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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 lan- guage 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 move- ment 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.
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Keywords
visual language
panels
time
temporal map
127
Studies in Comics
Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/stic.1.1.127/1
STIC 1 (1) pp. 127–147 Intellect Limited 2010
NEIL COHN
Tufts University
The limits of time and transitions:
challenges to theories of sequential
image comprehension
Abstract
The juxtaposition of two images often produces the illusory sense of time passing, as found in the visual lan-
guage 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 move-
ment 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).
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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 com-
ics must be placed in the cognitive sciences.
Introduction
Any discussion of structure and meaning in the visual language used in comics must contend with
the central issue of the comprehension of sequential images. Popular research on this issue has taken
a viewpoint similar to the phenomenological experience of reading – since each panel is read (or
drawn) in succession, they must be understood in succession. This perspective has been formalized
in theories of ‘transitions’ between panels (e.g., McCloud 1993), while a strong version proposes that
each of these images represents some successive temporality, and spatial mapping to a progression
in time (e.g., McCloud 1995; 2000). Finally, a third variation on this theme takes the position that
individual panels do not just connect with their linear neighbours, but are multiple to other panels
throughout a physical document (i.e., a strip, page, book, etc.) (e.g., Groensteen 1999). This article
will argue that all of these orientations are ultimately unable to describe how meaning is created in
sequential images, and that any theory aiming at such a goal needs to take into account complex
groupings of panels motivated by principles in the human mind.
Meaning?
In exploring meaning in sequential images, we first ask ‘where does meaning come from?’ Since
comic author/theorist Scott McCloud (1993) and scholar Thierry Groensteen (1999) have become the
most popular voices on this topic, and both compare the structure of comics to language, it is perhaps
worth comparing their views to the linguistic treatment of meaning. Groensteen largely treats the
meaning of sequential images as a product of culture – a ‘system’ out in the world that readers
access, lining up with his semiological roots in European comics scholarship (e.g., Gubern 1972,
Hünig 1974, Koch 1971, Krafft 1978). However, these ‘structuralist’ views pointing to the origin of
meaning as a product of culture have been largely dismissed by mainstream linguistics for the past
fifty years (Harris 1993).
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1. Languages ‘out in the
world’ in this cognitive
view merely become an
idealized average across
mutually intelligible
patterns in individuals’
heads. In other words,
a language out in the
world (i.e., ‘English’ or
‘Swahili’) refers to an
‘idealized average’ of
the patterns that are
shared in the minds/
brains of a particular
population of people
(Chomsky 1986). Such a
view is easily transfer-
able to sequential
images, as found in
comics (Cohn 2003;
2005).
Rather, since the ‘cognitive revolution’ in psychology and linguistics in the middle of the twenti-
eth century, meaning has been recognized as stemming wholly from the mind (Jackendoff 1983;
1987). Following this view, any discussion of the structure of sequential images’ meaning is really a
discussion about the mechanisms in the mind/brain that guide comprehension of such outwardly
manifested phenomena.1 McCloud quite admirably taps into this insight, with much of his theories
directly invoking a ‘reader’s involvement’ in comprehension. This terminology leaves some (possibly
appealing) ambiguity to the issue though: it is unclear when he talks about ‘reader participation’ or
‘involvement’ whether he means to say that these mental processes are conscious or unconscious.
This article will argue that the processes guiding sequential image comprehension remain inaccessible
to conscious awareness. To this point, the sense in which ‘meaning’ is explored has no concern with any
conscious sense of ‘artistic interpretation’. Instead it is about the basic comprehension of sequential
images – comparable to the creation of meaning by words in sentences. While we are consciously aware of
(sometimes various) meanings of sentences, the unconscious processes that motivate these understandings
remain inaccessible. The comprehension of sequential images is taken to work in the same way.
Furthermore, this ability appears not to be transparent and universally accessible, and requires a
degree of expertise. Studies have shown that while all Japanese 6 year olds (who have high exposure to
manga) can draw sequential narratives, less than half of 12 year olds in other countries (who have low
exposure to comics) could create a coherent pairing of juxtaposed panels (Wilson 1999, Wilson and Wilson
1987). Other studies have indicated that comprehension ability for sequential images correlates with age
and expertise (Nakazawa 2005, Pallenik 1986). This ‘expertise’ must be affecting something in the
mind – not just conscious awareness, and it is those mechanisms that this piece will explore.
