Comic books, known by scholars as sequential art, where sequences of images arranged spatially convey the passage of time visually. Comic books earned their nick name, comics, because they were originally compilations of comedy-based comic strips sold as magazines. Modern comic books cover many genres such as super heroes, drama, science fiction, fantasy, horror, and thrillers Comics are published in most countries and read by audiences of all ages.
In his famous book Understanding Media, Toronto media scholar Marshall McLuhan (1994) described comics and comic strips as cool media. McLuhan’s cool and hot media theory focused on the effort a responder needs to spend when interacting with a media. Comics, according to McLuhan, asked the reader to fill in information gaps unlike hot media like the television, which provided a wider array of information, and thus less interaction (McLuhan 1994).
Unsurprisingly, when comic theory theorist and cartoonist Scott McCloud (1993) investigated comics, in his similarly titled Understanding Comics, he argued that the particularity of comics was the reliance on closure. Closure, according to McCloud, was the space between panels where the story within a series of comic panels changed (McCLoud 1993). Closure, unlike what many parents had claimed about the unsuitability of comics in helping kids learn to read, forced the reader to fill in the blanks between panels, just like McLuhan had argued 30 years before.
Both McLuhan and McCloud perceive comics through the lenses of what is better known as information theory. Information theory was first conceived by physician Claude Shannon (2001) in the 1950s. Scholars using this theory argue that information is the basic building block of the universe. Not in the sense of a physical element, like energy or matter. Information is organized signals that are transmitted and perceived. The absence of information is entropy, or nothing at all. In this sense, each comic panel is a snippet of information organized through visual means and deciphered, as semantic information, which is meaningful to a reader.
McLuhan and McCloud’s theories of comics go against the semantic theory of comics as an organization of words and images to convey meaning (Harvey 1994). In this perspective, comics are not a visual and spatial form of information. They are texts with meaning mixing different media. This theory of comics is often favoured by humanists as opposed to information architects and media theorists. In this perspective, comics are a document meant to convey meaning and knowledge and to produce affect in a reader. All elements of a comic, be they images, captions representing sounds, dialogues, stories, colours, and space, are equal part of the comic and its experience.
Strangely enough, this popular definition of comic as words and pictures also perceives comics as an organization of information. But the information architecture elements have been subdued for a linguistic and semiotic qualification, instead of an organization defined as information architecture. I find this an interesting premise, because it puts comics squarely in the humanist box and precludes any discussion of comics from a post-humanist point of view.
Humanism is a perspective where the world and how we perceive it is described through the point of view of the human. It is similar to arguing that the Sun or the Earth are at the center of the universe and that everything revolves around them. Post-humanist positions accept that the human point of view is just one out many and that other perspectives can shed a lot of information about our universe. This is an old debate where environmental information – signals compete against semantic information – information that has meaning, presumably for humans.
But comics are created for humans! So on that score, humanists win the debate. Unlike pollen, which is information for a bee but not much for a human, comics are information for us. It is our interaction with them, filling their gaps in information that allows us to decipher them and attribute meaning to the overall experience and interaction we had with them.
Yet, comics are sequential. We need, as argued by McCloud (1993), at least two frames to make sense of them. Otherwise, they are just cartoon art. Closure is forced on the reader. Gaps have to be filled. What information theory does not prevent is the layering of subsequent levels of information within an architectural whole. While the spatial gap between two visuals is all that matters for a comic to be it doesn’t prevent the addition of words, sound effects, captions, dialogues and stories to interject and add meaning. Information theory does distinguish between environmental information and semantic information. Semantic information, before any signal can be deciphered and given a meaning is nothing but environmental information, after all!