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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

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?

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