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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

I’m a comics scholar, not a graphic designer, but I’m not the first to notice the overlap. Canadian cartoonist Seth made it explicit: “comics = poetry + graphic design.”

The following info meme is definitely not poetry. It’s also not a work in the comics medium. But it does reveal a lot about visual design and how comics analysis and composition might be useful tools.

So first consider in what order you view the following words and images. Notice how your eyes move around the surface as you glean the information.

If you’re like me, you wandered a bit. I’m not sure what a graphic designer would call that, but in The Comics Form, I term that a variable viewing path. I use Thierry Smolderen’s analysis of a William Hogarth engraving as a primary example: it invites “the reader to a ‘winding walk’ from one detail, one clue, to another,” creating “a slow read, one that invites the eye to lose itself in the details and to return to them.”

The early vote meme is not in the comics medium, but it is in the comics form (because it includes more than one image, including a mailbox, a voter depositing a ballot, pages from a calendar, and a card ID). For works in the comics form or the comics medium, a viewing path is either variable, allowing a range of “winding walks,” or directed, prescribing a single path. Whether called a comic or not, the meme is presenting content that a viewer has to absorb in some order. Scott McCloud calls that “flow,” how “the arrangement of panels on a page or screen, and the arrangement of elements within a panel” guide “readers between and within panels” by “directing the eye through reader expectations and content.”

I think the voter guide has a flow problem.

According to McCloud, such navigating should be “a simple, intuitive process,” one that will “be transparent to the reader” so that “the reading flow can continue uninterrupted.” He therefore warns prospective artists to avoid “inherently confusing arrangements,” because they produce “just enough split-second confusion to yank readers out of the world of the story.” Joseph Witek expresses the same aesthetic preference, because “readers who are trying to figure out the proper way to read the page are readers who are not immersed in the story.”

As far as a general aesthetic principles, I disagree with McCloud’s and Witek’s assumption. I think sometimes an artist has good reason not to privilege effortless flow. But in this case, “the story” is voter information, and the artist (presumably someone working for Virginia’s Democratic Party) distracted me with a variable viewing path that served no purpose.

Tools of comics analysis can help with that, first by mapping the meme’s layout, and then by suggesting a less interruptive arrangement.

If you’re like me, you first tried to find a directed path, and so started in the top left corner where paths typically begin. My eyes started wandering only after the visual structure didn’t move them in any clear direction. Those top left words (“There are two ways to vote early in Virginia”) are clear enough, but the words underneath them (“by mail or in person”) and the image to the right are oddly distant (even though their meanings overlap). Whichever you view first requires an unintuitive leap to view the second.

So for starters, I would move the image to the left:

That image-and-text proximity is better, but it doesn’t get at the overall flow challenges. So consider the units of information in the entire meme. I count seven:

I’m not sure about that second row (is “Same day registration begins Oct. 1” part of the “Important Dates” list?), and though the six questions/answers could be subdivided, together they are the “FAQ” content. Many comics pages have seven or more units too, but in this case my eye is unsure how to move through them:

When you look at the top right image, its proximity to the next cluster of words (“Same day registration begins Oct. 1”) could lead your eye downward. Or you may attempt to maintain a Z-path (left-to-right, top-to-bottom) and move instead to “Important Dates.” Continuing on that path leads you to the registration information — though why is that date not rendered in the image of a calendar like the first four? And since the image conveys the idea of dates visually, why include the redundant subtitle at all?

Moving to what might seem like the next row is more confusing, since the arrow-like tails of the two speech bubbles that contain “FAQ” point downward to the ID image, implying a column path, and yet the actual FAQs are clustered to the right. One references IDs and so its content would send you back to the left, and another references registration and so conceptually would link you back up to the important date a row higher.

Analyzing the meme as a comics page may help. Except for the bottom banner, there are no drawn frames, but the others are implied:

That cluster of six mini-panels could be drawn as a regular grid, but I think the lack of frames creates a less rigid effect. More “split-second confusion” occurs in at least two places: moving from panel 4 to two possible panels 5, and then once in the cluster of six smaller panels, moving from panel 5 to two possible panels 6:

If I ever teach a class on visual design (which I strongly suspect I never will), I might assign students to redesign the voter guide to flow as a “simple, intuitive process.”

Feel free to grade my own attempt:

It contains all of the same information (minus the superfluous “Important Dates” and “FAQ” image) in roughly the same space (though my version turned out a little more square than rectangular). Since the original top words aren’t the title, which instead appears at the very bottom (“2022 Early Vote Guide”), I moved that too.

Here’s how I think the flow works:

Instead of a Z-path, it begins as an N-path, but then after the first column on the left, the second column merges Z- and N- viewing — though hopefully the back-and-forth produces no split-second confusions but an intuitive sense of intended variability.

Or at least that’s what my comics-immersed brain perceives. If I ever get tired of writing comics theory, maybe I can volunteer to design voter memes for the VaDems.

Meanwhile, have you voted yet?

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