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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

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Leigh Ann Beavers and I just finished teaching our combined ENGL-ART 215 “Making Comics,” which ended with a display at the library during the spring term festival.  I’m wildly biased, but I think our students are amazing.  You can see that for yourself. Here’s their selection of pages–many many thanks to the library staff for the awesome enlargements.

Hung Chu:

 

Maddie Geno:

 

Daisy Kelly:

 

 

Henry Luzzatto:

 

 

Anna Nelson:

 

Kate Paton:

 

Mims Reynolds:

 

Coleman Richard:

 

Grace Roquemore:

 

Emily Tucker:

 

Plus we have a logo:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Last week I offered a principle of closure specific to abstract comics: they don’t have any. When you look at a sequence of abstract images, you see the complete story, with nothing left to infer. No closure.

I also theorized that plot points in abstract comics are determined by image order, not image content. I’ll make those rules explicit here:

1) An abstract sequence begins in balance and ends in balance:

2) If there are three images, the middle image is imbalance:

3) If there are four or more images, the second is disruption and the penultimate is climax:

4) If there are five or more images, the middle images are imbalance:

This week I’m testing those ideas. And there’s no better place to find abstract comics online than Andrei Molotiu’s blog, Abstract Comics. But not every abstract comic tells a story. Sometimes abstract images are juxtaposed and so connected but not in a narrative sense. For example, this page from Gareth Hopkins’ “Found Forest Raw” is divided into traditional comics panels, but the content doesn’t make me want to read them in a traditional left-to-right, top-to-bottom z-path. Instead I find my eye wandering randomly:

To create a story experience, the images have to trigger a sense of ordered sequence that is read–rather than a set of images that can be appreciated in any order. This one (created by a Russian high school student during an abstract comics workshop) does that for me:

I experience a story because I read each ink blot as the same blot that is undergoing a sequence of changes. The blots all represent the character “blot.” In terms of plot points, I see this:

Alternatively, I see three subplots. Images 1-4 are straight-forward growth, images 5 and 6 are about the blot dividing, and then in image 7 and 8 it shrinks to nothing. Noting that ending balances become opening balances of next subplots, it plots like this:

Whether divided into subplots or not, the ending balance is nothingness. “Blot” is gone. But after looking at the final image, I find myself inferring the same state prior to the first image, making the first drawn image not balance but disruption:

I only infer that after studying the whole sequence, so it’s a kind of mental revision, but it still means I’m experiencing undrawn story content. There was blankness before there was “Blot.”

So I just contradicted the first half of my first rule of abstract plots: the first image is always balance.

Things get more complicated with the next example (by another student in the same workshop): This strikes me as not one sequence but four, with the first spanning the first three rows. That story is about string-like lines gathering and amassing into a ball and then traveling and finally vanishing into the distance. I read the first image as a disruption of what to me is an undrawn but implied panel of uninterrupted white. I infer a similar image after the last panel in row three, making that last image a climax:

So in addition to violating the first half of my first rule of abstract plots, I just violated the second half too. This abstract comic doesn’t begin or end with an image of balance.

One more:

At least this time the first image is balance. But not only is the last image not a new balance, it doesn’t feel like a climax to me either. It feels like imbalance with not only the resolution but also the implied climax leading to the resolution yet to come:

That’s a lot to infer from abstract images, and it seems to decimate my proposed principle that closure only occurs with representational images. I made very similar inferences about a rolling snowball in Peanuts strip in a previous post:

But I think these abstract comics actually support my argument.

Each example of inferred plot points occurs because I experience representational qualities in the not-entirely-abstract images. Because “Blot” ceased to exist at the end of its story, I retroactively inferred that it must also not have existed prior to the first image. The first image is now its birth–a state that necessarily implies a pre-birth state.  I’m understanding “Blot” to exist (and to have once not existed) in a sense not constrained to the world of its physical canvas but as part of a conceptual story world beyond it.

