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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

That’s a page from Matt Fraction and David Aja’s 2012 Hawkeye: My Life as a Weapon, one of my all-time favorites. I discuss it in The Comics Form: The Art of Sequenced Images, but the very reasonable limitations of book publishing prevented me from dividing the page into various smaller units to illustrate the point-by-point analysis.

That’s what blogs are for.

I really do try to avoid jargon, but I have some terms I find increasingly useful, so I’ll gloss them first:

  • Discursive: qualities of the physical image (in this case that’s pixels).
  • Diegetic: qualities of the represented subject (in this case that’s the world of Marvel Comics).
  • Spatial inference: images share a diegetic space.
  • Temporal inference: images share a diegetic timeline.
  • Continuous inference: images are perceived as a single image.
  • Semi-continuous inference: discursively continuous but representationally non-continuous images are perceived as a single image.
  • Associative inference: dissimilar images represent a shared subject.

The characters here are of course Hawkeye and, well, Hawkeye, AKA Clint and Kate. Their names aren’t mentioned on this splash page, so I don’t refer to them by name either.

Here it goes:

Uniform vertical and horizontal negative spaces divide the page into twelve rectangular but otherwise irregular images. The presence of words from a continuous statement (“Okay—this looks bad … Don’t die.”) placed inside caption boxes in the top left corner and the bottom right area encourage a general top left to bottom right viewing, but the norms of either Z-path rows or N-path columns are disrupted by the image arrangement and image content, producing no clear viewing order or even a method for naming images discursively. If viewers do begin with the first captioned word, they likely switch to apprehending the page as a whole, focusing first on the largest panel and the dominant content of the two figures diving underwater as bullets speed past them. Because the bullets’ paths through the water follow the same lines as those in the top left corner, continuous inferences unite the panels as a single unit, even though they share only corners and no borders. After closer inspection, the bottom left panel likely joins the same continuous unit.

The bullet trajectory lines in the top right corner also follow roughly the same pattern, so a viewer’s eye may be drawn there next. Spatial inferencing establishes a more distant implied viewer since the bullet lines (which are through air rather than water and so literal only if understood as a kind of blur) and the figures are smaller. The contrast in distance blocks the continuous effect otherwise encouraged by the layout, since the top right panel content is also “above” the diegetic content of the larger panel below it discursively. Since the two are viewed from similar angles, it is only the difference of proximity that divides them diegetically. That almost continuous effect is further suggested by the near alignment of the pool edges in the top corner panels, which is itself heightened by the placement of a horizontal negative space between the middle panels in the same row, creating the discursive illusion of an intermediary step between the differing representations of the pool edge.

The second panel along the left margin also features a similar pattern of bullet trajectories, but spatial inferencing again divides the panel from the continuous unit, this time through an implied viewer placed in contrastingly close proximity to the bullets.

Two other panels in the top left region stand apart discursively because of the accenting use of yellow. The two are also diegetically linked because they feature the guns firing the bullets.

Diegetically, the second panel along the top margin belongs above and to the left of the first panel—a mental rearrangement that a viewer experiences through spatial inferences. The content of the second yellow-dominated panel is also diegetically “below” the discursively higher panel, but with the same change in proximity of the implied viewer as the panel abutting it, so that the bullets in the water and the bullet shells in the air are similar sizes. The two yellow panels also produce their own two-panel viewing path that cuts diagonally across the opposite diagonals of both the paths of the bullets and the reading path of the captions.

The seven panels described so far could occur simultaneously. The smallest remaining panel, the lone square positioned near the center of the page but grouped with the close-up panels, appears to represent a similarly close view of churning water and so is also likely understood to occur at the same moment.

Four images remain. Two are ambiguous because their content is not overtly related, and the other two produce temporal inferences distinct from the rest of the page.

First, the figure in a bikini from the top right panel recurs in a lower left panel; instead of being struck by a bullet and falling from a standing position, the figure is floating face down in the water. The diegetic trajectory of the figure’s previous falling posture aligns spatiotemporally with the body’s later position in the pool, producing a causal inference. The juxtaposition also requires a new implied viewer position situated on the other side of the pool and so opposite the implied viewer of the other images. The apparent stillness of the figure and the water suggest a similar temporal leap to a later moment well after the action depicted in the surrounding images.

The recurrent figure also creates a two-panel viewing path that echoes the right-to-left path between the two yellow-dominant panels that appear discursively “before” them if a viewer is attempting a general top left to bottom right direction. The second pair of panels are more discursively distant to each other than the first pair, but in the same diagonal relationship, and so their placements also echo the widening trajectories of the bullets in the continuous unit.

The final image in the bottom right corner features the recurrent figure of the diver discursively above it, producing the spatiotemporal inference that he is no longer descending into the water from the force of his dive but has now slowed. Though his arms are framed out of the image, they appear to be at his sides. The temporal inference would divide the two images by roughly seconds. This means that the “last” discursive image on the page is not the “last” diegetic image because the previously described panel containing the floating corpse would follow it temporally.

Finally, two of the panels feature graphic designs surrounded by uniformly black areas that seem disconnected from the diegetic events, in part because they do not suggest the illusion of three-dimensionality. Viewers with prior subject knowledge will recognize the higher panel’s spiral pattern as the symbol of the story’s villain featured on his hat, producing an associative inference. Viewers without prior knowledge will be introduced to the symbol and character six pages later, applying the associative effect retroactively. The juxtaposition of the spiral icon beside the image of the firing guns may suggest that they are being fired either by the villain or, since there are multiple guns, on his behalf.

A lower left panel contains another ambiguous icon, also later revealed to be associated with another villain employed by the first for similar foreshadowing.

Something I don’t mention in The Comics Form but that I’ll address here: Aja’s art works against Fraction’s tone and superhero genre norms. Hawkeye’s internal narration is comic and contrasts the dire situation. But it’s considerably less comic for the words “Okay—this looks bad … Don’t die” to appear between images of bystanders being struck by stray bullets and a floating corpse. Worse, because the deaths go unnoted by the heroes later, it suggests their indifference.

I assume that wasn’t the intention. Fraction’s script likely didn’t mention any deaths because Aja invented the incident while drawing. The heroes are unconcerned about dead bystanders because there were none. Or at least there were none as originally written by Fraction. The comic, however, is not the script.

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