While Umberto Eco might not be a common name among comic readers, but his writing about the Open Work has a strong relation to comics.
Allow me to butcher Eco’s words and years of semiotics theory for you. There is a theory of The Open Work, in which the viewer of a piece of art becomes a participant by interpreting it. The viewer of a painting becomes a performer of the painting by interpreting their own meaning from the piece. The reader of a book is a participant by creating their own unique understanding.
Eco goes on to say that the most rewarding texts are the “Open Texts.” These are the works that allow the reader to decipher from them many meanings. The opposite would be the Closed Text, a work that a reader can only draw one meaning from.
Boooooring (Eco’s words, not mine).
So with all the heady stuff out of the way, how does it apply to comics?
Comics, at every moment, ask the reader to contribute meaning and interpretation. I’ve talked about it before: in that white gutter between panels, the comic reader switches from passive viewer to active participant in the construction of meaning in the comic.
It is up to the reader to fill in everything that happens in between those two panels. This is what makes comics so inherently open. It is not possible for a comic to exist that does not engage the reader’s imagination of some level (this also explains why some folks have such a hard time understanding comics).
But there is a question of degree. Some panels are inherently more open than others. While still necessitating interpretation from the reader, this is essentially a series of Closed Panels:
There is really only one interpretation of the above page, unless you want to imagine Invincible running and grabbing a sandwich somewhere. And unlike Eco, I’m not knocking Closed Panels – they are the bread and butter of the medium, and are essential in almost all storytelling. But it’s not the only option.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the Open Panel – the gutter that asks the reader to do the heavy lifting. I’ve posted this here before, because it’s one of the best uses of the Open Panel that I’ve ever seen:
While these four panels give us an indication of the plot, the bulk of the traditional narrative–the entire interaction between the two characters–is placed outside the physical page. It exists only in the imagination of the reader. The reader is asked to become the performer of the strip.
And the difference between a closed and open panel is not absolute – it’s a matter of degree. Every panel transition will exhibit its own level of openess – and this is one of the tools available to comic creators that other mediums do not have the benefit of.
The true masters of the medium know how to use closed and open panels in conjunction to engage the reader in an active and unique way. I’ll leave you with a strip by one of the masters of this combination, Chris Ware: