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

Monthly Archives: May 2018

Image result for Pieter Coudyzer graphic novel Outburst

At first glimpse, Pieter Coudyzer’s graphic novel Outburst fits firmly in the revenge genre defined in the mid-70s US by the Stephen King best-seller and Brian De Palma box office adaptation Carrie: a sympathetically hapless but unsuspectingly powerful victim of teen bullying is finally pushed too far. Though Coudyzer is a Dutch author, and so his pop culture references are likely different, he narrates from his protagonist Tom’s point of view, establishing reader sympathy from the opening pages. The flashback structure anticipates the promised outburst of the title too, with the police arriving to arrest Tom as he begins to narrate his past.

After pages of schoolyard pranks and mockery, there’s no surprise when Tom finally loses control. As in Carrie, his victims are his school’s most popular couple and the source of his worst suffering.

Image result for Pieter Coudyzer graphic novel Outburst

Coudyzer literally draws Tom sympathetically, rendering his eyes in colored close-ups that contrast the black-dotted faces of his classmates. Tom’s popular love interest Aure’s eyes are colorless, but Coudyzer draws her black pupils distinct from their surrounding whites. The other characters, especially the most bullying boys, look at Tom and the reader through disturbing black smears. Even when “what’s-her-name, the least popular girl in class” refuses to share a kayak with Tom during a class outing, she looks at the ground with the same scribbles. Though Coudyzer sometimes draws Tom’s eyes similarly, they are always framed and tinted by his glasses. The bully Yves tells him, “those glasses sure come in handy obscuring your dumb ugly mug”, but they also make Tom seem human.

But Tom isn’t human. In the Poe-like opening, he calls himself a “madman” and describes a forest growing inside him. While a metaphor for his tamped down suffering, the forest is also literal. His arms and legs have become branches and roots. The physical transformation began after he was tricked into writing Aure a love letter. Now instead of laughing at him, the class stares silently as dropped leaves appear around his feet. In the next pages, Coudyzer draws Tom in silhouette as branches protrude all around him. The images are oddly metaphoric though, since Tom’s simultaneous narration explains that the forest “slithered out of me, along my fingers, my toes … Fortunately, the rest of my body was spared.”

Image result for Pieter Coudyzer graphic novel Outburst

If Outburst followed the typical bullying plot, Tom’s life would have grown much worse afterwards, but instead Tom tells us “I grew accustomed to my new body” and even achieved a “sense of belonging” when he enrolled in university. No one comments or flinches when his cluster of branches accepts the diploma handed to him on stage. Though he wears sacks to disguise his former arms and legs, he is “content”. His boss briefly questions his “handicap”, but doesn’t care. His deepest challenge is the solitude he seeks. After his first shift as a lone night guard, “the forest inside of my head doubled” and soon his “dreams faded”.

Though unarticulated, those dreams are not of the forested “island of your dreams” he described to his school psychologist, but their opposite, the false promise of Aure’s love that motivated him to return from the school outing instead of remaining hidden and alone within a hillside forest. When he sees the now adult Aure in a grocery store with the former bully Yves, Tom literally “CRAAAAAAACKS!!!” His forest explodes across the building, killing Aure and Yves both. Though nominally a horror scene, Coudyzer avoids blood until afterward, when one of Tom’s countless branches drips red dots across the floor.

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The more disturbing image is of Aure’s face as a cluster of Tom’s branches push into her mouth. The violent penetration suggests not only murder but rape too, and it is the last we see of Aure. But in her final close-up, Coudyer renders her one unobscured eye as distinct and colorful as Tom’s. When she first appears in the grocery store, her eyes are colored too — a fact Coudyzer emphasizes by inserting a flashback panel of her younger face, now with the smeared black eyes of her classmates. Though her bully of a husband appears smear-eyed in a similar flashback panel on the following page, the adult Yves is human-eyed now too.

They are not villains. Coudyzer’s visual narration suggests that even though many children can be inhuman in their cruelty, even the worst eventually grow into human beings. It’s unclear whether Aure was ever cruel. She stuck her tongue out at Tom once, and her reaction to his love letter was merely annoyed: “Tom, I want a word with you. What’s this supposed to mean?”

In the present scene, Aure initiates the conversation, pleased to have bumped into Tom. It’s only when she mentions the love letter that Tom’s “true home finds” him. Though a sexually-motivated double-murderer, Tom is arguably a victim too. But Coudyer’s choice of names complicates even that reading. Tom admits he was “Always looking where I ought not to. Always peeping.” It’s unclear whether the peeping Tom reference originated from the Dutch version of the novel or was introduced by translator Peter Mennen, but it further suggests that Tom is not simply a victim who got his just revenge. In the end, he finds complete isolation in his forest — an ending that is both escape and punishment.

