Pros and Cons of Spatial Juxtaposition in Comics

Picture 16
From McCloud’s Understanding Comics.

As Scott McCloud wrestles with the definition of “comics” in chapter one of Understanding Comics, “Setting the Record Straight,” he come up with “sequential visual art” as a plausible definition for comics.  However, as pointed out by a member of McCloud’s audience, who appears to be a silhouette of Bugs Bunny, that definition does not distinguish comics from animation.

This forces McCloud to make the distinction that animation is temporally sequential, whereas comics are spatially juxtaposed, creating a passage of time.

The spatial juxtaposition of comics has its advantages.  For example, no level of detail is at the risk of going unseen.  In animation, each individual frame is only visible on the screen for a fraction of a second.  This is obviously essential to create the illusion of motion, but it also has its drawbacks.  An animator is limited in the sense that he can only include as much detail as the human eye is capable of comprehending during the short time that the image is on the screen.  Comics, on the other hand, allow readers to take as much time as needed on a given image, opening up the door for even the minutest details.  Sometimes, a tiny detail can make all the difference in a reader’s interpretation of a comic.  One could make the argument that an animation can be paused, rewound and replayed to catch those details, but that defeats the point of the animation.

Another advantage would be the malleable nature of each individual frame in comics.  In film or animation, as McCloud points out, each image occupies the same exact, usually rectangular, space.  It is important for each image to be the same shape and size, otherwise the animation would lose its consistency from frame to frame, making it look choppy.  Comics allow for much more experimentation from frame to frame.  Each frame in a comic can be a completely different shape.  The readers not only rely on the speech balloons and artwork to guide them through a comic, they also use the shapes of the frames.  Sometimes, a frame can relate to the story in a subtle way, making it more aesthetically appealing.  An example of this would be the circular frame in Carl Bark’s “Vacation Time” in which Donald realizes that they’ve been travelling in a circle the entire time.  Comic frames also have a way of interacting with each other in relation to their position on the page.  This is impossible in animation, as only one frame is able to appear at a given time.

Picture 17
From McCloud’s Understanding Comics.

There are negative aspects of spatial juxtaposition in comics, such as the limited ability to manipulate time.  Since animators control the exact length of time that a given image is presented to the viewer they are able to manipulate time quite effectively.  Animators can use slow motion or speed things up to create the effect of things happening extremely slow with intricate movements or very quickly with overly generalized movements.  Comics, on the other hand, are completely dependent on the reader.  A comic artist can take certain measures to indicate the passage of time, such as introducing a frame with “two hours later” or “moments later, but ultimately the reader will take in the information in each frame at his own pace.

McCloud points out that comics are a medium with unique characteristics, one of which being the spatial juxtaposition of frames.  He draws an interesting comparison between comics and film—one that lends itself to an evaluation of advantages and disadvantages.  The advantages of spatial juxtaposition are—but not limited to—the allowance of detail and flexible framing.  A disadvantage is the limited ability to control time.

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