Sequential images
The most prevalent belief about the understanding of sequential images – or ‘panels’ – holds
that comprehension progresses in a linear fashion, similar to the reading process itself. Like
approaches to syntax of spoken languages prior to the 1950s, this linear approach has been cod-
ified in taxonomies of ‘transitions’, which specify the nature of the shift from one panel to
another. While other breakdowns have been offered (Christiansen 2000), McCloud’s analysis
( McCloud 1993: 70–72) gained popularity and influence beyond most others, including expan-
sions building from McCloud’s own work (such as Cohn 2003, Dean 2000, Saraceni 2000; 2003,
Stainbrook 2003). McCloud identified six transitions to characterize the relations of one panel to
another:
1. Moment-to-moment – between small increments of time
2. Action-to-action – between full ranges of actions
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3. Subject-to-subject – between characters or objects in a scene
4. Aspect-to-aspect – between aspects of a scene or an environment
5. Scene-to-scene – between different scenes
6. Non-sequitur – have no apparent meaningful relation
To enable these transitions, McCloud invokes the process of ‘closure’, where the mind ‘fills in the
gap’ between images. McCloud states
Comics panels fracture both time and space, offering a jagged staccato rhythm of unconnected
moments. But closure allows us to connect these moments and mentally construct a continuous
unified reality.
(McCloud 1993: 67)
With closure, McCloud seeks out a cognitive mechanism to explain his theory of transitions. He
astutely senses the insufficiency of simply saying that a transition is there – it must be facilitated by
something in a reader’s mind. For McCloud, this heralds an interaction between the meaning ‘on the
page’ and the invisible meaning created in the mind between panels.
McCloud later refined his approach to what he called the ‘essence of comics’ – the ‘temporal
map’. He argues that by physically moving from one panel moment to another, space equals time
(McCloud 1995; 2000). With this underlying equation, factors such as panel sizes and the distance
between panels provide modifications on the understanding of time in visual form: the longer the
panel or gap between panels, the longer the progression of time (McCloud 1993). Temporal map-
ping is a more radical version of transitions, since instead of panels just making meaningful con-
nections of various types, there is a presumed temporality overarching across all meaning. It also
washes over previous distinctions in transitions that differentiated between temporally progres-
sive and temporally ambiguous panel relationships (as subcategorized in Cohn 2003). For exam-
ple, subject-to-subject and aspect-to-aspect transitions do not inherently make a temporal
distinction – they are largely about shifts in space within an environment – which McCloud him-
self attributes to their narrative advantage. However, with temporal mapping in place, all transi-
tions show shifts in time, no matter what additional distinctions in content are highlighted.
Panel transitions and temporal mapping as theoretical concepts can make a lot of sense.
Experientially, when reading a comic page, we engage the sequence one panel at a time. And,
after all, we feel as though we live our lives through a series of moments, one after another. Why
would juxtaposed images not mirror this experience of time?
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Temporality and sequential images
An initial problem with the temporal mapping thesis is that the properties of space and time being
compared exist on two entirely separate planes of analysis. While the space McCloud refers to is
based on physical distance, the sense of time he refers to is entirely a mental construct garnered from
the contents of the panels. This mapping of physical reading to time is confirmable because of his
instruction for the reader to run their finger along the page to get a sense of space (McCloud 2000:
206), and further revealed as he observes,
Wherever your eyes are focused, that’s now. But at the same time your eyes take in the surround-
ing landscape of past and future! Like a storm front, the eye moves over the comics page, pushing
the warm, high-pressure future ahead of it, leaving the cool low-pressure past in its wake.
(McCloud 1993: 104)
As he describes the act of reading (eyes moving along a page), he equates it to the comprehension
that there is no future or past tense within the images, only the sense of those states in surrounding
panels. However, this meaning is fictive time, not ‘real’ experiential time. The time it takes to read
something and the mental abstraction of time within the fictitious narrative are not comparable, and
exist on totally different levels of analysis and experience. This is why fictive time is unaffected by
different arrangements of the same panels in varying layouts, though layout might affect the physical
rhythmic pace in which those panels are read (though this has not been tested empirically either).
Though ill formed, the idea of temporal mapping is merely symptomatic of a much more perni-
cious issue: the belief that panels equal moments. McCloud himself acknowledges the duplicity of
believing that a single panel equals a single moment in time, citing the problems created when inte-
grating text into an image through the use of speech balloons (McCloud 1993: 96–97). Because text
relates to speech – which must be experienced temporally – McCloud notes that balloons spoken by
two separate people in the same panel must represent different instances in fictive time, insinuating
its progression. Thus, a panel can contain the duration of time beyond just a single moment.
A similar phenomenon occurs when an entire event is represented in a single panel. These ‘poly-
morphic’ panels (Cohn 2007) – also known as ‘stroboscopic’ (Cutting 2002) – show a single entity
repeated in multiple positions of an action while remaining in a single encapsulated frame (as in the
final panel of figure 3). Again, matching McCloud’s observation, these panels seemingly represent
the duration of time, rather than a single instance where the entity would seem to be in multiple
positions at the same moment.
