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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Enlisted by a team of honor students for a seminar on superheroes, a mild-mannered professor discovers his inner obsession. Assuming the powers of a novelist, teacher, playwright, and scholar, Professor Chris Gavaler embarks on a mission to unlock the secrets of the multiverse.

Actually, this post should be titled “Framing, Abstracting, and Closuring the Walking Dead,” but that’s way too many verbs, plus closuring isn’t a word. Or at least it wasn’t. Maybe it is now. This post is also a follow-up on three previous “Analyzing Comics 101” posts on, you guessed it, framing, abstraction, and closure.

I’m once again picking apart the corpse of Tony Moore and Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead #1 to show how these concepts can come together. This time, just the first two pages will do the trick.

So framing first. The top full-width panel is symmetrical and misaligned, so the right side includes more than the primary subjects of Rick, Shane, and their police car which appear cropped in the foreground, plus the escaped convict and his truck in the middleground. The rectangular panel could include all of the rectangular police car, but instead provides surrounding detail, including a horse (the first hint at the Western motif), a Rotary Club sign (suggesting a small community theme?), and distant mountains in the background (further establishing the rural setting).

However, it’s the bottom panel that gives the initial framing its biggest meaning, since the open foreground space of that first panel parallels the page’s most important image in the bottom panel: Rick being shot. The bottom frame is symmetrical and proportionate, making the first misaligned framing a form of spatial foreshadowing. Moore also shifts the parallel angle of perspective, effectively rotating the shooter to the background, Shane to the middleground, and Rick to the foreground, the most significant visual space. Note also that Rick occupies the right side of the image, gaining further significance since as Anglophone readers we conclude the panel on right. We read top to bottom too, so Rick being shot occupies the concluding space of the overall page too (it’s also the peak image in an implied 4×2 grid, but we covered visual sentences and layouts elsewhere).

Rick is also emphasized because our perspective moves with him, beginning in panel five. These four middle framings are symmetrical while vacillating between proportionate and abridged, because the figures are sometimes cropped mid-chest, adding to the sense of Rick and Shane being trapped in a cramped space. Though drawn smaller than Shane in panels one and two, when Rick stands in panel three, he encompasses more space: his action literally makes him larger. Because the angle of perspective is the same in panels two and four, Shane remains the same.

Closure between the images is minimal. The first panel establishes the overall area, and the following five panels work within it, demanding little spatial closure. Though the time span of each panel and the gaps between them is inherently inexact, the first four transitions suggest no significant gaps, and so they imply a steady movement forward in time, requiring only basic temporal closure. The fifth transition, however, implies a gap in which Rick turns around to face the shooter. So in addition to temporal closure, the panel transition requires causal closure because the action of Rick turning is undrawn; we infer it in order to explain why Rick’s back is no longer turned to the shooter as it was in the previous image.

Finally, Tony Moore’s drawing style is roughly 3-3 on the abstraction grid, so it shows both a moderate amount of detail (translucent) and a moderate amount of contour warping (idealization). Arguably, the figures show a level of 3-4 abstraction, with intensified contours. In the second panel, Shane is impossibly wide and Rick impossibly thin, with Rick’s head roughly half the width of Shane’s shoulder.

shane and rick abstraction

The effect characterizes each through visual exaggeration and further establishes them as foils. Meanwhile, the shooter’s head contrasts the straight lines that compose Rick and Shane’s bodies with frenetic lines and lopsided features.

crazy guy

Though the effect is more striking, the shooter’s lines contours remain within an idealized range. Rick’s bullet wound, however, is intensified or even hyperbolic.

rick's wound

Since no human being could survive a wound that extreme, the image creates higher closure demand after the page turn because we retroactively understand the image to be exaggerated. There’s an overt abstraction gap between what is drawn and how it is drawn. And because a literal understanding of the image contradicts the story, we ignore it (diegetic erasure).

The leap to page two is major in other ways too. The image requires a great deal of temporal closure with details that also require a range of casual closure. After being shot, Rick was taken to a hospital–perhaps by paramedics in an ambulance, though most of the casual facts go unconfirmed. He is in a bed in a bedroom, not a critical ward or operating room, so presumably his wounds were successfully treated and he was left to recuperate. The time gap is ambiguous, but his beard growth suggest several days.

The framing marks a major change too. Though still symmetrical, the full-page panel is also expansive. Rick’s figure is the subject, but a great deal of the surrounding room is drawn for a spacious effect unlike the previous page’s variously proportionate and abridge panels. The angle of perspective shifts from parallel to downward, so we are no longer viewing the image as a character would but as if from a more omniscient vantage.

The style of abstraction has shifted too. While Rick remains at 3-3 (translucent idealization), the room is closer to 2-2 (semi-translucent generalization). The level of detail is much greater than on the previous page and the line contours are only warped slightly below the level of photorealism. Notice the line quality of the shadows and reflected chair legs on the floor.

The 2-2 image is also a full-page panel, giving it further significance. When the first zombie later appears on page six, we retroactively fill in additional closure into the temporal gap: the zombie apocalypse occurred while Rick was unconscious and safe behind his bedroom door. Page two is the most significant image in the issue, because it is 1) the most detailed and least abstracted image in a stylistic context of less detail and higher abstraction, 2) the first of only two full-page panels, 3) the most expansively framed image, and 4) the image demanding the highest amount and range of closure.

