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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Neil Cohn

Last year I posted a sequence of five posts exploring how comics visualize plot. The first harmonized Freytag’s plot pyramid, Todorov’ equilibrium circle, and Cohn’s panel types; the second used that combined structure to define closure through implied plot content; and the third and fourth tested it on abstract comics.

I’ve since been in conversation with Neil Cohn (who has to be the most generous email correspondent ever), working out differences between his visual narrative grammar and my proposed structure. In short, mine (balance, disruption, imbalance, climax, new balance) exists in a comics viewer’s mind, while his panel types (Orienter, Establisher, Initial, Prolongation, Peak, Release) exist on paper (which then of course is experienced in the viewer’s mind too). That means there’s no such thing as, for example, an invisible or undrawn Initial, but there is a mental experience of a parallel disruption in a viewer’s understanding of the partially drawn, partially implied plot event. Or at least that’s my hypothesis. To make my claims worthwhile, they need some theoretical grounding.

Another way to put it, narrative panel types are event structure manifested. Cohn’s Initial-Peak-Release (typically) aligns with his mentor Ray Jackendoff’s event structure Preparation-Head-Coda. But while Cohn is looking literally at panels, “events” (as Jeffrey Zacks and Barbara Tversky explain) “are in the minds of the beholders.” Each is “a segment of time at a given location that is conceived by an observer to have a beginning and an end.” Since my aim is to explain closure through a theory of undrawn comics content, Cohn’s grammar panels aren’t useful because they apply only to drawn content.

I thought Jackendoff would be useful, but I found that his Prep-Head-Coda structure didn’t always align with my own event structure. For him an “event” consists of “a Head (the main action), with an optional Preparation (things that have to be done before the Head can be begun) and an optional Coda (things that are done to restore the status quo ante).” That’s similar to Todorov’s three phrase equilibrium-equilibrium-equilibrium plot structure (and Todorov’s fourth step is an “attempt of restore equilibrium”), but Jackendoff’s example didn’t line up.

He subdivides “making coffee” into twenty units, including “put water in the machine.” He explains:

“The Head consists of actually pouring water into the machine from the pot. But in order to do this, one must first measure water into the pot–the Preparation–which in turn is organized into Preparation plus Head, and each of these has further organization. And once one has poured the water into the machine, one must replace the empty pot in the machine–the Coda.”

So it seems “Head” sometimes refers to the culmination of a “main action” (which parallels Cohn’s Peak) and sometimes it is the “main action” (which parallels Cohn’s entire visual narrative grammar).

So now I’m going back a couple more decades to a series of experiments and papers by Darren Newtson in the 70s. Newtson divides actions into “a series of cognitively discrete units” by identifying unit boundaries he terms “breakpoints,” which are boundaries between larger, multi-unit sections and are also units themselves. Breakpoints are key because they serve as “points of definition” for an overall action, where “each breakpoint is a point of reference, or comparison, from both the preceding and following breakpoints” creating an experience of “continuity … between successive action units.” He even divides a video into still frames that he calls “an almost comic-strip summary of ongoing action sequences.”

His approach harmonizes with Cohn’s narrative grammar (because he’s using manifested images) and plot structure (because he’s also talking about unseen and so implicit behavior inferred from manifested images).  This also suggests why Cohn’s Peaks are so significant because “action units are defined by a type of information uniquely available at breakpoints.” This is true primarily because “breakpoints are selected [and here I would say “created” in the case of comics] on the basis of a meaningful change having occurred relative to the preceding breakpoint.”

Newtson also reveals something about Todorov. Todorov identifies five plot points, but only three broad units: equilibrium, disequilibrium, equilibrium. They are separated by a disruption and (altering his language a little) a restoration. That’s an event structure (and so not necessarily manifested as comics panels), but in Cohn’s narrative grammar they correspond with Initial and Peak. Viewing them as breakpoints reveals how much less important other panel types are because they are one of many available “nonbreakpoints” (Newtson’s term) within the equilibrium, disequilibrium, equilibrium spans. That accounts for why Cohn can divide the first phase into Orienter and Establisher, with multiple Prolongations in the middle phase, and (presumably) multiple Release panels in the third. Only Initials and Peaks then are unique and defining.

