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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

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Retcon is short for “retroactive continuity,” a form of revision common in pop culture but that is also—according to my co-author Nathaniel Goldberg and me in our book Revising Fiction, Fact, and Faith: A Philosophical Account—essential to understanding much more. Right now, for instance, the concept of retconning is taking on new legal significance.

I’m using ‘legal’ in the literal sense, ‘concerned with law,’ and in his article, Has The Word “Retcon” Entered The Legal Vernacular?, Josh Blackman identifies what is likely the term’s first appearance in an official law-related context: an essay by Ilya Somin published in the journal Cato Supreme Court Review in 2019. Somin describes a solicter general’s attempt to avoid a legal Catch-22 that bars certain regulatory cases from entering federal court:

“In a somewhat strange amicus brief on behalf of the federal government, Solicitor General Noel Francisco argued that Williamson County should be interpreted in a way that avoids the catch-22 by reasoning that the state exhaustion requirement only applies to cases brought under … the federal statute authorizing law suits for violations of constitutional rights … but not ones brought to federal court under … the law giving federal courts jurisdiction over ‘all civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States.’

“This argument makes little sense, because nothing in Williamson County distinguishes the two types of cases. [Regulatory] law expert Robert Thomas analogized the solicitor general’s argument to Star Trek producers’ lame attempts to “retcon” an in-universe explanation of why Klingons’ foreheads looked very different in later movies and TV series, beginning with Star Trek: The Next Generation, than in the original 1960s TV version (the real explanation was a bigger makeup and special-effects budget).” (159)

Somin is referencing Thomas’s analysis of Knick v. Township of Scott in a 2018 post on his personal blog, which is law-related but not official. The post is titled “Knick And Klingon Foreheads: Retconning Williamson County.” Thomas writes:

“And now having gone back and reviewed the SG’s difficult-to-comprehend argument, we are reminded of retconning. Because it seems to reach back and question the “continuity” of what were, we thought, “established facts.” 

“So the bottom line of the SG’s brief is this: Knick’s situation presents no federal claim sufficient to trigger federal jurisdiction … but there’s enough of a federal issue lurking about in a state … claim to trigger federal jurisdiction. Klingon foreheads, man.”

Thomas playfully but unfortunately cites Wikipedia for an incorrect definition of ‘retcon’: “a literary device in which established facts in a fictional work are adjusted, ignored, or contradicted by a subsequently published work which breaks continuity.”

The Wikipedia entry in turn cites a 2007 Telegraph article “One of these comic heroes really is dead” in which the author Sam Leith gets the definition of retconning correct. Describing the world of comics in which Captain America had just (temporarily) died, Leith writes:

“One of the main tricks is ‘retconning’ – that is, making retrospective continuity alterations, more or less subtle versions of saying ‘he wasn’t killed in the explosion, he was just, um, buried under a pile of rubble and lost his memory for 40 years, but now he’s back’.

Despite how the crowd-sourced Wikipedia page summarizes Leith, the described contradiction doesn’t break continuity. It retroactively reveals that continuity wasn’t what we all thought it was in order to avoid breaking it. That’s the opposite of ignoring established facts.

When Captain America returned a year after what is revealed to have been only his apparent death, Marvel illustrated Leith’s point: the gun used to kill him didn’t actually kill–the Doctor Doom technology instead unstuck him in time, allowing him to be rescued by his superhero pals.

As Somin mentioned, Thomas prefers Star Trek:

“compare the real-world explanation for why the 1960’s Star Trek show’s Klingons didn’t have butt heads, but the later-produced shows and movies did. The real-world reason was that the TV show had a bare-bones budget, so couldn’t afford the required intricate make-up. The later-produced stuff, having larger budgets, could. But to those concerned with an in-universe explanation that had to line up with the production realities, it turned out to be a big source of contention. Fandom as well as the later shows’ writers struggled to come up with a narrative that accounted for both Klingons with butt heads, and those without.” 

Thomas’s description suffers from a subtle form of retconning itself. Since the intricate Klingon make-up was created for the 1979 Star Trek: The Motion Picture, it did not exist during the TV show’s 1966-69 run. Though it’s also true that the original series operated on a much lower budget, Thomas would be equally wrong if he claimed that the reason that I do not now drive a 2031 Rolls Royce is because I can’t afford one. I predict that if such a thing as a 2031 Rolls Royce comes into existence it will be out of my price range, but that is not the primary reason why I do not currently own one. Thomas, presumably accidentally, retcons the idea of later Klingon make-up into an earlier decade treating it as though its use on the TV show were possible and even desirable but prohibitively expensive.

This case of retconning, even as an exemplar of bad retconning, avoids the even more aesthetically unpleasant recognition that Star Trek: The Motion Picture and all of the films and TV shows that followed it are not sequels of the original TV series. They are reboots. Or rather Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a reboot, and all that follow are sequels of it. Of course, the world of Star Trek: The Motion Picture is extremely similar to the world of the original TV series, but since no retcon can adequately explain how a planet’s population changed physical appearance in the course of an unnoticed decade, they are distinct worlds. And since later prequels insert variations of the 1979 Klingon make-up into the universe’s past, it now seems no change in appearance happened there at all. Even specific Klingon characters who appeared on the original TV show appear in later shows with ridged foreheads.

Regardless, Thomas’s use of ‘retcon’ in a legal context is strictly pejorative, what Somin summarized as “lame attempts.” His point is that the solicitor general attempted to insert a point of law retroactively, pretending that his newly devised distinction always existed. Because it clearly did not always exist, his retcon is rejected. The past existence of the new distinction could only be accomplished through a reboot, something as anathema to law as to Star Trek fandom.

Blackman also identifies the appearance of the word ‘retcon’ in three recent court cases—which I hope to explore next week.

You really just never know what’s happening in a student’s head.

I got my first full-time teaching job around 1990, a split position in a New Jersey high school, with one eighth-grade class in the middle school down the suburban road. There were maybe fifteen students in the room, and I still remember three of them pretty well. Apparently one of them remembers me too.

This email appeared in my inbox last spring:

“There is little chance you’ll recall, but you were my 8th grade English teacher back at Edison Intermediate School in Westfield, NJ. Your class was one of the places I learned to fall in love with literature and literacy, particularly developing as a writer. It stayed with me, and it helped guide me towards work as a journalist and now an educator.  I’ve always wanted to say thank you.

“I have a number of memories from your class – for example, our acting out Romeo and Juliet – but what I remember most is that you encouraged me to see myself as a writer and to write about what I wanted – even if my 8th-grade self mainly wanted to write gory stories.  😊

“I’m reaching out because I’m about to publish a book on middle and high-school literacy instruction, and I wanted to send you a copy as a way of thanking you. It’s a small gesture, but I hope it signals my lasting appreciation for the difference you made in my life.”

I responded:

“What a pleasure to hear from you! I do in fact remember you—you and only two other students from that class, so take that as a compliment. That was my first year teaching too, so an especially important one for me too. You really never know what kind of impact you have on students, so it’s very kind of you to contact me after all of these years. I’d meant to do the same for an influential high school teacher I’d had, but never did. Honestly, it’s incredible that I had any influence on you, let alone the one you describe below. And it sounds like you’ve been up to many impressive things—I would be delighted to have a copy of your book…. I look forward to reading it, and a huge congratulations to you on the publication.”

And Steve responded:

“You know, years back when I was at WHS, they announced you’d moved away. I went to the office to ask for your address to write you a thank you note, but I chickened out. I’m glad to be able to correct that so many years later.

“I’m so happy I get to share a copy of this with you.  If you ever make it back to the NYC area, let me know!  My wife and I bought a home in Maplewood, so not too far from the city (or Westfield, for that matter).”

Over the summer, Stephen Chiger and Paul Bambrick-Santoyo’s Love & Literary: A Practical Guide for Grades 5-12 to Finding the Magic in Literature arrived in my mailbox.

Steve taught high school English for a decade, winning the 2015 Educator of the Year award from the New Jersey council of Teachers of English, and he’s now a director of literacy for Uncommon Schools, training thousands of other teachers. Which is to say he has far far surpassed me. And his practical guide is NOT the kind of textbook that was available when I was getting my masters and teaching accreditation over three decades ago.

The introduction opens with a sample class discussion of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, with students probing whether Offred had a choice to have sex with the commander. It’s at a level of conversation I strive for in my college seminars. The first chapter continues with an epigraph and then book excerpt by Toni Morrison, before contrasting two 11th grade reading lists. The first looks a lot like the 1980s-era curriculum I read (or, alas, skimmed) as a high schooler: Hardy, Homer, Steinbeck, Wordsworth, Dickens, Shakespeare. Steve and Paul suggest using the equally rigorous second list: Hurston, Homer, Lahiri, Kaminisky, Allende, Baldwin, Shakespeare. Graphic memoirists Alison Bechdel and Marjane Satrapi earn mentions and an excerpt too.

The tone of the guide is pleasantly complex: it combines inspirational directives (“if you want students to grow, nourish them with challenging texts”) with no-nonsense practicality (“Asking students to read for claims presupposes a philosophy that we want to name: all texts–from Instagram posts to Victorian novels–make arguments”). It bridges those two poles with an impressive array of example lessons, providing both nuts-and-bolts specifics (“Slow down and reread–increase your annotations to every 2-3 lines”) and overarching aspiration (“Great discourse often feels magical to the observer, but there are no tricks at play. Skilled teachers know it takes loads of preparation for a discussion to run like clockwork”).

I could continue, but I feel both indirectly narcistic (is all my praise of Steve’s hard work just round-about self-congratulation?) and retroactively inadequate (the portrait of 6th-grade teacher Angela Thomas reveals just how much I was NOT doing back when Steve was a student in my classroom). Still, there are probably worse emotional check-and-balance combinations than pride and chagrin. And leaning into the pride just a little longer, I happily imagine myself in a long line of folks evoked in the Acknowledgements:

“We would also like to thank every teacher, professor, mentor, friend, and family member who pushed or nurtured us. It’s an admittedly long list, and we are both the better for it.”

I don’t actually remember teaching Romeo and Juliet in Steve’s class, but I do recall the open-topic creative-writing assignments. I suspect middle-school Steve was still mentally immersed in the Poe unit that preceded them. He has since clearly moved beyond “gory stories.”

This is the last (for now at least?) of my appropriation/transformation series. I made this one and two others (from Picasso and O’Keeffe paintings) to explore the ambiguous legal line that the U.S. court system (as well as Canada’s, England’s, and other nations’) continues to leave undefined when it comes to the (possible) fair use of images for new artworks. Klee’s painting is from 1922, so presumably beyond any copyright infringement statute.

And here are parts ONETWOTHREEFOUR, and FIVE of my fair use musings.

That block of text is my 2017 essay “Refining the Comics Form” published in European Comic Art, which has since evolved into my book manuscript The Comics Form: The Art of Sequenced Images, which I just finalized and submitted to Bloomsbury for copyedits today.

It includes a discussion of word-images:

“The word ‘word’ has at least two definitions. In alphabet-based writing, a word is a combination of letterforms, and it is a set of meanings including connotations linked to that combination of letterforms and experienced in a reader’s mind. Neither refers to a specific instance of a word’s appearance as an image, which may be termed a ‘word-image.’

The same chapter discusses word-image art, including extreme cases where “word-images’ non-linguistic qualities don’t add meaning to their linguistic content; they replace it.” In one example, the “layered words are not legible and so arguably are not word-images but the equivalent of paint strokes that produce the non-linguistic content. … Instead of word-image art, the page consists of images composed of word-images that are only minimally graphic when not layered to produce non-linguistic content.”

While letters-as-tiny-paint-strokes is already its own visual arts genre, I’ve been developing my own approach by exploring (yet again) the usefully limited yet somehow oddly expansive possibilities of MS Paint. The following images use the above text as both canvas and palette. I begin with the block and then select and scissor segments free-hand with the mouse, overlapping them either transparently (which creates white lines and spaces) or non-transparently (which creates darker lines and spaces).

I’m calling them “text-ures,” which is probably too corny. Each surpasses the adage: ” Every picture is worth a thousand words.”

The first stage direction in The Zombie Life begins: “As audience arrives, various objects can be seen arranged carefully on the mostly bare ‘seminar room’ stage.” The script went through many many developmental changes during the rehearsal process, but that sentence remained the same. Why? Because it didn’t need to change. Ultimately, what’s on the page doesn’t matter. But what those words allow to happen on an actual stage does.

Also, it’s literally not my job. My vague “arranged carefully” was all that Todd Labelle, Firehouse Theatre’s production designer, needed. He sketched this ground plan:

Which became this actual stage design:

The stage directions later describe the Therapist (the play is his seminar as he tries to convince the audience to convert to being zombies to avoid human pain) “laying out a smorgasbord of objects with a reverential attitude.” The “reverential” is an actor’s problem, but AC Wilson, Firehouse’s prop designer, had to take my “smorgasbord” of weird objects (Liquor bottle, Rifle, Condom package, Pussy hat, Confederate flag, Crucifix, Child’s doll, etc.) and acquire, adapt, and/or make actual objects for the Therapist to use:

Each object contains the memories and personality of its former owner before they became a zombie–which is how my sister and I answered the dramaturgical question (before she become the show’s director, Joan played the role of dramaturg during our months of drafting): How can these zombies speak?

My stage directions say not a word about what any of the characters are wearing. So Annette Hairfield, Firehouse’s costume designer, had to plumb the script for inspiration. We talked a lot during early production meetings about whether the Therapist was part of a larger corporation (Todd dubbed it ZombieCorp), but we decided that, no, this guy is just a lone lunatic. That nixed the idea of a ZombieCorp logo on the convert’s polo shirts. But it still left room for other possibilities.

Annette wrote after a meeting: “So…We talked about zombie inner human self being evident in progressive wear on their clothing.. What if Mother showed the staining on the abdominal area from touching her baby. Father’s pant pocket area from clinching his fists in his pockets or rubbing his palms on his upper thigh. Sex Worker knee and lower leg area from, well, we know what. Chef’s apron front area from wiping his hands . Mortician’s pant hem distressed from all the standing and walking at funerals. No specific thoughts about Nun just a progressive overall darkness.”

Small production choices also steered the text in slightly different directions, as when the Zombie Chefs became Zombie Butchers because of the meat cleaver and bloody apron:

Joan’s directorial approach is also physically focused, helping the cast learn ways of embodying themselves that seem to lead inevitably to declaring the words in the script. I now can’t image anyone other than these six actors being these six characters:

Ken Moretti, Shalandis Wheeler Smith, Keaton Hillman, PJ Freebourn, Marjie Southerland, Jacqueline Jones.

Rehearsals began in a nearby church basement (either very appropriate or very inappropriate for a play about zombies) where Joan and Dan Plehal, Joan’s long-time dance collaborator and the production’s movement director, developed movement vocabularies for the zombies as they changed characters and scenes. One section of the script was entirely Joan’s idea and focused on the zombies’ accidental discovery of a harmonica and an ensuing rendition of “When the Saints.”

My wife has called me a “promiscuous collaborator” (exact quote), so I find all of these choices exciting. Joel Bassin, Firehouse’s producing artistic director, paid me a high compliment when he said I wasn’t like other playwrights–you know, the ones who think their words are sacrosanct and that the theatre’s main job is to satisfy the playwright’s preferences (not an exact quote). I’m entering theater from the lonelier realm of fiction writing, one of the least collaborative art forms. Usually it’s just me and my laptop clacking away, so the idea of my words lurching off to inspire new kinds of creative mayhem is horrifyingly delightful.

Grace Brown, Firehouse’s stage manager, kept meticulous track of it all, sending detailed rehearsal notes after each rehearsal. They tell a dozen stories themselves:

“The rehearsal knife has been further dulled.”

“We have tentatively cut the condom wrapper and checkbook lines, and permanently cut the flag and rifle lines on pg.13 in the Objects Hold Memories section.”

“Please note we may need to use a thicker knife for the chef’s knife so that we can dull it down further or perhaps a different prop entirely for the chef. We discussed perhaps using a wooden spoon or a more blunt kitchen tool instead. We will further discuss.”

“Please note the bourbon bottle should have tea in it.”

“We discussed potentially moving the sound board from SL to SR and moving all objects with sound to the table on the same side of the stage as the sound board.”

“Ken will not be wearing socks so that he can just take off his shoes when he’s eaten.”

I did stage crew in high school, so I couldn’t help but notice all the work that Emma Avelis and Scott Shephardson, Firehouse’s crew, did behind the scenes too. (Spoiler Alert: the seminar doesn’t end as “carefully arranged” as it begins.)

