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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Monthly Archives: July 2021

I’m completing the final draft of my next book, The Comics Form: The Art of Sequenced Images, due to my editor at Bloomsbury next month. It’s an attempt to pull back, re-examine and then re-approach a lot of what we assume about things we call comics—as well as about things we tend not to call comics. Though the book falls into the broad category of comics theory, and my pal in the philosophy department assures me it’s also a work of philosophy, I also intend it to be practical.  

To see just how practical, I’m trying a test run on the above comic (recently sent to me by the author, John Gavaler, who not coincidentally is also my father). Following the ideas I discuss in The Comics Form, here are the steps one might follow when viewing something through a comics lens.


Is the “something” visual, flat, and static? If it’s, say, a sculpture garden and so not flat, or if it is a visual image or images that are moving, as with a film or video game, then viewing it through a comics lens probably won’t be very helpful.

My father’s comic is visual, flat, and static, so I’ll proceed to the next step.


Do you perceive it as consisting of more than one image? A lot of visual objects are made of distinct parts, but those parts aren’t necessarily understood as separate images. Many flags, for instance, consist of one or more panels, but those kinds of panels aren’t treated separately from the flag as a whole.

My father’s comics appears to me to be made of multiple, separable images.


How many images?

I count twelve.


Are the images juxtaposed? While ‘juxtaposed’ can mean different things (in film juxtaposed images are not next to each other but appear separately, one immediately after the other), let’s focus first on whether the images are contiguous—do they touch?

Since the images in my father’s comic do not touch (an area of negative space appears between them), they are not strictly contiguous. But if we accept a less strict definition, we could say they are indirectly contiguous and so still juxtaposed in the sense of being arranged together within the same visual field.

More specifically, the images are arranged in a 4×3 grid with uninform horizontal and vertical gutters created by the negative spaces between identically (or practically identically) sized and shaped images. Each image is also unframed.

If you got this far, I’d say you’re safe to call the object you’re looking at a comic—though only if you accept that a comic can be defined formally. If you don’t, then I’d still say the work is in the comics form. That form can be defined in different ways, but it’s most commonly defined as juxtaposed images or as sequenced images (the difference, if there is one, is complicated, and not helpful at this early stage).

My dad’s comic is in the comics form.


Is the comic in the comics medium? That can mean a variety of things, none of them formal. Most basically, I’d say things are in the comics medium if the creators, publishers, and/or consumers say the are. So something published by a publisher that identifies as a publisher of comics is probably in the comics medium. Though not everything in a newspaper is a comic, those things that appear in a newspaper’s comics section mostly are.

My father’s comic is not published and so not part of any media.


Can something be in the comics medium anyway?

Some definitions of media require publication, or an equivalent process, and so might necessarily exclude my father’s comic, but when he sent it to me, my father wrote: “I’m attaching my newly minted comic book.” If authorial intention matters, then that may be sufficient. Unless he was joking, since he added: “Or, maybe, it should be properly called a graphic novel.” Since my father knows that graphic novels are longer, multi-page works, and since his attachment was a single page, he presumably wasn’t serious that it might be a graphic novel. Was he serious about calling it a comic? I think so, but that’s my interpretation of his statement, and someone else might argue for a different interpretation.

This is why defining something by authorial intention is a problem.

But even if I can’t know my father’s intentions, I perceive his comic as having his intentions—even if I’m completely wrong about his actual intentions.


Are the multiple images in a specific order?

I’m neutral about whether my father’s comic is in the comics medium, because the criteria of inclusion applies ambiguously in this case. The comics form is ambiguous too, since it’s not entirely clear whether images that are juxtaposed are necessarily sequenced too.

Happily, for my father’s comics, they are both. The content of the images are representational and depict a sequence of chronological moments in which a work crew removes a damaged tree. Though a viewer is always free to view the images in any order, only one order produces the (presumably intended) narrative.


Does the specific order create a specific viewing path through the arrangement of images?

Yes. In fact, it may be impossible to perceive the image order without simultaneously perceiving the resulting viewing path.

Unless you understand the path to be independent of the image order because a work in the comics medium follows certain viewing conventions. My father’s comic is row-based, creating a Z-path viewing path. If you begin with the assumption that the comic follows that convention, you will likely start by looking at the top left image. Some conventional comics are instead column-based, creating N-paths, but since that’s less common, you would probably attempt a Z-path first, proceeding next to the middle image in the second row instead of the second image in the first column. The image content in my father’s comic would reward that attempt, allowing a viewer to continue a Z-path through the rest of the arrangement. But if the image order were arranged instead in columns, a viewer would have to discover that through trial and error.

