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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

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.

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