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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Monthly Archives: January 2022

Rockbridge Delegate Ronnie Campbell is co-sponsoring four House bills designed to prevent absentee voting in Virginia:

  • HB 34 would eliminate drop-off locations for the return of absentee ballots.
  • HB 35 would require a registered voter to provide a reason for being unable to vote at their polling place on election day in order to receive an absentee ballot.
  • HB 36 would prevent registered voters from receiving absentee ballots for all elections.
  • HB 39 would limit absentee voting in person to the two weeks immediately preceding an election.

Why does Virginia need these new laws? Is there any evidence that absentee voting, whether submitted by mail, placed in drop-boxes, or delivered in person, is prone to fraud? If there is evidence of such past fraud, then, yes, preventing more future fraud would be a reasonable goal. But if evidence is scant or non-existent, if absentee voting has been shown to be no more prone to fraud than any other form of voting, then these laws are not about reducing voter fraud. They are about reducing voting.

Ask Delegate Wren Williams. His name is on those four bills too, and I suspect he, not Campbell, is the driving force behind them. When Williams primaried a twelve-year incumbent Republican last summer, he made “Securing our Elections” one of his top talking points. His website brags:

“Our elections are the most sacred part of American democracy. In 2020, Wren volunteered his time to aid President Donald Trump and the Republican National Committee’s (RNC) election integrity efforts in Wisconsin. Virginia Democrats have pushed voting without any form of ID, and will continue to push liberal policies that harm the fabric of our voting system. Wren believes election integrity and trusting our elections is one of the most important issues facing the Commonwealth. In Richmond, he will bring his national courtroom experience on this issue and will be a fierce fighter for integrity in our elections.”

So what exactly happened to “election integrity” in Wisconsin?

According to a court brief filed on behalf of Trump: “in Wisconsin, the largest cities all deployed hundreds of unmanned, unsecured absentee ballot drop boxes that were all invalid means of returning absentee votes under state law.” The drop-off boxes were anchored to the ground, sealed against tampering, and subjected to 24-hour video surveillance, so, no, they were not “unsecured.” Trump’s legal team, which apparently included Williams, tried to invalidate over 200,000 Wisconsin votes on these and other false grounds, but the Wisconsin Supreme Court rejected their arguments. That’s the “national courtroom experience” Williams brings to Richmond.

But the evidence disproving the false fraud claims goes much deeper. Last month, the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty completed their 10-month investigation, finding “no evidence of fraudulent ballots or widespread voter fraud.” That includes absentee voting: “The number of absentee ballots counted on election night in Milwaukee is consistent with what was reported to be outstanding. Put simply, there was no unexplained ‘ballot dump.’”

The same is true for Virginia. Last March: “A statewide audit of Virginia’s 2020 election results verified President Joe Biden’s victory in the state, finding only a 0.00000065117 percent chance the state’s voting system could have produced an inaccurate outcome.”

That “voting system” included 1,202,087 absentee ballots.

And what about the November 2021 election that Republican Gov. Youngkin won? Days before the election, conservative radio host John Fredericks claimed : “We’ve got all kinds of irregularities right now going on.” Epoch Times commentator John Mills warned that “people can walk in and out” of Virginia’s unsecure ballot-counting facilities. Republican state Sen. Amanda Chase claimed “Democrats are cheating” in the early absentee voting (Business Insider). And yet after the election, these and other Republicans showed no concern about or evidence of any “irregularies” or poor “security” or “cheating” of any kind.

So why now that he’s in office does Williams claim absentee voting “harms the fabric of our voting system”? And why is Campbell co-sponsoring legislation attacking a form of voting that allows more Virginians to vote with no increased risk of fraud?

