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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

One of my favorite things about Scott McCloud’s 1993 Understanding Comics is how often it’s wrong. That sounds like a left-handed compliment, or probably just an insult, but I mean it sincerely. McCloud’s pioneering mistakes made so much possible. They remind me of early maps, how wonderfully wrong they appear in retrospect, in part because they provided a baseline for the next cartographer to correct. Correcting is easy. Terror is the blank page, the “here be dragons” at the shifting margins. McCloud slew a lot of those dragons.

As I started writing The Comics Form I was in debt to other early cartographers too. I remember when Joseph Witek published his first book, Comic Books as History: The Narrative of Art of Jack Jackson, Art Spiegelman, and Harvey Pekar, in 1989. I was a year out of college and had never imagined a work of academic scholarship could focus on comics.

Pulling my thirty-something-old copy from my shelf now, I’m not finding an author’s bio, but I suspect that Witek (who, I’ve since learned, goes by Rusty) can’t be all that much older than me. I wrote him a letter back then. A small group of my recently graduated friends and I wanted to start a hybrid literary journal, and I asked if he would be willing to submit something. He didn’t respond, which was both appropriate and just as well. (I really I hope that letter no longer exists.)

I didn’t come across the name Witek again for two decades. I had just entered the field of comics studies and was using Smith and Duncan’s then-new Critical Approaches to Comics. (I’ve since gotten to know Matt Smith, who lives about an hour and a half down Rt. 81.) My favorite chapter remains Witek’s “Comics Modes: Caricature and Illustration in the Crumb Family’s Dirty Laundry.” (I just placed it on my first-year writing seminar syllabus again this semester.) It provides what I’ve found to be one of the most useful tools for the analysis of visual style:

  • Cartoon Mode: “In gen­eral, stories in the cartoon mode often as­sume a funda­mentally unstable and infinitely mutable phys­ical reality, where characters and even objects can move and be transformed according to an associative or emotive logic rather than the laws of physics. Bodies can change suddenly and temporarily in shape and proportion to depict emotional states or nar­rat­ive circumstances, as when the body of an outraged character swells to many times its normal size, or appears to levitate several feet off the ground in a cloud of dust.”
  • Naturalistic Mode: “In its fully de­veloped form, the nat­uralistic mode is often called “realism.” In this mode, the rendering of figures and objects adheres to (or at least points toward) the artistic conventions for creating the illusion of phys­ical forms existing in three-­ dimensional space. A signific­ant effort is made to create that plaus­ible phys­ical world using shading, consistent lighting sources, texture, and linear per­spect­ive. Backgrounds are rendered in detail, espe­cially in estab­lishing shots, and that background tends to be depicted rel­at­ively fully from panel to panel.”

Witek includes two drawings of Bob Hope to illustrate the difference.

And here’s where my own cartographic corrections begin.

Why are there only two modes? The two Bob Hopes drawings differ because the first consists of more exaggerated lines, but aren’t the number of lines in each roughly the same? Witek identifies simplification and exaggeration as the cartoon mode’s primary qualities, which means that not only should the naturalistic mode be unsimplified and unexaggerated, but there should be two partial categories too.

So I found more drawings of Bob Hope:

The top right image by Al Hirschfeld is clearly in Witek’s cartoon mode, and the bottom left is clearly in his naturalistic mode (despite being drawn by Norman Rockwell). The bottom right image is made of roughly the same number of lines as Hirschfeld’s, but is less exaggerated, while the top left is very exaggerated but also detailed in a way that contradicts Witek’s cartoon mode.

I address that in The Comics Mode:

“Instead of Witek’s two modes, the combinations of simplification and exaggeration produce four. Cartoons remain clearly opposed to the detailed, optically accurate style of naturalism, but two additional modes emerge from the crisscrossing spectrums. Some caricatures are exaggerated but not simplified. This combination has no term, but it may be referred to descriptively as ‘detailed exaggeration.’ Images that are simplified but not exaggerated are similarly unnamed. Where detailed caricatures often align with cartoons, viewers may regard unexaggerated simplifications as a form of naturalism. Graphic novelist gg works in this mode, and reviewers for The Globe and Mail and Sequential State describe her 2017 I’m Not Here as “photorealist” and “photorealistic” (Rogers, Hoffman).  The claim is peculiar considering that gg’s images are composed of opaque shapes lacking any interior detail. They are highly simplified, but their contours appear realistic, suggesting photographic source material. This mode also has no name, but may be referred to descriptively as ‘unexaggerated simplification.’”

Instead of dissecting Bob Hope, I dissect my own head for an illustration:

In addition to offering an expansion of Witek’s analysis, The Comics Form also corrects my own 2017 Superhero Comics. In the chapter “The Visual Superhero,” I created two spectrums, simplified-detailed and exaggerated-unexaggerated, and subdivided each into a five-point scale, and then combined them to create a chart consisting of twenty-five distinct styles.

It’s not that the resulting “Abstract Grid” is necessarily wrong (though I suspect some of its claims are overstated), it’s more that it just isn’t necessary. The implications of identifying just four modes opens up a range of further questions, some of which I address in The Comics Mode, and some I leave open. But they’re all possible because of my debt to Joseph (Rusty?) Witek.

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