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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Monthly Archives: February 2016

I first met Shreya Durvasula in 2008 when she wandered into my office looking for a professor willing to teach an honors course on superheroes. I said yes. That course has since resulted in a half dozen essays, a book, and this blog, which is now in its fifth year. So it’s my particular pleasure to invite Shreya up to the virtual podium:

 

Walter White: Ultimate Supervillain or Misunderstood Entrepreneur?

Guest blogger, Shreya Durvasula

 

Since their creation less than a hundred years ago, superheroes have effortlessly captured our imagination. Studios seem incapable of making non-superhero movies and television executives are  following suit. As the superhero genre expands past the pages of the pulpy comic book, it has to evolve and grow. A great example of this growth is the show Breaking Bad, particularly in its depiction of the character Walter White. A close look at Breaking Bad will reveal its underlying superhero DNA and how Vince Gilligan, the show’s creator, used the superhero genre to expound on his hypothesis.

First, a brief history of the origin of the superhero figure. The modern American superhero is derived from hundreds of years of hero figures. The superhero genre has its roots in myths, with figures such as Odysseus or Robin Hood linking the notion of heroism and bravery to justice and fairness. In the era directly preceding what would come to be known as the “Golden Age” of superheroes, figures such as Doc Savage, Tarzan, and the Phantom laid the foundation by contributing certain genre elements such as a double identity, masked costumes, and superhuman strengths. Arguably, one of the direct ancestors is the Scarlet Pimpernel, the dashing protagonist of Baroness Emma Orczy’s same titled play and subsequent novels. Each iteration brought us closer to what is undeniably the first superhero; Superman. Adorning the iconic cover of Action Comics #1, Superman ushered in a new age and helped establish a new literary genre. Batman and Wonder Woman followed suit and helped codify the genre. The genre has grown by leaps and bounds, no pun intended. A new generation of writers, artists, and creators pushed the boundaries of the established classification in the Silver Age of Comics, with figures such as the Hulk, Spider-Man, and the Flash redefining the genre.

Delving deeper into the specifics, let’s look at the definition and the various elements that comprise a superhero figure.

  • A double Identity
  • Mission
  • Powers
  • Costume
  • Sidekick

When we meet the mild-mannered Walter White with his alliterative alter-ego sounding name, he is working two jobs to make ends meet. His life is bleak, and it gets bleaker when he finds out he has cancer. Walt undergoes chemotherapy and pumps toxic chemicals into his body to fight the tumorous lung cells. As the chemicals course through his veins, Walt has to resort to increasingly desperate measures to pay for his treatment.

BB_1_Toilet (1)

Historically, chemicals/ chemistry as an agent of change is a common trope in comic books, especially in the Silver Age of Comic Books. A radioactive spider bite mutates Peter Parker’s DNA, gamma radiation transforms Bruce Banner into the Hulk. And the anti-carcinogen chemicals used in chemotherapy allow for the creation of Walt’s alter-ego, Heisenberg. As Walt starts cooking methamphetamine to make money for his family, he gets pulled deeper into the drug world. Initially just a pseudonym to protect his identity, Heisenberg ultimately becomes the persona Walt uses in that world. This development happens over the course of the first season, culminating in an explosive scene where Heisenberg has ostensibly bested his first arch-nemesis, Tuco.

Heisenberg Intro CLIP

This is arguably the first appearance of Walt’s alter-ego, Heisenberg. Unlike Walter, Heisenberg is self-assured and confident. He is able to hold his own against an aggressive and unstable drug dealer and he only grows stronger.

The reason Walter White continues to make methamphetamine despite the danger is for the money. Well, not just the money.

BB_2_Walt

While solid, hard cash pays for his treatment, it also then serves as a nest egg and a protection of sorts for Walt’s family- his wife, Skyler, his son Walt Jr (immediately a properly sympathetic character), and his as yet unborn daughter. Walt’s prowess at organic chemistry, even for a brilliant student from the California Institute of Technology, border on the fantastical. He is able to make an incredibly pure thus potent version of meth, “Blue Sky” which even addicts recognize as being superior. Early in the first season, Walt destroys the evidence of a murder using the dissolving powers of hydrofluoric acid to destroy a human body. He creates a mini-bomb from fulminated mercury which he uses to destroy Tuco. In season 2’s episode “4 Days Out”, Walt constructs a mercury battery using chemicals, coins, and galvanized metal for the chargeless RV, rescuing Jesse and himself from dire straits making MacGyver proud. Walt may have the goods, but Heisenberg is able to deliver them.

