Reactions to “Why Pause?: The fine line between reading and contemplation” By Paul Atkinson

18 10 2012

As a result of attending the Comics Rock conference in Bournemouth I was very kindly sent a copy of Studies in comics Volume 3 Number 1. An academic comics journal which I strongly suggest anyone with an interest in comics theory take a look at. You can get hold of a copy or subscribe at www.intellectbooks.co.uk.

Having received this Journal I have decided to write a blog post about my initial responses, reactions and thoughts on one of the papers included in it. This paper is titled “Why Pause?: The fine line between reading and contemplation” By Paul Atkinson and is focused on the use of gallery artwork in comics and graphic novels. In particular our concentration time in comics compared to in galleries.

The paper concerns itself with a number of key aspects of my own research (as well as things that aren’t) including the ideas associated with time and reading paths in comics. It looks at this from a different angle to my research however and focuses on “the relationship between comic books and painting and how the viewer ‘stands before’ the image” to describe and analyse the movement of the eye and the temporal aspects of reading a comic.

To give you an idea of the content of the paper here is the abstract for the piece:

“There has long been an interest in the formal properties of comic books and bandes dessinées, in particular, how the structure of the page as a succession of panels constitutes a form of reading, hence the use of expressions such as ‘sequential narrative’ to describe the medium. There is no question that this aspect of the comic book is important and that many of the medium’s conventions have developed to facilitate the telling of a story, however, this article focuses on the visual rhythms that inform the reading movement but are not reducible to narrative events. Of particular interest are the surface properties of line and colour that exceed any representational function and have the capacity to speed up, or indeed, slow down the reading process.
To address this issue, the article will investigate the relationship between comic books and painting and the difference in how the viewer ‘stands before’ the image. Painting is often assumed to arrest the movement of the eye, to hold the attention of the viewer, whereas comic books are said to guide the viewer from one image to the next. This leads to the implication that painting invokes aesthetic contemplation and comic books do not.
The article will address these issues through a reworking of the aesthetic theories of Jean-François Lyotard, Norman Bryson and James Elkins, in particular their speculations on the time involved in viewing a painting. Examples will be drawn from Kathryn and Stuart Immonen’s Moving Pictures and Bernar Yslaire and Jean-Claude Carrière’s The Sky over the Louvre; two graphic novels that investigate aesthetic contemplation and incorporate famous artworks into the narrative.”

One of the key ideas I took from Atkinson’s paper is that the plastic (that is, the pictorial form of the panel; the visuals) nature of the comic panel is of lesser importance to the medium than the rhythm (or pacing) of the reading itself. This is a key notion for me to take forward into my own research which focuses on the paths and portrayal of time in comics but has yet to consider how the plastic nature of the content of panels affects this in any meaningful way. Atkinson also suggests that the aesthetic contemplation of a panel slows down or ‘pauses’ the rhythm of the reading and that certain compositional techniques (of the panel and page) can be used to slow down our reading and encourage contemplation of the images we are seeing. He notes that the images we see in the comic book form are always influenced by the fact we relate them to the panels previously seen and those yet to be seen; a concept which is supported by the influential work of Thierry Groensteen. These topics all relate very closely to my work on reading processes and reading paths that I have focused on in my own work.

Atkinson’s paper not only discusses the layout of comics and how it affects our reading path but directly relates this discussion to the temporal elements of comics (which are my current research focus) to compare spatial and temporal elements directly related to reading. Interestingly he suggests that the time spent looking at the panel does not necessarily relate directly to the time spent considering the content e.g. a large panel does not necessarily require more concentration time than a smaller panel. It would seem that this idea could make for an interesting comparison with the work of Scott McCloud who suggests that the space (and size) of a panel is equal to the time of that panel. Another important point made by Atkinson in relation to time is that there is a ‘double temporality’ to comics that relates time both to viewing the panel as a picture and viewing it as a story (or part of one). It leads me think there may be a larger number of temporalities to comics than just these two (having personally defined at least 2 different time frames portrayed in comics in my own work) which is worthy of further investigation.

Still related but worthy of independent note is Atkinson’s reference to the reading of a comic as a rhythm and the suggestion that the reader must ‘perform the text’ in a rhythmical way and, importantly, that this rhythm dictates the duration of concentration time, reading time and in-panel time. It is this idea of the rhythm of the text or the rhythm of the reading, how it affects the portrayal of time in comics and is affected by the reading path (raster) of the comic that is of particular interest to me and my research.

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