Skip to content

The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Monthly Archives: March 2019

Comics studies—one of the few fields of study that can’t agree on what it’s studying–suffers from a decades-long disagreement over the definition of “comics.” I’m hoping to discuss that disagreement in my next book. Happily, explaining the disagreement isn’t a book-length project. I think I can do it in one paragraph here:

Setting aside supplementary terms such as “graphic novel” and “graphic narrative” coined to replace without helping to define “comics,” the ur-term has at least four overlapping yet competing meanings:

comics the form (any sequence of images);

comics the conventions (a subset of image sequences that use panels, gutters, talk balloons, etc.);

comics the cartoon (a set of image style conventions that simplify and exaggerate forms but not necessarily in sequences); and

comics the publishing history (which prevents the anachronistic application of the term to art created before the 1890s and also to any image or image sequence not understood to be a comic by the artist or curator).

Various comics scholars champion the various definitions, though usually without acknowledging that more than one is in play or that apparent disagreements are the result of talking past each other, since a “comic” is not a “comic” is not a “comic.” Thus Gary Larson’s one-panel The Far Side poses an unsolvable riddle for comics the form, while posing no challenge at all to comics the cartoon or comics the publishing history.

I could map the origins of the confusion (Punch magazine, 1843), but I’d rather map the concepts first. It’s a Venn diagram:Or actually two:Layered on top of each other:That creates 13 distinct zones, each with its own meaning. Since that’s visually complex, I’m adding gradations:The white sections have no areas of overlap, the light gray sections have two, the dark gray three, and the black center four:Now drop in the four corresponding definitions:

Every possible “comic” falls somewhere on the diagram. The least controversial land in the middle, which is the source of the confusion.Probably all would agree that a Krazy Kat comic strip is a “comic,” but each of us might have different reasons for making that conclusion, some of which we might share and some we might not. I, for instance, favor “comics the form” and so would classify Krazy Kat a comic because it is a sequence of juxtaposed images, regardless of its other characteristics. But it is also a comic in the other three senses. If someone else favors, for instance, “comics the publishing history,” then our apparent agreement about Krazy Kat masks a deeper disagreement. Or rather an unacknowledged misunderstanding, since my “comic” and your “comic” are secretly homonyms. We’re literally using different words.

Krazy Kat also fulfills “comics the conventions” and “comics the cartoon,” which massively overlap, since cartooning is one of many conventions, making it sufficient but not necessary to fulfill “comics the conventions.” That might mean that “comics the cartoon” is contained entirely within the area of “comics the conventions,” which the above diagram doesn’t demonstrate because a) I don’t know how to draw that and b) it might not be true.

Picasso’s late period includes a range of line art that satisfies the definition of cartoons but that very few would classify as cartoons. Image result for picasso line drawings

So is a cartoon that is not called a cartoon a cartoon in the “comics the conventions” sense? Or is the problem that Picasso doesn’t fall under “comics the publishing history”? I’m not sure.

Other examples will fall into other areas to reveal other previous ambiguities. Matisse’s book Jazz combines form and cartoon, but not conventions and publishing history.

Image result for matisse jazz

Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe is a comic in terms of form and conventions (panels, grid, color separation), but not cartoon and publishing history.

Image result for warhol monroe

The Far Side, mentioned above, lands in the bottom “3,” combining conventions, publishing history, and cartoon, but not form since each is a single panel.

Image result for the far side cartoons

As I continue to refine this definitional approach, I’ll need to number (and perhaps name?) each of the 13 areas and provide examples for each.  But I hope this provides the groundwork for defining the definitions of comics.

Image result for chlorine gardens keiler roberts

Keiler Roberts lives in a deadpan universe ruled by a bipolar God. Her graphic memoir Chlorine Gardens is a fractured chronicle of self-deprecatingly hilarious yet harrowingly moving vignettes from the edge of her private yet oh-so-familiar abyss. Really, she has it pretty good: a comfortable life in a suburban home filled with loving family members and ample art supplies. Also, her grandfather just died and she’s been diagnosed with MS. But rather than best-of-times worst-of-times rants, Roberts’ humor is perpetually even-keel—a line as endearingly flat as the never-quite-smiling, never-quite-frowning mouths she draws on her and family’s faces.

