Time in comics

From Media Technology and Culture Change

Time in comics is a very difficult and complex concept because it involves representing time through spatial concepts and there are no strict rules about how these spatial concepts translate into time. In comics, time can be communicated to readers through the content of the panels, the number and shape of panels as well as the use of closure between panels. Thus the panel border guides readers sense of time and space. The content of a panel usually appears to be a single instant in time but often cannot be because the actions illustrated by the drawings may not occur at the same time as the words. For example the flash of a light bulb does not occur at the exact moment the characters say "Cheese!". In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud likens the depiction of time in a comic to a rope. Each action and utterance exists at a certain point along the rope, so that each occupies its own time slot.

The number and shape of the panels also communicates time to readers. For example a pause can be communicated by a sequenced repetition of the same panel or by a wider panel. Both give the reader the perception that time is proceeding although the characters may not be moving. Similarly a sense of timelessness can be evoked by a "borderless" panel or a panel that "bleeds." A panel that bleeds is one whose contents extend beyond the page. A selection in either of these scenarios is made based on personal style or in keeping with regional technique.

In comics, time is not only limited to the communication of the passage of minutes or hours but also captures the past, present and future. The nature of this medium, its pages, panels and gutters, makes the readers' experience of the past present and future very different from their experience of time in other media. The past, present and future surround the reader constantly. The past progresses to present through the readers' efforts, through their eye movements. Consequently viewers are able to exercise much more choice over their consumption of the content present than they are with other media.


Time in comics, which is a fundamental part of the graphic novel experience, comes entirely from the reader's interaction and engagement with the medium, which is why comics are considered to be a cool medium.