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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

I heard a third-hand theory that it takes six weeks for a body to flush out the initial grief hormones after a loss, but neither Google nor my counselor would confirm that. It’ s been ten weeks since my mother died. For the first month my mental focus was zero, and all I could find myself doing was working obsessively on comics images. February was sporadically better, and some version of my former brain seems to be sprouting with spring now. Not sure that has anything to do with cortisol or  takotsubo cardiomyopathy, but it fits my I’m-feeling-better-now narrative, so I’m going with it.

Last month I posted a set of thirty-some images of women-in-action, each literally culled from a photograph (hyper-stripped to mostly outlines, which also makes alterations easier). I was also planning on combining them on this 6×4 gridded pages:

But rather than using the squares as image-enclosing frames (AKA, “panels”), I filled each to create a semi-continuous background that the figures also interact with. Here’s the new, 7-page sequence:

So what does this have to do with my dead mother? Well, the plan was always to replace the black background squares with superimposed photographs of her. I’m thinking there will be 4 sequences of 6 pages (matching the panel grid, with the pages of the repeating floating figure removed to create an epilogue of sorts), with each sequence featuring a different photo or photo collage. Eventually I want to incorporate words, but for now here are two “silent” versions. They seem to be about working through a process, maybe a physical metaphor for the possibly apocryphal grief hormones that may or may not have been working through my body this winter. Like most things, this is a work-in-progress.

The second sequence uses a painting (by a relative, but I’m not sure who, some increasingly distant cousin I think) of my mother’s college graduation photo:

Is the static background a representation of death and the impossibility of change? The foregrounded figures are semi-transparent and so made of the same image content, just filtered for a color contrast. They’re of course static too, but they appear to be moving, climbing, jumping, swimming, floating, walking their way in and out of some invisible ocean and up and down some invisible mountain. Is that a metaphor too?


While numerous scripters, pencilers, inkers, and the occasional colorist vie for authorial recognition in the comics industry, the lowly letterer remains the least lauded of contributors. Marvel’s star scripter Brian Michael Bendis tells aspiring writers: “Lettering should be invisible. You shouldn’t notice it.” It’s no surprise then that a letterer’s name never appears on a comics cover.

In addition to comics artist, illustrator, and graphic designer, Hannah K. Lee is a professional letterer and the lone author of  Language Barrier, a pleasantly perplexing amalgam of one-page comic strips, single-issue zines, and stray experiments in the comics form. 

Or almost never. By pushing at the ambiguous border between words and images, Lee gives new meaning to comics pioneer Will Eisner’s observation: “WORDS ARE IMAGES!”

Even Bendis acknowledges that lettering needn’t be invisible if “it is a determined piece of storytelling in graphic design”—a description of nearly every page of Lee’s collection. In the most extreme cases, like the two-page spread “Millennial” that concludes the book, letters are the only graphic element.

But more often Lee combines words and pictures. The yellow letters of “You don’t owe anyone anything” contain warped smiley faces, much of “Nowhere to hide” is obscured by blades of grass, and clusters of eyes dot and cling to “Beautiful! We see you.” Sometimes Lee’s letters seem to fight to emerge from webs of similar shapes, adding irony to “Everyone knows your name” and “You are popular.”

Even when Lee renders words in familiar fonts, she finds other visually playful ways to disrupt their meanings. For the sequence “Close Encounters,” she isolates each word, floating their letters in white space for the reader to piece together while also puzzling their relationships to juxtaposed images. The fractured letters of “Change” hover beside a ribbon knotted around an impossibly thin neck. The letters of “Nervousness” dot the spaces beside and between a wavy tuning fork. Even when letters cohere easily, their accompanying image challenge simple interpretations—as with a sheet dangling from a clothesline beside the phrase “A soul leaving a body.” The graphic quality of the words are stable, but their semantic qualities continue to shift unpredictably.

Lee also explores images in isolation. The typically white background of the opening, title, credit, and closing pages feature wallpaper-like renderings of commercial product characters: the Chicken of the Sea mermaid, Chiquita banana’s Carmen Miranda, the smiling figure of Sun-Maid raisins. Though unaccompanied by product logos, the iconic images evoke the words Lee eliminates. Roughly of a third of the collection consists of other wordless images, some free-standing, others in sequence.

