In a recent post on the definition of comics, I suggested that one of the important features that distinguishes comics from other pictorial art forms is that when we consume comics we are experiencing the work the way that we typically experience images — that is, comics are narratives where we look at (rather than merely read) the narrative. In particular, it follows that:
(P1) When reading a comic we experience the text the way we normally (i.e. outside of comics) experience images
This still seems, in some sense, right to me (and, of course, Will Eisner agreed “Text reads as image!”, Comics and Sequential Art, 1985).
In the discussion that followed, summarized and discussed in this follow-up post, Peter Sattler suggested that “Comics are what happens when textual reading habits are activated in a visual (image-centered) field.” In other words, Sattler’s view, although not on the face of it incompatible with my own, seems to be a mirror-image of it: On his account, comics are (or, at least, minimally involve) something like structured images, where we read (rather than merely look at) the images in question. Thus, we get:
(P2) When reading a comic we experience the images the way we normally (i.e. outside of comics) experience text.
Note that Jessica Abel and Matt Madden codified a version of both of these ideas (but from a production orientated, rather than a consumption orientated, perspective) in the title to their first how-to book on comics!
Reading a text (of whatever sort) seems both phenomenologically and structurally very different from looking at something, however: When reading, we are interested in largely conventional semantic relations between linguistic units and their referents, whereas with looking we are often interested either in the bare appearance of the thing being looked at, or in relations of resemblance and representation holding between depiction and thing being depicted (which are often somewhat, but rarely completely, conventional). In short, reading feels different from looking, and the mechanisms underlying reading are (so far as we understand these things) quite different from the mechanisms underlying looking at something. Thus:
(P3) Looking is phenomenologically very different from reading.
The paradox arises when we note the following fact, apparent to anyone who reads comics on a regular basis:
(P4) We experience the content of comics in a unified manner.
In other words, we don’t first decode the content of some parts of the work via reading, and then decode the content of other parts of the work via looking, and then incorporate these two very different sorts of content into a unified whole in some sort of conscious three-step process. Instead, the process is seamless and smooth, with no apparent difference felt between what is read and what is looked at.
But how can this be? How can our experience of comics be unified in this way if it is composed of two very different experiential modes – modes that are noticeably different in the way that they ‘feel’ to us? Shouldn’t we be able to detect the shift from looking to reading and back to looking when it happens? If so, then it looks like (P1) through (P4) above are jointly inconsistent (or, at the very least, seem to be in tension with one another). This is the paradox of the comics experience.
Now, we could just stop here, and admire the fine paradoxical pickle into which we seem to have gotten ourselves. A part of me would be fine with that – I have already written two books with the word “paradoxical” in the title, so I have no problem getting excited about new paradoxes. But maybe we don’t have a genuine paradox here.
We do have a puzzle, however – one we need to solve. It is clear that reading and looking are two distinct kinds of experience, with their own mechanisms, features, and feels. It is also clear that seasoned comics readers are able to employ both of these experiential modes simultaneously, and are able to switch from one to the other and back again seamlessly without even noticing they are doing it. What is not clear at all, however, is how this works (In other words, don’t waste your time or mine trying to convince me in the comments that we actually do this. It’s obvious we do. The point is we need an explanation of how we do it, and we don’t have one). Thus, what we need is an account of the various ways that comics generate meaning that explains how these very different modes combine to produce a single unified meaning.
Any such account will likely draw on psychology, linguistics, philosophy, and other fields that concentrate, in different ways, on how we turn perceptions and actions into meaning. Unfortunately, unlike some other disciplines, psychology, linguistics, and philosophy* have not paid much attention to comics. Maybe its time to change that.
So, in the PencilPanelPage tradition of ending with a question, I’ll end with this: How do reading and looking differ, and how are the combined in the experience of reading comics?
*I am not saying that there is no good research on comics in psychology, linguistics, or philosophy as applied to comics. After all, I am a philosopher who writes pretty prolifically on comics, and my pal and fellow PencilPanelPager Frank Bramlett is a linguist. But the few there are just ain’t enough.