Skip to content

The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

This is the first illustration I made for my next book, The Comics Form: The Art of Juxtaposed Images. I signed a contract with Routledge in December, and have to submit the complete ms by next December, so you can guess how I’ll be spending the rest of my sabbatical. Chapter 1 is already spinning a little out of control at just over 20,000 words.  Fortunately it divides into pretty manageable subsections. Below is a draft of “Modes,” which explains this freaky self-portrait:While style can be analyzed as a range of separate qualities, those qualities can be combined into patterns that categorize an artist’s overall style or a group of artists’ shared customs. Joseph Witek calls such comics customs “modes” and identifies two, naturalism and cartoon, which can be distinguished by their degrees of simplification and abstraction. The terms “simplify” and “abstract,” however, have multiple, overlapping usages.

Lefévre refers to line quantity as “detail,” meaning “the amount of details versus the degree of simplification” (2016: 75). “Simplified” in this sense refers to a representational image that reduces the amount of detail of its source material. While all but photographic and photorealistic images are simplified, comics artists tend to simplify significantly. The verb “abstract” shares a similar meaning. An abstracted image extracts details from its source subject and so is therefore simplified. An abstract image, however, usually refers to an image that represents no source material and so cannot abstract details from it. As discussed above, I prefer the adjective “non-representational,” and use “abstract” to describe style, but even when limited to style, abstraction is an ambiguous term since it also refers to non-realistic alterations in optic experience that are not “simplified” in the extracted sense.

The uses of “simplify” are similarly problematic. In Understanding Comics, McCloud draws an “iconic abstraction scale” that illustrates five styles, ranging from a photocopied photograph of a face to a drawn face comprised of an oval, two dots, and a straight line (1993: 29). He claims that all of the faces to the right of the photograph simplify it by “eliminating details” (30). While this is largely true of the second, “realistic” face and the middle face containing only “outlines and a hint of shading” (29), the later faces differ in more than line quantity. The qualities of their details change too. Though McCloud concludes that the end result is “stripped-down” (31), each step to the right of his scale illustrates two kinds of changes: each contains fewer lines, and those lines alter the contours derived from the originating photograph. McCloud also refers to each face as “more abstract” than the previous, further conflating extracted and altered (29). Witek introduces a similar confusion by citing two drawings of Bob Hope to illustrate the cartoon mode and the naturalist mode, even though both are composed of an essentially identical amount of detail. Stuart Medley prefers the term “distillation” over simplification, meaning “some removal of realistic detail,” but also treats abstraction and simplification interchangeably (2010: 53). I will only refer to simplification as the reduction of details. While abstraction can refer to the alteration of details, Lefévre instead describes a drawing’s degree of “deformation” as measured against “normal proportions” (75). The verbs “distort” and “warp” are also applicable, as is the more common term “exaggeration,” which visually refers to lines that magnify or compress the shapes of their source material.

McCloud’s final face then is both “simplified and exaggerated,” what Witek identifies as the two stylistic qualities of the cartoon mode (31). McCloud also identifies the final face as “the cartoon,” differentiating it from the middle face which he says reflects the “style of drawing found in many adventure comics” (29). Comics art then might be divided into resemblance-based naturalism and custom-based cartoons, but Witek and McCloud both acknowledge overlap. Witek’s two modes are “by no means mutually exclusive; comics combining both modes are extremely common” (28), and McCloud claims that “nearly all comics artists apply at least some small measure of cartooning” (42). Cohn refers to the same simplified and exaggerated combination as the “Barksian” visual dialect, named after Scrooge McDuck artist Carl Barks, though its customs predate Barks. Unlike Witek, who identifies the naturalistic mode as “the preferred approach for stories of adventure and domestic romance,” Cohn does not consider the Kirbyan dialect to be naturalistic and does not place the Barksian dialect in opposition to it.

Because customs are socially constructed and maintained, few artists outside of comics traditions would consider the reduction and alteration of details as “cartooning,” but many twentieth-century artists simplify and exaggerate to similar effect. Don Arr correctly notes that Picasso’s 1920 Portrait of Igor Stravinsky “would be a cartoon if in a comic book” (1982: 1). And in what formal sense is Picasso’s 1955 ink drawing Don Quixote not a cartoon? Or Matisse’s equally famous 1952 cut-out Blue Nude II? Or any of Schiele’s dozens of drawings from the 1910s? None are called “cartoons” because the term is traditionally understood as specific to comics as a publishing tradition well outside of fine art. The style may also have a biological basis. According to Stuart Medley, the human “visual system apprehends the world” according to “simple propositions that the mind prefers,” duplicated in how “most comics artists tend to draw and ink their worlds – some degree of abstraction away from realism, clear outlines, flat colours, reliance on closure, a tendency towards caricature” (2010: 68).

“Cartoon” originates from the French and Italian words for the cardboard-like paper used for preliminary sketches in the 1600s, and it acquired its satirical connotation from Punch magazine in 1843. It is often used synonymously with “caricature,” which dates to the 1700s and denotes a style of drawing that selectively alters a subject’s features for comic effect or, according to Jack Hamm, “the art of distorting by exaggeration a person so he still retains his identity” (1927: 33). Drawing from the root term “caricare” (“to load”), Buhon Lynch calls caricature “overloaded representation” (1927: 1), and Johnson “exaggerated resemblance” (). Edward Lucie-Smith considers cartoon and caricature synonyms (1981: 9, 13), but caricatures often but do not necessarily reduce the amount of detail. Contemporary political artist Jason Sieler creates caricatures that are both highly exaggerated and highly detailed, as are many of José Miguel Covarrubias Duclaud’s 1930s and 40s magazine illustrations. Hogarth’s 1743 Characters and Caricaturas is a visual argument against caricature, an Italian style then newly introduced to England, emphasizing grotesquely detailed exaggeration over Hogarth’s equally detailed naturalistic approach. Defining caricature by exaggeration alone would add many more non-comics artists to a purely formal application of the term. Modigliani’s portraits, with their definingly long necks and facial features, are clearly exaggerated but also highly detailed.

Instead of Witek’s two modes, the combined elements of simplification and exaggeration instead suggest four. Cartoons remain clearly opposed to the detailed, optically accurate style of naturalism, but two additional modes emerge from a crisscrossing spectrum. Some caricatures are not cartoons because they are exaggerated but not simplified. This style has no term, and so rather than coining one, I will refer to it descriptively as detailed caricature. Images that are simplified but not exaggerated are similarly unnamed. Where detailed caricatures are often aligned with cartoons, viewers sometimes regard unexaggerated simplifications as a form of naturalism. Comics artist GG works in this style, and reviewers Sean Rogers of The Globe and Mail and Alex Hoffman of Sequential State described her graphic novel I’m Not Here as “photorealist” and “photorealistic.” The claim is peculiar considering that most of GG’s images are composed of opaque shapes lacking interior detail of any kind. They are highly simplified, but their contours also appear realistic, suggesting photographic source material, which apparently triggered the reviewers’ erroneous responses.

In Superhero Comics I offered an “Abstraction Grid” that divides exaggeration and simplification each into a five-point scale and then combines the scales into twenty-five sections (2018: 238). Since the two spectrums can be scaled into any number of subdivisions, only the four defining regions are necessary to indicate the overall range. The four sections of my self-portrait corresponds to each mode: 1) the bottom left corner is an actual photograph, and so it is neither simplified nor exaggerated; 2) the bottom right corner is adapted from the same photo by erasing everything but the minimum lines needed to represent a face, and so it is simplified but not exaggerated; 3) the top left corner is adapted from the same photo by variously expanding and rearranging details, and so it is exaggerated but not simplified; and 4) the top right corner is drawn using roughly the same number of lines as the image below it and with roughly the same degree of distortion as the image beside it, and so it both simplified and exaggerated.

Routledge will only allow black and white illustrations, so it will look like this in the book:

%d bloggers like this: