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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Monthly Archives: July 2016

I know, weird question, but I’m not the one asking it. I count a dozen commentators in the last year who think Trump deserves spandex and a cape.

Neal Gabler may have started it in a Reuters headline last July: “Donald Trump is a superhero—but not in good way.” Trump was just rising in the polls back then, and Gabler saw how effectively he was combining politics and entertainment, specifically “comic-book superhero narratives”:

“We live in the age of Iron Man, where an irrepressible, indomitable smart-aleck, able to verbally and physically parry just about anything, is the exemplar…. Trump has gained a following because he understands the power of the superhero narrative, which he has adapted to his campaign. In the superhero era, Trump recognizes that a sizeable chunk of the public is seeking a no-nonsense, take-no-prisoner, politically incorrect avenger who channels their grievances and runs roughshod over their opponents.”

Though Gabler argued Trump and his supporters actually detests democracy, Trump liked the superhero comparison. A few weeks later in August he told a kid: “Yes, I am Batman.” He was giving kids free rides on his helicopter during the Iowa State Fair. Trump didn’t bring his batcopter to the first GOP debate in October, but moderator John Harwood still asked: “Is this a comic-book version of a presidential campaign?”

Come January, Joe Vince reversed the question, asking: “Does Threatening to Sue a Superhero Make Donald Trump a Supervillain?” That was old news though. A caricature of Trump had appeared in an issue of New Avengers back in 2008. He was an “obnoxious, limo-riding bad guy” who threatened to sue Luke Cage for moving the limo out of the way of an ambulance. That same month Globe columnist Scot Lehigh declared that “After keeping his superhero side a secret, Mr. Trump finally revealed [his] impressive alter ego”: “The Incredible Sulk.”

Image result for donald trump superhero

February things got serious. First Judge Michael Carter wrote “America In Search Of A Superhero: Explaining The Rise Of Donald Trump,” repeating Gabler’s comparison to Iron Man:

“Trump closely mirrors the movie adaptation of Marvel Comic’s character Tony Stark, better known as Iron Man. Stark is portrayed as an outspoken, brash, headstrong, single-minded, unapologetic, tough-as-nails, super wealthy celebrity, with a giant ego and playboy tendencies…. And Iron Man isn’t the only superhero Donald Trump is channeling. There is a lot of Captain America in his appeals to patriotism, his kick-in-the-door approach to dealing with ISIS (or is it HYDRA?), his yearning for a simpler time.”

Carter also compared Bernie Sanders to Spider-Man, but the superhero comparison only stuck for Trump. Two weeks later, New Republic posted Jeet Heer’s “Donald Trump, Superhero,” explaining how “The Republican frontrunner has fashioned himself after comic-strip champions and masked crusaders.” Quoting Trump’s “I am Batman” quip, Heer concluded:

“This might seem like a typical Trumpian boast, but the moment was revealing. Trump’s political appeal is based in no small part on the way he fulfills a certain ideal of heroic masculinity that was created in popular culture. Trump is indeed a type of Batman: To his fans, he, like Bruce Wayne, is a brash, two-fisted billionaire playboy who uses his wealth to fight against a corrupt system.”

Three days later New York Times commentator David Brooks likened Trump to “some authoritarian tyrant who tries to govern by clobbering everyone in his way” because his

“supporters aren’t looking for a political process to address their needs. They are looking for a superhero. As the political scientist Matthew MacWilliams found, the one trait that best predicts whether you’re a Trump supporter is how high you score on tests that measure authoritarianism.”

