by Neal Curtis
Definitions of comics are numerous and yet no single version can quite capture the fecundity, variety and experimental profusion of the medium as it continues to evolve. I would therefore agree with Joseph Witek who suggests that arguments over what defines or qualifies as a comic often “devolve into analytical cul-de-sacs and hair splitting debates over an apparently endless profusion of disputed boundary cases and contradictory counter-examples” (149). Witek continues that in light of this, “‘comicness’ might usefully be reconceptualized from being an immutable attribute of texts to being considered as a historically contingent and evolving set of reading protocols that are applied to texts, that to be a comic text means to be read as a comic” (149). Although this suggests a cultural relativist approach to the medium it does still enact some boundary policing in the sense that the graphic information sheet placed in the pockets of airplane seats, while sharing certain features with the comics medium—panels and a combination of word and image—is not a comic because it is not read as such.
While acknowledging the need for an open and non-restrictive understanding of the medium I do think, however, that it is important for us to highlight what comics can do that other media do not or cannot do quite so well. In this regard I believe it is helpful to adopt Thierry Groensteen’s minimalist attempt at providing a necessary but not sufficient condition for something to be read as a comic. This is what he calls “iconic solidarity” or “the relational play of a plurality of interdependent images” (17). Such solidarity is most evident in the organization of a comic’s units into what he calls the “multiframe” that takes the form of a strip, a page or double page, and indeed the entire comic book. Here, all the elements of a comic—its panels, balloons, captions, images, text and other forms of graphic notation (Curtis, 104)—belong together and exist in common. This solidarity could be purely sequential in a comic of one panel per page or one created as an elongated strip that runs like a ribbon, but what is also important for Groensteen is that these units are “plastically and semantically over-determined by the fact of their coexistence in praesentia” (18). It is this spatial solidarity or the co-presence of units on a page that I think is quintessential to the comic form.
I know the page is something of a historical accident created from the comics medium’s close connection (at least in the US) with the newspaper, but the spatial arrangements of units available to be seen simultaneously along two axes is singular enough for Colin Beineke to coin the noun ‘comicity’ (passim). If a comic might be described as cinematic why can’t Andy Warhol’s multi-panelled screen prints be described as ‘comicitous’? I should also note that my use of ‘page’ can be considered analogically and that this feature does not prevent comics from expanding and experimenting with three-dimensional co-presence should creators wish to do that. In addition, I believe attention to and celebration of spatial co-presence is important because we live in a culture dominated by the moving image of film and TV, while new technologies such as tablets and smartphones encourage innovations in comics such as ‘directed reading’, scrolling and animation, all of which privilege sequence over space; and in a field that has had to slowly liberate itself from the conceptual and debilitating dominance of sequence there is always a danger for the art of co-presence to be subsumed.
So, as a short ode to comics as the art of co-presence, I would like to speak about the page (and double page) as a multiframe, because it is this specific unit within the medium that I think makes comics such a rich vehicle for visual expression and storytelling. The spatial co-presence also opens the medium to the anarchy of looking (rather than the discipline of reading) and invites creators to think of the page or double page as a single aesthetic unit deploying all manner of vectors, dynamic relations and rhythms. To talk about this I want to use the two-page comic entitled “Tick Tock” by John Cei Douglas published in Off Life #10 (fig. 1), which, I believe, is exemplary in demonstrating why the medium of comics is so special. Douglas is a freelance illustrator and comics creator specialising in short (often very short) stories. He worked with Emma Sou on the post-hurricane memoir, After Maria, and has collected his own work in self-published mini comics such as Static and Show Me The Map To Your Heart. Off Life is an online, open access comics anthology that also specialised in publishing very short comics between 2012 and 2016. Although the anthology is on something of a hiatus all the issues are still available to read.
Off Life very much reads like a physical comic in that the platform virtually flips pages as you move through it, and the numbering suggests these are two distinct pages, and yet what is interesting is how the whole thing can be read as a single unit. As the title suggests “Tick Tock” is about the passage of time. The two pages are organised symmetrically, with the second page acting as a chiasmus of the first, and the comic has its title played out in the rhythmic repetition of the first and last panels that also signify the passage of time between night and day, summer and winter. After the initial strip panel that establishes the location we then have a strip of a man leaving a house, whom we also see age (fig. 2). His suitcase in panel one and his middle-age appearance in panel three also suggest that he has been gone for a long time; that he has ‘left’ in the more final sense of the word.
This is followed by a strip that starts with a young boy who, we assume, is watching the man leave (fig. 3). His youth and potential vulnerability are accentuated by him holding a teddy bear and by the look of unknowing surprise on his face. This adds further significance to the man leaving and strengthens our interpretation that the man, the boy’s father, has left the family home. Echoing the time of the preceding strip, we then see the boy grow into a young man.
This significance of the man’s departure and his status as father and husband or partner are developed even more as we now see the young man comfort a woman whom we assume to be his mother (fig. 4). We now know that the departure of the man was indeed significant and that this perhaps marked the end of their relationship. The opening panel in this strip now acts as a memory of that painful day and explains the scene of the son as a young man comforting his mother. It is also worth noting that the comic is wordless. This adds to the expression of memory as a form of silent testimony to an unspeakable trauma that haunts both mother and son throughout their lives. Formally, the lack of words—and the function that speech balloons often have in directing reading—also helps to facilitate the multi-directional movement of the eye that I am tracking here.
Over the page, we are now offered an image of an old man confined to a wheelchair and the suggestion is that he is contemplating his death (fig. 5).
In the next strip, this is confirmed as we see the old man die, his death marked by the blank, grey middle panel and the image of someone approaching his grave (fig. 6).
In the next strip he see the son age further, himself becoming a middle-aged man, and we are shown flowers laid at the grave that the strip suggests have been taken there by the son (fig. 7).
The comic then closes with a “Tock” as we return to the house from which the man left. Now the rhythm of day and night, summer and winter takes on an additional meaning as the winter setting carries with it the sense of sadness, loss and emptiness that we have seen presented in the story. However, what is really extraordinary about this comic is that it is organised such that we can read it in a number of different ways. We are encouraged to continue reading the second strip on page one all the way across page two, as we are with the third strip on page one (fig. 8).
In addition we are also able to read down through panels 2, 5 and 8 on page 1, and panels 2, 5 and 8 on page 2. This extends the scene of the father leaving and, many years later, the scene of the son approaching his dead father’s grave and laying flowers (Figures 9 and 10).
Figure 9: left-had column, page 1. Figure 10: right-hand column, page 2.
But we are also able to read across both top and bottom of the double page to see the house the man left that day in summer—he is literally looking back at it—as his death approaches, no doubt regretting what he has lost. While at the bottom we can interpret the effect of his leaving on the family he left behind. Both of these longer strips now capture the tragedy of the story (fig. 11 and 12).
While the multiframe of both page and double page is not necessary for something to be a comic, it is a feature available to the medium that makes it so very special and that allows the medium to present stories in a way that no other medium can. So, I would like to thank John Cei Douglas for so beautifully and economically demonstrating the art of co-presence.
Issues of Off Life can be found here: http://offlife.co.uk/
A selection of John Cei Douglas’s comics can be found here: https://www.johnceidouglas.com
Neal Curtis is Associate Professor in Media and Communication at the University of Auckland. His most recent books include Idiotism: Capitalism and the Privatization of Life (Pluto Press, 2013) and Sovereignty and Superheroes (Manchester University Press, 2016). His new book Hate in Precarious Times will be out with I. B. Tauris in 2021. A new project on superheroes awaits.
Beineke, Colin. “On Comicity”, Inks: The Journal of the Comics Studies Society, vol. 1, no. 2, 2017, pp. 226-253.
Curtis, Neal. “The Medium of Comics; or the Art of Co-Presence.” Reimaging Communication: Mediation, edited by Michael Filmowicz and Veronika Tzankova, Routledge, 2020, pp. 103-121.
Groensteen, Thierry. The System of Comics. Translated by Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen, University Press of Mississippi, 2007.
Witek, Joseph. “The Arrow and the Grid.” A Comics Studies Reader, edited by Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester, University of Mississippi Press, 2009, pp. 149-156.