Discerning pictures: how we look at and understand images in comics
Faculty of Education and Arts
School of Communications and Arts / Centre for Research in Entertainment, Arts,Technology, Education and Communications
Scott McCloud (1993) has used a ‘realism continuum’ to classify comics characters between the points of realism and iconic abstraction. Before him, other theorists (Gropper 1963; Knowlton 1966; Dwyer 1972; Wileman 1993) have used this continuum as a means to judge the communicative and instructional potential of pictures as they become more distant from the realistic. At the same time, all comic artists employ at least some level of distillation or abstraction, some removal of realistic detail. This approach can allow for other design aspects to be emphasized in or imposed upon the comics' panels: such as line, shape, colour, orientation and composition. These attributes in turn accentuate connections or relationships that are less apparent in realistic images. But what are the psychological mechanisms by which we understand images abstracted away from realism, and how might knowledge of these help to build an understanding of comics' formal properties and contribute to the theory of comics? This article explores some important faculties of the human visual system, labelled by psychologists as perceptual constancies. Examples from comics are used to illustrate these faculties put to work by visually literate artists. The mechanics of caricature are also explained in terms of their importance to how the mind remembers images. Caricature, and not realism, is a mechanism for visual memory. There is a difference in the way images communicate depending on their realism quotient and this difference is key to the way that comics communicate, whether their artists are aware of this fact or not. Distillation and exaggeration can actually communicate more powerfully to the psyche than ‘the real thing’. This article explains why this knowledge should be central to an understanding of comics.