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Comics and Montage Theory: Toward a More Complex Comic Book Film Aesthetic by Isaac Davidson
In May 2012, Walt Disney Studios released their blockbuster superhero film, Marvel’s The Avengers, to American audiences. This film, which would go on to gross over $1.5 billion worldwide (“Marvel’s The Avengers”), was the culmination of a five film franchise beginning with 2008’s Iron Man that combined the narrative continuities of multiple superhero blockbusters into a single filmic event. The episodic structure of this film franchise is a prime example of the recurrent application of the comic book mentality to popular cinema and its success indicates, as much as many other recent superhero films, that this trend is a financially stable method of filmmaking. Despite the commercial success of these films, however, there are those who contend that this trend has propagated a regression of meaningful cinematic aesthetics.
In his 2012 book, Do the Movies Have a Future?, New Yorker Magazine film critic David Denby argues that Hollywood’s many comic book adaptations are damaging the aesthetic value of film form. He maintains that in comic books “one thing happens after another, space collapses, gravity and the ground disappear, clashing forces jump at each other” (14) and films with these tendencies diminish the qualities that had made cinema an essential art form of the 20th century. He claims that the humanistic storytelling of the pre-digitalized comic book film, which required “limits, inhibitions, social conventions, a world of anticipations and outcomes, fears and consequences,” has since been victimized by the narrative tendencies of comics that drop “the preparations and the consequences of carefully worked-out plots” (67). For Denby, this visual culture of impossible imagery, with all of its digitally produced explosions and fantastical elements, oversaturates the representation of reality and results in a frustratingly simplistic cinema (6). Denby provides reasonable evidence for his alarm, but I would posit that this unsatisfactory cinema is partly the result of poor filmic adaptations of comics rather than an inherent problem in the nature of comics in and of themselves. Indeed, regardless of their content, comics possess a complex and demanding visual language that has yet to be successfully applied to the comic book film.
In this essay, I will demonstrate how the visual language of comics demands that the reader be an active participant in the construction of meaning by applying the primarily filmic theory of montage to comics. This theory, developed largely by Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein in the initial decades of cinema, demands that the film viewer be an active participant in the process of cinematic meaning making. By demonstrating how the visual natures of comics and film place similar demands on their spectators, I will show that the potential of the comic book film is an untapped resource and I hope to point the way to new potential avenues of adaptation that are aesthetically intricate and satisfactory to those who lament the current trends in popular cinema.
Montage Theory and Multi-Panel Closure
In his 1938 essay “Word and Image,” Sergei Eisenstein defines montage as a phenomenon that occurs when “two film pieces of any kind, placed together, inevitably combine into a new concept, a new quality, arising out of that juxtaposition” (4). Eisenstein provides an example of this process: the image of “a grave, juxtaposed with a woman in mourning weeping beside it” (4) will prompt the viewer to jump to the conclusion that the woman is a widow. Eisenstein argues that montage is a significant component of artistic meaning because it demands the spectator be “drawn into the process [of creation] as it occurs” (17), rather than simply be on the receiving end of the artistic process. The film viewer is forced to combine two separate shots into a single idea despite whatever dissonance exists between the content of either shot. In effect, the filmmaker provides the essential ingredients for a thematic meaning that is created within the mind of the viewer. Undoubtedly, this “process of arranging images in the feelings and mind of the spectator” (17) is a powerful tool for the artist, as it involves the spectator in the act of message delivery and allows the work of art to function at both ends of the meaning making process.
While this theory was developed by Soviet filmmakers in the 1920s and was primarily used for political purposes in their films, Eisenstein effectively demonstrates that montage finds lease in other arts and sciences and does not need to be intrinsically devoted to ideological or political movements, despite its obvious usefulness to that effect. He suggests that montage is essentially a phenomenon that allows for the quantitative summation of several elements to result in a “qualitatively distinguishable subject” (8); in other words, the whole becomes more than the sum of its parts. He clearly demonstrates that this effect exists outside of cinema by applying the principle of montage to specific works of artists Maupassant, da Vinci, and Milton (19-22; 25-28; 58-63). In so doing, Eisenstein ultimately shows that this effect is a dynamic psychological phenomenon that requires the spectator to intellectually combine the elements of a work of art into a specific theme (64). If, as Eisenstein demonstrates, the montage effect can clearly be applied to any of the arts, then surely this theory can find correlation in the visual language of comics.
