Part I (of three): Panel Layout
Comics are – like literature, and unlike painting – a multiple instance art form: Your copy of Sensational She-Hulk #1 is a genuine instance of the artwork, as is my copy of the same comic. In philosophical jargon, the two individual issues are distinct instances (or tokens) of the same comic type.
This raises an obvious question: When are two objects instances of the same comic?
What we need are identity conditions for comics. That is, we need criteria for settling questions of the form:
X is the same comic as Y.
A few quick observations:
- Two comics need not look exactly the same to be instances of the same comic (e.g. they might be printed in different sizes or types of paper).
- Telling the same story is not sufficient for two comics to be instances of the same comic, since the same story can be told more than once. (e.g. Batman’s origin).
In most cases it is easy to determine whether or not two individual issues are instances of the same comic type. There are, however, ‘harder’ cases. And, as is usually the case with these sorts of theoretical issues, we tend to learn much more from the relatively rare hard cases than we do from the wealth of easy cases.
Back in the 1980s Sunday strips were typically produced in a standard 4-across-by-3-down grid. The grid could be modified somewhat, but some rules could not be broken. In particular, if we think of this grid as twelve equal sized ‘units’, then there had to be breaks between the 3rd and 4th unit, between the 6th an 7th unit, and between the 9th and 10th unit. This allowed newspaper editors to rearrange the comic into a 3-across-by-4-down grid if that turned out to be more convenient.
Now, consider the Calvin and Hobbes strip at the top of this post. What I will call the primary layout is on the left. The secondary layout is on the right. The two layouts are different in at least one rather striking way: In the primary layout, the first two panels in the bottom tier depict a single spatially continuous scene. In the secondary layout, this effect is lost on all but those readers well-informed enough with regard to the practicalities of comic strip production to ‘see’ how the two panels are meant to connect.
If the two distinct layouts cause us to experience the story in different ways, does this mean that Watterson actually produced two distinct works of art each Sunday? Put another way: If your local paper printed the strip in the primary layout, and my local paper printed it in the secondary layout, did we experience different works of art when reading these different versions?
The thumbnails provide a second thought-provoking example.