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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

This a page from Dennis Hopeless and Javier Rodriguez’s 2016 Spider-Woman: Baby Talk. It’s another of my favorites, which is why I include it in The Comics Form: The Art of Sequenced Images. Or rather I include a gray-scale version of it. Though Bloomsbury gave me space for a quite a few illustrations, book publishing is always more limiting than blogging. While I couldn’t subdivided the page to talk about each juxtaposition there, I can here. The illustration appears at the end of Chapter 5’s discussion of juxtapositional inferences, and my analysis also draws on some terms from earlier chapters:

  • Discursive: qualities of the physical image.
  • Diegetic: qualities of the represented subject.
  • Spatial inference: images share a diegetic space.
  • Temporal inference: images share a diegetic timeline.
  • Causal inference: undepicted action occurs between depicted moments.
  • Continuous inference: images are perceived as a single discursive image.
  • Semi-continuous inference: discursively continuous but representationally non-continuous images are perceived as a single image.
  • Erasure: viewers do not register discursive elements that do not fit their diegetic understanding.
  • Ocularization: image viewed as though from the angle and proximity of a character.

The character is Captain Marvel, but because she goes unnamed, I don’t mention her by name. Though the page features a 3×3 grid, five of the panels produce a unified image through continuous inferences. Numbered by Z-path viewing, panels two, five, six, seven, and eight are a single discursive and diegetic unit.

Because that unit is the dominant feature of the page, it likely encourages a viewer to apprehend the page as a whole first rather than beginning in the top left corner as the viewing norms of a 3×3 grid would prompt. The centered “KOOF” art in panel five also likely attracts a viewer’s eye to the center of the page and so to the center of the continuous unit first. Switching to Z-path viewing requires some loosening of the continuous effect to apprehend each panel individually. Even though it contains only an ellipse and so indicates no spoken sound, the presence of a speech container in the top left panel encourages a Z-path by drawing a viewer’s eye to its starting point.

In terms of spatial inferences, the setting is minimal and is represented only by an undifferentiated green background discernable in most panels. The green is likely perceived as transparently literal, even if its slight discursive variations are not. The discursively white background in the bottom left panel, however, is likely diegetically erased or, if noticed, understood non-transparently through non-sensory inference.

Since the substitution of white for green probably suggests nothing diegetically, it likely does not trigger associative inferences. The white then is only for discursive effect.

Spatial inferencing also explains the differences between each pair of panels as the result of the differences in the position of the implied viewer in relation to the central and unmoving figure. The first juxtaposition involves a change in the implied viewer’s proximity and angle. The second juxtaposition involves both, too, but while the proximity of the third image follows the trajectory of the first two images (the implied viewer is nearing the figure), the angle instead reverts back to the forward-facing view of the first panel. Because such movements do not correspond to the movements of an implied character, the spatial inference suggests no ocularization.

But the final image could be ocularized by either of the two characters present in the backgrounds of panels six and seven. Even if non-ocularized, the implied viewer has rotated 180 degrees, explaining why the central figure is no longer facing forward.

Alternatively, the figure has turned herself around as inferred through a causal inference. If so, she is now facing the two background characters, who, due to framing, do not appear in the image. I suspect most viewers would interpret the figure’s ending posture as speaking over her shoulder to the characters behind her, and so no causal inferences would be involved. If the figure did turn around, a viewer would experience a different kind of temporal inference, one indicating a slightly greater period of time to account for the implied action.

Temporal inferencing is also necessary for parsing the five-panel continuous unit. The unit, because it appears more than once in the linear panel progression, represents more than one diegetic moment despite being discursively recurrent. Calling the combined continuous unit “A,” the linear viewing sequence is: 1, A(2), 3, 4, A(5–6), A(7), A(8), 9.

First, note that temporal inference combines panels five and six into a two-panel continuous unit within the larger five-panel unit because the mid-air position of the flying fragments indicates the same moment. The space between panels five and six therefore divides neither spatially nor temporally.

The space between panels seven and eight does divide temporally because the placement of a speech container within each segments time.

Similarly, the space between four and five is temporal because of the action of the figure crushing the object (identified in the story as a phone). The change in the color of her glove from red to white is presumably the result of the electrical discharge from the crushed phone. The three changes (untightened to tightened fist, red to white glove, whole to shattered phone) all produce the temporal inference.

Temporal inferences also challenge the transparency of the apparent five-panel continuous image. Though panels A(2) and A(5–6) appear to represent a unified image and so a unified moment, panel four establishes that the phone is not yet broken during the moment of A(2), meaning the effect between A(2) and A(5–6) is not continuous but semi-continuous.

It only appears to be a single continuous image, but the corresponding position of her fingers during the moment of A(2) could not match. In the first panel, which is temporally closer to A(1) than to A(5–6), the figure has not formed a fist yet since one of her fingers is higher on the phone.

Temporal inferences produced by the speech containers also requires that A(7) and A(8) represent different moments from the rest of the apparent continuous unit, producing instead a semi-continuous unit of a single, stationary figure viewed from the same angle and proximity, but subdivided into four temporal units.

Finally, while panels two and five are not contiguously juxtaposed, viewers likely recognize them as diegetically continuous.

The chapter ends with discussions of four other pages too (from Black Panther, Batwoman, and Hawkeye). These close viewings (I avoid using the verb “read” for visual analysis that involves almost no actual reading) were some of my favorite parts to draft.

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