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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

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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