17 Aug 2016

Hatfield (3) “The Art of Tensions”, ‘3. Single Image vs. Image-in-Sequence', summary

by Corry Shores

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[The following is summary. All boldface and bracketed commentary are my own. Proofreading is incomplete, so I apologize for any distracting typos.]

Summary of

Charles Hatfield

“The Art of Tensions”

3. Single Image vs. Image-in-Sequence

Brief summary:
Comics begin as more or less continuous and coherent imagined sequences in the creators’ minds. This imagined sequence is then crafted by means of division and selection (and thus by omission) into a discrete series of less continuous fragments, constituted by the visual series of panels and called the ‘breakdown’. The reader, by means of closure, then reconstructs the story’s imagined sequence. This element of closure brings cohesion between panels and constructs an overall coherent imagined sequence. This process of construction can be relatively straightforward, especially when the creators make obvious and continuous transitions between panels within an overall coherent and consistent narrative. But the creators can also place challenges upon the reader’s ability to find closure by introducing discontinuities in the fabric of the presentation. For example, the images can insist on their own independence from one another on account of their individual traits that resist synthesis with the other panels, or this challenge to closure can come from an overall lack of obvious coherence in the overarching narrative sequence. This is the tension between single image vs. image-in-sequence. In cases where there is visual discontinuity, the dialogue can serve as a closure device, even when the dialogue itself is meandering or iconic.


Hatfield notes the importance of time in understanding comics and also in how comics narratives are structured. He defines breakdown as the process of producing and selecting images for a narrative sequence (which involves omitting certain ones).
Most definitions of comics stress the representation of time, that is, of temporal sequence, through multiple images in series. The process of dividing a narrative into such images — a process that necessarily entails omitting as well as including — can be called breakdown, a word derived from “breakdowns,” a term of art that refers to the rough drawings made in the process of planning out a comics story (Harvey, 14–15).
[Hatfield 135. Citing Harvey, R. C., The Art of the Funnies: An Aesthetic History (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994).]
[We will need to think of the reverse process of the breakdown. So maybe the ideas is the following, but I am not sure. The breakdown would be the comics creator’s activity of taking the story as a whole (existing in her mind) and breaking it down into the fragments that make up the comics work. The reverse process is the reader starting with those fragments and building back up the story that started as whole in the creator’s mind. We discussed this when we examined chapter 3, on closure, in Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, in light of Wolfgang’s Iser’s text, “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach.” Hatfield then makes a terminological distinction between sequence and series. But I am not sure that I grasp it well. Perhaps these are conventional terms in this field, but they seem conceptually almost identical to me. As far as I can tell, the “imagined sequence” is something that occurs in the imagination of either the creator or the reader, but the “visual series” is the breakdown (the set of more or less ordered panels). I am really not sure, but perhaps we use the word ‘sequence’ in this way because it might suggest more of the relatively continuous unfolding of the story, while ‘series’ somehow implies a linear arrangement of discrete parts. But I am not certain.]
The reverse process [of a breakdown], that of reading through such images and inferring connections between them, has been dubbed (borrowing from gestalt psychology) “closure” by McCloud, in keeping with the reader-response emphasis of his Understanding Comics. In fact “breakdown” and “closure” are complementary terms, both describing the relationship between sequence and series: the author’s task is to evoke an imagined sequence by creating a visual series (a breakdown), whereas the reader’s task is to translate the given series into a narrative sequence by achieving closure. Again, the reader’s role is crucial, and requires the invocation of learned competencies; the relationships between pictures are a matter of convention, not inherent connectedness.
(Hatfield 135, bracketed insertion is mine)
Hatfield first says that this process of closure can happen in an unproblematic way. He cites a scene from Julie Doucet’s “The Artist” where after stripping off her close, she begins cutting apart her body. [This story can be seen here, at what might be a webpage for one of Hatfield’s classes.] [Hatfield’s point with this demonstration might be that we use our normal pattern of closure at the beginning, where we imagine the motions that transpire between panels, but then we are committed to that pattern when we arrive at the end when she begins doing things we might not want to imagine. Or perhaps he is not talking about the gutter closures individually but rather about the ongoing construction of a whole story that we commit to at the beginning and must finish at the end, even if we do not like the way the story turns.]

