in Italy these might be called “fumetti,” the Italian term for photo comics.

The first four provide a typical spatiotemporal hinge, sometimes with the viewer’s point of view remaining stationary and sometimes moving forward through the setting or shifting angles, as the subjects of the images move too:


The expected forward-moving hinge is so strong that it doesn’t matter what order the images occurred in reality. The next four hinged panels actually reverse the order that I snapped the photos, but the effect is the same. Time still seems to be moving forward–mainly because nothing within the images prevent that assumption:

The temporal hinge also helps to explain the spatial hinge, especially when the setting doesn’t repeat any overt elements. A viewer probably makes sense of the next pairing by inferring that the figures in the first image walked until they arrived at the cafe in the second–even though the backgrounds don’t have much in common.

But how much time passes in the hinge? Usually the shortest possible. So a viewer would assume that the above daytime images occur on the same day. But what about the next hinged panels? Unlike walkers wearing the same clothes as they walk and then later sit, the mannequins don’t give any action clues. Is this an hour later, a day, a month?

In addition to that forward-moving temporal hinge, the next hinge also connects the images by their internal shapes: the triangle of the first person’s body followed by the triangle of the next person’s arms. There’s a thematic hinge too. Both are photographs of people taking photographs of a Klimt painting. I wonder if that thematic effect overrides the temporal hinge so that a viewer doesn’t necessarily assume the two panels are in chronological order?

And what about this statue? The change in background quality and silhouette might imply a temporal hinge of several hours–or is that just because of the change of angle?

These next panels reverse angles too. And if you assume the point-of-view represents a character (the photographer), then you assume that they depict the central building at different moments in time. But without that assumption, would they instead appear to be simultaneous from two angles of an omniscient visual narrator?

And these panels are hinged by an effect very near to the original meaning of “Gestalt.” The two panels almost line-up, the second revealing that the cemetery in the first is raised. And to the degree that they do line-up, they probably also appear to be simultaneous. The gestalt hinge eliminates the forward-moving temporal hinge.

Things get even stranger here. Two versions of a Klimt: the original and a fake. Which is which? Which was photographed first? I suspect the hinge in this case doesn’t trigger any temporal inferences–or rather the two version are understood to exist simultaneously, and so their image here do too.

And what now? Two windows, but not quite the same window. Is this only a thematic hinge and so temporally the two can be read in either order? Or do you understand the figure in the second image as having stepped into the frame after the first image–and so a forward-moving temporal hinge despite the windows not matching?

The front of a painting and the back of a painting–or really a different work of art pretending to be the back of the first painting. Accepting the illusion though, the front and back of a painting obviously exist simultaneously, so do the images too? Or do you imagine someone flipping the painting over during a hinged moment?

And last and least: is there any spatiotemporal relationship between these two images? Or is the hinge entirely thematic: oddly placed mannequins? The actual temporal leap of the photos is about a year, and the spatial leap is continental, but the hinge doesn’t imply that.

You’re now free to return to your regularly scheduled terminology. But I do wish we could toss out the unnecessarily convoluted “closure” and replace it with a clearer term like “hinges.”


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