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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

How many artists have created their own genres? Robert Sikoryak may stand alone in that category, especially for genres within the comics form. He has an eloquently simple concept: combine a set of words with incongruous drawings in the styles of famous comics.

For his first 2009 graphic novel, Masterpiece Comics, Sikoryak retold classic works of literature, such as The Scarlet Letter, Doctor Faustus, and Crime and Punishment, featuring Little Lulu as Hawthorne’s Pearl, Garfield as Marlowe’s Mephistopheles, and Batman as Dostoyevsky’s homicidal protagonist.  In 2017, Terms and Conditions earned Sikoryak greater attention for an even stranger premise: the complete, unabridged iTunes user agreement with Steve Jobs drawn in 94 pages of constantly changing styles. For The Unquotable Trump, released later the same year, he applied his formula to political satire, inserting Donald Trump cartoon images and verbatim quotes into comic book covers, with an appropriate emphasis on supervillains.

Constitution Illustrated: Sikoryak, R.: 9781770463967: Books

Now Sikoryak delves even deeper into American politics by adapting the most central U.S. text. Constitution Illustrated provides the complete, unaltered Articles and Amendments in 114 cartoon vignettes. The book is both Sikoryak’s widest range of comics homages yet and, more oddly, his most practical. Where the iTunes contract was a comically absurd choice because so few people have ever bothered to read it, the Constitution is a keystone of U.S. law and culture. Sikoryak even evokes a pocket-sized edition, that ubiquitous prop used by politicians and pundits in need of something to clench and wave above their heads.

R Sikoryak's latest project is a word-for-word adaptation of the U.S.  Constitution | Boing Boing

I just used my own copy to check whether the 19th Amendment established the right of women to both vote and hold office or just to vote. The page features a spot-on imitation of H. G. Peter, the first but uncredited Wonder Woman artist. That pairing is a good illustration of Sikoryak’s logic and humor. Though unlike the adaptions in The Unquotable Trump, the page isn’t an exact recreation (like John Romita’s 1975 The Hulk on the Rampage cover), but a formally freer combination of style and subject. (The Amendment was just to vote.)

If you’re a comics aficionado, Constitution Illustrated is also the ultimate pop quiz. I didn’t keep score as I flipped through the first time, but I chuckled when I recognized the logic behind each discordant pairing, especially the superhero motif.

For Article I, Section I describing the division of Congress into the Senate and the House, Sikoryak draws two muscular and oppositely colored patriots sprinting in a mirrored pose cribbed from the 1976 cover of “The Greatest Race of All Time! Superman vs. the Flash.” The two DC heroes are allies on the same team, but they still compete against each other all too often. That antagonism increases when the House’s Super Friends face a row of Senate supervillains, an illustration of the House’s sole power to create tax-raising bills and the Senate’s power to amend them.

Why Does He Draw Like He's Running Out of Time? R. Sikoryak Discusses Constitution  Illustrated - A Fuse #8 Production

Instead of Spider-Man’s antagonists Prowler and J. Jonah Jameson watching Peter Parker fall from a window, Sikoryak draws a presiding Chief Justice and a Senator watching the President in the same pose—an apt illustration for the protocols for trying an impeachment. President Parker bears no resemblance to either Donald Trump or Bill CIinton, but Sikoryak kindly adds tingling spider senses emanata as a helpful clue (something artist John Romita did not include on the original 1969 cover).

A 1943-based colonial Captain America blocks a spray of musket bullets—metaphorically blocking the states’ ability to wage war, a power exclusive to the federal government. Sikoryak leaps to 1992 for Article II, Section 2’s description of the President’s role as Commander in Chief. I admit I didn’t recognize Jim Lee’s Wild C.A.T.s cover, just the decade-defining style which I took for Rob Liefeld. Happily, Sikoryak provides a cheat sheet in the appendixes, listing the source for each of adaption.

The list is dizzyingly eclectic: Alison Bechdel, Garry Trudeau, Roz Chast, Art Spiegelman, Chris Ware, Charles Schultz, Frank Miller, Scott McCloud, Adrian Tomine, and on and on. It’s a master course in comics and cartoon history, featuring some of the earliest creators, like Richard Outcault (The Yellow Kid) and Windsor McCay (Little Nemo), and some of the most recent, like Noelle Stevenson (Lumberjanes) and Bianca Xunise (Six Chix).

Given the current cultural moment of Black Lives Matter (the book was released during protests last summer), I took particular interest in Black artists George Herriman, Jackie Ormes, Matt Baker, Barbara Brandon-Croft, and Aaron McGruder, as well as the presentation of Black characters by non-Black artists. The Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez tribute is the most diverse, implying a hope that the Electoral College which it describes should reflect the same level of diversity.

Classic Illustrated: Constitution Illustrated The Daily Cartoonist

Less subtlety, Sikoryak draws a chain-breaking Luke Cage to illustrate the slavery-ending 13th Amendment. His 25th Amendment depicts a Black vice-president assuming the presidency—just as the Black character John Stewart assumed the role of Green Lantern in DC comics.

My disturbing favorite though is Mandrake the Magician turning his African servant Lothar partially invisible beneath the census directive to count only “three fifths of all other persons,” meaning slaves. The image unites the racism of the Article with the racism of the 1930s characters. It also highlights how any contemporary analysis of the Constitution must address its deep flaws too. Sikoryak’s satirical pairings breathe new and sometimes uncomfortable life into the United States’ most living document.

It seems other people have saner hobbies than I do. Instead of picking up a crossword puzzle or a novel when I have a down moment or an urge to mentally recharge, I copy and paste photos into Word Paint and fiddle with them until they don’t look like photos anymore. It’s not the worst habit in the world, but it does feel a little obsessive. I sometimes tell myself it’s a form of research, which it is: I’m exploring the edges of distortion, looking for the sweet spot where an image teeters between representation and total abstraction. I’m especially interested in how simplification and exaggeration at the micro-level relate to the macro-level image, how a pattern of digital strokes can seem to obliterate all content, and yet roll your chair backwards a yard or two and the ghost of the original photograph is still present as a gestalt effect. Brains are particularly good at piecing together broken shards.

Yesterday I read that an appeals court overruled a lower judge’s decision about whether Andy Warhol broke copyright law when he adapted a photograph of Prince without the photographer’s permission. The question is over whether Warhol’s image adequately transformed its source material. The judge said no:

“The Prince Series retains the essential elements of its source material, and Warhol’s modifications serve chiefly to magnify some elements of that material and minimize others. While the cumulative effect of those alterations may change the Goldsmith Photograph in ways that give a different impression of its subject, the Goldsmith Photograph remains the recognizable foundation upon which the Prince Series is built.”

I think “minimizing” and “magnifying” occur in relation to each other and both are aspects of simplification. More specifically, “magnifying” something is an inevitable effect produced by minimizing other things. Warhol simplified the photograph by cropping it and reducing details in the cropped area. He also added contour lines and opaque color.

The first judge ruled in favor of Warhol in 2019, placing his modification within the range of fair use:

“The Prince Series works can reasonably be perceived to have transformed Prince from a vulnerable, uncomfortable person to an iconic, larger-than-life figure. The humanity Prince embodies in Goldsmith’s photograph is gone. Moreover, each Prince series work is immediately recognizable as a ‘Warhol’ rather than as a photograph of Prince — in the same way that Warhol’s famous representations of Marilyn Monroe and Mao are recognizable as ‘Warhols,’ not as realistic photographs of those persons.”

The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals strongly disagrees:

“We conclude that the district court erred in its assessment and application of the fair-use factors and that the works in question do not qualify as fair use as a matter of law… We feel compelled to clarify that it is entirely irrelevant to this analysis that “each Prince Series work is immediately recognizable as a ‘Warhol.'” Entertaining that logic would inevitably create a celebrity-plagiarist privilege; the more established the artist and the more distinct that artist’s style, the greater leeway that artist would have to pilfer the creative labors of others.”

Arguably, Warhol IS a “celebrity-plagiarist,” since his Monroe series were taken from a publicity movie still and so are vulnerable to the same 2nd Circuit conclusion. I have mixed feelings about both decisions (neither seems quite right to me). Either way, I’m really hoping the Vice-President and/or her photographers won’t be suing me any time soon (I featured a Harris series here in January). I also won’t be suing myself. Some of my more recent transformative adaptations are of a considerably less iconic and larger-than-life figure: me.

I’ll leave others to judge whether and in what sense these are or are not immediately recognizable as Gavalers. Perramus: The City and Oblivion (The Alberto Breccia Library)  (9781683962908): Breccia, Alberto, Sasturain, Juan, Mena, Erica: Books

From 1976 to 1983, the U.S. backed a brutal, anti-communist coup and dictatorship in Argentina that disappeared thousands of so-called subversives in the name of preserving social order. Perramus was conceived in the regime’s penultimate year and published in Europe the year after its collapse. The novel’s title character—an amnesiac who assumes the name of the clothing manufacturer he finds on the label inside his borrowed coat—embodies the psychic toll Argentina suffered. The novel’s absurdist narratives map a parallel universe that reflects the real-world horror of the authors’ home.

The Small Press Expo • oncomics: reydsol: Perramus capitulo n°2.... |  Illustration, Art, Art pages

The fabric of that universe is rendered in artist Alberto Breccia’s eclectically surreal and monolithically black-and-white style dominated by painterly brushwork alien to most mainstream U.S. and U.K. comics of the same decade. While conforming to rigid three-row layouts with unframed and uninterrupted gutter edges, the textured interiors of Breccia’s panels are revolutionary in their combination of precision and expressionistic energy. Perramus includes over 460 pages, and literally each offers panel art that could be extracted and framed on a gallery wall. An afterword lists Breccia’s range of materials and techniques (“ink, acrylic, graphite, collage, scraping, staining, dripping, etc.”), but that variety remains unified by his signature line and the printer’s unvarying grayscale. While faces dominate his frames, Breccia imbues buildings and landscapes with equal energy, often pushing toward complete abstraction.

Perramus: The City and Oblivion' Depicts Argentina's Violent Anti-Communist  Purge | PopMatters

Fans of U.S. comics artist Bill Sienkiewicz should recognize a kindred spirit in the flamboyant vacillations between jagged cartooning and detailed realism. The direction of influence is difficult to determine since the first book of Perramus appeared in 1984, the same year Sienkiewicz departed from his derivative Neal Adams style to produce his ground-breaking New Mutants artwork. Breccia’s subject, matter, however, outstrips the Marvel superhero scripts that curtailed Sienkiewicz. Though Breccia evokes Argentina, the world of his art is its own country, one especially apt for communicating his nation’s political dystopia.

It’s no surprise that the project originated with Breccia, who approached Sasturian, an accomplished writer but one then new to the comics form, to produce a script, which the two revised together. Originally Perramus was an eighty-page graphic novel, divided into eight-page chapters, published serially before collected in a single volume. It grew into four distinct novels of increasing length, the last published in 1989.


Book One depicts an unnamed revolutionary escaping a military raid and then choosing to literally sleep with Oblivion (a kind of mythical goddess). After conscripted by the military to dump disappeared objects at sea (including himself), the renamed Perramus escapes with a sidekick, Canelones, into a sequence of absurdist adventures as he follows the out-of-date guidebook left in his coat pocket by a previous owner.  Soon he’s on an island-nation freeing a complacent political enemy and then decoding a Borges sonnet for secret messages. There’s a movie company in there too—one that produces only trailers to scam investors. The effect is eclectic chaos papering over a violently meaningless abyss.

The next three books provide clearer conceits for the nihilistic antics. The second sends the team—Perramus, Canolones, and the Enemy—to protect the six citizens of Santa Maria who secretly possess and safeguard the soul of the city which is in danger of literally vanishing if the authoritarian regime kills them first. The fourth book returns to the island-nation of the first book, where the heroes join forces with a secret circus to combat a capitalist takeover literally fueled by the island’s harvesting of bird shit. The last and longest book is the most light-hearted, written seven years after Argentina’s restoration of democracy. Now employed by real-world novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the heroes must track down the missing smile of the nation’s most beloved actor—or, more literally, purchase the scattered teeth of his disinterred skull.

Perramus: The City and Oblivion - Comics by comiXology

As much as I admire Breccia’s art and Sasturain’s dystopic narrative scope, their collaboration is marred by a dated misogyny most apparent in a reflexive focus on prostitution. When Perramus escapes the military raid on page one, he travels immediately to a brothel, where he chooses between three sex workers—Pleasure, Luck, and Oblivion. The last also narrates the one-page epilogue, the longest sequence of speech balloons for a female character in the entire collection. The first of Santa Maria’s soul-carriers is the “most famous and cheapest whore in the neighborhood,” who only accepts antique coins from before the dictatorship. The fifth is an elderly Dona Juan who competes on a TV show to complete “six consecutive couplings” with “a minimum of” violence in a half hour. It’s a challenge because each woman is considered so ugly:  old, fat, skinny, small, and legless. He is successful until the last, who is unexpectedly beautiful, and when he fails to ejaculate, the crowd roars, “FAGGOT!!!”—unaware that he has fallen in love for the first time in his life.

Perhaps the authors matured a little in the mid-80s, since the last two books are free of prostitutes and overt sex scenes. Canolones does receive a peck on the lips from an Arab woman he saves from white supremacists in Paris. A turbaned friend translates: “She’s very grateful,” and the two literally sail off together in the chapter’s closing panel. After the previous books’ exploitive excesses, the notion that a woman will repay a violent male savior with sex might seem comparatively quaint. The chapter is titled “Coquetry.” The translator, Erica Mena, also assures readers in an ending note that Canolones’ name in the original work, the Black Boy (“el Negrito”), is “completely innocuous and inoffensive” in context.

Although not all of Perramus translates well into our contemporary English context, most of it does. The narrative and visual details are a surrealist kaleidoscope (I didn’t even mention the extended cameos by Frank Sinatra, Fidel Castro, and Ronald Reagan), entertaining on a first viewing and further rewarding on a careful second. I look forward to Fantagraphics’ next publication of Breccia’s seminal works.

ink: perramus – alberto breccia | SPACE IN TEXT

For reasons that annoy me, looking at sequenced images (AKA, comics) is usually called “reading.” While reading is certainly involved when the sequenced images include words, I don’t see why experiencing images in a set order should share a verb with language apprehension. Sure, you can “read” anything in the sense of “interpret.” I’ve told my students to “close read” an image. But that’s not the same thing as: decode the meaning of this set of ordered images as you would decode the meaning of a set of ordered words.

With the exception of some visual art, words are always apprehended in a set order. For images, that order is called “linear.” Words are read in linear order too–but no one bothers stating that because it’s self-evident. And also nearly inevitable. While you could read the words in this paragraph non-lineally (read the first word of each flush-left line, for instance), readers rarely do. That’s because they’re “reading.”

The non-linear relationships between images, however, are more significant on a comics page. If linear order were all that matters, this six-image sequence (of two figures speaking to each other by phone from two phone booths) would always be apprehended as follows:

Those images are based on Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant from the 1963 action-comedy Charade (which is in public domain, and so fair game for my abstract adaptations). When arranged on a page, they produce a 3×2 grid:

That arrangement assumes a z-path viewing path. But the same arrangement viewed as two columns of three images each (instead of as three rows of two panels images each) would produce an n-path and so a different “linear” order:

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is phone-5.png

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is phone-4.png

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is phone-2.png

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is phone-6.png

Transposing that linear order into its own z-path produces this page arrangement:

If words were involved (and so actual “reading”), the sequence order would be set. But since the images are wordless, their order is ambiguous. I’m not even convinced a viewer necessarily begins in the top left corner or ends in the top right corner, though both z-path and n-path dictates it. I suspect viewers approach the wordless page holistically, beginning wherever their eyes are most attracted and roaming in any and multiple direction afterwards. That’s not to say viewers don’t assume the image content is chronological. I suspect they do. But appreciating the temporal relationships of the depicted moments relative to the story world does not require viewing them in that temporal order.

In terms of page space, when the eye travels “up,” viewers know they are moving to images depicting earlier moments, and when the eye travels “down,” viewers know they are moving to images depicting later moments. It’s also possible to experience different temporal relationships (some images might be understood as occurring simultaneously, for instance). But however the images are ordered in the depicted time span of the story world, the order of viewing is independent. Viewers control both pace and direction.

Unless viewers are “reading” the images.

Words can be read in any order too, but their meanings are dependent on their sequence. Reading words backwards (sequence their on dependent are meaning their but) produces meaning only to the degree that you mentally reorder them. That’s not true of images, because an image in isolation produces more meaning than a word in isolation.

You might liken an image to a sentence or paragraph or stanza, but that is misleading too, because it misses the additional meanings produced by non-linear juxtapositions. The difference in effect between these two image arrangements is more than their linear viewing paths:

The first places the two faces in the center squares facing each other. The second reverses their positions so the two faces are facing away from each other:

In terms of the story world, the two characters are never actually facing each other because they are in different locations. The effect is produced through image arrangement, creating a connotation of greater intimacy in the middle row. That’s true of both arrangements, but as the cropped close-ups place the implied viewer into closer proximity, the direction of the figures’ gazes create further connotations. I suspect most viewers would perceive the figures facing toward each other as more emotionally connected to each other, and the facing-away figures as more estranged.

But neither effect occurs when the images are “read” in linear isolation.

Conservative pundit Glenn Beck said last week: “Buy Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head because it’s the end of an era. It is the end of freedom in America.”

Mr. Beck also said: “They are banning Dr. Seuss books. How much more do you need to see before all of America wakes up? This is fascism! We don’t destroy books. What is wrong with us, America?”

Ted Cruz, noting the sudden surge in Dr. Seuss books sales on Amazon, tweeted: “Could Biden try to ban my book next?”

That’s presumably because Fox News implied that Biden was somehow responsible for the Seuss estate’s decision not to print new editions of six books that were already out of print: “Biden erases Dr. Seuss from ‘Read Across America’ proclamation as progressives seek to cancel beloved author.” Fox News also used graphics of popular Dr. Seuss books that were not of the six out-of-print ones, implying that all Seuss books would soon be unavailable.

Facebook memes distorted facts further:

It may seem a little silly to devote political attention to children’s products, but pop culture is pervasive and toys and books influence childhood experience, so it really isn’t so trivial. (Also, I’ve built my academic career on superhero comics, so I can hardly claim to be above the topic.)

So let’s do this one at a time, starting with the potatoes.

First, to clarify what Hasbro did: they added a new toy called “Potato Head,” no “Mr.” or “Mrs.” and so nothing to indicate gender. But they didn’t cancel their pre-existing toys. Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head are still available.

First question: why did Hasbro do this? There was no boycott or petition or anything that I’ve heard about. The news leaked after some internal meeting where the people who run the company initiated the change. I don’t think anyone outside the company knew it was coming. So why add the new toy?

If Hasbro is like all other corporations, they have one primary goal: make as much money as they can for their shareholders. My best guess is that they saw that Mr. and Mrs. weren’t selling well and thought that they could attract progressive parents with a new non-gendered version. But they also kept the old toy, presumably because they thought it would sell better with conservative parents (though I’m a progressive parent who grew up with the Mr. and Mrs. toys and I still happily bought them for my kids).

So what’s wrong with any of that? If you like the traditional toy, great, there it is, go buy it. If you like the non-gendered toy, great, there it is, go buy it. Hasbro is maximizing sales (which is all they care about), but parents are given a greater range of choices. Now if the old toy was eliminated, that would be reason to complain. But it wasn’t. And if you don’t like the new non-gendered version, then you definitely shouldn’t buy it. But why complain that other parents now have the option of buying it? This is how the free market works. Companies make products and compete for buyers. Some products rise and some fall. Where is the problem?

On a personal note, I raised two kids, a girl and a boy. We bought all kinds of toys, traditional “boy” toys, traditional “girl” toys, and non-gendered toys. They each could play with whatever they wanted. And I do remember my toddler daughter being indifferent to the yellow Tonka dump truck (one of my own favorite toys growing up) and then my son really enjoying it a couple years later. That’s great. I didn’t care what they played with. It was sort of the free market approach at the level of our living room.