While I experienced story-world time in the first comic, in the second I experienced both time and story-world space. Those string-like lines, while literally two-dimensional, evoke a three-dimensional world. Otherwise I couldn’t perceive the ball of strings as vanishing into the distance–it would instead be shrinking.

The third comic implies not only time and space, but also gravity and physics. The abstract object is an object, one abstract in shape but that exists three dimensionally as it extends downward, and the grass-like lines begin at rest before flying up to it through some kind of magnetic-like attraction. The story ends on a kind of cliffhanger (imbalance) because the trajectory of drawn action implies to me greater interaction yet to come.

None of that is “abstract.” All of my inferences, all of the closure I perceived, comes from my applying norms of my world to the world of the images–which is no longer just the canvas. All of the above abstract comics have story worlds. And a story world is where the imagined but undrawn events experienced through closure take place.

So abstract and representational aren’t cleanly divided categories. They’re opposite poles on a spectrum.  And a more precise term for that spectrum is mimesis, or real-world imitation. “Blot” is clearly not of our world, but its world is like our world to the degree that time passes there and objects like “Blot” exist only for a certain duration. Though the ink marks that represent the string-like characters in the second comic are two-dimensional, their world is seemingly three-dimensional. And the story world of the third comic even evokes our familiar laws of physics.

So this round of tests refines my earlier claim to this:

Closure is mimetic.

Non-mimetic images don’t produce it.

 

[If you’re interested, this is part of a four-part sequence. It begins here and continues here and here and ends right here.]

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Two weeks ago I introduced an approach to plot that harmonized Freytag, Todorov, and Neil Cohn:

Last week I used that approach to formulate Occam’s closure, a principle for determining the inferences produced by juxtaposed images:

The undrawn story content between representational images is only the minimum required to satisfy missing plot points.

The key word there is “representational,” images that, in addition to being ink or pixels, create the impression of something else, something that exists beyond the page, subjects in the real world or a story world or both. This week I’m looking at abstract images, ones that don’t represent anything else and so are just ink or pixels.

So two question:

Can a sequence of abstract images have plot?

Can abstract comics produce closure?

First, plot usually involves characters and settings and actions and events–things not found in abstract images. But a sequence of abstract images–what you can call an abstract comic–does have a set order. That’s the definition of “sequence.” A set of abstract images that doesn’t channel you down a correct viewing order isn’t a sequence. And the thing that turns a set into a sequence is, I would argue, plot.

Look at these three abstract images:

Since you apparently read English, I’m guessing you “read” them left to right. I’m also guessing you experienced them as a progression, as a sequence of transformations:

Reverse the order and you still experience a left-to-right sequence of transformations:

I suspect it’s that perception of transformation that makes it a sequence and not merely a set. So the first image is a kind of “character” and the “actions” or “events” are its changes, which is a plot. But unlike representational plots, abstract plots have no story world other than the page or screen they physically appear on. They should, however, have plots points. Image content determines those points in representational comics. What determines them for abstract comics?

Recall that Todorov divides plot into three primary sections: equilibrium, disequilibrium, equilibrium. Or what I simplify as: balance, imbalance, balance. The other two points, disruption and climax, are hinge points that bridge those major states. That makes the plot of a three-image abstract comic clearer:

But what happens if there are four images?

Is the second image now a disruption? Is the third a climax? And what if there are five images?

Is the middle image now an imbalance? What happens with six?

Are both middle images imbalances? I could keep expanding the sequence in both directions and also insert new intermediate images between the current ones. But each sequence still produces the same story: the first image becomes the last image.

