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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Category Archives: Analyzing Comics 101

Is there such a thing? Some scholars object to the anachronistic use of the 20th-century term “comics” applied to anything that predates its etymology–especially when the predating is by centuries not decades. But I’m less sure. Look at this illustration from the 1490s.


The small angel in the upper right corner displays a scroll that reads:

“Gedenck der /lestē zÿt so / sündest du / nÿmmer”
[Think of the last days; then you will never sin]

Although it wouldn’t have been called a “caption box” in its day, I’m not sure how that word-filled square is any different from the caption boxes that appear in contemporary comics. Medieval scholars call the two other word-filled shapes “speech scrolls”:

“‘Sun gib mir din hercz /den ich lieb hab · Dem läß ich sträf nit ab ·’”
[“Son, give me your heart. I do not remit the punishment of the one that I hold dear”

“‘O herr das will ich · das / beger ich darumbe / so soltu ziehē mich’”
[“Oh Lord, this I want, I desire it, for this reason thus you pull me”]

There are no “pointers,” so the speakers are indicated by proximity and the curve of the scrolls toward each figure’s face. But that we can understand these words as a command and a response spoken by the two figures at the moment depicted means a “speech scroll” and a “speech balloon” differ in shape and not much else.

Image result for comics one panel

But comics, even contemporary comics, aren’t defined by speech balloons and caption boxes. Those, arguably, are just elements that can appear in a variety of images including a comic or a book illustration (whether 21st century of 15th) but don’t require the image to be classified as a “comic.” Though it produces problems for such apparent “comics” as Far Side and Family Circle, it’s a reasonable point. When we call something a comic book, we typically mean a visual story that’s divided into rows of panels across a page.

Maybe something like Valerius Maximus’ Memorabilia: intrigue and murder in Ancient Rome?

Harley MS 4374 f. 211r 25744_2

Chantry Westwell considers that 1470s piece a comic, writing about it and other “Medieval Comics” for the British Museum’s Medieval Manuscripts Blog in 2014. Steve Ditko favored the same three-row layout:

Image result for steve ditko pages

The top image was sent to me by graphic novelist Kevin Pyle after he and I met at a comics symposium in NYC last month. Martha Rust, an associate professor of English at New York University, was lecturing on the use of wheels and roundels in Medieval manuscripts. I was struck by how much the roundel functions like a panel in contemporary comics.


When discussing the early fourteenth-century Psalter of Robert de Lille, Rust notes that a “circle divided into wedges by means of its ‘spokes’ depicts a sequence”–a  style still seen in some comic book page layouts:

Image result for comics pages  Image result for comic book pages

The roundels also appear “to rest on the roll of parchment rather than to inhere in it and thus to have a notional manipulability–as if we could pick them up and move them around.”


While roundels make a “visual allusion to disks or coins,” many contemporary panels are more like irregular playing cards with their edges overlapping as so have that same “notional manipulability”:

Image result for comic book panels

Image result for comic book pages

And the occasional roundel still shows up too, though usually only one per page:

Image result for comic book pages

Image result for comic book pagesImage result for comic book pagesImage result for comic book pages

The Psalter of Robert de Lille’s wheel of fortune also captures how a comics reader views each panel one at a time while also being aware of the page layout at a whole. The image of God at the center declares: “I see all at once; I govern the whole by my plan.”


But whether you want to classify this and similar Medieval manuscripts as “comics” or simply “image-texts,” they are useful for revealing things about the current comics form because they are not constrained by the conventions that came to dominate the medium. For instance, this image from the twelfth-century illuminated encyclopedia Hortus delicarium (Garden of Delights) doesn’t rely on panels and gutters to tell its narrative:


Because, as Rust notes, the six figures represent “the same person at different points on Fortune’s wheel,” the illustration is equivalent to six panels that could (to worse effect) be drawn as six separately framed wheels with only one figure on each wheel at a time. More interestingly, Fortune, the figure turning the wheel, is present at each of the six moments in time–and yet she is a static image too. She’s both in time and out of time–an embodiment of the gutter.

Her paradoxical relationship to the six turning figures is easy to see because the image doesn’t use panels to organize story time or page layout. But compare that to the first page of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Brian Stelfreeze’s 2016 Black Panther:


Like the Hortus delicarium illustration, this image represents multiple moments in time. And, like Fortune turning the wheel, Black Panther is present in all four scenes. Divided into conceptual units, the implied sequence looks like this:




And, because Black Panther is recalling these three memories as he crouches in a present moment:


This, frankly, is more than I would have expected from a writer approaching the comics form for the first time. But maybe that fresh eye helped Coates, with the aid of comics veteran Stelfreeze, get here. Like Medieval illustrators, they weren’t as bound by 20th-century comics conventions that make the panel the primary conceptual unit.

So while I’m happy to welcome the category of “Medieval Comics” to the multiverse, I’m even happier to view contemporary comics through its fresh eye.


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When did the Silver Age of comics end and the Bronze Age begin? There’s no definite year, but the 1973 “SNAP!” of Gwen Stacy’s too-perfect neck in Amazing Spider-Man #121 is a contender. 1970 is a bigger year, with Jack Kirby’s move from Marvel to DC, plus the start of Neal Adams and Dennis O’Neil’s Green Lantern / Green Arrow. Steve Ditko left Marvel for Charlton in 1966, turning both Spider-Man and Doctor Strange over to new artists for the first time. Marvel veteran Bill Everett took on Doctor Strange with Strange Tales #147, but for me Strange Tales #154 is the sea-changing Silver-to-Bronze moment. It’s the first episode of Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.E.I.L.D. that the recently hired Jim Steranko wrote, penciled, and inked in 1967.

Like other artists Marvel hired in the 60s, Steranko imitated Jack Kirby, first auditioning by inking two of his penciled layouts for a proto-S.H.E.I.L.D story, and then by adopting the Kirby-defined Marvel house style. Gil Kane, who started freelancing at Marvel in 1966, explained during a 1985 panel discussion at the Dallas Fantasy Fair:

“Jack’s point of view and philosophy of drawing became the governing philosophy of the entire publishing company and, beyond the publishing company, of the entire field…. They would get artists, regardless of whether they had done romance or anything else and they taught them the ABCs, which amounted to learning Jack Kirby…. Jack was like Holy Scripture and they simply had to follow him without deviation. That’s what was told to me, that’s what I had to do. It was how they taught everyone to reconcile all those opposing attitudes to one single master point of view.”

After passing his employment test, Steranko apprenticed by inking three of Kirby’s twelve-page Nick Fury episodes. Kirby had co-created the series with Lee in 1965, but after the inaugural Strange Tales #135, nearly a dozen different artists had worked on the title. Kirby also co-penciled the two issues leading up to Steranko’s run, which suggests that Steranko’s credited “illustrations,” “artwork,” “rendering” may include more than just inking. Kirby is credited only for “layouts,” and they certainly look like his. Issues #151-3 are a close match to Kirby’s first Nick Fury episode:

#135: Seven regular 3-row pages

-= story 1, page 06 =-

-= story 1, page 12 =-

(including three implied 3x2s),

-= story 1, page 03 =-

-= story 1, page 07 =-

three regular 2-row pages (including two implied and one actual 2×2),

and two full-page panels (including the opening splash).

#151: Ten regular 3-row pages (including four implied and two actual 3x2s), one regular 2-row page, one full-page panel (splash).

#152: Ten regular 3-row pages (including seven implied and two actual 3x2s) one regular 2-row page, one full-page panel (splash).

