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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Monthly Archives: December 2019

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I was happily surprised to learn last spring that another university press has ventured into the expanding field of comics publishing. The Pennsylvania State University Press released Sarah Lightman’s graphic memoir The Book of Sarah under its Graphic Medicine imprint, one that’s been around since 2015. While I look forward to perusing the dozen or so other titles, Lightman is an ideal starting point for readers interested in sequential art that doesn’t fit the conventions of traditional comics. That’s why I’m including four of her pages in the anthology section of my and Leigh Ann Beaver’s Creating Comics textbook due out next year from Bloomsbury.

Each of Lightman’s eight chapters feature a Torah-related title, emphasizing the religious focus of her upbringing—one that resulted, directly or indirectly, in her suffering decades of anxiety and insecurity. Or maybe she would have suffered the same if she had grown-up in another religion or in none at all. Still, the absence of a biblical Book of Sarah speaks metaphorical volumes.

Image result for sarah lightman book of sarah

Unlike most comics creators, Lightman is not interested in layout norms that treat a page as a multi-image unit. Most of her pages feature a single work of art, and when they include two, it seems to be due to the width of the images requiring (or at least inviting) a pair to be positioned in a column. She rarely includes more than two—though the exceptions are striking: a family portrait redrawn in incomplete fragments:

Image result for sarah lightman book of sarah

A repeating half-full, half-empty water glass providing a visual metaphor for her shifting optimism:

Image result for sarah lightman book of sarah

She extends beyond a 2×2 structure only once: two page-spread of Warhol-like grid of self-portraits in varying styles, but all with vague backgrounds that she uses to emphasize her inability to engage fully in her life:

Image result for sarah lightman book of sarah

Lightman also eliminates the related comics norms of drawn frames, instead letting the white of an image background bleed into the white of the page or, if the image is drawn to its edges or on cream-colored paper, letting the image float freely in the whiteness. The visual approach emphasizes the images as artwork rather than just pieces in a narrative—though they function at that level too. Lightman’s narration appears beneath most images, ranging between four words (“Smile, said the midwife.”) and 140 (in an atypically long account of her grandparents’ immigration to England from Lithuania). Lightman uses a handwriting-imitating font, which is a nice gesture, but the perfectly identical letters and spacing is an imperfect match to the intensively hand-created images above each, some of which include their own hand-drawn words.

Image result for sarah lightman book of sarah

But the font choice also establishes a sense of two-worlds, the visual and the verbal, playing against each other. Here’s where Lightman’s proves herself not simply an accomplished artist, but specifically an accomplished comics author. While the art world is full of excellent artists who could fill a similarly sized book with equally well-crafted drawings, few have the comics savvy to construct the sort of complex narratives and image-text relationships that Lightman achieves in her memoir.

She narrates, “Things and spaces speak for me,” a reflection on the form of the graphic memoir, especially in her ability to shape her experiences into visual meanings. After describing reading The Hungry Caterpillar to her son, she begins a litany of the foods she ate as expressions of her former insecurities, moving into other kinds of objects, the gift of a plant, a boyfriend’s toothbrush, her cell phone as she waits for him to call, the bench she sits on, and finally a two-page spread of its pencil-gray view.

Image result for sarah lightman book of sarah

The images match her words—and yet Lightman is absent. Her cellphone floats in the white of the page instead of the palm of her hand. She draws the bench twice too, but never herself on it—an absence that poignantly contradicts her own narration. When she does finally draw herself, in a three-image zoom-in of a framed photograph that begins with blanks spaces where her and her former lover’s faces belong, it is a sudden, full-color close-up that visually states far more than the word “happy” repeated in the narration below it can.

Image result for sarah lightman book of sarah

Elsewhere Lightman’s word-image combinations are even more inventive. She writes that her “scaffolding of self was barely holding up” below a self-portrait that includes scaffolding in the background. Assuming the image is drawn from a photograph (as it and many others presumably were), did the incidental inclusion of the background detail prompt Lightman to develop scaffolding into a verbal metaphor or did she write the sentence first and seek an image to match it, possibly adding the scaffolding? While such process-focused questions are usually non-essential to a final product, they are more revealing for Lightman since her memoir is about process in multiple senses.

