Thursday, October 13, 2011

Unified Reality (Woodcuts & Closure Revised)

Original Post:

A novel in woodcuts is not an easy task. Aside from the arduous, grueling work of creating the woodcuts themselves, there is the mission of developing a plot and the characters involved in it. This entire fiasco becomes quite more problematic when the author decides to use little to no language at all. Such is the case with Lynd Ward’s Vertigo. According to McCloud in Understanding Comics, a sequential pictorial story, such as Vertigo, demands the use of closure to fill in the gaps between images and “construct a continuous, unified reality” (McCloud: 67). The pursuit of closure becomes significantly more difficult when the majority of the work at hand employs what McCloud describes as “scene-to-scene transitions”, whereupon “deductive reasoning” is necessitated for the reader to understand the story (McCloud: 71). With a minimal use of language, Lynd Ward employs symbols, concepts, and visuals which are universal in the world of his broad audience to ease this process of deductive reasoning for his readers and create an intelligible tale. Additionally, Ward exercises the implicit memory of his readers as a tactic to maintain that “continuous, unified reality” throughout his novel (McCloud: 67).

First off, Ward’s use of symbols in his images constructs a plethora of information for his audience to extract to learn more about his characters. In the story of The Girl, we see her being handed a scroll with a ribbon tied around it in front of an audience. We can infer this is a graduation as the scroll tied with a ribbon is a ubiquitous symbol for a diploma, albeit when it is handed in front of an audience. From this, we can be confident that the girl is around eighteen years old and is graduating from high school which, in addition, informs us she is intelligent and capable considering the year is 1929. The social status of The Girl can be inferred as well considering, as we discussed in class, poor families sent their kids to work during the Depression, and not to school. Additionally, when we first meet The Boy in The Girl’s story, he is talking to her in close proximity to her ear. Universally, we can deduce that he is whispering to her and due to the fact that her father is out of the main focus of the picture, we can assume The Boy does not want him to know what he is saying. Putting this all together, we can deduce that The Boy has an intimate interest in The Girl and that they probably have some backstory considering he is her classmate, as we can infer by his diploma. Everyone can understand the idea of a boy trying to keep a girl’s father unaware of his flirtatiousness. We can deduce The Boy’s intentions, his feelings about the girl, and about The Boy’s sexuality all from the illustration of this concept.

Now that we as readers understand some background of the characters, we can begin to deduce the evolution of the plot and fill in the gutters of the “scene-to-scene transitions”. For example, the image that immediately follows that of The Boy whispering into The Girl’s ear portrays The Girl speaking to her father as he peers at her suspiciously, with The Boy looming in the background. Without looking at the next image, only a portion of the audience would accurately surmise what is occurring as The Girl speaks to her father. As we traverse the gutter to the subsequent image, we see the father nervously scratching his head as he observes The Boy and The Girl walking away. With the aid of our background knowledge of The Boy’s intentions (and a little common sense), we can now deduce what is happening in both this image and apply that to the previous image to figure out that The Girl was asking her father’s permission to go on a date with The Boy. While these three panels, and the two menacing gutters which divide them, may seem miniscule and lackluster in comparison to the rest of the novel, they are a testament to Ward’s genius, as the reader easily grasps, deduces, and constructs that “continuous, unified reality”(McCloud: 67) that McCloud discusses. This three-panel series is the foundation for the relationship between The Boy and The Girl which continues throughout the entirety of the novel until the very last woodcut.

This same concept of implementing deductive reasoning to form an intelligible tale is done in the following example from the Elderly Gentleman’s section, but not in the form of immediate “scene-to-scene transitions”. In his story, there is an image of the Elderly Gentleman entering the boardroom of The Eagle Corporation of America and everyone inside it looking at him. The visual of him entering the boardroom tells us that The Elderly Gentleman has an important job at the corporation. Universally, we associate a boardroom with the zenith of responsibility and power at a company. If we further investigate the image, we see that all of these responsible and powerful individuals are standing and watching The Elderly Gentleman enter the room. Standing for someone upon their entry into a room is an action utilizing the concepts of etiquette and respect. From all of this, in addition to the fact that he’s older than most of the others in the room, we can deduce that The Elderly Gentleman is the most powerful man there, and therefore, the owner of the corporation.

