10 Jan 2016

Eisner (Ch3.1) Comics and Sequential Art, ‘Timing [introductory material]’


by Corry Shores

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Will Eisner

Comics & Sequential Art



[Introductory section of the chapter]

Brief summary:
Comics need the element of temporality within the story itself, so that events can unfold, and also it is needed in the reader’s experience of the story, so that the reader’s emotional reactions can develop along with the dramatic unfolding. To produce these two sorts of temporality, comics use the visual space of the page. A panel in the next spatial location in the reading succession also takes (normally) another block of time in the story. Time in comics is that space-created temporal dimension. Timing is the manipulation of the visual imagery and of its panelization so to alter the temporal features of the story and of the reader’s emotional experience of the story.


Eisner is discussing sequential art, which includes primarily comics media. He now will deal with the element of timing. Eisner understands the experience of time as involving its mixture with space and sound.

The phenomenon of duration and its experience – commonly referred to as ‘time’ – is a dimension integral to sequential art. In the universe of human consciousness time combines with space and sound in a setting of interdependence wherein conceptions, actions, motions and movement have a meaning and are measured by our perception of their relationship to each other.

Eisner says that because we live our lives “immersed [...] in a sea of space-time,” we must at a younger age have spent much of our development coming to grips with these dimensions (25). Space is something we perceive directly through our vision. But “Time is more illusory,” because its experiential parts are not immediately given but rather only mediately so through retentions: “we measure and perceive it through the memory of experience” (25). Earlier peoples measured time through natural cycles, like those of the sun’s and moon’s rotations in the sky and the cycles of the seasons. But with the invention of the mechanical clock, time came to be measured more visually [and thus spatially]. Eisner thinks that this change is significant for two reasons: 1) the visual way we measure time affects our psychological experience of it [thus perhaps we have come to experience time in a more spatial way], and 2) “it enables us to deal with the real business of living. In modern society one might even say that it is instrumental to survival” (25)  [I am not sure I have that point exactly. The mechanical measure of time allows society to function more efficiently. I am not sure what he means by the “real business of living”.] But in comics, the visual measure of time is “an essential structural element” (25).

A visual narrative must convey time if it is to be successful. For, we need the element of time in order “to recognize and be empathetic to surprise, humor, terror and the whole range of human experience” (26). [Perhaps the idea is that all the types of human experience necessarily involves temporal variation. Surprise needs at least two moments: the one creating an expectation and the one defying it. Also, humor needs shifts in meanings and expectations, which requires time, as do many other emotions. Thus, if comics wants to incorporate these emotional elements of human experience into the story experience, they need to create the temporality required for these emotions to unfold within the reader theirself.] [His next point seems to be is that this temporality that unfolds in the comics experience is a product of the workings of the perceptual apparatus that is found in common in all of us. But I am not exactly sure what that would mean, and in fact, I am probably misreading this sentence:] “At the heart of the sequential deployment of images intending to convey time is the commonality of its perception” (26). [He then distinguishes time and timing. Time is this dimension through and by which emotions unfold and develop. Timing is the manipulation of visual elements so to modify that temporality and affect the desired emotional outcome in the reader. In his visual demonstration, displayed below, we compare time and timing in comics. The “time” figure just shows the moments of the event. One man raises his knife to stab another. The other man shoots him before the knife lands. And we then see the first man lie shot-dead on the ground. Here, we have a couple seconds of time of the story event. It is mostly just information, with little emotional impact. In the second figure, “timing,” we have those three panel parts still, but with the addition of the shot man’s agonized collapse into death. These added panels are expressive of the torment of that dying man. Without other story experience, we might just simply be shocked by the raw agony of dying, whose only relief is the non-existence that is sure to come. It is perhaps like watching an animal die and to reflect on the mortal limitations of life. However, were we to have previously come to regard this dying as man a morally reprehensible villain, then seeing his agony and death might make us feel relief as if justice were rendered. Or if we came to identify previously with that dying man and to see him as a heroic and moral character, his death would seem like a tragic and sad misfortune to us. Whatever that emotion is, because of the additional panels playing out dramatically the agony of his death, we have a much richer emotional experience of the event.]

to convey ‘timing,’ which is the manipulation of the elements of time to achieve a specific message or emotion, panels become a critical element.

 photo Eisner. Comics and Sequential Art. time timing.Vert_zpswiitfbdz.jpg

Eisner then says that comics obtain their “reality” through their time and timing. [Perhaps by this he means that without the temporal element, they cannot portray events and thus they cannot exist as stories.] He then says that in other auditory art forms like music, time is created using actual durations of time. But in comics, temporality is achieved through illusions and symbols. [We learn more of this in the next sections.]

A comic becomes 'real' when time and timing is factored into the creation. In music or the other forms of auditory communication where rhythm or 'beat' is achieved, this is done with actual lengths of time. In graphics the experience is conveyed by the use of illusions and symbols and their arrangement.



Will Eisner. Comics & Sequential Art. Tamarac, Florida: Poorhouse Press, 1985.

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