The superhero rhetoric peaked in March, with four new commentaries.  Ralph Benko asked: “Donald Trump, on Super Tuesday, proved he had superpowers. But Superhero or Supervillain?” concluding that “A plurality of voters see him as a Superhero.” Nicholas Ballasy interviewed Niger Innis, the national spokesman for the Congress of Racial Equality, who said “a ‘superhero’ Republican presidential nominee would be a combination of Sen. Ted. Cruz (R-Texas) and Donald Trump.” V. Saxena noted that “Bill O’Reilly Kind of Implied that Trump Is a Superhero.” “There are enough Republican voters,” said the Fox News host, “who want an avenger and they’re going to vote for the avenger no matter what happens.” Annika ended the primary month declaring to The Guardian readers: “America’s need for superheroes has led to the rise of Donald Trump,” because “US national culture too often celebrates the swift, brutal justice embodied in the comic-book ideal, leaving a country divided and cinematic heroes at each other’s throat.”

Then the superhero chatter died down a bit with Trump’s competitors. Though unimpressed with the primary results, Kate Andrews did tell her Telegraph readers in May: “America deserves a better superhero than Donald Trump.” Reversing the comparison,  Charles Pulliam-Moore explained Marvel’s new HYDRA-hailing Captain America as a product of our political times:

“Now, more than ever, white people feel as if they are more discriminated against and that they’re gradually being edged out of the workforce by people of color. Marvel probably isn’t trying to invite direct comparisons between Donald Trump and a Nazi supervillain, but their characterization of young, listless white men getting caught up in the idea that the Other has somehow made their lives objectively worse has roots in reality.”

A couple of weeks before the Republican National Convention, Huffington Post’s Leo W. Gerard declared Trump a “Superhero to Billionaires,” “a hero to the diamond-encrusted-penthouse-door coterie for his plan to turn the United States into a fiefdom in which billionaires rule for the benefit of billionaires.”

After Trump was officially nominated, Conan O’Brien debuted “Captain Make America Great Again,” but it’s Trump who played the superhero card during his acceptance speech. “I am the law and order candidate,” he said, promising that “safety will be restored.” Our nation is “at a moment of crisis,” with “our very way of life” threatened,” and “I alone can fix it.”

The next morning, David Brooks re-dubbed him “The Dark Knight,” declaring (in a “super-scary movie trailer voice”):

“Welcome to a world in which families are mowed down by illegal immigrants, in which cops die in the streets, in which Muslims rampage the innocents and threaten our very way of life, in which the fear of violent death lurks in every human heart. Sometimes in that blood-drenched world a dark knight arises. You don’t have to admire or like this knight. But you need this knight. He is your muscle and your voice in a dark, corrupt and malevolent world.”

If a superhero in the White House sounds like a good idea, consider comics legend Alan Moore’s take on the genre: “I don’t think the superhero stands for anything good.” Moore told an interviewer that superheroes “were originally in the hands of writers who would actively expand the imagination of their nine-to-13-year-old audience.” But since all they do nowadays is entertain thirty- to sixty-year-old “emotionally subnormal” men, Moore considers superheroes “abominations” and their continuing dominance “culturally catastrophic.”

Moore lives in the UK, and so won’t be voting here in the general election, but fellow comics legend Howard Chaykin agrees with him. “I believe that superhero comics are by nature children’s fiction,” he told a New York audience:

“The idea of a man or woman dressing up in these goofy outfits and going out and fighting crime is absurd…. Batman, at its core, is about a guy that had a bad day when he was eight, and we’ve been paying for it ever since. He’s a guy who, with his billions of dollars, instead of investing in the public sector and private sector, uses all of his million dollars to buy bondage outfits and really cool things to beat the shit out of people that he doesn’t know but knows are bad because that’s the way they look. Like Jews in Germany.”

That’s probably not the Batman the kid at the Iowa State Fair had in mind when he asked Trump about his secret identity. But is it the Batman we could end up with in November?

When did the Silver Age of comics end and the Bronze Age begin? There’s no definite year, but the 1973 “SNAP!” of Gwen Stacy’s too-perfect neck in Amazing Spider-Man #121 is a contender. 1970 is a bigger year, with Jack Kirby’s move from Marvel to DC, plus the start of Neal Adams and Dennis O’Neil’s Green Lantern / Green Arrow. Steve Ditko left Marvel for Charlton in 1966, turning both Spider-Man and Doctor Strange over to new artists for the first time. Marvel veteran Bill Everett took on Doctor Strange with Strange Tales #147, but for me Strange Tales #154 is the sea-changing Silver-to-Bronze moment. It’s the first episode of Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.E.I.L.D. that the recently hired Jim Steranko wrote, penciled, and inked in 1967.

Like other artists Marvel hired in the 60s, Steranko imitated Jack Kirby, first auditioning by inking two of his penciled layouts for a proto-S.H.E.I.L.D story, and then by adopting the Kirby-defined Marvel house style. Gil Kane, who started freelancing at Marvel in 1966, explained during a 1985 panel discussion at the Dallas Fantasy Fair:

“Jack’s point of view and philosophy of drawing became the governing philosophy of the entire publishing company and, beyond the publishing company, of the entire field…. They would get artists, regardless of whether they had done romance or anything else and they taught them the ABCs, which amounted to learning Jack Kirby…. Jack was like Holy Scripture and they simply had to follow him without deviation. That’s what was told to me, that’s what I had to do. It was how they taught everyone to reconcile all those opposing attitudes to one single master point of view.”

After passing his employment test, Steranko apprenticed by inking three of Kirby’s twelve-page Nick Fury episodes. Kirby had co-created the series with Lee in 1965, but after the inaugural Strange Tales #135, nearly a dozen different artists had worked on the title. Kirby also co-penciled the two issues leading up to Steranko’s run, which suggests that Steranko’s credited “illustrations,” “artwork,” “rendering” may include more than just inking. Kirby is credited only for “layouts,” and they certainly look like his. Issues #151-3 are a close match to Kirby’s first Nick Fury episode:

#135: Seven regular 3-row pages

-= story 1, page 06 =-

-= story 1, page 12 =-

(including three implied 3x2s),

-= story 1, page 03 =-

-= story 1, page 07 =-

three regular 2-row pages (including two implied and one actual 2×2),

and two full-page panels (including the opening splash).

#151: Ten regular 3-row pages (including four implied and two actual 3x2s), one regular 2-row page, one full-page panel (splash).

#152: Ten regular 3-row pages (including seven implied and two actual 3x2s) one regular 2-row page, one full-page panel (splash).

#153: Nine regular 3-row pages (including seven implied and one actual 3×2), two regular 2-row pages (one implied and one actual 2×2), one full-page panel (splash).

Kirby draws no irregular layouts, so panel heights are consistent on each page and, since three-quarters of the layouts are regular 3-row based, across a majority of pages too. Of the thirty-six 3-row based pages, twenty-six are also 3×2 (typically implied, occasionally actual). The percentage is higher in Kirby’s last two issues, with seventeen of nineteen regular 3x2s. All rows include either one, two, or three panels of equal width. When he does vary from 3-row layouts, he uses 2-rows instead, averaging two 2-row pages per issue. Each issue begins with a full-page splash panel and ends with a 3-panel row in a regular 3-row page. Excluding full-page panels, each issue includes between five and eight pages with a full-width panel; twice in one issue, two full-width panels appear on the same page. Kirby draws no full-height panels or sub-columns, so all reading is horizontal. All panels are also rectangular and framed by gutters. Kirby draws no insets or overlapping panels. The overall effect is lightly varied and highly orderly.

The Nick Fury layouts changed with Steranko’s first solo issue:

#154: Four regular 3-row pages (including one implied 3×2), three irregular 4-row pages, two full-page panels (including the opening splash), one irregular 2-row page, one regular 2×3, one mixed column-row page.

Only three of Steranko’s layouts appear in Kirby’s issues: two full-page panels and an implied 3×2. Like Kirby, Steranko favors regular rows, although not exclusively. Unlike Kirby, Steranko’s 3-row based layouts are a minority, comprising one-third rather than three-quarters of the total pages, and where slightly more than half of Kirby’s pages are 3×2 based, Steranko’s one implied regular 3×2 is the rarity.

Three of Steranko’s regular 3-row pages lightly modify Kirby by including three new elements. First, two rows are divided into four panels; Kirby’s rows never exceed three panels. Second, some panels are irregular, and so their widths vary within the same row; Kirby’s panels are always divided equally. Third, two full-width panels include insets, effectively creating a row of two irregular panels; Kirby draws no insets.

Six of Steranko’s layouts contradict Kirby completely: three irregular 4-rows;

a regular 2×3; an irregular 2-row; and a mixed column-row page. Although the final page features the first instance of vertical reading, the concluding two-panel sub-row echoes the regular 3-panel row that concludes each of Kirby’s issues too.

Despite the range of differences between Kirby’s #153 and Steranko’s #154, most of Steranko’s additions can be found in Kirby’s earlier work:

 The Fantastic Four #1 (August 1961) includes irregular 4-row pages, regular 2x3s, rows of four panels, and rows of irregular panels. Fantastic Four #2 include the same variations, but 4-rows and 2x3s vanish afterwards.

With the exception of splash pages, The Incredible Hulk #1 (May 1962) is also entirely regular 3-row based, with only three pages that vary the format with irregular panels or a regular four-panel row.

By The Avengers #1 (September 1963) Kirby’s layouts are also almost entirely 3-row based, with no more than three panels per row, and only two rows of irregular panels; the one irregular 2-row implies a 3×3 grid.

The X-Men (September 1963), published simultaneously, has even fewer variations: a subdivided panel in a regular 3×2, and one row of two irregular panels.

The twelve pages of Kirby’s Captain America feature in Tales of Suspense #59 (November 1964) are even more rigid, containing only regular 3-row layouts, all but one implying a 3×2 grid.

The Nick Fury episode of Strange Tales #135 (August 1965), Kirby’s last new series for Marvel, is comparatively diverse. Becoming the Marvel house style seems to have required Kirby to regularize his layouts, presumably so they could be more easily imitated. Variation and innovation are not qualities easily taught, and they do not produce a unified style across titles.

Although Kirby appears to have curtailed his own style to create the Marvel house style, insets and columns are still rare in his early Marvel work too. Fantastic Four #3 does include one, partial inset with its own gutter, and #5 features a highly atypical 1×3 page—which Steranko echoes in his next Nick Fury issue with a three-column page of his own.

One of Kirby’s very first comic books, the eight-page “Cosmic Carson” in Science Comics #4 (May 1940), includes four sub-columns, but no page-height ones. The following year, Captain America #1 includes sub-columns too.

“Cosmic Carson” also shows Kirby’s early use of a regular 2-row with a top full-width panel; identical layouts appear in Strange Tales #s 135, 151, and 152 as well as Steranko’s later #157.

Overall, however, Kirby uses columns rarely, while for Steranko they would become part of his signature style. His next column concludes #160, then beginning with #166, at least one appears in nearly every issue. #166 includes two: a regular 1×2 and, more distinctively, an irregular 1×2 in which the first column is an unframed, full-height figure defining the panel edges of the second column.

#167 includes no columns—in part because of its seven full-page panels, including Steranko’s innovative fold-out “quadruple-page spread,” which also doubled the price of the issue from twelve cents to twenty-four.

#168 then includes three columned pages in a row: an irregular 1×2 with no panel divisions;

an irregular 1×2 with the first column divided into five regular panels; and a highly irregular 1×2 in which the unframed full-height figure overlaps with the three panels of the second column.

Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D then switched to its own independent title, and #1 featured another irregular 1×2 with an unframed, full-height figure.

#2 includes a lone column and a later half-column of insets on a full-page panel, as does #3, and #5, Steranko’s last, includes a new column layout of a regular 1×3 with only the middle column divided into six irregular panels.

Because Steranko fell behind schedule, another creative team filled-in #4, marking the beginning of the end for Steranko at Marvel. He would leave the following year, 1969, after objecting to Stan Lee’s editing of his work. Steranko’s penultimate issue, Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D #3, bears little relationship to Kirby’s earlier layouts:

1: full-page splash panel

2-3: mixed column-row, a two-page panel with a column of letter-shaped panels

4: irregular 3-row with irregular panels

5: irregular 2-column with three irregular insets over the page-panel

6: irregular 3-row with two insets in the middle row and one inset in the bottom row

7: irregular 2-row with two full-width panels

8: mixed column-row, beginning with a full-width panel, followed by a nearly full-page panel with a two-panel column of insets

9: mixed column-row, an irregular 3-column of full-height columns, with a top row of four regular insets

10: regular 3-row with irregular panels

11: mixed column-row, an irregular 2-row with a two-panel column of insets over a full-width half page bottom column

12-13: two-page panel

14: irregular 3-row with irregular panels

15: irregular 3-row with irregular panels and one inset

16: mixed column-row, an irregular 3-row with a three-panel column of insets over a middle full-width panel

17: irregular 3-row with irregular panels and one inset

18: irregular 3-row with irregular panels

19: irregular 2-row with a column of text beside a nearly full-page panel

20: mixed column-row, an irregular 3-row with a sub-column of two insets

Although nine of the twenty pages are exclusively row-based, only one features rows of uniform height, and six additional pages include a mixture of rows and columns. The complexities are greater when also considering unframed and overlapping panels, but the contrast to Kirby’s last issue, published a year and a half earlier, is already stark:

1: Full-page splash panel

2: regular 3×2

3: regular 3-row with top full-width panel implying a 3×2

4: regular 3-row with middle full-width panel implying a 3×2

5: regular 2×2

6: regular 3-row with middle full-width panel implying a 3×2

7: regular 3-row with bottom full-width panel implying a 3×2

8: regular 3-row with bottom full-width panel implying a 3×2

9: regular 2-row with a top full-width panel implying a 2×2

10: regular 3-row with a bottom full-width panel implying a 3×2

11: regular 3-row with a bottom full-width panel implying a 3×2

12: regular 3-row

Kirby built the Marvel house style on a 3×2 grid and punctuated it with an occasional 2×2. After both Kirby and Steranko left Marvel, Kirby’s flexible page schemes would give way to a norm of irregular layouts, fluctuating between 2-, 3-, and 4-rows, with an open base pattern. Kirby’s Silver Age layouts were gone.

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Multi Color Andy Warhol. Marilyn Monroe. 1962-67. Museum of Modern Art, New York City, In the

I’ve been obsessed with Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe series lately. When I found out the poster art for Night of the Living Dead isn’t copyrighted, I made this Warhol-inspired knock-off:

Zombie Girl FINAL

Warhol painted his series in 1962, as a kind of requiem for Monroe after her August death. Because it is a grid of nine squares–a classic 3×3 comics panel layout–it looks a lot like a comic strip to me. And so a part of me wants to say it is a comic strip. Consider Scott McCloud’s definition: “Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.”

Clearly the nine images are “juxtaposed.” And that would be true even if the images were all identical, as in my variation on Warhol’s source photo (like I said, obsessed):

Marilyn 3x3

But it’s the “deliberate sequence” part that gives me pause. I’m not exactly sure what “deliberate” means here (can a sequence be non-deliberate? even if the process of composition is random, the resulting arrangement becomes deliberate once finalized by the artist), but “sequence” is fairly clear. Most dictionary definitions include the phrase “a specific order.”

So the individual images form a specific path for the viewer to follow. That implies there are wrong paths–or at least paths that don’t produce the aesthetic result that following the intended sequence will produce. I don’t think that’s true of Warhol’s painting or my two variants though.  Their arrangements are aesthetically deliberate, but your eye needn’t begin, for example, in the top right corner and proceed to the right in a Z-pattern in order to best appreciate all those juxtaposed Marilyns and Zombie Girls. If you instead focused first on the center square and then scanned up and to the left or any other direction, the aesthetic content doesn’t change. If order doesn’t matter, then the arrangement must not be a sequence. And if comics are sequences, Warhol’s painting isn’t one.

The term “image” is a problem too. Comics have to have more than one. As I mentioned in a previous blog, that’s why the French flag is not a comic. Though it is composed of three parts (a blue rectangle, a white rectangle, and a red rectangle), we read it as a single, unified image:

So is Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe a sequence of images or just a single, flag-like image?  Is it made of nine juxtaposed images (and so then possibly a comic), or is it one image made up of nine parts (and so definitely not a comic). It’s hard to say since there’s not always a clear distinction between a visual element that is an “image” and a visual element that is “part of an image.”

This variation on Roy Lichtenstein’s “Crying Girl” is, I think, clearly a single image–even though it is made of the identical component image flipped and juxtaposed four times:

Crying Mouths

Would it be a comic if I divided the four quarters with frames and gutters? I doubt it. What about images that don’t repeat any of their parts? Consider this entirely abstract composition I’ve ingeniously titled “39 Lines”:

39 lines

It consists of thirty-nine visual elements, but I would say it is only one image.  No individual lines or clusters of lines produce a response that’s separate from the composition as a whole. Now consider this:

Words are imagers

It is also composed of thirty-nine visual elements–the same thirty-nine that make up its sibling image. But it is also a sentence, one quoted from comics artists Will Eisner. Unlike “39 Lines,” “WORDS ARE IMAGES” also has linguistic meaning. It is composed of three, separable linguistic units. The first eleven lines form the word “WORDS,” not because of some intrinsic qualities of the lines themselves, but because of an English-reading viewer perceiving that particular conceptual unit. That linguistic property is so obvious that it’s easy to forget that words are also always rendered images–which was Eisner’s point.

But, unlike the French flag or the Warhols, sequence does matter. The lines that compose the sentence “WORDS ARE IMAGES” must be perceived in a very specific order for the linguistic meaning to occur. That’s why McCloud includes the adjective “pictorial” in his definition, to distinguish comics from sequences of lines that produce only letters, words, sentences, etc.

“39 Lines,” in contrast, has no specific order for taking in its constituent visual elements. Your eye is free to enter the image at any spot and then wander at will. There’s no sequence that produces additional meaning. The same is true of “26 Parts”:


It’s just lines arranged to form an abstract image. But consider those same twenty-six visual elements in this arrangement:


Your eye is still free to enter and wander freely, but the arrangement of the same ink (or pixels) now conveys an additional meaning. It represents a face. That’s another kind of conceptual unit. The arrangement produces a meaning that is not an intrinsic quality of its individual parts. Like “39 Lines” and “26 Parts,” it’s a single, unified image made of individual parts, but, like “WORDS ARE IMAGES,” the face-lines produce an additional aesthetic response, one that’s pictorial rather than linguistic. The difference is that linguistic images must be perceived in a specific order, and pictorial images do not.

So pictorially, my next Warhol variation isn’t a sequence either:

Superhero Girl FINAL 4

Your eye is once again free to wander through the nine faces in any order. But this time, some of the visual elements are letters, and if you read them in the right order, they spell “SUPERHERO.” That’s a sequence. Since those letters are also part of juxtaposed pictorial images, this 3×3 grid fits McCloud’s definition of a comic, while all of the previous examples do not.