There’s plenty more visual analysis available on these two pages (haven’t even started to talk about the difference in Moore’s rendering of sound effects and speech yet), but you get the picture.


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First time I saw a comic book by Bill Sienkiewicz (I’m told it’s pronounced sinKEVitch), my tiny adolescent brain exploded. It must have been one of his early New Mutants, so summer of 1984, just moments before I stumbled off to college. It wasn’t just that the cover was painted (I’d seen New Defenders do that the year before) but how dizzyingly un-comic-book-like his art looked to me. It took thirty years, but I finally have the words to describe it.

A couple of weeks back I offered an Abstraction Grid, a 5×5 breakdown of comic art according to amounts of detail and exaggerated contours.  It looks a lot like a bingo board, and since I know of no comic artist with a wider range of styles than Sienkiewicz, he’s my first player.

Bingo starts with a free space, that one right there in the middle, and comics do too. The middle square is 3-3 on the grid, the style of most superhero comics. It combines a medium amount of detail (I call it “translucent” to differentiate from the two ends of the scale, “opaque” and “transparent”) and a medium level of exaggeration (I call it “idealization,” that sweet spot nestled between line-softening “generalization” and shape-warping “intensification”). Sienkiewicz, like most comics artists, started his career in the middle square:



I vaguely remember seeing some issues of Moon Knight as a kid, but the art didn’t register as anything special, because that was Marvel’s Bronze Age Prime Directive: draw like Neal Adams.

Perfectly good style, but if you slide over a square to the left, more detail is more interesting:




Sliding to the less detailed right is fun too, stripping those idealized forms down to something a little more basic:



Sienkiewicz can go even further, reducing subjects to minimal details, sometimes just undifferentiated outline shapes.



1-3 is rare in comics, but disturbingly common in advertising. Photography provides the maximum amount of details, and Photoshop lets you idealize them:


The fourth row of the grid is intensification. Where idealization magnifies and compresses shapes but stays mostly within the bounds of naturalism, intensification steps out of bounds, usually by throwing proportions out of whack.

Sienkiewicz is a pro:




The exaggeration is more pronounced with more detail:



Less detail creates a more of a classic “cartoon” effect:


Meanwhile, the left half of this Stray Toasters face strips away eve more detail, so only the minimal number of lines remains:


And the sparse lines of this torso are impossibly regular too:

1-4 is rare, but sometimes a fashion ad blows it by Photoshopping beyond idealization and into inhuman intensification.


I call the top range of exaggeration hyperbole because it breaks reality completely. Sienkiewicz is one of the few comics artists who spends any time this high on the abstraction grid. His minutely detailed yet absurdly proportioned Kingpin from Daredevil: Love and War is one of my all-time favorites:


The Demon Bear by itself is 3-4 intensification, and the figure of the New Mutant facing it is your standard 3-3, but the combination steps into hyperbole:


These scribbles of Joker’s face and body are simpler but exaggerated to a similar level of unreal.



And then there’s cartoonish chaos of Warlock’s Bill the Cat face:

But, like most superhero artists, Sienkiewicz spends almost no time up in 5-5. That’s South Park terrain:


For 1-5 photography, stop by Celebrity Photoshop Bobbleheads:


Moving back down the grid now, the second row of shape abstraction is generalization, just a slight tweaking of line quality. The New Mutants here have a typical level of detail for a comic book, but the those lines evoke real-world subjects.


Image result for new mutants 18 demon bear

Some of these New Mutants (not Fireball and Warlock though) look distantly photographic, though with even less detail:


While this portrait of Lance Henriksen is dense with detail:


Image result for Bill Sienkiewicz photography

5-2 is rare, a fully realistic human figure in outline only. And most 1-2 photography hides its Photoshopping so well it registers as undoctored photography.

Sienkiewicz spends time in that photorealistic corner too though.


This next image from Big Numbers may be an altered photograph, with just a little detailed flattened.


1-3, 1-4, and 1-5 are rare since it defeats the point of photorealism to strip too many details away.

Finally, notice that many of Sienkiewicz’s best effects are a result of using more than one kind of abstraction in a single image:

The overall figure is 3-4 intensification (humans are not roughly 2/3rds legs). But while the top half of the figure has a medium level of detail, the legs are flat with not a single line of shadings, so 4-4. And though the gun is intensified too, it is impossibly large in relation to the figure, and so 3-4.

Skim back up the other images for more of these combo effects.

Meanwhile, how well did Bill do on the Abstraction Board?  I count 16 out of 25 squares filled. Let me know if you find an artist with a higher score.






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That title means both “words and pictures” and “words in pictures,” because both phrases describe comic books. Although not all comics include words, essentially all superhero comics do. (A near exception, the five-page “Young Miracleman” story in the back of Miracleman #6 includes two talk balloons each containing the transformation-triggering word “Miracleman!” and a range of sound effects, newspaper headlines, and signage.) How images and text work together is one of the most complex and distinctive qualities of the form.

