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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

My article “Clarifying Closure” appears in the latest issue of the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics (which is available here). In it, I suggest several categories of inferences to account for the broader concept of closure, the mental leaps needed to conceptually connect two physically connected images:

Recurrent: images reference a shared subject.

Spatial: images share a diegetic space.

Temporal: images share a diegetic timeline.

Causal: a common quality of temporal closure in which an action is understood to have occurred between images.

Embedded: an image perceived as multiple images.

Non-sensory: non-spatiotemporal differences between representational images.

Associative: dissimilar images represent a shared subject.

Gestalt: images perceived as a single image interrupted by a visual ellipsis.

Pseudo-gestalt: discursively continuous but representationally non-continuous images.

Linguistic: images relate primarily through accompanying text.

The article includes illustrated examples by Leigh Ann Beavers and lists a range of actual comics that contain further examples. I would like to follow-up on those.

First, I offered an earlier, shorter list of four types of closure a couple of years ago, with an example from Watchmen here.

More recently, I wrote about (mostly) spatiotemporal closure using photographs here (I also introduce the alternate term “hinge”).

Leigh Ann and I are currently drafting a textbook for Bloomsbury to be titled “Creating Comics,” which will feature art from students in our comics class. Below are eight of their closure (or, as I say in the textbook, “hinge”) examples to further clarify the above categories.

1. Emily juxtaposes two identical images. The spatial hinge is obvious: we’re looking at the same cube on the same shelf from the same angle. The temporal hinge is harder. How much time passed between the images: an hour, day, minute, week, second, month? Or did no time pass, and the images are the same because they show the same moment? Or how do we know the second image doesn’t happen first in the story world and the images are arranged to reverse chronology? Technically we don’t, but comics norms imply a forward movement in time—unless something drawn prevents that assumption.

2. Emily’s second pairing repeats the same spatial hinge, and though it’s still ambiguous how much time passes between them, the appearance of a hand means that the two images are not showing the same moment. A causal hinge also explains why the block is gone in the second image: after grabbing it (as drawn in the first image), the hand then removed it (not drawn), leaving the shelf empty (drawn in the second).

3. Mims’ first two panels use spatial, temporal, and causal hinges too. We don’t know how far apart the sidewalk in the first panel and the sand in the second are, but we infer they’re in walking distance and that minutes pass between them. We also assume that the person wearing the shoes in the first panel removed and discarded them during that same period of time. We make similar inferences between the second and third panels—though note the addition of a gestalt hinge: the water line appears at the bottom of the second panel. So spatially the second and third panels are continuous—though time passes between them to allow the figure to have stepped into the water. An astute viewer might also notice that the figure’s shadow changes—in ways that could confuse things and so might then be ignored, either consciously or unconsciously.

4. Anna draws a figure on a bed surrounded by giant, writhing centipedes. Though it’s possible to see this as a single image, the bed is more likely a panel inset placed “over” the image of the centipedes—which, if understood as a close-up, means the centipedes aren’t giant. Though the centipedes could exist somewhere in the same room as the bed, the spatial hinge is ambiguous. That’s because the centipedes are most likely not real. This is the dreamed or otherwise imagined fear of the figure in the bed—and so an example of a non-sensory hinge.

5. Hung draws no panel frames, and so his image has no gutters either. Is this an image of three players practicing soccer? Probably not. First, all three are drawn so similarly, they create a recurrent hinge. Plus each figure implies a different angle of perspective on the undrawn field or fields, and so three different moments in time. Though the figures overlap and are in a sense one image, they create the impression of three images through embedded hinges. Notice that the third figure includes a half-outline, a kind of partially embedded image that suggests movement. But if it’s understood as a blur—like the movement lines of the ball—then it’s experienced as one moment in time and so is not embedded.

6. The corner of a house viewed from outside and an off-centered close-up on an interior doorknob–how do these relate? Presumably they’re parts of the same house—but why are they side-by-side? Any spatial hinge doesn’t tell us much. But if you read Coleman’s two captions, the images take on a clearer relationship, including the presence of multiple undrawn characters at the center of the story. But without the words there is no story. The images relate primarily through linguistic hinges.

7. Lindsay’s two images require a spatial hinge to understand that the second is a close-up of the driver operating the car in the first. Though a temporal hinge might suggest either two consecutive moments or a single moment, the effect is roughly the same. More interestingly, she lines up the edges of the road to the edges of the driver’s head, creating a pseudo-gestalt effect. The road and head have no close spatial relation within the story, but they’re drawn as though they’re connected—suggesting something about the driver’s character too. Since Lindsay uses no gutter, just a single line framing and dividing both images, the pseudo-gestalt hinge is even stronger. She also draws the driver’s sunglasses breaking the second frame, further connecting the two images.

8. Finally, Grace connects her two panels with a gestalt hinge. It’s as if the gutter interrupts a single image, imposing a break where we understand there is none in the story world. Though the story context would tell us more, the half-empty picnic blanket in the left panel and the lone figure on the right are suggestive—more so than if the gutter didn’t highlight her isolation and imply the absence of someone beside her.

Of these categories, I think pseudo-gestalt is the newest concept and so least explored. Here’s the earliest example I’ve found yet, from a 1918 Krazy Kat by George Herriman:

Notice how the figure apparently divided by the gutter between the third and fourth panels is actually from two different locations at two different points in time. It’s only the framing arrangement that creates the effect of a semi-unified figure. This is possible because the character is moving from right to left within the story world while the viewer’s reading path is from left to right.

And, just because they’re fun, here are two more, non-comics examples of pseudo-gestalt. Each is created by the juxtaposition of two otherwise unrelated images. There’s even a gutter:

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