Thursday, October 13, 2011

Closure, Need for Prior Knowledge (Revision)


Vertigo by Lynd Ward is a series of three stories, each following a different character. These stories depict sorrow, struggle, and aging of the three main characters as well as those in their presence, their cities, and their country at the time. There are no names, no specific dates- hardly any words at all. So how is it that a reader can combine these hundreds of solitary images into such an involved tale without words? It can be done with the use of the phenomenon “closure” described by Scott McCloud. “Closure,” he states is, “the phenomenon of observing the parts but perceiving the whole.” (McCloud, 63.) Said more simply, closure is being able to look at two panels of a comic that describe two separate moments in a scene and being able to know what happened in between those two moments without actually being shown what happened. These unseen moments are represented by the white space between the two panels, which McCloud calls the “gutter.” (McCloud, 66.) Of everything that can be used for closure between scenes to occur, the most important in regard to Vertigo is the use of past knowledge. Vertigo is a more complex than other comics, which just emphasizes the need for the way closure is used to be accurate and tapping into past knowledge allows for that to happen.

The phenomenon of closure is essential to understanding what is going on in Vertigo. By definition, a comic is “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.” (McCloud, 9.) Ordinarily, the word “comic” brings to mind the bright, colorful images seen in Sunday newspapers. They’re scattered with speech bubbles and the scenes are very cartoon-like. More often than not, the images are enclosed within fairly uniform rectangles outlined by bold, black lines. The “comic” definition would place Vertigo into the comic category; however, it is laid out much differently than the typical comics just described. For this reason, the way that the phenomenon of closure is used to make sense of the book is very different than other comics and perhaps puts a greater emphasis on the need for closure by the reader. Each image is on a separate page and depicts a unique scene. This is called “scene-to-scene” transition. (McCloud, 71.) The lack of panels defined by a bold line present images that seem to fade off into vast gutters. These immense gutters not only give readers more creative freedom in connecting the scenes, but also require this increased imagination and participation in order to unite all of the images into one larger story that makes sense.

The element that is vital to making closure work in Vertigo is prior knowledge. As McCloud describes, babies and young children assume that because they cannot see something, it does not exist. As older children and adults, we have added many more experiences to our memories. While we have not seen everything there is to see in the world and probably never will, we can draw upon what we take to be truth and what we have experienced to use closure. This idea of past knowledge can be applied to understanding the sequence of events in Vertigo. The knowledge needed to relate the images in Vertigo is far more complex than the knowledge needed to understand common comics. The knowledge we need is a combination of information gathered from the preceding images within the book, as well as our knowledge of human interactions, feelings, traits of certain cities, and even historical events like the Great Depression.

One could relate the need for prior knowledge to understand a comic to a psychological phenomenon called “top-down processing.” An article by Roya Khoii and Zahara Forouzesh called “Using Comic Strips with Reading Texts: Are We Making a Mistake?” calls top-down processing “a process in which one begins with a set of hypotheses or predictions about the meaning of the text one is about to read.” They also state that top down processing “makes use of the reader’s previous knowledge, his or her expectations, experiences, scripts and schemas in reading the text.” (“Using Comic Strips…” 3.) While this definition pertains to text, the idea can be applied to looking at the images in Vertigo as well. Each image the reader sees is looked at in a new light. The top-down processing restarts with each new picture. The predictions and expectations carried to each new picture are a result of the viewing of the images before it. As each page is observed, the collection of previous knowledge grows and it becomes easier to tie the pictures together into a clear, linear story. Closure requires the reader to use the information given to them in the comic in a “top-down” way in order to allow what would otherwise be “fractured... time and space” to be read smoothly. (McCloud, 67.)

Ward relies on closure by the reader to recognize characters in separate images as the same character seen in a previous one. One of the first examples of this occurs with the first two pictures of the section called “1929” in the first part, “The Girl.” We must use our knowledge from the previous images to deduce that the grown woman by the mirror is the same girl who was much younger in the preceding images. We can recognize her father with his large frame and moustache as well as her dark, wavy hair. We can identify that the family is still just the girl and her father. She bears no nametag; there are no words telling us that she is the same girl. Eventually, we can verify that it is the same girl since she is once again playing the violin and bearing many of the same traits as before. Without closure, the two images of the girl would seem totally unrelated. One would be a woman standing in what is most likely her bedroom, while the other is an entirely different girl holding a hat near a man who is sitting on a chair. If closure, along with our use of past knowledge, did not allow us to realize it was the same girl, this confusion would continue throughout the entire book. Every image would be representing a different girl, a different elderly man, and a different boy.

Since the timeline of the three sections of Vertigo overlap, the use of closure to fill in the surrounding areas of the each scene is very important. The stories all may appear to be separate at first since time is given in different forms for each; the first section uses years, the second section uses months, and the third section uses days. This inconsistency of the duration of time between panels is unlike most comics, which are fairly regular. Closure allows the reader to identify that the stories are all occurring at the same time. Nearing the end of “The Girl,” there is an image of the father being given a letter by what appears to be a businessman. Closure, or specifically recognizing the business clothes and situation, allows us to determine that the man is his boss giving him a letter that he has lost his job. A few pages later, the father is seen gazing at a free food line - something a man with a job would most likely not do. Closure is needed here to expand the scene beyond a single man losing his job to the scene of a great number of people losing their jobs. We can then relate this mass unemployment to a familiar event in our own history, the Great Depression. All of the details seem to add up and it can be determined, by closure, that “The Girl” is taking place during the Depression. “An Elderly Gentleman” shows this same historical event and it’s effects on a different level of society. This time, the story is focused on a businessmen involved in the mess. The elderly gentleman is one of these businessmen, which closure has allowed us to determine by his spending of large amounts of money on art, his help with charity, and the series of images in which there is a meeting held to discuss a decline in net profits. And lastly, “The Boy” is shown as being in desperate situations. He hitches rides on trains, steals from a lost briefcase, considers the army, and takes odd jobs to gather money to take his girl to the fair on the last page. Many people during the Great Depression were in his shoes, so it is safe to say that the theme of the book is following people in the Depression and he is one of them. The use of closure to determine timing is much more complex than in other comics since it is depicted in three separate stories in three different ways (years, months, days). It allows readers to stack the scenes occurring simultaneously and mentally organize them in a way that makes sense.

Many of the images in Vertigo are there not only to provide a glimpse into a scene of one of the stories, but also to draw out some kind of emotion from the reader. The details in the body language, clothing, and facial expressions of the characters allow for these emotions to easily become apparent. This is yet another example the importance and complexity of closure within Ward’s book, as well as the need for previous knowledge of these emotional indicators to recognize them when we see them and allow us to use closure to fill in the scene. A picture in “The Girl” shows her lying by her father’s hospital bed. Closure lets us know there is sadness in the room. There are no words. There are no tears. The position of the girl’s body and the location can be recognized as those often associated with grief. In “An Elderly Gentleman,” the picture of the rioting crowd raises emotions not depicted through facial expressions on the rioters or captions, but those stored in our minds from events we have either witnessed or been a part of.

Combining the idea of drawing out emotion with the use of prior knowledge, closure is required to fully see the scene in an image in the beginning of the book. The image is showing the girl’s father sitting in the audience at her graduation. We see a man sitting in a chair with his hands placed on his lap. To begin with, past knowledge tells us that his posture presumably indicates some fear or nervousness. His hands are tightly placed together, as are his knees, and his elbows are locked. If we treated this image the way an infant would (as described by McCloud on page 62), we would assume that he was sitting in a white room surrounded by only a few people. If we could not see the people around him, the stage, the walls of the school… they did not exist. Closure allows us to realize that this is not the case. In fact, he is one part of a very large crowd, surrounded by all kinds of noise not represented in the image as well as a crowd that extends far beyond the frame. This is also an example of top-down processing. Previous images show a long line of people filing into a room, so it is known that the man is not a part of a small group. There is a school sign on the pole above the girl and her father. Top-down processing allows us to take these details and view the image with the anticipation that it will have something to do with a large crowd and a school. Closure allows us to fill in the gaps between the line, the sitting father, the man on stage, and later the kids and their diplomas to see that the event was high school graduation.

Closure is important to any kind of graphic novel or comic. Vertigo is unique from these other comics because of its style and complexity, which require a keen memory for facts from previous images. With prior knowledge, closure can indicate things to the reader that would have been exceptionally difficult to see otherwise. Vertigo has three separate sections, inconsistent timing between images, detail, and a total lack of text. These components of the book make it a very demanding comic to read and make an accurate use closure indispensible. Every single detail in the image is important. The emotions which are illustrated, however vague, are important to the story as a whole. The web which links the people, times, and places in Vertigo is woven by a use of closure, which relies on past knowledge. With facts from prior illustrations, closure becomes precise. The ability to confidently rely on closure to fill in gaps is absolutely necessary to see the “big picture” that is Vertigo.

Works Cited

Khoii, Roya, and Zahra Forouzesh. "Using Comic Strips with Reading Texts: Are We Making a Mistake?" Literacy Information and Computer Education Journal (LICEJ) 1.2 (2010): 1-10. PittCat. Web. 10 Oct. 2011.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: the Invisible Art. [New York]: HarperPerennial, 2007. Print.

1 comment:

  1. I'm a little unclear on what your argument is in the first paragraph. Past knowledge is slightly fuzzy to me - past knowledge from the book, or from outside of it? Your style is good, incidentally - I wanted to say that early on, before I forget.

    In the third paragraph, you explain yourself much better: "The knowledge we need is a combination of information gathered from the preceding images within the book, as well as our knowledge of human interactions, feelings, traits of certain cities, and even historical events like the Great Depression." I liked this a lot, but I feel like thins are moving a little slowly - it shouldn't necessarily have taken three long paragraphs to get here. Maybe if your discussion of McCloud was better integrated with your discussion of prior knowledge, I'd buy into it more. Anyway, I'm nitpicking a little - you certainly have my interest and attention.

    I read through to the end before making any other comments. Partially, that's because your own work (like Ward's) is somewhat dense and demanding. Partially it's because I was trying to compare the original to the revision.

    So here's my final take: this is an ambitious revision. It's long, and it's complicated, it makes effective use of research, and it takes seriously the idea that the original version is material *for* the revision, not a straightjacket that must define it. The paragraph on the father sitting in the auditorium shows how seriously you took the assignment, and it also shows that you are grappling, very seriously, with both the demands that Ward places on us, and on how we, as readers, meet those demands (to the extent that we do, of course).

    What you're *trying* to do is probably the most demanding thing that anyone has attempted so far in this class.

    As far as what you *deliver*, I find it very interesting, but incomplete in some critical ways. Here's why: I think you're trying to create a theory of how we move from one frame to another which reaches beyond McCloud (and your other article), in a way that helps define both what unites Ward from "regular" comics, and what divides him from "regular" comics. In order for this to measure up to all of its potential, though, I think you needed a clear statement - a sentence, ideally! - which clarifies this central, theoretical idea, and also revisions throughout (mostly transitions between paragraphs, which are often clumsy) in order to help us keep to your central purpose even as you're doing complex individual readings.

    This is perhaps the best incomplete work I've read in a while, or the least complete excellent work I've read in a while - either way.