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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

 

 

 

 

 

 

(My son is headed off to college soon, and I spent an obsessive amount of time this weekend making him a poster for his dorm wall. The phrase is his, and he applies it convincingly to a surprising range of songs. He used to play sax, before chess and number theory took over his brain. I’m going with the last version–which is also the last one I made. If your second child has an appreciation for horn sections and is starting college at the end of the month, feel free to make a copy too. It falls under the “empty nest” fair use clause in U.S. copyright law.)

 

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Three things I strongly suspect are true about graphic novelist James Sturm:

1) he is or has been married,

2) he has kids,

3) he doesn’t have a dog head.

Of the three, I’m least certain of the last. I also really really hope he didn’t vote for Jill Stein instead of Hillary Clinton in 2016, but honestly I have no idea.

The question is oddly central to Off Season, a graphic novel set in the aftermath of the presidential election, which both frames and represents the marital turmoil of the novel’s plot. From the opening panel of a turn-right traffic arrow painted on black asphalt below the caption-boxed chapter title “Stronger Together,” national politics infuse the story. Like the visual echo of the arrow embedded in the “H” of the Hillary yard sign seen in the next panel, the unglossed slogan references not only the failed Clinton campaign but also the narrator’s failing marriage, ironically encapsulating his own most salient feature: he needs his family to be together in order to be the strongest (or even a tolerable) version of himself.

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The sixteen chapters range between three to fifteen two-panel pages, arranged left-to-right from an atypically short spine—the equivalent of “landscape” rather than “portrait” orientation. It may or may not be coincidental that Lynda Barry’s One Hundred Demons shares the same format since Barry’s memoir was originally published online as an episodic series at Slate in the late 90s, ending with the traumatic impact of Gore’s ambiguous loss to Bush in the wake of the Florida recount. Slate featured Sturm’s episodic chapters beginning in early October 2016—and so just before Clinton’s unexpected loss.

The seventh chapter (the sixth online) was published on the day of the election, the same day as within the story, too. For the book, the chapter title “Is It Really Over?” becomes the more definitive “It’s Not Over”—though the narrator’s stumbling marriage is identical. The ninth and final online installment is the most revised in book form, as the narrator’s breakdown peaks with his (undrawn) vandalism of a construction site after the repeatedly late check from his conman of a boss bounces, resulting in his daughter getting thrown out of her Judo class and an angry text from his not-quite-yet-ex-wife. It was a pretty bleak moment to end the original series, since the cop car in his rearview mirror is there to arrest him—except in the graphic novel, we learn later that he was only pulled over for texting while driving. While the new chapters are not as up-beat as the title of the next, “Working Through It,” might suggest, his personal campaign slogan “It’s Not Over” applies.

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Sturm draws his story in a largely realistic style, with simple black lines filled with a gray-wash of details that give events a real-world solidity. Except for one intentionally glaring inconsistency: all of these humanly proportioned people have dog heads. The choice is a familiar one, but unlike, say, in Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Sturm’s characters are visually fuller, with even their dog facial features sometimes drawn with naturalistic contours, making them teeter between actual dogs and Snoopy-esque cartoons. The effect is intriguingly odd, especially when characters are grounded in utterly human actions—how the narrator’s daughter mumbles, “I’m not tired” as she sags on her father’s shoulder on the way upstairs, or the wife’s later, tear-clenched upset over her in-laws exchanging the gag Christmas present of a “Make American Great Again” cap. The dog-faced Trump is a bit much though:

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The effect is most overt when Sturm draws his couple’s first romantic episode while wearing paper

mâché animal heads from a summer theater production. He echoes that meta-fictional gesture in some of my other favorite moments of the novel—how the close-up of a painting purchased at a beach town tourist gallery emphasizes a general sameness in style as the larger, partially cartoon world, while also literally drawing attention to the artifice of image as a set of lines and shapes that distort and yet recognizably represent the world. That image-within-an image repeats the fake-animal-head-within-a-fake-animal-head relationship, giving the world of Off Season a similarly almost-but-not-quiet off-ness as a story drawn from inside our actual world—one in which Donald Trump is president too, but doesn’t have dog-like facial features.

Despite its fragmented, episodic structure, the novel is artfully plotted, and so if you dislike spoilers, stop reading now—but I need to address the final chapter, one of the most intriguing of the entire novel. First, it’s brilliant in its aggressive division of visual and textual narration. The title, “Watching a cat cough up a hairball during Suzie’s piano lesson,” subtly re-establishes a conflict-free return to the family structure in which the narrator is once again ferrying children to after-school events—a fact that alone gives the novel closure. Visually, the chapter consists entirely of twenty-seven panels of a cat, presumably the piano teacher’s, in the corner of a room, sometimes vomiting, but mostly just hanging out. The text, which seems to run on an intriguingly unrelated yet parallel track, reveals that the narrator in fact has gone into therapy as his wife demanded and for the first time is dealing with his repressed anger at her for an affair she had when they were newly married but that she only confessed during her severe post-partum depression so that he had no choice but to say he forgave her. The incident is the first and only moment in the novel in which the wife is culpable, a key reversal of the marital power dynamic. Coupled with the ingeniously peculiar division of image narration and the implied improvement in their relations, the chapter would be my favorite of the novel–until the final four panels in which their recovery is revealed to be the result of their microdosig LSD.

That comical non-sequitur could be a perfectly cute punchline to a shorter and far less ambitious story peopled by two-dimensional characters instead of the complex, albeit dog-headed ones Sturm has spent the rest of the novel developing so convincingly. I felt betrayed. Fortunately, four panels can’t erase the pleasure of the two hundred and twenty-some that precede them. Off Season is an emotionally insightful reflection on the challenges of marriage and parenthood, as paralleled and reflected by the turmoil of contemporary politics.

I met Sturm at the AWP conference last spring, and so I can now confirm: his head appears fully human. He also mentioned that he’s a big fan of the Ash Can School, an early twentieth century art movement that focused on working class New York for its subject matter. Strum has combined that aesthetic with his own oddly naturalistic style of cartooning to produce what I can’t resist calling Ash Can Cartoons. His blue collar protagonist and presidential backdrop add to the effect, since the original school was politically driven too. They just didn’t draw dog heads.

 

[A version of this post and my other recent reviews appear in the Comics section of PopMatters.]

 

 

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A recluse grows addictively hallucinatory pineapples in a jungle near a small but expanding town where he sells them through an organic supermarket in order to pay a guru to transport him to the world of his visions. While that plot may sound plenty odd, it only touches the surface oddity of Nathan Gelgud’s graphic novel A House in the Jungle. There are also inexplicable bags of garbage and then dead dogs that appear on the reclusive Daniel’s property—which technically isn’t his property, a fact the ambitious would-be mayor exploits in his attempts to please an almost mythic and soon-to-visit governor. What that has to do with the privatized dump, the missing townsfolk, and the crushed insects Daniels uses to grow his pineapples are more surface mysteries worth reading for. But Gelgud’s most intriguing oddities occur at a deeper meta-level. A House in the Jungle isn’t just a story—it’s a comics story exploring the comics form that contains it.

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When Daniel’s guru asks him, “Did you stick to your speech limit? Sometimes it doesn’t work if you don’t stick to your speech limit,” the character means that their attempt to induce a revelatory vision might fail if Daniel has broken his not-quite-monk-like vow of mostly silence (which is why he carries a card when he goes into town: “SORRY. I’m at capacity for today”).

But Gelgud also means the limited number of words on the actual pages of the graphic novel. There’s no narrated text, just talk balloon dialogue and a few sound effects (though he does have fun cheating by combining standards like “plop” and “thwack” with non-sound verbs like “scrub” and “place”). Gelgud works well with his speech limit (the early banter about the supposed chopped-up adult bodies in the boxes of what’s actually pineapples is both darkly funny and darkly foreshadowing), but some pages and multi-page sequences are wordless.

Gelgud enjoys dividing actions into paneled units—the five steps of writing on a chalkboard, the six steps of removing a t-shirt—which emphasizes the paradoxical physicality of his visually simplified world. Those panels are also unframed. When a character or other object is foregrounded on a white background, the gutters are unmarked. It’s just figures floating in whiteness with implied but unmarked borders that blur an increasingly surreal story world with the inherently ambiguous space of the gutters.

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The effect is most pronounced when an undrawn frame edge still crops out free-floating image content—as when Gelgud’s implied camera zooms into the expanding letters on the side of a crate in a three-panel sequence: “GARBAGE,” “RBAGE,” “G.” Later, the bottom words on of a sign at the town dump are cropped in half yet still oddly intelligible. Technically the obstructed letters aren’t letters, and they’re not obstructed by anything but the same whiteness they’re printed on.

Undrawn panel edges also allow Gelgud to manipulate reading paths, sometimes using a repeating figure’s movements across a white page to lead the reader’s eye in a direction that would be confusing if the figure were framed. English-based comics readers expect panels to follow Z-paths (left to right, top to bottom, same as the prose you’re reading right now), yet some of Gelgud’s pages end in the bottom left corner—while producing no confusion or not even drawing attention to that unusual fact.

Other times Gelgud’s color designs add unframed patches of color, usually with wavy edges, to define constructed settings, especially interiors. But when Daniel is in the jungle, the vegetation expands to fill the panels, with the sharp black lines of leaves and branches serving doubly as frame lines. The effect, while subtle, establishes a formal division between the house and the jungle of the title. These aren’t just locations within a formally and stylistically unified story world—they’re two different ways of representing worlds.

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Gelgud increases the tension between content and form, between what is drawn vs. how it’s drawn, through Daniel’s attempts to transcend his reality through visions. On a page during the first attempt, Gelgud’s free-floating figures create no reading path, but instead presents objects in the guru’s room, some of them repeating for no reason, for the reader’s eye to explore in any order. In the second vision, Daniel sees a diamond shape that frames his body in a kind of panel—one that evokes the rectangular norms that the graphic novel so thoroughly rejects. In the third, the guru draws a circle on his floor—which is of course also a circle, a kind of panel frame, that Gelgud draws on the white of the page. Daniel steps in and out of it with his eyes closed, again and again and again, until he finally understands: “There is no circle.” The epiphany might be a rudimentary one for someone in the actual world, but for a character inside a comic, it’s literally groundbreaking.

Most of theses effects can go unnoticed, but their accumulation shifts the nature of Gelgud’s story away from standard comics norms—not unlike the way the townsfolk are slowly altered by Daniel’s addictive and increasingly hallucinogenic jungle pineapples. The guru’s circle also expands into a visual motif when the bartender stares into the same circled whiteness while wiping away spilled beer. On his fourth visit, Daniel wears a mask, and the eyes holes create circular frames within the scribbled, rough-edged black of larger panels. The image-within-an-image echoes the larger world-within-a-world meta-context, one that visually expands when Daniel frames his entire house within a circle of white paint. Since it’s night, the background is grey, and Gelgud’s panels are for the first time rectangular with what is almost a standard gutter—only with its whiteness merging with the white of the circular paint where the panel edge meets it. Even though the two whites are of course the same white of the page background, one represents a painted line and the other represents literally nothing.

All of this formal playfulness occurs within a story about a person trying to reach another plane of existence. When Daniel’s attempted visions fail to transport him fully, he still feels something: “Like I’m not alone. Like I’m being watched.” He of course is being watched—by the reader holding the object that defines his entire physical existence in her hands. That’s a pretty cool way to explore the comics form. I would like to say that Gelgud exploits it fully, but the final pages of A House in the Jungle don’t reach the meta-potentials that the rest of the novel so artfully suggest. But the near-miss is still well-worth the close read, with the hope of more to follow. Daniel didn’t transcend his world on his first try either.

[A version of this post and my other recent reviews appear in the Comics section of PopMatters.]

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I began this as a response to a new member of Rockbridge Civil Discourse Society who wrote a very thoughtful Facebook comment about his (and Russell Kirk’s) views on conservatism. Since this grew too long for a post on the RCDS Facebook page, I’m publishing it here and linking to it.

I would like to respond to Robert’s three main points: 1) “a moral focus is the defining feature of conservatism,” 2) it is coupled with “a reverence for our nation’s founding and the philosophy behind it,” and 3) that these result in conservatives’ “adherence to meaningful tradition, their preference for small government with clearly defined powers, and their strong patriotism.”

