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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Beetle Bailey cartoonist Mort Walker coined the term “emanata” in his tongue-in-cheek The Lexicon of Comicana (1980). It’s a noun form of “emanate” and refers to the cartoon lines that appear to emanate from objects. When the object is a head, they usually indicate some kind of internal experience, like the wavy lines that emanate from Peter Parker when his spider senses are tingling. Straight lines usually indicate surprise, though the same straight lines might mean shiny newness when emanating from, say, a Christmas present or loudness when emanating from a speaker or brightness when emanating from a lamp.

Only that last example is part of the visual world experienced by characters. The other lines are weirdly invisible except to the reader. Lines of sound emanata can be heard by a character and so are a kind of synesthesia, but surprise emanata are experienced only by the individual they emanate from. And this is all true despite the lines themselves being identical.

To explore that metaphysical weirdness, this week I’ve created a set of emanata lines arranged in a burst pattern and applied them to different photographs to test their effects. I think photographs are more revealing than drawings because the subject matter is instantly distinguishable from the emanata, while in most comics the two are both composed of the same kinds of drawn lines and so visually merged. I’m also using the emanata as a kind of scissors, creating white lines that strip away other content.

The first example is probably the most standard use, the rays of light emanata around the sun:

Walker calls those “solrads,” and though they represent an aspect of the visual world, light never actually looks like that. Solrads can also emanata from reflected sources, like the pool of light at this figure’s feet:

But even if you understand the emanata lines as representing actual light, they also and more prominently create a psychological effect, implying how strong and mighty that guy is as he strikes a superhero-saving-damsel pose.

The same can be applied to any object, creating the visual illusion of its radiating light, which is really a metaphor to suggest its importance. Here light literally seems to pour from a book, though probably you understand that light as the non-literal and so internal experience of the figure reading:

She’s illuminated by the light of knowledge. But those light-like emanata rays can apply to almost any experience. Instead of knowledge, try romantic passion:

Notice that even if you understand the kiss as positioned in front a literal rather than metaphorical sunburst, the psychological meaning still remains. Here’s another kiss, but I’ve reversed the burst lines so the center isn’t whited out:

It might just be me, but I no longer feel the emanata radiating away from the kiss but possibly moving toward it, like arrows of attraction converging at the greatest point of significance. I assume no one understands the emanata as being visible within the story world, but that’s not always clear. If the following image appeared in a superhero comic, you might understand the emanata as pulsing radiation, especially if the figure is about to transform into the Hulk:

But if the story were about a character experiencing pain, the same emanata would instead seem only metaphorical, the internal pulse of agony experienced only by the figure. Then again, maybe the figure has thrown herself on an exploding bomb? Then the emanata might indicate a range of senses: light, sound, and vibration.

By positioning the same emanata burst over a mouth, the sound becomes specifically a shout:

But only if the mouth is open. Place the burst over a closed mouth, and instead of sound the emanata might communicate power:

By placing it over this figure’s hands, the emanata burst has a romantic charge again:

This sequence of an identical hand creates the impression of energy being compressed:

And here’s one of the most standard uses of emanata in superhero comics, an impact burst:

I’ve also doubled and resized the photo to enhance the effect. Notice how the same technique applied to similar subject matters means something different if the center isn’t a point of physical contact:

Are those motion lines indicating that the two boxers are rushing toward each other or they arrows of importance indicating where the point of contact will be? Either way, emanata are some of the most versatile lines in a comics image, ones able to communicate an unlikely range of nuanced meanings.


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