Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Memory, Experience, and Comics Comprehension

In my last post, I discussed some traits of this quote by Chris Ware found from this blog post

“I don't like to think of my work as 'cinematic.' A movie is passive -- you're watching it, taking it in. Where a comic strip, it's completely active: you have to read it, search it for meaning, for the connection with your entire experience and your memory. Yes, you do have the illusion of watching something happen in a comic strip -- but if it's done well, it comes alive on the page like a novel. A novel is the most interactive thing ever created.”


The other thing I find interesting about this quite is that I have a hard time believing that people "imagine" things while reading comics that connect with their "entire experience" and "memory." There are two things that this quote implies:

1) That people are converting their reading experience into consciously clear interpretations (imagery, sounds, etc) while reading a comic (a notion that echoes McCloud's Closure).

2) That people's creation of meaning is entirely based on experience ("Empiricism").

Concerning the first point, I know when I read a comic, I don't necessarily feel like I "fill in" any missing imagery with mental imagery of my own. I don't visualize anything that isn't in the pages. I do understand it, and make the mental connections between and across images/words, but there is no additional imagery added. Novels do create this imagery (for some but not all people) because it isn't provided already.

This blog post has replied to my earlier posting expressing that Ware's meaning of "active" comprehension relates to this sort of filling in of sensory information that's missing. Again, I am hesitant to accept that people are actually imagining sounds, smells, motion, etc. while reading a comic.

Novels certainly allow people to create visual imagery — but vision is our primary sensory modality, so I find it unsurprising that this would happen. I'm less confident about the other senses.

SO....If you actually do feel like you create mental imagery while reading comics, I want to hear about it in the comments please!

On the second point, there is quite a lot of evidence that our understanding of meaning does not necessarily come from experience (and certainly not conscious experience). That's not to say all of it is innate, but there's a give and take between innate meaning and acquired meaning — the debate is over the percentages.

What I'd be more confident stating though is that when reading a comic, I doubt people are actively referencing overt memories or experiences in order to comprehend a sequence. Rather, they are drawing upon their abstract concepts — just like when they read a book, or yes, see a movie.

14 comments:

DerikB said...

I agree with you about reading comics and not filling in sensory experience.

I'm also a little bothered how people talking about comics fall back on the "passive" nature of watching films, as if you don't have to fill-in information or search for meaning when watching a film. Sure, some don't require that, but the good ones do. I wasn't a passive viewer of, say, Mulholland Drive.

Kris said...

I tend to fill in motion, sounds, individual character voices, etc. when I read comics, maybe moreso than I do when I read novels. I think maybe the experience varies depending on the person.

frederiques said...

I am wondering if you focus on the right point: I think that the emotionnal impact depends on the context (environment); indeed watching a movie in a big dark room among unkmown people is different from playing a DVD in your lounge, in the second case, you will have the opportunity to use the remote and to jump in the temporal place as you could turn back page of your comics.
Comics is also an object whereas in a large acception, Cinema is not.


I am currently reading a Umberto Eco's book called "Open Art Work" ("L'oeuvre ouverte" in French and "Opera Aperta" in italian). It has been written in 1962, but I think (I may be wrong) that there is a lot of quotes which still could be useful to understand the way people apprehend an Art Work.

Charles R. said...

Why is that Ware assumes listening to language (as in a movie) is passive, whereas reading it is not? Both involve activation of linguistic codes and the like. Likewise, even in the dumbest of movies, one still has to process the images, remembering what came before to understand what one is currently seeing. Ware sounds like some crude social critic from the dawn of cinema.

Jonathan Bass said...

Like Kris, I tend to imagine ("fill in") some sounds and missing visual detail when I read comics, and I suppose that memory/experience provides a resource from which to draw when doing the filling in, as Ware suggests.

One question this raises is whether or not this sensory filling in is necessary for our appreciation or interpretation of the work.

For instance: Ware means for us to imagine (or at least not to doubt) THAT Jimmy Corrigan and Rusty Brown make audible sounds when they speak, and that sometimes they speak loudly, and other times softly, and still other times only to themselves. But is it expected also that every time we read their dialogue we should imagine what their voices sound like?

Two different kinds of imaginative work are possible but only the first ("imagining-that") seems to be a necessary part of comprehension.

. . .

P.S. As I tried to suggest in my comment to the previous post, I think Ware limits his remark on passivity (rightly or wrongly) to the filling in of sensory information. Nothing he says in that remark suggests (to me) that film in general requires less work than comics when it comes to other kinds of gap-filling and interpretation.

Moreover, reading him charitably, I think he’s using the comparison to say that reading comics is active and not really to say anything enduring about film.

Jonathan Bass said...

Like Kris, I tend to imagine ("fill in") some sounds and missing visual detail when I read comics, and I suppose that memory/experience provides a resource from which to draw when doing the filling in, as Ware suggests.

One question this raises is whether or not this sensory filling in is necessary for our appreciation or interpretation of the work.

For instance: Ware means for us to imagine (or at least not to doubt) THAT Jimmy Corrigan and Rusty Brown make audible sounds when they speak, and that sometimes they speak loudly, and other times softly, and still other times only to themselves. But is it expected also that every time we read their dialogue we should imagine what their voices sound like?

Two different kinds of imaginative work are possible but only the first ("imagining-that") seems to be a necessary part of comprehension.

. . .

P.S. As I tried to suggest in my comment to the previous post, I think Ware limits his remark on passivity (rightly or wrongly) to the filling in of sensory information. Nothing he says in that remark suggests (to me) that film in general requires less work than comics when it comes to other kinds of gap-filling and interpretation.

Moreover, reading him charitably, I think he’s using the comparison to say that reading comics is active and not really to say anything enduring about film.

Jonathan Bass said...

Sorry for the duplicate post above. Software error. -j

Charles R. said...

I don't know, Jonathan, it seems to me that Ware is pretty clearly drawing a continuum of passivity to activity going from film to comic to novel.

Charles R. said...

Oops, and one more thing: I wonder just what the quality of the filled in info is. Harkening back to Zenon Pylyshyn, it's dubious that one fills in "missing" percepts with "experiential" concepts (as if it were a matter of direct realism) when reading between the words in a novel or drawings in a comic, i.e., nothing like the images presented to us in a film. Thus, Ware's conception of activity doesn't really apply to novels or comics. I think that's what Neil's getting at (correct me if I'm wrong). The content of the narrative for all three media is code based, just derived from different information. (And, of course, the codes aren't all derived in the same way, either.)

Sean Kleefeld said...

FWIW, I do sometimes provide characters in comics with distinctive voices, often based on external sources. An obvious example would be comics based on licensed properties from other media (like Star Wars). A comic book version of Han Solo "sounds" like Harrison Ford to me.

While I do make active associations like that, they are predominately limited to characters whose voice I have a real reference of some kind for. To me, Superman always sounds like Danny Dark (who voiced the character for "Super Friends") and "American Splendor" always sounds like it's being read by Harvey Pekar. Characters that I can't make any direct association with, though (like Rueben Flagg or Groo) remain "voiceless."

Jonathan Bass said...

Charles: I agree that Ware is "pretty clearly drawing a continuum of passivity to activity going from film to comic to novel," but he is not saying very clearly what the activity in question consists in. Something about making the story content "come alive" on the page, which, in the case of comics and novels, requires (his point) that readers draw (to some degree?) on memory and experience. He doesn't give us too much more than this in the quote, but he does suggest that this is not something we need to do with film.

The second sentence of the quote does suggest (wrongly) that all that viewers tend to do, and need to do, in watching a film is to sit there and "take it in." And Ware follows this point with the suggestion that comic strips and novels are works that we need to interpret ("search . . . for meaning") whereas films (mysteriously) are not.

But the rest of the quote suggests to me that Ware has misspoken and is correcting for what he has just said. (Notice how there is no reference to film or the "cinematic" after the second sentence.) His intended point of contrast, then, is rather the one that we need to make comics and novels "come alive" whereas films, being constructed from recordings or life-like simulations of the real, "come alive" for us on their own. This is the difference in activity I take him to mean.

Whether a valid difference or not, it is a fairly limited and specific one. For instance, it would not include a difference between making sense of language heard (or read) in a film and language read in comics, novels, etc. (Although, again, Ware does start the quoted statement as if this were part of his claim.)
On your second point: I suggested that this making vivid of the storyworld requires an imaginative "filling in" of sensory information, but I have nothing positive to say on the psychological nature or quality of that information. I agree, however, that visualizing something "in our heads" is not the same as seeing it in a film – and I suppose Ware does as well. Elsewhere, I believe, he says that in "reading" the pictures in comics we have an experience like that of remembering an event, or the concepts we have applied to it, rather than of actually witnessing it. Or something like that.

Anonymous said...

Well, the first problem I noticed with the quote is that it claims that watching movies is passive. When watching a movie, our eyes are working, our brain is interpreting visual images, etc... According to some recent work on film (such as Asbjorn Gronstad's book TRANSFIGURATIONS), cinema is active, asking us to interpret it, and to work with it. Not watching a movie is passive, not reading a comics is passive, but the act of watching or reading is certainly not passive.

Eidetiv said...

I'd say I not so much fill in as rehearse the imagery, which means that when I turn away from the comic it can influence the way I imagine things without a visual aid, the same way reading the Bible in renaissance/baroque Italy must have felt.

NCH Australia said...
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