Craig Fischer has a nice article over at The Comics Journal about how panels focus attention, particularly focusing on the work of Jack Kirby. He nicely keys in on several techniques that authors (like Kirby) use to highlight certain aspects of a panel over others. For example, putting things in the foreground vs. background, thick lines vs. thin lines, or focusing on people vs. objects.
He then goes on to create an interesting taxonomy of ways that content connects with a narrative, and whether the focal and background elements are done in a common style. As a descriptive taxonomy, I think it works pretty well.
At the end of the piece, Fischer wishes there was more empirical work on how people read comics, especially with eye-trackers. Apparently he hasn’t been reading this blog much! Amongst the many studies I’ve reviewed here about comprehending sequential images, there have been some eye-tracking research on comics that I review here and here.
Also, while my empirical work has mostly focused on how sequential images are comprehended, my theoretical work has looked at the capacity of panels to convey attention for many years. For example, I discuss it in this blog post, as well as in my article, A Visual Lexicon (pdf).
My approach to attention has focused less on the individual aspects of a panel’s features, and more on how the panel as a whole acts as a “window” onto a scene. The panel then simulates the same type of “window” on the fictitious world that attention does in our visual perception. As I said in that blog post:
“Most of the time though, panels serve to exclude all relevant information except for the elements that need to be focused on, or at least clearly distinguish what is relevant from irrelevant. This lets panels provide a graphic manifestation of this mental “spotlight,” allowing the author to control that attention instead of the reader’s wandering eyes (which is one of the reasons I formally call panels “Attention Units”).”
However, there’s much that could be learned by studying the combination of the types of attention that Fischer talks about (those visible in a panel) and those that I talk about (how what is visible connects with what is not visible, or to other parts of a narrative).