At times she seems to be selecting images from her pre-existing work to include as needed, while at other times she seems to be drawing in order to fill a narrative need. And there are even moments when an image seems to be included for its own sake, making the narrative flow bend around it. All three approaches are intriguing, but their combination is even more so. Since Lightman is depicting her years-long struggles with depression and her varying attempts to overcome it, the vacillating approaches take on further significance.

Lightman herself seems to be more than one person—or rather herself at different moments in her evolving life. Her self-portraits and varying styles capture this effect, but her verbal narration emphasizes it too. At times she speaks retrospectively, looking back on past events from a present tense grounded somewhere around 2015: “From where I draw now, I can see a church and a synagogue.” At other times her present-tense narration is a diary-like account of past events as they seem to be happening: “I asked a stupid question in a talk. I feel bad about it now two hours later.” She offers no visual cues (a change of fonts, a sudden shift in the visual style of an accompanying image), but the effect is subtle and so no obstacle to reading, while also offering rewards to greater attentiveness. It also makes the words image-like, snippets seemingly pulled from the same sketchbooks as many of the images.

Ultimately, Lightman finds herself, metaphorically but also visually, as her later self-portraits suggest. She even addresses “young Sarah” as a separate entity she wishes to console. This is not a narrative surprise, since the shifting time perspective reveals her marriage and child’s birth midway through the memoir, even as it then wanders back to lonelier times—when “the hole inside” parallels more empty-faced, incomplete portraits of herself attempting to be a good daughter and granddaughter and niece and girlfriend to variously less-interested boyfriends. It’s also no surprise that she’s no longer an Orthodox Jew by the end—though her spiritual life seems more complexly deep after she becomes a mother.

There is so much more here worth analysis and praise—the use of a carton of eggs in a reverie about contemplating pregnancy; the distantly rhymed images of her therapist’s shoes, the first male, the second tellingly female—but I will leave it to readers to explore themselves.

Image result for sarah lightman book of sarah

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





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I’m on sabbatical this year, completing the textbook Creating Comics with Leigh Ann Beavers based on the spring term course we developed and taught together. Here’s the draft of a section on how to make images stand-out on a page.

Ivan Brunetti calls a grid “democratic” because panels “are all exactly the same size … from which we can infer their equal weight and value in the ‘grand scheme’ of the page” (2011: 45). But Joseph Witek warns that “highly regular grids tend inevitably toward both visual monotony and flatness in narrative action” (2009: 153). Abel and Madden recommend a middle position, working with “a basic grid of equal-sized panels” but also varying from it “by introducing a tilted panel, to name one variation, the effect is much more powerful because the tilted panel jumps out at the reader to emphasize a mood, plot point, or dynamic motion” (2008: 71).

Comics creators have a range of techniques for accenting images. Here are nine. The key is scarcity. A page can include one and sometimes two accented images before the layout becomes so irregular that nothing stands out because there is no underlying norm. While accents prevent visual monotony, they also give greater attention to the story content of the accented image:

  1. Size is the most obvious means for establishing a panel’s importance over other panels on the same page. The larger the panel, the greater the implied significance of its content.
  2. If frames are rectangular and aligned with page edges, frame tilt is a visual accent mark, drawing attention to an otherwise identical panel. In film, tilting a frame means tilting only the content of the frame while the frame itself must remain unchanged. In comics, an artist instead has three tilt options: tilt the frame and the content; tilt the frame but not the content; or tilt the content but not the frame. All three work as accents.
  3. Because perpendicular rectangles are the overwhelming norm, individual images may be accented by any variation in shape.
  4. As discussed above, if gutters are otherwise parallel, individual panels may be highlighted by differences in spacing.
  5. A reverse technique to spacing, images can draw attention by appearing to be placed overtop other images, creating the effect of playing cards arranged with their corners or edges overlapping.
  6. Insets, which appear as if placed entirely within the borders of a larger image, are a variation of overlapping.
  7. Even if images are similarly sized, shaped and arranged, the drawn quality of frames can highlight content.
  8. Frames can also accent image content if elements of the content are drawn as if breaking the frames and entering the negative space of the gutter and possibly the space of other images—and so another form of overlapping. Broken frames are often used to depict movement and violence, as if the frame is unable to contain the image subject due to the subject’s speed and power.
  9. If images contrast other images through differences in style, they may stand out in the page composition too.