While I accept these to be (mostly) true, I also think they are all (unintentionally) misleading. To call a feature “defining” (especially in the context of an implied contrast to anything not conservatism, and so in this case, progressivism) is to imply that the feature is distinguishing. It is to say that the feature makes the thing in question different from other things. I think this is untrue for all three claims. (For a silly example, if the general topic were pets, and someone wanted to distinguish cats from dogs, it would be odd to begin by saying “breathing oxygen is a defining feature of cats,” since it is equally true that dogs breath oxygen.)

Like conservatism, progressivism is rooted by a moral focus, revers the philosophy of our nation’s founding, and is strongly patriotic.

Robert included a pdf of a textbook chapter by Mark C. Henrie titled “Understanding Traditionalist Conservatism.” Since “conservative” and “liberal” have had multiple, evolving, and sometimes even overlapping meanings, I like the clarity of “traditionalist conservative” (which also helps to distinguishes it from libertarianism, which, while arguably conservative is not traditionalist). But I’ll use the shorter “conservative” to mean traditionalist, and between the synonyms “liberal” and “progressive” I prefer “progressive” because it also seems clearer. Progress and tradition are the defining poles. I quote Henrie:

“The traditionalist conservative’s first feeling, the intuition that constitutes his or her moral source, is the sense of loss, and hence, of nostalgia. Those who are secure in the enjoyment of their own are often progressives of a sort, so confident in the solidity of their estate that they do not shrink from experimenting with new modes and orders.”

I mostly agree. Progressives default to change and so imply that the status quo is an obstacle in the arc of moral progress. Conservatives default to tradition and so imply that the status quo is the most moral achievement possible (or at least the safest to preserve). This produces two mirrored extremes: for the progressive, resistance to change is resistance to morality, and for the conservative, resistance to tradition is resistance to morality. Both extremes are (in my opinion) hopelessly wrong, but I do think they accurately describe two main types of moral reflexes.

Progressives and conservatives can disagree about which viewpoint is correct, but—and this is my objection to Robert’s first claim—neither can define themselves as more morally focused than the other. To quote Martin Luther King, Jr. (who was quoting a Unitarian minister and abolitionist): “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” It’s the hard and profoundly necessary work of that bending that motivates progressives.

Robert’s second claim is that conservatives are defined by their reverence for American founding philosophy. Again, while this is true, it is not distinguishing because the same is equally true of progressives. Progressives believe that the moral arc extends from the words “we the people” and “all men are created equal” and that progress is the bending toward the fulfillment of those extraordinary founding principles.

Again, conservatives and progressives can disagree about which aspects of our founding documents are most profound, but neither can claim to have a greater reverence for them overall. And this extends to the last part of Robert’s third claim, that conservatives have “strong patriotism.” Progressives, through their dedication to the American principles of equality, are equally and overwhelmingly patriotic.

Robert’s third claim also referenced conservative’s “preference for small government.” While this would probably be both a defining and distinguishing feature, I’m not certain it’s true. I do not see an inherent link between preserving tradition and limiting government. Or if there is a link it is a merely historical one, not a principled one. If conservatives wish to preserve a status quo against a change that progressives are promoting through government institutions, rejecting government institutions is an effective strategy. But it is only a strategy, not a principle. If conservatives instead see government as an effective strategy to preserve a tradition, they are as likely as progressives to adopt it. This varies for both conservatives and progressives case by case. For example, many conservatives supported a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. That is the opposite of limited government. The marriage between limited government and traditionalist conservatism (as opposed to libertarianism which really is distinguishable by limited government) is a marriage of convenience. As with morality and patriotism, neither conservatives nor progressives have a greater or lesser link to government, whether “big” or “limited.”

One last point. According to Henrie:

“Kirk’s ‘canons’ of conservatism began with an orientation to ‘transcendent order’ or ‘natural law’ … Kirk stated emphatically that the overarching evil of the age was ‘ideology,’ and he claimed that conservatism, properly understood, is ‘the negation of ideology.’”

In my own field of literary studies, I distrust anyone who claims to have no theoretical framework but to instead take a “neutral” or “natural” approach. There’s no such thing. But who doesn’t think their own approach is “normal” and so the norm from which all other approaches err? Probably most conservatives and progressives do too. And, according to Henrie, conservatism founder Russell Kirk definitely did. But the notion of an ideology that transcends ideology is a fallacy.

All we have then are two opposite reflexes: tradition and change. Both are morally motivated, defined by founding American values, and equally patriotic, and neither has any greater relationship to government or God. By focusing unilaterally on such things as morality, founding values, patriotism, government, and God, we obscure how definingly similar conservatives and progressives are–and how hopelessly lost our nation would be if we accepted only one of those reflexes.

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It’s a delight to plunge into the depths of a graphic novel that so thoroughly delights in its own comics-ness. Tumult by collaborators John Harris Dunning and Michael Kennedy is on its surface a noir romp of a story with guns and killers and a leading lady who is several leading ladies—a victim of multiple personality disorder and government experiments who is both antagonist and heroine. But that surface also leads into a deep end of visual surprises infused with a surreal energy unseen except in some of the most obscure corners of Golden Age comics.

Artist Michael Kennedy’s style is hard to pin. The gritty noir context emphasizes the starkness of his lines and shapes in a way that evokes Michael Gaydos’s Jessica Jones or David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One. And though his edges are sharp, there’s an internal inexactness to the oversized images that produces the tension of a camera set a degree out of focus. Kennedy also likes to center and isolate his subjects with deliberately anti-climatic framing—only to then zoom-in for abrupt and too-close close-ups of a mouth or an eye. Key moments sometimes go undrawn, throwing what should be a central event into unexpected ambiguity. Other times his frames inappropriately crop out heads, or he angles a sequence of panels from behind a speaking character, offering repeating black hair instead of shifting facial expressions. Except his faces often don’t shift but reproduce identical renderings with evolving backgrounds, emphasizing the drawn artifice of the page and its blocky layouts.

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Each stylistic detail is fascinating, but the accumulative weirdness goes way deeper. The world of Tumult seems to be filtered through some obscure and obscuring process that throws its reality into uncertainty. As a viewer, you’re never quite sure where you’re standing—let alone whether its solid ground. The effect is ideal for the subject matter: a woman whose identity changes page to page with no clear, controlling center. Though the narrator is her observer, the fabric of the drawn world reflects her internal tumult. She is an incomplete weave of contradictory memories and blackouts, captured in Kennedy’s off-angles and odd cuts and other roaming peculiarities.

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But the weirdness goes even deeper still. Yes, there’s a conspiracy plot and government scientists and even a transcendent spiritual hallucination, but those multiple personalities are also meta-types from early 20th century comics. When they chat with each other, we’re dropped into a literally tarnished, benday dot-colored world of newspaper comic strips. Even the narrator’s world, the baseline reality of the novel, has more to do with the 1930s than the 2010s or the 1990s action film references that litter the dialogue.

Kennedy’s biggest and most unexpected influence seems to be Fletcher Hanks, AKA Barclay Flagg, a profoundly obscure comics creator who, for his less-than-two-year Golden Age career, produced the unlikely likes of Stardust the Super Wizard and Fantomah, Mystery Woman of the Jungle. Rightly forgotten for decades, Hanks re-premiered in the ground-breaking anthology Raw in the 1980s where his incomprehensible incompetence was reinterpreted and embraced for its accidental surrealist effects. Editor Greg Sadowski writes in his Supermen! The First Wave of Comic Book Superheroes 1936-1941: “Hanks’ singular, obsessive—and at times unintentionally hilarious—approach found a fortuitous opening in comics’ formative period; his work would have been unthinkable only a year or two later.”

To be clear, in terms of skill and intent Kennedy’s artwork is the opposite of Hanks’. Kennedy is making carefully crafted choices for dizzying effects. He’s just selecting those effects from the idiosyncratic chaos of Hanks’ naively drawn pages. There’s also the possibility—since Tumult’s PR and surrounding matter never mention Hanks—that I’ve projected influence where there’s only coincidental (albeit unnerving) resemblance. Regardless, Tumult is artistically ingenious.

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Instead of Hanks, the back-cover blurb evokes Alfred Hitchcock and Patricia Highsmith—a legendary film director and a noir novelist best known for her Ripley series about a psychopathic anti-hero. While both references are apt, they point away from the novel’s most interesting qualities because they point away from the comics form. Tumult is not simply a narrative that happens to have been developed graphically and so might still translate into film or prose. It is so fundamentally a comic that talking about its plot and characters without their visual grounding literally and metaphorically misses the picture.

This isn’t the case with many graphic novels. Some comics stories work the comics form like storyboards of documentary-like events set in a fictional world. The artist gives a certain stylistic spin to the content, but if the comic were to change artists mid-story—a norm of so many mainstream series—the story isn’t fundamentally affected. But Tumult without Kennedy’s defining style would not be Tumult.

Taken as just a narrative—presumably the narrative that Dunning wrote in script form and handed to Kennedy to illustrate—Tumult is a perfectly good retro-thriller. While unsympathetically dickish, its primary narrator Adam is no talented Mr. Ripley or hard-boiled avenger policing a moral wasteland. He’s just a second-rate film director sabotaging his life because he doesn’t have what it takes to be a main character. So when the femme fatale finally enters on page 46, she’s not only his life line but the story’s too.

Though Adam longs to be her noir savior, he recedes into the plot’s margins as Morgan and her multiples rightfully claim center stage and the dramatic action. It turns out Adam literally is just a supporting character. That’s an intriguing meta-fact, but neither the character nor the story seems aware of it, dropping the elaborate first act into retroactive limbo. If Adam’s actions, including his motivated point-of-view on Morgan, don’t unlock some key plot or personality element, then what’s the pay-off for our having watched him cheat with a teenager to dump his girlfriend of ten years and then squander his single shot at a major movie deal because he’s too busy binge drinking? Not only he but his entire character arc recedes, and so then Morgan’s story might have been observed from just about anyone’s perspective, not just this particular nobody’s.

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But the artfulness of Tumult isn’t Kennedy’s alone. Dunning’s Adam offers more than one killer description (“Like a spaghetti western set, I looked okay from a distance”), and I presume it’s Dunning’s script that mapped any of a range of visual motifs that Kennedy executed. I especially admire the fantasized close-ups of the teenager’s foot stepping on Adam’s fingers as they grip a cliff edge. The initiating sequence runs parallel to but is unexplained by Adam’s panic-driven narration, leaving the viewer to decode the visual metaphor and how, even though the event never actually happened, it kinda did.

I could go on, but these visual pleasures are best experienced first-hand. Tumult is also this dynamic duo’s first adventure together. I will be startled if it’s their last.

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[A version of this post and my other recent reviews appear in the Comics section of PopMatters.]

[Also, here’s an email conversation I had with the author:

Mon 10/8/2018

Hi Chris

I’m Michael Kennedy, the artist on Tumult, a graphic novel you recently reviewed for the Pop Matters website. I’m writing with positive thoughts about your analysis of the book and my work in particular as you touched on a couple of things that haven’t been noticed by other reviewers! And when I read your author profile as a scholar of comics and literature I was no longer surprised.

Firstly I appreciate the comments on the panel choices, only one other scholar has asked me about the choice to ‘zoom’ in on certain things, the script did contain a few visual directions like that and it then became a stronger part of the adaption into art. For me I’m a big fan of heightened emotion and melodrama, although a large fear I had was storyboard comparisons. I feel as though it comes from instinct and a level of primivitism in storytelling that I’m fond of.

That leads to the Fletcher Hanks influence which there was an fair amount of, however the true influence comes from horror comics of the 1950s (of the non E.C variety, found in “four colour fear” a Fantagraphics collected book) so I was indeed setting out to make a comic.

This all stems from John’s script again, as the Ben day cymk type scenes were in the script, with the hotel sequences deriving from strips like “little lulu” and the graveyard scene derived from Frank King and some of his more experimentally drawn strips in “Gasoline Alley.”

Anyways I really just wanted to reach out and show my appreciation for your article. I imagine John feels the same way.