Now about Dr. Seuss.

I generally object to the term “cancel culture” because it tends to be used exclusively to describe actions by progressives and not to describe similar actions by conservatives, but let’s set the general issue aside and look at this specific incident. The Seuss estate decided to stop publishing six of the author’s most obscure books. They were not responding to any petition or other pressure to do this. The decision was unexpected and came entirely from within their organization.

Jack Shafer, a senior writer at (and so a member of the so-called “liberal MSM”), penned a pretty good op-ed on the topic, which I recommend. Shafer comes down pretty hard on the Seuss estate. If you don’t have time to click the link, here are two pertinent passages:

“It’s a little like a prestigious restaurant formally announcing that it’s no longer offering an unpopular dish it hasn’t cooked in several years.” In other words, the books were out of print already, so why make this announcement at all? It seems like an odd kind of publicity stunt. (If the estate is run by evil geniuses, then maybe they were banking on the conservative backlash and misinformation, knowing it would spike sales across all Seuss titles. Seems like a stretch, but who knows.)

Shafer also makes a deeper critique: “Of course, the owners of the Seuss works have every right to do what they please with their property. But if the goal is to better understand the grievous errors we have made in our media depictions of Asian, Black and Arab people, we would be better served by a decision that both acknowledges the racism but doesn’t impede access to the offending material.”

It’s a decent point. I think we once had a copy of And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street somewhere in the house, but I’ve never even glimpsed the other five books. I googled to find the problematic images (and so can confirm that, yes, the characters from “the African island of Yerka” really do look like monkeys), and was intending to copy and paste them here. But now I’m finding that I don’t want to. I apparently agree with Shafer that access shouldn’t be impeded (feel free to google them yourself), but, like the Seuss estate, I choose not to distribute them myself.

Is that really the end of freedom in America?

I presented in the TEDx Rutgers conference last Saturday. The talks were prerecorded and the Q&As live. Below is the draft of my talk — which, I discovered the first time I recorded it, is way over the 16-minute limit. I hope to have a link to the actual talk soon.

America loves to put heroes on pedestals. And sometimes those pedestals get knocked down. During this Black Lives Matter moment of U.S. history, we’ve seen many former heroes reevaluated and their statues removed. A statue of Stonewall Jackson stood two miles from my house in Lexington, Virginia. It was removed in December, a little over a century after it was erected.

I’m going to look at different kind of hero, one of our country’s most beloved hero types, the superhero, and when I’m done, you will have to decide for yourself whether the superhero stays on its pedestal or if it comes down too.

But let me say: I’m not an evil man who hates superheroes and wants to ruin your childhood.  I’m also not a rabid liberal professor knocking over statues because that’s what we do. I grew up on superheroes. I had a learning disability and read almost nothing but Marvel comics for years: Spiderman, Avengers, X-Men.

I still have boxes of comics in my attic, and I tried to get my son to read every one of them. My daughter fell for Superman and Batman and used to have tea parties with the action figures she asked Santa for Christmas. Superheroes were my children’s childhood. I passed that love onto them.

When I started teaching college, a group of honors students were looking for a professor to teach a seminar on superheroes. My wife—she was my department chair at the time—pointed them my way. I said yes. Obviously. What could be more fun than designing a class on superheroes?

I started researching the history of the character type, filling in missing gaps, learning the cultural contexts, the politics of the periods. This led to articles, which led to books. I’m working on my fifth right now. I am a superhero scholar and a comics theorist. My kids think that’s hilarious—but in a good way.

Not everyone does. When Stan Lee died a couple years ago, Bill Maher mocked people like me. He said:

“twenty years or so ago, something happened – adults … pretended comic books were actually sophisticated literature. And … some dumb people got to be professors by writing [about them]”

And worse, Maher added:

“I don’t think it’s a huge stretch to suggest that Donald Trump could only get elected in a country that thinks comic books are important.”

I disagree. But not for the reasons Maher might think. Donald Trump got elected because we don’t think comic books are important. Macho men in tights are very very silly-looking, but they provide a window into our history that reveals who we once were as a nation and what we must do now to become a better one.

So. Let’s look at the pedestal we put superheroes on. The hero type peaked during World War II, when the U.S. was its most politically unified. The superhero embodied the fight for democracy against fascism. Captain America’s and Wonder Woman’s costume are literally the American flag. And those ideals continued into the Cold War, and beyond it, keeping superheroes linked to our greatest national values. They are our champions of good.

And that, oddly, is the problem. Because what “we” as a nation consider “good” changes, and superheroes have changed with it.

Superman premieres in comics in 1938, but the history doesn’t start there. Go back a decade and you have The Shadow on the radio. Go back another decade and you have Zorro in silent movies. Two more decades and the Scarlet Pimpernel is a hit play and best-selling novel. Those names have faded, but if you think of research as archeology, they’re just under the top layer.

It’s the next layer that disturbed me.

A standard superhero has a costume, with a mask, gloves, a cape, and an identifying emblem on the chest.  That’s Batman. Lose the cape, and it’s Spider-Man and Captain America and Green Lantern and Black Panther and on and on.

Now look at the Ku Klux Klan.

There’s the costume, usually with a cape and chest emblem, and always a mask to hide a secret identity. That’s so they can conduct their self-defined heroic mission, working outside the law

because they believe law enforcement is either corrupt or inadequate. That’s vigilantism.

That’s what superheroes romanticize.

When I saw the connections, my first reaction was excitement, like “Holy shit! Nobody knows this!” And then came, “Holy shit, this is awful. I just ruined my childhood.” Unless it was just a coincidence. Giraffes and sauropods both have long necks. Triceratops and rhinos both have horns. But there’s no direct connection. Rhinos and giraffes didn’t evolve from dinosaurs.

Superheroes didn’t evolve from the KKK.

Unless they did.

I teach at Washington and Lee University—which is at this moment deciding whether to remove Confederate General Robert E. Lee from its name. I live an hour from Charlottesville, where neo-Nazis waved Confederate flags to protest the removal of a Lee statue. Drive another hour and you’re in Richmond, former capital of the Confederacy, where statues have been removed one after the other all year.

The majority were erected during the Klan’s most popular period. That wasn’t after the Civil War. The Klan disbanded when Union troops withdrew from the South. The KKK reformed in 1915, around when that Jackson statue near my house was erected.

The Civil War had been over for half a century.  So why a new interest in the KKK?

Because the film The Birth of a Nation was premiering. It was an adaption of the pseudo-historical novel The Clansman, It describes how the heroic KKK formed to save the South from the despotic Republican party and the oppression of Negro rule. It is a vile novel. It was also a best-seller, not just in the south but nationally. The film was even bigger.  Its racist retelling of American history was not a fringe viewpoint. It was standard belief. After its screening in the White House, Woodrow Wilson said: “My only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”

They arrived at theaters dressed in Klan robes. They were what we now call cosplayers. The same month the same cosplayers met on top the Stone Mountain Confederate monument outside Atlanta, lit a cross on fire, and declared the KKK reformed.