Words in comics have their traditional linguistic meanings, but they are also drawn images that must be understood differently than words in prose-only works. Their line qualities and surroundings influence their meanings. Dialogue and narration are traditionally rendered at a later stage of production by a separate letterer, after the penciler and inker have completed their work. The size, shape, and color of lettering can denote volume, tone, or intensity, especially when representing speech. Bolding is especially common, typically multiple words per sentence. Sound effects, however, are drawn by primary artists as part of the images. These are onomatopoeic words or letters that represent sounds in the story world. Often the lettering style is so expressive it communicates more than the letters’ linguistic meaning.

Words are typically framed within a panel. Spoken dialogue appears in talk balloons (traditionally an oval frame with a white interior), internal monologues in thought balloons (traditionally a cloud-like frame with a white interior), and unspoken narration in caption boxes (traditionally rectangular and colored, though sometimes narration appears in separate caption panels or in white gutters). Adding a pointer to a word container and directing it at an image of a character turns the words into sound representations or, if a thought balloon, into representations of an unspoken but linguistic mental process, both linked to the specific place and time of the depiction.

The absence of a pointer on a caption box indicates that the words originate from outside of the depicted scene. First-person narration with no pointer may be linked to a remote setting if the words are composed by a character from some other, implied moment and location that is not visually depicted. Though the words in talk balloons are understood to be audible to characters, the drawn words and containers are not visible within the story world even when drawn blocking story elements. As with lettering, the size, shape, and color of containers communicate additional meanings about the words. For talk balloons, the graphic quality of the balloon edges denotes how the words are thought, spoken, whispered, shouted, etc. Finally, the containers create semantic units similar to line breaks or stanzas in poetry.

Words also influence and are influenced by surrounding images that are part of the subject content. Pioneering comics artist Will Eisner identifies two kinds of images: a “visual” is a “sequence of images that replace a descriptive passage told only in words,” and an “illustration” is an image that “reinforces (or decorates) a descriptive passage. It simply repeats the text” (132). Scott McCloud goes further, identifying seven “distinct categories for word/picture combinations” (). Two of McCloud’s categories, “word-specific” and “duo-specific,” correspond with Eisner’s “illustration,” while the other five (picture-specific, intersecting, parallel, independent, montage) fall under Eisner’s “visual,” which “seeks to employ a mix of letters and images as a language in dealing with narration” (139).

To indicate the level of image-text integration, we combine and arrange McCloud’s and Eisner’s categories in a spectrum, beginning with the highest level integration.

Montage visual: images include words as part of the depicted subject matter. This is the only instance in comics in which words are part of the story world. All other words are discourse only.

Interdependent visual: images and words communicate different information that combines.

Intersecting visual: images and words communicate some of the same information, while also communicating some information separately.

Image-specific visual: images communicate all information, while words repeat selected aspects.

Word-specific illustration: words communicate all information, while images repeat selected aspects.

McCloud also includes two categories that are not integrated, and we add two more.

Duo-specific illustration: images and words communicate the same information. Although this might appear to be the most integrated category, there is no integration if each element only duplicates the other so that no information is lost if either element is ignored. Words and images are independent.

Image-only visual: isolated images communicate all information. Since comics do not require words, this is the most fundamental aspect of the form.

Word-only text: isolated words communicate all information. This requires the highest level of reader visualization, an approach at odds with graphic narratives as a form.

Parallel visual: images and words communicate different information that do not combine. This requires the same level of reader visualization as word-only texts, but the presence of images complicates and potentially interferes with that visualization.

With the exception of the most integrated category, montage visuals, all combinations of words and pictures produce some level of image-text tension because words, unlike images, exist only as discourse. Though drawn on the page, words are not visually perceptible to the characters in the story. Images, however, depict content that is perceptible to characters, so drawn objects and actions appear as both discourse (ink on paper) and diegesis (the world of the story). A drawing of a superhero flying (discourse) communicates the fact that the superhero is flying in the story (diegesis). The words “the superhero is flying” communicate the same diegetic fact, but the ink-formed letterforms bear no resemblance to their subject matter. There is no overlap between diegesis and discourse. Since both words and images are made of ink lines on paper (because printed words are images), some lines in a comic exist only in the reader’s world and some appear to exist in both the reader’s and the characters’ worlds.

Graphic novels create further image-text tension by highlighting the potential gap between text-narration and image-narration. In graphic memoirs such as Art Spiegelman’s 1980-1991 Maus, Marjane Satrapi’s 2003 Persepolis, and Alison Bechdel’s 2006 Fun Home, the text-narrator and the image-narrator are understood to be the same person, the actual author. When a character in a graphic novel controls the first-person text-narration in caption boxes, it is not necessarily clear whether that character is also controlling the image-narration in panels. If the words are generated by an omniscient third-person text-narrator, does that same narrator generate the images, or are the images generated by a separate narrator?