However, there are distinct differences between McCloud’s duration panels and polymorphic
panels. McCloud’s examples rely on the introduction of written language, which through association
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to sound must take up time, while the sense of interval in polymorphic panels comes directly from
the content of the images. This difference is significant, particularly because of the entailment that
McCloud makes from his example. The reading of balloons generally mimics the reading pattern of
the whole composition, roughly reflecting the path of writing systems. In the case of English, a bal-
loon that is further left in a panel is read first – thereby insinuating that it comes before those balloons
following it to the right in fictive time (generally speaking, reading order mimics text to follow a pref-
erence hierarchy: higher > left > right > lower). In a polymorphic panel, this compositional restriction
does not affect the representations of entities at different states.
Why is this difference important? McCloud’s examples retain a sense of fictive temporal movement
that matches the physical order of reading, thereby allowing him to uphold his equivalence of time and
space. Under this interpretation, spatial shift still acceptably indicates temporal shift. Indeed, McCloud’s
temporal mapping hypothesis can be clarified further, making the equation not ‘physical space = fictive
time’, but rather ‘physical space = physical reading motion = fictive time’. McCloud must then reconcile
these elements, stating, ‘As readers, we’re left with only a vague sense that as our eyes are moving through
space, they’re also moving through time – we just don’t know by how much!’ (McCloud 1993: 100).
Polymorphic panels contrast the temporal mapping equation because they allow for duration that
is not attached to any sense of spatial progression. They purely show the passage of fictive time –
regardless of their internal composition or how one might need to engage them physically in the act
of reading. Figure 1 shows the final three panels of a strip by Kazu Kibiushi (2005), where the final
polymorphic panel disallows strict temporal mapping, since it does not rely on left-to-right reading
to understand the path of motion of the dog chasing his tail.
Figure 1: Polymorphic panel in Copper by Kazu Kibiushi (2005).
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Figure 2: Smoke veiled fight.
In fact, because of the dog’s circular motion, the determination of a starting and ending point of
motion becomes ambiguous, imbuing it with a recursive quality. Technically, this depiction has no start
and has no end, and its duration of ‘time’ never stops, regardless of how the eye interacts with it as a
panel on a page. Truly, this image does not depict a dog engaged in a temporally bound event that a
reader’s mind decides upon a start and ending for at all. Rather, it conveys the durative concept of a dog
running in circles – no matter what temporal boundaries might be involved for that to take place.
A similar phenomenon occurs with the ‘smoke-veiled fight’, which conveys the concept of a fight
without actually showing it, as in figure 2.
The smoke-veiled fight is interesting in terms of temporality because we know that the event of
fighting depicted has to be some duration of time. The representation does not allow it to be inter-
preted as a single instance of a punch or kick – it has to mean a series of combative actions.
Nevertheless, the physical drawing never shows multiple actions or even any actions at all. Because
of this, finding the start or end points of this duration is impossible, since the actions are not depicted.
This meaning is entirely conceptual.
Finally, temporal mapping faces the problem that it implies that all spatial relations must then
have temporal consequences. If this were true, how would it be quantified? If larger gaps between
panels mean larger spaces of time, should all panels with large gaps in time be expected to have large
physical gaps between them? Does more ‘time’ occur when needing to move diagonally between
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panels in separate layout rows than those within a row? Is there thus even more time between panels
when a page needs to be turned?
McCloud himself would acknowledge that such a rigid equation of physical time and fictive time
is ridiculous. However, where is the line drawn? At what point does temporal mapping become
active or not? How valid can temporal mapping be as a theory of comprehension if the boundaries
of its application cannot be quantified? Does it only apply to explicitly temporal transitions like
action-to-action or moment-to-moment panels, and if so, what need is there for an additional
notion of temporal mapping? Such concerns necessarily turn us away from carrying a presumption
that the passage of time is an overarching constraint on all sequential image meaning.
From time to concepts
All of these issues are related to a deeper problem: the notion that fictive time passes in or between
images. Most likely, the pervasive belief in ‘time’ stems from a lack of acknowledgement that graphic
images represent conceptual information. By and large, the images in the visual language of comics
follow an iconic form of semiotic reference, because they resemble their meaning (Peirce 1931).
Because we experience ‘reality’ on the same terms that we engage iconic images, we forget that they
are indeed representations that come from – and must be processed by – a human mind: an observa-
tion harder to ignore with symbolic phenomena like spoken words.
Panels as units do not stand for moments or durations in fictive time, but direct attention to
depictions of ‘event states’ (Cohn 2007) from which a sense of ‘time’ is derived. Images are just signi-
fications made meaningful through cognitively based concepts, while ‘time’ is a mental extraction
from the causation/change between them. Indeed, nothing about two images next to each other
demands that each represents a moment in ‘time’. The entire sense of ‘time’ is pulled from the con-
tent of what the panels have in them. In other words, because two panels might depict states of an
event – and because our knowledge of events is that they occur in the context of our perceived linear
notion of time – we assume that ‘time passes’ between the two panels. However, there is no ‘time’
there, nor can any be assumed to be ‘filled into the gaps’ in any real semantic sense, unless informa-
tion in the representation is presented to us. The binding assumption that each panel represents a
moment or duration in time is merely an illusion, cast by the (unconscious) understanding of events
and their parts.
Neither of the ‘durations of time’ discussed above need be analysed in temporal terms. The
enclosure of speech balloons into panels does not mean that the time of ‘real-life’ speech content
passes within the bounds of the image, but only that the conceptual content of the text is unified with
that of the images. Meanwhile, polymorphic panels merely show the event states of a full action
enclosed into a single bounded attention unit. As demonstrated with the polymorphic and
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smoke-veiled fight examples, this does not have to be a sense of ‘time’ that ends or starts in a certain
place, but can simply depict the conception of a durative action.
While it might seem like splitting hairs, the distinction between representation of time and event
states remains important because it distinguishes which leads the dance in cognitive understanding
of panels in sequence. While the theory of panel transitions does not stand in opposition to such
conceptualism, the acknowledgment of this difference can lead to multiple advances beyond the
linear analyses. First off, it shifts the focus from the unseen to the seen. Because McCloud’s approach
equates space and time, it assumes that only slices of an action are shown, the rest of which falls
mysteriously between the panels. This ‘gutter’ between the panels thereby becomes the primary
processing point for mental unification. McCloud states that
The gutter plays host to much of the magic and mystery that are at the very heart of comics
… in the limbo of the gutter, human imagination takes two separate images and transforms
them into a single idea.
(McCloud 1993: 66)
The ‘mental’ properties provided by linear transitions are, in part, just rhetorical hand waving. If clo-
sure occurs ‘in the gaps between panels’ then how does it work if a reader cannot make such a con-
nection until the second panel is reached? That is, the gap cannot be filled unless it has already been
passed over, making closure an additive inference that occurs at panels, not between them. Nowhere
is this duplicity more apparent than in figure 3 and the text that accompanies it, which serves as
McCloud’s primary example for the process of closure between panels.
Figure 3: McCloud’s primary example for closure.
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I may have drawn an axe being raised … but I’m not the one who let it drop or decided how
hard the blow, or who screamed, or why. That, dear reader, was your special crime, each of
you committing it in your own style. All of you participated in the murder.
(McCloud 1993: 68)
Here, McCloud pulls a deft trick, since the ambiguous ‘reader-created outcome’ of the event
cannot be attributed to the gutter, but to the indexical quality of the second panel’s scream. It
only implies that an event occurs through the indexical knowledge that speech functionally con-
nects to a speaker, without demonstrating the assumed action (axe chopping), thereby making
the outcome ambiguous. Thus, McCloud actually does control the depiction of the crime by not
showing it. Really though, the gutter does not provide any meaning – the content of the panels
and their union does. In this case, the conceptual basis of the images becomes even more salient,
since the second panel does not even show the action it references, thereby heightening its
inferential processes.
By accepting the conceptual basis of representations, the important focus for processing
becomes the content of the panels. Indeed, individual panels must also derive their meanings
from the mind of the reader, and, in some cases, that meaning relies on other panels in the
sequence. Like in the metonymic example above, this allows for relational aspects of panels to be
explored without the presumption of time restrictions, which begets discoveries that further
invalidate any linear approach to understanding.
Beyond juxtaposition
Without the assumption that a linear flow of time dictates understanding, the very idea of lin-
earity itself can be questioned. Take for example the sequence in figure 4. The final two panels
are assumed to take place within the house depicted in the first panel. No indicators within
those panels give us this information – it comes purely from the juxtaposition of the house as a
locative in the preceding panel. There is no reason that this first panel should be considered as
a ‘moment’ in time at all, since it functions entirely as a semantic locative. Moreover, that loca-
tive must hold scope over all of the panels it affects, not simply the panel immediately following
it. That is, the second two panels must be grouped in a way to allow the first panel to apply to
both of them.
Tapping into this idea of multiple connections, Barber (2002) proposed an intersection of transi-
tions with page layouts. For him, panel transitions could extend across multiple panels and pages are
read as a whole. However, there are problems with tying layout to meaning. First, so long as they are
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read in the same order, panels can be rearranged in different designs without changing meaning. The
sequence of three panels in figure 4 could be read horizontally, vertically, diagonally, etc. However,
changing those physical orders would make little alteration to meaning. Indeed, this is done fre-
quently in newspaper comic strips, where editors might alter the layouts of strips to better fit their
desired page layouts. The result then is that navigation of layout (i.e., deciding which panel to read
next, usually glossed as ‘left-to-right and down’) is a separate system to the comprehension of
sequential images. These components are no doubt interfaced, since layout may have various ways of
influencing meaning (and possibly vice-versa), but they are not the same system.