Five years later their membership reached 5 million, including 300 delegates at the Democratic convention. More than 50,000 marched in DC the following summer. The Klan was praised in newspaper op-eds and Sunday sermons as a force for good, especially for combatting criminal immigrants.  

This is the political context of the 1920 film The Mark of Zorro. It’s one of the most successful films of the silent era. Like a Klansman, Zorro wears a mask and a cape, has an identifying symbol—his signature Z—and he keeps his real identify a secret, pretending to be a Clark Kent coward when not in costume, then dressing up to bring criminals to justice as a vigilante.

You can’t call that coincidence. Brontosaurus and rhinos, triceratops and giraffes are separated by millions of years. The Klan and Zorro reached the heights of their popularity at the same moment. That’s pop culture reflecting current events.

And Zorro was surrounded by dozens of other masked dual-identity vigilante heroes. They filled the weekly pulp magazines, comic books’ precursors, published by the same presses, including the later renamed DC and Marvel. When Bill Finger invented Batman, he based him on the pulp magazine hero The Bat by Johnston McCulley, the same pulp author who created Zorro.

Bruce Wayne has his moment of inspiration when a bat happens to fly in front of him and he decides to dress up like a giant bat to terrorize superstitious criminals, that origin scene follows the same progression as Birth of a Nation. The future creator of the Klan sits contemplating what to do, when a white child puts on a white sheet and frightens a group of Black children. The next shot the hero appears in full Klan custom—same as Bruce in his Batman costume.

And it’s not just Batman. He’s just one of hundreds of superheroes that appear in early comic books. And the Klan wasn’t a lone aberration either. They didn’t cause the problem. They reflected a national attitude. Look at Superman again. His name encodes the larger cultural history that prompted the Klan to reform.

When I started researching for that honors seminar, I typed his name into a New York Times search engine with a date range ending the month he premiered. I expected zero hits. I got 2,158. I was confused. Then I realized the play Man and Superman premiered in 1903. “Superman” was the playwright’s translation of Friedrich Nietzsche’s term “ubermensch.” Problem solved.

Except. Why are so many of the articles from the teens and twenties and thirties? And why were they not all in the theater section? In Arts & Entertainment. A ballet dancer is called a “Superman of the toe,” a singer has the “lungs of a superman.” In Sports. Boxer Jack Dempsey is called a superman. Bath Ruth is a “baseball superman.” In book reviews. Biographers called Napoleon, Genghis Khan, Cromwell, and Ben Franklin superman. In current events. Living politicians Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Benito Mussolini, they were all supermen.

None of those refer to the play or to Nietzsche’s ubermensch. They refer to eugenics.

It means “well born.” Sir Francis Galton coined ‘eugenics’ in the 1880s. It’s how he explained so many members of the same families going to Oxford and Cambridge. They must be genetically superior. That included himself and his cousin Charles Darwin.

Darwin had published On the Origin of Species two decades earlier. It didn’t introduce the concept of evolution so much as codify it, turning a once fringe idea into a scientific paradigm.

Humans did not evolve into the planet’s dominant species because God had willed it. It happened through a random process of natural selection. Which meant it could unhappen. Humans could be usurped by some other species or humans could devolve and descend back down the evolutionary ladder. God didn’t care.

That terrified Galton. It terrified the Victorians. Eugenics was their savior. Identify the most fit, intermarry them, and breed a superior race of superhumans. What was called the Superman.

This was science. Look at the Science section of the New York Times:

  • 1924:   The New Superman in the Making
  • 1928:   Superman Can Be Developed
  • 1929:   Science Pictures a Superman of Tomorrow
  • 1934:   ‘Superman’ Evolved by Drugs is Predicted
  • 1935:   Key to Super-race Found in Nutrition

The comic book Superman was Earth’s future too.  In Jerry Seigel’s original script, Krypton wasn’t an alien planet. It was Earth. Superman travel here by a time machine. Superman was literally the superman that science was predicting. And science was white supremacist then, because America was white supremacist. 

The main association “eugenics” today is Nazi Germany. Hitler took the idea of breeding fit, and expanded it to the prevention of the so-called unfit. He started with forced sterilizations in the early 30s and expanded to mass exterminations by the early 40s. That’s how America likes to tell the story. Except it wasn’t Hitler’s idea. It was ours.

The idea of the gas chamber came from Long Island. In 1912 an American eugenics think tank published a guide for “the Best Practical Means for Cutting Off the Defective [gene pool] in the Human Population.” Their recommendations called for immigration restrictions, racial segregation, anti-interracial marriage laws, sterilization, and “euthanasia,” specifically through gas chambers. Unlike Germany, American eugenicists wanted every town in the U.S. to have its own gas chamber for euthanizing their locally unfit. 

They targeted such defective heredity traits as feeblemindedness, promiscuity, criminality, epilepsy, blindness, deafness, insanity, and poverty. And all of these traits were associated with non-anglo-saxons. Eugenics wasn’t fringe science, and it wasn’t fringe politics. It was mainstream belief.

The I.Q. test was created to identify and segregate defectives.

Planned Parenthood was created to prevent unfit breeding through birth control. Indiana passed the first sterilization law, and thirty states followed. The Supreme Court declared: “It is better for all the world, if . . . society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.”

When President Coolidge signed a bill blocking immigration, he explained: “America must be kept American. Biological laws show…that Nordics deteriorate when mixed with other races.”

When Hitler wrote Mein Kampf in 1925, he applauded the U.S., urging Germany had to catch up with our advances in Eugenics. Teddy Roosevelt praised the best-seller The Passing of the Great Race by Madison Grant. It called for the sterilization of “worthless race types.” When Hitler read the translation, he said: “This book is my Bible.”

This is the cultural and political context that produced the superhero. There is no Superman without eugenics. There is no Batman without the KKK. And none of the hundreds and eventually thousands of other superhero characters could have followed them. It makes sense that the superhero has a disturbing history because America has a disturbing history. And loving superheroes, like loving America, requires facing up to that past.

Now to be clear, the creators of Superman weren’t white supremacists. They were Jewish. The early comic book industry was predominantly Jewish, and their superhero stories were overtly anti-fascist. But they were adapting a character type that was already popular. And white supremacy is in the DNA of that character. That is a historical fact that we can repress but we cannot erase. And if we can’t face it, then we remain trapped in it.

Remember what Bill Maher said? “Trump could only get elected in a country that thinks comic books are important.” He’s wrong. Donald Trump could only have gotten elected in a country that thinks it is unimportant to examine its pedestals, including comic books. Like most Confederate statues, superheroes were constructed during an explicitly racist moment. Can they now transcend that moment? Maybe. But only if we acknowledge instead of suppress their history.

This isn’t just archeology. The past isn’t buried underground. Superheroes are thriving right now on film and TV and laptop screens.

Some of them are Muslim and lesbian and Black and other traits that eugenicists wanted to weed out. But they are still romanticized vigilantes wearing costume only one evolutionary step removed from the Klan. If we allow ourselves to keep suppressing that genetic fact, then the superhero can never evolve past it.

And maybe that’s okay? The superhero is just one very silly-looking fragment of American culture. What’s wrong with preserving a childhood fantasy? Why not indulge in a heroic image of goodness and purity? Who’s it hurting?

I think all of us. I think it trains us to keep deifying past heroes by intentionally ignoring their most disturbing flaws. But if we can face up to something as unimportant as comic books, then maybe we have a chance as a nation of facing the much deeper and much more destructive legacies of our profoundly racist past.

I’d thought I was only making the above solo image, but looking back at my saved files, I discovered this sequence. Though it documents an evolving work-in-progress as I experimented with extracted pixels, it feels like the hair is somehow growing and exploding in the world of a story too. Since I feel a robotic connotation in the squares forming the body, and a less-easy-to-define distortion of the face, such a world of fantastical transformation feels possible too. My use of MS Paint grounds the image-making in an obsolete past, or maybe a parallel retro-past timeline. Either way, the laughter is optimistic–and so a future working its way here right now.

These are photo illustrations. I don’t remember what town we were in, only that it was a family brunch in some lovely and possibly vegan dinner somewhere urban, DC maybe? The first thing I did was remove myself. The last step was ordering a physical print on canvas mounted on a wood frame. I was planning to submit it to a couple of galleries in Charlottesville and Richmond. That was about a year ago, just minutes before the pandemic and lockdown. An impossibly long sci-fi year. Glad the future is still smiling.

Image result for Adrian Tomine's The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist

It’s hard to name a more highly regarded comics artist than Adrian Tomine. Though none of his books crack the top tier for either best or most famous graphic novels (MausPersepolisFun HomeWatchmen), his continuing stature and consistently excellent output is hard to rival. Not that you would guess that reading his memoir about his career in comics. While some of his previous work suggests a clear autobiographical edge (his novel Shortcomings offers a cringingly sharp focus on the experiences of Japanese Americans), Tomine has been content with the protective aloofness of fiction. Until now.  

Shifting the spotlight to himself comes with a shift in tone. The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist does not feature Tomine’s signature understatement. Instead, it’s a comic in that other sense: he’s trying (and succeeding) to be funny. Every page is a 3×2 grid, often with the narrative rhythm of a stand-alone comic strip, including a punchline in the concluding square. The four pre-title opening pages establish the norm with the book’s only glimpses of his childhood: a quickly paced sequence of humiliations, including bullies, well-intentioned mishaps by would-be allies, and Tomine’s relentless self-sabotage. I suspect most readers will be able to relate.

Image result for Adrian Tomine's The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist

What’s surprising though is how that childhood motif doesn’t change with adulthood but instead defines the tone of the whole memoir. More than a decade passes in the narrative leap from middle school to his first comic-con, but it’s as if Tomine is still trapped in that same purgatorial lunchroom. His continuing career features the same kinds of social cliques, insults, bullying, and brutally disinterested bystanders.

The list is impressive: Tomine writhes over a bad review. He’s mistaken for an internet service guy by a famous cartoonist. He sits through desolate book signings (once with the added humiliation of fake customers phoned in by the store owner in a failed attempt to lessen the humiliation). He’s heckled at a reading. He’s insulted by a fellow panelist. He’s upstaged by Neil Gaiman. He’s upstaged by Chloe Kardashian (plus no one laughs at his Thomas Pynchon joke). He’s mistaken for Daniel Clowes. His stalker calls him overrated. He’s spotted eating alone in a fast food place by pitying fans.

That’s not even the complete list, because the memoir is a sequence of Tomine’s worst comics experiences. There’s something perversely entertaining for a memoir about the career of its extremely successful author to stay so relentlessly focused on failures. It turns The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist into a kind of anti-memoir, an extended comic strip gag. Tomine waits till the last scene to acknowledge the joke: “My clearest memories related to comics—about being a cartoonist—are the embarrassing gaffes, the small humiliations, the perceived insults … everything else is either hazy or forgotten.” And his memoir proves it.

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But it also quietly undermines that self-deprecation. When he includes an eight-page story about an embarrassing bowel movement, the comics connection is tangential—revealing that the selection is absurdly stacked against him. Clues of his exceptional successes also shine through the crack of his comically negative faulty narration. Sure, he ends his radio interview with exactly the sort of clumsy “Thank you!” that he was desperate to avoid—but the interview was on Fresh Air. Yes, he made a lame expression when he looked back at the camera recording him—but only because he was famous enough to attract the attention of a French TV news show while being honored at a festival. No one in the audience laughed at his joke, but he was being interviewed on stage about his success as a New Yorker cartoonist.

The intentionally myopic memoir leaps over massive and presumably positive swaths of his non-comics-related life. When his daughter makes her first appearance, she’s already speaking in full sentences. His future wife is more integrated, but only because she’s there to experience some of his humiliations beside him. At first, that means witnessing another desolate book signing (and now I’m wondering if the repeated comparisons about line lengths is a veiled penis joke), but soon she moves from spectator to dedicated participant, ready to shout down a rude stranger at the next restaurant table haranguing his date for liking a Tomine book. Tomine’s sixth-panel thought-bubble punchline is revealing: “I’m gonna ask her to marry me.”

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The memoir has a subtle subtext too. Though most of the litany of humiliations might resonate with any reader, some are specifically racist microaggressions—as when a famous author (most names are blacked out as if by a censor’s pen) gratuitously asks Tomine’s nationally and then declares: “I love Jujitsu.” When Frank Miller (one of the most famous writers and artists in superhero comics) reads the nomination list at the Eisner Award banquet (the comics equivalent of the Oscars), he says: “Adrian … uh … I’m not even going to try to pronounce that one!” It becomes one of the memoir’s running gags—“Toe-mine,” “Toe-meen,” “Toe-mih-nay”—not because it’s funny, but because it’s presumably a running discomfort of his actual life.

Happily, even Tomine’s artificially negative premise buckles under the weight of his actual happiness. He appears to be in a deeply loving marriage (even if his wife dozes off as he rants). He appears to have a deeply loving relationship with his daughter (even if her teacher apologizes to all the parents that he drew poop during his class presentation on being a cartoonist). His outward attitude seems to shift too, when, even though he feels insulted to be charged for a “gift” pizza, he’s nice to the chef as he leaves the restaurant with his family.