Unintegrated image-texts imply a separate text-narrator and image-narrator. In the case of a duo-specific image-text, the two modes of narration duplicate information without any integration, as if two narrators are unaware of each other. Integrated image-texts, however, imply a single narrator controlling both words and images in order to combine them for a unified effect. At the center of the spectrum, a word-specific illustration implies an image-narrator aware of text but a text-narrator unaware of image. Similarly, an image-specific visual implies a text-narrator aware of images but an image-narrator unaware of text.

Parallel visuals are more complex; although the two narrations are independent and so seemingly unaware of each other at the level of the panel, the overarching effect is integrated. In such cases, the separate text- and image-narrations may create a double image-text referent, in which a word has one meaning according to its linguistic context but, when read in the context of the image, acquires a second meaning. Alan Moore is best known for this approach, having perfected it with Dave Gibbons in Watchmen.

 Image result for watchmen comic panels

I’m teaching “Superhero Comics” this semester, and so I’m once again pulling out Scott McCloud’s abstraction scale:

Image result for mccloud abstraction scale

It begins with a photograph of a face and ends with a face comprised only of an oval, two dots, and a straight line. McCloud calls that last face a “cartoon” and the middle face the standard for “adventure comics,” ie superheroes. All of the faces to the right of the photograph further “abstract [it] through cartooning” which involves “eliminating details” by “focusing on specific details.” Computer programs can do the same kind of stripping down:


But some “simplification” isn’t so simple. Look at the different between this photograph and its cartoon version.

make a caricature profile picture of you

McCloud’s scale actually combines two kinds simplification. Each step to the right of his spectrum appears simpler because: 1) the image contains fewer lines, and 2) the lines are in themselves less varied. A line becomes smoother by averaging its peaks and lows into a median curve, and so the second kind of simplification is a form of exaggeration. Since exaggeration can extend beyond averaging McCloud’s spectrum actually requires two kinds of abstraction. Each face is altered both in density and in contour quality. Density describes the number of lines; contour quality describes the magnification and compression of line shapes. Abstraction in density reduces the number of lines; abstraction in contour quality warps the line shapes. The less density reduction and the less contour warpage, the more realistic an image appears.

I like McCloud’s five-point scale though, so I’ll offer two of my own.

The Density Scale:

  1. Opacity: The amount of detail is the same or similar to the amount available in photography.
  1. Semi-Translucency: The amount of detail falls below photorealism, while the image still suggests photorealistic subject matter.
  1. Translucency: While reduced well beyond the range of photography, the amount of detail evokes photorealistic subject matter as its source material. This is the standard level of density in superhero comics art.
  1. Semi-Transparency: The sparsity of detail is a dominating quality of the image, and subject matter can evoke only distantly photographic source material. Semi-Transparency is more common in caricature and cartooning.
  1. Transparency: The minimum amount of detail required for an image to be understood as representing real-world subject matter.

The Contour Scale:

  1. Duplication: Line shapes are unaltered for an overall photographic effect. Though naturalistic, reality-duplicating line shapes exceed the norms of superhero art by reproducing too much information.
  1. Generalization: Line shapes are magnified and/or compressed to medians for an overall flattening effect that conforms to naturalistic expectations. Generalization is the standard level of abstraction for objects in superhero art.
  1. Idealization: Some line shapes are magnified and/or compressed to medians while others are magnified and/or compressed beyond their medians for an overall idealizing effect that challenges but does not break naturalism. Idealization is the standard level of abstraction for superhero characters.
  1. Intensification: Line shapes are magnified and/or compressed beyond their medians for an overall exaggerating effect that exceeds naturalistic expectations. If the intensification is explained diegetically, the line shapes are understood to be literal representations of fantastical subject matter within a naturalistic context. If the intensification is not explained diegetically, then the line shapes are understood as stylistic qualities of the image but not literal qualities of the subject matter. Explained or Diegetic Intensification is common for fantastical subject matter in superhero art; unexplained or Non-diegetic Intensification occurs selectively.
  1. Hyperbole: Line shapes are magnified and/or compressed well beyond medians for an overall cartooning effect that rejects naturalism entirely. Hyperbole is uncommon in superhero art because the stylistic qualities of the image dominate and so prevent a literal understanding of the subject matter. Hyperboles in a naturalistic context are understood metaphorically.

The two scales can also be combined into a Density-Contour Grid:

1-5 2-5 3-5 4-5 5-5
1-4 2-4 3-4 4-4 5-4
1-3 2-3 3-3 4-3 5-3
1-2 2-2 3-2 4-2 5-2
1-1 2-1 3-1 4-1 5-1

Both scales take photorealism as the norm that defines variations.

McCloud’s photographed face is the most realistic because it combines Opacity and Duplication, 1-1 on the grid, demonstrating the highest levels of density and unaltered contour. It’s opposite is not McCloud’s fifth, “cartoon” face, which combines Transparency with Idealization, 5-3; its level of density reduction is the highest and so the least realistic possible, but its contour warpage is moderate and so comparatively realistic. Replace the oval with a circle to form a traditional smiley face, the contour quality would rise to Hyperbole, 5-5, the most abstract and so the least realistic position on the grid.

Image result for smiley face

Cartooning covers a range of grid points, but most cartoons fall between 4-4 and 5-5, both high density reduction and high contour warpage. Charles Shultz’s circle-headed and minimally detailed Charlie Brown is a 5-5.

