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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Monthly Archives: February 2020

When Art Spiegelman’s Maus II premiered at number thirteen on the New York Times nonfiction best sellers list in 1991, graphic memoirs became the comics form’s most prestigious genre. Since Maus II had been listed on the fiction list until Spiegelman wrote a letter to the editor describing it as “a carefully researched work based closely on my father’s memories,” the change happened literally overnight.

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Frank Santoro would have been eighteen and starting his first self-published comics zine then. According to his own graphic memoir, Pittsburgh, he was more interested in Spider-Man and Aeon Flux than documenting family memories. But not only is the forty-something Santoro able to explore those memories now, he’s capable of expanding the limits of the genre in the process.

I’ll admit part of the memoir’s appeal to me is personal: I grew up in the Pittsburgh area (Penn Hills, not Swissvale); the author and I are similar ages (okay, I was twenty-five in 1991, but close enough); and my parents divorced too (though mine didn’t wait till I was eighteen). Unlike Spiegelman, who opened the door to the graphic memoir genre, or Alison Bechdel, whose 2006 Fun Home raised it to even higher literary prominence, Santoro’s subject matter is unremarkable in summary. He’s one of a demographic of kids whose empty-nest parents divorced while he was a first-year college student, and he places the continuing history of his parents’ estrangement at the center of his memoir.

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Though specifics add flesh to that familiar skeleton of a family story, Pittsburgh offers more than just “story” in the usual sense. Santoro’s graphic memoir is most significant for the “graphic” half of the term. It’s a comic—one that cannot be translated into another medium (including prose summary here) because its story is told not simply in pictures, but in a style of image-making that has no counterpart in prose or film or other medium.

Open to any page and you’ll find the photo reproduction of a yellow piece of paper covered in colored marker. I wanted to write “Magic Markers,” the brand I used as a kid. The paper looks like the kind of yellow construction paper I used too, what was once found under magnets on refrigerator doors across American suburbia. Santoro’s pages even show the wear of wrinkles. Those imperfections could be corrected in Photoshop, but he’s aiming for the opposite aesthetic. His pages look like they’ve been torn directly out of his childhood.

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And yet his style isn’t childlike. It fluctuates between quick gestural sketches and carefully crosshatched portraits. But even the most naturalistic images retain a rough energy, and the two styles are often superimposed. Traditional comics artists sketch in pencil and finish in black ink, leaving white areas for a colorist to fill later. Santoro overturns those norms. The still-visible bottom layer of his images are colored marker, variously thick- or thin-lined, sometimes gone over with additional marker lines in contrasting color and thickness. The colors—purple, red, blue, yellow, green, brown—seem to have been selected with a child’s intuitive randomness, with no regard for the colors of the real-world objects being drawn. Santoro also leaves the internal spaces of his figures open, allowing previously drawn images to remain visible as if through them. When his grandfather sits in a chair, the lines that compose the chair appear behind the lines that compose the body. Though the shapes of both sets of lines are naturalistic, the combined effect is not.

Image result for frank santoro pittsburgh

Other times Santoro superimposes images with the aid of paper cut-outs and tape. Sometimes the cut-out paper is the same opaque yellow; sometimes it’s tracing paper that mutes but doesn’t block the images underneath it. The always-visible tape is even stranger, as though the entire book were a mock-up of some idealized but forever-undrawn finished version. The effect is odd and oddly poignant. For some reason the sight of the family dog Pretzel taped beside Santoro’s mother on their front porch resonates deeply for me—perhaps because the intentionally clumsy construction emphasizes the imperfection and so transitory quality of the moment.

Image result for frank santoro pittsburgh

That metaphor runs under every page. His parents’ estrangement reduced his world to a permanently unfinished preliminary sketch. If the structure of his family could be revealed to be so unstable, so provisionary, then the entire universe may as well be cheap paper held together by bits of tape.

Santoro’s style is idiosyncratic. As it should be. A non-idiosyncratic memoir would defeat its purpose. While that’s arguably true of all memoirs, it’s especially true of graphic memoirs. If Santoro rendered his family members and neighbors in the generalized style of __________ [fill-in any name from the long list of renown graphic memoirist], then he wouldn’t be documenting personal experiences but a knock-off world peopled by familiar figures who happen to be performing parts in his family story. Though divorce may be a generalized story, the divorce story of Pittsburgh is not because of Santoro’s artwork.

But Santoro’s approach to that story is effective in literary terms too. There’s a pleasantly odd looping effect, where a handful of moments keep returning in slightly different forms, sometimes retold from a different point of view (Did his grandmother really threaten to send his mother to an asylum if she married his father? Did his father really leave because he couldn’t bare refereeing his drunk brothers-in-law?), and sometimes simply retold. Like the layered pen strokes of Santoro’s images, each layer would be sufficient to communicate the content, but something deeper happens through the accumulations.

Image result for frank santoro pittsburgh

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Leigh Ann and I just got some final feedback from our series editors at Bloomsbury and so are now putting the finishing touches on our Creating Comics textbook. Part of the process for me was deleting most of the comics theory since undergrad comics creators don’t really care what French scholar Thierry Groensteen (that’s his actual name) has to say about general arthrology and spatio-topia (those are his actual terms). Happily all of that theory is finding a home in my next book, The Comics Form, due out from Routledge in 2021.

Meanwhile, there is literally one Groensteen term I’m keeping for Creating Comics. He describes how panels that occupy the same location on separate pages can “rhyme.” Because the layouts create a formal relationship between the images, they also connect their story content. Other techniques can create rhymes too: images in circular panels in a book consisting otherwise of rectangular panels; images that share a distinctive tilt or frame design; images that break the Z-path norm to produce brief N-paths. The range is wide. By rhyming two images, you make your reader experience a connection between two story moments that would otherwise be unrelated.

Rhyming can also apply to layouts overall. Abel and Madden note that grids provide “continuity to multiple-page stories,” which is true of any repeating layout. A comic that repeats the same layout on every page produces no layout rhymes—or rather it produces unvarying rhymes that differentiate no pages. A comic that repeats no layouts also doesn’t highlight and connect any pages through a rhyme scheme.

In poetry a rhyme scheme refers to the pattern of end-word rhymes. A Shakespearean sonnet, for example, follows an ABAB CDCD EFEF GG pattern, and a Petrarchan ABBAABBA CDECDE. Comics that use layout schemes relate pages for similar work-wide effects, connecting the entire story content of each page.

The sixth chapter of Charles Burns’ Black Hole (2005) includes twenty-seven pages. After an unpaired non-rectangular splash page, pages vary between row- and column-based layouts. Sixteen pages either use a 3×2 grid or imply it by combing panels, while another six feature 1×3 columns; the remaining four pages variously combine a regular row with a row of tall panels that echo the columns:

Divided into two-page spreads, Burns’ page scheme is:


Since the 3×2 pages are most prominent, B is the base pattern, giving emphasis to the three A spreads and the three C pages. The scheme also connects the story content of the A pages, and the story content of the C pages. The A spreads are the most memory-focused, with flashback images interspersed into the current action. The C pages are transitions points, highlighting the introduction of a new character and then a movement into that character’s new space—each disrupting both the narrative and formal status quo. The scheme also reveals Burns’ pattern of rhyming couplets, giving additional emphasis to the one break in the pattern, when in the fifth spread a row layout pairs with a combined layout—further highlighting the new character.

Image result for Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore’s The Walking Dead #1

In Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore’s The Walking Dead #1 (2010), over half of the pages are regular 3-rows, establishing a dominant base pattern. The two full-page images rhyme the two formally largest moments in the narrative: the protagonist waking for the first time after his apocalypse-triggering injury, and the first, apocalypse-signifying depiction of zombies. The concluding pages also rhyme with page one, giving the issue implied 4×2 bookends. The half-page columns on pages eight and twenty-four produce the most striking rhyme, depicting the only two times that the protagonist kills a zombie. In both the zombie is beneath or below him, with its head lowest in the frame. An action-produced sound effect—“WHUMP!” and “BLAM!”—partially cover the hero both times. In the first panel, his zombie killing is accidental, as he tumbles down the stairs upside down. The second time the killing is intentional, and the hero’s body is rigid and right side up—a visual and thematic reversal suggesting the change in his mental state. The two columns are formally unique, shaping their two narrative moments into N-paths and so highlighting a contrast that would be lost if the story were drawn in identically sized and shaped panels.

The layouts don’t simply transmit narrative. The rhyme portrays character development in a way additional to the words and images. Here’s the rhyme scheme for our student Maddie’s ten-page comic: ABCDCDCDBA.

Maddie began image-first, creating her main character from a class doodle that she then visually researched, revised, and redrew multiple times from multiple angles until she could render it easily for any story situation that might arise. She developed her first page by drawing her character in a page-width panel, which she then repeated for the other images, adjusting the number of panels to suit the page and using a single line for framing rather than the white space of a formal gutter. Because page one ended with her fish feeling alone, the rest of the story developed into a search for companions. She had initially thought that one of the animals he meets would return with him, and that a wise mentor figure would convince him to return, but both characters and plot points seemed unnecessary once she was drawing the actual comic.

Her page scheme developed from her character’s first adventure away from home, which she drew in a three-row layout of full-width panels, except for the evenly divided middle row of the second page. When her character enters his second adventure, she used the same two-page template, rhyming the layouts and, more specifically, the center panel of the second page where in all three adventures the main character discovers that he can’t be happy with his new group of friends. When he returns, she repeated the opening two page’s layouts—but now in reverse order. Where on the second page the fish swims out into the full-page vastness of the ocean, on the penultimate page, he swims toward the viewer, with all of his ocean friends now visible behind him. And when he approaches his own fish community, it’s in the same 4-row arrangement as page one, only ending with his joining them.

Emily’s nine-page comic is less regular than Maddie’s, but she still uses page scheme effects:

Page one establishes both the story world space of the bookshelf and the formal space of the layout with a two-panel row at the top implying a three-row base for the following five pages. Page two then creates an internal, fantasy space of the cube’s thoughts by using panels shaped like thought balloons over a black background and gutters. Sometimes each page’s fantasy sequence begins in the second panel of row of one, and sometimes it ends in the first panel of row two, but the page scheme always includes the complete middle row. Emily then break that norm with page eight—which includes no fantasy and switches from an implied 3×2 grid to an overt 5×3 of square panels that echo the shape the cube. The new layout deepens the sense of the cube’s immobility within the story world—until the owner’s hand reappears at the bottom of the page and then rolls the cube on the final page in an unframed sequence of embedded images showing the cube’s actual movement. Without the repetition of the base layout in the first seven pages, the last two pages would have less formal significance and so their story content would have less significance too.

The best way I can summarize this graphic novel is the expression on my partner’s face as she flipped through it, her mouth locked in a grimace, eyebrows arching over each page.

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Kate Lacour’s Vivisectionary is surprisingly horrible—and that’s a compliment. I could say horrifying, but that implies horror in the genre sense (though technically it’s that too). Lacour’s art burrows past standard tropes to trigger a range of down-to-the-bone visceral reactions. It’s unpleasant viewing—the way a roller coaster would be an unpleasant form of public transit. It’s good in small doses. Lacour’s 136 pages sounds about right. My wife blinked at every one of them.

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Like “horror,” “graphic novel” might be the wrong word. Unless it’s possible to have a novel without such things as characters, plot, and settings. The back cover calls Vivisectionary a “compendium,” and the front cover a “convocation.” It is most certainly “biological art,” and the images both are and are of “experiments.” Lacour explains in her afterward that her inspiration came from the natural museum dioramas that fascinated her as a child, that grotesque combination of plastic, taxidermied animal flesh, and story fragments captured in cadaverous, three-dimensional freeze frames. She says they filled her with wonder. Her art fills me with something a lot more disturbing.

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Imagine you just pulled a textbook from your medical school library shelf. It’s leather bound, with one of those official-looking marble patterns on the inside of the covers. The following series of sixty two-page spreads feature individual “plates,” image on the right, number and title on the left, and a decadent swath of greenish beige space between. The first seems normal enough. Two rows show the parallel development of two egg embryos, a bird’s and a snake’s—until they hatch simultaneously and the baby snake kills the baby bird. While the weirdness of that should be obvious (medical illustrations are supposed to represent general phenomenon, not specific events), Plate No. 2 is significantly weirder: a how-to diagram for twisting off the cork from a champagne bottle, only wait, the bottle is suddenly a swan’s neck, and now you’re pouring the champagne down a funnel inserted into its mouth, before removing its head and extracting a row of white pill-like objects from the perfectly bisected wound. These are instructions for what exactly? And for whom?

Image result for Kate Lacour Vivisectionary

Things only get worse: a woman morphing into a caterpillar—which is somehow related to both a butterfly with petal-like wings and a flower with wing-like petals depending on how you follow and interpret the flow of panels. (Is there a correct interpretation?). Soon a mouse is cocooning itself into a cocoon-winged bat, a hybrid dog-baby suckles at a woman’s breast (is she wearing Victorian clothes?), and pigs grow into squares and worms into bologna rolls convenient for food preparation. It turns out snakes and swans can be surgically combined—though for less self-apparent reasons. Brains also make great yarn and/or snakes, and mermaids evolve into land lizards. And that’s just “Phase I.” “Phase II” involves people: snake masturbation, penis bongs, food blenders for skeletons, sex with roasting chickens, babies born from ejaculate wounds, brains with vaginas, hummingbirds sucking life from fingers, frogs growing from eyeball placenta, bisected embryo reforming into kissing twins.

Image result for Kate Lacour Vivisectionary

I could go on (I didn’t even get to the drug theme: shooting up ground unicorn horn; snorting sands of time surgically removed from your own spine), but I will leave you to imagine the rest of Phases III-V. There might be a way to read a plot into the mounting discomfort, but if so the viewer is the main character, and the images are your deranged antagonist.

The horror isn’t just the skin-prickling discomfort the images evoke. It’s the implied but wholly ambiguous circumstances of the images’ production. Not Lacour’s actual images—she’s fully in charge of those—but who or what is responsible for the surgical operations Lacour documents? Whose undrawn body controls the scalpel? While the notion of a medical lab staffed by rogue physicians with macabre ethical standards would be sufficiently disturbing, the problem Lacour proposes runs considerably deeper. This isn’t a medical book documenting the gone-terribly-wrong. In Lacour’s universe, this is standard practice. And although the prospect of the entire branching field of medicine conforming to the norms of Vivisectionary is again thoroughly disturbing, it’s nature itself that appears to be most deranged. Human medicine is just responding to the inhumane absurdities Lacour’s naturally unnatural world produces. The mad doctor dictating from his operating theater must be God.

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It’s also uncomfortably possible to interpret Vivisectionary according to its cultural and political moment. Is this a treatise on transphobia? I don’t think so. But I doubt someone contemplating reassignment surgery would leave it on their coffee table. Is this a bizarre backdoor entry point for pro-life positions, including the sanctity of stem cells? Again, doubtful. But the volume does communicate visceral distrust of those wielding medical power, and these (often female) subjects have little control over their own (often headless) bodies.

Image result for Kate Lacour Vivisectionary

That merperson (their gender is strikingly ambiguous) on the cover, did they opt to have their tail removed and replaced with mechanical legs? Is there such a thing as mermaid conversation therapy in this funhouse mirror of a reality? Are these specimens volunteers? Did they have to sign a waiver permitting the use of their images in this collection, or is that just standard practice too, the way organs and other bodily content becomes the property of a hospital once removed? As far as all of those fetuses grown or removed from heads and brains and hearts and eyeballs and amputated fingers and forearms, if you’re pregnant, considering getting pregnant, or pregnant and considering getting an abortion, Vivisectionary is almost certainly not for you.

But if you’re comfortable with discomfort, and you like your graphic novels to experiment with the DNA of the comics form, then Kate Lacour is definitely your deranged doctor.

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

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I recently posted on the range of styles available between photorealism and cartooning. The post included my self-portrait divided into four prominent styles that combined contrasting levels of simplification and exaggeration. This week I’m featuring a wider range of self-portraits that are harder to categorize. They’re all derived from photographs, but none remain photorealistic after digitally adapted. The distortions can still be analyzed in terms of simplification and exaggeration, but the combinations are less obvious. My goal isn’t to undermine my own analysis, but it is good to keep myself honest by challenging simple categories. And once again, this is all from my favorite digital dinosaur, MS Paint.






















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