My one non-textual contribution to the production was the poster design–not something playwrights usually do, but I’m a promiscuous dabbler too:

It was even a thrill to see the digital art take physical form:

The larger physical context matters too. One of the “dangerous objects” is a Confederate flag that triggers a Klansman group monologue performed with “I Wish I Was in Dixie Land” piped over the stage speakers (which you probably didn’t notice changed position from Todd’s original design sketch). Richmond is the former capital of the Confederacy, and the empty pedestal for General Robert E. Lee’s former statue on Monument Avenue is two blocks from the theater:

Lee exited on July 10th. The Zombie Life closes on August 29th.

I had assumed raising your hands to protect your face when you fall was an automatic reflex, but my mother’s Alzheimer’s proved me wrong. She fell a lot that last year in the second-floor memory unit of her assisted living facility. She kept looking for the door that would lead her out again. After the worst fall, they had to ambulance her to a Richmond hospital an hour away. When I got there, the horror wasn’t just her face—which looked uncannily like the make-up for a zombie extra—but the emptiness in her eyes. She had not the slightest idea who I was.

I grew up in a Pittsburgh suburb a couple miles from the mall where George Romero shot Dawn of the Dead. There was a video arcade instead of a gun shop, but otherwise it was the same. I didn’t see the movie till college—and then the ongoing horde of other movies and TV shows still shuffling after it. I used to teach the Walking Dead comic book in my first-year writing seminar too. One of my best, though unpublished, short stories is titled “The Zombie Monologues.” Zombies apparently come naturally to me.

The single good thing about my mother’s Alzheimer’s was how it forced my sister and me together. We’d been estranged for a few years, and probably would have remained that way, but then we were digging out our mother’s nest of a condo, and researching assisted living places, and juggling the chaos of her thankfully deep finances. Her actual death brought a slew of new work too, but then that would be it. I was no longer driving over to Williamsburg once a month. There were no more plot contrivances to keep us in the same scene.

My sister is a dancer and choreographer. I’d seen the movement direction she’d done in the theater department at William and Mary, particularly for a production of Ovid’s Metamorphoses—a sequence of vignettes performed by a student cast changing roles for each piece.  I thought: Monologues are like vignettes. And then I said: Do you want to make a play together?

We started meeting for long brunches once a month in a little town exactly half way between Williamsburg and Lexington. She played dramaturg, asking questions about the evolving script: How do the zombies change roles? They touch objects and become infused by the former owners. Who is presenting these monologues? A therapist trying to convince people to become zombies. Why would he do that? Because he’s sinister. No, two-dimensional villains are boing—I tell my fiction writing classes that every semester. He’s something much much worse: he’s sincere. He actually thinks he’s helping his patients by ending their suffering.

Joan suggested new sections too, helped figure out the arc of the sequence, as we also plotted the new story of how one evening the therapist’s seminar goes terribly wrong. As much as he would like to think his zombies are happily emptied vessels, there’s still some disruptive humanity swirling inside them. That’s a good thing. In fact, it’s the only thing keeping them alive and the therapist from achieving his tragic success.

After our mother’s funeral—we spilled her ashes into the hole the groundskeepers dug in front of the family gravestone six months after her New Years death—the artistic producer at Richmond’s Firehouse Theatre said he’d like to stage the show. My sister had worked there before, and had showed him the script after we’d revised it into the best shape we could without seeing actors actually perform the words and movements.

The pandemic hit a few months after that, just weeks after the first read-through. We pivoted to Zoom and created a shortened online preview version of mostly solo performances, reprising the old title “Zombie Monologues.” Then at the start of this year, we again got the green light for an August stage production and started rehearsals back up, soon with three new cast members. That process was oddly ideal, combining actors who were familiar with the material with new actors who very quickly leapt to the same level. After the first stumble-through rehearsals, I got to revise with a new ear for how the words actually worked in performance. My sister’s directorial style is not surprisingly movement based, so she would ask for specific revisions and additions based on how the play was actually unfolding physically on stage. Our two skill areas, text and movement, are a perfect collaboration.

The project has achieved my initial goal of staying close to her. That’s probably ironic for a play about zombies trying to convince people to let go of all human connection. It’s hard work. You have to walk with your hands reaching in front of you. You can’t worry about falling. Just keep grabbing anything you can before it disappears again. The Zombie Life opens this week and closes the week after.