Any respectable superhero must have a sidekick, and Walt would be bereft without Jesse Pinkman, or Cap’n Crunch as he’s known in the meth head circle. Walt chances upon Jesse escaping during a DEA ride along, and convinces him to help Walt cook and sell meth. Jesse is Walt’s sidekick, helping him navigate the seedy world of drug dealing, while providing a skewed moral compass. They even have either own version of the Batmobile, the RV. It can’t fly, but it does allow them to cook in undisturbed peace and a place to store their equipment. Despite his complicity in Walt’s dealings, Jesse remains an innocent figure, even by the end of season 5.

BB_3_Walt and Jesse

Finally, what would a superhero be without a costume? Naked, unrecognizable. Heisenberg’s iconic porkpie hat elevates his status to measley high school teacher to drug lord. By Season 3, Heisenberg has accumulated a reputation for himself and is known by his pork pie hat.

But is Walter White a superhero or a supervillain?

BB_4_HeisenbergBB_5_Porkpie Hat

In Peter Coogan’s book, “Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre”,  he outlines 5 main types of supervillains; the monster, the enemy commander, the mad scientist, the criminal mastermind and the inverted superhero-supervillain. While Walter definitely displays aspects of the mad scientist and the criminal mastermind, he is a great representation of the last type of supervillain; the inverted superhero-supervillain. Walter clearly views himself as a “good guy”, a man kept down by the fates but his actions are those of a self-interested and selfish man. Season 2, Episode 12 “Phoenix” marks an important turning point in Walt’s character. Walt and Jesse are on the outs, and Walt is holding Jesse’s share of the drug money hostage until Jesse can prove his sobriety. Their relationship is being further threatened by Jesse’s girlfriend, Jane’s interference. Walt arrives to confront Jesse and notices both Jesse and Jane in a deep drug-induced stupor. He inadvertently rolls Jane over on her back and she subsequently chokes to death on her own vomit, while Walt looks on, horrified but unwilling to intervene. His desire to be rid of Jane’s involvement combined with his callousness towards an innocent life are classic supervillain traits.

Walt displays other traits typical of a supervillain. In season 5, Walt is given the opportunity to sell his share of the methylamine to a competitor and receive $5 million. He refuses to take the money and leave the meth business. This mania about needing to be the best and creating a drug empire is typical supervillain behavior. “You asked me if I was in the meth business or the money business. Neither. I’m in the empire business.” While he seems to have some remorse about the vile product he’s creating, it is fleeting at best. Any guilt Walt feels is overshadowed by this pride in the purity of the product. This pride in his criminal artistry is another one of the characteristics of a villain.

BB_6_Wound

One major attribute of a supervillain is “the wound”. Many supervillains suffer from an original incident that leads them to battle the superhero. This wound, real or perceived, is essential to the identity of the supervillain, the core of what drives them to do ill. Walter believes what he has—not just the physical resources of supplies and equipment he possesses but more fundamentally, his native resources of intelligence and invention—is of infinite and absolute worth. He is not going to stop until he’s been fairly compensated for them, which means he’s never going to stop. 

I’m the one who knocks clip

It’s not just the character of Walter White that draws inspiration from the superhero world.  From the colorization to the cinematography, elements of graphic novels and comic books are evident in the look and feel of Breaking Bad. When comics were printed on pulpy, rough paper, they had to be brightly colored to sell. Superheroes had to recognizable when someone was scanning the newsstand. Vince Gilligan similarly colorized his characters through costuming. Walt’s sister-in-law Marie’s obsession with the color purple was treated as a joke, but it becomes her signature color. This meticulously prepared chart shows the color of each outfit the characters worse throughout the series. Delving a little deeper in the colors, we see that Walt starts off in neutral, bland earth tones. His obsession with money is reflected in the light greens. As he becomes Heisenberg, the colors get darker and muddier.

