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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Last month I posted an analysis of political cartoons and their relationship to the comics form. I figured that would be a one-off, but the exercise apparently sharpened my eye because now I can’t glance at the Politico cartoon page without brainstorming impromptu lectures.

Cartoons may be especially apt material because they are designed to communicate messages instantly and so with zero analysis (because if you have to analyze whether a joke is funny, it’s not). That also means analyzing them can be pleasantly perverse, revealing the unexpected formal complexities under a deceptively simple surface.

So first, a quick recap: political cartoons are in the comics medium (because that’s defined just by publishing context), but they’re only in the comics form (AKA, sequenced images) if each includes more than one image (which I’m finding happens more often than I’d expected).

In the comics medium, the presence of two (or more) panels creates the learned expectation that the panels are sequenced in time, and that the content in a panel on the right will happen chronologically after the content in a panel on the left.

Multi-image political cartoons obey that rule:

Except when they don’t:

In the above example, the two images instead are understood to happen simultaneously. That’s possible in part because technically there are three images. The centered talk balloon is drawn as though it’s three-dimensionally “on top of” of the two panels as well as the gutter between them. Comics theory tends to consider talk balloons (and thought bubbles and caption boxes) as parts of panel content, but I think this shows pretty clearly that they exist as though on a separate plane. So it’s not that the talk balloon breaks the panel frames. Talk balloons are never bound by other frames because they are their own kind of frame, one that frames a specific kind of image: words.

Dividing talk balloons from other image content reveals that their are two kinds of representations or story-worlds (AKA, diegeses) occurring simultaneously. There’s the subject matter of the image content, and then there’s the arrangement of that content (through things like panel framing, spacing, sizing, etc.). The secondary diegesis is usually called layout, but I think it’s useful to recognize it as its own kind of representational object too (and so not “form,” which is why I call it “pseudo-form” when I discuss it in The Comics Form).

This parody of Biden (drawn before his recent legislative successes and 5-point rise in the polls) is of course a riff on Warhol-style “pop art.” I often show my student one of Andy Warhol’s Marilyn silkscreens and ask if it’s a comic (which is a trick question because it’s in the comics form but not the comics medium). The question tends to reveal the above expectation (that image content moves chronologically forward in time in a left-to-right, top-to-bottom “reading” pattern) which Warhol violates, but also the expectation that the image progression will tell some kind of “story” (which opens a whole other Campbell’s soup can of worms).

Again, I think it helps to divide the primary diegesis from the secondary diegesis. Though the rendered images of Biden and Monroe change, those changes don’t reflect changes happening in the story world (where Biden and Monroe are not changing colors and other qualities). They are happening in the world of the rendered image, which for Marilyn is the surface of the actual silkscreen. More weirdly for Biden, it is some imaginary world where Warhol created a multi-image painting of Biden, and the cartoon is a reproduction of that non-existent object, presumably hanging on a wall somewhere.

That two-level diegetic analysis also helps to explain the visual play in my favorite political cartoon this month:

Here the primary and secondary diegeses merge. The image is simultaneously a reproduction of a partially redacted FBI affidavit regarding the search of Trump’s residence, and a cartoon representation of Trump himself. The affidavit is highly realistic (it’s taken from and so looks exactly like a page of the FBI document), but the Trump figure is intentionally unrealistic, creating two literally overlapping kinds of images.

Yet the images more than just overlap because the black horizontal lines are simultaneously parts of both, with vacillating meanings depending on how they are perceived in relation to the other image parts. They are redaction lines when viewed as part of the FBI document, and they are stripes in Trump’s prison uniform (and/or a kind of prison bars) when viewed as part of the Trump figure. They are simultaneously both, toggling back and forth according to viewer perception.

My runner-up favorite also creates the illusion of a paper document:

Here the image consists (almost) entirely of words, but their meaning is altered by how they are rendered. I discuss this sort of image-text relationship in The Comics Form and briefly in a recent post. By taking Sen. Lindsay Graham’s exact words (spoken aloud on Fox News about the possibility of Trump facing prosecution) and rendering them in the style of a ransom note (individual letters cut-out from magazines and glued to Senate stationery), the cartoonist gives them a new meaning that critiques Graham by implicitly comparing him to a kidnapper making violent threats.

But sometimes simple really is pretty simple.

My last political cartoons are less about Democrats vs. GOP than about Marvel vs. DC. Two allusions to Marvel’s Incredible Hulk cropped up, the first praising Biden, the second lampooning Florida’s Gov. DeSantis:

But DC ties with two allusions to Superman.

Placed in sequence, those last two create a kind of authorially unintended story (Super-Biden explodes from his grave and fights threats). The two cartoonists were working independently of each other, but because they both happened to draw Biden as Superman, and because I placed the grave scene first and viewers have a learned expectation that the content of later images occur chronologically after the content of earlier images, the perception of a story happens whether intended or not. (That’s another difference between the comics form and the comics medium.)

We’ll see what the cartooning universe offers next month.

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