I was lucky to participate in last year’s Outer Dark Symposium, originally scheduled in Atlanta in March, then moved to Zoom in August due to the pandemic. An audio recording of my presentation came available via the Outer Dark Podcast last December, and a video is in the works via the Outer Dark YouTube channel.

Below are my PowerPoint slides, and if you’d like to follow along with my voice, it starts about nine minutes into the audio recording:

TOD 088 Deep Down: The Weird in Conversation with Southern Gothic, Black Gothic Revival, and Other Regional Strange Tales

My argument in a nutshell: white supremacy is in the DNA of early 20th century Weird fiction.

Here are my notes from the excavated gravesite:

[This post originally appeared as an op-ed in the Roanoke Times on July 24 under the title “Gavaler: Transgender issue isn’t left. vs. right”.]

Last month, the Supreme Court let stand a lower court’s decision to allow trans students to use restrooms that correspond with their gender identities. The case was from Gloucester County, Virginia, where the school board had instead created a small number of single-person restrooms for trans students, while still barring them from facilities that didn’t correspond with their biological sex. The Fourth Circuit Court declared that policy unconstitutional, and the Supreme Court agreed when it voted 7-2 to decline hearing the school board’s final appeal.

All three of Donald Trump’s conservative appointees—Justices Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett—voted with the majority. That means they agree that trans students should be allowed to use their preferred restrooms. Did Trump pack the Supreme Court with radical leftists? Obviously not. As Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell orchestrated one of the most ideologically lopsided Courts in the history of our country, barring two-term President Obama from making any appointments, while giving his one-term successor three. 

Yet the McConnell-Trump Court also backed trans rights in 2020, when it ruled that the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects gay and trans employees from discrimination based on sex. Justice Gorsuch, Trump’s first appointee, wrote the majority opinion: “Today we must decide whether an employer can fire someone simply for being homosexual or transgender. The answer is clear.”

But instead of attacking the Republican-appointed Supreme Court for this new status quo, many conservatives blame Democrats. Last year, the Democratic-controlled Virginia Legislature passed a law requiring “the Department of Education to develop and make available to each school board model policies concerning the treatment of transgender students.” This year those model policies specify that students “should be allowed to use the facility that corresponds to their gender identity.”

Some conservatives call that policy pro-pedophilia and label anyone who agrees with it a pedophile. Unless they are Supreme Court justices appointed by a Republican president.

Now, since our conservative-packed Supreme Court has made explicit that barring trans students from their preferred restrooms is unconstitutional, Virginia, like every other state in the nation, will have to do more than just “make available” “model policies.” Trans rights are now undisputed law. For a school to disregard federal law is not only illegal but also a trigger for lawsuits with an insurmountable legal precedent. The Gloucester County school board lost all of its appeals, and now so will every other school board that violates trans rights.

But don’t blame progressives. Blame Trump and McConnell. Or maybe when a hyper-conservative Supreme Court doubles down on the rights of trans people, it’s time to accept that trans people are just people?

The problem isn’t that the radical left is taking over the country. The problem is an unwillingness to let go of a past wrong. It used to be considered okay to openly ridicule and discriminate against trans people. It also used to be okay to openly ridicule and discriminate against gay people. If you grew up with those norms, they may still seem normal and reasonable—even when some of the most conservative judges in the country say otherwise.

Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett recognize that earlier anti-trans bigotry was wrong. They recognize that fact while also remaining firmly conservative. It’s not a struggle between left and right. Go back fifty years, and progressives of the 1970s were certainly not advocates for trans rights either. They were generally as bigoted toward trans people as everyone else. What’s happened now is the recognition of trans rights across the political spectrum. It’s a shared American victory we should celebrate together.

I’m completing the final draft of my next book, The Comics Form: The Art of Sequenced Images, due to my editor at Bloomsbury next month. It’s an attempt to pull back, re-examine and then re-approach a lot of what we assume about things we call comics—as well as about things we tend not to call comics. Though the book falls into the broad category of comics theory, and my pal in the philosophy department assures me it’s also a work of philosophy, I also intend it to be practical.  

To see just how practical, I’m trying a test run on the above comic (recently sent to me by the author, John Gavaler, who not coincidentally is also my father). Following the ideas I discuss in The Comics Form, here are the steps one might follow when viewing something through a comics lens.