The application of montage theory to comics must begin by understanding how the medium provides the reader with several thematic elements with which to form a unifying thematic concept. As the act of closure between panels is the primary method by which comics construct meaning, it is the most apparent formal element of comics to which montage theory can be applied. In his seminal work, Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud states that “comics panels fracture both time and space, offering a jagged, staccato rhythm of unconnected moments” (67) and that the comics reader is forced to combine these images into a continuous idea through the act of closure. The empty space between panels, otherwise known as the gutter, is a vital element of the language of comics as it dictates to the reader that s/he is required to make a thematic connection. As McCloud demonstrates, readers of comics will combine these images into a new idea, regardless of panel content (73). As with Eisenstein’s dynamic film viewer, the comics reader is tasked with taking the separate ideas represented in individual panels and erecting in her or his mind a unifying thematic construct. The act of closure in comics is the same as the act of montage as Eisenstein envisioned it. If this theoretical connection is to be utilized for the purpose of translatability, however, there must be an awareness of the vital differences between film and comics.
Examining these differences in 2007, Pascal Lefèvre posits that the visual ontologies of both media are mostly incompatible, largely due to the characteristic functions of the arrangement of static panels on the comics page compared to the temporally linear progression of film shots on a consistent screen frame (3). While readers of comics can determine the rate at which they read the page, the film viewer is obliged to “follow the rhythm of the sequences” dictated by the playing of the film (5). Subsequently, it can be surmised that the montage of the cinema works through a temporal linearity, with one shot following the next as the film plays on a screen, while the montage of comics requires the combination of still images on a page to be performed at the reader’s leisure. Despite these clear dissimilarities, however, the comics reader is still required to understand the action, as s/he is tasked with mentally combining the still images into a unifying theme. McCloud puts forth that this act of “deliberate and voluntary closure” (69) gives the comics reader agency through participation and indicates a type of creative contract between author and reader. These interpretive qualities are shared by both media and provide a linkage between them despite whatever incompatibilities exist. Indeed, comics are just as capable of depicting the same actions and scenarios as the cinema, as both engage the spectator as interpreters of their meanings. The closure of the gutter engages the comics reader as much as cinematic montage engages the film viewer as both types of spectators are tasked with combining separate elements into a thematic meaning. As such, the comics reader’s task of combining multiple panels into a single theme through the act of closure is clearly evidence of the mutability of montage theory and the dynamic nature of comics, but this is not the only element of comics language that employs a high level of reader engagement to construct meaning.
The way meaning is constructed in the single panel is perhaps an even more intricate function of the visual language of comics. In the next section I will demonstrate how the comics reader’s task of understanding a malleable and dynamic representation of narrative time and space, despite the lack of juxtaposition with another panel, can be understood as a function of montage theory. This will further illuminate the complicated ways in which comics establish meaning in similar ways to the cinema and will point to potential methods of aesthetically complex adaptation.
Montage Theory and the Single Panel Image
As involved a task as it is for the comics reader to create narrative meaning by combining the elements of multiple panels into a single theme, it is equally challenging to construct that meaning within the panel. Even without the clearly delineated boundaries of the gutter separating one panel from the other, the comics reader must still juxtapose the elements provided into a coherent theme. The comics reader must potentially contend with words and images and interpret them according to the arrangements of the elements within the framed space. Indeed, this involves a great level of trust between the comics creator and the comics reader as generally the only guidance for proper interpretation comes from the reader’s tendency to read in a specific direction. From the chaos of multiple elements within a single panel, however, arises a complexity of meaning that demonstrates the narrative power of comics.
By demonstrating the elaborate operation of time and space in a single panel, McCloud shows how a comics reader must understand the progression of a multifaceted sequence despite not having the gutter’s explicit indication to perform the act of closure:
McCloud begins with a scene of people gathered in one room but all participating in various conversations (Figure 1, McCloud 95). In Figure 2, he asks: “But how could this be anything but a single moment? Our eyes have been well-trained by the photograph and by representational art to see any single continuous image as a single instant in time” (95). Figure 3, however, shows how the images can’t possibly be a single instant in time (95). Finally, Figures 4 and 5 exhibit how words, pictures, and sound work together to create closure (96-97).
As McCloud demonstrates, the act of closure is actualized despite the unbroken action occurring in a single panel. The reader must combine distinct elements that exist within the panel, integrating fluctuating space and time into a cohesive thematic unit. This is not to say that every image panel operates as complexly as the above example does, but clearly there is the potential for the comics reader to undertake a demanding task when reading such layouts.
Eisenstein’s notion that montage requires thematic meaning to be constructed in the mind of the spectator is clearly applicable in the single panel even if there is a lack of explicit demarcation. The montage principle is utilized as long as the spectator is provided with separate thematic elements within the image. To this effect, Gilles Deleuze writes in 1989 that the cinema shot inherently exhibits the potential elements of montage, which is “variable according to the intrinsic nature of the movements considered in each image, in each shot” (35). The progression of time and space in an unbroken shot requires the film viewer to integrate the elements of the shot into a unifying theme, since “the components of an image already imply montage” (42) even before the shot may be used in juxtaposition with another.