Apparently thinking you’re having a heart attack has its psychological benefits. His death flashes in his mind (in a sequence of the memoir’s only unframed panels), and as he waits in a hospital bed for his test results, he composes a moving letter to his family (in the memoir’s only full-page panel). Those breaks in form signal a deeper break in his self-deprecating ways, even though the memoir’s final paradoxical punchline is his decision to write a memoir about those humiliations.

Maybe that’s the real joke: self-deprecation can mask deep confidence. If so, Adrian Tomine (Tom-ine-y? Toom-in-ah?) is the most confident comics artist in the world.

Image result for Adrian Tomine's The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist
Image result for Adrian Tomine's The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist

I was going to include “Feminist” and/or “Inclusive” in the title of this post, or, more cutely, “Feminist” and/or “Inclusive,” meaning that any anthology should be both, making the adjectives redundant. But having now edited an actual anthology, I know I’m not the person who gets to evaluate the success of those aspirations. I also thought about beginning the title with “How to Edit,” but again, now knowing the challenges of the task, I feel less certain about offering advice than just reporting my efforts.

Bloomsbury published Creating Comics: A Writer’s and Artist’s Guide and Anthology at the end of January 2021. When I accepted the assignment of writing the textbook, the last word in the title seemed like an afterthought—one I could maybe avoid since the other textbooks in the creative writing series were words-only (Short-Form, Nature Writing, Poetry) and reproducing multi-page comics is a very different (and expensive) animal. Fortunately, my editor said no, I really did have to include an anthology. So I wrote in the proposal: “Based on permissions and availability, selections will be made from the following master list.”

Brainstorming that dream list was easy enough—though narrowing to black and white art didn’t narrow the field as much as I’d expected. The first version included sixty titles. If you add them up (which I just did again) you’ll find 35 men. Which means I flunked my first test: at least half of the authors need to be woman-identified or nonbinary. That’s a pretty minimal requirement, and I think I blew it because I wanted to include several early artists in a field that was so male-dominated for decades. The second half of the list includes more women, but that’s not by chance. Instead of traveling to research libraries, I used my university leave fund to expand my personal library, prioritizing works by women to offset the industry’s gender imbalance. I continued that practice when selecting new releases to review at (I averaged about two reviews a month for close to three years). As a result, whenever I am writing an article or chapter, the odds of my choosing an example by a female artist increase significantly based on how many are literally in arm’s reach of my desk.

There are other oddities about that original list. Picasso? I wanted his Bull series—part of my hope of showing that comics (or at least sequenced images) are already widespread in fine arts. I wanted two paintings from Glenn Ligon’s 1989 series How It Feels to be Colored Me for the same reason—while also demonstrating the hybrid nature of words as images. There are other non-comics comics artists in there too, but once I moved from thought experiment to the tasks of actually editing (researching copyrights, contacting owners, negotiating prices, issuing contracts, acquiring usable scans, keeping within my publisher’s budget, etc.), many of my thought bubbles burst.

Though photographer Elizabeth Bick rode to my fine-arts rescue, I was surprised by the number of traditional comics publishers who do not answer permissions queries. Some do respond, but only after you make many attempts, a process that includes researching company websites for employees with likely-sounding job titles to leave messages. I got to know more than one phone receptionist by first name.

I decided early on to forego Marvel and DC. I’d had mixed results with them both when requesting image rights for illustrations in my previous books. I might have cut them anyway, since they hardly need additional attention—though I was sad when I realized that meant no Howard Cruse (Stuck Rubber Baby made my second list). I cut Frank Miller’s Sin City even before it became clear that no amount of effort would ever compel anyone working at Dark Horse to return my messages. Ditto for First Second (there’s an adaption of a Thomas Hardy poem from a Word War I poetry comics anthology I still long to have). The creators of the photo-comics poetry website The Softer World stopped making new strips a couple years ago, but I still thought they would have responded (I even tried Twitter that time).

My biggest disappointment was Kyle Baker (my second list was significantly better than my first list). I did manage eventually to correspond with an artist named Kyle Baker, but he informed that, alas, he was not that Kyle Baker (though his website is sincerely impressive). I also discovered that Baker’s company name, Quality Jollity, is now owned by a sex toy website (I keep typing and then deleting a follow-up detail about that).

Also, it turns out Random House owns half the planet. I spent a lot of time at their “permissions portal,” discovering just how many imprints redirect there (Pantheon, Penguin, Schocken). They do not, however, continue to hold the rights for The Best of American Splendor and could offer no help tracking down Harvey Pekar. NBM informed me both that they no longer held the rights for Veronique Tanaka’s Metronome, and that there’s no such person as Veronique Tanaka. One Google search later and I learned that Bryan Talbot had taken the name of a Japanese woman as a pseudonym (I decided I didn’t need Metronome after all). Princeton University Press uses, which is a nightmare website if you’re trying to forward password-protected contract links to your London editor from rural Virginia.

There are so many more: IDW, Penn State, New York Review, Koyama, Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly—those last three I leaned on most heavily, in part because I’d fallen for them while writing all those reviews, but also because they all (eventually) responded to my queries and so filled the gaps when others didn’t.

Of my original list of sixty works, seventeen made it into the eventual anthology. That’s a good thing, because the final table of contents is significantly better than my first I-really-don’t-want-to-have-to-do-this-anyway list. It’s still far far from perfect, but I will await others’ opinions about whether it is also “Feminist” and/or “Inclusive” in terms of race, ethnicity, sexuality, and other angles of differences. My failings are at least hard-earned.

The Anthology includes:

Jessica Abel, from La Perdida

Yvan Alagabé, “Postscriptum”

Lynda Barry, “Ernie Pook’s Vague Childhood Memories”

Alison Bechdel, from The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For

Elizabeth Bick, “Street Ballet IV, New York, NY” and “Street Ballet XIII, Houston, TX”

Michael Comeau, from Winter Cosmos

Leela Corman, from Unterzakhn

Marcelo D’Salete, from Angola Janga

Eleanor Davis, “Darling, I’ve Realized I Don’t Love You”

Aminder Dhaliwal, from Woman World

Marguierite Dabaie, “Naji al-Ali”

Max Ernst, “First Visible Poem” (1934)

Inés Estrada, from Alienation

Liana Finck, from Passing for Human

Renée French, from micrographica

GG, from I’m Not Here

John Hankiewicz, “Lot C (Some Time Later)”

Jamie Hernandez, “How to Kill a … by Isabel Ruebens”

William Hogarth, Gin Lane and Beer Street (1751)

Gareth A. Hopkins and Erik Blagsvedt, from Found Forest Floor

R. Kikuo Johnson, from Night Fisher

Miriam Katin, from We Are On Our Own

John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell, from March: Book 2

Miriam Libicki, from Jobnik!

