Skip to content

The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

I’m delighted to report that I am currently in Budapest vacationing with my family and soon will be in Venice where I will present a paper for the Invisible Lines comics conference. The paper (which I started drafting last summer after I was invited to a comics forum workshop in Michigan) is growing into a book project, but it started as an observation about the effect paper color has on images of people. Here’s an excerpt:

When Ebony Flowers draws a mother and narrating daughter in the title chapter of her 2020 collection Hot Comb, their bodies are shaped by black lines without additional colors or gradations. The art is printed on white paper, and so that shade of white represents the two characters’ skin colors because it is the literal color visible within the body-defining black lines. If the art were printed on a different shade of paper, that shade would instead represent those same actual skin colors. If “Hot Comb” is understood as a memoir (its status is ambiguous) the representations of Flowers and her mother are likely perceived as having the same or similar skin color, but whether Flowers and her mother actually have the same skin color is impossible to determine.

Philosopher Roy Cook proposed the “panel transparency principle,” claiming that: “Characters, events, and locations within a fictional world described by a comic appear, within the fictional world, as they are depicted in typical panels within that comic” (2012: 134). Since Flowers’ and her mother’s skin are represented by the same page color, a strict interpretation of the transparency principle might require understanding them both to have paperwhite skin. Alternatively, if paper color is understood to be outside the principle (perhaps because it is selected by the publisher and so beyond Flowers’ artistic control), viewers might still conclude that the absence of other differentiating details indicates that Flowers and her mother have the same skin color, one represented by whatever color paper the line art happens to be printed on.

Even this less strict interpretation, however, is difficult to support. Cook later rejected his own transparency claim, arguing instead that “our access to the physical appearance of drawn characters in general is indirect, partial, inferential, and imperfect” (25). If so, viewers may understand skin color, along with a range of other details, to be underspecified, meaning the unmarked negative spaces within body contour lines lack representational information. The pristine white of the page does not correspond to complexion or other related qualities.

While Cook’s second claim replaces his first, it does not reverse it. Where the panel transparency principle concludes that represented subjects are as they appear, the second claim draws no corresponding conclusion. Represented subjects may, may not, or may partially be as they appear, and a subject’s individual qualities may each vary along unknowable spectrums. As a result, the representational nature of a white page varies too.  

In the cases of Flowers and her mother, viewers likely understand that neither has paperwhite skin and, while their precise skin tones are unknowable, that each is considerably darker than they appear in their representations. However, in the case of Flower’s childhood friend, Ellie-Mae, the representational nature of the white background shifts. Because Flowers’ text identifies her friend as racially white, viewers likely understand her skin color to be nearer to the whiteness of the page than is Flowers’ skin color. While Ellie-Mae’s skin color is still unknowable, the page whiteness is more representationally suggestive for the racially white friend. Also, for Flowers and her mother, because both are Black and also related, the white page represents an unknowable but possibly similar skin color. The contrast between Flowers and Ellie-Mae is presumably greater. The same whiteness then implies two racially dissimilar skin colors and also two racially similar skin colors simultaneously. 

Rather than an exception, Hot Comb encapsulates a norm. Yuan Alagbe’s collection Yellow Negroes and Other Imaginary Creatures reveals the same relationship between page color and race. Page whiteness makes the skin colors of an interracial couple indistinguishable, prompting viewers to project colors based on facial and hair features alone (2018: 29). Viewed in isolation with hair significantly cropped by the panel frame, the female figure might appear racially ambiguous. Though Alagbe’s text previously establishes that the character is White (because her father is shocked to learn that she is in a relationship with a Black man), the text does not account for differences in skin color within the racial category.

Theo Ellsworth makes the conflated relationship between page and skin colors explicit in Secret Life, an adaptation of a Jeff VanderMeer story. Ellsworth draws a fountain pen in the white space between two panels, and inside the lower panel, he separately frames two interior images:

The same pen drawing a line across a cropped area of a white piece of paper, and fingers touching a cropped area of a figure’s back. Through a Gestalt effect, the black line defining the top edge of the represented paper and the black line defining the top edge of the figure’s back seem continuous, as though the two diegetically distant areas are a single area interrupted—which, as ink-framed portions of the same actual piece of paper, they are. Above both images a caption box contains: “The point rode across the page as effortlessly as his fingers rubbing his wife’s back” (2021: np). The color of “the page” within the represented world and the color of the wife’s back are both represented by the actual color of the actual page, which is white. Though the visually implied assumption that the represented page is a similar color as the actual page may be justified, an assumption that the wife is White is not.

Ellsworth draws the wife’s face four pages later, but his cartooning style is simplified and exaggerated in ways that do not provide sufficient detail for determining ethnicity. Ellsworth follows the image of the two having sex with two caption boxes: “He could not think of the pen without thinking of her soft, hot skin” and “He could not think of the pen without remembering her nakedness, shining in the dark room.” In the mostly undrawn and therefore white area between the captions and their connected panels Ellsworth draws the pen again. The description “soft, hot” suggests nothing about skin color, and “shining” might describe a range, especially when contrasted to the literal blackness of the surrounding room. But the white space framed between the two texts is connotative, likely directing a reader to imagine the wife to be very light-skinned—even though nothing in the text suggests that.  

Page whiteness then literalizes the assumption of racial whiteness as universal, representing the skin color of all characters, regardless of race.  Yet page whiteness is comparatively more representational for racially white characters than for non-white characters. If a character is understood to be dark skinned, viewers must see past the contradictory quality of the page color. Since light-skinned characters are also not literally white, viewers must also see past the page color in those cases too, but to a lesser degree. Moreover, the literal whiteness of the page and the metaphorical whiteness of racial Whiteness are aligned and so easily conflated. The statement ‘White people are white’ seems self-evidently redundant, while ‘Black people are white’ seems overtly paradoxical.

(More on all of that after I return!)

%d bloggers like this: