15 Mar 2018 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

I am a small press comics publisher and current MFA student at Visual Studies Workshop, founded in 1969 by Nathan Lyons. Coming into the VSW MFA program with my background in comics, I started to look for connections between my medium of choice and overlapping concepts in artists’ books and photobooks. I looked to Lyons’ concept of sequence and quickly realized it presents a problem when it comes to comics—that the fundamental mechanics of comics, the so-called “sequential art,” often challenges or completely contradicts the ideas of Lyons, a master of photographic sequence in books.

Lyons outlines his distinction between series and sequence in “Display as Discourse:” "Series generally are thematically related or connected, while sequences are based upon disjunctive relationship. The Latin root of each term forms another distinction—series, ‘to join;’ sequence, ‘to follow.’ . . . A sequence is structured by allowing one image to follow another by an order of succession or arrangement, which is not apparently thematic or systematic (6)." A series can be seen as “a system of order” (Drucker, 258), whereas sequence is created through juxtaposition.

Different disciplines necessitate different approaches to sequence and a lack of consistent terms across these disciplines has made for thorny research and problematic discussions. Sequence is often used to describe any arrangement or order (and the dictionary backs this up) yet the understanding of sequence and its relation to seriality, as Lyons defines it, activates myriad possibilities for the creation and interpretation of visual books.

Comics rely heavily upon the concept of closure, which is defined in terms of a co-presence (Beatty, 108): “observing the parts but perceiving the whole” (McCloud, 63). Lyons suggested a similar idea when he quotes Laszlo Moholy-Nagy about photography: “the single picture loses its separate identity and becomes a part of the assembly; it becomes a structural element of the related whole” (Selected Essays, 199). Thus sequence is more than simply an image relationship: it is inherently structural and compositional, “a framework within which each element or page make a contribution and has a place” (Drucker, 258).

With narrative comics, closure allows the reader to close fundamental gaps in time and space, connecting disparate moments and mentally constructing a continuous, unified reality. While this sort of image relationship would be defined as serial rather than sequential, it is of note that we read the space between images as transitional, transformational. In a serial relationship, the transition is often plain to see, but in a sequence, this invisible space becomes charged, made all the more elusive and alluring by the fact that what occurs therein is not readily apparent. This space may well have been what photographer Duane Michals was referring to when he said, “I believe in the imagination. What I cannot see is infinitely more important than what I can see.”

Lyons’ idea of sequence is defined in terms of a “disjunctive” relationship, yet the problem of narrative arises time and again in subsequent discourse. Comics scholar Scott McCloud poses the question, “is it possible for any sequence of panels to be totally unrelated to each other” (Carrier, 51)? One school of thought seems to suggest a sort of inherent narrativity, wherein “direct narratives may be formed, or very layered associative ground may be established” (Lyons, Selected Essays, 195) regardless of the apparent unrelatedness of a grouping of images. Johanna Drucker cautions that “sequence and narrative are related, but not redundant, elements of books structures” (258). Meaning is “inscribed in the succession” (Carrier, 51) of images, but meaning and narrative are not to be confused.

The tension between series and sequence, as well as the problem of narrative, is in a sense reconciled in the case of abstract comics, where the subversion of typical depictions of time and space seeks to transcend the serial relationships of narrative and awaken the possibilities of sequence. Andrei Molotiu, editor of Fantagraphics Books’ Abstract Comics anthology, links this to his concept of Sequential Dynamism, the “formal visual energy [that] propels the reader’s eye from panel to panel and from page to page” (89). It is rhythmic, kinetic, and generates sequentiality without the representation of diegetic time. Molotiu’s scholarship invites the reader to take a comics page in as one would an abstract painting: “If these works chronicle anything,” he poses, “it is nothing but the life of the graphic trace” (Tabulo, 31).

“The single photograph, so apparently clear and emphatic . . . is in fact notoriously slippery when it comes to conveying meaning beyond mere depiction,” writes photobook historian Gerry Badger (16). Sequence is what welds the sentence of a single image to into a paragraph, a chapter, “a territory where rational description is relinquished, is held in tension” (Badger, 16). Represented time and space are loosened into an ethereal, associative realm where meaning bleeds and blurs in the space between images, brought to life by succession and juxtaposition. Sequence is at once a structural imperative and a compositional framework, a mechanic of movement and a catalyst for theme, or in the words of Moholy-Nagy, “a potent weapon or a tender poetry” (Lyons, Selected Essays, 199).


Badger, Gerry. “It's All Fiction: Narrative and the Photobook” in Imprint: Visual Narratives in Books and Beyond. ed. Negative: Hans Edberg et al. University of Gothenburg, 2013.

Beatty, Bart. “In Focus: Comics Studies, Fifty Years After Film Studies” in Cinema Journal, 50.3 (Spring 2011).

Carrier, David. The Aesthetics of Comics. University Park, The Pennsylvania University Press, 2000.

Drucker, Johanna. The Century of Artist's Books. New York: Granary Books, 2004.

Lyons, Nathan. “Display as Discourse” in Journal of Artists' Books, 27 (Spring 2010).

____________. Selected Essays, Lectures, and Interviews. ed. Jessica S. McDonald. Austin: The University of Texas Press, 2012.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1993.

Molotiu, Andrei. “Abstract Form: Sequential Dynamism and Iconostasis in Abstract Comics and Steve Ditko's Amazing Spider-Man” in Critical Approaches to Comics: Theories and Methods. ed. Matthew J. Smith and Randy Duncan. New York: Routledge, 2012.

Tabulo, Kym. “Abstract Sequential Art” in Journal of Graphic Novels & Comics. 5.1 (2009).

Steven Arenius is based in Rochester, New York, where he runs The Panoptic Press, a small press publisher of comics and limited-run print. He studied literature and art history at SUNY New Paltz and is currently pursuing an MFA at the Visual Studies Workshop.

Powered by Wild Apricot Membership Software