#153: Nine regular 3-row pages (including seven implied and one actual 3×2), two regular 2-row pages (one implied and one actual 2×2), one full-page panel (splash).

Kirby draws no irregular layouts, so panel heights are consistent on each page and, since three-quarters of the layouts are regular 3-row based, across a majority of pages too. Of the thirty-six 3-row based pages, twenty-six are also 3×2 (typically implied, occasionally actual). The percentage is higher in Kirby’s last two issues, with seventeen of nineteen regular 3x2s. All rows include either one, two, or three panels of equal width. When he does vary from 3-row layouts, he uses 2-rows instead, averaging two 2-row pages per issue. Each issue begins with a full-page splash panel and ends with a 3-panel row in a regular 3-row page. Excluding full-page panels, each issue includes between five and eight pages with a full-width panel; twice in one issue, two full-width panels appear on the same page. Kirby draws no full-height panels or sub-columns, so all reading is horizontal. All panels are also rectangular and framed by gutters. Kirby draws no insets or overlapping panels. The overall effect is lightly varied and highly orderly.

The Nick Fury layouts changed with Steranko’s first solo issue:

#154: Four regular 3-row pages (including one implied 3×2), three irregular 4-row pages, two full-page panels (including the opening splash), one irregular 2-row page, one regular 2×3, one mixed column-row page.

Only three of Steranko’s layouts appear in Kirby’s issues: two full-page panels and an implied 3×2. Like Kirby, Steranko favors regular rows, although not exclusively. Unlike Kirby, Steranko’s 3-row based layouts are a minority, comprising one-third rather than three-quarters of the total pages, and where slightly more than half of Kirby’s pages are 3×2 based, Steranko’s one implied regular 3×2 is the rarity.

Three of Steranko’s regular 3-row pages lightly modify Kirby by including three new elements. First, two rows are divided into four panels; Kirby’s rows never exceed three panels. Second, some panels are irregular, and so their widths vary within the same row; Kirby’s panels are always divided equally. Third, two full-width panels include insets, effectively creating a row of two irregular panels; Kirby draws no insets.

Six of Steranko’s layouts contradict Kirby completely: three irregular 4-rows;

a regular 2×3; an irregular 2-row; and a mixed column-row page. Although the final page features the first instance of vertical reading, the concluding two-panel sub-row echoes the regular 3-panel row that concludes each of Kirby’s issues too.

Despite the range of differences between Kirby’s #153 and Steranko’s #154, most of Steranko’s additions can be found in Kirby’s earlier work:

 The Fantastic Four #1 (August 1961) includes irregular 4-row pages, regular 2x3s, rows of four panels, and rows of irregular panels. Fantastic Four #2 include the same variations, but 4-rows and 2x3s vanish afterwards.

With the exception of splash pages, The Incredible Hulk #1 (May 1962) is also entirely regular 3-row based, with only three pages that vary the format with irregular panels or a regular four-panel row.

By The Avengers #1 (September 1963) Kirby’s layouts are also almost entirely 3-row based, with no more than three panels per row, and only two rows of irregular panels; the one irregular 2-row implies a 3×3 grid.

The X-Men (September 1963), published simultaneously, has even fewer variations: a subdivided panel in a regular 3×2, and one row of two irregular panels.

The twelve pages of Kirby’s Captain America feature in Tales of Suspense #59 (November 1964) are even more rigid, containing only regular 3-row layouts, all but one implying a 3×2 grid.

The Nick Fury episode of Strange Tales #135 (August 1965), Kirby’s last new series for Marvel, is comparatively diverse. Becoming the Marvel house style seems to have required Kirby to regularize his layouts, presumably so they could be more easily imitated. Variation and innovation are not qualities easily taught, and they do not produce a unified style across titles.

Although Kirby appears to have curtailed his own style to create the Marvel house style, insets and columns are still rare in his early Marvel work too. Fantastic Four #3 does include one, partial inset with its own gutter, and #5 features a highly atypical 1×3 page—which Steranko echoes in his next Nick Fury issue with a three-column page of his own.

One of Kirby’s very first comic books, the eight-page “Cosmic Carson” in Science Comics #4 (May 1940), includes four sub-columns, but no page-height ones. The following year, Captain America #1 includes sub-columns too.

“Cosmic Carson” also shows Kirby’s early use of a regular 2-row with a top full-width panel; identical layouts appear in Strange Tales #s 135, 151, and 152 as well as Steranko’s later #157.

Overall, however, Kirby uses columns rarely, while for Steranko they would become part of his signature style. His next column concludes #160, then beginning with #166, at least one appears in nearly every issue. #166 includes two: a regular 1×2 and, more distinctively, an irregular 1×2 in which the first column is an unframed, full-height figure defining the panel edges of the second column.

#167 includes no columns—in part because of its seven full-page panels, including Steranko’s innovative fold-out “quadruple-page spread,” which also doubled the price of the issue from twelve cents to twenty-four.

#168 then includes three columned pages in a row: an irregular 1×2 with no panel divisions;

an irregular 1×2 with the first column divided into five regular panels; and a highly irregular 1×2 in which the unframed full-height figure overlaps with the three panels of the second column.

Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D then switched to its own independent title, and #1 featured another irregular 1×2 with an unframed, full-height figure.

#2 includes a lone column and a later half-column of insets on a full-page panel, as does #3, and #5, Steranko’s last, includes a new column layout of a regular 1×3 with only the middle column divided into six irregular panels.

Because Steranko fell behind schedule, another creative team filled-in #4, marking the beginning of the end for Steranko at Marvel. He would leave the following year, 1969, after objecting to Stan Lee’s editing of his work. Steranko’s penultimate issue, Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D #3, bears little relationship to Kirby’s earlier layouts:

1: full-page splash panel

2-3: mixed column-row, a two-page panel with a column of letter-shaped panels

4: irregular 3-row with irregular panels

5: irregular 2-column with three irregular insets over the page-panel

6: irregular 3-row with two insets in the middle row and one inset in the bottom row

7: irregular 2-row with two full-width panels

8: mixed column-row, beginning with a full-width panel, followed by a nearly full-page panel with a two-panel column of insets

9: mixed column-row, an irregular 3-column of full-height columns, with a top row of four regular insets

10: regular 3-row with irregular panels

11: mixed column-row, an irregular 2-row with a two-panel column of insets over a full-width half page bottom column

12-13: two-page panel

14: irregular 3-row with irregular panels

15: irregular 3-row with irregular panels and one inset

16: mixed column-row, an irregular 3-row with a three-panel column of insets over a middle full-width panel

17: irregular 3-row with irregular panels and one inset

18: irregular 3-row with irregular panels

19: irregular 2-row with a column of text beside a nearly full-page panel

20: mixed column-row, an irregular 3-row with a sub-column of two insets

Although nine of the twenty pages are exclusively row-based, only one features rows of uniform height, and six additional pages include a mixture of rows and columns. The complexities are greater when also considering unframed and overlapping panels, but the contrast to Kirby’s last issue, published a year and a half earlier, is already stark:

1: Full-page splash panel

2: regular 3×2

3: regular 3-row with top full-width panel implying a 3×2

4: regular 3-row with middle full-width panel implying a 3×2

5: regular 2×2

6: regular 3-row with middle full-width panel implying a 3×2

7: regular 3-row with bottom full-width panel implying a 3×2

8: regular 3-row with bottom full-width panel implying a 3×2

9: regular 2-row with a top full-width panel implying a 2×2

10: regular 3-row with a bottom full-width panel implying a 3×2

11: regular 3-row with a bottom full-width panel implying a 3×2

12: regular 3-row

Kirby built the Marvel house style on a 3×2 grid and punctuated it with an occasional 2×2. After both Kirby and Steranko left Marvel, Kirby’s flexible page schemes would give way to a norm of irregular layouts, fluctuating between 2-, 3-, and 4-rows, with an open base pattern. Kirby’s Silver Age layouts were gone.

