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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Monthly Archives: August 2017

When not touring art museums and participating in Modernist Studies conference panels while in Amsterdam earlier this month, I was checking out comic shops. I found four. Best name prize goes to “C.I.A.” (“comic imports”), where, not surprisingly, I didn’t find many Dutch works. Someone did pull out a box of translated reprints for me though, and I grabbed two gems from my youth:

That’s the last issue of The Avengers (or “de Vergelders”) I bought as an eleven-year-old back in 1977.  It reached the Netherlands in 1980–though the reproduction quality is so bad I fear it might be pirated.

I was in high school when the X-Men classic “Days of Future Past” hit stands.

The Dutch translator was less subtle. According to Google Translate, “Sterven in de Toekomst!” means “Die in the Future!” But at least the reproduction quality had improved three years later:

Though these were fun to revisit, I was hoping to see original Dutch comics too. So the next store owner handed me “The Ultimate Geek’s Guide to Amsterdam” and circled “Lambiek” on the map. It was just a couple of canal blocks away.

According to my Geek Guide: “Lambiek is Europe’s first comic shop and probably the oldest existing comic shop worldwide. It has been a hallmark in the world of comics since the opening in 1968.”

The owner offered me a coffee (the delicious equivalent of espresso here) and pointed me toward two tables stacked high with Dutch graphic novels, some translated, some not. It’s not surprising I found myself drawn to the wordless ones–though that’s true of English-language comics too. Words can get in the way of the pictures. I grabbed one by a local artist:


I thought the stark black and whites worked especially well with the subject and paneling effects.

And the owner suggested I try one by Jeroen Funke.

According to the front-matter, Text free “contains comics that were made during the international 24 Hours Comics Day in the oldest existing comics shop in the world, Lambiek in Amsterdam on October 20th 2007, October 18th 2008, October 3rd 2009, and one self-organised 24 Hour Comics Day on January 9th 2010.”

As I was leaving, the owner also gave me the shop’s calling card, a tiny comic based on Chris Ware:

Apparently, alcohol, sex and comics can’t make you happy–unless you do all three simultaneously.


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I presented on the cartoons of Frans Masereel as part of a “Modernist Comics” panel during the Modernist Studies Association’s conference in Amsterdam last week. Though the topic of an early 20th century Belgian artist’s style seems about as far removed from current U.S. politics as you can get it, I was startled to find how much my paper describes Donald Trump.

Comics scholar Joseph Witek identifies two major modes in comics: naturalism and cartoons. In the first, figures “remain stable as familiar entities, with any changes in shape and size accounted for by the familiar conventions of visual distance and perspective” because “the world depicted within the panels is presumed to be stable.” In contrast, the cartoon mode “disavows any attempt to render the surface appearance of the physical world and makes a very different claim to a very different kind of truth” because stories “assume a fundamentally unstable and infinitely mutable physical reality, where characters and even objects can move and be transformed according to an associative or emotive logic.”

While we could say past presidents have aligned roughly with “political naturalism,” Trump works in the cartoon mode. His reality is fundamentally mutable and unstable. Where contradictory statements by other politicians can produce damaging and often career-ending appearances of incompetence, deception or hypocrisy, for Trump they are merely what his ghostwriter called “truthful hyperbole.” As Time magazine’s Michael Scherer put it: “Reality, for the reality-show mogul, is something to be invented episode by episode.”

Thus when a poll or statistic that Trump declared false in the past produces something favorable to him now, he redraws reality: “They may have been phony in the past, but it’s very real now.” Although the FBI and Special Counsel have stated unequivocally that he is under investigation, the President draws his own picture: “I don’t think we’re under investigation. I’m not under investigation. For what? I didn’t do anything wrong.”

Looking at a few examples from July alone, Trump claimed that he had signed more bills than any other President; that CNN’s ratings were way down; that the GOP won all five special elections; that because of his insistence NATO nations have begun pouring billions of dollars into their defense requirements; that the FBI reports directly to him, that the director of the Boy Scouts called him, and that Lebanon is on the front lines fighting Hezbollah. In fact, several other Presidents signed more bills at this point in their terms; CNN rating were way up; the GOP won four of the five elections; NATO nations agreed to increase spending in 2014; the FBI reports directly to the Attorney General; the director of the Boy Scouts did not call him; and Lebanon is allied with Hezbollah.

Regarding Hezbollah, the Washington Post reported: “It was not clear whether Trump was confused about that, or simply misspoke.” James Comey calls the President’s statements “lies, plain and simple.” The New York Times concludes similarly: “Not every falsehood is deliberate on Trump’s part. But it would be the height of naïveté to imagine he is merely making honest mistakes. He is lying.”

I say he is cartooning. And his sketchbook is our increasingly unstable country.


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Word Paint is the digital equivalent of woodcutting. It was introduced in 1985, the computer graphics equivalent of the middle ages, and Microsoft has recently discontinued it as a standard feature. I’m no Frans Masereel, the early 20th century woodcut novelist I’ve been studying this summer, but I do feel a distant kinship as I chisel through pixels instead of photoshopping with a few techno-savvy mouse clicks. Masereel dropped out of art school a century ago and started training himself when a Paris art supply dealer sold him his first woodcutting tools. He published the first wordless novel-in-pictures in 1918. My ambition and skill are far far lower, but wandering Amsterdam museums has inspired my own experiments.  Here are four photo-based, digitally chiseled comic strips I’ve been working on early mornings in our rental apartment’s rooftop kitchen this week:






The Sampling Officials, AKA Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild, is a 1662 oil painting by Rembrandt, currently on display in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. I visited Saturday, August 5th.

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