Of course, Deleuze speaks of the moving image of the cinema, which represents a genuine progression of time and space without the viewer’s explicit involvement as the film plays on a screen. Yet, while others have remarked that comics cannot reproduce this genuine movement of the cinema (Christiansen 114-115), montage theory is still entirely applicable to the comics panel as it often requires the reader to be engaged in the process of locating the elements within a specific notion of time and space, even more so than the photographic image of the cinema. Montage theory is applicable to the comics frame as long as there are individual elements that the reader must synthesize in order to produce meaning. The possibilities for complex representations of time and space within the comics frame only intensify the reader’s task. While Denby correctly argues that the space of comics collapses and that the translation of this representation to film is limiting, McCloud demonstrates that the possibilities for spatial representation in comics is virtually infinite. If this complex representation of space and time is applied to cinema by engaging the spectator’s capability for engaging with the montage effect, there may be a satisfactory potential for new film aesthetics.
As I have demonstrated, the comics reader’s task is as involved as the film viewer’s, principally because the phenomenon of montage theory can be successfully applied to the act of reading comics. Since the fundamental concept of montage is the reader’s act of combining individual thematic elements provided by the creator into a larger narrative whole, the medium of comics utilizes this notion by tasking the reader to explore intricate and complex representations of time and space through the act of participation. Similar to filmic montage occurring both through the juxtaposition of shots and the multiple elements within the shots, comics montage occurs through the juxtaposition of frames as well as within the frames themselves. Furthermore, comics sanction the reader to translate static images into a cohesive narrative, instigating the montage effect by asking the reader to create the illusion of movement in her or his mind. Following this, it could even be argued that the comics reader’s task is even more challenging than the modern film viewer’s.
Though modern popular cinema may be aesthetically simplistic compared to comics, it does not need to remain that way. Despite whatever differences exist in their visual ontologies, both media have the potential to engage their spectators in a contract of meaning-making through complex representations of time and space. Indeed, as digital technologies increasingly move cinema away from the representation of the real and toward the more indexical nature of artificiality, previously impossible representations of reality become possible. Though cinema has always exhibited a tension between narrative realism and exhibitionistic formalism (Christiansen 119), the shift toward digital technology has generally favored new representations within diegetic space. The comic book film especially epitomizes this trend with its insertion of human figures into impossible locations (as with Robert Downey Jr. flying through outer space as Iron Man) or digital creations into plausible settings (as with the Hulk in the streets of New York City). And yet, as fantastical as these elements are, they are still shown to film viewers through formally conventional narrative means. Though advanced digital technologies have shown that anything can be represented in the cinema, popular films that utilize these technologies still have yet to engage the film viewer on a formal level. Perhaps by attempting to adapt the formal complexities of comics into the cinema through a more engaged viewer involvement, these comic book films can satisfy both superhero fans and cinephiles who appreciate a formal challenge.
Christiansen, Hans-Christian. “Comics and Film: A Narrative Perspective.” Comics & Culture: Analytical and Theoretical Approaches to Comics. Ed. Anne Magnussen and Hans-Christian Christiansen. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2000. 107-21. Print.
Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 2: The Time-Image. Minneapolis: U Minnesota Press, 1989. Print.
Denby, David. Do the Movies Have a Future? New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012. Print.
Eisenstein, Sergei. The Film Sense. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World Inc., 1947. Print.
Lefèvre, Pascal. “Incompatible Visual Ontologies?: The Problematic Adaptation of Drawn Images.” Film and Comic Books. Ed. Ian Gordon, Mark Jancovich, and Matthew P. McAllister. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2007. 1-12. Print.
“Marvel’s The Avengers.” Box Office Mojo. IMDB, 2012. Web. 16 June 2013.
McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics, The Invisible Art. New York: Harper Paperbacks, 1993. Print.
Fair Use Statement
This essay includes excerpted images from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, The Invisible Art, which is copyrighted material. The inclusion of these materials in this essay for critical, scholarly, non-commercial purposes constitutes fair use, as provided for in Title 17 U.S. Code section 107 of U.S. Copyright Law.
Isaac Davidson wrote this piece for a seminar on the visual rhetoric of comics in an attempt to find congruence between two media he loves. A recent graduate of the Media Arts & Studies program at the University of Kentucky, he is interested in film and media studies and intends to earn a Master’s degree in that field.