Note the “first image” and the “last image” is different in each sequence, and the intermediate positions are determined by the number of images between them. This is true even if there are only two. The first image always defines the initial balance, and the last image always defines the concluding balance, regardless of how many images there are in total, including only two:

Technically Todorov has one state too many. A story only requires two: equilibrium, new equilibrium. An abstract story always begins in balance and ends in balance because that is the plot curve of all stories. But in a representational comic, opening or closing balance can be implied by image content. Look at the Peanuts example from last week:

The two-panel sequence begins with a disruption and ends with a climax, leaving the beginning, middle, and end implied. Look at the three-panel sequence of the rolling snowball:

Shultz doesn’t draw the snowball coming to a stop and then remaining at rest. We infer it. The plot positions of representational images are determined by their content because we imagine undrawn events occurring in the story world. But the only story world of an abstract comic is the surface of its page or screen. There’s no other place beyond it. A drawing of Charlie Brown is a representation of the character Charlie Brown who exists in a story world and so as a concept in the viewer’s head. An abstract character exists only on the page. The drawing doesn’t represent it. The drawing is it. There’s no undrawn content either. In abstract comics, what you see is all that exists, both physically and conceptually.

That means that closure doesn’t exist in abstract comics. There’s literally no place for it. Look at Occam’s rule of closure again:

The undrawn story content between representational images is only the minimum required to satisfy missing plot points.

Closure is the inferences produced by two juxtaposed images. But if plot requires a minimum of only two states–old balance, new balance–then two sequenced abstract images have no missing plot points to satisfy. When applied to abstract comics, Occam’s razor is more like an axe. It chops out closure entirely. Closure applies only to representational comics. Viewers don’t infer anything between abstract images.

 

[If you’re interested, this is part of a four-part sequence. It begins here and continues here and then right here and ends here.]

Don’t add stuff you don’t need. That’s not quite the definition of “Occam’s Razor,” but it’s close. The  14th-century Franciscan friar prefered the simplest answer, the one that requires the fewest assumptions, the straightest line between two points of thought.

Last week I suggested an alternative to Neil Cohn’s narrative grammar for analyzing comics, one that harmonized both Freytag’s plot pyramid and Todorov’s equilibrium circle:

And though I prefer my terms and visuals over theirs, Occam is asking me: does this approach add anything? My panels and Cohn’s panels mostly overlap:

In this Peanuts examples, I was surprised to see Cohn categorizing the third panel as an “Establisher” (“sets up an interaction without acting upon it”), a narrative position that aligns with my balance panel. But rather than revealing a difference in our approaches, I think Cohn is just off within his own system in this one case. I think that’s actually an “Initial” (“initiates the tension of the narrative arc”), and the fourth panel is instead a “Prolongation” (“marks a medial state”). If Snoopy wasn’t already running toward the ball in panel three, then I would agree with “Establisher,” but I’d say they’re already interacting.

So while I still prefer my terms, definitions, and visuals, but do they merely clarify? Cohn’s system names panels that are present. Mine provides a way of identifying the narrative elements that aren’t drawn. They make visible what’s not there, the inferences between the images. Scott McCloud called that “closure,” an imperfect term for reasons I won’t go into here,  but I don’t blame Neil Cohn for avoiding it. But he avoids the concept too, attending only to the narrative elements that appear as panel content. So to understand what’s between those panels, I’m suggesting a different approach:

Like McCloud’s closure, Occam’s focuses attention on the inferences between images. What happens in the gutter? I’d say as a rule: as little as possible. But how does a reader know what that is? What are the organizing constraints on closure? Look at the first juxtaposition:

The possibilities are oddly infinite. Charlie Brown wound up–but then maybe relaxed, adjusted his grip, stretched his arm, kicked the ground a couple times, adjusted his cap, wound up again–and then began to throw. Maybe the next panel is a week later, after he’s been dropping snowballs with each attempt but practicing again and again until finally he throws one. Neither of those possibilities seem likely. But why not? Because of Occam’s rule of closure:

The undrawn story content between representational images is only the minimum required to satisfy missing plot points.

The shortest path between the plots points disruption and climax is imbalance, the halfway point between the wind-up that ends the implied state of balance and the ball release that restores balance by ending the throw.

What about the rest of the Peanuts strip?

