How active is comic comprehension versus film?

Dash Shaw writes an interesting post delving into the “cinematic” nature of comics that explores thoughts from authors like Chris Ware with many insightful quotes.

Relevant to some of this discussion might be that some believe comics to have predated the film techniques. Or, the idea that this is a competence versus performance issue — that film uses the same mental structures as comics, just with a different presentation (this will be a topic of an upcoming post).

Indeed, in several experiments of mine I show comic panels one after another, one at a time where the participants have no control over the pacing. My participants have no difficulty understanding these or accepting them “as comics” (no one has ever questioned the labeling).

Most interesting though is this quote of Ware’s from the post:

“I don’t like to think of my work as ‘cinematic.’ A movie is passive — you’re watching it, taking it in. Where a comic strip, it’s completely active: you have to read it, search it for meaning, for the connection with your entire experience and your memory. Yes, you do have the illusion of watching something happen in a comic strip — but if it’s done well, it comes alive on the page like a novel. A novel is the most interactive thing ever created.”

I have a lot of responses to this quote, but I’ll save some for a later post. Right now, I want to question what “watching it, taking it in” means with regard to film comprehension that’s different than the “active” comprehension of comics. This is a common thread in comparisions, so I wonder whether Ware (and many others who also do it) is conflating the presentation of a comic/film versus its comprehension.

Is the sense that film is “less active” because it’s pace of viewing is not controlled by the viewer? This to me seems like a trivial thing in terms of comprehension. The process of understanding (i.e. piecing together the meaning between images, words, and/or sound) should maintain roughly the same.

If comprehension were different, we would expect grossly different results if we presented the same comic strips in different ways in an experiment (that could use any number of measures of comprehension). Let’s say we had three different methods:

1) a comic page where all panels were laid out in a grid, possibly controlled so that subsequent panels only appear when a button is pressed by the reader (“self paced reading”)
2) a “self-paced reading” task where only one panel is on a screen at a time
3) a presentation with no participant control, where only one panel appears on a screen at a time for a designated amount of time

Now, I would expect no significant difference in the ability of people to comprehend these different scenarios. This is all about presentation, not the content of the strips, since those could stay the same across all of these (and other) presentation methods.

#3 on this list is essentially the same type of presentation that film uses. Granted, I will wholeheartedly agree, film’s use of *moving* images certainly does change comprehension. However, there still has to be meaningful connections between and across film shots (be it live-action or animated). These would be of the same “active” sort of connections that Ware describes. Indeed, you can replace film shots for panels in the above three options and probably get the same sort of comprehension as you would for static comics. So, instead of issues of presentation, the focus of questions should instead be on issues of comprehension, like:

How does the comprehension of static versus moving sequential images differ?

How does moving images within a unit (shot vs. panel) change its comprehension?

How does the use of moving across a scene (as in panning, zooming, etc.) differ in comprehension from it’s static presentation in panels (or shots)?

AND… we can’t really answer these questions without an adequate theory of how comprehension of sequential images works in the first place, which is essentially what my research for the past several years has been focused on.


  • Thanks for the comment. I'm saying that the difference you cite makes little impact on the "active" comprehension of sequential images.

    If you're just concerned with layout, then yes, reading several panels across a page/screen does require more effort than a single one on a page/screen. But, that process is different than comprehension — that's just navigation. This is the difference:

    1) Comprehension – the act of making meaning out of sequential images

    2) Presentation – how those sequential images are shown. In the case of multiple images in front of you at one time, this involves a system of navigation of how to know where to go next (which is not necessarily based on meaning – see my paper on this "Navigating Comics").

    These are easily different things, because you can order panels in numerous layouts (ex: grid vs. straight line) and still get the same meaning out of the sequential images.

    Now, I don't deny that the fact film has moving images changes comprehension. But, we still have to make sense of the sequential shots the same as we have to make sense of sequential panels — likely with similar processes. the question then becomes "how are they similar/different?", not "are they?".