The characters of Archie Comics are some of the most “realistic” of traditional cartoons at 4-4.

McCloud’s middle, “adventure comics” face combines Translucency and Idealization, 3-3, the center point of the grid and the defining norm of superhero comic art.

Image result for superman

Like all grid points, 3-3 allows for a variety of stylistic variation between artists, within a single artist’s work, and even within a single image, but it does provide a starting point for visual analysis by defining areas of basic similarity.

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Reading a comic book is easy–even when there are no words to be read. You just look at a picture, and then at the next picture, and so on. But why do any of the pictures make sense side-by-side? What is your brain doing as it leaps from image to image?

In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud defines the Gestalt psychology principle of “closure” as the “phenomenon of observing the parts but perceiving the whole” (though it more specifically indicates a viewer filling in visual gaps between disconnected parts) and applies it to comics gutters: “Nothing is seen between panels, but experience tells you something must be there!” He goes on to explain: “Comics panels fracture both time and space, offering a jagged, staccato rhythm of unconnected moments. But closure allows us to connect these moments and mentally construct a continuous, unified reality.”

McCloud focuses his analysis on gutters and therefore types of transitions possible between panels (though closure is independent of panels and gutters, since insets and interpenetrating images work the same ways). He comes up with six types:

Image result for scott mccloud panel transitions

They work reasonably well, but his focus on panel transition has always struck me as slightly off. When I use it in class, students often don’t come to a clear consensus when analyzing any particular panel sequence. Moment-to-moment and action-and-action, for instance, are often ambiguous, sometimes combining identical leaps in time. And since actions do occur in McCloud’s moment-to-moment examples (a women blinks!), it’s not exactly clear what constitutes an “action.” Aspect-to-aspect can also be indistinguishable from subject-to-subject, both of which may or may not involve a movement in time, and so may or may not also be moment-to-moment or even action-to-action. And scene-to-scene might be a location leap and so also a kind of aspect-to-aspect at the big picture level, or a scene-to-scene can be in the same location but at a different time–so then how much time has to pass for an old scene to become a new scene?

These are annoying questions, but they really do come up when you try to breakdown a panel sequence with a roomful of students. So instead of categorizing transitions, my colleague Nathaniel Goldberg and I categorized types of closure while drafting our essay “Caped Communicators: Conversational Depiction and Superhero Comics.” Instead one all-purpose “perceiving the whole” process, we see four very different kinds of closure, each of which can occur by itself or in combinations.

Spatial:  Subject matter drawn in separate images is depicted as existing in physical relationship to each other, typically as a result of panel framing. (What McCloud identifies as aspect-to-aspect, subject-to-subject, and some scene-to-scene transitions require spatial closure.)

Temporal:  Undrawn events are depicted to take place outside of events drawn in separate images, typically as a result of panel transitions and so occurring as if in gutters. (What McCloud identifies as moment-to-moment, action-to-action, and some subject-to-subject and scene-to-scene transitions require temporal closure.)

Causal: Drawn action is understood to have been caused by an element absent from a current image but drawn in a preceding image. (None of McCloud’s transitions, not even action-to-action, accounts for this type of closure.)

Associative: A metaphorical relationship is depicted between two images in which one image is understood to represent some idea about the other image. (Though McCloud does not identify this type of closure, Jessica Abel and Matt Madden in Drawing Words Writing Pictures add “symbolic” to McCloud’s list of transition types. Such symbolic transitions require associative closure.)

It always helps to look at specific examples, so consider this three-panel sequence at the top of page 28 in Watchmen #8:

In the first image, artist Dave Gibbons draws the shadow of a statuette cast over the face of a frightened man kneeling on the floor. The second image shows the statuette in the fist of an attacker. Taken together, spatial closure is required to understand that the two images occur within a few feet of each other, with each image drawn from one of the two men’s points of view; this is true even though the white background emphasizes the attacker’s action but eliminates all other setting information. The second image also requires temporal closure because the statuette is behind the attacker’s head at an angle that would not cast the shadow seen on the victim’s face in the first image. Gibbons therefore also depicts a movement forward in time during which the attacker has cocked his arm back to strike.

The third image depicts a jack-o-lantern crashing to the floor with some falling books. It uses all four forms of closure. The pumpkin exists in the same space as the two now undrawn men (spatial closure). The pumpkin is crushed at a moment immediately following the second image (temporal closure). The falling books have been knocked down by the now undrawn victim striking the shelf behind him (causal). And, because it resembles a human head and breaks open in the panel where a reader anticipates the statuette striking the man’s head, Gibbons implies that the man’s head has been similarly damaged (associative). Alternatively, the pumpkin, as shown in the first panel, is already falling, because the leg of another attacker has knocked the shelf off balance. If so, then the pumpkin and the head of the victim are smashed at the same moment, with no causal closure but associative only.

So our closure types are deeply indebted to McCloud, but I think they also improve on his. I’ll be testing these out in my classroom soon, so hopefully my students will agree. More on that later.