The 17-page “Shoes Over Bills” lovingly details a collection of women’s shoes, with juxtaposed phrases “Credit card debt” and “Emergency dental work.” “Hey Beautiful” is an appropriately fragmented sequence of a female body shattered and collected in still-life fruit bowl. It also includes free-floating words, presumably spoken by a male voice offering compliments, insults, and offers to mansplain Radiohead and Battlestar Galactica (the original).

Such gender analysis is central to Lee’s larger project. “Interpreting Emoji Sexts” offers contrasting translations of Lee’s hand-drawn rendering of ambiguously suggestive emoji combinations. Another two-page spread offers valentine candies with the unlikely phrases “Equal chore distribution” and “I like your body hair.” “Penises” consists of one-page comics arranged in traditional grids and features a cartoonishly rendered woman assessing the undrawn, but graphically implied shapes of her changing lovers.

Lee opens the collection with a similarly traditional comic, the four-page “1 is the Loneliest Number,” that explores the unlikely benefits of living alone. It is a welcoming entrance into what soon evolves into a comparatively anarchic exploration of the outer edges of the comic form.

If you’re looking for conventional storytelling with a main character narrating the travails of contemporary dating, this is not your book. Which is a shame, because Lee explores that same subject matter to better effect by abandoning panel grids and just-like-life characters and diving directly into the deep end of the image-text pool. Experimentation is rarely this much fun.

And if you don’t run off and buy Language Barrier (one of many gems from Koyama Press), you can stop by Lee’s website to see more of her work.

[The original version of this and my other recent comics reviews appear in the comics section of PopMatters.]



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I’ll be co-teaching “Creating Comics” for the second time this spring term and just put in my book orders–changing literally every single title on the syllabus. Happily, that includes adding comics journalist Miriam Libicki’s Toward a Hot Jew, who will also be visiting my campus this spring, thanks to W&L’s Hillel House.

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Toward a Hot Jew collects seven of Miriam Libicki’s graphic essays or, as she refers to them in subtitles, “drawn essays.” Though her subjects are overtly political, her shifting styles happily produce little resemble to the genre-defining comics journalism of Joe Sacco. Libicki instead achieves her own hybrid, non-fiction subgenre, one that interrogates both her stated topics and the comics form in general.

Only two of the essays—analyses of Jewish influences on autobiographical comics and the relationship between Jewish and black identity—resemble traditional comics.

Not only does Libicki subdivide their pages into (usually) traditional panel layouts, she renders their images in the simplified and slightly exaggerated style of cartooning, including a speech-balloon-trailing version of herself who address readers through the fourth-wall of the page.

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Libicki, however, distances herself from her own representation, noting in an arrow-shaped, Magritte-alluding caption box pointed at her cartoon self: “(This is not Miriam Libicki. You are unlikely to recognize Miriam Libicki on the street, with these drawings to go on.)”

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Even if she did not literally draw attention to her artifice within the essay, its placement within the collection achieves the same result. In the two essays prior to her cartoon self’s first appearance, Libicki already rendered herself in an impressively naturalistic style.

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She also appears briefly but in equally vivid detail in two later essays. While I don’t know if I would recognize her on the street based on these images (I suspect I would), the contrast is pronounced.

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These self-portraits appear in essays that also avoid the panel layouts of traditional comics. Four of the seven essays instead devote each of its pages to single images, with text variously positioned around it. The title essay consists of pencil portraits of figures floating in context-less, white backgrounds.

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The photo-based images far exceed the realistic detail of most comics, nonfiction or otherwise. Three other essays retain the one-to-one image-to-page ratio, but expand the visual range with watercolors and colored lettering—a further departure from traditional comics.

Libicki’s essays then champion multiple approaches by avoiding a single, dominant style. They range between nine and forty-five pages, but their effect is also accumulative, one emphasized by the absence of a table of contents. Splash pages mark each essay’s opening, but the divisions are otherwise fluid, promoting continuous reading. The chronological ordering also creates a longer narrative effect with evolving portraits of both Israel and Libicki herself. The first essay, one of the collection’s shortest, features her in art school in 2003, experimenting with single images broken into panels that both conform to and undermine the comics convention. “Ceasefire” recounts in a diary-like fashion her week-long visit to Israel at the end of the Lebanon war in 2006. She returns two years and twenty-four pages later in “fierce ease,” reprising her watercolor portraits of interview subjects, mostly friends and relatives, who speak in speech bubbles interspersed with Libicki’s narration overlaid on backgrounds. “Strangers” continues a similar approach, but with a greater emphasis on collaged texts.