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Multi Color Andy Warhol. Marilyn Monroe. 1962-67. Museum of Modern Art, New York City, In the

I’ve been obsessed with Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe series lately. When I found out the poster art for Night of the Living Dead isn’t copyrighted, I made this Warhol-inspired knock-off:

Zombie Girl FINAL

Warhol painted his series in 1962, as a kind of requiem for Monroe after her August death. Because it is a grid of nine squares–a classic 3×3 comics panel layout–it looks a lot like a comic strip to me. And so a part of me wants to say it is a comic strip. Consider Scott McCloud’s definition: “Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.”

Clearly the nine images are “juxtaposed.” And that would be true even if the images were all identical, as in my variation on Warhol’s source photo (like I said, obsessed):

Marilyn 3x3

But it’s the “deliberate sequence” part that gives me pause. I’m not exactly sure what “deliberate” means here (can a sequence be non-deliberate? even if the process of composition is random, the resulting arrangement becomes deliberate once finalized by the artist), but “sequence” is fairly clear. Most dictionary definitions include the phrase “a specific order.”

So the individual images form a specific path for the viewer to follow. That implies there are wrong paths–or at least paths that don’t produce the aesthetic result that following the intended sequence will produce. I don’t think that’s true of Warhol’s painting or my two variants though.  Their arrangements are aesthetically deliberate, but your eye needn’t begin, for example, in the top right corner and proceed to the right in a Z-pattern in order to best appreciate all those juxtaposed Marilyns and Zombie Girls. If you instead focused first on the center square and then scanned up and to the left or any other direction, the aesthetic content doesn’t change. If order doesn’t matter, then the arrangement must not be a sequence. And if comics are sequences, Warhol’s painting isn’t one.

The term “image” is a problem too. Comics have to have more than one. As I mentioned in a previous blog, that’s why the French flag is not a comic. Though it is composed of three parts (a blue rectangle, a white rectangle, and a red rectangle), we read it as a single, unified image:

So is Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe a sequence of images or just a single, flag-like image?  Is it made of nine juxtaposed images (and so then possibly a comic), or is it one image made up of nine parts (and so definitely not a comic). It’s hard to say since there’s not always a clear distinction between a visual element that is an “image” and a visual element that is “part of an image.”

This variation on Roy Lichtenstein’s “Crying Girl” is, I think, clearly a single image–even though it is made of the identical component image flipped and juxtaposed four times:

Crying Mouths

Would it be a comic if I divided the four quarters with frames and gutters? I doubt it. What about images that don’t repeat any of their parts? Consider this entirely abstract composition I’ve ingeniously titled “39 Lines”:

39 lines

It consists of thirty-nine visual elements, but I would say it is only one image.  No individual lines or clusters of lines produce a response that’s separate from the composition as a whole. Now consider this:

Words are imagers

It is also composed of thirty-nine visual elements–the same thirty-nine that make up its sibling image. But it is also a sentence, one quoted from comics artists Will Eisner. Unlike “39 Lines,” “WORDS ARE IMAGES” also has linguistic meaning. It is composed of three, separable linguistic units. The first eleven lines form the word “WORDS,” not because of some intrinsic qualities of the lines themselves, but because of an English-reading viewer perceiving that particular conceptual unit. That linguistic property is so obvious that it’s easy to forget that words are also always rendered images–which was Eisner’s point.

But, unlike the French flag or the Warhols, sequence does matter. The lines that compose the sentence “WORDS ARE IMAGES” must be perceived in a very specific order for the linguistic meaning to occur. That’s why McCloud includes the adjective “pictorial” in his definition, to distinguish comics from sequences of lines that produce only letters, words, sentences, etc.

“39 Lines,” in contrast, has no specific order for taking in its constituent visual elements. Your eye is free to enter the image at any spot and then wander at will. There’s no sequence that produces additional meaning. The same is true of “26 Parts”:


It’s just lines arranged to form an abstract image. But consider those same twenty-six visual elements in this arrangement:


Your eye is still free to enter and wander freely, but the arrangement of the same ink (or pixels) now conveys an additional meaning. It represents a face. That’s another kind of conceptual unit. The arrangement produces a meaning that is not an intrinsic quality of its individual parts. Like “39 Lines” and “26 Parts,” it’s a single, unified image made of individual parts, but, like “WORDS ARE IMAGES,” the face-lines produce an additional aesthetic response, one that’s pictorial rather than linguistic. The difference is that linguistic images must be perceived in a specific order, and pictorial images do not.

So pictorially, my next Warhol variation isn’t a sequence either:

Superhero Girl FINAL 4

Your eye is once again free to wander through the nine faces in any order. But this time, some of the visual elements are letters, and if you read them in the right order, they spell “SUPERHERO.” That’s a sequence. Since those letters are also part of juxtaposed pictorial images, this 3×3 grid fits McCloud’s definition of a comic, while all of the previous examples do not.

But is “SUPERHERO” a comic when expanded with wallpaper-like repetition?

superhero girls new FINAL 12x12

The repetition isn’t itself the problem. I could create a wallpaper-like expansion of this three-panel arrangement of Rodin’s “The Thinker” and still produce sequential meaning:


Unlike my earlier layout of the identically distorted Monroe photo, the left-to-right repetition of this identical image can suggest a continuation of behavior through increments of time. It’s ambiguous how much time is passing (seconds, hours, months, etc.), but the figure can be understood as a living figure who is holding a pose as he sits and thinks. That’s not the case with this next Warhol-esque variation on “Crying Girl.”

3x3 crying girl roygbiv

Like the repeating Thinker figure, the repeating Crying Girl figure doesn’t change her pose. But because the pose is transitory and unmotivated (why and for how long would someone look askance like that, and the laws of physics would have something to say about those suspended teardrops), time does not seem to be passing. The face, like Warhol’s Monroe, does change colors–but those seem to be changes to the image of the woman, not the woman herself. This is not a left-to-right sequential representation of time passing. It is a sequence though. Unlike Warhol’s Monroe, the changes follow a specific order: ROYGBIV. Which produces a pun: “ROY” and “Roy.” So is that sequential element enough to call that 3×3 grid a comic?

What about this one?

Crying ROY (Lichtenstein & Warhol Parody)

Here, finally, is something that strikes me unequivocally as a comic. It’s a sequence of an incrementally changing image. In addition to color changes, twenty-six parts of “Crying Girl” move from their face-signifying positions to a non-pictorial clump in the bottom half of the final frame. It tells a kind of story. Which I think is what McCloud means by “deliberate sequence.” He wants comics to be narratives.

That produces another problem. While the vast majority of comics are narratives, some are not. Check out Andrei Molotiu’s Abstract Comics and you’ll find meaningfully juxtaposed images that include no words, no people, nothing but non-pictorial lines:



Some of the pages in Abstract Comics, however, appear no more sequential than Warhol. Which could mean some of them aren’t actually comics. They might just be subdivided images. Many are even subdivided into panels and gutters, but do they use those visual elements as panels and gutters? Do they produce a sequence?

Part of the confusion is the non-pictorial content. Visual storytelling typically involves drawings of settings and characters. But it doesn’t have to. Consider this four-image sequence:

4 abstractions

There’s no setting but a white background, and there’s no character in any traditional sense. But it does tell a kind of “story.” The first abstract image appears to change into each of the subsequent abstract images. Even though the image doesn’t represent anything else, it does represent itself. According to Bill Blackbeard’s definition, comics are “about recurrent, identified characters, told in successive drawings.” The cluster of black shapes is both identifiable and recurrent. That makes it a kind of “character,” one able even to undergo a change or “character arc.”

I can apply the same narrative to Monroe:


In this case, the first image, because it’s a photo of Monroe, does represent something other than itself. But that’s not true of the rest of the sequence. Each change is a change to the photo only. They don’t represent changes to Monroe herself. She’s not the character of this abstract, four-panel comic. Her photo is. The same is true of my previous “Crying Girl” variations. Even though they’re representative images of a woman, the woman is not the character of the narrative. Her representation is.

Incremental changes to a repeated visual element, however, don’t guarantee a story. These chessboard permutations strike me as a single image made up of many, evolving but ultimately dependent parts:


There’s no specific order to the parts, and so there’s no story, and so it’s not a comic. Characters, especially abstract characters, need a sequence in order to become characters. That’s true of  images that have linguistic rather than pictorial meaning too. Even words, because they’re images, can be visual characters in their own abstract but sequential plots:

Comics Have Characters

So is the Monroe image in Warhol’s painting a “character” too? It undergoes similarly abstract changes, but those changes still aren’t sequential. Neither Monroe nor the repeated representations of Monroe are segments in a visual story.

Which is all a very long way of saying: No, Warhol’s painting is not a comic.

It just looks like one.

Multi Color Andy Warhol. Marilyn Monroe. 1962-67. Museum of Modern Art, New York City, In the


Sunset three panels no dock no moon and noon no nothing

I’m going to say no. Though why, I’m less sure. The image does include three panels, and if you read then sequentially, then that’s a comic. It’s even a kind of narrative: a short page’s descent into black. The three panels of color might even take on metaphorical meaning.

The problem is whether that descent from light blue to red to black really is sequential, or if you read the three blocks of color simultaneously, like a flag:

The French flag is not a comic strip. It’s also not a narrative. Though I’m not sure whether narrative is a requirement for a comic. Comics can be abstract, but can an abstract image still have a narrative? Does narrative require representational imagery in order to divide the page into a sequence? Can a purely abstract image even have sequence?

If I rearrange “a short page’s descent into black” into “a wide strip’s left-to-right progression into black,” is it more narrative-ish?

Sunset three panels no dock no circles

Not really. But if I add minimal representational elements, do the same three blocks of color become a narrative?

Sunset three panels no dock

Each block has its own partial white circle, and those circles have iconic meaning. So instead of a progression into generic black, is it now a progression into “night”? Is the blue also “day” and the red “evening”?

Read that way, the three panels are not only representational, they now represent the same space. Though your eye moves left to right to read them, your brain understands that within the world of the image your eye is stationary as you blink through three snapshots, each divided by a time span of something like six hours. The bottom edge of the frames also becomes a repeated horizon line.

Which is a lot of information for just three partial circles to convey. So what if I include only one of the circles? What exactly is the minimal requirement for an image to be representational?

Sunset three panels no dock no moon and noon

Of course now that you “know” the middle circle is the sun, it’s probably impossible not to read the image representationally, and therefore narratively. I could instead leave out all of the partial circles and include some other detail to establish a representational setting.

Sunset three panels no circles

Now we’re looking at the changing sky beyond a seaside dock. The noon sun is “above” the top frame of the first panel; the newly set sun is “beneath” the horizon line of the middle panel, and the sun is even further “beneath” the same internal line in the last panel. Compared to the water and the blocks of sky, the boards of the dock are teeming with detail. But if that’s still too abstract, drop the partial circles back in.

Sunset three panels

I could call the three-panel strip “Dock Sunset.”

More weirdly, I could call the first flag-like sequence the same thing. The three formerly abstract rectangles of color are now both representational and fully narrative. Sunset three panels no dock no moon and noon no nothing

I was just reading Amazon reviews for a collection of essays by philosophers on the topic of comics,  and one disgruntled reader complained that the authors “spend most of their time simply trying to define precisely what comics are,” which felt to him like an “elitist” attempt “to justify the fact that one is writing an academic work on comics in the first place.”

Actually, analytical philosophers spend most of their time simply trying to define precisely what everything is. That’s where philosophy and genre theory happily collide. For me the collision took place in front of my English department’s photocopier. Nathaniel Goldberg had descended from the Philosophy floor because their machine was dead. A year later and he and I have drafted a book on superhero comics and philosophy together. In the process I learned what is now one of my favorite phrases, “necessary and sufficient,” as in “What are the necessary and sufficient qualities for something to be a comic?”

It sounds like an easy question. The above mentioned disgruntled reviewer answered in one sentence: “I think most people who are passionate about comics would define the medium (not to draw an exact equivalency) much like Justice Potter Steward defined pornography: They know a comic when they see it.”

Actually, defining porn is damn near impossible. What precisely is the difference between a Playgirl centerfold and Michelangelo’s David? They’re both representations of gorgeous naked guys. My friend Chris Matthews has a great story about bumbling into a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition with his father back in 80s. Which is to say, context seems to matter. The U.S. courts spent a lot of time changing their minds about the words “lust” and “obscene” and “importance” and “value” and how much of each is and isn’t enough to be or not be pornographic.

Comics should be easy in comparison. Except scholars keep changing their minds about the words “narrative” and “sequence” and “image” and “art” and, well, “words.” One-panel comic strips like Gary Larson’s The Far Side or Bill Keane’s The Family Circus present a particular brain teaser. Most definitions include something about pictures working in relation to each other, which means there’s got to be more than one picture. But then there’s The Family Circle right in the middle of the newspaper comics page, so it’s a comic in the seeing is knowing sense.

So maybe then it’s the combination of words and pictures? Philosopher David Carrier even includes word balloons in his “necessary and sufficient” list. So then Larson and Keane made comics because their cartoons include both an image and a caption–which, okay, a caption isn’t a word balloon, but close enough. Either way, the definition opens an unexpectedly large door. What precisely is the difference between a one-panel comic strip and, say, René Magritte’s The Treachery of Images?


Magritte is even making a joke, so it’s a comic in the “funny papers” sense too. And what about a one-panel comic that doesn’t have any words?

Dietrich Grünewald would call that Far Side an “autonomously narrative picture” because the single image prompts viewers to “create further images in our minds,” images he calls “ideal” or “non-material sequences.” So in that sense a single image can be multiple. But then comics suddenly include a massive array of representational paintings. What further images does Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp create in your mind?

And what about moving pictures? Why aren’t films comics? They’re art made of images viewed in sequence to create narratives. Silent ones even have word captions. Some animated films include not just any pictures, but the same specific pictures that appear in related comic books. Like those God awful Marvel cartoons from the 60s, those are the same Jack Kirby drawings on the screen as on the page. And yet seeing any animated film is knowing it’s not a comic book.

Roy T. Cook offered a definition last year in that separates comics from films by adding: “The audience is able to control the pace at which they look at each of the parts.” I also control that pace I wander through an art gallery, so are exhibitions a comic book? Framed painting are a lot like panels, and how is the white wall visible between them not a gutter? Greg Hayman and Henry John Pratt define a comic as “as a sequence of discrete, juxtaposed pictures that comprise a narrative, either in their own right or when combined with text.” Plus “the visual images are distinct (paradigmatically side-by-side), and laid out in a way such that they could conceivably be seen all at once. Between each pictorial image is a perceptible space.” Thierry Groensteen agrees, since according to him a comic contains “always a space that has been divided up, compartmentalized, a collection of juxtaposed frames.”

Great, but have you ever seen an episode of 24? When my TV screen divides into four frames, does the show become a comic book? Even some seeing-is-knowing comic books aren’t comic books by those definitions. John Byrne’s Marvel Fanfare #29 (Marvel, 1986) is all splash pages, no compartmentalized panels, no gutters. Though maybe that’s why Marvel rejected it for The Incredible Hulk #320? Emma Rios’ 2014 Pretty Deadly includes at least one page with overlapping images that are not “discreet” or “distinct” and include no gutters, and even the sense of sequential order is questionable.

I like the term “graphic narratives” because it combines graphic novels and graphic memoirs into one category, but it’s got problems too. Like Hayman and Pratt, David Kunzle, Robert Harvey, and David Carrier all rely on “story” or “narrative” to unify what they call a “sequence,” but as Andrei Molotui shows with his 2007 collection Abstract Comics, comics don’t always tell stories. The images just have to relate in some way.  That means any diptych, wordless or not, representational or not, might be a comic. So anything from Piero della Francesca’s Portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino to Roy Litchenstein’s WHAM! to Mark Yearwood’s Natural Ambiance Diptych.

Duke and Duchess of Urbino by Piero della Francesca

Roy T. Cook challenges even the assumption that comics need to contain pictures–though his example of “a completely blank issue of a previously established series” would be a comic book only because of the issues before it were. Context really is everything.

The bigger challenges are not thought experiments though, but works of art that already exist. Scott McCloud criticizes Will Eisner’s term “sequential art” for not separating comics from other art forms that might also be called sequential art, and Aaron Meskin in turn criticizes McCloud’s definition—“juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer”—for the same reason.

Meskin also objects to the anachronistic use of “comics” to include artworks, such as the thousand-year-old Bayeaux Tapestry, that predate the term. But by that logic, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells are not science fiction authors because “science fiction” was coined in 1929. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “chiaroscuro” dates to 1686, after the deaths of its exemplary artists, Rembrandt and Caravaggio, and the technique is commonly traced to Ancient Greece. Anachronistic terminology is a norm of categorization and analysis.

If comics are the art form of juxtaposed images, then a great many artworks not typically considered comics retroactively join the club–including the Bayeaux Tapestry, Matisse’s Jazz, the engraved poetry of William Blake, and the word and photography-combining art of Barbara Kruger. Lots of road signs and magazine ads creep in too–unless we limit the category to “art,” whatever that may be.

My course “Superhero Comics” makes my job a lot easier since that subgenre squats squarely in the middle of the definitional zone. My reading list includes only comic books–a term that used to mean a collection of reprinted newspaper comic strips. I know of no single-panel superhero comic strips, so Larson, Keane, Magritte, and Rembrandt are irrelevant. And superhero graphic novels all tell stories (though I asked my library to order a copy of Abstract Comics just because it’s really cool). Plus they’re filled with panels and gutters and word balloons, so every one of the above definitions applies.

But things get trickier the further you stray from Action Comics No. 1.

Along with Spider-Man’s debut story, three other Ditko-Lee collaborations appeared in Amazing Fantasy No. 15, including the five-pager “The One and Only!” According to comics collector James Horvath, however, the story was really drawn by his grandmother, Lydia Horvath, a Golden Age artist who spent her career ghosting for bigger names.

Or at least that’s the premise of my novel The Patron Saint of Superheroes. My agent suggested the manuscript include a sample comic book page, so I went in search of an artist who could pretend to be Lydia Horvath pretending to be Steve Ditko. Sean Michael Robinson swooped to my rescue.

And at the risk of revealing myself to be an Alan Moore-level control freak, I think our email correspondence reveals a few things about the collaborative process of writing and drawing comics.

original script (2)

SEAN: Your page from the script you shared looks great– just enough stage direction. My only practical concern with it– Ditko very rarely broke more than 9 panels a page. In fact, in my cursory Ditko flip-through this morning (“Essential Spider-man V 1”, “Steve Ditko Archives” V 1 + 2) I’m seeing the majority of the page breakdowns hovering around 6-7 panels, with a few outliers in the 8-9 range.

Was this actually drawn by Ditko? If not, are there any “tells,” or should it look as much like his work as possible?

CHRIS: It sounds like we were looking at Essential Spider-Man simultaneously this morning. And you’re absolutely right, the panel layout is nothing like Ditko’s—and that’s actually the one “tell” I want the page to have. I’m attaching the PAGE THREE script, which includes the layout. (The gutters form a St. James cross, which is the artist’s secret signature, are a big part of the novel.)

first layout

SEAN: Okay, here are two rough (very rough!) layouts. You’ll notice I make a few script suggestions in the margin for the sake of space. Also, I’m not sure how to approach visually the third panel on the 1st tier– substituted a far-off climbing Jim. Feel free to send a sketch my way. Are we seeing just the hand? The top of his head or pack? The view down the cliff face?

Also substituted a close-up for the 1st p 3rd tier– let me know how it strikes you.


CHRIS: Yes to trimming the first caption. So it would now read:

Before vanishing, Singulus told Little Jim that he had gained his powers from a guru in Tibet. Nothing left to lose, Little Jim splurges on a one-way ticket!

For panel 1.2, try a downward view from the very top of the cliff with mostly just Jim’s giant hand reaching up.

1.1, 1.3, 2.1, 2.2 all look good–I especially like how the cave opening worked out. 2.3 and 2.4 look good too, but I’d like to move the talk balloons, so that 2.3’s “Singulus?” is at the bottom of the panel with the balloon arrow pointing to the left gutter (and so Jim in 2.2), and Onlyone’s bubble moves to the top of 2.4. I think that way it will be clearer to see that the flashlight is moving up from the discarded costume to Onlyone, because currently the balloons partly block the partial views of Onlyone’s legs and the costume.

For 3.1, I really like the first version, with Onlyone extending his arm with the ring–but try rotating the panel 180 degrees so Onlyone is at the top and Jim at the bottom. Their dialogue can be reversed so Onlyone speaks first and Jim responds with “Me?”

Yes about lowering the hand on 3.2, so we can see more of Onlyone’s face. Also Jim should slide the ring onto his left ring finger, as he would a wedding ring.

The close-up of Onlyone is good though, so could you place it in the final panel instead? There’s no need for Singulus to appear at all in 3.4. And Onlyone’s emphatic talk bubble can go at the the bottom of the panel, ending the page.

For the big Singulus! 3.3 panel, let his talk bubble punch through the top of the panel into the bottom of 2.3 (which could make a nice effect with the previous “Singulus?”) and let his elbows jut into 3.2 and 3.4. Also, if it’s not already, leave 3.3 unframed.

SEAN: Does this work?

Two versions of the 1.3 panel– pls let me know which one is closer.

Singulus_layoutA  Singulus_layoutF (1)

CHRIS: Go with the alt for 1.2. The bigger the hand the better. It should overwhelm all of the other visual information, so 1.3 then is an answer to the implied questions: what’s going on? where are we?

Good talk bubble flip on 2.3.  Flip 2.4 too.

