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Discerning pictures: how we look at and understand images in comics

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Scott McCloud (1993) has used a realism continuum to classify comics characters between the points of realism and iconic abstraction. Before him, other theorists (Gropper 1963; Knowlton 1966; Dwyer 1972; Wileman 1993) have used this continuum as a means to judge the communicative and instructional potential of pictures as they become more distant from the realistic.

At the same time, all comic artists employ at least some level of distillation or abstraction, some removal of realistic detail. This approach can allow for other design aspects to be emphasized in or imposed upon the comics' panels: such as line, shape, colour, orientation and composition. These attributes in turn accentuate connections or relationships that are less apparent in realistic images.

But what are the psychological mechanisms by which we understand images abstracted away from realism, and how might knowledge of these help to build an understanding of comics' formal properties and contribute to the theory of comics? This article explores some important faculties of the human visual system, labelled by psychologists as perceptual constancies. Examples from comics are used to illustrate these faculties put to work by visually literate artists. The mechanics of caricature are also explained in terms of their importance to how the mind remembers images. Caricature, and not realism, is a mechanism for visual memory.

There is a difference in the way images communicate depending on their realism quotient and this difference is key to the way that comics communicate, whether their artists are aware of this fact or not. Distillation and exaggeration can actually communicate more powerfully to the psyche than the real thing. This article explains why this knowledge should be central to an understanding of comics.
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Keywords: abstraction; less-real-than-real; perceptual constancy; realism; silhouettes; visual closure; visual system

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Edith Cowan University.

Publication date: 2010-04-01

More about this publication?
  • Studies in Comics aims to describe the nature of comics, to identify the medium as a distinct art form, and to address the medium's formal properties. The emerging field of comics studies is a model for interdisciplinary research and in this spirit this journal welcomes all approaches. This journal is international in scope and provides an inclusive space in which researchers from all backgrounds can present new thinking on comics to a global audience. The journal will promote the close analysis of the comics page/text using a variety of methodologies. Its specific goal, however, is to expand the relationship between comics and theory and to articulate a "theory of comics". The journal also includes reviews of new comics, criticism, and exhibitions, and a dedicated online space for cutting-edge and emergent creative work.

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