Looking again at my own system, I’ve already literalized the two breakpoints by drawing them as actual breaks in the preceding line angles:I now want to revise out “climax” (which for Freytag has a different meaning anyway) and use “restoration” instead–though that’s not quite the right term either, because it implies a return (Todorov’s circle) to the the original state, which is wrong. Similarly for Newtson, the second breakpoint is the same as the first, so they’re both disruptions (points of defining change) of a preceding status quo. But that doesn’t quite fit his own analysis that “Behavior is composed of coherent units with beginnings and endings.” A beginning and ending requires two breakpoints, a first and second relative to each other, making each distinct.

Notice how this analysis matches McCloud’s original closure example for an action-to-action panel transition:

Related image

These are the two action-defining breakpoints of a larger implied plot structure that could include multiple other panels. The same is true of McCloud’s original moment-to-moment example:

Image result for mccloud moment to moment

Though here there’s some ambiguity. Both images could be understood as what I term “balance,” the first establishing a status quo (eyes open), and the second the new status quo (eyes closed). If the action is “She closed her eyes,” the first image is necessary to contrast the action-defining change in the second. Technically, the disruption would be implied (her eyes began to close), making the second either a restoration (if we understand this to be the exact moment that they fully shut) or a balance (if this is one of several moments in which here eyes remained closed). The second image could also revise the first into a disruption if it is understood retroactively to mean: “Her eyes were beginning to close” (even if visually imperceptible). We could similarly debate which panel types from Cohn’s visual grammar best fit, but it’s the underlying (and so undrawn) event structure that allows viewers to relate them at all.

Image result for mccloud subject to subject

McCloud’s original subject-to-subject example is interesting too. The first image alone implies an entire event: “She won the race.” The second image could be understood to take place at the same moment, and so a second manifestation of the same breakpoint. But the learned logic of panel progression implies a movement forward in time too, so the second image becomes a restoration in which the holder of the stopwatch is no longer timing the winning racer. If so the overall action is: “She recorded the racer’s time,” making the first image a disruption (of the status quo of the stopwatch clicking away), followed by the time-keeper responding by moving her thumb until it achieves it’s action-defining position in the second image. If so, both images are separate breakpoints.

So while an infinite number of images could be drawn between breakpoints (because of the Zeno effect), those possible images are constrained by event structure. That means closure is event structure. The only undrawn story content that readers experience through the juxtaposition of two or more images is the minimal content required by a reader’s mental construction of the partially drawn event. While anything could have occurred in the ambiguous lapse of time between any of the above paired images, we understand the images as breakpoints that define a discrete event. Any story content that is not part of that discrete event is not implied and so did not happen–at least not via closure. An artist can always reveal later that something previously unimplied did happen, retconning content that reveals an earlier lie of omission.

Zacks and Tversky discuss this generally as “schema theory”:

“recognizing an event as an instance of a category consists of matching it to a schema stored in memory. Understanding what is going on consists of matching features of the perceptual world to variables in the schema. In ongoing perception, missing information is filled in by references to the patterns of intercorrelation captured by the schema, leading to a fluid interplay of bottom-up and top-down processing.”

Bottom-up means from the eyes to the brain and so applies to the actual images of a comic, and top-down means from long-term memory which is where event structure lives. I’m still vacillating about my own terminology–is my system “plot structure” or “event structure”?–but I think that covers the basics. If I’m right, we have a method for constraining closure and so understanding McCloud’s “invisible art.” I’m tentatively calling it:

Event closure.

 

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Don’t add stuff you don’t need. That’s not quite the definition of “Occam’s Razor,” but it’s close. The  14th-century Franciscan friar prefered the simplest answer, the one that requires the fewest assumptions, the straightest line between two points of thought.

Last week I suggested an alternative to Neil Cohn’s narrative grammar for analyzing comics, one that harmonized both Freytag’s plot pyramid and Todorov’s equilibrium circle:

And though I prefer my terms and visuals over theirs, Occam is asking me: does this approach add anything? My panels and Cohn’s panels mostly overlap:

In this Peanuts examples, I was surprised to see Cohn categorizing the third panel as an “Establisher” (“sets up an interaction without acting upon it”), a narrative position that aligns with my balance panel. But rather than revealing a difference in our approaches, I think Cohn is just off within his own system in this one case. I think that’s actually an “Initial” (“initiates the tension of the narrative arc”), and the fourth panel is instead a “Prolongation” (“marks a medial state”). If Snoopy wasn’t already running toward the ball in panel three, then I would agree with “Establisher,” but I’d say they’re already interacting.