The trial-and-error approach is often overlooked, and it applies earlier in the viewing process than is often considered. Viewers who assume my father’s comic follows a viewing path common for works published in the comics medium do so because they have first perceived other conventions that lead to that assumption. Probably the 4×3 grid of square panels and uniform gutters does the trick.

But just because a set of images is arranged in a uniformly spaced grid doesn’t mean it has a pre-determined viewing path. A lot of Warhols don’t. That means there’s always a trail-and-error approach in play. If an attempt to view the images in a specific path is rewarded by the image content following the same order, then the viewer will likely continue. If the image content doesn’t reward that path, or any path, and instead the images appear to be unordered, the viewer likely will abandon following any prescribed path and scan in any direction at any time.

That means image content and order ultimately determine viewing paths—not the other way around.


Does the author care about any of this?

I don’t know, but I’ll ask. My father did say in his email: “In any case I’m expecting a critique. 😉”

I think this probably counts?

I’m delighted to see the new issue of Shenandoah is now online! I’m especially delighted to see the cover art by Leigh Ann Beavers. The piece is titled “whitethorn project: flattened whitethorn bouquet study no. 5“:

I’m probably a bit biased toward Leigh Ann, since she and I co-wrote Creating Comics and co-teach our hybrid creative-writing/studio-arts Making Comics course every other spring term. We were teaching it for the third time this past May when Beth (Shenandoah‘s editor) was in the process of selecting the image from an array of Leigh Ann’s works.

As usual, I had nothing to do with the cover art selection process. Unusually, I also had nothing to do with the comics selection process for this issue too. I became Shenandoah’s first-ever comics editor six issues ago in 2018, and though I hope to continue in that role indefinitely, it was an honor to step aside for Shenandoah‘s first-ever comics guest editor, Rachelle Cruz.

I wish I could take some tiny credit, but Beth and Rachelle met without my involvement, though I did know a little about Rachelle from her textbook Experiencing Comics (which I excerpted last winter for my WRITING 100 Superheroes seminar).

In addition to selecting comics, Rachelle selected a theme for her curated issue. Please read her introduction, “A Song or a Warning: Shenandoah’s Comic Artists Contemplate Survival,” for more detail, but bottom line: we appear to have survived the pandemic. Rachelle writes:

“In the summer of 2020, I was graciously invited by Beth Staples, editor-in-chief, to edit the comics section of the spring 2021 issue. “You can even come up with a theme, if you’d like,” Beth said. I’m privileged in so many ways (my ability to work from home is one of them), but the question, how am I—how are we—going to survive this, is one I wanted to ask cartoonists.”

Each of her three comics artists responded deeply.

In Trinidad Escobar and Meredith Hobbs Coons’ “So Much Good,” Rachelle sees: “Or survival as a bounding through our inner and outer landscapes to seek the intimacy of ourselves and others where there is ‘the rim light of your emerging joys’ and ‘so much good’ that emerges from this communion.”

Here’s the first page:

In Breena Nuñez “Invitation,” Rachelle sees: “Survival, or surviving, can be a space for holding our tears, our multiple embodied selves (younger and present) and our expectations of them.”

Here’s the first page:

And in Mita Mahato’s “Alligator Gut: A Representation of Survival with Papers, Polyethylene, and Residual Ink,” Rachelle sees: “survival as a complicated tangle of alligator guts, of what persists through paper-woven, collaged digestion.”

It’s wonderful to see Mita return to the virtual pages of Shenandoah, since she is also the first comics creator I contacted when I became editor. Her “Lullaby” appeared in Fall 2018, and her artwork was featured on the cover of the same issue, the first to feature Beth as editor. It’s equally wonderful to welcome Trinidad Escobar to Shenandaoh. When Rachelle mentioned during an early Zoom that she would be contacting her, I was thrilled. And I’m equally thrilled to be introduced to Meredith Hobbs Coons and Breena Nuñez.

Beth also welcomed another guest editor for the new issue. DW McKinney took over nonfiction (check out her introduction, “What is Home?: Shenandoah Essayists Eulogize and Celebrate Places of Belonging“). For this issue, poetry editor Lesley Wheeler also curated a special section on “uncanny activism” (a term she explains in her introduction, “A Grimoire: Poems in Pursuit of Transformation“). And translations editor Seth Michelson focused on Arabic poetry (“Contemporary Arabic Poetry in Contemporary Translation“). That’s all on top of the usual amazing array of fiction and nonfiction.

Check it all out!

Religions tend to be distinguished by their scriptures. Jews are not Christians because Jews believe the Tanakh and only the Tanakh was inspired by and so indirectly written by God. Christians are not Jews because Christians believe both the Tanakh, as reconfigured as the Old Testament, and the New Testament are holy books and no others. Christians are not Mormons because Mormons believe that, in addition to the Bible, the Book of Mormon is scripture—though, since Mormons do consider themselves Christians, perhaps a Christian is anyone who considers the Bible to be divinely inspired. If so, all Mormons and all Christians are by the same logic Jews, a view I suspect most Jews, Christians, and Mormons would reject.

The Mormon Church further expanded its list of holy books in 1976 when it declared: “The success of the Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary War came about through men who were raised up by God for this special purpose,” and “The Constitution was and is a miracle. It was an inspired document, written under the divine guidance of the Lord.” Joseph Smith, who founded Mormonism in 1830, said as much: “The Constitution of the United States is a glorious standard; it is founded in the wisdom of God. It is a heavenly banner.” Brigham Young added that it “was dictated by the invisible operations of the Almighty.”

This would seem to be further evidence that Mormons are not Christians, since the belief that human documents are scripture is heresy from the Christian perspective that only the Bible is divine. The notion that Jesus Christ would favor one nation over all others also seems to contradict the Gospels (“Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s,” the parable of the Good Samaritan, and Luke 14:26’s demand to reject even family allegiances), but Mormons aren’t the only Americans with that belief.

The Pew Research Center found in 2020 that 32% of Americans believe that God chooses U.S. presidents, specifically Obama and Trump—though most believe so in the broad sense of elections being part of God’s plan rather than as an endorsement of specific candidates. QAnoners, who believe that Jesus Christ selected Donald Trump to war against Satan-worshipping, sex-trafficking, child-raping, and child-eating Democratic leaders, is a notable exception. Americans broadly believed in Manifest Destiny, a term coined in 1845 to describe the notion that God willed the western expansion of the U.S., including the conquest and annexation of lands owned by other nations, including Mexico and dozens of native tribes.  

Again, such beliefs seem remarkably non- and even anti-Christian to me—unless the term “Christian” is used in the expanded Mormon sense of belief in the Bible as scripture but not the Bible exclusively. If so, a major new religion emerged over the past two hundred years with a following of potentially millions. Its followers refer to it as “Christianity,” though to differentiate it from other uses of the term, I will tentatively call it “Church of America,” because religions that expand on previous religions tend to be identified by their additional scriptures.  

Whatever its name, it has four holy works: the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution. Its latter-day saints include Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, and George Washington. Since the Church of America does not recognize the Book of Mormon as scripture, it is distinct from Mormonism, though both recognize the U.S. founding documents as divinely inspired.

In the last chapter of Revising Fiction, Fact, and Faith: A Philosophical Account, my co-author Nathaniel Goldberg and I trace the development of the Abrahamic religions Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in terms of two kinds of revision of scriptures, expansions (often called sequels in other contexts) and retcons (which require reinterpreting but not erasing pre-existing facts), as well as a previous religious community’s ability to holdout against a revision. The relationships are complex, but Nathaniel compressed them into a single graph:

The Church of America is an expansion of “Christianity” (as defined as the exclusive belief in the Bible), but I’m not going to ask Nathaniel to try to add the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution to the graph.

How popular is the Church of America? I don’t know, but I suspect it’s massive. I co-founded a Facebook page where conservatives and progressives (sometimes) try to talk across the ideological divide. A Friend commented recently: “America was founded when we were inspired by God to recognize liberation from the King.” It’s a notion I’ve read there before, sometimes in significantly more detail. Another Friend wrote in response to my question:

“I do believe that the founding fathers were inspired by God in developing the founding ethos in our Declaration and the Constitution later made to ensure government is in line with that ethos. This perspective would be commonly held among Christian Conservatives who would draw from the more modern rhetoric of Reagan and Coolidge, along with ideas from Lincoln and statements by the founding fathers in their writings. … That being said, many in the religious right probably have not studied the rhetoric or Reagan, Coolidge, Lincoln, and the Founding Fathers in depth, but this conception of America’s founding is culturally recognized in the household and I would say a majority of politically active republicans likely view the founding in a manner like this.”

The belief explains why, when I pointed out the historically incontrovertible fact that the founders were racists (they believed African people were innately inferior to European people), I was accused of “demonization.” The opposite is true: the Church of America deifies the founders as holy instruments of God who produced sacred texts. To acknowledge their human flaws (there is no sense in which they were not racists) seems like demonization because it diminishes them to a similar degree but only because of their holy status.

Though I was raised Catholic, I am not now a Christian, so I am not in a good position to express opinions about what is or is not Christianity. I will say though that at a gut-reaction level the belief that political documents written by human beings were actually written by God through divine inspiration strikes me as sacrilegious. But understanding the Church of America as a distinct religion does make intuitive sense to me, because I have often been perplexed by conservative policy positions that seem to contradict the central tenants of the Gospels (where abortion is never mentioned, but Jesus directs his followers to relinquish all of their wealth and help the poor about a dozen times).

Many U.S. Christian conservatives prioritize securing the border over aiding impoverished people attempting to cross it. If they are not “Christians” but members of the Church of America, then the apparent failure to obey the New Testament may be explained by the stronger belief in the sacredness of the U.S. This follows since religions that expand on previous religions tend to hold their new scriptures in higher and more defining esteem. Christians, for example, see the New Testament as fulfilment of and in some ways a corrective to the Old Testament, and what would the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints be without its latter-day saints?

The Church of America seems similarly to privilege the U.S. and its founding documents over the Bible.

More specifically Reykjavik street art, which you may or may not agree should be called ‘comics.’

This sequence is across from the Hlemmur Matholl, where we ate dinner our second night.

Though not a comic according to a medium-based definition (it’s not on paper, it’s not reproducible, it’s not hand-held, and it’s not been published by an entity that identifies as a publisher of comics), the three-image unit is is a comic according to a form-based definition, which boils down to two wonderful words: sequenced images.

The division of the building windows (which reverses the typical panel/gutter relationship) physically separates the three images, but I suspect viewers would likely still identify them as separate images even if they were painted edge-to-edge because the image content produces recurrence: it’s the same figure pictured three times in three evolving states.

That evolution also makes is a sequence with a viewing path and not just a series open to any viewing order and direction. Though the three states need not be chronological, the middle image seems to be a mid-point between the two outer images, implying a step-by-step transformation. That combined with a left-to-right reading habit (whether reading in English or Icelandic) is enough to establish order and direction.

This next one offers a different formal challenge:

That’s two sides of the same building. If a comic is formally two or more juxtaposed images, are the sides of a building continuous and so part of the same surface and so not juxtaposed? Or are does the 90 degree angle mean a change in canvas, producing two images that are juxtaposed like two facing pages in a book? And, more complexly, what if the image content is continuous between surfaces?

Those continuous four-part arms wraps all the way around the four sides of the building. Does that mean it’s one image, the way a tri-fold page folds out from a book? Would it be four images if each side instead featured no connecting lines between the four sides?

If you want my opinion, I’d say yes to both questions. But what about definitions that require an image to include text to be considered a comic?

Fantomas is an early 20th-century French pulp, so good proto-source material. The use of the top hand as a word container is a nice effect too, but what about images that include only words?

Words are always images, and the use of green, blue, and red is significant to the content, differentiating time periods and (I’m guessing) countries in feminist history. Is that enough to make the image an “image”? Personally, I’d say no, but other words are clearly more image-focused.

Not quite sure what this says, but I assume those are all letters:

Google translate failed me for “Andrymi” posted on the sign in front of the yellow arms house, but apparently “STRAX!” means “IMMEDIATELY!” I’m not sure if the graphic elements are enough to push the word-image into word-image art, but if you think conventions are enough to make a comic a comic, check out the word balloons embedded in this one:

Or the sound emanata painted around the figure’s mouth:

Or maybe a cartoon style is enough?

Or conventional Marvel/DC house style plus conventional subject matter?

Check out the manga chin:

Or maybe you don’t care what they’re called and just enjoy looking at street art?

By the way, you just took about a five mile hike around Iceland’s capital. You deserve to rest with a cup of tea in your two-night rental apartment before heading out to explore glaciers, waterfalls, and volcanoes tomorrow morning. Please enjoy this three-image photocomic as you relax.

[BONUS IMAGES! If you’re suffering from jetlag and light-induced insomnia, this is what the Reykjavik sky looks like a half hour after the midnight sunset. Fortunately, I don’t know what the 3:10 sunrise looks like.]

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