Groensteen (1999) also accepts that panels interact not only with linear relations but also with rela-
tions to all other panels on a page. His principle of ‘arthrology’ extends this to include the connections
between physical compositions of panels in a page or across pages. Arthrology is a broad concept,
which on the one hand refers to aspects of physical composition – like ‘visual rhyming’ or a thematic
leitmotif, as well as to his principle of ‘braiding’, which refers to ‘threads’ of meaning. Groensteen has
stated that not only should one panel connect to another in a linear way, but that ‘every panel exists,
potentially if not actually, in relation with each of the others’ (Groensteen 2007: 146).
However, if braiding serves as a model of comprehension, such unrestrained transitions (semantic
relations between individual panels) between every possible panel in a document would overload the
working memory of the human mind. To push this to an extreme: for an average book that has six
panels per page for 24 pages, the 144 panels would potentially warrant connections between any two
Figure 4: Locative panel with no temporal relationship.
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panels, calculable as 144!/(2!•142!). This would yield 10,296 possible transitions for every combina-
tion possible, and the mind would have to retain each of these in memory additively with each suc-
cessive panel read. Though not all relations may need to establish a connection, all transitions would
be necessary to at least confirm or deny the need for an explicit transition. As Cohn (2003) argued,
while exploring a more restrained view of multiply-engaged transitions, without any explicit underly-
ing structure to guide such connections, this would be overwhelming for human memory to handle.
Indeed, an assumption implicit in all theories of transitions is that there is no end point for the
progressive reading process. Most works have no notation for ends of a sequence the way that peri-
ods (full points) do for sentences in written language, and they (and transitions) simply end when
the strip, chapter, or book itself concludes. Because of this, no limits on transitions seem to be expe-
rienced. However, experimentation has shown that readers are sensitive to chunks of scenes in
sequential narratives. Gernsbacher (1985) presented readers with a series of sequential images, and
found consistent agreement for where they chose to draw lines marking the boundaries of various
sub-episodes. This means that people’s minds are creating segments of sequential images that are
not physically manifested as parts of a book, page, or layout, suggesting that comprehension does
not rely on non-stop continuous linear transitions.
Structure in sequential images
If segments can be found for whole sub-episodes of sequential images, perhaps segmentation appears
on a small scale as well. Take for example the sequence in figure 5.
Figure 5: Zoom as a modifier.
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Figure 6: Inset panel serving to focus attention, like a zoom.
Here, the second panel merely represents a modified view of the event state in the first panel by
zooming in on the flower held by the child. Nothing about this second panel indicates that any sense
of fictive time has passed, because no change has occurred to the event previously shown. If both of
these initial panels represent the same state, then the progression to the third panel must take into
account the unification of their contents. Indeed, by the third panel we do not forget the content of
the first panel. We can confirm the single-state nature of these initial panels by observing an alter-
nate arrangement with comparable meaning, as in figure 6.
With the inset panel demarcating the same information as the second panel from figure 5, the
spatial qualities of the panels’ relations become highlighted, with no apparent time shift. Figures 5
and 6 are equal in the information they depict – only the panels serve to focus the reader’s attention
in different ways.
Figure 7: Temporally ambiguous initial panels.
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Figure 7 shows another type of non-temporal relationship. Given its content, the second panel of
this string is ambiguous as to whether it is at the same or a different state to the first panel. We know
that the first and second panels represent different event states from the last panel, but the only appar-
ent relationship between the first two panels is one of environment. We have no reason to assume that
the first two panels of different people belong to a similar location. Yet, without the knowledge that
those two panels belong to a singular environment, the representation of the two entities in the final
panel would come as a shocking surprise. Thus, we must take into account that the union of the first
two panels together must be involved in the progression to the final panel. Again, this can be con-
firmed by showing the exact same information through a singular panel, as in figure 8.
Figure 8: A single panel outset for what is accomplished in two panels in figure 7.
Because the two panels from above can equate to this singular panel, they are equivalent in their
‘chunking’ of information. The ‘pacing’ or ‘narrative’ might be different in two panels versus one, but
they convey the same conceptual information. This means that the two-panel version must combine
the initial disparate characters into a singular unit that then connects to the final panel – no matter
whether they belong to the same or different states. Despite the linear reading order, this type of
understanding is not linear, but hierarchic, and shows clearly why those panels cannot be equated to
moments. Moreover, this need for grouping panels to connect to later parts shows that panel
progressions do not always mimic the iconic movement of experienced events, because some sort of
mental activity beyond knowledge of event states must connect non-temporal relationships.
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The limits of time and transitions
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Even more dramatically, the grouping of spatial information can work against temporal informa-
tion in complex and interesting ways that undermine any viewpoint that linear relations alone guide
the comprehension of sequential images. Take, for example, the sequence in figure 9 (Cohn 2003).
This sequence features a man lying in bed as a clock ticks away until he gets up and makes a
phone call. Because the second and fourth panels both feature clocks, they must be connected some-
how, as should the first and last panels that both feature a man in different stages of an action. With
a transitional approach that attends to such distance connections, we would be forced to say that
transitions occur between nearly every panel in this sequence, both juxtaposed and at a distance.
In fact, this sequence is ambiguous in its meaning since panels can be grouped into chunks of
spatial environments as well as temporal sequences. Under one interpretation, each panel represents
a separate moment in ‘time’, and the temporal connection of the clocks is embedded within the tem-
poral shift between the outer panels of the man. However, a second interpretation can be created
with groupings of spatial information into common environments. The first and second panels could
happen in the same place at the same time – sharing a common environment – as could the final two
panels. These groupings then connect in a singular shift in time.2 These different groupings can be
seen below in figure 10 using tree-structure diagrams.
Figure 10: Varying groupings for structures of an ambiguous sequence.
Figure 9: A structurally ambiguous sequence.
2. The middle panel is fully
ambiguous and could be
grouped into any
number of ways with
the other panels. Other
groupings of panels are
also possible, such as a
right-branching tree
structure of successive
moments, though not a
left-branching pattern.
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Neil Cohn
142
Both McCloud’s transitions and Groensteen’s arthrology would be unable to capture the ambiguity
in the sequence above. Panel transitions would merely be able to express the ‘surface structure’ that
these panels follow (a series of subject-to-subject and aspect-to-aspect transitions), without being able
to capture the differences in groupings between those panels. Arthrology would simply be able to make
a statement of connection between the panels of the clocks – since they are graphically similar – but
like transitions, braiding and arthrology would fail to recognize the structural ambiguity of this sequence
and be unable to describe its various interpretations in any systematic way. Groensteen’s approach, like
McCloud’s, is thus rendered insufficient for explaining the comprehension of sequential images.
These examples further demonstrate that immediately juxtaposed panels do not always represent
the progression of moments of time. In all cases, panels seem to functionally divide up a conceptual
space – that is additively built throughout the sequence – into units of attention (Cohn 2007). Those
windowed units could narratively be whole actions, individual event states, or aspects of a spatial
environment. Important to this, the meaning garnered for that ‘chunking’ emerges from the concep-
tual content of the representation itself – not from some overarching default principle like ‘space =
time’, ‘panels = moments’, ‘closure’, or ‘arthrology’.
A sequence like the ambiguous one above runs not just against the time = space views, but to any
views that do not take into account deeper hierarchic connections between panels of a sequence. Much
of the problem with Groensteen’s theories is that they have no substantial processes to describe other
than a vague sense of ‘connectedness’ – they make no predictions and provide no methods for mean-
ingful analysis. Though they may allow for both local and distant relationships of graphic similarity, like
panel transitions they have no notion of a hierarchic grouping of panels into chunks of a sequence.
In order for hierarchic connections to be made, they must feature an explicit set of rules and con-
straints for how those groupings occur. In the ambiguous sequence above in figure 9, a grouping
cannot occur between panels 1 and 4 while 2 connects with 5. Such an interpretation is impossible,
and there must be specific constraints – what in linguistics would be called a ‘grammar’ – that dif-
ferentiate the acceptable groupings from the unacceptable ones. As described in Cohn (2003), the
preferences for such groupings run along a scale of:
Different times >
Same time and different space/character (whole environment) >
Same time and space/character
This states that panels representing the same time and character should be grouped first, followed by
panels at the same time but different characters, then finally with panels in other times. The highest
nodes of a tree structure should belong to different times, the lowest to the same times. This can be
made clearer by expanding the previous punching example to include a zoom as well, as in figure 11.
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The limits of time and transitions
143
Following the preference rules, the zoom of the second character’s eye must group first with the
character it modifies. From here, the grouping of this second character can unite with the first char-
acter to form a common environment, which as a whole can then unite in a shift of time. Limited by
the constraints stated, the grouping in the second option would not be allowed (the asterisk indicat-
ing the problematic grouping). The common environment cannot be built first, then forced to unite
with the zoom. The zoom does not modify the whole environment – it only shows a part of the sec-
ond character, meaning that such a grouping would be unacceptable. This shows that the mental
structures built do not have to follow the linear order to be grouped additively, since panels 2 and 3
here must come together before joining panel 1.
Figure 11: Allowable and disallowable groupings of time and space in sequential images.
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Neil Cohn
144
Where must these preferences belong? They cannot exist simply in the sequence itself, because
the surface sequence (1) does not contain any overt markers of these groupings and (2) may be inter-
preted in a variety of ways, as in the ambiguous example above. Indeed, these preferences cannot be
a part of the medium ‘out in the world’, but instead lie within the minds of readers and producers of
sequential images.
The ramifications of such an observation are important, because they imply that the mind is
actively engaged in operations directing comprehension that are completely unseen and unconscious
to the reader (or author). Truly, panel transitions and arthrology are appealing as notions because the
reader (or author) can directly experience them. However, the processes described here are not ‘invis-
ible meaning’ in the way that McCloud talks about closure as ‘filling in the gaps’ (which essentially
casts ‘inference’ as the de facto process for all juxtaposed relations). Rather, the unseen elements
here are hierarchic principles of grouping provided by explicit constraints in the mind, not spontane-
ously emerging on the fly. These principles feature the conceptualization of time and space not in a
linear sequence, but in underlying hierarchic groupings.
Conclusion
Despite its iconic nature, graphic representation does not directly mimic our naïve perceptions of
temporal reality, nor are its underlying processes transparent and simple. Given that graphic repre-
sentation emerges from the minds and actions of humans, it must be understood in the context of
cognition – especially sequences of images, since creating a meaningful union of juxtaposed panels
must involve mental processing beyond simple one-to-one juxtapositions. Such processing must be
guided by explicit rules and constraints that involve hierarchic structures beyond linear and/or vague
thematic relationships between panels. Since the 1950s, these types of hierarchic groupings have
been the norm for understanding aspects of cognition for many human behaviours, from language
(Chomsky 1957; 1965) and music (Lerdahl and Jackendoff 1982) to social relationships (Jackendoff
2007), vision (Marr 1982), and drawing (Willats 2005). Given such precedents, that we should find
such constituencies in sequences of images should be unsurprising. As such, the study of sequential
image comprehension becomes less about analysing what is ‘out there’ in the sequence or our con-
scious experience of it, but more what is inside of our own minds.
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Suggested citation
Cohn, N. (2010), ‘The limits of time and transitions: challenges to theories of sequential image
comprehension’, Studies in Comics 1: 1, pp. 127–147, doi: 10.1386/stic.1.1.127/1
Contributor details
Neil Cohn researches the relationship of graphic expression – particularly the visual language used in
‘comics’ – with language and cognition. He has spoken on this topic internationally, and has authored
STIC_1.1_Cohn_127-148.indd 146STIC_1.1_Cohn_127-148.indd 146 3/27/10 9:12:19 AM3/27/10 9:12:19 AM
The limits of time and transitions
147
numerous articles and a book, Early Writings on Visual Language (Emaki Productions, 2003). As an
illustrator, his graphic book (with author Thom Hartmann) We the People: A Call to Take Back
America (CoreWay Media, 2004), addresses the pervasive influence of corporations on American
government.
Neil is currently a graduate student in psychology at Tufts University, where he has taught courses
on the relationship of comics to language and the mind. He received a B.A. in Asian studies from the
University of California, Berkeley, studied in Japan at Tsuru University, and holds an M.A. in social
science from the University of Chicago. His work can be found online at www.emaki.net.
Contact: Neil Cohn, Tufts University, Psychology Department, 490 Boston Avenue, Medford,
MA 02155, USA.
E-mail: neil.cohn@tufts.edu
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Esta tesis tiene un diseño exploratorio-descriptivo y se conforma de dos estudios, a partir del diseño y realización de diez talleres de interpretación y producción de humor gráfico de único encuentro en las ciudades de San Carlos de Bariloche, Dina Huapi y Gral. Roca, y un taller trimestral en San Carlos de Bariloche, en los cuales participaron 149 adolescentes de 10 a 19 años. En ambas modalidades de taller se recabaron textos humorísticos y se entrevistó a los participantes. El enfoque interdisciplinario nutrió los análisis con los aportes de la psicología cognitiva, semiótica, ciencias de la comunicación y de la educación. En el Estudio I buscamos relevar las posibilidades y estrategias implementadas por los adolescentes en la creación humorística gráfica, así como diferentes aspectos semióticos y comunicacionales que caracterizan esta actividad, y que distinguimos en cinco niveles interrelacionados: Lógico, Modal, Retórico, Pragmático y Temático. Analizamos las producciones gráficas desde un enfoque multinivel e interdimensional, poniendo en valor los repertorios como instrumentos para visibilizar y comprender la diversidad de formas con que las personas dan sentido a las situaciones, elaboran estrategias de resolución, imaginan alternativas y comunican sus perspectivas. Los resultados del Estudio I permitieron identificar diferentes maneras en que los adolescentes crearon sentidos en formato gráfico, conjugando las formas discursivas del género con su orientación motivacional, lo cual nos condujo a establecer seis Perfiles textuales. A partir de ellos, reconocimos diversos grados de complejidad en los textos creados, dados por los recursos empleados y por su densidad semiótica. Identificamos una preferencia por la creación de textos humorísticos con motivación lúdica en los adolescentes de menor edad, y una preferencia por parte de los adolescentes de entre 13 y 19 años por la creación de humor gráfico con una motivación comprometida, frecuentemente combinada con la motivación lúdica. Registramos que los textos creados con motivación lúdica trataban principalmente contenidos fantásticos, a escala interpersonal y con una sub-representación de contenidos sociales/normativos. Si bien los estudios sobre desarrollo cognitivo nos llevaron a hipotetizar acerca de un mayor interés por temas abstractos y socio-políticos en adolescentes de 16 a 19 años, encontramos en los textos creados por ellos una diversidad tanto motivacional como temática. La elección del formato también presentó variaciones de acuerdo al Perfil textual, siendo aquellos textos cognitivamente más demandantes los abordados a partir de viñetas únicas, que conforman un texto condensado y autocontenido, mientras que los textos con incongruencia de tipo mecánica se realizaron preferentemente en tiras. Reconocimos también una cierta familiaridad de los adolescentes participantes con los recursos narrativos gráficos, tales como globos, cartuchos, líneas de movimiento, etc., que en ocasiones utilizaron con alto grado de sofisticación. Las producciones gráficas priorizaron una convergencia modal, según la cual cada modo semiótico (verbal o visual) aporta diferenciadamente a ciertos fines comunicativos. Lejos de ser solo un entretenimiento, la creación humorística gráfica se presentó como una oportunidad para resignificar experiencias personales y problematizar la realidad social. En el Estudio II, exploramos el aprendizaje del humor gráfico en la adolescencia. Para ello, identificamos y analizamos los cambios que se generaron tanto en las concepciones acerca de este género, como en las estrategias adoptadas para la creación textual, en un grupo de nueve adolescentes que participaron en el taller trimestral de interpretación y producción de humor gráfico. Buscamos integrar la perspectiva de los aprendices en el estudio de sus procesos de apropiación de conocimientos, atendiendo a las formas de explicitación y re-descripción representacional en clave multimodal. Analizamos, por un lado, la información relevada en las entrevistas realizadas a todos los participantes al culminar el taller y por otro lado, para algunos participantes, integramos la información aportada por el análisis de las producciones gráficas realizadas al iniciar y finalizar el taller. Este segundo acercamiento, motivado por comprender la variedad y el dinamismo de los recursos puestos en juego, se propuso como una exploración multimodal de las trayectorias de aprendizaje. Este Estudio II permitió reflexionar sobre las condiciones de producción, en tanto el taller trimestral fue diseñado para que los participantes puedan configurar libremente sus espacios de problema, habilitando un despliegue y refinamiento de sus recursos cognitivo-comunicativos implicados en la creación gráfica multimodal. Dicha experiencia educativa estuvo orientada a promover un aprendizaje agentivo de tipo constructivo o reflexivo, en el que acompañamos la creación gráfica tanto con tematizaciones y reflexiones acerca del género en sus múltiples aristas, así como de explicitaciones sobre la propia toma de decisiones. Los resultados aportaron evidencias en favor de una extensión de la zona de desarrollo próximo de los aprendices, quienes lograron implicarse con soltura en esta actividad abierta y cognitiva y comunicativamente demandante. Los participantes del taller trimestral comprendieron aspectos clave del género, que lo diferencian de otras manifestaciones humorísticas así como de otras producciones gráficas, identificaron las motivaciones que pueden tener los autores para crear humor, y se percataron de algunas restricciones y exigencias de cada formato. Los matices captados en las trayectorias de aprendizaje de los participantes pusieron en evidencia discontinuidades y brechas en el aprendizaje, así como también el vínculo estrecho entre los desafíos personales, situados -en los cuales interviene toda la trayectoria de aprendizajes previos- y las estrategias de producción textual. El enfoque socio-constructivista de recursos adoptado en esta investigación nos permitió entender la creación de humor gráfico como una actividad con potencial, atractiva y altamente agentiva, en tanto posibilita a los participantes experimentar la tensión entre indicadores de apropiación de convenciones y de producción innovadora así como tomar perspectiva respecto de una temática que los convoca y que pueden expresar libre y multimodalmente, comprometiendo procesos motivacionales, imaginativos y expresivos. Planteamos como un aporte de esta investigación el hecho de brindar evidencia empírica de primera mano en favor de la consideración de este género discursivo como un objeto de enseñanza y aprendizaje. Acorde con las nuevas demandas de la alfabetización multimodal, concluimos que la creación de humor gráfico permite visibilizar, explorar, tematizar y reflexionar sobre las potencialidades y limitaciones funcionales de cada modo semiótico, y las particularidades con que juegan su rol en la creación o diseño de sentidos, convocando a su vez a su uso reflexivo y estratégico como herramientas comunicativas y cognitivas.
... 18 Neil Cohn sees McCloud as making a distinction between "experiential time" and "fictive time," but we can benefit from understanding experiential time as always, to some extent, fictive. 19 Making sense of time and narrating time is inherently a fictive enterprise. That past, present, and future are on the same page is essential to exploring how we should read race on the comics page. ...
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BLDSC reference no.: DX218628. Thesis (doctoral)--University of Nottingham, 2000.