Sarah Lightman, from The Book of Sarah

Daishu Ma, from Leaf

José Muñoz and Carlos Sampayo, from Alack Sinner

Sylvia Nickerson, from Creation

Thomas Ott, “The Hook”

Kristen Radtke, from Imagine Wanting Only This

Keiler Roberts, from Chlorine Gardens

Gina Siciliano, from I Know What I Am: The Life and Times of Artemisia Gentileschi

Fiona Smyth, from Somnambulance

Marjane Satrapi, from Persepolis

Jillian Tamaki, from SuperMutant Magic Academy

Craig Thompson, from Blankets

Seth Tobocman, “The Paranoid Truth”

Adrian Tomine, “Drop” and “Unfaded”

C. C. Tsai and Zhuangi, from The Way of Nature

Felix Vallotton, Intimités (1898)

[If you’re interested in buying a copy, the Bloomsbury site offers slightly lower prices (including a PDF) than at Amazon (though Amazon is worth a glance for the preview of the first 33 pages). If you’re thinking you might want to teach from it, the Bloomsbury site also lets you “Request exam/desk copy.” Also, if you are interested in writing a book review, contact: (if you’re in North America) or (if you’re anywhere else on the planet) to request a review copy.]

The first thing I did when Bloomsbury asked me to write a textbook about making comics was to ask Leigh Ann Beavers to be the co-author. I had gone to her a couple of years earlier when I was searching for a professor at my university to co-teach a hybrid creative-writing/studio-arts course on comics. Co-teaching, like co-writing, is a weird business that’s mostly about the hard-to-quantify intangibles of personal interaction. I can’t remember who suggested I talk to Leigh Ann, but after one meandering chat in her oddly non-rectangular office, she was on board.

We taught Making Comics for the first time in spring 2017. It was a massive success, and so when we taught it again in 2019, we decided to change everything. When we teach it for a third time in spring 2021, we’ll have to change it yet again—though our next roster of students will have copies of Creating Comics for guidance.

A lot happened between the 2017 and 2019 classes, and those changes shaped the book. I originally approached the creative process the way creators at Marvel and DC tend to: a writer writes a script, and then an artist draws the script. I also teach fiction writing and playwriting, so I focused the first half of the term on script-writing, and Leigh Ann focused the second half on transforming those scripts into actual comics. But that process was born from a business model that employs separate writers and artists, each engaged in multiple projects, each on its own conveyor-belt of a production schedule.

Why begin with a script? Because editors can read them. It gives them an idea of what a later comic could be, plus there’s something tangible to critique and revise. Editors, like writers, think in words. But comics aren’t primarily about words. They’re foremost a visual art. What visual artist begins by writing a description of what she plans to draw? Why not just start drawing?

That’s how our 2019 students began. We told them to draw something— literally anything. “Doodle,” we said. Fifteen minutes later their sketchpads were alive with fish and robots and half-human bat creatures—many of which became characters in their later comics. They learned about them by drawing them (the first homework assignment was fifty individual character sketches), not by describing them in words and then trying to translate those word-ideas into images.

Image First. That’s what I wanted to call the textbook. The introduction is a diagnosis for why Art departments have been more resistant to comics than essentially any other area in academia (including even Philosophy and Classics, where I had my first writing and classroom collaborations). The image-focused chapters are the cure.

After completing the first draft, I recognized that I was suffering from the passion of a convert, and so during revision we identified multiple approaches for creating comics:

Image-first (let the drawing process drive the story),

Story-first (the appropriate default setting for memoir),

Layout-first (there are more out there than you think),

Script-first (yes, it has its place too—though preferably not a medium-defining dominant one),

and Canvas-first (a smorgasbord of the best of the above).

Still, image-first is at the heart of book, providing a creative corrective for a script-dominated field. So instead of drawing from a prescribed script, the book explores the range of possibilities for how two juxtaposed images can interact—and having experimented with them all, artists can then select their favorite paths to continue down further. And each path has its own range of possibilities that we literally graph into units that can be shuffled, redrawn, reordered, and drawn again—always with new narrative effects emerging from the open experimentation. Instead of treating a comic as sequence of conceptually separate panels, we look at the page as a whole—because it is. A page is a canvas that must be understood as a single unit too. And if a canvas includes words, the artist-writer must consider how their renderings, placements, and interactions with images produces meanings distinct from words in a prose-only context.

Though our course is titled Making Comics, Making Comics is already an excellent book by Scott McCloud (2006)—and also now Lynda Barry (2019). I recommend them both—and also Abel and Madden’s Drawing Words & Writing Pictures. But they’re not sufficient. Barry’s is a brilliant (and for me emotionally moving) how-to for finding and unlocking a piece of your lost and probably somewhat damaged childhood self. Please read it. The others approach comics not as an open art form, but as a genre-shaped and industry-prescribed medium. That’s useful. But any conventions-first approach is also purposely limited. We tried to wipe the slate clean and identify a new set of underlying fundamentals.

Our subtitle changed too. Bloomsbury original asked for “A Writer’s and Illustrator’s Guide,” but reducing an artist to only an illustrator also reduces comics art to only illustrations, which illustrate words and ideas that exists before the image is created. Comics certainly can be that, but they can be more too.  

Because we wanted to throw the widest possible creative net (because it increases the odds of individual artists discovering something new-to-them to explore and uniquely expand), we avoid historical and medium-based definitions of comics and accept that any two images placed next to each other could be a comic. Some scholars might flinch at the radical inclusivity (though as a scholar, I would have plenty more to say on the subject), but that concern is literally academic. Creating Comics is instead about the hands-on creative process, but with a birds-eye perspective of the sometimes-overlooked possibilities.  

I’m also ridiculously proud of the fifty-or-so illustrations (and, since Creating Comics isn’t itself a comic, they really are illustrations). I’m a fledging digital artist, and so my contributions offer a fun contrast to Leigh Ann’s professional inks, but even better: the book is filled with artwork by our 2019 students. We were in the process of writing the first draft while teaching the second course, and as their comics began to emerge, we suddenly saw the obvious: they were already our collaborators. Without the course, we couldn’t have written the book, and our students’ artwork is the ideal document of the concepts and processes we describe.

And the grand finale:  a 143-page anthology of comics excerpts by over forty comics artists, including Barry, Bechdel, Davis, Hernandez, Satrapi, Tamaki, Tomine—I need another post to give due credit, but flipping through the anthology probably provides the best lessons in comics-making that any textbook could offer. It’s pleasantly humbling to write what you hope to be the book for teaching comics and see it instantly overshowed by its own second half.

If you’re interested in a copy, the Bloomsbury site offers slightly lower prices (including a PDF) than at Amazon (though Amazon is worth a glance for the preview of the first 33 pages). If you’re thinking you might want to teach from it, the Bloomsbury site also lets you “Request exam/desk copy.” Also, if you’re interested in writing a book review, email: (if you’re in North America) or (if you’re anywhere else on the planet) to request a review copy.

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