Here are four pages by our students, each with a different layout, different accent techniques, and accents on different action sequence parts:

1. Hung begins with three rows of slightly irregular heights. Although the first two are divided into two panels each, the bottom full-width panel is less accented by size because the middle panels are taller. The primary accent is instead the overlapping panel positioned in the center of the top four panels. It is also tilted, and its black background with white letters stylistically contrasts the rest of the page.

The page details Hung’s main character’s acceptance into a soccer team, with images of him performing multiple actions: getting the news on the phone, jumping for joy afterward, flying in an airplane, and arriving at the team’s city. There’s also a panel of a sign with the team logo and the accented caption panel with the words he presumably says to his parents after the first phone call. In terms of sequences, the accented panel is its own one-panel action, since nothing else on the page depicts that phone conversation. The news he delivers to his parents shakes up the status quo and so is both disruption and climax.

2. Grace begins with an irregular four-row layout, progressing from two to four to three panels in each row, before the final accented panel. While the circular shape clearly breaks the rectangular norm, Grace further accents it with wide areas of white space on both sides. And though the gutters are consistent width above it, the gutter shapes create an additional overlap effect, suggesting that the last panel occupies the space that would otherwise belong to the third row.

Grace’s page also tells a complete story that combines at least three actions. The first row disrupts the character’s walk home; the second depicts the emergence of the cat from the garbage; the third depicts their first interaction; and the final, accented image skips a range of implied actions—walking the rest of the way home, putting away groceries, etc.—to end on a new balance that resolves the combined plot of the whole page. The wide white margins of the final spacing also seem to relate to the narrative leap to that much later moment in a different location, as if additional gutter space is needed conceptually too.

3. Henry draws a regular 3×2 grid—with every panel identical in size, shape, frame, tilt and spacing, with no overlapping or frame-breaking elements and no insets. Henry instead accents the bottom left panel through a stylistic difference. The background of the fifth panel is heavily shaded in black, a sharp contrast to the white and uncrosshatched backgrounds of the five other panels.

The page continues an action sequence from a previous page, with the narrator being electrocuted in an attempt to trigger his mutant powers. The first three panels complete that action, followed by a one-panel action of the guards untying him and giving him water, before the torture continues in the last row. The accented panel includes captioned narration explaining that every time he nearly falls asleep he is jolted awake as shown in the last panel. The last row then is a two-panel action sequence, beginning in balance and ending in disruption, with the climax and new imbalance left implied as well as cyclical. By accenting the first balance panel, Henry highlights the character’s moments of near peace.

4. For his second layout, Hung uses a mixed path approach, beginning with a two-panel column paired with an unframed second column, and ending with a bottom row of three panels. The lack of a frame around the second column accents it through contrast with the other framed panel, while also effectively expanding the image content by merging its background with the white of the page and so accenting it by size too. To a less degree, Hung also accents the first panel in the bottom row with a contrastingly thicker frame.

Like Hung’s previous page, this one includes the narrator performing at least three actions, each condensed to one or two images: receiving a pass and then scoring; speaking to his father on the phone; and reading in his new home. Again, Hung accents the phone conversation to a parent, establishing a link between pages that creates a suggestive pattern about the main character. If the panel of him scoring was accented instead, it would appear that winning was more important than connection to family. The secondary accent is also on the high five between players, further emphasizing relationships over the sport itself.

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