Understanding this background, we can now deduce later scenes and images in The Elderly Gentleman’s story that otherwise would not have made sense. For example, referring to the series when he calls a man at The Eagle Corporation to post a notice of wage reduction, without the information from the aforementioned image, the audience wouldn’t be able to deduce that the Elderly Gentleman is the boss of the man he is speaking to, or perhaps that he is in a position of authority at all. It is true that the reader would be able to figure this out once he keeps reading, but it is immediately understood in this specific two-panel context by connecting the Elderly Gentleman’s background with the Eagle Corporation’s symbol over the man’s head with whom he is speaking. Just as the series earlier discussed with The Boy and The Girl laid the foundation for the entirety of their shared storyline, the boardroom image lays the foundation for The Elderly Gentleman’s story since, as he is the boss of the corporation, he is ultimately responsible for all the death and despair associated with the corporate decisions. While this example may not be the immediate “scene-to-scene transition”, it does require deductive reasoning to form a “continuous, unified reality” (McCloud: 67).

As crucial as commonplace symbols, concepts, and visuals are to Lynd Ward’s ability to tell an intelligible story, he has an additional weapon in his arsenal which he utilizes. This weapon, in psychological terms, is known as “repetition priming”, or “the improvement in identifying or processing a stimulus that has previously been experienced” with implicit memory (Gazzaniga and Heatherton: 212). Ward uses repetition priming at various points in Vertigo to effectively establish the setting for a particular sequence and to present a development or change from earlier in the story. In the case of setting, we see an example with the apartment complex under the train tracks where The Girl and her father reside at the beginning of the story. The first instance we see the specific image I am referring to is when The Girl and her father are leaving for her graduation where we have a wide, pulled-out view of them, the train tracks, and part of the city skyline. Repetition priming is exercised when, in The Boy’s section, The Boy is trying to surprise her at her former apartment in the suit he took from the man who died in the accident. We easily recognize that he is going to her old apartment building because the image is identical to the one previously described except for the weather, time of day, and fact that The Girl and her father aren’t in it. In the case of presenting change, we see an example when the Elderly Gentleman’s advisor is showing him the sharp decline in the corporation’s profits early in his story. This image of the advisor holding the line graph appears at the end of the Elderly Gentleman’s story, but this time the advisor is smiling and the net profits are starting to increase. The panel size and position of the pieces involved in the image are almost identical. This intensifies the effect of the contrast between the state of the corporation at the beginning of his story and at the end. In a unique way, repetition priming in Vertigo helps the reader feels that he or she is involved in a “continuous, unified reality” (McCloud: 67).

The difficulty in creating a story out a series of images becomes exponentially more treacherous without the use of words. It takes a skilled craftsman well aware of the abilities of his or her audience to accurately and effectively tell a coherent story. Lynd Ward is that craftsman and in Vertigo he relies on deductive reasoning, recognizable imagery, and repetition priming to create a striking novel that the reader will not soon forget.


Gazzaniga, Michael S. and Todd F. Heatherton. Psychological Science: Mind, Brain, And Behavior. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2003.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics. New York: Harper Collins Publishers Inc., 1993.

Ward, Lynd. Vertigo. New York: Dover Publications, 1937.

1 comment:

  1. In the first several paragraphs, you begin with some good discussion of McCloud, then you dive into the mechanics of how reading Ward demands considerable deduction, as McCloud would predict. All of this is well executed, although I need to note that you're not really focusing on particularly demanding deductions. This isn't necessarily a terrible thing, but especially given the fact that your argument isn't terrible clear, and you're focusing on Ward as his more transparent, I'm pretty unsure of where you're heading.

    Why did you choose the particular scenes you did, both in the Girl's section and in the elderly gentleman's? I think your deductions are all fine, but none are *demanding*; your use of McCloud is good, but not transformative. Where, in other words, is the argument that unites the different frames and scenes which interest you?

    There's a real shift when you get into your discussion of "repetition priming." This was imaginative and focused use of research, and a good, productive reading of Ward's text. You are drawing focus to an important technique which Ward uses.

    Then you're done - without any kind of unity.

    What you needed, I think, was a way of discussing Repetition Priming as a way of extending McCloud, and then a way of discussing the text which would use repetition priming and closure together. To me, this would most obviously involve treating RP as a *type* of closure, which leaps through huge sections of the book rather than across one gutter.

    You had the material to do something like this (that's my idea - your way of bringing everything together might be quite different) - but what you needed was a unified argument that would bring all of your ideas together.