Keep in mind that Wren Williams is the same delegate who was widely mocked earlier this month for introducing a bill that would require Virginian students to study “the first debate between Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.” Lincoln debated pro-slavery Senator Steven Douglas. Frederick Douglass and Lincoln both opposed slavery. The same Williams bill would also prevent history from hurting students’ feelings by prohibiting the “divisive concept” that “an individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s race, religion, ethnicity, or sex.” I think anyone who reads the history of slavery and Jim Crow in the U.S. “should” feel a great deal of “discomfort” and probably even some “psychological distress,” but that would be on account of their being human, whatever their particular “race, religion, ethnicity, or sex.”

Meanwhile, Ronnie Campbell is the same delegate who was stripped of his committee positions last January after he and two other Republican delegates wrote a letter to Vice President Pence asking him to “nullify the Certificate of Ascertainment of Presidential Electors issued by the governor of our state.” The other 42 Republican delegates and the 18 Republican state senators did not join in the effort to disenfranchise all of Virginia’s voters based on false claims.

Speaker Filler-Corn responded: “By seeking to disenfranchise millions of Virginians and undercut faith in our democratic institutions, Delegate Dave LaRock, Delegate Mark Cole and Delegate Ronnie Campbell showed exceedingly poor judgement and conducted themselves in a manner unbecoming of their office. Their attempt to cast doubt on our elections process in order to impede the peaceful transfer of power between one President to another is an affront to our democracy and violates the public trust.”

In Campbell’s defense, LaRock was the author of the letter. Campbell was just foolish enough to co-sign it. The same may be true of these new anti-voting bills that Williams got Campbell to co-sign too. Does either Republican actually believe they are safeguarding democracy—or do they know that the baseless claims about non-existent voter fraud are just an excuse to try to reduce voter turnout? I have no idea. I don’t care either, because whether these Republicans are merely deluded or knowingly placing party interest above the most sacred part of American democracy, their legislation will harm the fabric of our voting system.

“Virginia must renew its commitment to teaching our children the value of freedom of thought and diversity of ideas,” declared Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin in his first executive order on January 15. He even included conservatives’ favorite cherry-picked MLK quote: “Only then will we realize Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream that our children ‘will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.'”

But how do Virginia Republicans renew a commitment to teaching children the value of freedom of thought and diversity of ideas? By trying to ban ideas they dislike. No more “divisive concepts, like Critical Race Theory and its progeny.” Or rather no more “inherently divisive concepts.” The adverb is apparently important. It appears eighteen times in Executive Order Number One. To his schizophrenic credit though, Youngkin does at least acknowledge the following:

“We must equip our teachers to teach our students the entirety of our history – both good and bad. From the horrors of American slavery and segregation, and our country’s treatment of Native Americans, to the triumph of America’s Greatest Generation against the Nazi Empire, the heroic efforts of Americans in the Civil Rights Movement, and our country’s defeat of the Soviet Union and the ills of Communism, we must provide our students with the facts and context necessary to understand these important events.”

Agreed.

In fact, I agree with the vast majority of the executive order, because the vast majority of the executive order bans things that already do not exist. The adjective “divisive” is subjective, so the final section provides a much-needed definition of “inherently divisive concepts,” which for the purpose of the order “means advancing any ideas in violation of Title IV and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

Title IV ended segregation in public schools, and Title VI states:

“No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

So Youngkin has come out against segregation and that no student should be prohibited from attending public school. And he has done this by redundantly banning ideas that would violate a law passed six decades ago—whether those ideas actually exist or not. Such theoretical ideas include but are “not limited” to a list of seven provided in the order:  

  • (i) one race, skin color, ethnicity, sex, or faith is inherently superior to another race, skin color, ethnicity, sex, or faith;
  • (ii) an individual, by virtue of his or her race, skin color, ethnicity, sex or faith, is racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously,
  • (iii) an individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of his or her race, skin color, ethnicity, sex or faith,
  • (iv) members of one race, ethnicity, sex or faith cannot and should not attempt to treat others as individuals without respect to race, sex or faith,
  • (v) an individual’s moral character is inherently determined by his or her race, skin color, ethnicity, sex, or faith,
  • (vi) an individual, by virtue of his or her race, skin color, ethnicity, sex, or faith, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race, ethnicity, sex or faith,
  • (vii) meritocracy or traits, such as a hard work ethic, are racist or sexist or were created by a particular race to oppress another race.

