Comic Concepts: Closure

I’ve been wanting to talk about this topic for a while, but because of my role on the website and podcast, people want to hear more about how I usually don’t like the Westerns genre or how not having well-defined time travel concepts makes me angry. There were no nerd-releases in theatres this week, so I’m able to get back to basics. Which is boring you with topics that I find interesting and thought-provoking.

I hate the face that most adults make when I speak to them about my career choice; yes, I do have a career that many consider to be “traditional”, but I take the website and podcast seriously enough to call it a career choice to others. It’s no fault of their own, since media is constantly telling you to disregard and love nerd-topics at the same time, so I understand why comics are such a confusing topic. I had a really interesting question posed to me just recently, and I thought I would expand on it a little more.

I was enjoying drinks with new friends recently, in a group of mostly women who work at Disneyland. Humble-brags aside, one of the women had never read a comic in her life, but loved the prospect of seeing a new movie every week. “What makes comics so interesting? It’s just superheroes and good guys and bad guys, right?”

I told her that this was a very inaccurate and simplified way to think of the medium, while I also compared films to “people just doing stuff in front of a camera”. She proceeded to tell me how films are one of the most complex mediums for out that exists, and to her surprise, I agreed with her. Yes, one of the most complex mediums. “Okay, so then tell me something impressive that I don’t know about comics.”

Well, call me Professor Maladroit, because I’m about to drop some knowledge.

Have you ever interacted with babies before? If you haven’t, there’s a game that they like to play called Peek-A-Boo. It involves hiding your face from the baby, and then revealing it to their surprise and delight. It’s like magic to them: at one point, they concretely knew your were there, but once you’ve hidden, their brains can’t comprehend that you’re still there. And then wham!, you’re there again, appearing out of thin air. Babies haven’t learned that separate events connect into a unifying, continuous reality, not being able to connect two different instances together. Adults can actually simulate this disconnect by looking at two different comics panels separately with no context.

There’s a space between two panels in comics, usually called a gutter or a break. It’s a space that people never really pay attention to anymore, but that space represents time, motion, and progression. Think about it: that one little space has the power of reality at its disposal. Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics has an amazing example of this.

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Now, what’s happening in these two panels? There are many different ways to interpret the panels, but most say that the crazy guy with the axe is murdering the guy that looks terrified. There are other interpretations as well, but the point is that you’re wrong: there is no murder happening. Since the panels don’t show the guy getting hacked to pieces, a murder never takes place, but through context clues and the ability to render two scenes into one unifying reality, your brain connects the two panels and a gruesome murder happens. This is the concept of closure: the artist never shows you the arc or the impact of the axe, the desperate fight for saving a life, and which person screams in the next panel, but you’ve filled in the blanks in your own mind within milliseconds to make sense of two panels.

Also, congratulations: you’ve just committed a murder. You should probably turn yourself in.

Films occupy the same exact space (the movie screen, your television, etc.) and also show you the progression in real-time, but comics isn’t held back by that convention. Comics will always be juxtaposed (read: side-by-side or in close proximity), so what the progression of time does for film, which is unfolding a story to the audience, space does for panels in comics. Occupying different spaces is the reason why people need to learn how to build closure in their mind; luckily, by the time people are of preschool age, they’ve been exposed to so many instances that closure is natural to them.

An extreme case of closure not working is in symptoms of PTSD, or Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. While people not with this disorder can separate past events with their present, there seems to be a hyperconnection in sufferers; in simpler terms, they connect instances in the present with traumatic events that have happened in the past, extending their ability of closure outside of what they're supposed to. There have been some groundbreaking programs to use comic books and video games to combat the effects of PTSD, simplifying closure in a way that resets thought process in a safe and secure environment.

Admittedly, this was a lot of knowledge to drop when a new friend asks you a simple question, but sometimes you get what you ask for. I hope to do more of these Comic Concepts articles in the near future, but in the meantime, please look forward to what I think about giant robots and their automobile addictions and a team of space-scoundrels with talking plants and animals.