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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

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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