Is the “something” visual, flat, and static? If it’s, say, a sculpture garden and so not flat, or if it is a visual image or images that are moving, as with a film or video game, then viewing it through a comics lens probably won’t be very helpful.

My father’s comic is visual, flat, and static, so I’ll proceed to the next step.


Do you perceive it as consisting of more than one image? A lot of visual objects are made of distinct parts, but those parts aren’t necessarily understood as separate images. Many flags, for instance, consist of one or more panels, but those kinds of panels aren’t treated separately from the flag as a whole.

My father’s comics appears to me to be made of multiple, separable images.


How many images?

I count twelve.


Are the images juxtaposed? While ‘juxtaposed’ can mean different things (in film juxtaposed images are not next to each other but appear separately, one immediately after the other), let’s focus first on whether the images are contiguous—do they touch?

Since the images in my father’s comic do not touch (an area of negative space appears between them), they are not strictly contiguous. But if we accept a less strict definition, we could say they are indirectly contiguous and so still juxtaposed in the sense of being arranged together within the same visual field.

More specifically, the images are arranged in a 4×3 grid with uninform horizontal and vertical gutters created by the negative spaces between identically (or practically identically) sized and shaped images. Each image is also unframed.

If you got this far, I’d say you’re safe to call the object you’re looking at a comic—though only if you accept that a comic can be defined formally. If you don’t, then I’d still say the work is in the comics form. That form can be defined in different ways, but it’s most commonly defined as juxtaposed images or as sequenced images (the difference, if there is one, is complicated, and not helpful at this early stage).

My dad’s comic is in the comics form.


Is the comic in the comics medium? That can mean a variety of things, none of them formal. Most basically, I’d say things are in the comics medium if the creators, publishers, and/or consumers say the are. So something published by a publisher that identifies as a publisher of comics is probably in the comics medium. Though not everything in a newspaper is a comic, those things that appear in a newspaper’s comics section mostly are.

My father’s comic is not published and so not part of any media.


Can something be in the comics medium anyway?

Some definitions of media require publication, or an equivalent process, and so might necessarily exclude my father’s comic, but when he sent it to me, my father wrote: “I’m attaching my newly minted comic book.” If authorial intention matters, then that may be sufficient. Unless he was joking, since he added: “Or, maybe, it should be properly called a graphic novel.” Since my father knows that graphic novels are longer, multi-page works, and since his attachment was a single page, he presumably wasn’t serious that it might be a graphic novel. Was he serious about calling it a comic? I think so, but that’s my interpretation of his statement, and someone else might argue for a different interpretation.

This is why defining something by authorial intention is a problem.

But even if I can’t know my father’s intentions, I perceive his comic as having his intentions—even if I’m completely wrong about his actual intentions.


Are the multiple images in a specific order?

I’m neutral about whether my father’s comic is in the comics medium, because the criteria of inclusion applies ambiguously in this case. The comics form is ambiguous too, since it’s not entirely clear whether images that are juxtaposed are necessarily sequenced too.

Happily, for my father’s comics, they are both. The content of the images are representational and depict a sequence of chronological moments in which a work crew removes a damaged tree. Though a viewer is always free to view the images in any order, only one order produces the (presumably intended) narrative.


Does the specific order create a specific viewing path through the arrangement of images?

Yes. In fact, it may be impossible to perceive the image order without simultaneously perceiving the resulting viewing path.

Unless you understand the path to be independent of the image order because a work in the comics medium follows certain viewing conventions. My father’s comic is row-based, creating a Z-path viewing path. If you begin with the assumption that the comic follows that convention, you will likely start by looking at the top left image. Some conventional comics are instead column-based, creating N-paths, but since that’s less common, you would probably attempt a Z-path first, proceeding next to the middle image in the second row instead of the second image in the first column. The image content in my father’s comic would reward that attempt, allowing a viewer to continue a Z-path through the rest of the arrangement. But if the image order were arranged instead in columns, a viewer would have to discover that through trial and error.

The trial-and-error approach is often overlooked, and it applies earlier in the viewing process than is often considered. Viewers who assume my father’s comic follows a viewing path common for works published in the comics medium do so because they have first perceived other conventions that lead to that assumption. Probably the 4×3 grid of square panels and uniform gutters does the trick.

