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The limits of time and transitions: challenges to theories of sequential image comprehension

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The juxtaposition of two images often produces the illusory sense of time passing, as found in the visual language used in modern comic books, which creates the sense that this linear sequence presents a succession of moments or temporal units. Author and theorist Scott McCloud took this view to an extreme, proposing that sequential images are guided by a notion that time space (McCloud 2000), because this temporal passage occurs on a spatial surface. To McCloud, this temporal mapping results in a movement of time with a movement of space. This sense of temporality, then, is the essence of comics, which is manifested in McCloud's taxonomy of transitions of panel-to-panel relationships (McCloud 1993). While less specific, this same type of essence of connection can be reflected in Groensteen's types of arthrology across a linear sequence or disparate panels in a broader text (Groensteen 1999).

However, numerous problems arise with McCloud and Groensteen's approaches to graphic narrative. This article will explore how the linearity of reading panels and the iconicity of images create various false assumptions about the conveyance of meaning across sequential images' depictions of space and time. With numerous examples, it will argue that any linear panel-to-panel analysis (such as McCloud's (1993) panel transitions) or loosely defined principles of connection (such as Groensteen's (1999) arthrology) between sequential images are inadequate to account for their understanding. The conclusion is that sequential image comprehension must be thought of as the union of conceptual information that is grouped via unconscious hierarchic structures in the mind. As such, the study of the comprehension of the visual language used in comics must be placed in the cognitive sciences.

Keywords: panels; temporal map; time; visual language

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Tufts University.

Publication date: April 1, 2010

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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