  • From some of Ware's other remarks on the work of comics, he seems to be saying something a bit more limited than the quoted passage might suggest: Comics panels (and sequences) give less visual and sonic information about the depicted content (setting, character, action, etc.) than film shots, and therefore the comics reader needs to do more "active" filling in.

    Readers have to make comics "come alive on the page" (by adding sensuous meaning to what is given) in a way that, generally, they do not need to work at making film scenes come alive.

    Film is passive (vs. comics), then, just in the sense that viewers don't need to imaginatively fill in such sensible features of the cinematic storyworld as the sound of a character's voice or the visible qualities of a character's movement. The viewer hears the voice and sees the movement.

    Whether or not we agree with Ware, I think he's pointing to a fairly limited difference in comprehension – in how much sensuous content film vs. comics requires the audience to fill in. Beyond this difference, however, nothing in Ware's remarks seems to disallow for similar processes of comprehension – e.g., of what is going on in the story, of what it means.


  • The effort required
    I haven't read Wares full remarks, but I believe what he is referring to is not comprehension or presentation but the effort required by the viewer to digest the story.

    When I think of Wares more envelope pushing comic pages, like this one,%20Chris/ware2005.htm, I see what he is talking about. Chris Wares comics in particular require you to work for your reward and I feel that the reward is that much greater having put in the work.

    I think that is why he says that "A novel is the most interactive thing ever created." The stories in novels are usually full of things to see, hear, and watch happen, but none of those things are actually in the book. You don't get sights, sounds or motion, all you get is words. Words that you have to decipher in order to understand what the sights look like, or the sounds sound like, or the movements move like.

    Comics do a little more of that work for you. They give you more hints about how things move, and a lot more information about how they look. But cinema show you flat out what things look like, sound like, and how they move. There is little effort required by the viewer to figure those things out. I think Ware is saying that he likes that participatory aspect of comics, and feels like people are telling him that they didn't have that experience when they say his work is cinematic.

    In cinema the artists control of pacing is crucial to comprehension.

    "Now, I would expect no significant difference in the ability of people to comprehend these different scenarios. This is all about presentation, not the content of the strips, since those could stay the same across all of these (and other) presentation methods."

    I'm assuming that you are using the same static images in example 1-3 and not different static images that were taylor made for their particular form of presentation. (otherwise there wouldn't be much point in the experiment) So, lets get more specific and come up with some visual elements to test out your theory.
    I'll describe a short story in static image form:
    Pannel A: A man kicks a kick ball.
    Pannel B: a shot of the ball hovering in space with no background.
    Pannel C: a shot of the man and the ball, the ball has landed about 2 feet from him

    I agree that if you showed these images side by side, in a user controlled slide show, or in an artist controlled slide show the level of comprehension would be the same. They would understand that a man kicked a ball 2 feet.

    "#3 on this list is essentially the same type of presentation that film uses." and " you can replace film shots for panels in the above three options and probably get the same sort of comprehension as you would for static comics."

    So how does the previous example hold up with moving pictures and "self paced reading"? Not so well. If the user chose to watch the footage of the ball floating in space, not being kicked, and not landing for five seconds, with the ball spinning in the air since these are moving pictures) they would be mighty confused when they decided to progress to the next story element and realized that the ball had only traveled 2 feet. How does a user controlled pacing work in a film with no edits? Just one continuous shot?

    Pacing refers not to the cuts in a film, but the passage of time between events. This can be altered using cutting, but it is not the same thing. Therefor "self paced reading" or viewer controlled pace is not really piratical in cinema that wants to user to comprehend the passage of any sort of time. The very definition of moving pictures requires the passage of actual real world time. Comics do not.

  • Thanks for your lengthy comment — I'm glad to have inspired a whole blog post in response. On first glance at least, I'm not sure I agree with your thoughts on "time" but I like the way you're going about thinking/discussing them.

    The questions you ask are precisely the types of ones that I think are interesting to be asking: Not "are they different?" but "HOW are they different?"

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