Monday, December 7, 2015

Watchmen - Creating a Web of Meaning

Here's an exercise in creating meaning between images, between panels, between moments. After looking at this picture to the left, what do you assume?

This could be anything, after all. But experience and convention has taught us that the body language of these two suggests that they are winding down from something strenuous. The smoking is often used in fiction as a means of winding down post-coitus, but really, this could be anything. Let's not assume things.

How about this image to the right? This one technically happened before the above scene, though clearly not too long before. Both parties are panting, and they are clearly in an alleyway. Upon casual reading, we might again assume that sex was the order of the day here. They are panting and we see no sign of clothing on the woman apart from her coat. Perhaps something untoward occurred here?

But look at the bottom of the panel. There is a face-down human body with their head in a trash can. I sincerely doubt a couple would partake in carnal pleasures in the presence of an unconscious (perhaps even dead) body. Clearly, something else is going on here.

How about we provide the full context? Keep in mind that these panels are all clearly related, though none of them touch. They are a connected narrative (told chronologically, unlike how I present them here), though there is more than a gutter between them. It is for this reason that Groensteen's web of meaning, his theory of interpretation through the relation of panels throughout the piece as a whole, has practical application. As we make connections between various panels, the sequential nature of the panels gives way to an overall understanding of meanings that are conveyed outside the chronology and the individual contents of each panel.

Watchmen provides this piece of context before the panels I showed earlier, but I merely wished to convey that in order to create meaning in a comics text, the relations between the panels are some of the most important method with which we create meaning. That's not to say that we cannot create meaning otherwise.

In this page that shows the fight between muggers and the heroes they mistake for helpless civilians, we have a piece of the narrative that I neglected to mention: the interview of the only hero with superpowers, Dr. Manhattan. While the two narratives played side by side in their entirely do not directly relate to each other in a literal sense, the juxtaposition of the two is notable to readers when they read the text displayed in the mugging scenes. Each one of these phrases makes evident the dichotomy between the public criticism of the heroes (in this case, Dr. Manhattan) and the clear evidence contrary to those criticisms in the heroes shown in the mugging scene. The symbolic connection between the two allows the reader to make connections wherein the mugging scene reinforces the language of the Manhattan scene. At the same time, the language of the Manhattan scene reinforces the violence, the emotion, and the normality of what these "super-people" encounter on a day-to-day basis while also spelling out exactly what is occurring in that specific scene.

If that's not a web, a non-linear creation of meaning that exceeds the literal content of the individual panels, then I have no idea what is.

-Stephen St. Louis

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