Time and The Torch

On this page I found another great example of a page by Jae Lee that defies the “temporal mapping” idea that successive panels are successive moments:

I’m unaware of the full context of the page, but the Human Torch is flying around some big monster of sorts and creates the number “4” (for Fantastic Four no doubt) in his path. Doing so, his path begins by violating a constraint of page layout, entering at the bottom of the page, and then flies over his own path, which crosses a panel he’s already been in.

I’m not sure I agree with the analysis given on that blog, mainly because I think appealing to McCloud’s transitions and closure only hurts his otherwise fairly good discussion.

Now, I don’t want to suggest here that there is not time being shown here, but I think that there are two considerations that need to be reoriented.

First, let’s not talk about “time,” let’s talk about “events.” To the human mind time is only an extrapolation of events. Thinking in terms of a clicking-clock type of absolutist Time is not on the same level with the understanding of time constructed in a person’s head. From understanding events, we can tell that time passes, not so the other way around.

Second, panels do not necessarily have to equal moments. Rather, panels function as “attention units” grouping important information into meaningful chunks. These chunks don’t have to be moments, but they do highlight relevant information in ways that the author intends.

This is exactly the case in this example. The interesting thing is that the flow of events runs counter to the standard reading path of panels in order to create the “4” emblem. If reading left-to-right as if these were independent moments, this would make no sense whatsoever. But, because this display uses image constancy (breaking up a single image into parts… what I’d call a Divisional panel, the understanding of which is what Gestalt psychology would call Closure), the panels only serve to divide up the conceptual space of the image to highlight the Torch at different positions within the space.

Yes, the countering of events vs. panels is a bit funky, but it’s also a creative use of playing the two off each other to reveal their functions.

Note: For those more interested in these types of examples about Time, most of these ideas are written about more extensively in my paper Time Frames… Or Not. Attention Units are discussed more in A Visual Lexicon.


  • “panels do not necessarily have to equal moments. Rather, panels function as “attention units” grouping important information into meaningful chunks.”

    But 99% of the time, isn’t that “attention unit” equivalent to a chunk of time (let’s not quibble right now whether it’s a ‘moment’ or something a but longer)?

    The example you give strikes me as a single panel, full-page spread that has been divided into three apparent panels for artistic reasons rather than communicative ones, in the same way that “Best. Panel. Ever.” uses periods in a completely different way than is usual.

    This is an exception on the far edge of style; I don’t know that you can use it as an example any more than you could use cummings as your baseline for written language.

  • Certainly, this is an exception, which is why I made the disclaimer at the end. It shouldn’t be looked at as “normal”, but in being strange it can lend insight back to not so weird instances.

    However, regular usage of panels are NOT always equivalent to chunks in time. There are many instances of panels in sequence that convey the same “moment” as the panel before or after it. In these, which are fairly common (even more in manga), there is no time shift at all.

    Again, there is a need here for avoiding talking about “time” and “moments” and instead talking about “events” and “conceptual understanding” of them.

    This is one of the founding observations of my theories, from when I was still expanding and categorizing a broader theories of panel transitions through my alternative grammatical model. So, it’s in a lot of places…

    I discuss these in the “Time Frames… Or Not” paper, in my book, as well as the videos on visual grammar/panels.

  • It’s funny — while you’ve successfully convinced me that the “temporal map” concept doesn’t work as a defining quality of comics, I still don’t find this particular type of example very useful for making the point, since there’s still clearly a relationship between time and space–it’s just that it’s not the panels defining the relationship, but the trails.

    Even your example of a persuasive essay that you’ve presented, though compelling, isn’t entirely convincing, since there’s still an inherent temporality to it. If you read the panels in the wrong order, you don’t lose any sort of narrative thread, but you do lose a conceptual thread; the points of the argument need to be read in the correct order for the argument to make sense.

    What ultimately convinced me, and the point I still find most inescapable, is the type of page that McCloud’s taxonomy would describe as being characterized primarily by Aspect to Aspect panel transitions. It is a case where there is no temporal relationship between the panels whatsoever, but is still clearly understandable as comics.

  • Neil,
    I like your point of distinction:
    “panels do not necessarily have to equal moments. Rather, panels function as “attention units”
    It’s similar to may argument that a ‘speech balloon’ does not always mean that someone is literally speaking, but can be used to show atribution, and to demonstrate this I lassoed a quote of Ceasar to a marble bust of the man. I.e. the bust is not literally speaking, but everybody instantly understands the visual/verbal composite.

    I’ve been at war with the Eisner-McCloud theory of ‘comics’ for many years because it constricts everything within a universe of spacial-temporal literalness.

  • Thanks for the comments!

    Alex, I think that those mundane examples are essential too. And you’re right, the Torch’s trail does give a sense of time passing, but only through the fact that it’s marks an event occurring. As you say, the key here is that the panels don’t facilitate the time, which is why I like the example!

    I would also disagree that there is “temporality” in the graphic essay examples. There may be a proper order and a “temporality” to the process of reading, but that doesn’t mean there’s “Time” in the conceptual understanding.

    Eddie, the bust example is a nice one for attribution and I totally agree. This is similar to the idea that thought bubbles are for “thoughts” right? However, many instances of captions are exactly the same in meaning, just without fluffy borders and tails.

    You’re very right about the space/time constrictions, which is why I think we’re better served stepping outside of those ideas altogether to talk directly about the concepts and let things like time and space fall out of that discussion.

  • Unfortunately, I didn’t notice your commentary until recently. You say what hurts my analysis is an appeal to McCloud’s “closure,” but, in fact, your analysis isn’t really much different from my own. I’m actually critical of McCloud. To wit:

    [T]here is an inference of movement even though the 3 panels are static and arrange the event(s) depicted in space only. In his book, Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud referred to the process by which this inference is achieved as closure. Closure is what the mind does when it fills in the gaps (or “gutters”) between panels in order to process the narrative. That we do this when reading a comic is undeniable, but why or how is left largely unaddressed by McCloud. One reason for the why is that without closure the panels would be left as discreet pictures, unconnected to each other. At times, McCloud seems to think that it’s through social conditioning, an artifact of culture that enables us to read panel flow. However, I suggest there’s something more biologically basic to the process, namely our ingrained perceptual system picks up on visual cues that are close approximations of what we perceive in real-world motion.

    A socially constructed reading of comics has us either looking at panels from left to right (in the Western tradition) or left to right (in the Eastern tradition), but Jae Lee’s use of perspective over the entire page, across the panels, cues us to start at the bottom of the page in the center panel. Additionally, the continuity of lines, either in the buildings, the flame trail of the Human Torch, or that big monster creates a gestalt-effect (the so-called law of prägnanz) where we naturally fill in the lacunae caused by the gutters.

    You even link to the same Gestalt entry to explain closure. As I’ve expressed to you in the past, I remain skeptical of the linguistic analysis of pictures (and I mean language-proper here, not in the language of thought sense used by people like Pylyshyn or Fodor to explain representation and whatnot). Perception would seem to be the most important component in “reading” time-flow and motion into static pictures.

    Thanks for reading. I do enjoy your theorizing. Next time, let me know.


  • Charles, thanks for the comment — better late than never, IMO.

    If I can remember correctly (and I may not), the biggest qualm with your analysis that I had was that you appeal to perceptual processes, not conceptual ones (whether you want to call that “linguistic” or not). That’s not to say that a perceptual system isn’t involved, but our understanding of it is largely conceptual.

    The character of McCloud’s notion of Closure is largely what I disagree with. I don’t believe that we use a linear process of “filling in the gaps” at all — at least not beyond a banal and purely perceptual thing like image constancy of gestalts.

    In fact, if you get to more complex examples where panels must connect over long distances, simple recognition of events and especially perceptual processes are unable to account for the connections. You need some kind of hierarchical system.

    The problem here is only looking at local connections between panels, instead of at the global sequence as a whole. (though in this example local connections may suffice because of the gestalt).

    I guess it’s not so much that I disagree with your story, but that I think it’s not the whole picture (so to speak).

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