Libicki quotes extensively in other essays too, even the two traditionally comics essays, providing one of the collections’ few consistencies. She also often embeds her process into her final products. Midway through “Strangers” she writes in a dated, diary-like entry: “But I’ve been doing all of this research about tensions around Jewishness and Blackness! And Lisa prophesized this four years ago! This has to be what my next drawn essay is about.” And of course it is. “Jewish Memoir Goes POW! ZAP! OY!” even includes a redrawn and resized version of a page from the preceding essay, now to express an autobiographical fact: “I write all about Israel, but they can’t show my drawn essay at the local JCC because ‘my love for Israel is not evident,’ and I’d break the Holocaust-survivors’ hearts.”

While her subject matter is almost always Israeli society, most especially critiquing racist attitudes toward black Jews, Libicki also indirectly portrays the stages of her own evolving self: suburban child, grad student, fiancé, mother, art instructor. But as babies appear on her lap and hip—each rendered in the naturalistic or cartoonish style of that page’s Libicki—the author is always foremost a journalist interrogating Jewish identity. When her content is most didactic, she chooses traditional comics forms, literally lecturing about semiotics and Orientialism, complete with quotations from Edward Said, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and Cornel West.


The title essay is equally argumentative in its analysis of the changing sexual perception of male and female Israeli soldiers, but the effect is lessened by its disembodied text: no cartoon Libicki peers out from the page to lecture in talk balloons. While Libicki finds cartoons and panel layouts conducive to clear conclusions—she advocates for “radical empathy” and “alter-alterity” in the final essay and argues for the superiority of “hyper-self-consciousness” in “gonzo aesthetics” in the fourth—her one-page watercolors favor a much less didactic approach. Her visits to Israel instead evoke uncertainty: “The only conclusion I have is that no matter how I try to relate to Israel—tourist, former resident, or journalist—I’m mostly an outsider who can’t really understand.” After recounting the endemic mistreatment of Sudanese refugees, she concludes only with questions and self-criticism: “But what can I do? I sign a digital petition, hold my Canadian baby, and read my twitter.”

The undertone of self-doubt, as well as Libicki’s interview method, begins with the opening essay as her fellow students’ attempt to explain “why they wanted to be artists.” The fragments include missed introductions, drunken exhibitions, distracted kissing, impractical visions, illegible instructions—ending with Libicki’s own regrets over unusable interviews and her inability to imitate Joe Sacco. The failure of course is paradoxical. Had Libicki succeeded in reducing herself to a knock-off Sacco, Toward a Hot Jew would not exist and comics journalism, as well as comics generally, would be less for it.

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[The original version of this and my other recent comics reviews appear in the comics section of PopMatters.]

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Readers of comics tend to assume that panels are to be viewed in a certain, pre-determined order, and that order tends to be a Z-path, left to right and then top to bottom, which is also how English readers read English. English-reading readers of comics tend to view panels as if they were “reading” them, regardless of whether the panels include words or not.

Consider this 10-panel layout:  

While there are points of potential ambiguity, a majority of viewers would likely order the panels this way:

Some might instead read the bottom half of the layout as two columns and so order the panels in an N-path, top to bottom and then left to right:

Regardless, comics theory presumes that panels define the reading path. But what if they don’t? Consider what happens when the identical layout contains this content:

The top panels may be understood in two ways: 1) the figure is climbing into the water, or 2) the figure is climbing out of the water backwards. Even without the floating images in the bottom half of the layout, I think readers would understand the figure to be climbing into water. If so, that means the panels have to be “read” from right to left. If read left to right, the inferential leap from the fully standing figure to the figure submerged to her shoulders is difficult to understand.

