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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Characters are printed symbols made of letters, of letterforms, which exist as ink on paper or pixels on screen. In this sense, words are images, no different from any other kind of image. The fact is easy to overlook when reading a prose-only book where letters are typeset in a single font and color with uniform margins. Chapter titles might be larger, bolder, and isolated within a larger area of white space, but then the typesetting reverts back to its undifferentiated norms. That uniformity tells readers that word rendering doesn’t matter. And since it communicates no meaning, it becomes invisible.

Image result for page of a novel

Words are also characters in the sense that Black Panther, Charlie Brown, Doonesbury or any comics character is a character. Each is represented by a specific set of lines in a sequence of panels, but each also exists beyond those images as a concept or cluster of ideas in a reader’s head. That’s how we typically understand words, as free-floating definitions and connotations that are triggered when an image of a word appears on a page.

Because prose writers focus on words as concepts and ignore words as images, they lack the range of possibilities open to comics creators. “What we are looking at when we read,” explains Mendelsund, “are words, made up letterforms, but we are trained to see past them—to look at what the words and letterforms point toward. Words are like arrows—they are something, and they point toward something” (322).

Prose-only writers attend only to what words point toward, the network of meanings that a word’s history of usage accrues. Since they leave word rendering to typesetters and printers, word rendering doesn’t matter. Comics script writers don’t render words either, and so they sometimes adopt a similar attitude. “Lettering,” insists Marvel’s Brian Michael Bendis, “should be invisible. You shouldn’t notice it unless it is a determined piece of storytelling in graphic design” (2014: 43). Bendis is right, but only because words in a comic are always a determined piece of graphic design.

“To read,” continues Mendelsund, “is: to look through.… There is very little looking at” (334-5). William Faulkner challenged that norm by wanting to print The Sound and Fury in colored fonts to mark time shifts: “If I could only get it printed the way it ought to be with different color types for the different times in Benjy’s section recording the flow of events for him, it would make it simpler, probably. I don’t reckon, though, it’ll ever be printed that way” (Flood).

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Aside from an edition of 1,480 colored copies published long after his death, the words of the novel are printed in a uniformly rendered format, their black ink signifying nothing. If Faulkner had been a comics creator he would also have known that the different time periods could be signified by different fonts or font sizes or word containers or areas of the page. Any of these approaches could create additional meaning by drawing attention to how the words are also images on paper.

Henri Matisse takes word image to its most extreme. He begins his 1947 Jazz:

I’d like to introduce my color prints under the most favorable conditions. For this reason I must separate them with intervals of a different character. I decided handwriting was best suited for this purpose. The exceptional size of the writing seems necessary to me in order to be in a decorative relationship with the character of the color prints. These pages, therefore, will serve only to accompany my colors, just as asters help in the composition of a bouquet of more important flowers. Thus, their role is purely visual.

Matisse frames each two-page print with two to four pages of text, treating his hand-drawn letters as paint strokes. The words’ visual qualities don’t add meaning to the text—they replace it. Matisse likens the content to the unread court decisions he filled with fables as a law clerk because the importance of a trial was marked by the volume of paper it produced, regardless of content. For Matisse, his letterforms are shapes only, images free of linguistic meaning.

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Words in comics are not purely visual, but, like Matisse’s handwritten letters, they are compositional. They are part of the artwork.

They can also be the artwork, the ink objects we look at instead of through. Here are a drafts of some of my own words-as-image comics art, consisting entirely of letterforms. The first is Shakespeare’s sonnets 1-28:

The second repeats a passage from an Edgar Allan Poe story paradocially describing the cut-up technique a century before William S. Burroughs: “I anointed a sheet of foolscap with the white of a gander’s egg; then, shredding the thing to be reviewed as I had previously shredded the books- only with more care, so as to get every word separate- I threw the latter shreds in with the former, screwed on the lid of the castor, gave it a shake, and so dusted out the mixture upon the egged foolscap; where it stuck. The effect was beautiful to behold.”

And the third is a page from “Queer Arrangements” in the upcoming issue of Sequentials (due to go online later this month I think).

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