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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Monthly Archives: February 2018

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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