 

Assuming every plot has to either depict or imply all five points, then we have to infer that Charlie Brown is in a state of balance both before and after throwing the ball, and that Snoopy is in a state of balance before running after the ball. That means Snoopy’s plot leaves less to infer–unless you break it into smaller units of action.

In panel four, Snoopy is facing the oncoming ball. In the next, he is facing away from it and running, and the snowball is larger. What is the shortest path of inferences between those two points? Snoopy turned and began to run, and the ball grew in size as is it continued to roll. That describes a midpoint for both actions, and so imbalance:Less seems to happen in the preceding juxtaposition between panels three and four. The ball must have begun to roll, and Snoopy must have slowed but not yet fully stopped:

Looking again, I notice that the ball has increased in size too. So it goes from small and stationary to larger and moving toward Snoopy, and Snoopy goes from moving toward it to stopped. The two images require an explanation for those changes: we assume that gravity started the ball rolling and that Snoopy stopped himself because he saw it moving toward him. We assume nothing else because nothing else is required. Occam’s rule of closure is a reader’s default setting for understanding juxtaposed images.

The last combination implies more. I see at least four required plot points:

First consider the plot of the snowball. It begins in panel three in a stated of literal balance. In panel four it begins to roll and grow, a disruption of its balance. In panel five, it continues to roll and grow, so a continuation of its imbalance. At some point we assume it stopped growing and rolling. We don’t know the exact circumstances of that climax, but the images require us to make that minimum assumption. And once stopped, we also assume it remains stopped, that the snow that comprised the ball is again in literal balance again.

Removing Snoopy from the drawn panels makes this more obvious:

Assuming a naturalistic world, we also have to understand the image of Snoopy hiding behind the tree to imply that the tree was previously standing by itself, and so in balance. Snoopy must have approached it, disrupting its isolation, and then arrived behind it before looking out:

There’s a good reason why Shultz didn’t draw those three extra panels. They’re boring. It’s far more fun to experience the plot points through the assumptions implied by the final, balanced panel–one that encapsulates through closure an entire action sequence or subplot while also curtailing unrequired inferences.

Occam’s closure explains that.

[If you’re interested, this is part of a four-part sequence. It begins here and continues right here and then here and ends here.]

 

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I spend way too much time thinking about story structure–and as a result am unhappy with the ways it’s usually represented. Gustav Freytag’s is the most common approach. In 1863, the German novelist invented his 5-part “pyramid”:

Freytag had 5-act Tragedy in mind, with each part corresponding to an act. That’s not how his pyramid is understood today, since the “climax” of a plot always occurs near the end. We would now call Freytag’s “climax” a turning point. Since that throws off the visual representation, sometimes the pyramid is shortened (often on a graph representing time) into what is a lot closer to a cliff:

 

That still seems wrong to me. Not only are the “falling action” and the “resolution” (or denouement) hard to differentiate, but the status quo at the beginning and the restored status quo at the end shouldn’t be identical because it’s really a new status quo–one that resembles the old one but only after it’s been achieved and altered by the story itself. So instead of a confusing post-climax descent down the mountainside, I see a plateau that restores the old order but at a new, post-story elevation:

 

But even correcting for shape, I don’t love Freytag’s terms. Contemporary versions of the cliff helpfully add “inciting incident” between exposition and rising action, but I think Tzvetan Todorov’s core terms are better: equilibrium, disequilibrium, equilibrium. In 1969, the structuralist offered a different 5-part approach, this time using a circle:

The circularity makes the return to order explicit, but to clarify again that it’s not a total return you’d have to angle the circle to reveal that’s it’s actually a spiral:

Spirals are harder to draw than pyramids, so I get why Freytag is more popular. For comics, cognitive psychologist Neil Cohn invented what he terms visual grammar, with six types of narrative panels, which I’ll paraphrase:

  • Orienter: introduces setting for a later interaction (no tension).
  • Establisher: introduces elements that later interact (no tension).
  • Initial: begins the interactive tension.
  • Prolongation: continues the interactive tension.
  • Peak: high point of interactive tension.
  • Release: aftermath of interactive tension.

