The Cognitive Magic of Comics and Graphic Novels

  • Posted on: February 29, 2016
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Note: for the purposes of this piece, I’m going to use the terms ‘comic’ and ‘graphic novel’ interchangeably. 

Art by Marta

Art by Marta

There’s something magical about reading comic books and graphic novels which amplifies my emotions in ways I didn’t know were possible. As a fan and occasional creator, I love how graphic stories are greater than the sum of their parts. The use of both pictures and images has allowed me to empathize with storytellers in ways I wouldn’t otherwise know I was capable of.

The experience of reading comics and graphic novels is heavily personalized by each individual reader. As readers, we take the illustrations and words in front of us, and complete them with our own sensory experiences. Each panel and caption can take on a different meaning or emotion depending on the way we see it. For example, I love Adrian Tomine’s work because I see myself in his portrayals of Asian-Americans who are trying to navigate the modern world of cynicism and fulfillment. And I feel my own teenage insecurities in Mariko and Jillian Tamaki’s Skim, a tale of exploring crushes and the occult told in whispers and graceful strokes.

The thing about storytelling with the addition of images is that they make emotions visible in a way that text can’t do quite as directly. A close-up of a character’s face or an unexpected black panel can pack the same emotional punch as a full pages’ worth of fancy description.

Graphic stories are a truly transporting medium—when I read them, my surroundings fall away. I surrender my own concepts of time and space, and replace them with the ones of the book that I’m holding. Immersed within the illustrated macrocosm of comics, I surrender myself to the story. Each new book I read recreates the laws of realism, truth, and morality according to its own world. Take Art Spiegelman’s Maus—a tale of the Holocaust told with mice as Jews and cats as Nazis. On paper it sounds strange, but the story is told in a way that seems perfectly natural and completely heartbreaking.

I vaguely felt all this when reading graphic novels, but it wasn’t until I picked up a copy of Scott McCloud’s book Understanding Comics that I understood why. Understanding Comics is a comic book which studies the ways in which comics work—how the combination of different formal elements and ideas in comics work when we read them. It mixes art history, media theory, and psychology to explain the impact of comics. Every time I revisit it, I am reminded not only of the creative possibilities of the medium, but about how we mentally process words and pictures.

As McCloud explains, the cognitive impact of comics depends on closure—aka how when we see parts of an event, we perceive it as a whole. For example, we see two images beside each other. One is of somebody halfway up a flight of stairs, and the other is of someone at the top of of a flight of stairs. Our brains perceive these images to be sequential, and that the two drawings represent the entire event of someone walking up a flight of stairs.

Closure isn’t exclusive to comics—our minds naturally take individual pieces and assume them to be continuous events. This happens between different shots in film, in between sentences in writing, and when we hear people telling stories. However, this cognitive process is emphasized in graphic comics because of the gutters—the blank spaces separating panels. The gutters are where the mental magic happens. We fill in the gaps between each pictured action with our own perceptions, projecting ourselves into the story in order to make sense of it.

Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis showed me how graphic stories can be interpreted at many levels, all of them worthwhile. Persepolis details Satrapi’s own coming of age during the Islamic Revolution in Iran. I first read it in high school and focused on the drawings and historical event, and tumultuous childhood being pictured. However, in university, I was fortunate to have a professor assign the book (shoutout to Kim!). Being obligated to re-read, analyze, and write several essays on the book allowed me to see it from perspectives I would not have otherwise. Each time I returned to Satrapi’s tale, I could focus on a single element or a combination of them – words, images, form, story structure – and gain something new each time. I had a unique cognitive experience each way I interacted with the story.

Another reason why I love graphic stories is their accessibility and inclusivity. You don’t have to know a dictionary’s worth of words in order to have a strong emotional experience reading them.  They take less time to read than most books, but the emotional payoff is just as strong. For the visually impaired, there are even audiobook versions graphic novels available. Representation of diverse characters in comics allows for marginalized groups to be made visible, demanding readers’ attention. Kelly Sue DeConnick andValentine De Landro’s Bitch Planet is a favourite example of mine. The oppressed bodies of women of colour are shown constantly; their depiction is an affront to the book’s exiling of societally non-compliant women.

The use of images in comics also allows for creators to represent difficult topics through metaphor, fantasy, or dystopia. For example, the allegorical comparisons between Alison Bechdel’s closeted father and his literary idols in Fun Home conveys nuances about his own secrets. The grotesque bodily mutations of the teenagers in Charles Burns’ intoxicating tome Black Hole serve as a poignant and tragic allegory for the AIDS crisis.

My love for, and my experiences with, comics and graphic novels has a long way to go. I only hope that I become confident enough with my thoughts about them that one day I can convey all of these ideas through both words and pictures in comics of my own.

1 Comment

  1. new year, old books (part 2) – make kats not war. · January 18, 2017

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