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Having taught my spring term seminar Superheroes a half dozen times now, I’m converting it to one of the gateway courses for Washington and Lee students entering the English major. The overhaul means jettisoning the pre-history of the genre (I love that stuff, but I could just hand my students On the Origin of Superheroes and be done with it) and focusing much more on comics as an art medium. So I’m trying to boil down the basics, the must-know criteria for analyzing a comic book.

So now it’s time invite Neil Cohn to the lectern. If you haven’t read his The Visual Language of Comics, please do. Meanwhile, here’s my boiling down of his visual language grammar.

Narrative panel types: images may be categorized according to the kinds of narrative information they contain and how that information creates a visual sentence when read in sequence:

Orienter: introduces context for a later interaction (no tension).

Establisher: introduces elements that later interact (no tension).

Initial: begins the interactive tension.

Prolongation: continues the interactive tension.

Peak: high point of interactive tension.

Release: aftermath of interactive tension.

Cohn only looks at comic strips, which typically express a single sentence in a linear arrangement of three or four panels, but longer graphic narratives can express multiple sentences on a single page or extend a single visual sentence over multiple pages.  To analyze the different ways that can work, I’m adding some terminology to Cohn’s.

Closed sentences: two sentences that begin and end without sharing panels.

Overlapping sentences: sentences that share panels.

Interrupted sentence: an overlapping sentence that does not complete or initiate its tension before another sentence replaces it; sentences might share an Orienter, or an Establisher may introduce two elements that do not interact until later as a form foreshadowing.

Dual-function panel: in overlapping sentences, one panel performs two narrative functions. A panel may, for example, serve as the Release of one sentence and also the Orienter, Establisher, or Initial of the next. Or an Orienter may  serve as the Establisher of an interrupted sentence that initializes tension later.

Sentence Layout: the relationship of visual sentences to pages.

Page sentence: a sentence that begins with the page’s first panel and ends with the page’s final panel.

Multipage sentence: a sentence that extends beyond one page.

End stop: a page and a visual sentence end simultaneously.

Enjambed: a page ends before the visual sentence ends, also called a visual cliff-hanger.

This is all awfully abstract, so let me give specific examples from The Walking Dead again.

Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore like enjambment. Their first issue includes several cliff-hangers. The bottom row of page five begins with an Establisher (introducing the door to the already established figure of Rick), is followed by an Initial panel (Rick removes the piece of wood holding the door closed), and ends with a Peak (Rick is opening the door).

But the Release only appears after turning to page six. That full-page panel is also a dual-function panel because it serves as the Establisher (introducing the zombies to the already established Rick) for the next, overlapping sentence.

The turn from page nine to ten is similar. The first panel in the bottom row of page nine is an Establisher (Rick and the bicycle), followed by the page-ending Peak of Rick’s shocked reaction. The top of page ten provides the Release (we finally see what he sees).

A similar grammatical pattern repeats on pages thirteen and fourteen. The first panel in the bottom row of thirteen is an Orienter. The second is an Establisher (Rick’s face seems to be reacting to something, a sound presumably), and the last panel is an Initial. Turn the page, and there’s the Peak.

The visual grammar also shows that cliff-hangers only work on the final panel of a two-page spread, in order to prevent a reader’s eye from skimming to the critical image prematurely (which happens in my arrangements above).

Also, Moore and Kirkman don’t always enjamb their visual sentences. Page one, for instance, ends on a Peak. The page also begins with an Initial, followed by four Prolongation panels. Page one is a complete page sentence, both beginning and ending on a single page.

Instead of a Release, the next page begins with an Orienter (Rick in his hospital room) for the next visual sentence, which does not overlap.

In terms of interrupted sentences, page ten begins a new visual sentence with the top Establisher (introducing the bicycle zombie to the already established Rick), followed by two Initials (Rick and the zombie interact) in the second. The bottom row begins with two Prolongations, followed by a Peak (Rick’s tear) and a Release (the zombie closes its mouth).

The visual sentence appears to have ended when the next page begins a new sentence with no further interaction between Rick and the zombie. So page ten reads as a complete page sentence, until the bottom of page twenty-three continues the interaction with a Prolongation panel, retroactively showing that the visual sentence was interrupted.

Page twenty-four provides a new Peak (Rick shoots the zombie), followed by two Release panels (Rick looking down, the zombie with a bullet hole in its forehead).

Rick’s tear is also a Prolongation of his tear on page ten, an additional overlapping sentence that reaches its Peak in the next panel when Rick wipes the tear away. The final three panels are Releases. They’re also their own overlapping, three-panel sentence: Initial (Rick and the car), Peak (Rick gets into the car), and Release (car has driven off). The page and the issue conclude with an end stop.

And, concluding this post, my apologies to the world of poetry for driving off with your terms “end stop” and “enjambment.” Until now they only meant “a poetic device in which a pause comes at the end of a syntactic unit” and ” the continuation of a sentence without a pause beyond the end of a line.”



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In his 2013 Comics and Narration, comics theorist Thierry Groensteen describes “regular page layout,” meaning pages with rigid panel grids, and “rhetorical layout, where the size (and sometimes the shape) of each frame is adapted to the content, to the subject matter of the panel” (). Groensteen goes on to discuss relationships of panels to each other, especially “irregular” layouts that have “no basic structure,” but he does not relate them to subject matter. So his “rhetorical” layout may be the same as any “irregular” layout.

