Comics and Time

Authored by: Jan Baetens , Charlotte Pylyser

The Routledge Companion to Comics

Print publication date:  July  2016
Online publication date:  August  2016

Print ISBN: 9780415729000
eBook ISBN: 9781315851334
Adobe ISBN: 9781317915386


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Time is a key issue in comics, for it helps foreground some decisive features of the medium’s specificity that cannot be grasped through the traditional distinction between arts of time and arts of space, between arts more appropriate to the narrative representation of actions evolving in time, and those more suitable to the description and showing of objects and places (Lessing 1984). The reason why comics does not obey the classic distinction between time and space is threefold. First, comics is in general a multi-panel and, equally generally, a sequential art (single-panel narrative comics, of course, do exist). Since these panels are organized in particular ways, even if there is no direct narrative purpose that determines their order, their reading, a complex and permanently shifting negotiation of visually and verbally stimulated interpretations, always involves a certain amount of time. In comics, one has to read one after another the panels or images that are presented one next to another (to use Lessing’s terminology). And, obviously, even the reading of single-panel comics will never be instantaneous: one will have to decode the narrative layers of the drawing and take the time to read the accompanying caption, which cannot be discarded as a marginal aspect of the work. Second, comics also intertwine time and space because they have a special capacity of representing movement and time even within their single panels. Although some comics may seem very static (but the lack of movement, event, or storytelling can be used as a narrative device as well, of course), most of them present drawings that display action, more particularly an action shown while being performed. Moreover, this dynamic aspect of the drawing is never limited to the image itself, but also entails a multi-panel or sequential aspect: comics panels encourage their readers to move ahead and to go to the next panel, to mention just the simplest possibility. Even if some panels will take more time reading than others, one is never supposed to stay on just one panel (as one might do, for instance, when going to visit an art gallery in order to see just one painting, and nothing else). Third, and finally, time in comics is systematically translated in spatial forms: the action of a character or the transformation of an object through time is suggested by the spatial arrangement of separate but sequentially organized panels. This is what Scott McCloud (1993) summarizes in his well-known and oft-quoted statements on the non-distinction of time and space in comics. And while no one is obliged to follow this author in the practical consequences he draws from his claim, it cannot be denied that the mutual conversion of time and space is a paramount feature of what comics actually do. The temporal unfolding of the material is made visible through panels and pages that can also be looked at as plastic constructions, while the drawings that compose a comic book or strip are always arranged in patterns that one has to read in a temporal manner.

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