The bottom panels are ambiguous too, but I predict the figure’s head defines the first and last positions. If so, the reading order would be:

Note that the final panel would be the bottom left, further disrupting Z-path and N-path norms. Consider a variation:

Here I assume this reading path ends in the bottom right panel, the same as any N-path or Z-path:

But then how are the three panels on the left ordered?  In both cases, I think viewers mostly ignore the gutter dividing those panels and instead treat the bottom half of the layout as three page-width panels:

But if a reader can ignore some panel divisions, what prevents a reader from ignoring all panel divisions? If panel divisions can be ignored, how can panels be the defining factor for reading paths?

Consider the same image content, minus the panel-shaped black context:

The image order seems fairly obvious:

And here’s the variant:

Again, the order seems straightforward:

In these cases, the images alone define the reading path. But might the images also define the reading path even when the images are part of panels? If so, readers of comics aren’t reading panels at all. They’re reading panel content, which typically correlates with panel division, creating the impression that panel division controls reading.

But what if it doesn’t?

When given a choice to follow a path defined by panels or a path defined by image content, readers might follow the images. Because comics creators tend to align panels and panel content, readers rarely face that choice. As a result, comics theory may be climbing down the wrong path.

The word “process” has changed meaning since my mother’s death.  As I mentioned in a previous post, the creative areas of my brain seem to prefer comics for processing mourning–I think because I have a distrust of words. As a fiction and essay writer I exploit their slipperiness, how selection of details and tilts of connotation control a universe of impressions. I would be naive to think images are different, let alone their yet-more-slippery intersection with words, but images are new to me creatively, so that newness gives me something to hold onto as climb through this namelessness.

Earlier this month I posted a short comic about my mother’s death, which I called “The Swimmer.” The juxtaposition was part happenstance since I’d already created the swimmer image for a different project. I’ve since extended that impulse into a 33-image sequence of the swimmer, who now also climbs, dives, floats, and walks. I had thought to end with the floating imagery–a page of the same figure repeating–but the corpse-like quality felt wrong, so now she emerges from the water, strolls onto land, and begins climbing again, repeating the whole process. I’m not sure if the connotation is circle of life or Sisyphus in the underworld, but I’m apparently content with both. I have complicated plans for these figures, so this is a quick window into my process, a circuitous grief-in-progress.

Beginning weekly in February 2003, the website began publishing a hybrid comics form that combined webcomics, poetry comics, and photocomics. The creators, Joey Comeau and Emily Horne, continued their collaborative project through June 2015, before making a selection available in book form. Anatomy of Melancholy: The Best of a Softer World features roughly 230 of the 1,248 comics previously archived on the website.

Most follow the standard newspaper comic strip format of three square panels arranged in an even row, though some are instead double rows of six—sort of like Sunday editions. All of the images are photographs, and all of the text is typeset in a black courier font and placed across the photos in thin white caption boxes shaped to the words—as if each phrase has been hand cut from a newspaper like a ransom note. The words combine haiku-like brevity with dark comic wit. Arranged as standard free verse, they might look like this:


I wonder how many

hauntings go



because wailing and

the clank of chains


are still better than

an empty house.


But Horne and Comeau arrange their phrases in fragments across the panels. Rather than a traditional left border, the panels serve as stanza units that move a reader’s eye left to right, usually with further shifts within each panel, producing even greater rhythmic effects.

Unlike the photocomics creators of Italian fumetti, Horne and Comeau use no speech bubbles or thought balloons. As a result, the speaker seems slightly aloof, an observer of the image rather than a direct participant of its depicted moment. And rather than placing captions at the top or bottom of panel edges, the creators always superimpose their phrase strips across their photographs, blocking some of the image content and so adding to the speaker’s indifferently sharp tone.

The photographs tend to feature individuals in varied locations, sometimes indoors, sometimes outside on streets or around trees or both. Other times they focus on pets or inanimate objects or architecture or landscapes. Whether color or black and white, the images have the feel of snapshots, as if culled from family photo albums rather than a collection of professional art prints. This helps to create the illusion that we are dipping briefly into the mundane particularities of strangers’ lives, sometimes exposing a specific character’s acerbic thoughts, other times pausing for an unidentified speaker to opine omnisciently before continuing to the next random intersection of passing interests.

Horne and Comeau’s most striking visual effects are through framing. They often reproduce the same photograph three times, cropping it differently in each panel. Rather than repetition, the new croppings either reveal new information that alters first impressions or emphasizes previous content in new and scene-altering ways. Sometimes the progression zooms slowly in, emphasizing certain aspects by eliminating others.

