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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Monthly Archives: February 2022

When does a photograph of me become not a photograph of me? Rather than trying to draw consistent (but almost certainly arbitrary) lines of division, I find myself increasingly evoking individual viewer perception in my comics scholarship. Here’s a test case. Which image in this sequence of digital adaptions ceases to represent me? And, since the later images reverse the level of facial distortion, do any become self-portraits again?

My next book, The Comics Form: The Art of Sequenced Images, will be released in June. Bloomsbury just finalized the cover:

This credit line will appear somewhere too: “Cover art: ‘Autochrome Sequence’ by Chris Gavaler.” Not the most most imaginative title, but the piece does explore the nature of “sequence,” which is the point of the book. The art is also a kind of narrative, documenting a selected progression of its own creative process. Here’s the fuller story:

Step One.

The Lumière brothers began selling autochrome plates in 1907, and by 1913 they were producing 6,000 daily. As a result, there are dozens of anonymous, amateur, public domain, c. 1910s, color images available on the web. I selected this one:

Step Two.

Because it was already digitized, the image consists of pixels, which became apparent when I selected and enlarged the figure’s face in MS Paint. Using the free-form selection tool, I drew curved shapes over the enlarged squares, copying and layering them to create a paradoxically more detailed face over the original.

Step Three.

I continued the process, selecting, copying, and pasting more digital shapes, until a new face, head, neck, and shoulders emerged.

Step Four.

I opened the PNG file in Adobe Illustrator, doubled the color saturation, pasted the new image back into Paint, and continued manipulating.

Step Five.

Happy with a final face, I reversed the pixilation by shrinking the image to roughly 1% and enlarging it again. I repeated the process for a further pixilated effect.

Step Six.

I reversed the saturation process too, incrementally reducing the color levels of the new pixilated images.

Step Seven.

I selected and cropped nine of the process images and arranged them in a rough 3×3 grid.

Step Eight.

I added and cropped the original autochrome, continued experimenting with the pixilated images, then eliminated the gutter in the final arrangement.

So what kind of story is that?

That’s the kind of question The Comics Form explores.

First, “Autochrome Sequence” is a sequence of images, and so it is in the comics form. Does that mean it’s a comic? Maybe. As I discuss in the introduction, if a work is in a certain form, and if that form defines a category of works, then the work is necessarily in that category. For example, an arrangement of words in the sonnet form is a sonnet because the sonnet form defines sonnets. Does the comics form define comics? Sometimes. But many non-formal definitions focus on context instead: to be a comic, a work may have to be created, published, and/or consumed with the understanding that it is a comic. Applied to sonnets, that would mean that an arrangement of words is a sonnet only if it appears in certain publication contexts, such as a literary journal, an anthology, an author’s collection, etc. Or form and context could be combined, so that a sonnet is a set of words arranged in the sonnet form and published in a certain context. No one talks about sonnets these ways. Sonnet definitions are exclusively formal. Publication isn’t required. If I paint a sonnet on the side of my house, it’s still a sonnet.

Comics are different because the term has (at least) two kinds of definitions: form and medium. So instead of comics, I wrote a book about works in the comics form, many of which also happen to be in the comics medium. My cover art, “Autochrome Sequence,” is in the comics form but not the comics medium, and so some viewers may call it a comic and some may not. There may also be viewers who define comics according to conventions common in the comics medium. If gutters and drawings are part of your comics definition, then “Autochrome Sequence” isn’t a comic. That kind of definition is a hybrid approach to medium and form, because its extracts qualities found in a certain context and the applies them as formal qualities of works regardless of context.

There are also two ways in which “Autochrome Sequence” may not be in the comics form. Despite its title, the cover image is an image. It’s a single unified work of art. A sequence of images requires there to be multiple images. If a viewer perceives the cover art as only one image, albeit an image presumably consisting of distinguishable parts, then it can’t simultaneously be a sequence of discreet images. My elimination of gutters and the cover designer’s superimposition of words likely reinforces that non-divided effect.

The word “sequence” presents a challenge too. Though the eight-step creative process detailed above is definitively sequential, the final arrangement may not be. My intended viewing path is three Z-shaped rows, but a viewer is free to view the images in different paths–which the cover design and lack of gutters likely reinforce too. Some viewers may discover the Z-path while wandering the images in initially different orders; others may not. Like “images,” I treat “sequence” as a viewer’s perception. The artist (me) perceives a sequence of images, but other viewers may not.

However, “sequence” is sometimes understood as a synonym for “series,” which when images are arranged with multiple contiguous borders, does not necessarily require a single viewing path. Some comics analysis doesn’t distinguish between the two senses of sequence, and so a sequence isn’t necessarily a sequence. If so, “Autochrome Sequence” is a series of images, open to any viewing path.

“Autochrome Sequence” also challenges the notion of narrative. Usually the term refers to a story within the world of the representational images. If “Autochrome Sequence” tells that sort of story, then it presumably is about the woman with the black umbrella standing in the dirt road in the original autochrome. In fact, my original PNG files were all titled some variation on “woman with black umbrella.” Still, I don’t think the sequence tells that kind of narrative. The progression is instead about the image itself, not the image’s representational content. The “woman with black umbrella” undergoes a sequence of transformations, but the woman with black umbrella does not. That form-and-content, or discourse-or-diegesis, division is key. “Autochrome Sequence” could be called a discursive narrative.

Though I’m no fan of non-self-explanatory jargon, I rely heavily on that one pair, discourse and diegesis, because they are vital for exploring and clarifying the differences between a work’s physical properties (ink on paper, pixels on screens) and the subject matter those physical properties evoke when viewers perceive them. If the last image (or bottom right image part) were viewed in isolation, I suspect no one would perceive its arrangement of gray and black squares as a representation of a human face. That diegetic content occurs only through juxtaposition with the less abstract versions of the same face. Viewed in isolation, the last image does not represent anything. There’s no diegesis. It is a discourse only.

Such non-representational images are often called “abstract,” but the adjective also describes a style of representational images. Style is a larger puzzle, especially for fictional content in works in the comics medium. Since an invented subject is only perceivable through images, and since images necessarily have some sort of style, which image properties are the subject’s and which are the style’s?

The sixth image of “Autochrome Sequence” represents a woman’s face. So do the second, third, fourth and fifth. Do they all represent the same face or different faces? I perceive the sixth face as diegetically distinct from the second face. I also perceive the eighth face as a pixilated distortion of the sixth face (which in the historical creative process it is), but I do not perceive it as a pixilated distortion of the second face–even though the style of the two images are very similar and both are part of the same creative progression.

So maybe “Autochrome Sequence” is also a narrative in the traditional sense? There are two different people evoked in my mind. One representation presumably documents an actual person from around 1910. The other person is fictional, and to the extent that fictional people exist, she (I use the pronoun tentatively) exists in a fictional world and so not this world. All I know about either of them is their appearances in what seem to be two snapshot-like moments. The discursive transformations of their two faces (the first face into the second face, the second face into pure abstraction) could also evoke diegetic events. The two individuals have some kind of relationship to each other. Perhaps in additional to the literal discursive transformation of their images, the first individual metaphorically becomes the second. And then the second metaphorically becomes nothing. That sounds a lot like a “story” to me. (E. M. Forester might agree: “the king died and then the queen died.” Add “of grief,” and Forester would call it a “plot.”)

Or maybe those are only my perceptions. Authorial intentions determine little. I am one viewer with uniquely specific access to both the complete creative process and to the intentions the artist experienced during it. The physical results of that process and those intentions and how those physical results are perceived by other viewers is a different matter.

And that’s just the cover.

Bloomsbury also recently finalized the back cover text:

Answering foundational questions like “What distinguishes form and medium?” and “How do comics work?” in original and imaginative ways, this book expands formalist approaches to explaining the experience of viewing sequenced images. Taking stock of a multitude of case studies and examples, The Comics Form demonstrates that any object can be read formally as a comic so long as it displays a set of relevant features. Drawing from the worlds of art criticism and philosophy to put forward innovative ways of thinking and talking about comics, this book challenges traditional concepts and such fundamental but loosely defined terms as “frames” and “juxtaposed” and “narrative.”

In unpacking the ways in which images function in sequences, The Comics Form develops such tools for analysis as:

  • discourse and diegesis to explore the divide between a work’s physical qualities and the subjects it represents;
  • styles modes to map the complete artistic range of simplification and exaggeration combinations;
  • pseudo-form to theorize the treatment of comics layouts as physical parameters;
  • event inferencing to determine undrawn content;
  • erasure to account for drawn but conceptually rejected content;
  • text-narrator, image-narrator, and image-text narrator to clarify the overlapping relationships of linguistic and pictorial content, including in hybrid word-image art. 

The Comics Form fills conceptual gaps and harmonizes multi-disciplinary approaches to comics theory to provide a new basis for understanding sequenced images.

Chris Gavaler is Associate Professor of English at Washington and Lee University, USA. He is the author of On the Origins of Superheroes (2015) and Superhero Comics (Bloomsbury 2017) and co-author of Superhero Thought Experiments (2019), Revising Fiction, Fact, and Faith (2020) and Creating Comics (Bloomsbury 2021). He became series editor of Bloomsbury Comics Studies in 2021.

The Supreme Court's Newest Justices Produce Some Unexpected Results - The  New York Times

The Supreme Court is expected to make a new ruling about the Second Amendment in June. The case, New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. v. Bruen, will determine whether the Constitution allows individuals to carry concealed guns outside of their homes or if states can require individuals to demonstrate a special need in order to receive a license to carry a concealed gun. Oddly, whichever way the Court rules, that new decision will have always been true. Any change will rewrite history. The pop-culture concepts of sequels and retcons explain that paradox.

How can the Supreme Court have the power to change history? Start with the Constitution: “The judicial power of the United States shall be vested in one Supreme Court, and in such inferior courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.” The Constitution also defines the scope of that power (“shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity,” etc.) and gives judges the political independence to wield it (since they are to remain in office receiving “compensation, which shall not be diminished” for as long as they are in “good behavior”). But it does not define what exactly that “judicial power” is.

Woodrow Wilson expressed his opinion in 1912: “Living political constitutions must be Darwinian in structure and in practice” and so our Constitution must be “modified by its environments.” Those modification would not be by Congress amending the Constitution but by how the Court interprets it. Wilson describes an evolution of constitutional meaning in response to changes in the surrounding culture. Words that once meant one thing later come to mean something else in a progression—the root of the political affiliation ‘progressives’— of sequels.

James Madison expressed the opposite view in an 1824 personal letter: “If the meaning of the text be sought in the changeable meaning of the words composing it, it is evident that the shape and attributes of the Government must partake of the changes to which the words and phrases of all living languages are constantly subject. What a metamorphosis would be produced in the code of law if all its ancient phraseology were to be taken in its modern sense.”

Though words do evolve, according to Madison’s view, all later meanings of words in the Constitution should be rejected. They’re just sequels. That’s the contemporary view of many conservatives. The “proper role” of courts, argues the Heritage Foundation’s Elizabeth Slattery in her 2013 article “How to Spot Judicial Activism,” requires their “neutrally interpreting” the words of the Constitution and later laws “according to their original public meaning.” Slattery echoes Ronald Reagan at Justice Kennedy’s 1988 swearing-in: “The role assigned to judges in our system was to interpret the Constitution … certainly not to rewrite it…. unless judges are bound by the text of the Constitution, we will, in fact, no longer have a government of laws, but … the personal and capricious rule of a small elite.”

So non-activist judges must bind themselves by each word’s original public meaning. Though the view provides an unacknowledged means for avoiding the murkiness of authorial intent, Madison, Reagan, and Slattery do not account for the role of retconning required by their supposedly conservative approach. Though judicial power does not rewrite the text of the Constitution with sequels, it still revises it with retroactive reinterpretations.

Consider the Second Amendment, which establishes that “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” The fact that the meaning of the word ‘arms’ has later come to include nuclear arms—as illustrated in the paradigmatic cold war phrase ‘the arms race’—poses no problems since the authors and original public readers of the 1791 amendment were not referring to intercontinental ballistic missiles.