The first and fifth include the above-mentioned adverb “inherently,” which means naturally or necessarily. To believe that someone is “inherently superior” is to believe they were born that way. The same is true with any “inherently determined” moral character—with the exception of a moral character determined by a person’s “faith,” since people are not born with religious beliefs. Though some religious beliefs do oppose the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (many Christians believed the Bible justified slavery), membership in a religion does not necessarily require such beliefs.

So I agree with Youngkin’s (i) and (v).

The second and sixth ideas do not include “inherently” but instead an equivalent phrase: “by virtue of.” Racism and sexism are not inheritable traits, so no one can be racist or sexist simply by being born of any race, skin color, ethnicity, or sex. Faith repeats the same categorical problem, but as long as your faith does not require you to adopt racist or sexist beliefs, you are not racist or sexist “by virtue of” your faith. Whether such racist or sexist qualities would be “consciously or subconsciously” is moot since none necessarily exist “by virtue of” anything listed. Similarly, “by virtue of” being born into a group does not make an individual responsible “for actions committed in the past by other members of the same” group. Responsibility does not follow simply from the existence of historical events, but would have to include some additional contemporary element and so would not be “by virtue of” belonging to a group but by something more.

So I agree with Youngkin’s (ii) and (vi) too.

The third and fourth ideas are uncontroversial too. Of course no one should be discriminated against because of their race, skin color, ethnicity, sex or faith—that’s the whole point of the Civil Rights Act. I’ll be honest and admit that the phrasing of (iv) confuses me, but I think it’s arguing that members of a group should treat people not in their group as individuals and not just as non-members. If I’m reading that correctly, then absolutely.

That leaves (vii). To the very best of my knowledge, “meritocracy” and “hard work ethic” were not created “to oppress” anyone. Whether after being created they later resulted in some kind of oppression is a separate question not addressed in Executive Order Number One.

So Youngkin and I agree on seven out of seven of his anti-Civil Rights concepts. Of course these “inherently divisive concepts” don’t belong in schools. According to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, they don’t belong anywhere. And the rest of Executive Order Number One details how exactly they should be prohibited, ended, and removed from policies, guidelines, websites, best practices, and instruction.

Meanwhile, so-called “Critical Race Theory” goes undefined and is mentioned only once and only in the opening “Importance of the Initiative” section before the actual “Directive.” According to Youngkin:

“Inherently divisive concepts, like Critical Race Theory and its progeny, instruct students to only view life through the lens of race and presumes that some students are consciously or unconsciously racist, sexist, or oppressive, and that other students are victims.”

I’d be happy to debate any of that, but Executive Order Number One makes it moot because that sentence is not part of the “pursuant to the authority vested in me as the Chief Executive Officer of the Commonwealth, and pursuant to Article V of the Constitution and the laws of Virginia, I hereby order” section. They’re just words.

Since the legally binding “Directive” section does not mention “Critical Race Theory” and applies only to things made illegal sixty years ago, it’s just words too.

Bottom line: Executive Order Number One is inherently meaningless.

According to Justice Kavanaugh: “The Constitution’s neither pro-life or pro-choice on the question of abortion, but leaves the issue for the people of the states or perhaps Congress to resolve in the democratic process.”

The first half of that sentence is true in the literal sense: abortion is mentioned nowhere in the Constitution.

However, since the determining question is whether zygotes, embryos, and fetuses have rights under the U.S. legal system, the Constitution does speak on the issue.

Article 1, Section 2 establishes the national census: “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.”

So, for the purposes of determining population, the authors counted free people and indentured servants equally, and enslaved people unequally. Since enslaved people were considered the property of their owners, it might seem illogical that they would be counted at all, but without the Three-Fifths Compromise, the 1787 Constitutional Convention would likely not have produced a constitution.

Note what is missing from the state’s “respective Numbers”: zygotes, embryos, and fetuses. Any of the Convention delegates, either northern or southern, could have stipulated that pregnant women be counted twice—or perhaps one and three-fifths or some other additional fraction. No one suggested that. All agreed on the implicit minimum requirement of being counted as a “Number”: you must be born.

“Numbers,” however, do include undocumented immigrants, people who conservatives often dehumanize with the noun “illegals.” The U.S. Census Bureau is explicit: “all people (citizens and noncitizens) with a usual residence in the United States are included in the resident population for the census.” The Trump administration attempted to alter that standard for the first time in U.S. history, but a panel of judges blocked the executive order, and the Supreme Court refused the appeal. Yet as far as I’m aware, no one has ever argued that zygotes, embryos, and fetuses of undocumented immigrants should be counted in the census.

Next consider the Fourteenth Amendment. It begins: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States ….” Conservatives call that “birthright citizenship,” and they want to rescind it. Senator Lindsey Graham said in 2010: “We should change our Constitution and say if you come here illegally and you have a child, that child’s automatically not a citizen.” In a 2016 Federalist Society essay, Gerald Walpin argues that birthright citizenship misconstrues the intent of the Amendment, citing two non-binding Supreme Court opinions that draw the same conclusion.

No one, as far as I’m aware, has ever taken issue with the word “born.” No one has suggested that the Amendment includes or should be amended to include zygotes, embryos, and fetuses. If life begins at conception, then zygotes are people, and if a zygote is conceived in the U.S., it would also therefore be an American. If “life” begis at conception, then citizenship must begin at conception too. The pro-life argument requires either reinterpreting or amending the Fourteenth Amendment to include “conceptionright citizenship.”

Alternatively and more logically, the Fourteenth Amendment’s use of “born” intentionally excludes zygotes, embryos, and fetuses. Since Article 1, Section 2 also intentionally excludes zygotes, embryos, and fetuses, the Constitution has a great deal to say about abortion.

Constitutionally, zygotes, embryos, and fetuses are not “unborn people” because they are categorically not people. They are not born and so are not residents, let alone citizens of the U.S. They are not even “temporary visitors” or “foreign nationals,” and so none of Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs’ policies apply either. Zygotes, embryos, and fetuses do not receive visas, but: “All travelers, including children, need a visa to travel to the United States … There must be a separate visa for the child, even if they are traveling on their parent’s passport.”

Because zygotes, embryos, and fetuses are not citizens or residents or foreign travelers, they have no rights. They are not entities: things with distinct and independent existence. Yet pro-life advocates argue that the non-existent rights of legally non-existent so-called “unborn” non-entities outweigh the actual rights of actual people who reside in and are citizens of the U.S.

The core of the pro-life claim is unconstitutional.

This is Italian painter Cesare Laurent’s A Parable (or Bridge of Life), which I saw in the Telfair Museum in Savannah, Georgia, while vacationing with my family after Christmas. My son was solving chess puzzles on his phone in the park outside the museum at the time, but when my daughter saw me taking a picture of the diptych, she knew why:

It’s a comic.

Or maybe it’s not. Folks have surprisingly strong opinions about that word, so instead of asking whether something is or is not a comic, I prefer three slightly less annoying questions:

  • Is the work in the comics medium?
  • Is the work in the comics form?
  • Is the work in both the comics medium and the comics form?

Short answers: no, yes, no.

