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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

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I’d thought I was only making the above solo image, but looking back at my saved files, I discovered this sequence. Though it documents an evolving work-in-progress as I experimented with extracted pixels, it feels like the hair is somehow growing and exploding in the world of a story too. Since I feel a robotic connotation in the squares forming the body, and a less-easy-to-define distortion of the face, such a world of fantastical transformation feels possible too. My use of MS Paint grounds the image-making in an obsolete past, or maybe a parallel retro-past timeline. Either way, the laughter is optimistic–and so a future working its way here right now.

These are photo illustrations. I don’t remember what town we were in, only that it was a family brunch in some lovely and possibly vegan dinner somewhere urban, DC maybe? The first thing I did was remove myself. The last step was ordering a physical print on canvas mounted on a wood frame. I was planning to submit it to a couple of galleries in Charlottesville and Richmond. That was about a year ago, just minutes before the pandemic and lockdown. An impossibly long sci-fi year. Glad the future is still smiling.

Image result for Adrian Tomine's The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist

It’s hard to name a more highly regarded comics artist than Adrian Tomine. Though none of his books crack the top tier for either best or most famous graphic novels (MausPersepolisFun HomeWatchmen), his continuing stature and consistently excellent output is hard to rival. Not that you would guess that reading his memoir about his career in comics. While some of his previous work suggests a clear autobiographical edge (his novel Shortcomings offers a cringingly sharp focus on the experiences of Japanese Americans), Tomine has been content with the protective aloofness of fiction. Until now.  

Shifting the spotlight to himself comes with a shift in tone. The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist does not feature Tomine’s signature understatement. Instead, it’s a comic in that other sense: he’s trying (and succeeding) to be funny. Every page is a 3×2 grid, often with the narrative rhythm of a stand-alone comic strip, including a punchline in the concluding square. The four pre-title opening pages establish the norm with the book’s only glimpses of his childhood: a quickly paced sequence of humiliations, including bullies, well-intentioned mishaps by would-be allies, and Tomine’s relentless self-sabotage. I suspect most readers will be able to relate.

Image result for Adrian Tomine's The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist

What’s surprising though is how that childhood motif doesn’t change with adulthood but instead defines the tone of the whole memoir. More than a decade passes in the narrative leap from middle school to his first comic-con, but it’s as if Tomine is still trapped in that same purgatorial lunchroom. His continuing career features the same kinds of social cliques, insults, bullying, and brutally disinterested bystanders.

The list is impressive: Tomine writhes over a bad review. He’s mistaken for an internet service guy by a famous cartoonist. He sits through desolate book signings (once with the added humiliation of fake customers phoned in by the store owner in a failed attempt to lessen the humiliation). He’s heckled at a reading. He’s insulted by a fellow panelist. He’s upstaged by Neil Gaiman. He’s upstaged by Chloe Kardashian (plus no one laughs at his Thomas Pynchon joke). He’s mistaken for Daniel Clowes. His stalker calls him overrated. He’s spotted eating alone in a fast food place by pitying fans.

That’s not even the complete list, because the memoir is a sequence of Tomine’s worst comics experiences. There’s something perversely entertaining for a memoir about the career of its extremely successful author to stay so relentlessly focused on failures. It turns The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist into a kind of anti-memoir, an extended comic strip gag. Tomine waits till the last scene to acknowledge the joke: “My clearest memories related to comics—about being a cartoonist—are the embarrassing gaffes, the small humiliations, the perceived insults … everything else is either hazy or forgotten.” And his memoir proves it.

Image result for Adrian Tomine's The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist

But it also quietly undermines that self-deprecation. When he includes an eight-page story about an embarrassing bowel movement, the comics connection is tangential—revealing that the selection is absurdly stacked against him. Clues of his exceptional successes also shine through the crack of his comically negative faulty narration. Sure, he ends his radio interview with exactly the sort of clumsy “Thank you!” that he was desperate to avoid—but the interview was on Fresh Air. Yes, he made a lame expression when he looked back at the camera recording him—but only because he was famous enough to attract the attention of a French TV news show while being honored at a festival. No one in the audience laughed at his joke, but he was being interviewed on stage about his success as a New Yorker cartoonist.

The intentionally myopic memoir leaps over massive and presumably positive swaths of his non-comics-related life. When his daughter makes her first appearance, she’s already speaking in full sentences. His future wife is more integrated, but only because she’s there to experience some of his humiliations beside him. At first, that means witnessing another desolate book signing (and now I’m wondering if the repeated comparisons about line lengths is a veiled penis joke), but soon she moves from spectator to dedicated participant, ready to shout down a rude stranger at the next restaurant table haranguing his date for liking a Tomine book. Tomine’s sixth-panel thought-bubble punchline is revealing: “I’m gonna ask her to marry me.”

Image result for Adrian Tomine's The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist

The memoir has a subtle subtext too. Though most of the litany of humiliations might resonate with any reader, some are specifically racist microaggressions—as when a famous author (most names are blacked out as if by a censor’s pen) gratuitously asks Tomine’s nationally and then declares: “I love Jujitsu.” When Frank Miller (one of the most famous writers and artists in superhero comics) reads the nomination list at the Eisner Award banquet (the comics equivalent of the Oscars), he says: “Adrian … uh … I’m not even going to try to pronounce that one!” It becomes one of the memoir’s running gags—“Toe-mine,” “Toe-meen,” “Toe-mih-nay”—not because it’s funny, but because it’s presumably a running discomfort of his actual life.

Happily, even Tomine’s artificially negative premise buckles under the weight of his actual happiness. He appears to be in a deeply loving marriage (even if his wife dozes off as he rants). He appears to have a deeply loving relationship with his daughter (even if her teacher apologizes to all the parents that he drew poop during his class presentation on being a cartoonist). His outward attitude seems to shift too, when, even though he feels insulted to be charged for a “gift” pizza, he’s nice to the chef as he leaves the restaurant with his family.

Apparently thinking you’re having a heart attack has its psychological benefits. His death flashes in his mind (in a sequence of the memoir’s only unframed panels), and as he waits in a hospital bed for his test results, he composes a moving letter to his family (in the memoir’s only full-page panel). Those breaks in form signal a deeper break in his self-deprecating ways, even though the memoir’s final paradoxical punchline is his decision to write a memoir about those humiliations.

Maybe that’s the real joke: self-deprecation can mask deep confidence. If so, Adrian Tomine (Tom-ine-y? Toom-in-ah?) is the most confident comics artist in the world.

Image result for Adrian Tomine's The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist
Image result for Adrian Tomine's The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist

I was going to include “Feminist” and/or “Inclusive” in the title of this post, or, more cutely, “Feminist” and/or “Inclusive,” meaning that any anthology should be both, making the adjectives redundant. But having now edited an actual anthology, I know I’m not the person who gets to evaluate the success of those aspirations. I also thought about beginning the title with “How to Edit,” but again, now knowing the challenges of the task, I feel less certain about offering advice than just reporting my efforts.

Bloomsbury published Creating Comics: A Writer’s and Artist’s Guide and Anthology at the end of January 2021. When I accepted the assignment of writing the textbook, the last word in the title seemed like an afterthought—one I could maybe avoid since the other textbooks in the creative writing series were words-only (Short-Form, Nature Writing, Poetry) and reproducing multi-page comics is a very different (and expensive) animal. Fortunately, my editor said no, I really did have to include an anthology. So I wrote in the proposal: “Based on permissions and availability, selections will be made from the following master list.”

Brainstorming that dream list was easy enough—though narrowing to black and white art didn’t narrow the field as much as I’d expected. The first version included sixty titles. If you add them up (which I just did again) you’ll find 35 men. Which means I flunked my first test: at least half of the authors need to be woman-identified or nonbinary. That’s a pretty minimal requirement, and I think I blew it because I wanted to include several early artists in a field that was so male-dominated for decades. The second half of the list includes more women, but that’s not by chance. Instead of traveling to research libraries, I used my university leave fund to expand my personal library, prioritizing works by women to offset the industry’s gender imbalance. I continued that practice when selecting new releases to review at PopMatters.com (I averaged about two reviews a month for close to three years). As a result, whenever I am writing an article or chapter, the odds of my choosing an example by a female artist increase significantly based on how many are literally in arm’s reach of my desk.

There are other oddities about that original list. Picasso? I wanted his Bull series—part of my hope of showing that comics (or at least sequenced images) are already widespread in fine arts. I wanted two paintings from Glenn Ligon’s 1989 series How It Feels to be Colored Me for the same reason—while also demonstrating the hybrid nature of words as images. There are other non-comics comics artists in there too, but once I moved from thought experiment to the tasks of actually editing (researching copyrights, contacting owners, negotiating prices, issuing contracts, acquiring usable scans, keeping within my publisher’s budget, etc.), many of my thought bubbles burst.

Though photographer Elizabeth Bick rode to my fine-arts rescue, I was surprised by the number of traditional comics publishers who do not answer permissions queries. Some do respond, but only after you make many attempts, a process that includes researching company websites for employees with likely-sounding job titles to leave messages. I got to know more than one phone receptionist by first name.

I decided early on to forego Marvel and DC. I’d had mixed results with them both when requesting image rights for illustrations in my previous books. I might have cut them anyway, since they hardly need additional attention—though I was sad when I realized that meant no Howard Cruse (Stuck Rubber Baby made my second list). I cut Frank Miller’s Sin City even before it became clear that no amount of effort would ever compel anyone working at Dark Horse to return my messages. Ditto for First Second (there’s an adaption of a Thomas Hardy poem from a Word War I poetry comics anthology I still long to have). The creators of the photo-comics poetry website The Softer World stopped making new strips a couple years ago, but I still thought they would have responded (I even tried Twitter that time).

My biggest disappointment was Kyle Baker (my second list was significantly better than my first list). I did manage eventually to correspond with an artist named Kyle Baker, but he informed that, alas, he was not that Kyle Baker (though his website is sincerely impressive). I also discovered that Baker’s company name, Quality Jollity, is now owned by a sex toy website (I keep typing and then deleting a follow-up detail about that).

Also, it turns out Random House owns half the planet. I spent a lot of time at their “permissions portal,” discovering just how many imprints redirect there (Pantheon, Penguin, Schocken). They do not, however, continue to hold the rights for The Best of American Splendor and could offer no help tracking down Harvey Pekar. NBM informed me both that they no longer held the rights for Veronique Tanaka’s Metronome, and that there’s no such person as Veronique Tanaka. One Google search later and I learned that Bryan Talbot had taken the name of a Japanese woman as a pseudonym (I decided I didn’t need Metronome after all). Princeton University Press uses Copyright.com, which is a nightmare website if you’re trying to forward password-protected contract links to your London editor from rural Virginia.

There are so many more: IDW, Penn State, New York Review, Koyama, Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly—those last three I leaned on most heavily, in part because I’d fallen for them while writing all those reviews, but also because they all (eventually) responded to my queries and so filled the gaps when others didn’t.

Of my original list of sixty works, seventeen made it into the eventual anthology. That’s a good thing, because the final table of contents is significantly better than my first I-really-don’t-want-to-have-to-do-this-anyway list. It’s still far far from perfect, but I will await others’ opinions about whether it is also “Feminist” and/or “Inclusive” in terms of race, ethnicity, sexuality, and other angles of differences. My failings are at least hard-earned.

