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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

The short answer: probably not.

It’s a yard sign for a local grassroots get-out-the-vote campaign. It’s not something published by a comics publisher. That’s my circular but still useful shorthand definition of the comics medium. The comics medium is distinct from the comics form, which I can define in even fewer words: sequenced images.

So if the yard sign contained two sequenced images, would it be a comic? Well, if being a work in the comics form is enough for something to be a comic, then yes. But does the sign contain two images?

That’s going to require the long answer.

For the sign to be sequenced images, it has to include at least two images. If you look closely at the bottom right corner, there are three small images (including a recycling symbol and the outline of Virginia). Because they are so small, and so secondary to the larger design elements, I’m going to ignore them. That leaves seven much larger words and the central white area. If you call the word “BLUE” an image and if you call the shape framing “BLUE” an image, then the sign has two images.

But should we call either an image?

I’ve written previously about how the way a word is rendered can make it word-image art. In this case, does the way “BLUE” is rendered make it art? I suspect there’s room for debate, but my instinct says no. Its graphic-art qualities seem much less operative than its linguistic qualities.

That would mean the sign includes (at most) one (significant) image, and since one image can’t be sequences images, the sign isn’t in the comics form, and since it’s also not in the comics medium, it can in no sense (that I know of) be considered a comic.

But, what the hell, let’s say “BLUE” is word-image art (its size and color are the sign’s most distinctive qualities) and so an image. Then is the white space framing it an image too?

This is a variation on a question I’ve been chewing on while completing my next book manuscript, The Comics Form: The Art of Sequenced Images. The last chapter is titled “Sequenced Image-texts.” Though a comic (whether defined by form or medium) doesn’t have to include text, many do. So understanding how sequenced images work requires understanding the subset of sequenced image-texts. And that requires determining the minimum necessary qualities for an image to be an image.

Here’s a bit from the draft:

In traditional comics, hand-lettered or typeset words appear in frames termed ‘caption boxes’ and ‘balloons’ or ‘bubbles’ distinguished by the linguistic content of speech or thought, with ‘tails’ or ‘pointers’ directed at rendered subjects. The framed words typically divide into lines according to the discursive requirements of the frame and so with little or no linguistic consideration, but word frames can also produce units and rhythmic effects similar to lines or stanzas of poetry. The backgrounds of framed areas are sometimes different from the surrounding image, often with the same white negative space as margins and gutters. Since these frames, like drawn frames generally, are not actual frames but representations, words in word frames are image-texts, with the non-linguistic elements communicating meaning. Pratt, for example, observes that “word balloons may also, through their style or even color, give pictorial cues to the reader as to the mental states and attitudes of their utterers” (2009: 110).

If a frame and words are sufficient to make an image-text, then many PowerPoint presentations are in the comics form, including the story “Great Rock and Roll Pauses” in Jennifer Egan’s 2010 A Visit from the Goon Squad, which is a PowerPoint both discursively and diegetically since it is created by a character within the story. Many charts, graphs, and diagrams are image-texts too, and so would combine in the comics form. Alternatively, such example might be excluded from the comics form if non-linguistic images must display some minimal level of graphic-art quality to produce image-texts in combination with word-images. Such a spectrum would be subject to individual perception.

In other words, I’ve been thinking:

Now back to the yard sign: does the shape framing “BLUE” have enough graphic-art quality to be called an image? Here my instinct says yes. Though the bottom and side edges are single lines, the top edge consists of sixteen lines. The top edge is also representational: it represents the Blue Ridge mountains. Since representational images are a kind of image, they presumably have “some minimal level of graphic-art quality.”

But what if viewers don’t perceive the top edge as representing a mountain ridge? If those viewers don’t read English, they would not have the linguistic cue, and maybe the row of varyingly angled lines would be too abstract to evoke anything by itself?

I could always cheat and invoke authorial intentions. Which in this case would be my intentions. I drew those sixteen lines along the top edge of the rectangle to resemble a mountain ridge when drafting a possible campaign sign after a candidate dropped out of our local town council race last year. We wanted someone to jump in, and for a horrible moment I was considering being that someone:

I decided not to run, but when our grassroots group wanted a yard sign for this November’s election, I was happy to repurpose.

Which is a long way to say that I see a mountain ridge in the angles of the top edge. But I’m just one viewer (who happens to have unique knowledge of the creative process, including the creator’s intentions). Since perception is individual, the same object may be an image to one viewer and not an image to another viewer. Since the sign includes two elements (“BLUE” and the top edge of the white area) that seem to fall in the ambiguous middle zone of the image or not-an-image range, the sign may be perceived as containing no, one, or two images. The first perception would make it simply text (though apparently with some non-linguistic yet sub-image flourishes). The second would make it an image-text. And the third would place it in the comics form.

So is it a comic?

Like I said, probably not.

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