And yet many interpreters of the amendment—who align themselves with anti-activism—also reject the notion that ‘arms’ refers only to muskets. In its 2008 Heller decision, and reiterated in its 2016 Caetano, the Supreme Court “rejected as ‘bordering on the frivolous’ the argument ‘that only those arms in existence in the 18th century are protected by the Second Amendment.’” Regarding the word ‘arms,’ Justice Scalia concluded that the “18th-century meaning is no different from the meaning today,” citing examples of its being used synonymously with ‘weapons’. After establishing this extremely broad definition, which would include ICBMs and other weapons of mass destruction, Scalia then curtails it in two ways.

First that: “The term was applied, then as now, to weapons that were not specifically designed for military use and were not employed in a military capacity.” While it is presumably true that ‘arms’ was applied to non-military weapons, Scalia implies (and the logic of his claim requires) that it was applied exclusively in that way. It wasn’t. In fact, since the amendment was written when the United States still questioned the efficacy of a standing army and so wished private citizens to have the ability to withstand the assault of a foreign invasion, the non-military claim seems counterintuitive. The opening clause, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State,” references a military meaning.

Second, Scalia declares that the amendment applies “to all instruments that constitute bearable arms, even those that were not in existence at the time of the founding.” He adds the adjective ‘bearable,’ derived from the verb ‘bear,’ which he argues indicates that the weapon must be carriable. Though he does not explain his reasoning, he also implicitly understands that the carrying must be accomplishable by one individual without the need of mechanical or other aid. In other words, hand-held.

President Biden agreed with Scalia when he claimed last year: “The Second Amendment, from the day it was passed, limited … what type of weapon you could own. You couldn’t buy a cannon.” The Washington Post fact-checkers awarded Biden “Four Pinocchios,” its worst offense, explaining: “We have no idea where he conjured up this notion about a ban on cannon ownership in the early days of the Republic, but he needs to stop making this claim.” While it’s true that no such ban existed in the early penal code, it was always implied by the Second Amendment according to Scalia’s retconning. Because Biden’s claim was a historical claim, The Washington Post looked at historical documents to support it. They apparently did not look at twenty-first century court rulings that retconned the historical record.

Though he should agree with Biden about colonial cannons, Scalia also wrote: “the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.” In addition to constraining the size and non-military design of arms, the decision also retconned a constraining purpose of self-defense drawn from historical parallels. In full, Heller retcons the amendment to protect only the right of the people to keep and bear individually carriable, non-military Arms in defense of themselves and the state, both in 1791 and now.

Is that what the authors (or, according to the Heritage Foundation, the original readers) of the Bill of Rights understood the Second Amendment to mean? We can’t know. Did they imagine that a single person positioned in a thirty-second story window could fire over one thousand bullets, killing sixty people and wounding 441 people in ten minutes at a range of 590 yards with arms that were not “specifically designed for military use”? Does their inability to imagine the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting matter since ‘arms’ might refer to whatever it refers to regardless of anyone’s awareness or intent? Perhaps instead of retconning ‘arms’ with “specifically designed for military use,” a future Court might try to discern the amendment’s original meaning by retconning the term according to its killing capacity.

The Supreme Court’s unanimous 2016 Caetano decision even retconned stun guns into the Second Amendment—a technology even more alien to the 1791 authors and readers than the twenty-two AR-10 and AR-15 rifles with bump stocks and 100-round magazines that Stephen Paddock purchased and carried by hand to his Las Vega hotel suite. Heller did recognize an “important limitation on the right to keep and carry arms,” the prohibition on “dangerous and unusual weapons.” If the adjectives are understood separately, then stun guns are “unusual.” They administer a non-lethal but painful and sometimes briefly incapacitating electric shock through two metal prongs in contact with someone’s body. They are not firearms, but because the stun gun was hand-held, not designed for a primarily military purpose, and used in self-defense, Caetano conforms to the Heller retcon. This is true even though stun guns do not fit the “original public meaning” of ‘arms.’

“What a metamorphosis,” wrote Madison, “would be produced in the code of law if all its ancient phraseology were to be taken in its modern sense.” But because Heller is understood as a retcon, it doesn’t take ‘arms’ in its modern sense. It reveals its original sense, which just happens to coincide with its modern sense.