But is “SUPERHERO” a comic when expanded with wallpaper-like repetition?

superhero girls new FINAL 12x12

The repetition isn’t itself the problem. I could create a wallpaper-like expansion of this three-panel arrangement of Rodin’s “The Thinker” and still produce sequential meaning:


Unlike my earlier layout of the identically distorted Monroe photo, the left-to-right repetition of this identical image can suggest a continuation of behavior through increments of time. It’s ambiguous how much time is passing (seconds, hours, months, etc.), but the figure can be understood as a living figure who is holding a pose as he sits and thinks. That’s not the case with this next Warhol-esque variation on “Crying Girl.”

3x3 crying girl roygbiv

Like the repeating Thinker figure, the repeating Crying Girl figure doesn’t change her pose. But because the pose is transitory and unmotivated (why and for how long would someone look askance like that, and the laws of physics would have something to say about those suspended teardrops), time does not seem to be passing. The face, like Warhol’s Monroe, does change colors–but those seem to be changes to the image of the woman, not the woman herself. This is not a left-to-right sequential representation of time passing. It is a sequence though. Unlike Warhol’s Monroe, the changes follow a specific order: ROYGBIV. Which produces a pun: “ROY” and “Roy.” So is that sequential element enough to call that 3×3 grid a comic?

What about this one?

Crying ROY (Lichtenstein & Warhol Parody)

Here, finally, is something that strikes me unequivocally as a comic. It’s a sequence of an incrementally changing image. In addition to color changes, twenty-six parts of “Crying Girl” move from their face-signifying positions to a non-pictorial clump in the bottom half of the final frame. It tells a kind of story. Which I think is what McCloud means by “deliberate sequence.” He wants comics to be narratives.

That produces another problem. While the vast majority of comics are narratives, some are not. Check out Andrei Molotiu’s Abstract Comics and you’ll find meaningfully juxtaposed images that include no words, no people, nothing but non-pictorial lines:



Some of the pages in Abstract Comics, however, appear no more sequential than Warhol. Which could mean some of them aren’t actually comics. They might just be subdivided images. Many are even subdivided into panels and gutters, but do they use those visual elements as panels and gutters? Do they produce a sequence?

Part of the confusion is the non-pictorial content. Visual storytelling typically involves drawings of settings and characters. But it doesn’t have to. Consider this four-image sequence:

4 abstractions

There’s no setting but a white background, and there’s no character in any traditional sense. But it does tell a kind of “story.” The first abstract image appears to change into each of the subsequent abstract images. Even though the image doesn’t represent anything else, it does represent itself. According to Bill Blackbeard’s definition, comics are “about recurrent, identified characters, told in successive drawings.” The cluster of black shapes is both identifiable and recurrent. That makes it a kind of “character,” one able even to undergo a change or “character arc.”

I can apply the same narrative to Monroe:


In this case, the first image, because it’s a photo of Monroe, does represent something other than itself. But that’s not true of the rest of the sequence. Each change is a change to the photo only. They don’t represent changes to Monroe herself. She’s not the character of this abstract, four-panel comic. Her photo is. The same is true of my previous “Crying Girl” variations. Even though they’re representative images of a woman, the woman is not the character of the narrative. Her representation is.

Incremental changes to a repeated visual element, however, don’t guarantee a story. These chessboard permutations strike me as a single image made up of many, evolving but ultimately dependent parts:


There’s no specific order to the parts, and so there’s no story, and so it’s not a comic. Characters, especially abstract characters, need a sequence in order to become characters. That’s true of  images that have linguistic rather than pictorial meaning too. Even words, because they’re images, can be visual characters in their own abstract but sequential plots:

Comics Have Characters

So is the Monroe image in Warhol’s painting a “character” too? It undergoes similarly abstract changes, but those changes still aren’t sequential. Neither Monroe nor the repeated representations of Monroe are segments in a visual story.

Which is all a very long way of saying: No, Warhol’s painting is not a comic.

It just looks like one.

Multi Color Andy Warhol. Marilyn Monroe. 1962-67. Museum of Modern Art, New York City, In the


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