So while I still prefer my terms, definitions, and visuals, but do they merely clarify? Cohn’s system names panels that are present. Mine provides a way of identifying the narrative elements that aren’t drawn. They make visible what’s not there, the inferences between the images. Scott McCloud called that “closure,” an imperfect term for reasons I won’t go into here,  but I don’t blame Neil Cohn for avoiding it. But he avoids the concept too, attending only to the narrative elements that appear as panel content. So to understand what’s between those panels, I’m suggesting a different approach:

Like McCloud’s closure, Occam’s focuses attention on the inferences between images. What happens in the gutter? I’d say as a rule: as little as possible. But how does a reader know what that is? What are the organizing constraints on closure? Look at the first juxtaposition:

The possibilities are oddly infinite. Charlie Brown wound up–but then maybe relaxed, adjusted his grip, stretched his arm, kicked the ground a couple times, adjusted his cap, wound up again–and then began to throw. Maybe the next panel is a week later, after he’s been dropping snowballs with each attempt but practicing again and again until finally he throws one. Neither of those possibilities seem likely. But why not? Because of Occam’s rule of closure:

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

The shortest path between the plots points disruption and climax is imbalance, the halfway point between the wind-up that ends the implied state of balance and the ball release that restores balance by ending the throw.

What about the rest of the Peanuts strip?

 

Assuming every plot has to either depict or imply all five points, then we have to infer that Charlie Brown is in a state of balance both before and after throwing the ball, and that Snoopy is in a state of balance before running after the ball. That means Snoopy’s plot leaves less to infer–unless you break it into smaller units of action.

In panel four, Snoopy is facing the oncoming ball. In the next, he is facing away from it and running, and the snowball is larger. What is the shortest path of inferences between those two points? Snoopy turned and began to run, and the ball grew in size as is it continued to roll. That describes a midpoint for both actions, and so imbalance:Less seems to happen in the preceding juxtaposition between panels three and four. The ball must have begun to roll, and Snoopy must have slowed but not yet fully stopped:

Looking again, I notice that the ball has increased in size too. So it goes from small and stationary to larger and moving toward Snoopy, and Snoopy goes from moving toward it to stopped. The two images require an explanation for those changes: we assume that gravity started the ball rolling and that Snoopy stopped himself because he saw it moving toward him. We assume nothing else because nothing else is required. Occam’s rule of closure is a reader’s default setting for understanding juxtaposed images.

The last combination implies more. I see at least four required plot points:

First consider the plot of the snowball. It begins in panel three in a stated of literal balance. In panel four it begins to roll and grow, a disruption of its balance. In panel five, it continues to roll and grow, so a continuation of its imbalance. At some point we assume it stopped growing and rolling. We don’t know the exact circumstances of that climax, but the images require us to make that minimum assumption. And once stopped, we also assume it remains stopped, that the snow that comprised the ball is again in literal balance again.

Removing Snoopy from the drawn panels makes this more obvious:

Assuming a naturalistic world, we also have to understand the image of Snoopy hiding behind the tree to imply that the tree was previously standing by itself, and so in balance. Snoopy must have approached it, disrupting its isolation, and then arrived behind it before looking out:

There’s a good reason why Shultz didn’t draw those three extra panels. They’re boring. It’s far more fun to experience the plot points through the assumptions implied by the final, balanced panel–one that encapsulates through closure an entire action sequence or subplot while also curtailing unrequired inferences.

Occam’s closure explains that.

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

 

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Actually, this post should be titled “Framing, Abstracting, and Closuring the Walking Dead,” but that’s way too many verbs, plus closuring isn’t a word. Or at least it wasn’t. Maybe it is now. This post is also a follow-up on three previous “Analyzing Comics 101” posts on, you guessed it, framing, abstraction, and closure.

I’m once again picking apart the corpse of Tony Moore and Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead #1 to show how these concepts can come together. This time, just the first two pages will do the trick.

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So framing first. The top full-width panel is symmetrical and misaligned, so the right side includes more than the primary subjects of Rick, Shane, and their police car which appear cropped in the foreground, plus the escaped convict and his truck in the middleground. The rectangular panel could include all of the rectangular police car, but instead provides surrounding detail, including a horse (the first hint at the Western motif), a Rotary Club sign (suggesting a small community theme?), and distant mountains in the background (further establishing the rural setting).

However, it’s the bottom panel that gives the initial framing its biggest meaning, since the open foreground space of that first panel parallels the page’s most important image in the bottom panel: Rick being shot. The bottom frame is symmetrical and proportionate, making the first misaligned framing a form of spatial foreshadowing. Moore also shifts the parallel angle of perspective, effectively rotating the shooter to the background, Shane to the middleground, and Rick to the foreground, the most significant visual space. Note also that Rick occupies the right side of the image, gaining further significance since as Anglophone readers we conclude the panel on right. We read top to bottom too, so Rick being shot occupies the concluding space of the overall page too (it’s also the peak image in an implied 4×2 grid, but we covered visual sentences and layouts elsewhere).

Rick is also emphasized because our perspective moves with him, beginning in panel five. These four middle framings are symmetrical while vacillating between proportionate and abridged, because the figures are sometimes cropped mid-chest, adding to the sense of Rick and Shane being trapped in a cramped space. Though drawn smaller than Shane in panels one and two, when Rick stands in panel three, he encompasses more space: his action literally makes him larger. Because the angle of perspective is the same in panels two and four, Shane remains the same.

Closure between the images is minimal. The first panel establishes the overall area, and the following five panels work within it, demanding little spatial closure. Though the time span of each panel and the gaps between them is inherently inexact, the first four transitions suggest no significant gaps, and so they imply a steady movement forward in time, requiring only basic temporal closure. The fifth transition, however, implies a gap in which Rick turns around to face the shooter. So in addition to temporal closure, the panel transition requires causal closure because the action of Rick turning is undrawn; we infer it in order to explain why Rick’s back is no longer turned to the shooter as it was in the previous image.

Finally, Tony Moore’s drawing style is roughly 3-3 on the abstraction grid, so it shows both a moderate amount of detail (translucent) and a moderate amount of contour warping (idealization). Arguably, the figures show a level of 3-4 abstraction, with intensified contours. In the second panel, Shane is impossibly wide and Rick impossibly thin, with Rick’s head roughly half the width of Shane’s shoulder.

shane and rick abstraction

The effect characterizes each through visual exaggeration and further establishes them as foils. Meanwhile, the shooter’s head contrasts the straight lines that compose Rick and Shane’s bodies with frenetic lines and lopsided features.

crazy guy

Though the effect is more striking, the shooter’s lines contours remain within an idealized range. Rick’s bullet wound, however, is intensified or even hyperbolic.

rick's wound

Since no human being could survive a wound that extreme, the image creates higher closure demand after the page turn because we retroactively understand the image to be exaggerated. There’s an overt abstraction gap between what is drawn and how it is drawn. And because a literal understanding of the image contradicts the story, we ignore it (diegetic erasure).

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The leap to page two is major in other ways too. The image requires a great deal of temporal closure with details that also require a range of casual closure. After being shot, Rick was taken to a hospital–perhaps by paramedics in an ambulance, though most of the casual facts go unconfirmed. He is in a bed in a bedroom, not a critical ward or operating room, so presumably his wounds were successfully treated and he was left to recuperate. The time gap is ambiguous, but his beard growth suggest several days.

The framing marks a major change too. Though still symmetrical, the full-page panel is also expansive. Rick’s figure is the subject, but a great deal of the surrounding room is drawn for a spacious effect unlike the previous page’s variously proportionate and abridge panels. The angle of perspective shifts from parallel to downward, so we are no longer viewing the image as a character would but as if from a more omniscient vantage.

The style of abstraction has shifted too. While Rick remains at 3-3 (translucent idealization), the room is closer to 2-2 (semi-translucent generalization). The level of detail is much greater than on the previous page and the line contours are only warped slightly below the level of photorealism. Notice the line quality of the shadows and reflected chair legs on the floor.

The 2-2 image is also a full-page panel, giving it further significance. When the first zombie later appears on page six, we retroactively fill in additional closure into the temporal gap: the zombie apocalypse occurred while Rick was unconscious and safe behind his bedroom door. Page two is the most significant image in the issue, because it is 1) the most detailed and least abstracted image in a stylistic context of less detail and higher abstraction, 2) the first of only two full-page panels, 3) the most expansively framed image, and 4) the image demanding the highest amount and range of closure.

There’s plenty more visual analysis available on these two pages (haven’t even started to talk about the difference in Moore’s rendering of sound effects and speech yet), but you get the picture.

 

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Having taught my spring term seminar Superheroes a half dozen times now, I’m converting it to one of the gateway courses for Washington and Lee students entering the English major. The overhaul means jettisoning the pre-history of the genre (I love that stuff, but I could just hand my students On the Origin of Superheroes and be done with it) and focusing much more on comics as an art medium. So I’m trying to boil down the basics, the must-know criteria for analyzing a comic book.

So now it’s time invite Neil Cohn to the lectern. If you haven’t read his The Visual Language of Comics, please do. Meanwhile, here’s my boiling down of his visual language grammar.

Narrative panel types: images may be categorized according to the kinds of narrative information they contain and how that information creates a visual sentence when read in sequence:

Orienter: introduces context for a later interaction (no tension).

Establisher: introduces elements that later interact (no tension).

Initial: begins the interactive tension.

Prolongation: continues the interactive tension.

Peak: high point of interactive tension.

Release: aftermath of interactive tension.

Cohn only looks at comic strips, which typically express a single sentence in a linear arrangement of three or four panels, but longer graphic narratives can express multiple sentences on a single page or extend a single visual sentence over multiple pages.  To analyze the different ways that can work, I’m adding some terminology to Cohn’s.

Closed sentences: two sentences that begin and end without sharing panels.

Overlapping sentences: sentences that share panels.

Interrupted sentence: an overlapping sentence that does not complete or initiate its tension before another sentence replaces it; sentences might share an Orienter, or an Establisher may introduce two elements that do not interact until later as a form foreshadowing.

Dual-function panel: in overlapping sentences, one panel performs two narrative functions. A panel may, for example, serve as the Release of one sentence and also the Orienter, Establisher, or Initial of the next. Or an Orienter may  serve as the Establisher of an interrupted sentence that initializes tension later.

Sentence Layout: the relationship of visual sentences to pages.

Page sentence: a sentence that begins with the page’s first panel and ends with the page’s final panel.

Multipage sentence: a sentence that extends beyond one page.

End stop: a page and a visual sentence end simultaneously.

Enjambed: a page ends before the visual sentence ends, also called a visual cliff-hanger.

This is all awfully abstract, so let me give specific examples from The Walking Dead again.

Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore like enjambment. Their first issue includes several cliff-hangers. The bottom row of page five begins with an Establisher (introducing the door to the already established figure of Rick), is followed by an Initial panel (Rick removes the piece of wood holding the door closed), and ends with a Peak (Rick is opening the door).

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But the Release only appears after turning to page six. That full-page panel is also a dual-function panel because it serves as the Establisher (introducing the zombies to the already established Rick) for the next, overlapping sentence.

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The turn from page nine to ten is similar. The first panel in the bottom row of page nine is an Establisher (Rick and the bicycle), followed by the page-ending Peak of Rick’s shocked reaction. The top of page ten provides the Release (we finally see what he sees).

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A similar grammatical pattern repeats on pages thirteen and fourteen. The first panel in the bottom row of thirteen is an Orienter. The second is an Establisher (Rick’s face seems to be reacting to something, a sound presumably), and the last panel is an Initial. Turn the page, and there’s the Peak.

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The visual grammar also shows that cliff-hangers only work on the final panel of a two-page spread, in order to prevent a reader’s eye from skimming to the critical image prematurely (which happens in my arrangements above).

Also, Moore and Kirkman don’t always enjamb their visual sentences. Page one, for instance, ends on a Peak. The page also begins with an Initial, followed by four Prolongation panels. Page one is a complete page sentence, both beginning and ending on a single page.  

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Instead of a Release, the next page begins with an Orienter (Rick in his hospital room) for the next visual sentence, which does not overlap.

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In terms of interrupted sentences, page ten begins a new visual sentence with the top Establisher (introducing the bicycle zombie to the already established Rick), followed by two Initials (Rick and the zombie interact) in the second. The bottom row begins with two Prolongations, followed by a Peak (Rick’s tear) and a Release (the zombie closes its mouth).

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The visual sentence appears to have ended when the next page begins a new sentence with no further interaction between Rick and the zombie. So page ten reads as a complete page sentence, until the bottom of page twenty-three continues the interaction with a Prolongation panel, retroactively showing that the visual sentence was interrupted.

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Page twenty-four provides a new Peak (Rick shoots the zombie), followed by two Release panels (Rick looking down, the zombie with a bullet hole in its forehead).

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Rick’s tear is also a Prolongation of his tear on page ten, an additional overlapping sentence that reaches its Peak in the next panel when Rick wipes the tear away. The final three panels are Releases. They’re also their own overlapping, three-panel sentence: Initial (Rick and the car), Peak (Rick gets into the car), and Release (car has driven off). The page and the issue conclude with an end stop.

And, concluding this post, my apologies to the world of poetry for driving off with your terms “end stop” and “enjambment.” Until now they only meant “a poetic device in which a pause comes at the end of a syntactic unit” and ” the continuation of a sentence without a pause beyond the end of a line.”

 

 

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