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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

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.

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