3.1 looks good. Same for 3.2, though maybe make Onlyone a little smaller so 3.4 is more of a revelation.

Nice elbows on 3.3, but I think the “Singulus!” will work better at the top of the panel, especially since the 3.2 and 3.4 talk bubbles are at the bottoms.

I also attached images for combining into the Singulus costume: Superman’s original boots, Amazing Man’s waist and chest belts, Wonderman’s collar and v-neck, plus standard briefs, long sleeves, no gloves, no cape. (I’m not sure about the Ultraman helmet.)

amazing man wonderman ultra man 1940

SEAN: Here’s the promised costume rough (emphasis on rough). Feedback? I have the v-neck and the collar turning into the shoulder of the cape, if it’s not clear. Also added some horizontal stripes in the speedo area. Not sure about that helmet, and the only pics I can find of the character don’t really help in terms of how it’s put together 🙂

Anyway, all thoughts welcome.

Singulus_costume_RUFF (2)

CHRIS: This looks great, Sean. Some possible fine-tunings:

Gloves or wrist bands that match the boots.

And maybe simplify the lines in the chest by having the v of the shirt merge into the v of the criss-crossing belts?

I’m also debating whether the helmet is too much. Maybe instead add a lone ranger mask?


CHRIS: I really love your face, which is lost with the mask, so let’s not have a mask, and you tell me whether you think the helmet works or not.

The wrist bands, briefs and collar all look good.

Should the wrist bands cover the forearms the way the boots cover the calves?

Ditko_practiceInks (1)

CHRIS: Yes, I can see Ditko coming through in that.

If Singulus’ face is unmasked, young, good-looking, with a full set of hair, Jim should be a bit chubby with a receding hairline.

And keep Onlyone’s body as bony as possible, with almost skeletal arms, definitely a bald head, and a face of ancient raisin-like wrinkles–underneath which is Stan Lee’s face.

Singulus_pencils_full_B     Singulus_pencils_full_C     Singulus_pencils_full_A

SEAN: Three versions here. Thoughts? I’m hoping the rendering will take it into firmer Ditko territory…

CHRIS: Go with Singulus facing left away from the last panel, and with Onlyone’s head larger. Final fine-tunings:

Make Onlyone completely bald and super wrinkly.

Give Jim even more of a gut.

Let the words “Singulus!” burst out of the panel frames in 3.3. His right elbow protrudes into 3.2 well, and so let his left elbow protrude into 3.4 too, maybe slipping slightly behind Onlyone’s head?

To clarify the spatial relationship between 1.3 and 2.1, can you lower the bottom of the cave opening so this becomes the moment that Jim enters the cave? Also, can the same mountain that’s in the background of 1.3 be in the slightly more distant background of 2.1?

SEAN: Okay, here are two versions. I have a strong preference for B, but either one is fine with me!

Things that can be done to make it a bit more “Marvel”:

1. Re-letter this using a font close in style to that decade’s Marvel letters. I can’t get close to that look myself (being left-handed is a big impediment to that, believe it or not 🙂   ) I can look around on some sites if you want me to find a 60’s Marvel copycat font.

2. appropriate artwork stamps on top

3. color “old page” tint to the page (depending on your needs).

CHRIS: I agree that B, with the elbow cut off by the panel frame, looks better, so let’s go with that. And yes also to “old” tint and the artwork stamps. Oh, and can Onlyone be more wrinkled in that final panel close-up? And if you think refonting would look good, go with that too.

SEAN: Here is the finished color file. Thanks again for working with me on this! It was a lot of fun and quite the challenge 🙂


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Actually, this post should be titled “Framing, Abstracting, and Closuring the Walking Dead,” but that’s way too many verbs, plus closuring isn’t a word. Or at least it wasn’t. Maybe it is now. This post is also a follow-up on three previous “Analyzing Comics 101” posts on, you guessed it, framing, abstraction, and closure.

I’m once again picking apart the corpse of Tony Moore and Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead #1 to show how these concepts can come together. This time, just the first two pages will do the trick.

So framing first. The top full-width panel is symmetrical and misaligned, so the right side includes more than the primary subjects of Rick, Shane, and their police car which appear cropped in the foreground, plus the escaped convict and his truck in the middleground. The rectangular panel could include all of the rectangular police car, but instead provides surrounding detail, including a horse (the first hint at the Western motif), a Rotary Club sign (suggesting a small community theme?), and distant mountains in the background (further establishing the rural setting).

However, it’s the bottom panel that gives the initial framing its biggest meaning, since the open foreground space of that first panel parallels the page’s most important image in the bottom panel: Rick being shot. The bottom frame is symmetrical and proportionate, making the first misaligned framing a form of spatial foreshadowing. Moore also shifts the parallel angle of perspective, effectively rotating the shooter to the background, Shane to the middleground, and Rick to the foreground, the most significant visual space. Note also that Rick occupies the right side of the image, gaining further significance since as Anglophone readers we conclude the panel on right. We read top to bottom too, so Rick being shot occupies the concluding space of the overall page too (it’s also the peak image in an implied 4×2 grid, but we covered visual sentences and layouts elsewhere).

Rick is also emphasized because our perspective moves with him, beginning in panel five. These four middle framings are symmetrical while vacillating between proportionate and abridged, because the figures are sometimes cropped mid-chest, adding to the sense of Rick and Shane being trapped in a cramped space. Though drawn smaller than Shane in panels one and two, when Rick stands in panel three, he encompasses more space: his action literally makes him larger. Because the angle of perspective is the same in panels two and four, Shane remains the same.

Closure between the images is minimal. The first panel establishes the overall area, and the following five panels work within it, demanding little spatial closure. Though the time span of each panel and the gaps between them is inherently inexact, the first four transitions suggest no significant gaps, and so they imply a steady movement forward in time, requiring only basic temporal closure. The fifth transition, however, implies a gap in which Rick turns around to face the shooter. So in addition to temporal closure, the panel transition requires causal closure because the action of Rick turning is undrawn; we infer it in order to explain why Rick’s back is no longer turned to the shooter as it was in the previous image.

Finally, Tony Moore’s drawing style is roughly 3-3 on the abstraction grid, so it shows both a moderate amount of detail (translucent) and a moderate amount of contour warping (idealization). Arguably, the figures show a level of 3-4 abstraction, with intensified contours. In the second panel, Shane is impossibly wide and Rick impossibly thin, with Rick’s head roughly half the width of Shane’s shoulder.

shane and rick abstraction

The effect characterizes each through visual exaggeration and further establishes them as foils. Meanwhile, the shooter’s head contrasts the straight lines that compose Rick and Shane’s bodies with frenetic lines and lopsided features.

crazy guy

Though the effect is more striking, the shooter’s lines contours remain within an idealized range. Rick’s bullet wound, however, is intensified or even hyperbolic.

rick's wound

Since no human being could survive a wound that extreme, the image creates higher closure demand after the page turn because we retroactively understand the image to be exaggerated. There’s an overt abstraction gap between what is drawn and how it is drawn. And because a literal understanding of the image contradicts the story, we ignore it (diegetic erasure).

The leap to page two is major in other ways too. The image requires a great deal of temporal closure with details that also require a range of casual closure. After being shot, Rick was taken to a hospital–perhaps by paramedics in an ambulance, though most of the casual facts go unconfirmed. He is in a bed in a bedroom, not a critical ward or operating room, so presumably his wounds were successfully treated and he was left to recuperate. The time gap is ambiguous, but his beard growth suggest several days.

The framing marks a major change too. Though still symmetrical, the full-page panel is also expansive. Rick’s figure is the subject, but a great deal of the surrounding room is drawn for a spacious effect unlike the previous page’s variously proportionate and abridge panels. The angle of perspective shifts from parallel to downward, so we are no longer viewing the image as a character would but as if from a more omniscient vantage.

The style of abstraction has shifted too. While Rick remains at 3-3 (translucent idealization), the room is closer to 2-2 (semi-translucent generalization). The level of detail is much greater than on the previous page and the line contours are only warped slightly below the level of photorealism. Notice the line quality of the shadows and reflected chair legs on the floor.

The 2-2 image is also a full-page panel, giving it further significance. When the first zombie later appears on page six, we retroactively fill in additional closure into the temporal gap: the zombie apocalypse occurred while Rick was unconscious and safe behind his bedroom door. Page two is the most significant image in the issue, because it is 1) the most detailed and least abstracted image in a stylistic context of less detail and higher abstraction, 2) the first of only two full-page panels, 3) the most expansively framed image, and 4) the image demanding the highest amount and range of closure.

There’s plenty more visual analysis available on these two pages (haven’t even started to talk about the difference in Moore’s rendering of sound effects and speech yet), but you get the picture.


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First time I saw a comic book by Bill Sienkiewicz (I’m told it’s pronounced sinKEVitch), my tiny adolescent brain exploded. It must have been one of his early New Mutants, so summer of 1984, just moments before I stumbled off to college. It wasn’t just that the cover was painted (I’d seen New Defenders do that the year before) but how dizzyingly un-comic-book-like his art looked to me. It took thirty years, but I finally have the words to describe it.

A couple of weeks back I offered an Abstraction Grid, a 5×5 breakdown of comic art according to amounts of detail and exaggerated contours.  It looks a lot like a bingo board, and since I know of no comic artist with a wider range of styles than Sienkiewicz, he’s my first player.

Bingo starts with a free space, that one right there in the middle, and comics do too. The middle square is 3-3 on the grid, the style of most superhero comics. It combines a medium amount of detail (I call it “translucent” to differentiate from the two ends of the scale, “opaque” and “transparent”) and a medium level of exaggeration (I call it “idealization,” that sweet spot nestled between line-softening “generalization” and shape-warping “intensification”). Sienkiewicz, like most comics artists, started his career in the middle square:



I vaguely remember seeing some issues of Moon Knight as a kid, but the art didn’t register as anything special, because that was Marvel’s Bronze Age Prime Directive: draw like Neal Adams.

Perfectly good style, but if you slide over a square to the left, more detail is more interesting:




Sliding to the less detailed right is fun too, stripping those idealized forms down to something a little more basic:



Sienkiewicz can go even further, reducing subjects to minimal details, sometimes just undifferentiated outline shapes.



1-3 is rare in comics, but disturbingly common in advertising. Photography provides the maximum amount of details, and Photoshop lets you idealize them:


The fourth row of the grid is intensification. Where idealization magnifies and compresses shapes but stays mostly within the bounds of naturalism, intensification steps out of bounds, usually by throwing proportions out of whack.

Sienkiewicz is a pro:




The exaggeration is more pronounced with more detail:



Less detail creates a more of a classic “cartoon” effect:


Meanwhile, the left half of this Stray Toasters face strips away eve more detail, so only the minimal number of lines remains:


And the sparse lines of this torso are impossibly regular too:

1-4 is rare, but sometimes a fashion ad blows it by Photoshopping beyond idealization and into inhuman intensification.


I call the top range of exaggeration hyperbole because it breaks reality completely. Sienkiewicz is one of the few comics artists who spends any time this high on the abstraction grid. His minutely detailed yet absurdly proportioned Kingpin from Daredevil: Love and War is one of my all-time favorites:


The Demon Bear by itself is 3-4 intensification, and the figure of the New Mutant facing it is your standard 3-3, but the combination steps into hyperbole:


These scribbles of Joker’s face and body are simpler but exaggerated to a similar level of unreal.



And then there’s cartoonish chaos of Warlock’s Bill the Cat face:

But, like most superhero artists, Sienkiewicz spends almost no time up in 5-5. That’s South Park terrain:


For 1-5 photography, stop by Celebrity Photoshop Bobbleheads:


Moving back down the grid now, the second row of shape abstraction is generalization, just a slight tweaking of line quality. The New Mutants here have a typical level of detail for a comic book, but the those lines evoke real-world subjects.


Image result for new mutants 18 demon bear

Some of these New Mutants (not Fireball and Warlock though) look distantly photographic, though with even less detail:


While this portrait of Lance Henriksen is dense with detail:


Image result for Bill Sienkiewicz photography

5-2 is rare, a fully realistic human figure in outline only. And most 1-2 photography hides its Photoshopping so well it registers as undoctored photography.

Sienkiewicz spends time in that photorealistic corner too though.


This next image from Big Numbers may be an altered photograph, with just a little detailed flattened.


1-3, 1-4, and 1-5 are rare since it defeats the point of photorealism to strip too many details away.

Finally, notice that many of Sienkiewicz’s best effects are a result of using more than one kind of abstraction in a single image:

The overall figure is 3-4 intensification (humans are not roughly 2/3rds legs). But while the top half of the figure has a medium level of detail, the legs are flat with not a single line of shadings, so 4-4. And though the gun is intensified too, it is impossibly large in relation to the figure, and so 3-4.

Skim back up the other images for more of these combo effects.

Meanwhile, how well did Bill do on the Abstraction Board?  I count 16 out of 25 squares filled. Let me know if you find an artist with a higher score.






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I’m teaching “Superhero Comics” this semester, and so I’m once again pulling out Scott McCloud’s abstraction scale:

Image result for mccloud abstraction scale

It begins with a photograph of a face and ends with a face comprised only of an oval, two dots, and a straight line. McCloud calls that last face a “cartoon” and the middle face the standard for “adventure comics,” ie superheroes. All of the faces to the right of the photograph further “abstract [it] through cartooning” which involves “eliminating details” by “focusing on specific details.” Computer programs can do the same kind of stripping down:


But some “simplification” isn’t so simple. Look at the different between this photograph and its cartoon version.

make a caricature profile picture of you

McCloud’s scale actually combines two kinds simplification. Each step to the right of his spectrum appears simpler because: 1) the image contains fewer lines, and 2) the lines are in themselves less varied. A line becomes smoother by averaging its peaks and lows into a median curve, and so the second kind of simplification is a form of exaggeration. Since exaggeration can extend beyond averaging McCloud’s spectrum actually requires two kinds of abstraction. Each face is altered both in density and in contour quality. Density describes the number of lines; contour quality describes the magnification and compression of line shapes. Abstraction in density reduces the number of lines; abstraction in contour quality warps the line shapes. The less density reduction and the less contour warpage, the more realistic an image appears.

I like McCloud’s five-point scale though, so I’ll offer two of my own.

The Density Scale:

  1. Opacity: The amount of detail is the same or similar to the amount available in photography.
  1. Semi-Translucency: The amount of detail falls below photorealism, while the image still suggests photorealistic subject matter.
  1. Translucency: While reduced well beyond the range of photography, the amount of detail evokes photorealistic subject matter as its source material. This is the standard level of density in superhero comics art.
  1. Semi-Transparency: The sparsity of detail is a dominating quality of the image, and subject matter can evoke only distantly photographic source material. Semi-Transparency is more common in caricature and cartooning.
  1. Transparency: The minimum amount of detail required for an image to be understood as representing real-world subject matter.