Image result for chlorine gardens keiler roberts

Given her anti-sentimental tone, Roberts’ drawing style is appropriately sparse: thin, black contour lines give her world realistic proportions, but without crosshatched shadows and depth. All shapes are empty shapes. The universe is not only colorless; it rejects gradations too. But her always simplified renderings are never cartoonishly exaggerated either. Though any photographic source material feels distantly filtered, its underlying realistic integrity remains. This is our world—just less so.

Image result for chlorine gardens keiler roberts

Roberts matches the visual flatness of her panel content with similarly flat layouts of mostly 3×2 and 2×2 grids, punctuated by occasional full-page images. Each panel is framed by the same thin black lines that shape the images, gently challenging the conventional illusion that the white of the page background visible in the gutters is any different from the white of the story-world spaces inside the frames. In both cases, there just isn’t a lot holding everything together.

And yet her world, her family, Roberts herself—they do hold together, in part from the warmly ironic wit she threads through each scene. As a parent who kept a journal of the most endearing and inappropriate things my children said growing up, I know the pitfalls Roberts avoids as she chronicles her home life with an early school-aged daughter. In other hands, the six-year-old Xia—even as she’s echoing her mother’s “shit” and “goddamned” expletives—would be too cute, just a variation of parental bragging.

Image result for chlorine gardens keiler roberts

Instead, moments with Xia, like Roberts’ self-portrayal generally, is grounded by the graphic memoir’s overarching tone of struggle. Yes, life may be pretty goddamned good—but what’s that have to do with being happy? The memoir opens with Roberts telling Xia her birth story, yet by the end of the sequence she is clearly stating things not meant for her daughter’s ears. “I think,” Roberts’ drawn self later tells her viewers, “I started making comics so I could stop fearing the loss of my irreplaceable things.”

“Things” are central. Roberts lists some of her favorites and least favorites—including Coltrane’s jazz cover of “My Favorite Things.” Her favorite glass appears in a wallpaper pattern beside a vodka bottle on the inside of the cover. It appears again on the inside of the back cover, except beside a carton of milk. Somewhere between, she mentions that she’s stopped drinking and that “I never use my favorite glass anymore because I’m afraid I’ll break it.” She later lists first symptoms of MS, jokingly calling each her favorite thing too. “Nothing,” she explains, “exists without meaning and sentimental value,” and so “every object blooms with associated memories and feelings.” And as though to prove it, she ends the memoir with her mother lamenting that she has only “four of those wonderful frozen cheeseburgers from Costco left. They stopped carrying them.” The comment would seem aggressively mundane, and though Roberts’ character responds with only a simple “I’m sorry,” ten pages earlier she drew her dying father eating one of those cheeseburgers, calling it the moment she felt the loss of him.

Much of Roberts’ skill is in her understated use of the comics form—which is based on gaps and absences and so kinds of loss too. Roberts often leaves out key, dramatic moments. One panel caption explains that her beloved dog “bit some people,” and in the next she’s driving him “to the vet to put him to sleep.” She avoids not only the biting incident but the immediate drama of its aftermath when the victim presumably contacted authorities who agreed that the dog had to be put down. Instead, Roberts draws her “perfect” pet in the front seat, under the caption: “He sat up calmly.” In the next panel, she is alone in an examination room, with her hand on the blanket-covered dog. The panel reads: “Scott was in New York.” The understated fact echoes with a blur of emotion—all unverifiable by her expressionless face.

Image result for chlorine gardens keiler roberts

That kind of image and word juxtaposition is another of Roberts’ comics skills, the way she plays the two modes against each other for subtle contradictions. When she states that “Scott sometimes watches football,” she draws her husband swinging their daughter around the living room as they shout “Touchdown!”—it’s unclear whether the TV is even on. When she’s explaining the nostalgia-like loss she feels in all objects, “It’s a wanting that can’t be satisfied,” she draws an angled eBay image of a “Barbie mixed lot from the 80’s” on the phone held in her hand. The mundaneness undercuts the spiritual depth of her words, as though her internal artist is gently mocking her internal writer.

The effects are subtle, but subtle is as good as it gets in Roberts’ universe. She posits a bipolar God to explain how “inconsistently great and terrible his creations are,” and then counters that volatility with her own deadpan consistency—though with just enough hint of a Mona Lisa smile to betray the love and joy struggling under the starkly drawn surface of all things.

