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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

For reasons that annoy me, looking at sequenced images (AKA, comics) is usually called “reading.” While reading is certainly involved when the sequenced images include words, I don’t see why experiencing images in a set order should share a verb with language apprehension. Sure, you can “read” anything in the sense of “interpret.” I’ve told my students to “close read” an image. But that’s not the same thing as: decode the meaning of this set of ordered images as you would decode the meaning of a set of ordered words.

With the exception of some visual art, words are always apprehended in a set order. For images, that order is called “linear.” Words are read in linear order too–but no one bothers stating that because it’s self-evident. And also nearly inevitable. While you could read the words in this paragraph non-lineally (read the first word of each flush-left line, for instance), readers rarely do. That’s because they’re “reading.”

The non-linear relationships between images, however, are more significant on a comics page. If linear order were all that matters, this six-image sequence (of two figures speaking to each other by phone from two phone booths) would always be apprehended as follows:

Those images are based on Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant from the 1963 action-comedy Charade (which is in public domain, and so fair game for my abstract adaptations). When arranged on a page, they produce a 3×2 grid:

That arrangement assumes a z-path viewing path. But the same arrangement viewed as two columns of three images each (instead of as three rows of two panels images each) would produce an n-path and so a different “linear” order:

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is phone-5.png

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is phone-4.png

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is phone-2.png

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is phone-6.png

Transposing that linear order into its own z-path produces this page arrangement:

If words were involved (and so actual “reading”), the sequence order would be set. But since the images are wordless, their order is ambiguous. I’m not even convinced a viewer necessarily begins in the top left corner or ends in the top right corner, though both z-path and n-path dictates it. I suspect viewers approach the wordless page holistically, beginning wherever their eyes are most attracted and roaming in any and multiple direction afterwards. That’s not to say viewers don’t assume the image content is chronological. I suspect they do. But appreciating the temporal relationships of the depicted moments relative to the story world does not require viewing them in that temporal order.

In terms of page space, when the eye travels “up,” viewers know they are moving to images depicting earlier moments, and when the eye travels “down,” viewers know they are moving to images depicting later moments. It’s also possible to experience different temporal relationships (some images might be understood as occurring simultaneously, for instance). But however the images are ordered in the depicted time span of the story world, the order of viewing is independent. Viewers control both pace and direction.

Unless viewers are “reading” the images.

Words can be read in any order too, but their meanings are dependent on their sequence. Reading words backwards (sequence their on dependent are meaning their but) produces meaning only to the degree that you mentally reorder them. That’s not true of images, because an image in isolation produces more meaning than a word in isolation.

You might liken an image to a sentence or paragraph or stanza, but that is misleading too, because it misses the additional meanings produced by non-linear juxtapositions. The difference in effect between these two image arrangements is more than their linear viewing paths:

The first places the two faces in the center squares facing each other. The second reverses their positions so the two faces are facing away from each other:

In terms of the story world, the two characters are never actually facing each other because they are in different locations. The effect is produced through image arrangement, creating a connotation of greater intimacy in the middle row. That’s true of both arrangements, but as the cropped close-ups place the implied viewer into closer proximity, the direction of the figures’ gazes create further connotations. I suspect most viewers would perceive the figures facing toward each other as more emotionally connected to each other, and the facing-away figures as more estranged.

But neither effect occurs when the images are “read” in linear isolation.

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