Other times the progression zooms slowly out, deemphasizing initial content by expanding its surroundings.

Still other times, the cropping progresses sideways, both revealing new and eliminating old content.  In “I could never deny her anything,” the first image centers a young man pushing his apparent bride on a swing.

The second and third iterations move him incrementally out of frame until the bride is alone and centered and he is missing entirely. The progression, interesting in itself, resonates even more in combination with the text, since neither the text nor the images alone communicate the full effect of their combinations. The groom’s visual absence in the last panel is more meaningful because of his declaration that the relationship is over in the first, and the bride’s insatiable wish is selfishly destructive only because it removes him.

The croppings are inventive rather than formulaic, with many progressing orderly as described above, while many others fluctuate unexpectedly.

Horne and Comeau are also masters of gestalt effects. While most panel juxtapositions in comics require readers to fill in conceptual gaps—usually time leaps and changes in point of view—gestalt closure requires a more literal filling in of gaps by extending a single image across two panels as if the gutter between them erases an unseen middle portion. Horne and Comeau literally erase those gutter segments from their photographs, surprising a reader’s eye by offering no conceptual leap.

Usually they combine re-cropping and gestalt techniques within the same strips.

As with most comics, neither Horne and Comeau’s words nor images would work effectively in isolation. Most comics, however, don’t temp a reader to isolate their components, but poetry and photography often do stand alone. Here the combinations are happily everything. Though nothing like “Peanuts” and “Garfield” or even “Calvin and Hobbes” and “The Far Side,” they also conjure an imaginary universe in which “A Softer World” is just one daily strip on a newspaper page of dark and genre-disturbing funnies.

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[The original version of this and my other recent comics reviews appear in the comics section of PopMatters.]

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My mother died last month, so I can now fill in the open space in those horrifying parentheses. She suffered from advanced Alzheimer’s for the last year and a half, so that gap, that blank area within her closed identity, felt especially apt, an absence at her purgatorial core. Which is why my first reaction after her death was relief.

My second was to make comics. I’ve spent my life composing in prose, but the interplay of words and pictures and the peculiar gaps and overlays of the comics form feels right for working through the meanings of my mother. I began exploring image-texts after her diagnosis too, so the form is already infused with the fragmented logic of Alzheimer’s for me. All memories are simplified and warped. Cartoons make that literal. And gutters are the defining structure of sequences, the bottomless open spaces readers have to endlessly bridge.

So below is a three page comic I made after driving to Williamsburg to clean out her assisted living apartment with my sister and brother-in-law. Her body had already been cremated. The text may be difficult to read in this format, so I’ll include it first as a free-standing block of prose.

“After the funeral home picked up her body, my brother-in-law took snapshots of the room, in case something went missing, like the TV or the paintings. He showed them to me while we were looking at her ashes on their kitchen table.  I asked him to email them, and my sister thumbed keys on his new phone until they all sent.  I had needed to take the plastic bag out and hold its weight between my hands. The ash looked exactly like ash, so of course I thought of the lifetime of cigarettes she had exhaled. I shouldn’t have been surprised when someone said the white specks were bone, obviously not pebbles, not sea shells.”

It’s perfectly fine in itself, but I wrote it while also developing the visual elements it would interact with. So for me, reading it in isolation makes it seem not just incomplete, but haunted, or rather emptied. Not only are the intended images not there, but the words are less ambiguous, are more, well, prosaic, without the visual referents leveraging more possibilities from each phrase, like the words themselves have been stripped out. Stripping out is literally how I make my images. I had already been working with a photograph of a swimmer, digitally culling it down to outlines. I repurposed it for this sequence:




I don’t believe my mother’s soul went anywhere when she died, because I don’t believe my mother had a soul. I don’t believe anyone does. I find the word painful, an impossible amalgam of bad science and desperation. I could not write something describing anything close to what these images imply: some inexplicable other-wordly essence bisecting ours and swimming off to deeper waters. It’s not something I can believe through words. But pictures? Or better still, pictures and their slippery interactions with words–apparently I can get on board with that.

Apparently I’m better at mourning my mother in comics.


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