This seems less about grammar and more about plot to me. If you combine the first two types, Cohn’s panels map onto Freytag. Orieinters and Establishers are exposition; Initials are inciting incidents; Prolongations are rising actions; Peaks are climaxes; and Releases are resolutions.

Cohn doesn’t visually represent his panels as a pyramid or anything else, and since I prefer Todorov’s equilibrium/disequilibrium terms, I wondered if I could extract panels from his circle. Though he labels five parts, the first and last are the same:

 Drawn as a kind of comic strip, his approach would look something like this:

Those panels all look basically alike to me and so aren’t a great visual representation system. So I went back to Freytag and boxed the same five corresponding elements:

The comic strip version looks like this:I swapped out “disequilibrium” because “balance” is visually more precise: set a carpenter’s balance inside the first and last panels and it will literally balance.  And the middle “disequilibrium” panel is imbalanced in the same sense. I stuck with “climax” because it’s such a ubiquitous term, but kept Todorov’s “disruption.” Note how those two panels visually mirror each other, just as they do conceptually: the first disrupts balance; the second restores it.

Also, if you go back to Todorov’s spiral, the first moment of incline corresponds with disruption and the flattening into the next circle corresponds with climax–the stark angles of the pyramid are just easier to see:

Though Freytag began as a pyramid, Todorov as a circle, and Cohn as panel types, this approach unifies them.


[If you’re interested, this is part of a four-part sequence. It begins right here and continues here and here and ends here.]

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I didn’t know Thomas Joyner. I adore his mother but only know her because my children took Latin in middle school. They’re both rising seniors now, one in high school, one in college, so we haven’t exchanged more than a passing nod in years. My kids also took Latin in high school from Pat Bradley, who lives three doors down from the Joyners. Pat wrote a letter to Laura the day after Thomas died, and she asked him to read it at Thomas’ memorial on Saturday. It is one of the best pieces of writing I’ve ever heard. I was standing along the back wall of the church balcony with my  son and wife, unable to see Pat at the microphone below, but feeling my throat thicken and shake with his.

I have no right to the surges of emotion I’ve been choking back all week. My wife says I literally run from the room when the topic of Thomas comes up. It feels like a selfish pain, because it’s less about Thomas than imagining myself as Laura, imagining the impossible loss of my own children and what would follow it.

When my mother died in January, I found myself creating images instead of writing. When I got up the Saturday morning of the memorial, I started drawing trees.  Lesley and I have begun a collaborative project of image-texts, or poetry comics: her words, my Word Paint. I ask for assignments, images, ideas that she then responds to, and so she had texted me a photo of a blooming tree she’d taken on her phone. I wasn’t thinking about Thomas. I was just drawing lines. One black mark at a time, then doubling them, layering them deeper, before finally inventing April buds:

Really I should have stopped there. That was my image for Lesley, my lob back to her in our game of image-text badminton. But the pre-bud version of the tree stuck with me, and I found myself hunched at my laptop again, clicking in layers and layers of black branches, before framing them, doubling them into a dark woods:


 

 

When I emailed that image to Lesley’s computer upstairs, she wrote back a poem about loss, about fear, about the inability to protect. Somehow I didn’t realize this was all about Thomas until changing for the memorial. The invitation said Hawaiian shirts were especially welcome, but I had to settle for a purple polo. Apparently those woods needed some purple too. I kept clicking until it was time to leave, and then kept clicking when we got back.

I’m the first to acknowledge that I’m no artist, and my PC is a paltry canvas. I don’t have words for Thomas either. We were strangers, but our lives interwove, every branch touching a dozen others, every sympathetic twitch quivering through the canopy. 

 

From Mort Walker’s The Lexicon of Comicana (1980): “Blurgits are produced by a kind of stroboscopic technique to show movement within a single panel, or to produce the ultimate in speed and action.”

 

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