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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Comics are supposed to be funny so I’ll start with a punchline:

“A comics page is a panopticon atop a hereotopia.”

If that sounds like the least funny joke ending ever, here’s the beginning:

“A superhero, a French philosopher, and a prisoner designer walk into a bar.”

Or maybe:

“Batman, Michel Foucault, and Jeremy Bentham walk into a bar.”

Except there’s no bar. It was an email from an academic journal asking me to peer-review an article submission. I almost said no–does anyone really need to hear my opinion about a Foucaultian reading of the batcave?–but then I started writing a reader’s response in my head, gently critiquing the article for not addressing the formal qualities of the comics and their relationship to Foucault’s ideas. I didn’t actually know the author didn’t do this; it was just my very strong guess based on the abstract. So if only to satisfy my curiosity, I clicked ACCEPT and started reading.

Yep, no formal analysis. This is (to me) surprisingly common: discussions of comics that explore only their literary (textual and narrative) content while ignoring their visual qualities. It’s probably a result of comics studies growing out of English departments instead of Art departments–where comics are still struggling for a foothold. And in this case, the theoretical framework seemed especially well-suited to the comics form–so much so that Foucaultian interpretations started popping into my head.

I’m not a particular fan of Foucault, and certainly no expert, but here’s my first draft of panopticomix theorizing.

Image result for foucault

First, the panopticon. Since surveillance cameras were not a late 18th century option, Jeremy Benthan designed circular prisons that gave a single watchman the ability to observe an entire complex of cells from one location. The term roughly translates “all seen.”

Foucault analyzed the panopticon as an embodiment and a metaphor for institutional power in his 1977 Discipline and Punishment. He begins by describing a parallel system for how a city copes with a plague threat: “First, a strict spatial partitioning” producing an “enclosed, segmented space, observed at every point.” The prison panopticon achieves similar results architecturally: “The panoptic mechanism arranges spatial unities that make it possible to see constantly and to recognize immediately.” It also works regardless of who sits at the center: “Any individual, taken almost at random, can operate the machine.”

Image result for comics page panels

A comics page is a similar kind of visual system, one operated by a single viewer positioned in front of its multiple panels, or “cells.” Like a prison guard, the viewer perceives the range of available angles, while attending to only one at a time. Unlike a film audience, the comics viewer is in control, speeding up, slowing down, backtracking, and pausing at will. Prose readers have a similar degree of control, but prose is not subdivided into units as discreet as conventional panels. Framed art in a gallery exhibition is similarly subdivided, and the viewer does have similar control, but the gallery viewer must move to take in all of the art. In contrast, comics viewers, like panopticon watchmen, are stationary.

Foucault also discusses his own term “heterotopia,” literally “other world,” which further relates to the comics form. He writes in 1967:

“The present epoch will perhaps be above all the epoch of space. We are in the epoch of simultaneity: we are in the epoch of juxtaposition, the epoch of the near and far, of the side-by-side, of the dispersed. We are at a moment, I believe, when our experience of the world is less that of a long life developing through time than that of a network that connects points and intersects with its own skein.”

He outlines six characteristics, two of which are especially applicable: “The heterotopia is capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible,” and “Heterotopias are most often linked to slices in time.”

A comics page, the blank and so typically white background on which panels are superimposed, functions similarly. While existing outside of the spatiotemporality of the story world contained in the panel images, the gutters–the typically undrawn white space that is the page background visible between panels–are how comics arrange and juxtapose the images that create their stories. The content of each panel is spatially incongruent, with each displaying a different slice of story time, but the gutters and margins of the (seemingly) underlying page allows them to function together.

Image result for comics page panels

Foucault later writes that hetertopian spaces “have the curious property of being in relation with all the other sites, but in such a way as to suspect, neutralize, or invert the set of relations that they happen to designate, mirror, or reflect.” Those relations are the comics panopticon, the layout of panels that is orderly and understandable–but only because it appears to be superimposed onto a non-place, the undrawn and literal negative spaces that allow the spatiotemporal progression of the panel images while existing outside of their logic.

In comics, the “other world” encloses the “all seen.”

Now consider French comics theorist Thierry Groensteen in The System of Comics:

“What is put on view is always a space that has been divided up, compartmentalized, a collection of juxtaposed frames, where, to cite the fine formula of Henri Van Lier, a “multi-framed aircraft” sails in suspension, “in the white nothingness of the printed page.” A page of comics is offered at first to a synthetic global vision, but that cannot be satisfactory. It demands to be traversed, crossed, glanced at, and analytically deciphered. This moment-to-moment reading does not take a lesser account of the totality of the panoptic field that constitutes the page (or the double page), since the focal vision never ceases to be enriched by peripheral vision.”

While Van Lier’s lyric description of a white nothingness that suspends but is not part of the compartmentalized content echoes Foucault’s heterotopia, Groensteen’s “synthetic global vision” and its continuous reliance on the viewer’s “peripheral vision” is the key to Benthan’s prison design. And of course Groensteen uses the adjective “panoptic” (or, like Foucault, the French equivalent).

Since Foucault’s panopticon focuses on the state’s system of power and discipline, a full Foucaultian application to the comics form would involve an analysis of the viewer as operating a system designed to give her power over the page’s partitioned content that she maintains in a fixed peripheral relationship as she inspects individual panels. The viewer is especially empowered since the comics form’s juxtaposed images co-produce inferences in her thoughts that allow the static, isolated images to flow as a narrative. The orderly power of the comics page then is also dependent on undrawn and so unviewable story events that emerge from the murky non-place of the gutters. The all-seeing panopticon layout paradoxically requires the unseeable heterotopia of the page background.

I could go on about prison bars and the bars of a comics grid–while circling back to the bar that Batman, Foucault and Bentham were walking into.

But I think you get the picture.

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