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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

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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