Long answers:

Laurent painted A Parable around 1895, shortly after the word ‘comic’ emerged to mean multi-image cartoons published in humor magazines. Despite coincidentally fitting the time constraint, the work is not in the comics medium. Though such works can but tend not to be painted, they are paradigmatically viewed and distributed as multiple reproductions, not as a single object mounted in a single location. If the painting is reproduced (on a Telfair Museum book or pamphlet for instance), the multiple reproductions are still likely not in the comics medium because they are not identified as ‘comics’ by their producer (the Telfair Museum) or by consumers (patrons of the museum gift shop). The artist also did not identify the painting as a ‘comic.’

Laurent, however, did paint A Parable in the comics form, which can be defined in two words: ‘sequenced images.’ Working in the comics form does not require an artist to use the term ‘comic’ or even for the term to exist at that time. Caravaggio and Rembrandt are known for their use of chiaroscuro, even though the name of the technique was coined after their deaths. A Parable is in the comics form only because it consists of more than two images, and the images create a sequence. The precise meaning of ‘sequence’ is debatable because it is sometimes used synonymously with ‘series’ and so may or may not require a definite order. However, in the case of A Parable, the two images are not only juxtaposed but the movement of the figures within the images suggest left-to-right viewing and so a definite order.

Scott McCloud applied the unfortunate term ‘closure’ to certain effects produced by juxtaposed images. ‘Closure’ was already a Gestalt psychology term for the tendency to perceive parts as a complete whole by closing visual gaps (a dotted line is a line and not simply dots). McCloud’s closure is conceptual rather than directly visual, and so his list of transition types does not account for the effect in A Parable in which the two balconies align as though continuous across the center gutter.

When Leigh Ann Beavers and I published our article “Clarifying Closure” in 2018, I termed that ‘gestalt closure,’ because the effect is the same as the original psychological meaning. We used the same term in our textbook 2021 Creating Comics. I’ve since decided that ‘closure’ it too confusing a term to keep using in comics scholarship, and that the meaning of ‘gestalt’ is far from self-evident. So in my forthcoming The Comics Form: The Art of Sequenced Images, I call the juxtapositional effect simply a ‘continuous inference.’

But Laurent’s effect is more complex. The illusion of a continuous balcony across the center gutter is only partial because the two image’s settings are otherwise unrelated. Rather than producing the illusion of viewing a single location briefly interrupted by an ellipsis-like gap, the alignment of the two balconies seems coincidental or contrived because the implied position of viewing changes. A viewer is somehow standing in two places at one. In “Clarifying Closure” and Creating Comics, I called that ‘pseudo-gestalt.’ While accurate, I doubt it clarifies much to anyone not already familiar with the background concepts. So in The Comics Form, I instead use ‘semi-continuous.’ The result isn’t exactly jargon-free, but I do think it’s an improvement:

Laurent’s juxtaposed images produce a semi-continuous visual inference.

A Parable also produces other type of visual effects common to the comics form: recurrent and embedded inferences. Or it possibly does. First read Laurent’s own description of the work’s two parts:

“I have determined to develop the first part of my Parabola with a lively feast in which two young men invite the gay crowd of girls to participate in songs and smiles of joy.”

“I imagined the second part at the door of a church because inside the poor suffering souls seek relief.”

From that description, the first image features a “crowd” and the second several “souls.” But when I look at the work I instead perceive a single individual depicted at different moments as she moves up, across, and then down her decades-spanning life. For me there is one recurrent figure or “soul” painted as though she were a “crowd.” Each painting then contains more than one embedded image. Though he does not mention it in the above letter that the Telfair curators excerpted in the museum plaque, I strongly suspect Laurent intended that effect or one very much like it. Admittedly, it requires a good deal of erasure to perceive the various figures as fully recurrent rather than only thematically recurrent.

Though none is necessary for a work to be in the comics form, I discuss recurrence, erasure, and continuous, semi-continuous, and embedded inferences in The Comics Form because they are common effects of sequenced images. They are also common in the comics medium, but that’s because many works in the comics form are in the comics medium. Laurent’s A Parable, however, is only in the form. By consistently differentiating the two, I’m really hoping to make analysis both more logical and easier.

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