However, Groensteen’s definition—the size and the shape of a frame is adapted to its content—does describe an essential type of framing. In fact, it defines all types of framing, since a frame always has some sort of relationship to its subject matter. This is true whether panels follow a rigid grid or vary radically, because the frame-subject relationship has to be analyzed one panel at a time.

Comics theorist Benoit Peters also describes layouts in terms of panel and content relationships, arriving instead at four categories: 1) conventional, in which panels are all the same size and shape regardless of content; 2) decorative, in which panels vary in size and shape but not in relation to content; 3) rhetorical, in which panels vary in relation to content action only; and 4) productive, in which panels vary in relation to content in general. But again, since the size and shape of a panel always relates somehow to its content, the four categories are misleading. A frame could be all four simultaneously—or at least conventional, rhetorical, and productive, since only decorative stipulates that a frame is unrelated to subject. But it is unclear in what sense form and content could not be related since content exists only in form. Peters is instead describing a creative process in which an artist selects a layout in advance and then adapts content to it. After the page is drawn, however, the layout cannot be “decorative” any more than a sonnet’s meter and rhyme schemes can be said to decorate its words. Form and content are inseparable.

To analyze framing then, we need to divide two overlapping issues. The size and shape of a frame may relate to its subject. And the size and shape of a frame may relate to other frames. If a frame is larger than all other frames on the same page so that its subject is emphasized over the subjects of the smaller frames, that is an effect of layout. But the apparent size of a subject in relation to its frame is independent of layout. This is an effect of individual framing only. Analysis then requires two approaches:

Layout rhetoric: how a layout of multiple frames relates the subject matter of each frame to each other. As discussed in the previous section, any framing quality that distinguishes a frame from other frames also distinguishes its content.

Framing rhetoric: how a frame relates to its subject matter. Framing may be broken down into two broad categories according to the aspect ratios of the frame and subject (symmetrical and asymmetrical) and five subcategories according to frame and subject sizes (proportionate, expansive, abridged, misaligned, broken).

 Symmetrical framing: the proportional relationship between the frame’s height and width (its aspect ratio) matches the aspect ratio of the subject. Although the frame and subject may be very different shapes (for example, a human form with extended limbs within a rectangular frame), measuring from the subject’s furthest points produces roughly the same ratios.

Symmetrical and proportionate: the subject and frame have similar ratios, and the subject fits inside the frame. Because content and frame are balanced, the effect draws no attention to their relationship and so appears neutral. This is the default framing style in superhero comics. A frame-subject relationship is significant to the degree that it varies from this norm.

Symmetrical and expansive: the subject and frame have similar ratios, but the subject matter is smaller than the frame, so the panel includes surrounding content. The effect is spacious.

Symmetrical and abridged: the subject and frame have similar ratios, but the subject is larger, so the frame appears to crop out some of the subject. The effect is cramped, as if the frame is too small.

Symmetrical and misaligned: although the subject and frame have similar ratios and the subject appears as if it could fit the frame, the frame appears to crop out some of the subject while also including surrounding content. The effect is of a misaimed camera.

Symmetrical and broken: the subject and frame have similar ratios, but the subject is larger, with elements of the subject extending beyond the frame. The framing would be misaligned if the subject stopped at the frame edge. The frame-breaking elements are often in movement or otherwise expressing energy, implying that the subject is more powerful or significant than the frame.

Asymmetrical framing: the frame and the subject have different aspect ratios.

Asymmetrical and proportionate: although the subject fits inside the frame, because of their dissimilar ratios the panel also includes surrounding content along one extended dimension.

Asymmetrical and expansive: because the subject is smaller than the frame, the panel includes surrounding content, and because of their dissimilar ratios, the panel also includes additional surrounding content.

Asymmetrical and abridged: the subject is larger than the frame in one dimension, creating the impression of the frame cropping out content, and because of their dissimilar ratios, the panel also includes surrounding content along one extended dimension. The effect is an image placed in the wrong shaped panel.

Asymmetrical and misaligned: although the subject appears as if it could fit inside the frame, the frame appears to crop out some of the subject while including some surrounding content; and because of their dissimilar shapes, the panel also includes additional surrounding content. The effect is of a misaimed camera.

Asymmetrical and broken: the subject is larger than the frame, with elements of the subject extending beyond the frame edge; because of their dissimilar ratios, the frame-breaking elements further emphasize imbalance.

An image may also be unframed. If unframed, an image may use surrounding panel frames as a secondary frame. An unframed image also implies a symmetrical and proportionate frame by remaining inside the undrawn borders. Multiple implied frames may appear in a single row. Interpenetrating images eliminate the illusion of implied frames by combining two or more unframed images so that elements appear to overlap. A content element of one image may serve as a framing line for an adjacent image, making a diegetic frame. Finally, if a frame contains only words, it is a caption panel, which tend to be smaller and subdivided from larger panels. Secondary frames, implied frames, diegetic frames, interpenetrating images, and caption panels may be analyzed in the same rhetorical relationships of size and aspect ratio as drawn frames.