Skyler is usually dressed in blues and whites, indicating her innocence and purity. In season 3, as she gets increasingly drawn into her husband’s web of lies and deceit, her clothes get darker. When she is fully immersed in a scheme to launder Walt’s drug money, Skyler is shown as wearing black and dark browns. She is once again depicted in lighter colors as she tries to extricate herself and her family from Walt’s drug empire. This type of color analysis can be done for Hank, Jesse, and Walt Jr. as well. Gilligan’s meticulous eye for colors and costuming reinforce who the characters are and the world they inhabit.

Print

Gilligan’s careful consideration of color is evident in the cinematography and visual design of the show. In an interview with Creative Cow, Director of Photography Michael Slovis says about the show’s look:

One trademark in the show that’s terrific and that Vince and I talk about and exploit is that we often don’t see the faces of the main characters. Vince says that everyone knows who these people are so we really don’t need to see their faces…If I can tell the story in a pitch-black room with the face totally in silhouette, that’s what we do. It’s expressionistic. We represent reality, we don’t reproduce it. Another example of that are those colors in New Mexico. Those goldn, orangey, yellowy colors don’t exist in real life… We take a very, very representational, emotionally based, expressionistic approach. The same thing goes with those wacky POV shots we do… nobody sees things from those angles but they serve the story.

As Slovis mentions, the show doesn’t aim to reproduce reality, just represent it. An example of Gilligan playing with representing reality is the color of Walt’s meth- Blue Sky. Using the chemicals Walt used meth should either be clear or tinged a slight yellow color. Gilligan makes the artistic choice to make it blue, a sky blue that reflects WW’s limitless pride, greed, and lust for a power. An example of the colors that Slovis mentions as well as the expressionistic approach Gilligan and crew take is clearly reflected in the cold open of Season 3. The introduction of the cousins, Season 3’s big bad can be imagined easily in large columns of a graphic novel or a comic book.

Cousins Clip

Gilligan frequently uses canted and unique Point of View shots to establish WW’s looming presence. Whether using a camera mounted on the Roomba during a party scene or the shovel head when burying treasure, these POV shots firmly establish that this is an alternate reality. TV Worth Watching, a pop culture blog, compiled all the unique shots in Breaking Bad. This perspective of the characters is not typical of a drama since it is not from the point of view of the audience or another character. Despite dealing in real life situations, with blood, gore and violence, the cinematography indicates that Breaking Bad exists in an alternate reality. WW’s Albuquerque is Batman’s Gotham- a universe that is grimmer and grittier than the real world.

What does this reading of BB through the lens of the superhero genre award us? The very nature of comic books is that they are episodic and contain ongoing stories. Batman may defeat the Joker in this issue, but wouldn’t you believe it, the Joker returns. Marriages and even deaths are not permanent, and reboots offer a new creative team the chance of a fresh start and clean slate. Breaking Bad ran 5 seasons and had a clear narrative arc running through it. It is the story of how Walter White becomes Heisenberg and his subsequent downfall and redemption. While Walter’s story may have ended, the larger themes of addiction, search for power, and insatiable greed live on. The drug trade will continue to flourish without Heisenberg, people will buy, sell, create, barter, use, and abuse methamphetamine. Gilligan underscores the futility of the war on drugs by using elements of a genre that does not provide easy resolution. The players may change, new opponents rise and fall, but the story continues.

 

References

Coogan, Peter M., and Dennis O’Neil. Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre. Austin, TX: MonkeyBrain, 2006. Print.

Gilligan, Vince. “No Mas” Breaking Bad. AMC. 21 Mar. 2010. Television.

Hutchinson, Gennifer. “Cornered'” Breaking Bad. AMC. 21 Aug. 2011. Television.

LaRue, John. “Infographic: Colorizing Walter White’s Decay.” TDYLF. N.p., 11 Aug. 2013. Web. 25 Jan. 2016. <http://tdylf.com/2013/08/11/infographic-colorizing-walter-whites-decay/>.

Mastras, George. “Crazy Handful of Nothin'” Breaking Bad. AMC. 2 Mar. 2008. Television.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics. New York: HarperPerennial, 1994. Print.

Slovis, Michael. “CreativeCOW.” CreativeCOW. Ed. Debra Kaufman. CreativeCow.Net, 2013. Web. 25 Jan. 2016. <https://library.creativecow.net/kaufman_debra/Behind-the-Lens-Michael-Slovis/1&gt;.