[So this case of Doucet’s “The Artist” seems to be one where the closure operation is automatic and fluent.] But there are cases where closure can “require more active effort on the part of the reader” (135). Hatfield illustrates with a couple pages in Jason Lutes Jar of Fools, and he notes a few ways that the reader needs to expend more effort to achieve closure in this panel series. The first thing he notes is that it does not begin with an establishing shot. So spatially speaking, there is no initial sort of holistic view of the location. That comes only after four panels.
 photo Lutes. Jar of Fools.36_zpsmcvy5pkz.jpg
Hatfield describes this scene in the following way: “Lutes frames the entire day from Esther’s point of view, sticking close to the minutiae of her clockwork routine. The repeated use of close-ups throughout the sequence reinforces the repetitive yet discontinuous nature of her work” (135). [One point here Hatfield might be making is that closure may be more difficult to accomplish since the nature of her work is discontinuous, but I am not sure.] We see the repetitiveness in Ester’s mechanical repetition of the question, “Can I help you?” (135). Hatfield then notes a moment that presents a challenge for the reader to attain closure. When a customer offends Ester, we see her punching the customer in the face. At first, our process of closure might regard this as reality. But in the next panels we see that nothing has happened in reality, so we know retroactively that this was a dream. We might also notice that the panel border became rounded, which also suggests a switch to a different mode of reality. [Hatfield writes, “That she imagines this, but does not do it, is something the reader must figure out for herself: Lutes suggests this both by the unvarying rhythm of the sequence and by the subtle variation in panel bordering around the imagined punch (the latter a technique used previously by Lutes to set off dreams and memories — by this point the reader presumably knows the code).” But I was confused how the unvarying rhythm of the sequence would suggest there was a shift in modes of reality. Would not an invariance in the rhythm suggest a maintenance in the mode of reality? His point might be that the invariance tells us real time has been pacing as normal, while the punch action was a daydream superimposed on that steady flow of real time.]  So here is another case where achieving closure is not absolutely automatic, as it required the reader to do some revision: “Yet the moment comes as a shock nonetheless, due in part to the repeated use of a single, unvarying image — Esther’s taciturn face — to pace the sequence. We see her land a blow, yet nothing about her or around her changes to match this unexpected outburst. The reader must negotiate the larger context of Lutes’s narrative to make this key distinction” (136).

Hatfield then notes that this pattern continues to the next page, and he writes, “To follow this sequence, the reader must be mindful of Lutes’s previously established habits as a storyteller — his approach to panel bordering, his interpolations of dream and fantasy into mundane reality, and so on — and take an active part in constructing a flow of events from discontinuous images” (137).
 photo Lutes. Jar of Fools.37_zpsq2tqexbh.jpg
Hatfield then gives examples where “achieving closure can be quite difficult, as when images seem radically disjointed and verbal cues are scant.” The first example is from Spiegelman’s “drawn over two weeks while on the phone” [which can be seen again at Hatfield’s class site here.] [Hatfield’s point here seems to be that were it not for certain genre conventions or design elements that carry over from panel to panel, we would perhaps be unable to see this as a single comic. And in fact, the real continuity is simply the author’s playful irregularity.]
At times achieving closure can be quite difficult, as when images seem radically disjointed and verbal cues are scant. For example, Art Spiegelman’s wordless “drawn over two weeks while on the phone” (Raw 1) presents a series of disconnected panels with recurrent character types and situations but no narrative per se. Generic conventions — nods to film noir, for instance — are repeatedly invoked but without a linear rationale; motific repetition suggests at best a vague connection between otherwise disjunct panels. Certain characters and symbols are repeated: geometric symbols, for instance, which serve as pictographic dialogue, as decorative effects, and, in a droll reversal, even as characters. But the sought-for unity of the piece, finally, rests on the reader’s recognition of the author’s formal playfulness rather than on any coherent narrative. It takes much knowledge and careful attention to read Spiegelman’s series as a sequence.
Hatfield’s next point is that McCloud’s Understanding Comics may be missing one important closure device, namely the interaction between word and image. [Perhaps here he is referring to the shapes in the speech bubbles of Spiegelman’s “drawn over two weeks while on the phone” (again, viewable here). Even though we cannot discern any textual meaning to them, their common visual appearance lends some sense of continuity to the sequence.]
The tension between single image and image-in-series is bound up with other formal issues, and therefore hard to codify. McCloud’s Understanding Comics remains the strongest theoretical treatment (in English, that is) of comics sequencing; yet McCloud, perhaps because he does not consider visual/verbal interplay crucial to the form, neglects just | how much the interaction of image and word can inform, indeed enable, the reading of sequences. Verbal cues do help to bridge the gaps within a sequence, as seen in common transitional captions such as “Later” or “Meanwhile” (devices that have fallen from favor as readers become more versed in reading comics, just as title cards, fades, irises, and other such transitional devices fell from favor in cinema). In fact verbal continuity can impose structure on even the most radically disjointed series. Witness, for instance, Spiegelman’s oft-reprinted “Ace Hole, Midget Detective,” in which the hero’s nonstop narration (a spoof of hard-boiled fiction) serves to structure an otherwise nonlinear barrage of non sequiturs, visual gags, and stylistic swipes.
 photo Ace detective p.5_zpsm7owbt3f.jpg

Hatfield notes that one way closure is achieved is through the interplay of successive images [as with Doucet’s “The Artist” and perhaps the Jar of Fools sequence. Here, the continuity or rhythm of the panels facilitates the closure process.] Also, closure can be attained through the “interplay of different codes of signification: the verbal as well as the visual” (138) [as we saw with the Spiegelman examples. Here we had verbal codes of signification, in the balloons, which had either a visual or a genre sort of consistency, and the visual codes of signification, which may not have been obviously related to the dialogue but which had their own sort of associative logic.] [Now, recall McCloud’s categories of transition from chapter 3 of Understanding Comics, like moment-to-moment, action-to-action, and so on. Here McCloud does not include something like what Hatfield has in mind. I am not sure how to name it, but maybe something like, “dialogue-to-dialogue”.] But there is a certain sort of transition that does not fit within McCloud’s six types.
Verbal/visual interplay often muddies the pristine categories of transition that McCloud tries to establish in Understanding Comics (moment to moment, action to action, scene to scene, and so on). Words can smooth over transitions and unobtrusively establish a dramatic continuity that belies the discontinuity of the images.
[I think Hatfield’s point here with regard to McCloud’s transition types is that dialogue can serve as the coherence device in any of the six types. And thus we cannot clearly distinguish them. But I am not sure that this criticism lands so well, or perhaps I misunderstand it. I do not think that McCloud’s distinctions disallow for dialogue to assist the closure. Granted, the emphasis in each type is on the visual contents of the panel, almost as if dialogue is irrelevant to the classification. But perhaps the dialogue really is irrelevant to the classifications. The types are not classified on the basis of the closure mechanism, but rather on the type of change in each case. In other words, whether or not there is dialogue that bridges the panels should not matter in his classification system. Hatfield’s point might still be that for example the non-sequitur type, where there is no visual coherence, is not really a non-sequitur, when for example the dialogue bridges the visual incongruities. However, there is no category in McCloud’s system for when panel transitions are visually discontinuous but textually continuous. And thus, as Hatfield observes, McCloud misses the importance of the interplay between text and image in this classification system.]
To show how “Words can smooth over transitions and unobtrusively establish a dramatic continuity that belies the discontinuity of the images,” Hatfield will contrast Harvey Pekar’s (and Robert Crumb’s) “The Harvey Pekar Name Story” and “Hypothetical Quandary”. [I might be mistaken, but Hatfield’s procedure seems to be the following. First he shows a case where visually the closure is achieved quite easily, because the panels are all quite similar. This also has the effect of allowing us to focus on the text. Then Hatfield shows an example where the monologue is similarly continuous, but the image sequence lacks an overall sense of a unifying element to give it closure (although I would note that there seems to be a temporal continuity implied in the visual sequence that gives it its own coherence). So now we recall the first two kinds of tension. In section 2 we discussed code vs. code tension. Here we noted that pictorial codes and textual codes can have a tense interplay of some sort. This is especially obvious when pictures or icons are used in dialogue bubbles. Then in this section we have discussed single image vs. image-in-series tension. I am not sure I follow what that tension is, but I think it might be the tension between the individuality and conceptual independence of each panel with the fact that it inevitably becomes a participating unit in a larger sequential structure. Now Hatfield says that there is another tension between these two layers of tension. I suppose the idea is that there is a tension between image and image-in-series resulting from the discontinuity of the panels, and there is also somehow a tension between codes, but I do not know what that is. It might be the relative discontinuity of Pekar’s discourse, which explores “all the twists and turns of Harvey’s thinking”. So now there is a tension between these tensions. (I am not sure at this point why we need the concept of tension. I guess we use it because it both implies a bond while also suggesting a non-reducibility of the bonded things, as they act in resistance to one another. But I am not sure why we are not simply using the term “relation”. The “tense” element only seems to come to light in the exceptional cases that Hatfield gives rather than being obvious in most cases. I think the idea is that we see it in these exception cases where it is obvious, and then we can better detect it in the normal cases, where it is less apparent but still an important factor.)]
Propelled as much by Pekar’s text as by the subtle authority of Crumb’s pictures, “Hypothetical Quandary” moves Harvey (and the reader) over a great distance, telescoping his Sunday morning expedition into three pages. Like the above example from Lutes’s Jar of Fools, this story relies on words as well as common visual cues for its pacing. Driving, walking, buying bread, walking again — all of these happen while Harvey’s internal dialogue carries on without interruption, until the last two panels find him savoring the bread’s fresh smell, his quandary forgotten. The continuity of the verbal text disguises the discontinuity of the visual: Pekar’s ongoing words, exploring all the twists and turns of Harvey’s thinking, elide the gaps in the visual sequence, making this stylized evocation of his world seem naturalistic and unforced. Whereas “The Harvey Pekar Name Story” weds the author’s text to deliberately repetitive breakdowns and a single, static composition, “Hypothetical Quandary” uses text to carry the reader from one locale to the next without ever losing continuity of thought. These contrasting examples point up the possibility that breakdown may depend on mixing the verbal and the visual. Thus the two tensions named so far, code vs. code and single image vs. image-in-series, interact to create a yet more complex tension, soliciting the reader’s active efforts at resolution.

 photo Pekar. American Splendor 2. Name Story.p1_zpsmtm7ncxm.jpg

 photo Pekar. American Splendor 9. Hypothetical.p3_zpsqdtg8ije.jpg


Hatfield, Charles. “The Art of Tensions.” In A Comics Studies Reader, pp.132–148. Edited by Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester. Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi,  2009.

Image sources:

Lutes, Jason. Jar of Fools.  ©1997 Jason Lutes. Montreal: Black Eye Books [Originally published 1994 Penny Dreadful Press.]

Pekar, Harvey. “The Harvey Pekar Name Story.” In American Splendor #2. ©1977 Harvey Pekar.

Pekar, Harvey. “Hypothetical Quandary” In American Splendor #9. ©1984 Harvey Pekar.
Spiegelman, Art. “Ace Hole: Midget Detective.” ©1974 Art Spiegelman. In Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@$*! ©2008 Art Spiegelman. Penguin.

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