The Contour Scale:

  1. Duplication: Line shapes are unaltered for an overall photographic effect. Though naturalistic, reality-duplicating line shapes exceed the norms of superhero art by reproducing too much information.
  1. Generalization: Line shapes are magnified and/or compressed to medians for an overall flattening effect that conforms to naturalistic expectations. Generalization is the standard level of abstraction for objects in superhero art.
  1. Idealization: Some line shapes are magnified and/or compressed to medians while others are magnified and/or compressed beyond their medians for an overall idealizing effect that challenges but does not break naturalism. Idealization is the standard level of abstraction for superhero characters.
  1. Intensification: Line shapes are magnified and/or compressed beyond their medians for an overall exaggerating effect that exceeds naturalistic expectations. If the intensification is explained diegetically, the line shapes are understood to be literal representations of fantastical subject matter within a naturalistic context. If the intensification is not explained diegetically, then the line shapes are understood as stylistic qualities of the image but not literal qualities of the subject matter. Explained or Diegetic Intensification is common for fantastical subject matter in superhero art; unexplained or Non-diegetic Intensification occurs selectively.
  1. Hyperbole: Line shapes are magnified and/or compressed well beyond medians for an overall cartooning effect that rejects naturalism entirely. Hyperbole is uncommon in superhero art because the stylistic qualities of the image dominate and so prevent a literal understanding of the subject matter. Hyperboles in a naturalistic context are understood metaphorically.

The two scales can also be combined into a Density-Contour Grid:

1-5 2-5 3-5 4-5 5-5
1-4 2-4 3-4 4-4 5-4
1-3 2-3 3-3 4-3 5-3
1-2 2-2 3-2 4-2 5-2
1-1 2-1 3-1 4-1 5-1

Both scales take photorealism as the norm that defines variations.

McCloud’s photographed face is the most realistic because it combines Opacity and Duplication, 1-1 on the grid, demonstrating the highest levels of density and unaltered contour. It’s opposite is not McCloud’s fifth, “cartoon” face, which combines Transparency with Idealization, 5-3; its level of density reduction is the highest and so the least realistic possible, but its contour warpage is moderate and so comparatively realistic. Replace the oval with a circle to form a traditional smiley face, the contour quality would rise to Hyperbole, 5-5, the most abstract and so the least realistic position on the grid.

Image result for smiley face

Cartooning covers a range of grid points, but most cartoons fall between 4-4 and 5-5, both high density reduction and high contour warpage. Charles Shultz’s circle-headed and minimally detailed Charlie Brown is a 5-5.

The characters of Archie Comics are some of the most “realistic” of traditional cartoons at 4-4.

McCloud’s middle, “adventure comics” face combines Translucency and Idealization, 3-3, the center point of the grid and the defining norm of superhero comic art.

Image result for superman

Like all grid points, 3-3 allows for a variety of stylistic variation between artists, within a single artist’s work, and even within a single image, but it does provide a starting point for visual analysis by defining areas of basic similarity.

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Reading a comic book is easy–even when there are no words to be read. You just look at a picture, and then at the next picture, and so on. But why do any of the pictures make sense side-by-side? What is your brain doing as it leaps from image to image?

In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud defines the Gestalt psychology principle of “closure” as the “phenomenon of observing the parts but perceiving the whole” (though it more specifically indicates a viewer filling in visual gaps between disconnected parts) and applies it to comics gutters: “Nothing is seen between panels, but experience tells you something must be there!” He goes on to explain: “Comics panels fracture both time and space, offering a jagged, staccato rhythm of unconnected moments. But closure allows us to connect these moments and mentally construct a continuous, unified reality.”

McCloud focuses his analysis on gutters and therefore types of transitions possible between panels (though closure is independent of panels and gutters, since insets and interpenetrating images work the same ways). He comes up with six types:

Image result for scott mccloud panel transitions

They work reasonably well, but his focus on panel transition has always struck me as slightly off. When I use it in class, students often don’t come to a clear consensus when analyzing any particular panel sequence. Moment-to-moment and action-and-action, for instance, are often ambiguous, sometimes combining identical leaps in time. And since actions do occur in McCloud’s moment-to-moment examples (a women blinks!), it’s not exactly clear what constitutes an “action.” Aspect-to-aspect can also be indistinguishable from subject-to-subject, both of which may or may not involve a movement in time, and so may or may not also be moment-to-moment or even action-to-action. And scene-to-scene might be a location leap and so also a kind of aspect-to-aspect at the big picture level, or a scene-to-scene can be in the same location but at a different time–so then how much time has to pass for an old scene to become a new scene?

These are annoying questions, but they really do come up when you try to breakdown a panel sequence with a roomful of students. So instead of categorizing transitions, my colleague Nathaniel Goldberg and I categorized types of closure while drafting our essay “Caped Communicators: Conversational Depiction and Superhero Comics.” Instead one all-purpose “perceiving the whole” process, we see four very different kinds of closure, each of which can occur by itself or in combinations.

Spatial:  Subject matter drawn in separate images is depicted as existing in physical relationship to each other, typically as a result of panel framing. (What McCloud identifies as aspect-to-aspect, subject-to-subject, and some scene-to-scene transitions require spatial closure.)

Temporal:  Undrawn events are depicted to take place outside of events drawn in separate images, typically as a result of panel transitions and so occurring as if in gutters. (What McCloud identifies as moment-to-moment, action-to-action, and some subject-to-subject and scene-to-scene transitions require temporal closure.)

Causal: Drawn action is understood to have been caused by an element absent from a current image but drawn in a preceding image. (None of McCloud’s transitions, not even action-to-action, accounts for this type of closure.)

Associative: A metaphorical relationship is depicted between two images in which one image is understood to represent some idea about the other image. (Though McCloud does not identify this type of closure, Jessica Abel and Matt Madden in Drawing Words Writing Pictures add “symbolic” to McCloud’s list of transition types. Such symbolic transitions require associative closure.)

It always helps to look at specific examples, so consider this three-panel sequence at the top of page 28 in Watchmen #8:

In the first image, artist Dave Gibbons draws the shadow of a statuette cast over the face of a frightened man kneeling on the floor. The second image shows the statuette in the fist of an attacker. Taken together, spatial closure is required to understand that the two images occur within a few feet of each other, with each image drawn from one of the two men’s points of view; this is true even though the white background emphasizes the attacker’s action but eliminates all other setting information. The second image also requires temporal closure because the statuette is behind the attacker’s head at an angle that would not cast the shadow seen on the victim’s face in the first image. Gibbons therefore also depicts a movement forward in time during which the attacker has cocked his arm back to strike.

The third image depicts a jack-o-lantern crashing to the floor with some falling books. It uses all four forms of closure. The pumpkin exists in the same space as the two now undrawn men (spatial closure). The pumpkin is crushed at a moment immediately following the second image (temporal closure). The falling books have been knocked down by the now undrawn victim striking the shelf behind him (causal). And, because it resembles a human head and breaks open in the panel where a reader anticipates the statuette striking the man’s head, Gibbons implies that the man’s head has been similarly damaged (associative). Alternatively, the pumpkin, as shown in the first panel, is already falling, because the leg of another attacker has knocked the shelf off balance. If so, then the pumpkin and the head of the victim are smashed at the same moment, with no causal closure but associative only.

So our closure types are deeply indebted to McCloud, but I think they also improve on his. I’ll be testing these out in my classroom soon, so hopefully my students will agree. More on that later.

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