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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Lesley Wheeler’s new poetry collection The State She’s In (released last week from Tinderbox Editions) is not a comic. But it may include one:

I discuss the visual poem in the book of comics theory I’m drafting right now, The Comics Form: The Art of Juxtaposed Images. But is “En Dehors Garde Bingo” a comic? It violates at least two expectations of the form: images and image order.

First, the word “word” has at least two meanings: a combination of letterforms, and a set of meanings including connotations linked to that combination of letterforms and experienced in a reader’s mind. Neither refers to a specific instance of a word’s appearance as an image on a piece of paper or computer screen, which I distinguish as a word-image.

Like representational images generally, word-images are physical marks on physical surfaces, but unless the words are pictographic and so have some minimal resemblance to their subjects, their shapes are non-representational. But since word-images trigger linguistic content, which is a kind of representational content, word-images are also a kind of representational image.

Word-images may barely register as marks if a reader’s attention shifts primarily to their linguistic content seemingly bypassing their physical presence. “What we are looking at when we read,” explains Mendelsund, “are words, made up letterforms, but we are trained to see past them—to look at what the words and letterforms point toward. Words are like arrows—they are something, and they point toward something” (322). “To read,” continues Mendelsund, “is: to look through […] There is very little looking at” (334-5).

Words in prose-only texts are most often typeset in a single font and color and usually with little or no variation. That uniformity communicates the graphic equality of words’ discursive features. If all words are rendered identically, word rendering communicates no meaning. Comics scripter Brian Michael Bendis describes the same convention for words in traditional comics: “Lettering should be invisible. You shouldn’t notice it, unless it is a determined piece of storytelling in graphic design” (2014: 43).

Word-images that are also graphic elements of a graphically designed page disrupt written language’s looking-through tendency. A reader reads them in the linguistic sense while also being influenced by their renderings, so the meaning of a word is both linguistic and visual. Even “Spacing and typography,” observes Miodrag, “mold the reception of text” (2013: 78). Words in traditional comics typically appear to be hand-lettered, consist entirely of capitals, employ bolding for word emphasis, and may change size, line-thickness, stylistic shape, and color to denote a range of meanings.

Hatfield refers to such word-images as “visually inflected,” explaining that “visible language has the potential to be quite elaborate in appearance, forcing recognition of pictorial and material qualities that can be freight with meaning” (2005: 36-7). What Eisner calls the “visual treatment of words as graphic art” also complicates Walton’s assumption that the “seeing” of a word and the “imagining” of the word’s subject matter are separate, since the imagining is not simply the result of triggering a viewer’s set of meanings associated with the word but is also influenced by the discursive qualities of the specific word-image that does the triggering.

So are the word-images in Wheeler’s poem “images”?

Holbo observes: “Typography is graphic design. Novels, being typed are graphic novels,” and since “Letterforms are images,” prose-only novels and poems are comics if comics are juxtaposed images (2014: 15). In one sense, this is true, and yet intuitively word-images are distinct from images that are not words. Following Eisner’s phrase, I call a significantly visually inflicted linguistic image a graphic word-image, leaving the precise point on the implied spectrum to individual perception.

Are Wheeler’s colored word-images sufficiently graphic to be considered graphic word-images? Even if your answer is no, the poem might still be considered a comic because the words appear in panels.

In traditional comics, hand-lettered or typeset words but not graphically rendered words appear in frames. Unlike speech and thought frames, frames containing words that are not directed at pictured subjects are spatiotemporally ambiguous. Words within frames also divide into lines according to discursive shape requirements and so with little or no linguistic consideration, but containers can also produce units and rhythmic effects similar to lines or stanzas of poetry. The backgrounds of the framed areas are also usually different from the surrounding image, often with the same white negative space as margins and gutters. Since these frames, like comics frames generally, are not actual frames but drawn representations of frames, words in word containers are image-texts. The non-linguistic elements also communicate meaning.

If graphic elements such as word frames in conjunction with word-images are sufficient to make an image-text, then they are also sufficient to make multiple such image-texts a comic when juxtaposed.

But even if we treat each panel as a juxtaposed image-text, Wheeler’s “En Dehors Garde Bingo” may not be a comic because the panels have no reading order. If a comic is defined as a sequence, it must have a single correct order in which the images are to be viewed. That implies that there are also wrong orders—or at least orders that do not produce the aesthetic result that the preferred order produces. Defining a comic as a series means order doesn’t matter. There are no necessary linear successions.

In Creating Comics I divide comics into “sequences” and “sets,” the first being ordered, and the second unordered. Some sets of juxtaposed images are explicitly unordered. For its tenth anniversary the literary journal The Diagram released the anthology 10 of Diagrams in the form of a deck of playing cards, with an image-text by a different author on each card. The ten woodcut prints of Felix Vallotton’s 1898 Intimités are a set that when published in book form must appear in some discursive order, but not an order that is an aspect of the collective artwork. A viewer need not begin with the woodcut printed on the first page and is free to flip backwards or forwards at any time without disturbing any aesthetic effect.

Wheeler’s “En Dehors Garde Bingo” arranges its twenty-five, color-coded sentences into a 5×5 grid. They may be read in any order, which is a significant aspect of the poem’s aesthetic qualities. Unordered image juxtapositions (including image-text juxtapositions like Wheeler’s) are not sequences and so are not comics according to most definitions of the form.

But if you define a comics as simply juxtaposed images, order doesn’t matter. And then “En Dehors Garde Bingo” may be a comic after all.





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