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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

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.


he played Rubik’s Cube in the backseat

as his father drove

them to his sister’s


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.

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