Image result for chlorine gardens keiler roberts

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

[Also, despite my inability to defeat wordpress’ obscure and dysfunctional auto-formatting, here’s an email conversation I had with the author:

From: Keiler Roberts
Sent: Sunday, September 30, 2018 3:52:00 PM
To: Gavaler, Chris
Subject: Chlorine Gardens review on PopMatters

Dear Chris,
I saw your review of my book on PopMatters. I wanted to thank you for writing it! Clearly, you put a lot of time into reading the book and writing about it, and I really appreciate it. As you know, most cartoonists are not in it for the money. Attention like this really means a lot to me, and keeps me working when I’m feeling unmotivated. I hope you don’t mind that I’m contacting you at this email. I had a difficult time finding any info on the PopMatters site for contacting anyone.
There was one thing in the review that wasn’t correct, and I was wondering if you possibly could fix it? It was my grandfather who died, not my father. He was 98 and while I miss him very much, it was a sad event, but not devastating. My dad is alive and well and I’m not superstitious, but there’s something creepy about reading about his loss.  Please don’t think this was the only reason I wanted to contact you. I do really appreciate the review and I want to share it with everyone! I wish I were better at articulating my thoughts regarding what I read, but I guess that’s why it’s so satisfying for me to read reviews. Someone else can put into words the reaction I had – or help me see what I missed.
Thank you so much!
Keiler

From: Gavaler, Chris <GavalerC@wlu.edu>
Sent: Sunday, September 30, 2018 12:54 PM
To: Keiler Roberts
Subject: Re: Chlorine Gardens review on PopMatters

Keiler, I’m so sorry for that terrible error in my review! I’ll contact my editor right away and make the correction.

From: Keiler Roberts

Sent: Sunday, September 30, 2018 4:05:20 PM
To: Gavaler, Chris
Subject: Re: Chlorine Gardens review on PopMatters
Thank you so much!
My favorite line of yours is “Yes, life may be pretty goddamned good—but what’s that have to do with being happy?” That is absolutely it. I think I can stop therapy now that I finally understand! Really, your writing is so beautiful. You understood things that most people won’t.
Sincere thanks,
Keiler

From: Gavaler, Chris <GavalerC@wlu.edu>

Sent: Sunday, September 30, 2018 2:13 PM
To: Keiler Roberts
Subject: Re: Chlorine Gardens review on PopMatters
Keiler, you’re so kind. And I’m so pleased that my interpretation of your work resonates accurately with you.  It may help that I come from a deadpan family myself.  I’m exploring the comics form myself now and you are a great model.  You handle complex, subtle material will such skill.
Chris

From: Keiler Roberts

Sent: Monday, October 1, 2018 11:29:39 AM
To: Gavaler, Chris
Subject: Re: Chlorine Gardens review on PopMatters
Thank you!
On Feb 18, 2019, at 7:23 AM, Gavaler, Chris <GavalerC@wlu.edu> wrote:
Hi Keiler,
I tend to wait a couple months before reposting my PopMatters reviews at my own site. In addition to correcting that terrible error you pointed out, I was wondering if I could include our correspondence below. If you would rather it remain private, I understand completely. Just wanted to check.
Thanks,
Chris

From: Keiler Roberts

Sent: Monday, February 18, 2019 9:11 AM
To: Gavaler, Chris <GavalerC@wlu.edu>
Subject: Re: Chlorine Gardens review on PopMatters
Hi Chris,
Please feel free to share anything you want! Thank you again for writing the review. Coincidentally, I spent all morning journaling about “things” and was thinking about how you picked up on that theme in my book. Marie Kondo has everyone reconsidering their belongings now but I wonder how much of it will become a real reflection on what different objects do to us, and how much will be people trying to follow her advice and missing something in translation.
Best,
Keiler

From: Gavaler, Chris <GavalerC@wlu.edu>

Sent: Monday, February 18, 2019 10:05 AM
To: Keiler Roberts
Subject: RE: Chlorine Gardens review on PopMatters
Keiler,
I just watched the Netflix trailer. I predict Kondo and your journaling will lead to another cool chapter for your next book—which I look forward to reading!
Chris

: )

Tags: , ,

Which comes first?

Traditionally comics begin with a story idea that a writer develops into a screenplay-like script before handing it off to an artist to sketch into a layout in whatever style that artist prefers. The first page of my current comic-in-process includes the following text:

“He couldn’t believe he lost to a girl. Afterwards he played Rubik’s Cube in the backseat as his dad drove them to his sister’s recital.”

A script would include image content too, usually divided into a specific number of panels. But this isn’t how my creative process began. I started by experimenting with a technique. More specifically, I started with a cartoonish self-portrait from a photograph taken of me at Lexington’s MLK parade in January.

Since I refuse to enter the 21st century and abandon the now literally obsolete (it was discontinued last year) Microsoft Paint, I was looking for ways to create color shapes by first mouse-sketching lines, filling the areas they enclose, and then digitally removing the lines:

I wasn’t aiming at any particular style, so the results were pretty garish–until I figured out that once the black lines were gone, I could convert the colors to black:

The red was another experiment, sort of a Matisse-esque cut-out placed digitally “under” the image. I converted the first two images to the same style:

I was working on other, unrelated images too: With the technique down, I could then create new images in the same, now intentional style:

Though related by style, the image content was still random. But since each was roughly rectangular, I began arranging them in a 3×2 page layout:The gap required a sixth, and this time I decided on a specific subject matter, a figure playing chess:

Placing the new panel in the missing position in the bottom row produced this juxtaposition:

And that’s when “story” happened. Staring at the two panels, these words came to me:

I was sitting in a school cafeteria during one of my son’s chess tournaments (which he later won), so the influence is obvious enough, but the exact content, how the two figures in the two images became characters interacting with each other in a shared setting with specific outcomes, was a result of the connotative qualities of the images and their accidental placement next to each other. More words happened:

I placed the two story-initiating panels at the top of the page and rearranged the others beneath them:

The effect is odd in part because off the amount of implied and so undrawn story-world content, including the car connecting panels three and four, and the auditorium connecting five and six. That last row plays with time, since the words are synced to the continuing moment in the car, while the images leap forward to the performance that, according to the words, is still in the future. The chess-playing son acquires a face and perhaps the hint of a smile, suggesting that he will recover from his disappointment by (or simply while) enjoying the dance. Because there’s now an implied family unit, one of the parents is absent–a fact left open and so to be explored on future pages. Since the dancers appear female (is the one in the background the sister?), I feel a thematic connection to the “girl” of panel two in addition to the undrawn mother, further complicating the gender situation. Oh, and dad seems pretty oblivious in row two, staring off into the left margin as he drives unaware of his son’s literally inward focus–but then they’re physically connected in the last row, suggesting another positive shift in the ending. Of course all of this is connotative and so debatable. No script would include these kinds of interpretive nuances, and probably no artist could execute them based on idea-driven descriptions.

The effect is also odd because, I realized afterwards, comics rarely subdivide sentences into multiple image-texts. We’re used to reading complete sentences of narration or dialogue placed within single panels. This layout instead divides two sentences between six panels, creating line-break effects similar to free verse:

He couldn’t believe

he lost

to a girl.

Afterwards

he played Rubik’s Cube in the backseat

as his father drove

them to his sister’s

recital.

The rows also create three image-text phrases:

He couldn’t believe he lost to a girl.

Afterwards he played Rubik’s Cube in the backseat as his father drove

them to his sister’s recital.

I’m intrigued by comics that disrupt page orientation norms by either placing the book spine along a shorter left edge or at the top so pages turn like a calendar. So I experimented with two phrases of three panels each:

Which for whatever reason, I didn’t love. But I did like the how the arbitrarily large font of “afterwards” suggested a story title, and so “Afterwards” became the title of the story:

I’m cheating a little here because the flower behind the title comes from a story element that developed on a later page, though here it doesn’t have any contextual meaning except that I thought it looked cool:

I also didn’t love the solid blocks of red, so I experimented with superimposing textures. I started by making a rectangular “scratched” pattern:

That matched the rectangular panels and layout, and so it felt redundant. So I developed a swirl pattern instead. While adding a sense of physical motion, it also has connotative power, linking the images in new ways and further suggesting emotional content. Here’s the (current) final draft:

The larger story spans ten pages, all initiated by the story content suggested by page one. “Afterwards” may also become a chapter in a larger story. If so, the resulting graphic novel will have begun not with a story idea or even a set of images, but an image style evolved from an idiosyncratic image-making technique.

%d bloggers like this: