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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Monthly Archives: August 2022

The introduction of The Comics Form separates two often and easily conflated kinds of comics: things that are called “comics” because they are in the comics form and things that are called “comics” because they are in the comics medium. I try to give each a pretty straightforward definition:

  • Works in the comics form are sequenced images.
  • Works in the comics medium are works published and identified as a comic by an entity that identifies as a comics publisher.

I realize “entity” is an odd term, but it covers the range of possibilities: mainstream comic book publishers, literary journals that publish comics (like Shenandoah where I’m comics editor), mini-comics made on photocopiers, etc. (I ignore a fairly obvious technicality though: not everything published by a comics publisher is a comic. But since my focus is on the comics form, not the comics medium, I decided not to go down that and related rabbit holes.)

Dividing form and medium produces three subcategories:

  • Works in the comics form but not the comics medium, which include all sequenced images not traditionally identified as comics.
  • Works in the comics medium but not the comics form, which include single-image cartoons.
  • Works in both, which include the vast majority of works in the comics medium.

Single-image cartoons have been the most overt stumbling block for producing a general definition of comics because they aren’t in the form but they are still routinely called “comics.” They’re also called “cartoons,” but that’s (primarily) a description of their style: simplified and exaggerated.

It doesn’t help that some “cartoons” are also sequenced images:

That’s by Politico‘s Mark Wuerker, who also edits the online magazine’s weekly selection of political cartoons. Since it’s divided into four sequenced images, it’s in the comics form. I would also say it’s in the comics medium, though the claim reveals a shortcoming of my above definition. Politico‘s “Cartoon Carousel” begins:

“Every week political cartoonists throughout the country and across the political spectrum apply their ink-stained skills to capture the foibles, memes, hypocrisies and other head-slapping events in the world of politics. The fruits of these labors are hundreds of cartoons that entertain and enrage readers of all political stripes. Here’s an offering of the best of this week’s crop, picked fresh off the Toonosphere.”

Wuerker’s description doesn’t mention the word “comics,” making Politico a cartoon publisher but not necessarily a comics publisher. Since Politico only publishes political content (the vast majority not cartoons), its cartoons are more specifically political cartoons, a kind of art that traditionally appears in newspaper editorial sections but not newspaper comics sections (AKA, “the funnies”).

But whether technically in the comics medium, Wuerker’s four-panel political cartoon is in the comics form. So is the Atlanta Journal Constitution‘s Mike Luckovich’s:

Or at least it’s in the comics form if you view it as consisting of more than one image. If you understand it instead as a single image of an elephant standing in front of two diegetically juxtaposed images–like a lecturing curator standing in front of two paintings in an art gallery–then it’s not in the comics form because it’s a single image.

I perceived it as three images because the two background panels are framed in a way that suggest a traditional comics layout, making the middle strip a gutter rather than, say, the white wall the images are hanging on. The rectangular panels are juxtaposed two-dimensionally, while the elephant (which of course is also juxtaposed two-dimensional since the entire cartoon is two-dimensional) appears to be juxtaposed three-dimensionally. Since there’s no diegetic space implied (Luckovich could have drawn the panel content instead as images on two TV screens, for example), I would call this an example of layout as a “secondary diegesis.” While all layouts are secondary diegeses, Luckovich makes that explicit by drawing the elephant as if “in front of” the two panels.

Brian Stelfreeze creates a similar effect in Black Panther #1 (June 2016):

I analyze that page at length in The Comics Form, but I think you can see the essential similarities, especially how the three background images are diegetically separate from the foreground, representing four scenes simultaneously.

Here’s another complication: single-image cartoons and sequenced images that are also in the comics medium often use many of the same conventions. Speech balloons, for example. Here’s Bill Bramhall from the New York Daily News:

There’s no sense Bramhall’s political cartoon is in the comics form because there’s no sense that it can be understood as more than one image. Either way, talk balloons are not part of the comics form. A work in the comics form can certainly include talk balloons, but having or not having talk balloons doesn’t determine anything. That’s true of works in the comics medium too. A wordless comic is still a comic (however you define “comic”). But speech balloons are a wildly common convention of the comics medium, including works that are in both the medium and the form (which is the majority of things we tend to call “comics”).

More interestingly, eating a talk balloons violates the impression that talk balloons are not part of the image’s diegetic world. Characters shouldn’t be able to see them, let alone touch and chew them. By pleasant coincidence, I’ve been corresponding with Rodolfo Dal Canto following the Invisible Lines conference in Venice earlier this summer, and he recently sent me a segment from an Italian comic that plays the same meta game as Bramhall. Bilotta, Righi and Ponchione’s “Gli uomini della settimana” is about “a superhero who can interact with the words in the comic book (balloons but also onomatopoeia) and use or modify them”:

I’ve also been corresponding with Lukas Wilde since we participated on a comics theory panel at NeMLA in Baltimore last spring, and he sent me a related cartoon too:

Talk balloons are like thought bubbles, caption boxes, special effects words, emanata, and frame edges–things that don’t (normally) exist in the diegetic world for characters to perceive. But viewers can perceive them as though they are kinds of physical objects (overlapping panels, for example), which is why I call layout a secondary diegesis. Characters manipulating speech bubbles is related because of the metafictional effect, but I’m still considering whether speech bubbles are (necessarily) elements of a secondary diegesis in the same way that an arrangement of panels is perceived as though it were a set of flat images placed on top of a page surface or on top of another image, as, for example, Sami Kivela does in Undone by Blood:

Luckovich employs a similar technique, but minus a rectangular frame edge for the elephant figure “on top of” the other panels, and with the addition of the elephant’s apparent metafictional awareness of the image arrangement as well as the implied viewer being addressed. Also, the speech bubble functions the same way as layered panels do, and so arguably simply is a kind of panel:

I think works in the comics form are more prone to metafiction because they must arrange their images in some manner, which then draws attention away from the image content (the primary diegesis) and toward the (often illusionary) effects of a resulting secondary diegesis.

And that applies to any work in the comics form, whether it’s also in the comics medium or, more specifically, in the genre of political cartoons.

A nice thing about publishing a new book is the chance to improve ideas from old books. While I do that more than once in The Comics Form: The Art of Sequenced Images, it’s also nice to revisit an old idea and find that I still agree with my old self.

In the last chapter, “Sequenced Image-Texts,” I try to identity all of the possible relationships between words and images. Step one is figuring out the range of how two things can relate, and after going back to what I told prospective comics artists in Leigh Ann Beavers’ and my Creating Comics: A Writer’s and Artist’s Guide and Anthology in 2021, I stuck with the same four interactions:

  • Duplicate: the two sets primarily overlap each other, neither contributing uniquely to the whole.
  • Complement: the two sets primarily correspond, one or both providing additional but congruent qualities to the whole.
  • Contrast: the two sets primarily contradict, each providing incongruent qualities to the whole.
  • Diverge: the two sets appear primarily unrelated, neither contributing to a whole.

This time though I added what I hope is a clarifying illustration. Duplicating features (mostly) overlap. Complementing and contrasting features partially overlap. Diverging features don’t overlap at all (and so suggest no basis for comparison or contrast).

Scott McCloud identified seven word/picture combinations in Understanding Comics, but I think these four are sufficient and, hopefully, clearer. Umberto Eco introduced three in 1965, missing the fourth because the comic he was analyzing, Milton Caniff’s 1947 Steven Canyon, unsurprisingly didn’t include an example. John Bateman, the go-to expert on all things image-texts, noticed of McCloud: “As usual there are some patterns which continue to recur” (2014: 99). He said similarly of an earlier analysis of children’s picture books: “It is in fact striking just how often similar lists are suggested in different areas without, apparently, very much interaction between the distinct inquiries” (2014: 73). Which means I’m happily joining a list of fellow wheel-reinventers.

Bateman also distinguishes between what he calls “internal” relationships, “where the text ‘is’ the image,” and “external” relationships, “where the text … relates to other images” (2014: 27). Building on that idea, I see two kinds of internal relationships:

  • First, if you’re looking at a word in isolation, the relationship is between what a word means and how it is drawn.

I was only allowed to included so many illustrations in The Comics Form, and this one I only mentioned, so I’ll include the actual images here. Bob Wiacek and Todd McFarlane’s The Incredible Hulk #340 (February 1988) title design complements. The meaning of the word “HULK” and the stylistic rendering of the letters as blocks of stone communicate similar but not identical ideas:

If instead of “THE INCREDIBLE HULK” the words were “STONE BLOCKS,” the meaning and style would duplicate. René Magritte’s 1950 painting The Art of Conversation employs a similar stylistic approach but for opposite effect. Painting the French word for dream, “RÈVE,” as blocks of stone contrasts the meaning of the word:

  • Second, if you’re looking at a wordless image, the relationship is between what the image represents and how it is drawn.

That’s probably clearest when you’re looking at two drawings of the same subject. Though Norman Rockwell and Al Hirschfeld are both drawing Bob Hope, their stylistic approaches are remarkably different:

Things get more complicated when you combine a word and an image, but most image-text analysis looks primarily at one relationship: between what the word means and what the image represents.

I particularly enjoy when that relationship contrasts. Last Christmas I got Lesley a tarot deck drawn by Michelle Tea, which includes this bonus card:

The words contrast the swords piercing the figure’s body–though I suppose they also complement the figure’s implied attitude as as she indifferently reads her phone.

Here’s another. The ice cream shop in my town has displayed this sign for years:

The meaning of “CASH” in the phrase “CASH ONLY” is paper money (which is reinforced by the small print: “CHECKS ACCEPTED / ATM AVAILABLE”). But combined with a contrasting image of the singer Johnny Cash, “CASH” gains a double referent. If the ice cream shop owner were slightly braver, he might instead display this sign:

The image then would trigger the words “Johnny Cash,” which would then trigger the homonym “cash,” producing the operative meaning. Since the shop owner likely does not want any confusion (plenty of folks probably wouldn’t recognize the singer), the image is a kind of repetition with a playfully superfluous additional meaning.

Complementing relationships are fun too. I snapped this photo while on a walk with Lesley last summer. The branches nearly obscure the words, yet they convey a similar idea:

There are three more relationships:

  • between what the word means and how the image is drawn
  • between how the word is drawn and what the image represents
  • between how the word is drawn and how the image is drawn

That’s a total of six relationships present in every image-text consisting of at least one word and one image. If an image’s subject is its meaning, maybe the easiest way to categorize them is:

  • word meaning and word style
  • image meaning and image style
  • word meaning and image meaning
  • word meaning and image style
  • word style and image meaning
  • word style and image style

Often there are more than one word and more than one image part, creating even more relationships. Keeping all of those webs of potential meanings straight is complicated, and usually not necessary. What matters is tracking the possibilities, and pausing when one yields an interesting result.

Consider the poster for the 2008 film I Can’t See Straight:

Looking first at just the word “Straight,” how it is drawn (curving font) contrasts its meaning (or one of them).

Its style also contrasts the style of the first three words, accenting “straight” by using a different font, a different color, and a lower placement.

The word’s more relevant meaning emerges in relationship to the image. The words in isolation would probably produce something like: “I can’t think clearly.” That meaning remains, but the image relationship extends it to include an explanatory pun through another contrasting relationship. What the words mean changes as a result of what the image represents.

The black font also duplicates the black of the foregrounded figure’s dress. The white of the first three words, “I Can’t Think,” duplicates the foregrounded figure’s earrings and second figure’s necklace, further linking the words to the characters.

The style of the image is sexualized, suggesting not just the general meaning of (the implied word) gay, but probably the imminent possibility of sex.

The book cover design for the novel uses the same words, as well as images of the same two actresses portraying the same two characters, but it produces different effects through different word-image relationships:

This time all four words use the same font. Though that font is relatively straight, without a contrasting curved font, that meaning of “straight” is largely absent. Instead of emphasizing “straight,” the use of a contrasting color for “think” emphasizes it instead. “Think”, however, doesn’t gain an additional meaning as a result. “Straight” still requires the image to refer to sexuality, but because the style of the image is less overtly sexualized (when compared to the movie poster), the effect is perhaps more romantic than sexual. The inclusion of the words “romantic” and “heart-warming” in the blurb reinforces that.

Personally, I would have combined the word styles from the movie poster with the image from the book design, but once again, no one asked me. With one exception, the above examples are outside the comics medium. The illustrations in Chapter 7’s “Embedded Relationships” section are all from image-text comics, so it’s fun to branch out.

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