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[A version of this post and my other recent comics reviews appear in the comics section of PopMatters.]

Leigh Ann Beavers and I just finished teaching our combined ENGL-ART 215 “Making Comics,” which ended with a display at the library during the spring term festival.  I’m wildly biased, but I think our students are amazing.  You can see that for yourself. Here’s their selection of pages–many many thanks to the library staff for the awesome enlargements.

Hung Chu:


Maddie Geno:


Daisy Kelly:



Henry Luzzatto:



Anna Nelson:


Kate Paton:


Mims Reynolds:


Coleman Richard:


Grace Roquemore:


Emily Tucker:


Plus we have a logo:

















Last week I offered a principle of closure specific to abstract comics: they don’t have any. When you look at a sequence of abstract images, you see the complete story, with nothing left to infer. No closure.

I also theorized that plot points in abstract comics are determined by image order, not image content. I’ll make those rules explicit here:

1) An abstract sequence begins in balance and ends in balance:

2) If there are three images, the middle image is imbalance:

3) If there are four or more images, the second is disruption and the penultimate is climax:

4) If there are five or more images, the middle images are imbalance:

This week I’m testing those ideas. And there’s no better place to find abstract comics online than Andrei Molotiu’s blog, Abstract Comics. But not every abstract comic tells a story. Sometimes abstract images are juxtaposed and so connected but not in a narrative sense. For example, this page from Gareth Hopkins’ “Found Forest Raw” is divided into traditional comics panels, but the content doesn’t make me want to read them in a traditional left-to-right, top-to-bottom z-path. Instead I find my eye wandering randomly:

To create a story experience, the images have to trigger a sense of ordered sequence that is read–rather than a set of images that can be appreciated in any order. This one (created by a Russian high school student during an abstract comics workshop) does that for me:

I experience a story because I read each ink blot as the same blot that is undergoing a sequence of changes. The blots all represent the character “blot.” In terms of plot points, I see this:

Alternatively, I see three subplots. Images 1-4 are straight-forward growth, images 5 and 6 are about the blot dividing, and then in image 7 and 8 it shrinks to nothing. Noting that ending balances become opening balances of next subplots, it plots like this:

Whether divided into subplots or not, the ending balance is nothingness. “Blot” is gone. But after looking at the final image, I find myself inferring the same state prior to the first image, making the first drawn image not balance but disruption:

I only infer that after studying the whole sequence, so it’s a kind of mental revision, but it still means I’m experiencing undrawn story content. There was blankness before there was “Blot.”

So I just contradicted the first half of my first rule of abstract plots: the first image is always balance.

Things get more complicated with the next example (by another student in the same workshop): This strikes me as not one sequence but four, with the first spanning the first three rows. That story is about string-like lines gathering and amassing into a ball and then traveling and finally vanishing into the distance. I read the first image as a disruption of what to me is an undrawn but implied panel of uninterrupted white. I infer a similar image after the last panel in row three, making that last image a climax:

So in addition to violating the first half of my first rule of abstract plots, I just violated the second half too. This abstract comic doesn’t begin or end with an image of balance.

One more:

At least this time the first image is balance. But not only is the last image not a new balance, it doesn’t feel like a climax to me either. It feels like imbalance with not only the resolution but also the implied climax leading to the resolution yet to come:

That’s a lot to infer from abstract images, and it seems to decimate my proposed principle that closure only occurs with representational images. I made very similar inferences about a rolling snowball in Peanuts strip in a previous post:

But I think these abstract comics actually support my argument.

Each example of inferred plot points occurs because I experience representational qualities in the not-entirely-abstract images. Because “Blot” ceased to exist at the end of its story, I retroactively inferred that it must also not have existed prior to the first image. The first image is now its birth–a state that necessarily implies a pre-birth state.  I’m understanding “Blot” to exist (and to have once not existed) in a sense not constrained to the world of its physical canvas but as part of a conceptual story world beyond it.

While I experienced story-world time in the first comic, in the second I experienced both time and story-world space. Those string-like lines, while literally two-dimensional, evoke a three-dimensional world. Otherwise I couldn’t perceive the ball of strings as vanishing into the distance–it would instead be shrinking.

The third comic implies not only time and space, but also gravity and physics. The abstract object is an object, one abstract in shape but that exists three dimensionally as it extends downward, and the grass-like lines begin at rest before flying up to it through some kind of magnetic-like attraction. The story ends on a kind of cliffhanger (imbalance) because the trajectory of drawn action implies to me greater interaction yet to come.

