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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Beetle Bailey artist Mort Walker coined “emanata,” presumably from the verb “emanate,” in his 1980 The Lexicon of Comicana. They are usually lines radiating from and so directing attention to an implied focal point. Cartoonists often draw emanata around a character’s face to “show emotion” and “reveal internal conditions” such as embarrassment or drunkenness, while emanata around nonhuman objects can suggest physical states including heat, odor, brightness, and “that something is spanking new” (Walker 1980: 28–9).

Since halos in religious iconography are a form of emanata, the practice dates to at least the Roman Empire with a circle and radiating spokes depicted behind Apollo’s head found in a second century floor tile:

Similar sunburst halos appear in Christian art, though later painters replaced flat opaque circles with three-dimensional rings floating above heads, as in Caravaggio’s 1605 Saint Jerome in Meditation:

Or with circular bursts of light emanating from behind heads, as in Francesco Podesti’s 1864 Apparition of Jesus to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque:

For his 1851 painting Washington Crossing the Delaware, Emanuel Leutze isolates Washington’s head against the brightening horizon for a radiant emanata effect that would not occur from other

Photographer Al Drago’s portrait of Donald Trump for the New York Times December 14, 2019 editorial “Impeach” arranges the president’s profile at the center of the presidential seal on the wall behind him, creating a circular halo intensified by the extreme blurriness of Trump’s head:

I briefly mention the above examples in The Comics Form, but because Bloomsbury could only allow me so many illustrations (I negotiated for higher than standard number, and then arranged multiple images within each numbered illustration to maximize visual examples), I’m providing them here for the first time. I’d also like to explore their representational norms further too.

Emanata aren’t part of the comics form (AKA, sequenced images) but they are a widely common convention of the comics medium. Halos are an even more widely common convention in single-image religious art. Emanata generally and halos specifically pose a question about representational transparency: is the visual element visible to characters in the depicted world?

Emanata in the comics medium tend to be invisible to characters, an odd paradox since each are composed of similar two-dimensional marks. Though Steve Ditko draws Spider-Man’s “spider senses” tingling, no one in the story world, including Spider-Man, can see the halo of emanata lines:

It’s less clear to me whether Apollo’s halo of emanata lines is diegetically transparent too, because it’s unclear whether the image overall is transparent. Do viewers understand not just the halo but all of the visual elements non-transparently, meaning non-literally, since any depiction of the god may be interpretive?

Drawing something that is non-physical as though it has physical qualities is of course paradoxical. But the rules for those paradoxes are themselves paradoxical. Herrad of Landsberg’s 1180 Hortus deliciarum includes an illustration of two haloed angels:

William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s 1899 Madonna with Child includes two halos too:

Though both pairs of halos denote the same thing, holiness, they operate as if by a different set of physics in each depicted world. Herrad treats them as three-dimensional objects, placing the angels’ spears either behind or in front of them, depending on the physical action. Bouguereau’s halos suggest different physical properties, appearing only in the background and so not obscuring foregrounded subjects (such as the Madonna). And yet the halos still have a physical relationship relative to each other, with the Child’s halo obscuring the Madonna’s halo, duplicating the figures’ physical positions but in some other quasi-physical plane.

Herrad and Bouguereau are divided by about seven centuries, so an evolution in representational norms is hardly surprising. It’s stranger to see competing norms within the same image.

The figure on the left has a three-dimensional halo, one that changes shape according to the perspective of the implied viewer. It follows the same rules of physics as a dinner plate attached to the back of the head. The figure on the right instead has a two-dimensional halo, one that appears to be embedded into the surface of the background rather then existing as an object in the represented world. If the figure turned his head, there’s no sense that the halo would rotate with it. That’s because the halo doesn’t promote the illusion of existing in the spatiotemporal moment as the other visual elements. If the figure continued moving to his left, the artist would have to create a new image with a new halo. That of course is true of the first figure too, but by depicting the first halo as if it were three-dimensional, the artist encourages viewers to imagine it behaving like other objects in the depicted scene.

Since both halos are non-transparent (no one in the scene can see either of them), the dinner-plate halo is more paradoxical because it is rendered in the style of diegetically visible objects. It’s striking that both exist on the same canvas–the ceiling of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice:

My family and I visited earlier this summer (before I took an evening ferry to an adjacent island for the Invisible Lines comics convention). Construction of the church began around 1063, and the oldest mosaics are almost as old. Many were repaired after a fire in 1439, and many restored multiple times before and afterwards, so apparently only about a third of the mosaics resemble the original art.

Are the juxtaposed halo emanata a result of juxtaposed time periods? Or did the original mosaicist use both styles? I have no idea. But either answer is intriguing.

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