Because a majority of comics, including essentially all superhero comics, are drawn in a naturalistic mode, framing also creates three-dimensional effects through reader perspective or point of view. Where frames establish an image’s height and width, perspective creates an illusion of depth. An image is often divided into three planes of increasing distance: foreground, middleground, and background. In superhero comics especially, an artist may foreshorten a subject or part of a subject, making it appear to be closer to the reader by disproportionately expanding its dimensions. Generally, the subject is more significant the closer it appears. Subjects on the same plane will more likely appear equal. This is partly because closer subjects typically occupy more image space, though larger, more distant subjects that occupy more image space may also appear more significant than smaller, nearer subjects.

Angle of perspective may also influence a reader’s perception, altering a subject’s significance by looking upward, parallel, or downward. A subject drawn higher in the image space and so above another subject may appear more significant too, and generally the more centered a subject it the more important it is, while off-centered subjects may seem literally and figuratively marginal.

Finally, consider image and frame orientation. The depicted plane may be parallel with the frame, or it may be tilted. Because parallel framing is the norm, tilted framing may create a sense of disorientation. In rare cases, the plane may be so tilted as to be perpendicular (see The Authority and House of M). Frames are also typically drawn as rectangles parallel with the page edges, but they may also be tilted or perpendicular in relationship to the page.

That’s all really abstract, so check out some examples:

Nick Fury’s body fits inside the full-height column but intrudes into the second column. The unframed panel is symmetrical and broken.

With the exception of the top right close-up (which is asymmetrical and misaligned), each panel shows Beast’s whole (or nearly whole) body, which is drawn to fill the shape of the panel, and so is symmetrical and proportionate. 

Wolverine’s body, however, does not entirely fit; his feet, part of his arm, and the top of his head are cropped. The column panel is symmetrical and abridged.

The top panel is asymmetrical and proportionate (because the two figures make a square not a rectangle, leaving a lot of space to the left and right). The second panel crops the face (part of the lower lip and both eyebrows are missing) but includes a lot of surrounding space, so it’s asymmetrical and abridged, as is the third. The last is symmetrical and proportionate.

The first panel is asymmetrical and proportionate (or partly misaligned depending on whether you consider his elbow primary content). The second column is drawn as if too thin to contain all of Flash’s face, so the panel is asymmetrical and abridged. The last is asymmetrical and proportionate.

The top panel is asymmetrical and proportionate, with detailed elements of the wall in the foreground.  The bottom left panel contains Spider-Man, but with ample additional space all around the figure, so that non-essential elements of the city landscape are included in the frame. The panel is symmetrical and expansive.

The bottom, page-width panel includes its two primary subjects, Batman and Alfred on the balcony behind him, but the angle and distance includes additional content, including the entire moon, distant buildings, and the wall below the balcony. The panel is symmetrical and expansive.

The second row includes a face with a corner of an eye and mouth cut off. The panel, however, is large enough to include those complete features, but the subject has been drawn off-center to produce the cropping effect. The panel is symmetrical and misaligned.

The face in the bottom left panel is cut off at the mouth, even though the subject matter could be drawn higher in the panel to include the entire mouth. The panel is symmetrical and misaligned.

The top right panel content could be composed to include Cyclops’ face, but instead his head is more than half out of frame. The panel is asymmetrical and misaligned.

The top panel is wide like the subject matter of the street and so is symmetrical and proportionate. The subject matter of the second frame (the heads of the passenger and the driver visible through the car window) fit the frame, but the frame shape extends to the left to include the reflection of a building in a backseat window, so the panel is asymmetrical and proportionate.


The width of the second panel of “Avengers Mansion” also includes several distant buildings, the front yard, and fence–elements included as if the wide panel shape requires a view of more than the primary subject of the mansion front. The panel is asymmetrical and proportionate.

Not only is the subject of the Hulk much smaller than the frame, the frame itself is shaped so that it must include more than the subject. The panel is asymmetrical and expansive.

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The shape of the full-width panels of  the second and third rows extend beyond the subject of the two figures. The panels are asymmetrical and expansive.

Batman’s leg extends beyond the frame, as if his movement was too fast for the frame to capture. The hand in the final frame also breaks the panel border, again emphasizing action. The panel is asymmetrical and broken.

Every panel of the fight scene but the last is symmetrical and broken. The last is symmetrical and misaligned, cutting off Bucky’s chin while leaving space above his head.

The second row begins with a symmetrical and expansive panel; the second panel is symmetrical and proportionate; and the third symmetrical and abridged. The sequence suggests physical and psychological intensification, but exclusively through framing since the Hulk’s expression remains essentially unchanged.

The first panel of a figure stepping through a door is symmetrical and proportionate. The next symmetrical and expansive panel includes its subject matter (the individuals in the classroom and the classroom itself) but also the darkened top of (presumably) a bookshelf. The spaciousness contrasts the cramped effect of the subsequent panels which are mostly asymmetrical and abridged, except for the second which is symmetrical and abridged.


And I’ll leave it at that for now, but expect further application in future blogs.



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