But just because a set of images is arranged in a uniformly spaced grid doesn’t mean it has a pre-determined viewing path. A lot of Warhols don’t. That means there’s always a trail-and-error approach in play. If an attempt to view the images in a specific path is rewarded by the image content following the same order, then the viewer will likely continue. If the image content doesn’t reward that path, or any path, and instead the images appear to be unordered, the viewer likely will abandon following any prescribed path and scan in any direction at any time.

That means image content and order ultimately determine viewing paths—not the other way around.


Does the author care about any of this?

I don’t know, but I’ll ask. My father did say in his email: “In any case I’m expecting a critique. 😉”

I think this probably counts?

I’m delighted to see the new issue of Shenandoah is now online! I’m especially delighted to see the cover art by Leigh Ann Beavers. The piece is titled “whitethorn project: flattened whitethorn bouquet study no. 5“:

I’m probably a bit biased toward Leigh Ann, since she and I co-wrote Creating Comics and co-teach our hybrid creative-writing/studio-arts Making Comics course every other spring term. We were teaching it for the third time this past May when Beth (Shenandoah‘s editor) was in the process of selecting the image from an array of Leigh Ann’s works.

As usual, I had nothing to do with the cover art selection process. Unusually, I also had nothing to do with the comics selection process for this issue too. I became Shenandoah’s first-ever comics editor six issues ago in 2018, and though I hope to continue in that role indefinitely, it was an honor to step aside for Shenandoah‘s first-ever comics guest editor, Rachelle Cruz.

I wish I could take some tiny credit, but Beth and Rachelle met without my involvement, though I did know a little about Rachelle from her textbook Experiencing Comics (which I excerpted last winter for my WRITING 100 Superheroes seminar).

In addition to selecting comics, Rachelle selected a theme for her curated issue. Please read her introduction, “A Song or a Warning: Shenandoah’s Comic Artists Contemplate Survival,” for more detail, but bottom line: we appear to have survived the pandemic. Rachelle writes:

“In the summer of 2020, I was graciously invited by Beth Staples, editor-in-chief, to edit the comics section of the spring 2021 issue. “You can even come up with a theme, if you’d like,” Beth said. I’m privileged in so many ways (my ability to work from home is one of them), but the question, how am I—how are we—going to survive this, is one I wanted to ask cartoonists.”

Each of her three comics artists responded deeply.

In Trinidad Escobar and Meredith Hobbs Coons’ “So Much Good,” Rachelle sees: “Or survival as a bounding through our inner and outer landscapes to seek the intimacy of ourselves and others where there is ‘the rim light of your emerging joys’ and ‘so much good’ that emerges from this communion.”

Here’s the first page:

In Breena Nuñez “Invitation,” Rachelle sees: “Survival, or surviving, can be a space for holding our tears, our multiple embodied selves (younger and present) and our expectations of them.”

Here’s the first page:

And in Mita Mahato’s “Alligator Gut: A Representation of Survival with Papers, Polyethylene, and Residual Ink,” Rachelle sees: “survival as a complicated tangle of alligator guts, of what persists through paper-woven, collaged digestion.”

It’s wonderful to see Mita return to the virtual pages of Shenandoah, since she is also the first comics creator I contacted when I became editor. Her “Lullaby” appeared in Fall 2018, and her artwork was featured on the cover of the same issue, the first to feature Beth as editor. It’s equally wonderful to welcome Trinidad Escobar to Shenandaoh. When Rachelle mentioned during an early Zoom that she would be contacting her, I was thrilled. And I’m equally thrilled to be introduced to Meredith Hobbs Coons and Breena Nuñez.

Beth also welcomed another guest editor for the new issue. DW McKinney took over nonfiction (check out her introduction, “What is Home?: Shenandoah Essayists Eulogize and Celebrate Places of Belonging“). For this issue, poetry editor Lesley Wheeler also curated a special section on “uncanny activism” (a term she explains in her introduction, “A Grimoire: Poems in Pursuit of Transformation“). And translations editor Seth Michelson focused on Arabic poetry (“Contemporary Arabic Poetry in Contemporary Translation“). That’s all on top of the usual amazing array of fiction and nonfiction.

Check it all out!

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