… juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer. (Understanding Comics, p. 9)
McCloud’s definition has been criticized for: being too formal, lacking sensitivity to historical or tradition-bound factors, being too broad, being nothing more than an ingredient in McCloud’s ersatz history of comics, etc., etc. In later work, McCloud (following Eisner) suggests the snappier, albeit even more theoretically suspect, term “sequential art”.
There is one aspect of both the earlier definition and the later euphemistic technical term that has not received the attention is probably deserves, however – the role of the concept ‘sequence’ in both. The question I would like to ask is: Must the individual panels (or other pictorial content) in a comic constitute a sequence?
In the mathematical world, a sequence is a linearly ordered (finite or infinite) collection of objects. In particular, given any sequence of objects, and any two distinct objects a and b in the sequence, either a is earlier that b, or b is earlier than a (and not both).
Now, on the mathematical understanding of sequence, comics need not be sequences. I have included three examples in this post – a Quimby Mouse strip (by Chris Ware), a page from Rabbithead (by Rebecca Dart), and a strip by Tymothi Godek. We could just decide that McCloud was using the term “sequence” loosely, and that he would have no problem including these examples as comics. And in terms of evaluating McCloud’s work, that’s probably the right thing to do (he isn’t a mathematician, after all!) But there is another question that now arises: If comics need not be sequences in the mathematical sense, then what sorts of mathematical structures can be instanced by panel arrangements within comics? Notice that the Chris Ware strip uses ‘trails’ – that is, arrows telling us which panel or panels occur next. Although this sort of structural sign-posting was common in the early days of comics, before many of the conventions governing panel arrangement and panel reading were in place, they now typically appear only in very complex comics where the reader would get hopelessly confused otherwise (again, see the Quimby Mouse strip above).
So: Is there some natural mathematical characterization of the sorts of panel arrangements that can be coherently and unambiguously used in comics? Are there more such coherent panel arrangements when we allow the unrestricted use of trails? Do trails allow us to make any arrangement intuitive and understandable? As a partial answer to the second and third question, it is worth noting that trails seem to allow us to construct comics whose structure is any planar graph (or, at least, any planar graph that will fit on the page or screen). But beyond this, the questions are wide open.