Time, space and storyworlds – how comics function differently


I need to read this article properly, but at a scan, there’s quite a bit there that looks very interesting… Karin Kukkonen explores the way comic books support more imaginative models of the world in which we live through both their textuality and the traditions they have developed around their serialization and production.

“In a recent study of multiple worlds in physics, philosophy, and narrative, Marie-Laure Ryan argues that our “private encyclopedia” is deeply rooted in the classical notion that there is one world in which we live and through which we think—rather than many such worlds. As Ryan puts it, “[f]or most of us, the idea of parallel realities is not yet solidly established in our private encyclopedias and the text must give strong cues for us to suspend momentarily our intuitive belief in classical cosmology” (Ryan 2006: 671). Cognitive-psychological research on mental models, that is, scenarios we mentally develop in order to reason, also stresses that situations triggering the creation of multiple mental models are difficult to process (see Jarvella, Lundquist, and Hyönä 1995), and that we construct mental models in order to eliminate alternatives and create coherence (Johnson-Laird 1983; Garnham [-p.40] and Oakhill 1994). Thus, when reading fiction, interpreters construct “a three-dimensional model akin to an actual model of the scene” (Johnson-Laird 2006: 37) in order to locate the characters in a story, monitor the events and project the narrative’s progress (see Herman 2002). In such contexts readers’ mental model is called a “storyworld,” and it relies on the same one-world ontology that Ryan associates with “our intuitive belief in classical cosmology.

“Readers of contemporary superhero comics, however, seem to be less fully invested than others in this classical cosmology—a cosmology that favors singular over multiple realities, in narrative texts as well as everyday life. The stories of heroes like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman have been published for decades on a weekly or biweekly basis, written by ever-changing authors. As a result, inconsistencies emerged in the different storylines and encounters involving these characters, and continuity, or the coherent and consistent development of the characters and their storyworlds, became a problem. In response, superhero comics made a virtue out of necessity and presented their storyworlds as part of a larger “multiverse,” in which a variety of mutually incompatible narrative worlds existed as parallel realities. Villains aim to turn the entire multiverse into their dominion, and superheroes unite to maintain the status quo across storyworlds.” (pp.39-40)

Comics are a medium employing three modes of expression: words, images, and sequence. On the level of meaning making in the reading process, that is, for understanding what the story is about, these three modes of expression work together. Because a cognitive approach to narrative is not tied to one mode of expression, it promises to be a particularly useful paradigm for comics studies. However, research on storyworlds in narrative, and mental models more generally, has been developed largely on the basis of verbal narratives or propositions. Thus, in order to move from the comics text to the level of storyworlds, we need to explore in some detail how the components of comics narratives prompt the construction of mental models.
Time and space are the basic categories in terms of which we conceptualize our world as human beings. In his Critique of Pure Reason Immanuel Kant describes time and space as “pure forms of intuition” (1986: 44) that precede and structure our experience, and Kant’s contemporary Gotthold Ephraim Lessing details in his essay Laokoon how the various arts engage with time and space. Lessing holds that there are “arts of time,” such as prose and poetry, and “arts of space,” such as painting and sculpture. Arts of time unfold through the reading process of a written text; arts of space attempt to capture a “pregnant moment” and provide us with a holistic but punctual impression that does not itself unfold through time (Lessing 2003: 23)—even though it may evoke or connote a temporal sequence. Thus, suggesting that the arts of time and arts of space differently engage with our “pure forms of intuition,” Lessing provides in Laokoon an early account of what media studies today calls “media affordances” (see Kress 2003): that is, how different means of expression, different semiotic channels such as words and images, enable us to communicate different things or, for that matter, the same thing in different ways.” (p.43)

“Images seem to provide an analogue mode of representation, depicting the world and its spatial extension “directly.” Does this mean that what we see in an image in comics translates directly into the mental models we construct when engaging with the narrative? Most likely it does not. For one thing, even in the case of photographs in newspapers and films, images do not depict the world through pure analogy or iconicity but are deliberate means of communication, anchored in particular discourse contexts and imbued with rhetorical purposes (see Aumont 1997).” (p.44)

“…whereas the images of graphic narratives such as comics provide cues for constructing both the spatial and the temporal dimensions of the storyworld, they are more like blueprints than photo-ready copies of the mental models that inform the design of the storyworld. Significantly, it is not obligatory for storyworlds to follow the principles of Euclidean space; for example, the distances between characters and objects in a room that figures in a narrative do not always correspond to our construction of the room in the mental model (see Langston, Kramer, and Glenberg 1998). Storyworlds, in this sense, are not representations of the content of the text, but representations of content that we take to be important or especially worthy of notice. Driven by the requirements of text comprehension, our primary goal is not to process spatial information accurately, as we might if the spatial details were presented on the flat, two-dimensional plane of Euclidean geometry, but rather to process the information thematically and according to the forms of embodiment such information enables.” (p.44)

Ref: Karin Kukkonen (2010) Navigating Infinite Earths: Readers, Mental Models, and the Multiverse of Superhero Comics StoryWorlds: A Journal of Narrative Studies, Volume 2, pp. 39-58


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