Shreya Durvasula is an Outreach Coordinator in Cambridge, Massachusetts and an avid TV enthusiast and blogger. This post grew out of a presentation she gave to the University of Maryland Honors course, “Deconstructing Breaking Bad”, which attempted to dissect what made Breaking Bad so compelling. Shreya’s guest lecture on the superhero genre as it applies to BB inspired a graphic novel student response, so she feels like she got the job done. You can read more of her writing here.

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Guest Blogger, Madeleine Gavaler

“So thanks to all at once and to each one whom we invite to see us crowned at Scone,” said the under-characterized Malcolm with a flourish. Lady Macbeth rolled her eyes from behind her tree branch, as the men around her reveled in their masculinity and C-sections.

“I know it seemed like Shakespeare put me back in my properly gendered place,” she soliloquized quietly, with a surprisingly meta understanding of her unjust treatment, “but, as my more intelligent audience members guessed, I faked my guilt and insanity and suicide once I realized that my husband could not handle murder and power in moderation.”

Picking at the spots of blood still caked on her hands (that had not even been acting, women who orchestrate murders always have blood under their fingernails), she pondered possible careers and names. “Shall I go with Hillary, or will that perpetuate the misogynistic notion that all competent, powerful women are bitches?” she wondered. “This is eleventh century Scotland, but I’m definitely a Democrat. I know evil is not typically part of the party platform, but I do support gay marriage and cutting military spending. Down with the patriarchy!” she said. Lady Macbeth is also pro-choice.

Malcolm’s ears perked up having heard mention of feminism from behind an unsuspiciously womanly shaped tree branch. Lady Macbeth frowned, realizing that now and a millennium from now, you have to be quiet about gender equality or men will get offended. She also wondered if her voice was beginning to blend with the writer’s, who incidentally just started reading an autobiography of Hillary Clinton. “Unsex me here! Screw your courage to the sticking place!” Lady Macbeth whispered to stay in character.

She was still standing in the middle of a battlefield, and a particularly sparse and boring one because Shakespeare writes minimal stage directions. “Can I stand here being self-aware and voicing Madeleine’s political beliefs, or is there more to me? Do I have the potential for a meaningful plot arc, or am I limited by the abilities of a high school student who has not attempted creative writing of any sort since middle school, probably for good reason?” she asked, regaining control of the narrative. “Why do I ask so many questions?”

Lady Macbeth considered bringing her incompetently evil husband back, but then remembered that his severed head appeared on stage and could not think of a way around that one. Also, she does not need a man to complete her. “Are there any other tolerable characters in this play?”

The three witches appeared on the field which was slowly becoming more detailed and grassy and did a musical number like the one in Act IV that most don’t find as bizarre as they should. Concluding with a pas de bourree, they looked expectantly at Lady Macbeth, who after a ten day hiatus had forgotten if there was a plan for the rest of this story and was also feeling rather upset because she had just finished illegally binge-watching her favorite show about pies and murder and Lee Pace. Lady Macbeth also hopes Agent Carter gets renewed, because she understands how hard it is for women who accomplish just about everything in the male-dominated workplace without any credit.

“Double double toil and trouble, please stop daydreaming about hot British women,” said the weird sisters, whose favorite show is Dollhouse, in unison. They had given up on trochaic tetrameter because it is hard. The first witch, whose name is Maurice, realized that she had hurt Lady Macbeth’s feelings. It had been a very long day for her, and she was tired of bearded women putting other women down.

“No more slut shaming!” said Lady Macbeth, which wasn’t exactly relevant but always a phrase worthy of sharing. “My sweet malevolent nursery rhyme-y ladies, I find your anti-Semitic recipe on page 357 of Prentice Hall’s Literature: Timeless Voices, Timeless Themes rather problematic, but otherwise I think you three have a lot of potential.”

Lady Macbeth, Maurice, Helen, and Bertha sat down together in a nearby tearoom to discuss their backstories. Maurice, who finds Earl Grey with a blueberry scone especially delightful, went first.

