Institute of Iberian and Ibero-American Studies, University of Warsaw
Comic book studies have different ideas linked to reading patterns. For example, we have z-path pattern/closure (McCloud), art of tensions (Hatfield), the network (Groensteen), path (Gąsowski), graphical equivalence (Birek), ECS (External Compositional Structures; Cohn), unflattening (Sousanis) or openness (Ahmed). All these approaches listed above are not the only ones that are likely to be applied by the authors when breaking down sequences into panels (in a nearly 100% conscious way, but we should keep in mind that all the creative activities are bound to carry over something that can be realized only a posteriori) by the readers (rather in an unconscious way or automatically) and by the researchers when analyzing the dynamics of storytelling in comics books (in a thoroughly analytical), but they do show a rather vast array of how we can approach comic books. Should we decide to treat them as guidelines, it will surely help us to understand the story, but would it also make an escapist experience out of reading it?
The idea of an escapist pleasure in reading comic books is linked with one of the functions of our reading in general. As Rocco Versaci states, we read “to be informed, entertained, instructed, challenged, or transported (…)” (2). Being transported is commonly associated with escapism, which is seen as futile or as it could only belong to the entertainment designed for mass appeal and reduced thinking, but “the notion of escape lies at the heart of our engagement with all texts” (5) and “when we escape into […] comic book[s], we enter into an authored representation of the world. Every time” (5). For Versaci this means that what we are looking for in the imagined worlds, is something that may be lacking or lost in our actual lives (6). However, for Versaci the idea of a magical transportation through comic books would be reductive. He emphasizes that “one can never completely escape into a comic book because its form – impressionistic illustrations of people, places, and things – reminds us at every turn [or panel] that what we are experiencing is a representation” (Versaci 6). Page turning has to do with the materiality of comic books (Kashtan), and the materiality of a book format can be meaningfully used by the author to guide us through panels in a different way that we are used to. This may refer, for example, to splash pages and to using neighboring pages to spread the sequence and break the down-to-page meaningful units. As Hatfield describes, it is the art of tensions operating here, that produce meaning out of comic book materiality. It is about the way we read single image vs. image-in-series, how we perceive sequence vs. surface (the page layout corresponding to a frame both as a sequential and non-sequential unit), and how we experience text as experience vs. text as object (Hatfield 32-67). If we should limit ourselves to closure, understood as filling in the gutter space between neighboring frames (McCloud), in order to recreate the basic comics sequence, we can easily miss the overall picture. To avoid it, we can first try to unflatten the visuals in order to find all the possible meaningful elements of the comic book structure, just to see more than meets the eye (Sousanis). This should help us to literally open the book for interpretations, both the message and the structure (Ahmed). We do that by bringing all the cognitive input at our disposal to fill in McCloud’s gutters between frames. And being conscious about possible transversal links between units in comic books, we can work this network of frames out (Groensteen). Opening and unflattening means looking for meaningful tensions within the whole work we are experiencing, and by doing it we should avoid simple tracing z-path through the panels, or drawing one thin line through a page, the so-called path (a line that can be drawn to show how our eyes are likely to move within a comic book page; Gąsowski) or looking for instant graphical equivalence (echoing frames, sequences or elements of the drawing that are repeated for a narrative outcome; Birek) planned for us by the author. Comic books should stay open for our reading experience which will familiarize us with their inherent, visual suggestiveness and unconventionality (Ahmed 7). In order to achieve that, as crazy as it can sound, the first step is to stick to Groensteen’s idea: “[…] within the paged multiframe that constitutes a complete comic, every panel exists, potentially if not actually, in relation with each of the others. This totality […] responds to a model of organization that is not of a strip nor that of a chain, but that of the network” (Groensteen 146).
I would like to discuss further, at ICAF Virtual Panels, the practical application of the method described above in at least two ways: as a methodological tool in academic research used for analyzing the meaningful structure of comic books, and as a practice in reading comic books to create a particular reading experience. As examples of different reading patterns producing diversified reading experiences, I would like to draw on examples from Tungstênio by Brazilian Marcello Quintanilha, Zapętlenie by Polish Daniel Chmielewski, and Here by Richard McGuire (Polish edition). And my point and conclusion that I hope to reach is: we need reading patterns but only to think how to transgress them, and therefore look for a truly subjective reading experience, one of your own and measured for your means to reach the end you are looking for.
Chmielewski, Daniel. Zapętlenie. 1st edition, Timof Comics, 2014.
McGuire, Richard. Tutaj (Here). 1st edition, Wydawnictwo Komiksowe, 2016.
Quintanilha, Marcello. Wolfram (Tungstênio). Translated into Polish by J. Jankowski. 1st edition, Timof Comics, 2016.
Ahmed, Maaheen. Openness of Comics. Generating Meaning within Flexible Structures. 1st edition, University Press of Mississippi, 2016.
Birek, Wojciech. Z teorii i praktyki komiksu: Propozycje i obserwacje. 1st edition, Centrala, 2014.
Gąsowski, Paweł. Wprowadzenie do kognitywnej poetyki komiksu. 1st edition, Fundacja Instytut Kultury Popularnej, 2016.
Groensteen, Thierry. The System of Comics. Translated into English by B. Beaty and N. Nguyen. 1st edition, University Press of Mississippi, 1999.
Hatfield, Charles. Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature. 1st edition, University Press of Mississippi, 2005.
Kashtan, Aaron. Between Pen and Pixel: Comics, Materiality, and the Book of the Future. 1st edition, Ohio State University Press, 2018.
McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics. The Invisible Art. 2nd edition, HarperPerennial (1st edition), 1994.
Sousanis, Nick. Unflattening. 1st edition, Harvard University Press, 2015.
Versaci, Rocco. This book contains graphic language. Comics as literature. 1st edition, Continuum, 2008.
Jakub Jankowski is an assistant professor at the Institute of Iberian and Ibero-American Studies at the University of Warsaw, comic book translator (from Spanish, Portuguese, English), member of the Polish Comic Book Association, and winner of the first “Dr Tomasz Marciniak award” (for the scientific text on comics about Joe Sacco’s works). He is a member of the Polish Management Committee for the COST Action Investigation on comics and graphic novels in the Iberian cultural area (iCOn-MICS). Jakub is currently working in three major fields: 1) Theory and practice of translating comic books from Portuguese, Spanish and English, 2) Comic book as a didactic tool (from translation exercises to classroom use), and 3) Socio-political problems in the PALOP countries and their reflection in artistic production (comic books, satirical drawings, films). See more at the: ResearchGate.
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