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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Let’s say you’re drawing a comic about a character named Philip. In the first image, he’s sitting in bed reading as his boyfriend steps into the room. The point of view is the boyfriend’s, so all you have to draw is Philip. If Philip were also a real person, you could take a photograph of him and use it as your panel–or at least use it as the basis for a drawing.  But no matter how photorealistically or cartoonishly you draw Philip and the bed, you also have to decide how the panel will frame them.

First consider centering. Do you want Philip in the middle of the frame? If so, he’s likely to seem more significant than if he’s closer to an edge, making him literally but also figuratively “marginal.” You can even crop Philip partially or entirely out of frame, literally reducing his presence in the image and suggesting his reduced role in the story’s power dynamic. Or (introducing a technique not available to photographers) Philip’s body could break the frame and extend either into the margin of the gutter between images or into the drawn content of an adjacent image. If so, Philip will likely seem more powerful, able to break through the boundaries of his visual container even though within the story world he’s just sitting there.

Also consider how fully Philip fills the image. Does he take up most of the two-dimensional space and so figuratively dominate too? Or does the positioning and angling of the bed make it more powerful, turning Philip into its tiny occupant? If so, the bed may take on metaphorical meaning too, suggesting perhaps the couple’s relationship overall. Or both Philip and the bed may just be elements in an expansively framed bedroom. The more expansive the framing, the less space Philip occupies and the less powerful his character will seem.

Unlike photography, the frame of a comic panel can be any shape. There’s no default form. So you have to decide the shape relationship of the frame to the content it encloses. To emphasize Philip, draw the frame to match his body. Sitting up in bed probably gives him a roughly upright rectangular shape, which the frame can duplicate and so produce a panel shape that reflects its content. To emphasize the bed instead, draw a frame that matches it, probably a longer, vertical rectangle, one not dominated by Philip. You can also extend panel dimensions to contrast content. If that first frame is a thinner, taller rectangle, it will either end up cropping Philip or include more content above or below him, making him seem less important even if he’s still centered. And panels needn’t be rectangles at all. Design a shape that suits the needs of the image.

Students in our spring term course used a wide range of framing effects, but there are two main approaches.

The first section features images with frames that match the subject’s proportions. That tends to be the default setting. We tend to draw tall figures in tall frames and wide figures in wide frames. That’s fine, but the uniformity can get boring. So find interesting contradictions, ways that the frame and the subject can be mismatched instead. If the figure is wide, what happens when you use a tall frame? Either you have to crop the subject or you have to shrink it, creating additional space within the frame to fill with additional subject matter, expanding background or surrounding content. You can misalign too, using the frame to crop content that could be centered but isn’t.

The second section includes a range of intentionally mismatched framing choices. They all appeared in our students’ comics, so they are mismatched for specific reasons—often to convey a negative connotation in the story situation. A centered, proportionately framed subject creates an impression of balance and control. De-centered, cropped, and disproportionately framed subjects seem less balanced and less in control. Choose accordingly. Take one of your figures and frame it multiple times creating multiple effects. Weigh the connotations of each effect and brainstorm what story context each might be most appropriate for.

Finally, there’s the frame itself—which isn’t a frame but a drawing of one. Like the rest of the image, you control all of its qualities. A thick, ruler-sharp line carries a different connotation than a barely discernible, free-form line. In I’m Not Here (2017), GG includes no frame lines at all, allowing white areas within her images to merge with the white of the gutters. In Red Winter (2018), Anneli Furmark demonstrates the opposite extremes with wide frame lines that are thicker and blacker than any of the image elements they contain. As a result, Furmark’s characters seem trapped and GG’s seem to float in a ghostly world.

The next illustrations have frames and shapes that reflect their content: branches around a wooded scene, falling dominoes shaping a collapsing relationship, the legs of the character walking away, beakers holding beakers, coffee cups containing images of self-assembly.

Though not part of the story world, the frame can still reflect and reinforce story elements by duplicating style or visual motifs. What if Philip’s frame repeats the pattern in his comforter? Or the design of the book cover he’s holding in his hands? Is he metaphorically in control of the scene as if able to hold it all too? What if there’s no frame, just the lines of the image petering into the undrawn white of the page? That carries connotations too. Like all of the other connotations of image, you can only discover through the drawing process.

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