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 is the final product of a process involving past knowledge and deductive reasoning. Vertigo is a unique and far more complex graphic novel than other comics, so the way that a reader moves from image to image is far more demanding than an ordinary comic. Its complexity further emphasizes the need for closure to be accurate and using past knowledge to deduce what happens in the white spaces allows for that to happen.
To understand the need for a different kind of reading, one must first notice main factor that sets Vertigo apart from other graphic novels. 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.) The “comic” definition would place Vertigo into the comic category; however, it is laid out much differently than we might expect. Ordinarily, the word “comic” brings to mind the bright, colorful images seen in Sunday newspapers. They’re scattered with speech bubbles, witty captions, and the scenes are very cartoon-like. More often than not, the images are enclosed within fairly uniform rectangles outlined by bold, black lines. In Vertigo, 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 give readers more creative freedom in connecting the scenes, but these ideas cannot stray too far from what the author intended or the book will not make sense. The lack of words in the book also makes it unusual. Comic books tend to literally write out what is happening, leaving a minimal amount of room for reader interpretation even though it is still necessary in the gutter area. Vertigo on the other hand thrives on interpretation by the readers. Their deductive reasoning, use of prior knowledge is what makes the story make sense. It’s possible to flip through the pages without making any sort of connection between the pictures. Since each frame is on a different page, unlike a normal graphic novel where a glance at a page shows you a big chunk of the story. For these reasons, 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. It requires this increased imagination and participation in order to unite all of the images into one larger story that makes sense.
So far, closure has been labeled the most important part of making sense of the odd graphic novel that is Vertigo. “Closure,” McCloud 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.) This void space surrounding the images is just as important to Vertigo as a whole, if not more important, than the drawings themselves. The gutter is where it becomes necessary for readers to use past knowledge to deduce what could have taken place. The specific knowledge that we need to come to such conclusions 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. The phenomenon of closure is essential in transforming Vertigo from a book of disconnected illustrations to a fluid, wordless account. Readers must constantly use the facts they’ve gained combined with what they expect to happen to reach conclusions about what has taken place in the gutter.
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.)
Closure is the idea of knowing what happens when we don’t see it. The gutter is where this “happening” takes place. Prior knowledge is a combination of outside knowledge and what we gain by looking at the images in the novel. Top-down processing gives insight into the way in which we are able to recognize that the pictures do indeed have relation to one another. So how do we actually come to conclusions about the events we cannot see? The information we gain from each of the described processes all funnels down into one thing: deductive reasoning. Deductive reasoning is what allows us to move from image to image in Vertigo. As McCloud says, “deductive reasoning is often required in reading comics such as in these scene-to-scene transitions, which transport us across significant distances of time and space.” There are times in Vertigo where a few or even a single image represents the passing of an entire year. It is unrealistic to assume that we would have an image to represent all of the scenarios that could have happened as the year passed. Therefore, it becomes necessary to take the few things we do know and along with what we expect to happen, reach a conclusion we are satisfied with. We then continue reading the book, taking with us our own reader-created ideas of what took place in our minds.
Deductive reasoning is somewhat flawed in that what we may regard to be a fact based on what we know and expect might not be true. The conclusions reached through this method are only as reliable as the details or “facts” that led to that conclusion. Nonetheless, deductive reasoning works because the conclusions generally reached are done so in one of two mostly reliable ways. The first way is through a systematic approach, going step by step. The second possible route is logic. (“Deductive Reasoning…” 241) In an article called “Recognizing Deductive Processes in Qualitative Research,” the authors state that deductive reasoning “commences with observation of specific instances, and seeks to establish generalizations.” (“Recognizing… 82) This indefinite quality to the entire reading of Vertigo is what makes it so incredibly involved. Vertigo is highly dependent on what the reader thinks happens in the gutter, so this somewhat flawed reasoning could be seen as a problem. However, with so much inferring left up to the reader, the inconsistency between the readings by each individual is not necessarily incorrect but instead was an intentional quality by Ward to make every interpretation somewhat unique. This can only be done in a story without words, such as Vertigo.
The importance of these reading processes have already been described, but it is important to highlight the areas of the book in which they are most useful. Since there is no dialogue and the timeline often spans across many years, it can be difficult to tell just from an image who the people in the picture are. 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. Deductive reasoning is used in this case by gathering information about the similarities in traits of the people and then assuming that, because we have already witnessed it time and time again in real life, people change over the course of time but they have a few traits which stay the same and allow them to be identified. So we can deduce that because their traits are the same and their age seems to be increasing, it must be the same person. 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 and reasoning, 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 and reasoning 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. Deductive reasoning, 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. Ususally if someone is handed a letter by a sympathetic looking boss, they are being asked to leave. A few pages later, the father is seen gazing at a free food line. We can deduce that because he is looking at the free food, he is lacking money or an income, and therefore it is verified that he has indeed lost his job. 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 and causing the mess. The elderly gentleman is one of these businessmen, which we have reasoned to be true because of 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. Our reasoning informs us that usually people who must hitch rides, steal, and are overall desperate for money do not have jobs. His unemployment would put him in the same boat as the girl’s father and so we can assume that he is feeling the effects of the Great Depression also. The use of reasoning 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 images in Vertigo are included 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 deductive reasoning 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. This conclusion is reached by saying that because a person looks distressed and is in a hospital, they are sad. 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. We know that members of a rioting crowd are not content. They are rioting for a reason, so they must be angry and frustrated.
Combining the idea of drawing out emotion with the use of prior knowledge, deductive reasoning 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, we can use our past knowledge of feeling anxious to deduce that his posture 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. In addition to simply having the knowledge of the previous image, deductive reasoning allows us to say that it’s unlikely that a man would be sitting in the middle of an auditorium with just a few other people. 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 in order to effectively use deductive reasoning to reach closure. The way that it must be read varies greatly from other books that might be considered comics or graphic novels. Those books can be read without much thought. The small amounts of information that are needed to understand the whole story are usually directly spelled out. They are simple stories with not much room, or necessity, for interpretation. Vertigo stands apart from the rest. It has incredibly detailed images with deep meanings and filling in the gutters take an enormous amount of effort. The meaning of each image goes far beyond what we initially see when looking at each separate page, but this meaning cannot be realized until facts are known and used. With prior knowledge, deductive reasoning 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 complete lack of text. These components of the book make it a very demanding comic to read and make an accurate use of the facts we are provided with 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. A complete set of facts is not always given, so we must use deductive reasoning to come to the most accurate conclusion we can with what we have. 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.
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.
Kenneth F. Hyde, (2000) "Recognising deductive processes in qualitative research", Qualitative Market Research: An International Journal, Vol. 3 Iss: 2, pp.82 – 90
Ayalon, Michal, and Ruhama Even. "Deductive Reasoning: in the Eye of the Beholder."Educational Studies in Mathematics 69.3 (2008): 235-47. Print.