Unless it’s a sequel. Which, according to the FiveThirtyEight article, “The Second Amendment Didn’t Protect Your Right To Own A Gun Until 2008,” Heller is. According to the FiveThirtyEight authors, “the Supreme Court redefined the Second Amendment” and could “expand the meaning of the Second Amendment yet again.” Redefining and expanding meanings with a clear before and after division describes a sequel. Since judicial decisions are by default retcons, describing one as a sequel means the authors are rejecting the retconning. It’s their way of spotting what they consider judicial activism by conservative justices.

The larger disagreement is about reality. Since the past is often unknowable, claims about the past can’t always be verified. Maybe Heller gets the original meaning of the Second Amendment right. Maybe it doesn’t. All we can know is that Heller claims to, and that the claim, like any revealed reinterpretation about the past, is a retcon. We always had the right to carry stun guns.

Come June, we may discover that we have always had the right to carry concealed guns too. Or not. The Court is still writing that retroactive history.

I’m teaching Superhero Comics this semester, and I taught Introduction to Graphic Novels last semester, and though I retool every syllabus each semester, I find there’s one work of comics scholarship I always end up assigning: Joseph Witek’s “Caricature and Illustration in the Crumb Family’s Dirty Laundry,” from Critical Approaches to Comics.

The essay divides comics art into two modes, cartoon and naturalism. “The first,” Witek explains, “grows out of caricature, with its basic principles of simplification and exaggeration, while the other derives from the recreation of physical appearances in realistic illustration.” In my forthcoming The Comics Mode, I expand Witek’s two modes to four, the number of ways that simplification and exaggeration combine and not combine. But fine-tuning aside, cartooning and naturalism provide a great tool for analyzing comics art (also, non-comics art, but that’s a different argument).

Even more fun, Witek also argues that each mode has an ethos: “the naturalistic mode makes the implicit claim that its depicted worlds are like our own, or like our own world would be if specific elements, such as magic or superpowers, were to be added or removed. … that claim supplies the metaphysical structure underlying the visual and narrative strategies of the naturalistic tradition of comics.”

The comics mode and ethos are opposite. Though cartoon and caricature are different (cartoon is exaggerated and simplified, while caricature is exaggerated but often not simplified), Witek treats them as one: “The art form of caricature, on the other hand, specifically disavows any attempt to render the surface appearances of the physical world and makes a very different claim to a very different kind of truth. That is, by stripping away the inessential elements of a human face and exaggerating its defining features, caricature purports to reveal an essential truth about its subject that lies hidden beneath the world of appearances.”

In my own digital art, I’ve been exploring the relationship between these two styles, and so also their two ethoses. The image below on the left is in the naturalistic mode; the image on the right is in the cartoon mode:

As Witek describes, the left image resembles a human head of roughly realistic proportions viewed from a specific angle in space. It is composed of various marks of differing density and darkness, suggesting three-dimensionality through shading. The undrawn spaces imply areas of the head that reflect more light and so are unshaded.

The right image appears comparatively flat. It is made of one kind of line that forms anatomically unrealistic shapes that do not appear to occupy three-dimensional space. The undrawn areas likely evoke no lighting effects or other realistic techniques. The images likely resembles a head enough to evoke that category, but the dissimilarities are more significant. Its proportions are humanly impossible.

According to Witek, those differences produce two very different kinds of truth claims. The naturalistic ethos evokes a mimetic world that somehow exists apart from the rendering of the image on the page (or in this case screen). The cartoon ethos instead draws attention to the image surface, to the rendered lines themselves and the fact of the non-mimetic world of the page/screen.

Both style-dependent worlds interest me, but I’m more intrigued by the gaps between them. Where do naturalism and cartoon meet, and does that style have its own world-evoking truth claim too? How many ethoses exist between the extremes of the naturalism-cartoon divide?

To begin exploring those possibilities, consider how I created the two images. I drew the cartoon first with a mouse in MS Paint. I layered it and then used the layered image as a transparency to sift away details, while rearranging pixels and repeating the process, until the naturalistic image emerged:

I’m not sure where the sequence shifts from cartoon to naturalism, but here’s the original again:

And the final image:

I’m not yet sure what this might suggest about either of Witek’s two styles/worlds/ethoses, but the creative process definitely merges the two — perhaps emphasizing that naturalism is no different from cartoons, its three-dimensional illusions just as flat and surface-defined? In other words, the heart of every naturalistic image is a cartoon.

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