In discussing this post of mine with Derik, I realized that I should post on the technique I used of substituting a whole panel for an “action star,” like this:

This usage is somewhat similar to what I talk about in this older article on metonymy, and the same phenomena creeps up overtly in McCloud’s famous “Closure” example from Understanding Comics:

In both cases, we never see the action, because it’s replaced by a panel that implies action took place, but replaces the image with some neutral information. In the case of the action star though, we associate that sign with events, so it further indicates the presence of an action, whereas in McCloud’s example the text does most of this work, since the cityscape is entirely neutral.

I’ve recently been exploring this phenomena a lot more, especially since I keep seeing it in Peanuts strips, first shown (I believe) in this one:

So, we now have this phenomenon where we know we can substitute certain types of panels for others to get an entailment of the actions. For storytelling, this is pretty cool, since it forces the reader to draw an inference about the actions (a result interesting enough that McCloud extended this out to all interactions between panels).

However, are there also restrictions on which types of panels we can replace? Since the action star essentially just means “events occurring!” but doesn’t show them, it can be considered as a kind of “visual pronoun.” Because of this, it can also be used as a diagnostic for determining certain categories of panels versus others. This “pro-form” replacement is a common technique in linguistics for determining grammatical categories: we can replace Noun Phrases with the pronoun “it”, and Prepositional Phrases with “there”:

1. Martin pushed the really huge boulder up a massive hill.
2. Martin pushed [it] up a massive hill.
3. Martin pushed the really huge boulder [there].
4. * Martin pushed the really huge boulder [it].
5. *Martin pushed [there] up a massive hill.

In 2 and 3, we can see that this substitution works fine, but when we reverse which ones we’re substituting for, in 4 and 5, it sounds awful (indicated by the asterisks).

So… can we do this using an “action star” as a kind of visual “pronoun”? Check out these Peanuts strips, where the action star replaces either the second or third panels:

1. *
2. *

When the second panel is replaced, it does not seem to make much sense (nor would it make much sense in the first or final positions here either). However, replacing it for the third panels does work — hinting that those panels belong to a certain class of words where a culmination of an action occurs (even when that action isn’t an “impact”).

Note also that an approach using linear “transitions” between panels would be unable to express this: what would the action star be a transition of — a “Non-sequitur”? That wouldn’t be able to capture the understanding of the event occurring in that panel. Rather, this hints that transitions (based on the relations between panels) are not the way sequences are understood, and the need of some sort of global narrative structure (with categories for actual panels) underlying the sequence.


  • Your underlying presumption of the “action star” replacing an action is flawed – it seems that it is more of a metonymy. In the first Peanuts example, the second panel could have showed the kid swinging, with an action star at the point of contact between the bat and the ball. The use of the action star alone for that panel is not so much a substitution as it is a focus on and enlargement of one aspect of the scene to represent the whole. (I interpreted it as the hit being so solid that the star was big enough that we couldn’t even see the scene anymore.)

    This principle would apply to the second Peanuts strip you use as well, as the children dogpile (heh) Snoopy, obscured by a giant action star.

    It does not apply to #1 and #2, as you state. I might give you #4, but not #3; there would not be an action star within the drawn panel, so I can’t see replacing the whole with one as being effective.

  • I do think this is a case of metonymy (partially, which is why it creates the effect that it does. However, using the action star does seem to work as an inference building panel even without the metonymy. The effect does seem to work for 3 and 4, but not in 1 and 2, which shows that it extends beyond just metonymy.

  • Well, if you’re not seeing it in #3 on the grounds that it must have an action star within it, then I don’t buy that.

    If you just plain don’t get any sense of predication in that panel, then we just have different readings.

    I’ll note also that using alternative methods should give you converging results. For instance, you shouldn’t be able to delete the those third panels, nor should you be able to get the same sense of inference by substituting simply an empty panel or a “blacked out” panel.

  • The point is that #3 is still “readable” with the action star. That convention would not dictate its use is immaterial; the four panels still form a complete structure whose meaning is readily apparent whereas in #1 and #2 they do not.

  • My suggestion is that while the substitution of full panel action star in #3 may work grammatically, it does not work meaningfully. To use Neil’s “visual pronoun” analogy, it’s placing an “it” where I expect a “him.”

    In #4, the action star is an appropriate substitute for Snoopy’s pouncing attack on the jack-in-the-box. Cool. In #3, I don’t think that an action star meaningfully substitutes for a yawn. It’s just not active enough.

    It’s not that it isn’t predication, it’s that content, not easily inferred, is lost in this instance; in the others, it is not.

    The issue of converging results from deletion is irrelevant, except as a structural analysis. My contention is regarding meaning, and that, in the instance of #3, the action star is, at best, no better than a blank panel and, at worst, misleading (making the reader think something really active happened).

  • Thanks both for the comments.

    My point here is that the action star does gives clues about grammaticality, but not about semantics at all. Pronominal substitution, deletion, etc. as diagnostics in linguistics have nothing to do with semantics, only grammar, and I’m using this the same way. Semantics uses different diagnostics, which I’d assume have analogues in graphic form too.

    However, your observation is part of my overall theory: structure and semantics are different. Notice also that a view of panel transitions wouldn’t be able to make that distinction.

    Incidentally, I’ll very soon being doing a couple experiments based on this phenomenon, one measuring reaction times and the other looking at brainwaves. With those measures, it might actually be possible to identify what the actual processes going on are. Stay tuned… 😉

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