Comic Books' Glimpse of Eternity
Eternity is a difficult concept. It doesn’t mean “forever.” To tell someone that you love them forever is different from telling them you will love them for eternity. The couple who will be in love forever are looking forward, either to the end of their lives or beyond even that. A couple in love “for eternity,” have always been in love, will always be in love, and experience love outside of everyday, traditional Time. That, in essence, is what Eternity means: outside of Time, beyond Time, surrounding Time. It’s understandable that people may reduce it to “forever,” because it’s otherwise tricky to grasp. St. Augustine wrestled with it. So did Thomas Aquinas. But they lacked an advantage we have today: We have comic books.
The concept of Eternity can be best envisioned as a comic book layout, the manner in which the individual panels of a comic are placed on a page. For those of us who only read editorial cartoons or comic strips in the Sunday newspaper, this could sound surprising. Though they share certain traits, there is a distinct difference here between editorial cartoons and comic strips on the one hand and comic books on the other. A comic book, whether it’s superhero fare like Batman or serious “graphic novel” material like MAUS, fills full pages of content. Beatle Bailey, for example, ends after a 1-2-3 sequence of panels. Each row of a comic book, however, flows into the next row. Then the next row. Then the next row. And then, usually, the next page. (Oftentimes, also the next issue or next collection.) The traditional layout of nine panels (i.e. three 1-2-3 rows) applies just as well to the concept of Eternity as a six-panel layout, a twelve-panel layout, or any sort of irregular configuration of panels.
Eternity can be glimpsed in the layout of every comic book page because, when we read comics, we cheat. That’s right: every single one of us cheats. We’re supposed to read comics much the same way we read words in English—from left to right, then a ‘carriage return’ to the far-left beginning of the next line. Unless we have photographic memory or are specially trained, most of us have to read one phrase at a time, perhaps even just one word at a time. Maybe we can predict how a sentence will end, guess its “deep structure” as linguists would call it. But we cannot pull out random words from later in the paragraph and form a good impression of what the overall passage means. However, when we’re accustomed to reading comic books, that’s exactly what we do. We cheat. Neurologists studying eye movement while reading comics have the data to prove it. We look ahead however quickly and spy the layout to come.Continued on the next page