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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

I recently came across an online publication that embodies a range of comics qualities while also challenging formal assumptions about comics. That is exactly the sort of thought puzzle that comics theory is built for.

So, first question, is this set of images in the comics form?

In terms of layout, it’s a regular 3×3 grid with uniform pairs of horizontal and vertical gutters.

In terms of image content, it’s nine photographs featuring one or two individuals, none repeating.

The lack of recurring elements likely means the nine images don’t produce a viewing order. Your eye moves through the set in any direction. Technically that means they’re not sequenced and so not in the comics form if the comics form is defined as sequenced images–though I’ve found that in comics scholarship “sequenced” is sometimes used to mean simply juxtaposed, so there may be wiggle room (I split those hairs in Chapter 6 of The Comics Form).

So tentatively I would say, yes, the grid of nine photos is in the comics form. It is not, however, in the comics medium, which is defined by publishing context. The grid is the background for an article in the New York Times.

If the article (Maya Salam’s “The Faces That Look Back at Us When We Come Out, Again and Again“) were in the comics medium, I’d call that a splash page. It’s not, so I won’t. But I think comics theory still offers the best set of tools for analyzing the online article’s structure.

First, note that the arrangement (including the bottom portions of the lower images and the span of the middle words) varies based on the individual screen it appears on. Also, the whole grid is never fully shown (I had to cut and paste the version at the top of the page). That’s because the visual conceit is that a series of opaque white rectangular panels inscribed with words (AKA, “caption boxes”) obscure parts of the middle column as if the caption boxes were on a separate plane three-dimensionally “in front of” the photos. The caption boxes appear to move up as a viewer clicks the down arrow key:

Of course the caption boxes don’t actually “move,” and the photographs are never actually “under” them. The illusion of depth is common in works in the comics medium that are printed on paper. It’s as if panels sit on the surface of the page, sometimes partially overlapping. Of course there is nothing “under” anything else. It’s all just ink on paper. For the Times article, it’s all just pixels. But both create the illusion of a formal structure, which is why I call it “pseudo-form” when analyzing the effect in The Comics Form.

The illusion of movement adds a wrinkle. It’s not exactly animation. Or at least not what we might call passive animation. The viewer controls the movement: you have to click the arrow key or nothing happens. That seems akin to turning the physical page of a paper comic. Roy Cook considers that element of control to be an essential for something to be a comic: “The audience is able to control the pace at which they look at each of the parts.”

My definition of the comics form is simply “sequenced images,” though, based on the history of how comics scholars have used the word “image,” I derived the further stipulation that a comics image is “any flat, static, visual image juxtaposed with another.” The adjective “static” may exclude the Times article from the comics form. Unless a viewer’s control of pace means each image is static — until a viewer does something (turns a page, clicks a key). To that degree, the illusion of words moving up the middle column may be little different from the pages of an actual paper comic turning in a viewer’s hands.

But that’s not the weird thing about the article’s structure.

The last click of the arrow key triggers an animated sequence in which the still images seem to rearrange themselves into a new set.

The new arrangement changes the grid to six rectangles, one four times larger because it combines the previous space of four. That’s common in the comics medium. Watchmen does something like that on nearly every page:

But now the larger image isn’t static (in any sense). It’s a streaming film clip:

That means the new layout juxtaposes four still images, one caption box, and one moving image. Is the combination in the comics form? If all of the images were moving, I would say definitely not. Split screens are fairly common in film and TV. The first one I ever saw was in the 1979 film More American Graffiti, but the techniques is probably better known from the TV show 24. Neither is in the comics form.

But here more than half of the combined image is not moving and so would be in the comics form. Does juxtaposing them with a moving image take them out of the form?

I’m not sure.

But while I’m contemplating that complexity, the movement of the viewer-controlled caption boxes is still keyed to arrow clicks:

And the independently animated clip keeps playing in the background and even repeats if you don’t advance the words. After two single, full-layout images, the grid scrambles again, creating a new arrangement, which the words continue to advance over, one click at a time, until triggering another new arrangement:

I won’t toggle through the whole article (which you should read anyway, for its content, not my analysis of its form), but those are the essential features. It’s clearly a hybrid structure, one that can exist only online. If you want to dismiss it as “not a comic,” first consider this next sequence:

Unlike the thematically linked set of nine non-sequenced images that opens the article, these three stills are sequenced narratively and even follow the N-path of a conventional comics layout:

Even if the larger article is something else, those three images are in the comics form. The next image relationship (which occurs after the arrow key triggers another new arrangement) is instead simultaneous.

Even a viewer not familiar with characters from The Office could understand the two faces in the bottom left image to be reacting to the content of the larger image to its right. Because it is larger, a viewer likely apprehends the near kiss first, before noticing the smaller reaction image to its left — breaking a standard z-path order arrangement. And the unrelated cartoon image at the top left (yes, that’s from BoJack Horseman) might be scanned last, even though top left is the standard starting point for a work in the comics medium.

I don’t know what to call the article’s form, but I’m already contemplating adding a chapter to future editions of The Comics Form.

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