Each week Missed Directions examines the neuroscience behind comics. In this edition, we look at the power of storytelling to shape and sustain a connection between the reader, and the information being conveyed. And in a strange twist, the power of comics to immerse readers themselves in the act of storytelling.
Recent research demonstrates that the neuroscience of storytelling is particularly powerful at creating a lasting connection between the listener and the information being presented. But how much more powerful is that connection when the listener is part of the process of storytelling? This hidden power of cooperative storytelling between creators and reader is something Marvel publisher Stan Lee understood even in the early 60s.
Boy, Stan Lee really knew what he was doing back at the dawn of the Silver Age. “We wink at the audience”, he admitted to host Kevin Smith on an episode of Dinner For Five. And saying that, he acknowledges the secret power of comics is cooperative storytelling. An elaborate and often demanding tango involving writer, artist and reader.
The hallmarks of Lee’s passion for storytelling can be seen everywhere, even in the modern House Of Ideas. Take for instance his insistence on a having a blurb that explains the high concept of the book near the start of each issue. Nowhere does this help more than in last winter’s Secret Warriors: Nick Fury, Agent Of Nothing. It’s really great to see an older character like Nick Fury rebooted during the “Dark Reign” event, but what had happened since Fury disappeared at the end of Secret War?
The blurb fills-in longtime readers who might not have been keeping up-to-date with recent Marvel goings-on. Secret Invasion is over. SHIELD is no more. One man knows that in this new world—in this darker now—the ideals he believed he served are broken relics of a lost generation. He knows his government can no longer be trusted, nor can any country or corporation. And no longer are heroes or vigilantes willing to do what is necessary—willing to do what it takes to make things right. He knows this. So he is moving all his pieces into place. He is assembling the players and he is fully aware of the stakes… He knows what the cost is, and he is fully willing to pay it. Nick Fury has returned, and he has a plan.
But if the intro-blurb makes things easier, page 18 makes more demands on the reader, involving them in the act of storytelling.
Rather than rely on elaborate dialogue to convey a sense of the fractured, often insular, reality of the post-Secret Invasion world, (a world driven by personal perceptions often at odds with each other), writer Jonathan Hickman is confident in artist Stefano Caselli’s skill at layout to visually demonstrate this fact.
Although Fury and the Obama-style President, Caselli has deliberately left mildly ambiguous are in fact seated opposite each other (as seen on an earlier page), the conversation itself takes on a fractured spatial reality. The various POVs taken to observe Fury played out against the backdrop of a well-lit (yet shadowy) US president presents readers with a drama that is both immersive and requires storytelling on their part.
One page earlier, the spatial dynamics between Nick Fury and the President are mapped out.
You just won’t understand that the real drama isn’t the information at all, but the tension between Fury and the President. Well, not unless you’re actively involved in explaining why the panels focusing on Fury are so tight, while the President’s paneling is so expansive. And not unless you’re able to explain for yourself why Fury’s panels appear when they do.
The reward for such work on the part of the reader comes on the following page—a clean, easy-to-read vertical stack of panels. Participation, it would seem creators Hickman and Caselli are saying, has its rewards.
Cutting-edge research conducted at the Association of National Advertiser’s Creativity Conference this past December 8th provided biometric data as evidence of storytelling making it easier to recall information in presentations. How much easier would retention be, if storytelling involved reader activity as well? This latter enterprise of reader-involvement in storytelling is the stuff of the comics medium. And as Secret Warriors illustrates is alive and well even today.