“Shakespeare initially portrayed me as a chestnut-stealer who cuts off sailors’ thumbs, but I wasn’t always this way,” she said, her mascara running. Maurice wore heavy makeup at first because she felt the need to overcompensate for her scraggly beard, which everyone relentlessly teased her about in middle school. Over time, however, she has found her makeup to be fun and empowering. Maurice puts loving herself first, of which Helen and Bertha are very supportive. Her tale is being paraphrased to omit all of the swearing, for Maurice has quite a mouth. Helen and Bertha find this quality of Maurice endearing. The weird sisters love each other very much and enjoy the bonding experiences of dance numbers, life-ruining, and lesbian witchcraft.

“What about you, Lady Macbeth?” asked Bertha. Her beard was a beautiful auburn that brought out her eyes. “What made you commit murder?’

Sipping her English Breakfast with a dash of cream and no sugar, Lady Macbeth pondered how to answer. To her surprise, she did not want these conniving witches to think poorly of her murdering instincts. “You see,” she said, and hesitated. Was Lady Macbeth finally ready to reveal her mysterious character motivation? She continued to hesitate. The weird sisters looked at her expectantly. Lady Macbeth took a deep breath. Lady Macbeth exhaled and inhaled and exhaled and inhaled. Lady Macbeth cleared her throat. She paused again for dramatic effect.

“It was a means to an end. I knew that if I could murder Duncan and become queen, I could operate through my useless, weak husband to establish peace and prosperity in Scotland.” Lady Macbeth had planned to establish a democratic republic with healthcare and an abundance of welfare programs for its citizens, complete with a balanced budget and no drones.

The bearded women giggled. “Yes of course, silly,” said Helen. “That’s the whole reason we told Macbeth about his future; it was our plan to help you towards your perfect, happy, matriarchal society.”

“Unfortunately,” sighed Helen, “the men ruined our hopes and dreams.”

“Not all men,” whispered an earthworm outside that would later be reincarnated into William Shakespeare. A neighboring earthworm explained to Shakespeare the core ideals of feminism and how he might even accidentally be perpetuating misogynistic values and social norms in his daily actions.

“Well,” said Lady Macbeth, “I’m thankful for this opportunity to finally voice my side of the story through a critique of political and gender values in America. I hope we achieve peace in the Middle East soon and someday create the wonderful society that I tried to.” Lady Macbeth and the three witches laughed at the absurdity and disappeared into their spaceship to look for a less morally corrupt society, in a manner reminiscent of the excellent movie Hamlet 2, starring Steve Coogan.

Having already talked about framing and layout and closure and abstraction, I’m backing up now to what should be square one for “Analyzing Comics 101.” Who are the creators doing all of this framing, etc.? Although Will Eisner’s 1940s Sunday newspaper section The Spirit is a significant exception, superhero comics are typically created by multiple authors, with production divided into five semi-independent roles.

Writer: Creator who conceives the story idea, plots the events, plans the content and sequence of panels typically through a written script, and/or composes the words that appear in caption boxes and word balloons. The various writing roles may involve more than one individual.

Penciler: Artist who sketches the pages, typically based on a writer’s script. A superhero comic typically has only one penciler.

Inker: Artist who finishes the pages by penning over the penciler’s breakdowns. More than one inker may be involved in a single issue, and a penciler sometimes inks her own pencils.

Colorist: Artist who designs or co-designs color or gray tones and adds them to the inked pages.

Letterer: Artist who draws the scripted words (but not sound effects) inside balloons and boxes.

The words and images in a comic book are the product a complex and sometimes overlapping creative process. Although rarely credited, a penciler often co-writes by making encapsulation and layout decisions and sometimes creating content based on the credited writer’s story summary. 1950s Marvelman writer Mick Anglo wrote no scripts, but “would instead suggest a basic plot outline to an artist, giving him a specific number of pages to fit the idea into. Once the art was complete, Mick would then write in the actual wording for the letterer” (“Miracleman Alias Marvelman”). Stan Lee followed the same process in the 60s, dubbing it the Marvel Method. Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko would also sometimes conceive and pencil stories independently, leaving margin notes for Lee to expand into dialogue and narration. Job applicants seeking writing positions were hired based on their ability to fill in four pages of empty talk balloons and caption boxes from Fantastic Four Annual #2, further suggesting that pencilers were often the primary “writers” at Marvel.

Even when working from full scripts, pencilers may exert a great deal of creative control. According to 90s Deathlok writer Dwayne McDuffie, penciler Denys Cowan “felt free to alter my panel breakdowns and shot descriptions whenever he had a better idea” (28).

Neil Gaiman even encouraged Andy Kubert to alter his 2003 scripts: “Feel free to ignore my suggestions if you can see a better way of doing it. (You are the artist.) … Also, there’s an awful lot to cram in here, so let me know if you need more room, and if I’m trying to jam in too much…” (Marvel 1602).

Penciler and inker relationships are complex too. Inker Eric Shanower was notorious for adding details to layouts, while Vince Colletta was notorious for eliminating them. John Byrne even voiced homophobic complaints about Bob Layton’s inking of his work:

I actually feel physically ill when I look at Bob’s stuff. […] It’s like everything is greasy and slimy. […] all his men are queer. They have these bouffant hairdos and heavy eye make-up and an upper lip with a little shadow in the corner which to me says lipstick. Even the Hulk. I will never forgive him for what he did to the Hulk’s face in the annual that we did together.

I remember my father looking at […] the finished inks […] and my father said, “Well this guy’s queer.” No, he didn’t look queer in the pencils, Dad.

When John Byrne inked Steve Ditko in the 80s, their styles clashed queerly too, creating Byrne-detailed figures arranged in signature Ditko poses.

comics 002

Unless the penciler is instead painting in a color medium—Alex Ross prefers gouache watercolors—color is added to comic pages last. Before Photoshop, this was accomplished during the printing process by overlaying color-separation boards and screening ink by percentages in dot patterns. The colorist would select color combinations for each discrete shape, and multiple assistants would cut the shapes from each board. Color decisions might also be indicated by the writer in a script or by the penciler in the margins of the layout. Because the artists’ boards remained black and white, colors can be altered with each publication. Alan Moore and Garry Leach’s first chapters of Marvelman originally appeared in black and white in Warrior magazine in 1982; the retitled Miracleman #1 was reprinted in color in 1985 by Eclipse Comics; and Marvel Comics reprinted it again in 2014 with a new color design by Steve Oliff. (Kevin Melrose discusses this in more detail here.)

  

The final product of a comic book consists entirely of ink on paper (originally the lowest grade, pulp paper), but the images are the result of multiple processes. At times it is useful to discuss each contribution independently, while at other times such divisions may be burdensome or indeterminable. Nathaniel Goldberg and I in “Economy of the Comic Book Author’s Soul” analyze contributors as a single, pluralistic author whose words and images display unified intentionality. We might also analyze a given comic as though it has agency itself. Unlike a traditional painting—which may be copied and mass distributed—a comic book is its multiple copies. The artboards may be considered works of art too, but the artboards are not the comic book produced from them. A comic book has no single original.

Superhero comics, because they tell stories through representational images, also create tensions between how a subject matter is depicted and the subject itself—in other words, between the story world of the characters (diegesis) and the physical comic book in the world of the reader (discourse). No tension between diegesis and discourse occurs in prose-only texts because the words on the page in no way resemble the world they linguistically evoke. But because comics discourse includes representational images, their diegetic content is ambiguous. Is a drawing of a superhero a photo-like document of the superhero as others in the story see him? Or is the drawing an interpretation of the character which may be in some way diegetically inaccurate?

This tension does not occur (or occurs much less) in the non-fiction of graphic memoirs and graphic journalism because the images represent real-world content and so are understood as interpretations. Graphic novels, because their content is fictional, create a greater tension, and superhero comics, because they are an amalgam genre that includes fantasy and science fiction, heighten it by depicting subject matter that both does not and often cannot exist. The diegesis-discourse tension poses a question: Do comic book superheroes exist as they are depicted, or do they exist independently from their depictions? This is a philosophical question I can’t resolve here, but the tension is a factor when analyzing superhero comics visually.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

shane and rick abstraction

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

crazy guy

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

rick's wound

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

3-3

   

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

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

2-3 

     

     

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

4-3 

  

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

5-3:

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

 

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

Sienkiewicz is a pro:

3-4

  

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The exaggeration is more pronounced with more detail:

2-4

       

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

4-4

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

5-4

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

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

 

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

2-5 

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

3-5

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

4-5

  

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

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

 

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

 

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

3-2

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

4-2

While this portrait of Lance Henriksen is dense with detail:

2-2

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

Sienkiewicz spends time in that photorealistic corner too though.

1-1

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

1-2

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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