Closure’s assumptions

Patric continues his defining of “comics” with a discussion of “closure.” I’ve talked before about the problems with the idea of closure, but it strikes me that there are a few underlying issues that people run into when addressing these issues:

1. They assume that time passes between panels, despite there being no evidence that each panel represents a “moment in time.” With this assumption in place, it forces people to assume that some “moment” also lies between the panels, when no hidden moment may exist. I wrote my essay “Time Frames…Or Not” about various reasons why this assumption isn’t true.

Even McCloud bungles this. While in one place he tries to say that “panels=moments” because “time=space”, in his own transitions he includes three that have nothing to do with time at all! (Subject, Aspect, and Non-Sequitur transitions). For the adamant, what are the moments and what are the transitions in this “comic”?

2. People are just looking at the relationships of two juxtaposed panels. Most stabs at sequential meaning, like Patric’s or Derik’s, have just talked about two-panel pairs. But, rarely are sequences confined to two panels.

Just because we experience reading sequences of images linearly doesn’t mean that is how we understand them. In most cases, we can easily acknowledge that whole sequences mean something beyond just paired panels. Looking beyond the scope of immediate panel relations quickly forces a rethinking of the accuracy of a view about closure/transitions.

Here are a few illustrative exercises that people can do to think more about these issues (and are things I did when first getting into this seriously):

1. Actually try to catalogue the “transitions” in a full comic á la McCloud’s counting. Note any problems in the categories and where descriptions become more difficult.

2. Take comic pages/strips and sketch out the different relationships of every panel to each other. Which panels need connections, which don’t? What do the relationships tell you?

If anyone actually does this, I’d love to hear about their results. In the meantime, if people are curious about my alternatives to closure, I recommend watching this video.


  • I would suggest that the political piece to which you link is not comics. The illustrations in it seem completely non-essential to the message and, in fact, are actually distracting at certain points. For example, panel nine: do three glowing humanoids somehow convey some aspect of the notion of government responsiveness to the people? Not that I see. The text could – and would – stand better on its own.

    This doesn’t address the larger discussion directly, but you asked.

  • “Defining” comics is such a non-starter, it’s depressing (if not surprising) that people are still trying to do it.

    To be fair to Lewandowski, he doesn’t seem to commit himself to the panel=moment view. If we give him a cognitivist interpretation, “closure” refers to a set of broader cognitive processes that interpret a comics sequence by going beyond what is contained in the 2D array. In the first sequence, “closure” constructs a causal chain between the events represented in the two panels. But it presumably also constructs the thematic connections that allow us to understand a typical Chris Ware page.

    [NB–just about any Ware page will also demonstrate that panels do NOT necessarily equal moments]

    But that just shows the problem with “closure”. Not that it doesn’t exist, but that it’s not explanatory–*which* processes are involved? are they the same in every case? how are they constrained? Etc.

    Then again, I wonder whether these are the sorts of question that people like McCloud and his followers are interested in. Literary theory seems to get by okay without Chomsky; perhaps comics-literary theory can get by without the cognitive science of comics?

  • Thanks for the comments!

    Walaka – You’re right, I didn’t ask whether that piece was or wasn’t “comics” (I call this “graphic non-fiction”). Rather, I asked “what are the moments/transitions?” between the panels. Being called “comics” shouldn’t make a difference for that.

    jones… — You’re right, I think literary theory doesn’t necessarily need cogsci. But even without it, there are better ways of talking about these issues than transitions and the almost meaningless “closure.”

    The problem I find is that “closure” is fronted as a mental process, when really it’s just hand-waving in place of talking about actual processes. It’s okay to not know — or not even discuss — what the mind is doing, so why use pseudoscience to express otherwise?

    For instance, we can talk about the inferences drawn from one panel to another without needing to say that the process is a “thing.” If closure is just inference, then we can acknowledge it as a cover term for more explicit processes. If we try to say that closure IS the cognitive process (and saying that it occurs “within the gutter”), then we run into trouble.

    That said, I really would like other people to take a stab at the practices I’ve put forward. Maybe they’ll find something interesting!

  • But Neil, what you asked was “what are the moments and what are the transitions in this ‘comic’?” When you are responding to proposed definition of comics that includes closure (and subsequently moments and transitions), it doesn’t seem cricket to point to something that does not have those elements, call it comics without any additional support, and think you’ve proven something. That’s called begging the question, and it doesn’t wash.

    And if you want to call it something else after the fact, then it doesn’t seem like a clear response to Patric’s model.

  • Sorry if you took offense walaka. This post wasn’t a response to Patric’s inclusion of closure as a definition of “comics” (I thought I addressed that on his post).

    I was simply using his piece as a place to jump off from about the various problems with the notion of closure. (You’ll note I don’t address the definition of “comics” in here at all). Sorry for the confusion.

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