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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Is there such a thing? Some scholars object to the anachronistic use of the 20th-century term “comics” applied to anything that predates its etymology–especially when the predating is by centuries not decades. But I’m less sure. Look at this illustration from the 1490s.

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The small angel in the upper right corner displays a scroll that reads:

“Gedenck der /lestē zÿt so / sündest du / nÿmmer”
[Think of the last days; then you will never sin]

Although it wouldn’t have been called a “caption box” in its day, I’m not sure how that word-filled square is any different from the caption boxes that appear in contemporary comics. Medieval scholars call the two other word-filled shapes “speech scrolls”:

“‘Sun gib mir din hercz /den ich lieb hab · Dem läß ich sträf nit ab ·’”
[“Son, give me your heart. I do not remit the punishment of the one that I hold dear”

“‘O herr das will ich · das / beger ich darumbe / so soltu ziehē mich’”
[“Oh Lord, this I want, I desire it, for this reason thus you pull me”]

There are no “pointers,” so the speakers are indicated by proximity and the curve of the scrolls toward each figure’s face. But that we can understand these words as a command and a response spoken by the two figures at the moment depicted means a “speech scroll” and a “speech balloon” differ in shape and not much else.

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But comics, even contemporary comics, aren’t defined by speech balloons and caption boxes. Those, arguably, are just elements that can appear in a variety of images including a comic or a book illustration (whether 21st century of 15th) but don’t require the image to be classified as a “comic.” Though it produces problems for such apparent “comics” as Far Side and Family Circle, it’s a reasonable point. When we call something a comic book, we typically mean a visual story that’s divided into rows of panels across a page.

Maybe something like Valerius Maximus’ Memorabilia: intrigue and murder in Ancient Rome?

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Chantry Westwell considers that 1470s piece a comic, writing about it and other “Medieval Comics” for the British Museum’s Medieval Manuscripts Blog in 2014. Steve Ditko favored the same three-row layout:

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The top image was sent to me by graphic novelist Kevin Pyle after he and I met at a comics symposium in NYC last month. Martha Rust, an associate professor of English at New York University, was lecturing on the use of wheels and roundels in Medieval manuscripts. I was struck by how much the roundel functions like a panel in contemporary comics.

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When discussing the early fourteenth-century Psalter of Robert de Lille, Rust notes that a “circle divided into wedges by means of its ‘spokes’ depicts a sequence”–a  style still seen in some comic book page layouts:

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The roundels also appear “to rest on the roll of parchment rather than to inhere in it and thus to have a notional manipulability–as if we could pick them up and move them around.”

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While roundels make a “visual allusion to disks or coins,” many contemporary panels are more like irregular playing cards with their edges overlapping as so have that same “notional manipulability”:

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And the occasional roundel still shows up too, though usually only one per page:

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The Psalter of Robert de Lille’s wheel of fortune also captures how a comics reader views each panel one at a time while also being aware of the page layout at a whole. The image of God at the center declares: “I see all at once; I govern the whole by my plan.”

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But whether you want to classify this and similar Medieval manuscripts as “comics” or simply “image-texts,” they are useful for revealing things about the current comics form because they are not constrained by the conventions that came to dominate the medium. For instance, this image from the twelfth-century illuminated encyclopedia Hortus delicarium (Garden of Delights) doesn’t rely on panels and gutters to tell its narrative:

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Because, as Rust notes, the six figures represent “the same person at different points on Fortune’s wheel,” the illustration is equivalent to six panels that could (to worse effect) be drawn as six separately framed wheels with only one figure on each wheel at a time. More interestingly, Fortune, the figure turning the wheel, is present at each of the six moments in time–and yet she is a static image too. She’s both in time and out of time–an embodiment of the gutter.

Her paradoxical relationship to the six turning figures is easy to see because the image doesn’t use panels to organize story time or page layout. But compare that to the first page of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Brian Stelfreeze’s 2016 Black Panther:

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Like the Hortus delicarium illustration, this image represents multiple moments in time. And, like Fortune turning the wheel, Black Panther is present in all four scenes. Divided into conceptual units, the implied sequence looks like this:

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And, because Black Panther is recalling these three memories as he crouches in a present moment:

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This, frankly, is more than I would have expected from a writer approaching the comics form for the first time. But maybe that fresh eye helped Coates, with the aid of comics veteran Stelfreeze, get here. Like Medieval illustrators, they weren’t as bound by 20th-century comics conventions that make the panel the primary conceptual unit.

So while I’m happy to welcome the category of “Medieval Comics” to the multiverse, I’m even happier to view contemporary comics through its fresh eye.

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