None of that is “abstract.” All of my inferences, all of the closure I perceived, comes from my applying norms of my world to the world of the images–which is no longer just the canvas. All of the above abstract comics have story worlds. And a story world is where the imagined but undrawn events experienced through closure take place.

So abstract and representational aren’t cleanly divided categories. They’re opposite poles on a spectrum.  And a more precise term for that spectrum is mimesis, or real-world imitation. “Blot” is clearly not of our world, but its world is like our world to the degree that time passes there and objects like “Blot” exist only for a certain duration. Though the ink marks that represent the string-like characters in the second comic are two-dimensional, their world is seemingly three-dimensional. And the story world of the third comic even evokes our familiar laws of physics.

So this round of tests refines my earlier claim to this:

Closure is mimetic.

Non-mimetic images don’t produce it.


[If you’re interested, this is part of a four-part sequence. It begins here and continues here and here and ends right here.]

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Two weeks ago I introduced an approach to plot that harmonized Freytag, Todorov, and Neil Cohn:

Last week I used that approach to formulate Occam’s closure, a principle for determining the inferences produced by juxtaposed images:

The undrawn story content between representational images is only the minimum required to satisfy missing plot points.

The key word there is “representational,” images that, in addition to being ink or pixels, create the impression of something else, something that exists beyond the page, subjects in the real world or a story world or both. This week I’m looking at abstract images, ones that don’t represent anything else and so are just ink or pixels.

So two question:

Can a sequence of abstract images have plot?

Can abstract comics produce closure?

First, plot usually involves characters and settings and actions and events–things not found in abstract images. But a sequence of abstract images–what you can call an abstract comic–does have a set order. That’s the definition of “sequence.” A set of abstract images that doesn’t channel you down a correct viewing order isn’t a sequence. And the thing that turns a set into a sequence is, I would argue, plot.

Look at these three abstract images:

Since you apparently read English, I’m guessing you “read” them left to right. I’m also guessing you experienced them as a progression, as a sequence of transformations:

Reverse the order and you still experience a left-to-right sequence of transformations:

I suspect it’s that perception of transformation that makes it a sequence and not merely a set. So the first image is a kind of “character” and the “actions” or “events” are its changes, which is a plot. But unlike representational plots, abstract plots have no story world other than the page or screen they physically appear on. They should, however, have plots points. Image content determines those points in representational comics. What determines them for abstract comics?

Recall that Todorov divides plot into three primary sections: equilibrium, disequilibrium, equilibrium. Or what I simplify as: balance, imbalance, balance. The other two points, disruption and climax, are hinge points that bridge those major states. That makes the plot of a three-image abstract comic clearer:

But what happens if there are four images?

Is the second image now a disruption? Is the third a climax? And what if there are five images?

Is the middle image now an imbalance? What happens with six?

Are both middle images imbalances? I could keep expanding the sequence in both directions and also insert new intermediate images between the current ones. But each sequence still produces the same story: the first image becomes the last image.

Note the “first image” and the “last image” is different in each sequence, and the intermediate positions are determined by the number of images between them. This is true even if there are only two. The first image always defines the initial balance, and the last image always defines the concluding balance, regardless of how many images there are in total, including only two:

Technically Todorov has one state too many. A story only requires two: equilibrium, new equilibrium. An abstract story always begins in balance and ends in balance because that is the plot curve of all stories. But in a representational comic, opening or closing balance can be implied by image content. Look at the Peanuts example from last week:

The two-panel sequence begins with a disruption and ends with a climax, leaving the beginning, middle, and end implied. Look at the three-panel sequence of the rolling snowball:

Shultz doesn’t draw the snowball coming to a stop and then remaining at rest. We infer it. The plot positions of representational images are determined by their content because we imagine undrawn events occurring in the story world. But the only story world of an abstract comic is the surface of its page or screen. There’s no other place beyond it. A drawing of Charlie Brown is a representation of the character Charlie Brown who exists in a story world and so as a concept in the viewer’s head. An abstract character exists only on the page. The drawing doesn’t represent it. The drawing is it. There’s no undrawn content either. In abstract comics, what you see is all that exists, both physically and conceptually.

That means that closure doesn’t exist in abstract comics. There’s literally no place for it. Look at Occam’s rule of closure again:

The undrawn story content between representational images is only the minimum required to satisfy missing plot points.

Closure is the inferences produced by two juxtaposed images. But if plot requires a minimum of only two states–old balance, new balance–then two sequenced abstract images have no missing plot points to satisfy. When applied to abstract comics, Occam’s razor is more like an axe. It chops out closure entirely. Closure applies only to representational comics. Viewers don’t infer anything between abstract images.


[If you’re interested, this is part of a four-part sequence. It begins here and continues here and then right here and ends here.]

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