The limits of time and transitions: Challenges to theories of sequential image comprehension

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The juxtaposition of two images often produces the illusory sense of time passing, as found in the visual language used in modern comic books, which creates the sense that this linear sequence presents a succession of moments or temporal units. Author and theorist Scott McCloud took this view to an extreme, proposing that sequential images are guided by a notion that time space (McCloud 2000), because this temporal passage occurs on a spatial surface. To McCloud, this temporal mapping results in a movement of time with a movement of space. This sense of temporality, then, is the essence of comics, which is manifested in McCloud's taxonomy of transitions of panel-to-panel relationships (McCloud 1993). While less specific, this same type of essence of connection can be reflected in Groensteen's types of arthrology across a linear sequence or disparate panels in a broader text (Groensteen 1999).

However, numerous problems arise with McCloud and Groensteen's approaches to graphic narrative. This article will explore how the linearity of reading panels and the iconicity of images create various false assumptions about the conveyance of meaning across sequential images' depictions of space and time. With numerous examples, it will argue that any linear panel-to-panel analysis (such as McCloud's (1993) panel transitions) or loosely defined principles of connection (such as Groensteen's (1999) arthrology) between sequential images are inadequate to account for their understanding. The conclusion is that sequential image comprehension must be thought of as the union of conceptual information that is grouped via unconscious hierarchic structures in the mind. As such, the study of the comprehension of the visual language used in comics must be placed in the cognitive sciences.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)127-147
Number of pages21
JournalStudies in Comics
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2010
Externally publishedYes


  • comics
  • narrative
  • semantics
  • linguistics
  • cognitive science
  • visual language


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