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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

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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