All the best

Michael Kennedy

 

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Hi Michael,

What a pleasure to get your note. And, frankly, I’m relieved that I didn’t completely invent the Fletcher Hanks influence! I know some EC, but not Four Color Fear–but I still sense that 50s horror vibe generally. And I probably should have tracked down the specifics on Little Lulu and Gasoline Alley. It really is a remarkable book you and John made, that great balance of accessible but still idiosyncratically weird. Are you working on anything new right now?

Chris

I’m glad you enjoyed me reaching out, I think the little lulu and frank king refs were only subliminal influences but a Easter egg for some nonetheless. We’re currently working on some pitches for the American mainstream, monthly comics, African science fiction, some alien abductions, (all top secret obviously haha).

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Well, good luck with those pitches and projects; I’m looking forward to your future work!

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Last year I posted a sequence of five posts exploring how comics visualize plot. The first harmonized Freytag’s plot pyramid, Todorov’ equilibrium circle, and Cohn’s panel types; the second used that combined structure to define closure through implied plot content; and the third and fourth tested it on abstract comics.

I’ve since been in conversation with Neil Cohn (who has to be the most generous email correspondent ever), working out differences between his visual narrative grammar and my proposed structure. In short, mine (balance, disruption, imbalance, climax, new balance) exists in a comics viewer’s mind, while his panel types (Orienter, Establisher, Initial, Prolongation, Peak, Release) exist on paper (which then of course is experienced in the viewer’s mind too). That means there’s no such thing as, for example, an invisible or undrawn Initial, but there is a mental experience of a parallel disruption in a viewer’s understanding of the partially drawn, partially implied plot event. Or at least that’s my hypothesis. To make my claims worthwhile, they need some theoretical grounding.

Another way to put it, narrative panel types are event structure manifested. Cohn’s Initial-Peak-Release (typically) aligns with his mentor Ray Jackendoff’s event structure Preparation-Head-Coda. But while Cohn is looking literally at panels, “events” (as Jeffrey Zacks and Barbara Tversky explain) “are in the minds of the beholders.” Each is “a segment of time at a given location that is conceived by an observer to have a beginning and an end.” Since my aim is to explain closure through a theory of undrawn comics content, Cohn’s grammar panels aren’t useful because they apply only to drawn content.

I thought Jackendoff would be useful, but I found that his Prep-Head-Coda structure didn’t always align with my own event structure. For him an “event” consists of “a Head (the main action), with an optional Preparation (things that have to be done before the Head can be begun) and an optional Coda (things that are done to restore the status quo ante).” That’s similar to Todorov’s three phrase equilibrium-equilibrium-equilibrium plot structure (and Todorov’s fourth step is an “attempt of restore equilibrium”), but Jackendoff’s example didn’t line up.

He subdivides “making coffee” into twenty units, including “put water in the machine.” He explains:

“The Head consists of actually pouring water into the machine from the pot. But in order to do this, one must first measure water into the pot–the Preparation–which in turn is organized into Preparation plus Head, and each of these has further organization. And once one has poured the water into the machine, one must replace the empty pot in the machine–the Coda.”

So it seems “Head” sometimes refers to the culmination of a “main action” (which parallels Cohn’s Peak) and sometimes it is the “main action” (which parallels Cohn’s entire visual narrative grammar).

So now I’m going back a couple more decades to a series of experiments and papers by Darren Newtson in the 70s. Newtson divides actions into “a series of cognitively discrete units” by identifying unit boundaries he terms “breakpoints,” which are boundaries between larger, multi-unit sections and are also units themselves. Breakpoints are key because they serve as “points of definition” for an overall action, where “each breakpoint is a point of reference, or comparison, from both the preceding and following breakpoints” creating an experience of “continuity … between successive action units.” He even divides a video into still frames that he calls “an almost comic-strip summary of ongoing action sequences.”

His approach harmonizes with Cohn’s narrative grammar (because he’s using manifested images) and plot structure (because he’s also talking about unseen and so implicit behavior inferred from manifested images).  This also suggests why Cohn’s Peaks are so significant because “action units are defined by a type of information uniquely available at breakpoints.” This is true primarily because “breakpoints are selected [and here I would say “created” in the case of comics] on the basis of a meaningful change having occurred relative to the preceding breakpoint.”

Newtson also reveals something about Todorov. Todorov identifies five plot points, but only three broad units: equilibrium, disequilibrium, equilibrium. They are separated by a disruption and (altering his language a little) a restoration. That’s an event structure (and so not necessarily manifested as comics panels), but in Cohn’s narrative grammar they correspond with Initial and Peak. Viewing them as breakpoints reveals how much less important other panel types are because they are one of many available “nonbreakpoints” (Newtson’s term) within the equilibrium, disequilibrium, equilibrium spans. That accounts for why Cohn can divide the first phase into Orienter and Establisher, with multiple Prolongations in the middle phase, and (presumably) multiple Release panels in the third. Only Initials and Peaks then are unique and defining.

Looking again at my own system, I’ve already literalized the two breakpoints by drawing them as actual breaks in the preceding line angles:I now want to revise out “climax” (which for Freytag has a different meaning anyway) and use “restoration” instead–though that’s not quite the right term either, because it implies a return (Todorov’s circle) to the the original state, which is wrong. Similarly for Newtson, the second breakpoint is the same as the first, so they’re both disruptions (points of defining change) of a preceding status quo. But that doesn’t quite fit his own analysis that “Behavior is composed of coherent units with beginnings and endings.” A beginning and ending requires two breakpoints, a first and second relative to each other, making each distinct.

Notice how this analysis matches McCloud’s original closure example for an action-to-action panel transition:

Related image

These are the two action-defining breakpoints of a larger implied plot structure that could include multiple other panels. The same is true of McCloud’s original moment-to-moment example:

Image result for mccloud moment to moment

Though here there’s some ambiguity. Both images could be understood as what I term “balance,” the first establishing a status quo (eyes open), and the second the new status quo (eyes closed). If the action is “She closed her eyes,” the first image is necessary to contrast the action-defining change in the second. Technically, the disruption would be implied (her eyes began to close), making the second either a restoration (if we understand this to be the exact moment that they fully shut) or a balance (if this is one of several moments in which here eyes remained closed). The second image could also revise the first into a disruption if it is understood retroactively to mean: “Her eyes were beginning to close” (even if visually imperceptible). We could similarly debate which panel types from Cohn’s visual grammar best fit, but it’s the underlying (and so undrawn) event structure that allows viewers to relate them at all.

Image result for mccloud subject to subject

McCloud’s original subject-to-subject example is interesting too. The first image alone implies an entire event: “She won the race.” The second image could be understood to take place at the same moment, and so a second manifestation of the same breakpoint. But the learned logic of panel progression implies a movement forward in time too, so the second image becomes a restoration in which the holder of the stopwatch is no longer timing the winning racer. If so the overall action is: “She recorded the racer’s time,” making the first image a disruption (of the status quo of the stopwatch clicking away), followed by the time-keeper responding by moving her thumb until it achieves it’s action-defining position in the second image. If so, both images are separate breakpoints.

So while an infinite number of images could be drawn between breakpoints (because of the Zeno effect), those possible images are constrained by event structure. That means closure is event structure. The only undrawn story content that readers experience through the juxtaposition of two or more images is the minimal content required by a reader’s mental construction of the partially drawn event. While anything could have occurred in the ambiguous lapse of time between any of the above paired images, we understand the images as breakpoints that define a discrete event. Any story content that is not part of that discrete event is not implied and so did not happen–at least not via closure. An artist can always reveal later that something previously unimplied did happen, retconning content that reveals an earlier lie of omission.

Zacks and Tversky discuss this generally as “schema theory”:

“recognizing an event as an instance of a category consists of matching it to a schema stored in memory. Understanding what is going on consists of matching features of the perceptual world to variables in the schema. In ongoing perception, missing information is filled in by references to the patterns of intercorrelation captured by the schema, leading to a fluid interplay of bottom-up and top-down processing.”

Bottom-up means from the eyes to the brain and so applies to the actual images of a comic, and top-down means from long-term memory which is where event structure lives. I’m still vacillating about my own terminology–is my system “plot structure” or “event structure”?–but I think that covers the basics. If I’m right, we have a method for constraining closure and so understanding McCloud’s “invisible art.” I’m tentatively calling it:

Event closure.

 

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