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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Mister invincible : local hero by Jousselin, Pascal (9781942367611) |  BrownsBfS

Two annoying terms I can’t seem to stop using when discussing comics: ‘discourse’ and ‘diegesis.’ They’re sort of the same as ‘form’ and ‘content,’ or ‘form’ and ‘story.’ Except sometimes comics seems to crash form and story together, obscuring the distinction. Other art forms (prose fiction, films, live theater) have discourses and diegeses too, but the effects in comics might be unique.

One of the presents I unwrapped Christmas morning was Pascal Jousselin’s Mister Invincible: Local Hero, a collection of French comics translated and published in English in 2017, but new to my radar this year (which is why I put it on my Santa list–though all actual credit goes to my spouse). It’s one of the most playfully brilliant interrogations of the comics form I’ve seen, literally illustrating the discourse/diegesis divide and its peculiar comics conundrums.

First, with massive apologies to Jousselin, here are six panels from one of his collection’s one-page comic strips, rearranged in my own cascading column:

Though obscured by my arrangement, you probably see the key connection between panels 2 and 5. Ignoring the also vast issues of framing and perspective, my arrangement attempts to isolate each panel and emphasize the linear relationships of their content. This is close to the story as experienced by the woman worried about her cat.

Here’s another rearrangement, one that could more easily appear on an actual comics page, with paired panels in three rows:

The trick is still between panels 2 and 5, which is a little easier to see now because this arrangement places the interior content of each panel in roughly the same position relative to each other: the six trees line-up in two columns, parallel to the middle gutter.

Of course the drawings are all of only one tree: the one in the story world. That’s where annoying terms become usefully non-annoying. Using their adjective forms: there’s one diegetic tree, but six discursive trees. I could still say there’s one story-world tree, but saying there’s six formal trees is less clear, plus the formal effects of the cascading arrangement and the three rows of paired panels are different.

But not as different as the two rows of three panels that Jousselin actually drew:

Only now is the key conceptual connection between panels 2 and 5 also a physical connection. The arrangement is the joke. Mister Invincible’s superpower is the comics form. He seemingly reaches out of the diegesis and into the discourse of the page.

Though that’s not quite accurate. Understood diegetically, he just has time-travel powers: he can reach his arms out of his current moment and into another moment, removing an object (the cat) from that other moment and bringing it into the current moment. That would be the woman’s understanding of what happened. Mister Invincible, however, knows that his diegetic time-travel powers are rooted in the panel arrangement of the page. That’s why my first two arrangements ruin the joke.

But it’s more than panel arrangement. If, for example, panel 5 were drawn from a more distant perspective, so that the discursive space between the top of the tree were longer than the discursive length of Mister Invincible’s arms as drawn in the other panels, then he could not reach down and retrieve the cat. So it’s not just the layout of the panels but also the interior arrangements of their drawn content, including framing and perspective effects.

That means Mister Invincible sees everything that the viewers sees. He is aware of the page. That’s a delight of metafiction, but it reveals something else about the comics form: the layout of panels is not a formal quality; it’s a diegetic quality. Layout is part of Mister Invincible’s story world (and also his superhero-defining chest emblem).

Characters in other artforms can have metafictional qualities too: a character played by an actor turns and addresses the audience, either directly from a stage or seemingly through a camera and screen. A character in a prose novel might metaphorically break that fourth wall too, revealing that she knows she’s an author’s construction living in a constructed story world. But if so, she’s probably not aware of the ink that comprises the words that comprise her and that world. She’s not aware when the typeset words reach the right margin requiring a reader to shift to the left column to continuing reading. She’s not aware of paragraphs or page breaks either. She’s aware that her diegesis is a diegesis, but she’s unaware of the discourse (the physical book) that creates the diegesis (in collaboration with a reader reading it).

That doesn’t describe Mister Invincible. He doesn’t seem to be aware of his creator, Jousselin, or of viewers viewing his actions. I don’t know if he knows he’s in a diegesis. But I do know that an aspect of his diegesis is the discursive arrangement of image content on each page. That creates an interesting puzzle: while content and form can be related in all kinds of interesting ways, form can’t BE content. Instead of breaking the discourse/diegesis divide, Mister Invincible reveals that no such divide exists when it comes to what is typically called “form” in comics.

That means layout is not part of the comics form. It’s a kind of diegesis. Usually that diegesis is distinct from the character-populated world of the story, but it’s still a kind of diegesis, meaning a set of representations. The frames around the panels are not frames: they’re drawings of frames. The spaces between panels are not empty; they are drawings of emptiness. The only formal (meaning physical) parameters of a comics page are the physical edges of the paper that the ink is printed on. Mister Invincible is powerless against them because they exist only in the viewer’s world. The arrangement of panels is drawn to look like it exists in the viewer’s world too (like a gallery wall of framed images would actually exist in a viewer’s world), but that effect is no more real than the tree or the cat or the woman or Mister Invincible.

What do you call layout then? I’ve been puzzling through this while drafting my next book, The Comics Form: The Art of Sequenced Images (I just signed a new contract with Bloomsbury this month). While layout is a ‘secondary diegesis,’ the phrase misses its most salient features and could mean something entirely different (a story world within the story world). I first tried ‘pseudo-discourse,’ which made one of my collaborators (co-author of Creating Comics) laugh out loud–and not in a good way. So I’m currently going with the slightly less pretentious-sounding ‘pseudo-form.’

Comics panels are often drawn as though they are card-like images placed on the surface of a page. Sometimes they appear to overlap, either partially at corners, or entirely with insets, including panels that are insets on a full-page image. The word “on” is key. That’s a diegetic illusion. It’s all just ink marks beside inks marks (or pixels beside pixels). Only an illusion of diegetic content can appear to be “on” something else, as though that something else would be visible if the “top” content were somehow removed. It’s an illusion of depth–or let’s say ‘pseudo-depth’ since it’s distinct from the effects of depth created within the framed images through traditional naturalistic drawing techniques (three-dimensional perspective, light-sourced shading, etc.)

And that’s Mister Invincible’s improbable superpower: a panoptic awareness of and ability to navigate non-linearly but contiguously through the secondarily diegetic pseudo-form of each comics page.

He’s also a character in a really cute children’s comic I got for Christmas. Thanks, Santa!

Invincible v1: "Justice and Fresh Vegetables" (i.e. "Mister Invincible") -  Pipeline Comics

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