Comics THORsday: Comics as Visual Language

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Welcome to comics THORsday! Today we’re going to take a quick look at comics as a visual language. In a sense, we can understand comics as sequences of images working as a language. Neil Cohn has a great page dedicated to his theories. However, we’re going to take a much mundane approach to it today. Comics are a literary form that has its own language, in which we can find narratives conforming to the myths that we can find in pop culture. These myths explain archetypes that make sense to people at a given time. Thus, comics are a very unique form of narrative.

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(C) Scott McCloud, ‘Understanding Comics’

Today we’ll talk about Closure and Encapsulation. Closure is the “phenomenon of observing the parts but perceiving the whole” (McCloud). It is to apply one own’s background, knowledge and understanding of the relationships between encapsulated images to blend sequences of panels into events; hence, it means to “mentally filling the gaps of what one observes taking into account one own’s cultural background and personal experience”. Comics require the reader to be constantly interacting with visual aspects and filling in the gaps between them.

Encapsulation, however, is the selection of images that captures the flow of experience and prime moments in a story, and putting them together in a panel. Encapsulating also means that the artist will choose what will be presented in each panel.

While using the process of encapsulation, artists decide what and how to present into the panels their imagined story; closure is what readers understand according to their own experiences and cultural background. So, a comic book story might have different closures depending on the readers (children, men, women, people from another country will closure comics in subtle or very different ways).

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(C) Scott McCloud, ‘Understanding Comics’

Encapsulation is a reductive process. The artist needs to decide which actions will be included into the panels. Closure, however, is an additive process. Readers fill in the gaps according to their cultural backgrounds and personal experiences. Thus, what is not said from panel to panel, the spaces that we can find in the gutters, are the spaces in which readers add meaning. In other words, the spaces which trigger closures.

Artists use several literary techniques in order to simplify the story in comics. For example, they might use stereotypes. Stereotypes are over-simplifications of things and people. Though stereotypes can be very negative sometimes, they do come in handy in the world of comics since they allow artists to quickly transmit ideas.

They can also use the synecdoche a technique by which the artist might represent a whole using a part, or a part using a whole. Think about a panel with the face of Loki. You can imagine that the body comes just below. Artists can also use a sequence metaphor in which they use several panels to create meaning.

All these techniques are meant to economize the story, to encapsulate it as much as possible so that the meaning is quickly transmitted to the reader. But, not only actions and motions and situations are encapsulated within comics, emotions as well. There are conventions already made in comics which allow readers catch up the meanings really quickly.

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(C) Scott McCloud, ‘Understanding Comics’

Time is also encapsulated. But time, is a tricky thing: time and space are the same thing in the world of comics. From one panel to the next can elapse thousands of years, or just a second! So, how much time elapses in reality, is really a mystery in comics. You have an idea, but you really don’t know how much time has passed. In short, there is no formula on how time and space equal to one another in comics. Thus, words within the panel is what makes the tempo: the more you have to read, the slower will be the time, the fewer words you have to read, the fastest it will be.

Comics encapsulate sound transforming it into visualized sound. Onomatopoeias are represented with lettering, while other sounds might be represented by drawing (like musical notes). The paralanguage (volume, emphasis, etc) can be conveyed visually by varying sizes, shapes and thickness of lettering. Readers will make their closures taking this into account.

The combination of drawing and letters makes of comics a visual language, thus they’re a unique form of communication. According to the different combinations of pictures and letters within panels, one can find that pictures illustrate the same message as the words do; pictures add little to what is being told; words add little to what it’s being depicted; words or pictures amplify the meaning.

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(C) Marvel, Spider-Man: India

As we’ve said, a comic can have different closures depending on its readers. For example, a geek male teenager with few money will probably make a different closure from a 30-year-old working mother. Both might read the same comic and end up with different closures despite having the same cultural background. If this happens, imagine how different closures can be when the same comic is read by people from different cultural backgrounds.

Comics can be lost in translation when published for foreign audiences. Though sometimes translations try to capture local ideas, reality is that translations cannot really capture the audience’s local customs and values. So, for example, when the Avengers say to an alien evil that if they cannot protect Earth they will avenge it, they’re stating two different things depending on which side the reader is. If it is an American reader, odds are that their closure will be according to the american thought that if we cannot protect the United States, at least, we’ll avenge it. However, if it’s a Japanese reader who is making the closure of that statement, they might get nervous and take it as better not to mess up with americans or they will certainly avenge themselves. Though it might seem drastic, the cultural background and history of these two audiences make closures of the same thing two sides of the same coin.

Marvel experimented with localizing Spider-Man to the Indian audience. It is the same superhero, however the cultural background has changed, so that indian audiences can identify more with the indian Spider-Man. This is not a solo adventure, since Japan is one of the markets in which Marvel is used to localize more its comics. These attempts to localize comics to different worldwide audiences might look like sensitive gestures for foreign readers. However, marketing plays a crucial role on what to publish and how to publish what and where. Selling the same comic book, translating it into other languages, can be seen as cultural imperialism (topic for another comics THORsday). Comics are a powerful way to transmit ideas and culture worldwide.

Encapsulation will be the God-realm for authors, who will tell their stories for a fictional audience in their minds. Meanwhile, different audiences will make their own closures. While encapsulation is a reductive process in which authors think about what and how to create within panels, closure is an additive process in which audiences imagine new worlds between gutters.

Sources and recommended readings:

Copyright: Images on this post (C) (C) Scott McCloud (C) Marvel

About pepi

A Geek Girl interested in Geek Anthropology, comic books, books, Superheroes and discovering all about pop culture.

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