10 reasons why sequence is not all that

13 Sep

I’m not going to attempt to credit to anyone the idea of ‘sequence’ as a defining characteristic of comics. Nor am I going to try and provide the date upon which this concept was developed; or the name of the publication in which it was first communicated to the world. I’m not going to do this because I know that if I do, some uber-comic dude will likely dig up some ancient reference from the Quark Epoch or the Golden Age of Piracy that features the exact words ‘comics’ and ‘sequence’ and use it to discredit my whole approach. I just want to bypass that whole possibility.

What I do know is that the idea of ‘comics as sequence’ has something to do with Will Eisner and something to do with David Kunzle and something to do with Scott McCloud and no doubt something to do with a bunch of other thoughtful chaps. I also know that some of these guys are so enamored with the notion, that they bandy about ‘sequential art’  as an alternate name for comics (and the even more ghastly 'graphic narrative', a term that privileges 'narrative' but could also confusingly describe 'Shades of Grey'). And they create definitions that definitively and firmly and unequivocally highlight the concept.

I’m a massive theory fan-girl so props to Scott McCloud and all the others for attempting to theorize and define something as weird and nebulous as comics, but I think the emphasis on sequence is meh. Obviously sequence is a thing in comics,  but I think it’s not the thing, and also that it’s not the most interesting thing. For me the term ‘sequential art’ is reductive. It conveys a lack of observation, and an under-appreciation of the true richness and complexity of the comics form. 

Here’s the definition of sequence (in comics) I’ve invented and am precariously yet determinedly resting my argument on -  Panels as a symbolic system (including all that’s in and between them) deliberately ordered and connected by action and/or time and done so in order to propel mostly narrative or story, but sometimes information.

And now ten reasons why sequence, as defined above, is not all that:

1. It’s become a self-evident truth

Within comic circles ‘sequence as a definition’ seems to me to have become a ‘self-evident’ truth or something that is ‘natural’ and/or ‘obvious’. This means that the proposition ‘sequence is a defining feature of comics’ is simply ‘known’ to be true by virtue of ‘common sense’ and without any need for proof or disproof. Every talk about comics I’ve been to (not given by me) references them as a form that embodies or relies on or is recognisable by sequence. It’s a default starting point and it’s always presented as ‘just so’ or 'Scott McCloud says...' without any explanation as to why it’s true. 

I believe self-evident truths should always be questioned, whatever field they’re in. This is because self-evident truths generally aren’t. They pretty much always advantage one perspective and disadvantage another. For years and years, it was ‘obvious’ that men and women were the only genders, a ‘truth’ that marginalised anyone who didn’t identify as either. This truth turned out to be crap.

And while comics are nowhere near as important as people, the principle is the same. The pervasive notion of sequence marginalizes other comic qualities. I don’t like this and think the ‘comics as sequence’ truth needs to be interrogated. 

2. There’s no evidence

I think that if the truth of ‘comics as sequence’ were properly grilled it would be difficult to continue to be a total believer. This is because, as far as I can tell, there’s no evidence for the hypothesis. There are lots of examples of comics that involve sequence, but by definition, examples explain or embody an independent preceding concept. Examples illustrate evidence but are not in themselves evidence. Similarly, there are lots of people who say out loud and in print that ‘sequence is a defining feature of comics’ but the fact that something is widely believed and proclaimed does not make it correct.  

I have heard the argument that the evidence is in the ‘unique’ ability of the comic to use sequence to create the illusion of time and/or action via a static symbolic system on a static page; and that it makes sense for this to be a comic's star quality because no other medium does it. This is not true.

3. It’s not unique to comics

Comics are not unique in their ability to portray action and/or time in order to propel narrative and/or information using still symbols on a still page; and I cannot understand why - for ages - comic-makers and fans appear to have fallen for the idea that they are. Here are three other modes of expression that do the same thing (and there are likely more) –

Prose:  Every story, short or long, uses symbols to move through a sequence in a static medium. It’s just that the symbols are letters and words instead of pictures and panels. All kinds of words are used to make sequences. Here's the word 'after' doing it in a bunch of different ways - 

I went for a jog after lunch (used as a preposition).

She died on July 3rd and was buried the day after (used as an adverb).

After you left, I got a phone call from Claire (used as a conjunction).

These parts of speech are all symbols (letters) that make other symbols (words), all are juxtaposed with one another, static, and part of a sequence (sentence) that progresses action/time and creates a narrative. I think they act in just the same way as comics do.

Poetry: Poems are interesting in that they convey action/time through words but also through layout. Here’s a traditional English nursery rhyme that works (mostly) on words, in this case proper nouns – 

The Cuckoo 

In April,
Come he will.
In May, 
He sings all day.
In June, 
He changes his tune.
In July, 
He prepares to fly.
In August, 
Go he must.

Clearly the reader moves through this poem via the months which are sequential and are symbolic markers of time, and clearly there’s a narrative.

Here’s an example of a poem that primarily uses layout to move the reader through action/time. It’s by May Swensen – 

Stone Gullets

Stone gullets among       Inrush       Feed         Backsuck and

The borders swallow            Outburst             Huge engorgements       Swallow

In gulps the sea      Tide crams jagged         Smacks snorts chuckups       Follow

       In urgent thirst      Jaws the hollow      Insurge       Hollow

Gushing evacuations follow       Jetty it must       Outpush       Greed 

This poem requires the reader to leap from phrase to phrase, each one describing something subsequent to the phrase before it, and with the phrases altogether making a story. It even has gutters to indicate the jumps through action and time! For me, reading it feels very similar to reading a comic.

Prose and poetry are examples of narratives or stories that move through action/time, but I think there are also information-based, more functional examples just as there are information-based, more functional comics (like those airplane safety cards). One of these examples is the list.

Numbered or bulleted lists: With lists, numbers or bullets are symbols that convey sequence. That is, just like panels and gutters, they indicate to the reader the need to move from one item to the next in an order. As an inherently chronological symbolic system, numbers achieve this most explicitly, but bullets also work pretty well. Lists are an example of a sequence connected by information rather than action and/or time. For example, the contents of a shopping list all reflect information about household need and/or a shop. This blog post is another example of a numbered list, ironically conveying in sequence, the reasons I think sequence is a bit dumb.

4. It relegates text and image 

I have written about this before here so won’t go on about it. Suffice to say that, although not unique to comics (there are maps, diagrams and memes) and although there are textless and imageless comics (which, if they're more than one panel (see below) do have to have sequence in order to work) it is the interaction of text and image that is for me the most interesting and precious part of the medium. I just love the idea of meaning requiring both image and text, and of nothing making sense if you take either of these components away. Also text and images together make the best jokes.

5. It relegates panels

Again I have written about this before and you can read what I have to say here. Basically, I think panels are almost unique to comics (maths exercise books and some old-school windows also have them). Yes, they are useful for organising a story but more importantly to me, they are a thing that reminds a reader they’re reading a comic when they’re reading one, and that rules.

6. It relegates stillness

Here I’ve written about the importance of stillness in comics or more specifically ‘illogical stillness’. Quite a few comic-types have told me that while they find the concept interesting, it’s a little hard to understand, so I’ll attempt to explain it more clearly - Illogical stillness is the idea that as well as being part of a sequence, each comic panel is its own self-contained world and so things can happen within them that have partial or no relation to the preceding frame; and that this can happen only because comics are a static medium. Illogical stillness celebrates placidness rather than faux-movement.

For me illogical stillness does work best when it's combined with sequence, that is when part of a panel relates to the one before it and part of it doesn’t (and in my opinion the role of sequence in this scenario is the best justification for making any fuss about it). Here is an example of illogical stillness:

In this comic there is sequence in that the girl names the boar that appears subsequently; but there is also illogical stillness in that the boar simply appears in her mouth with no real explanation as to how it got there. The comic exploits the properties of sequence and stillness to ridiculous (and hopefully interesting and enjoyable) effect. 

Instructional comics often use illogical stillness, where the panels are connected by information but the pictures within them feature different things. 

Admittedly it is difficult to conceive of a mainstream comic where there is just illogical stillness and no sequence at all. The nearest thing I can think of is a row of David Shrigley or Daniel Johnston (for example) comics on a wall in an art gallery. This would have stillness, panels (the edges around the pages but some on the pages as well), images and text, but not necessarily sequence; or sequence defined only by style, not narrative or information. 

I guess though that here the artist’s ‘intent’ is an issue. I.e. if they didn’t ‘intend’ to make a comic, can you call it a comic? Even if it looks (to me) like one? (Although I have read interviews where both David Shrigley and Daniel Johnston happily describe themselves as cartoonists). Maybe 'intent' is actually the defining feature of comics?! Maybe, although I feel I have come too far to high-jack this post with a big new thought. So intention aside, I do think that if comics have a unique defining feature, illogical stillness might be it. Right now I can think of no other medium that uses it.

7. It excludes single-panel comics

The idea that single-panel comics aren’t comics because they don’t have sequence blows my mind. Single-panel comics have text and image interaction, a panel, and stillness. That’s three in-view defining features against one absent defining feature, yet the one somehow overrides the three. This just unfair.

Also calling single panel comics 'cartoons' is just a slight-of-hand. Cartoons are Adventure Time and those pre-fresco, pricky-hole, make-the-outline things  that Renaissance painters used. What these two things have in common, and I guess the reason they have the same name, is that they are about a kind of drawing which emphasizes line. And single panel comics do as well, so calling them 'cartoons' isn't completely ridiculous. What is ridiculous though is that multi-panel sequential comics have the 'line' attribute just as much! AND both Tom and Jerry, and the Arena Chapel have hard-core sequence, so actually it probably makes more sense to call sequential comics 'cartoons'. The whole thing is frustratingly arbitrary.

8. It makes no sense

I have been trying to think of things besides comics that justify the worth of the singular (a panel) solely by its relationship to the many (a sequence of panels) and it's tricky. Does a bowl of ice cream have to be part of a three-course meal in order to be considered delicious food? Does purple have to be part of a rainbow to be considered a beautiful colour? Does a cell have to be part of a double-helix in order to be useful DNA? I could go on but will restrain myself.

9. Some comic readers and makers work differently

This is a different kind of reason and resides in comic readers and makers rather than works. For readers It’s about the fact that some children (and adults) with executive function issues have particular trouble with sequencing. They find it difficult to arrange language, thoughts and/or information in the order required to effectively undertake actions or create meaning. In education there’s a lot of discourse about the ways comics can engage readers, but for some kids comics are a struggle. And this is precisely because of sequence.

In regards to comic-makers, there are those who are neuro-divergent and/or who exist in a different mental reality to much of the rest of the world. For artists such as these (and again I'm thinking of Daniel Johnston, but also maybe Susan Te Kahurangi King) - notions of sequence (and indeed panels, text, stillness, comics) could be completely different and sometimes incomprehensible to others. I would never however, consider comics made in this way to be lesser.

10. It’s boring and I’m lonely

The last and most personal reason is simply that ‘comics as sequence’ is boring. I am sick of hearing about it and am perplexed that the conversation hasn’t moved on. Even if my own arguments are faulty, why doesn’t someone else have something thought-provoking or brilliant to say? I am also sick of being the one who disagrees with the notion; and I am sick of having comic-dudes glare or look quizzically at me because I disagree. I even lament the need to write this post.

Sequence is not all that.

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