The Anthology includes:

Jessica Abel, from La Perdida

Yvan Alagabé, “Postscriptum”

Lynda Barry, “Ernie Pook’s Vague Childhood Memories”

Alison Bechdel, from The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For

Elizabeth Bick, “Street Ballet IV, New York, NY” and “Street Ballet XIII, Houston, TX”

Michael Comeau, from Winter Cosmos

Leela Corman, from Unterzakhn

Marcelo D’Salete, from Angola Janga

Eleanor Davis, “Darling, I’ve Realized I Don’t Love You”

Aminder Dhaliwal, from Woman World

Marguierite Dabaie, “Naji al-Ali”

Max Ernst, “First Visible Poem” (1934)

Inés Estrada, from Alienation

Liana Finck, from Passing for Human

Renée French, from micrographica

GG, from I’m Not Here

John Hankiewicz, “Lot C (Some Time Later)”

Jamie Hernandez, “How to Kill a … by Isabel Ruebens”

William Hogarth, Gin Lane and Beer Street (1751)

Gareth A. Hopkins and Erik Blagsvedt, from Found Forest Floor

R. Kikuo Johnson, from Night Fisher

Miriam Katin, from We Are On Our Own

John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell, from March: Book 2

Miriam Libicki, from Jobnik!

Sarah Lightman, from The Book of Sarah

Daishu Ma, from Leaf

José Muñoz and Carlos Sampayo, from Alack Sinner

Sylvia Nickerson, from Creation

Thomas Ott, “The Hook”

Kristen Radtke, from Imagine Wanting Only This

Keiler Roberts, from Chlorine Gardens

Gina Siciliano, from I Know What I Am: The Life and Times of Artemisia Gentileschi

Fiona Smyth, from Somnambulance

Marjane Satrapi, from Persepolis

Jillian Tamaki, from SuperMutant Magic Academy

Craig Thompson, from Blankets

Seth Tobocman, “The Paranoid Truth”

Adrian Tomine, “Drop” and “Unfaded”

C. C. Tsai and Zhuangi, from The Way of Nature

Felix Vallotton, Intimités (1898)

[If you’re interested in buying a copy, the Bloomsbury site offers slightly lower prices (including a PDF) than at Amazon (though Amazon is worth a glance for the preview of the first 33 pages). If you’re thinking you might want to teach from it, the Bloomsbury site also lets you “Request exam/desk copy.” Also, if you are interested in writing a book review, contact: AcademicReviewUS@Bloomsbury.com (if you’re in North America) or AcademicReviews@Bloomsbury.com (if you’re anywhere else on the planet) to request a review copy.]

The first thing I did when Bloomsbury asked me to write a textbook about making comics was to ask Leigh Ann Beavers to be the co-author. I had gone to her a couple of years earlier when I was searching for a professor at my university to co-teach a hybrid creative-writing/studio-arts course on comics. Co-teaching, like co-writing, is a weird business that’s mostly about the hard-to-quantify intangibles of personal interaction. I can’t remember who suggested I talk to Leigh Ann, but after one meandering chat in her oddly non-rectangular office, she was on board.

We taught Making Comics for the first time in spring 2017. It was a massive success, and so when we taught it again in 2019, we decided to change everything. When we teach it for a third time in spring 2021, we’ll have to change it yet again—though our next roster of students will have copies of Creating Comics for guidance.

A lot happened between the 2017 and 2019 classes, and those changes shaped the book. I originally approached the creative process the way creators at Marvel and DC tend to: a writer writes a script, and then an artist draws the script. I also teach fiction writing and playwriting, so I focused the first half of the term on script-writing, and Leigh Ann focused the second half on transforming those scripts into actual comics. But that process was born from a business model that employs separate writers and artists, each engaged in multiple projects, each on its own conveyor-belt of a production schedule.

Why begin with a script? Because editors can read them. It gives them an idea of what a later comic could be, plus there’s something tangible to critique and revise. Editors, like writers, think in words. But comics aren’t primarily about words. They’re foremost a visual art. What visual artist begins by writing a description of what she plans to draw? Why not just start drawing?

That’s how our 2019 students began. We told them to draw something— literally anything. “Doodle,” we said. Fifteen minutes later their sketchpads were alive with fish and robots and half-human bat creatures—many of which became characters in their later comics. They learned about them by drawing them (the first homework assignment was fifty individual character sketches), not by describing them in words and then trying to translate those word-ideas into images.

Image First. That’s what I wanted to call the textbook. The introduction is a diagnosis for why Art departments have been more resistant to comics than essentially any other area in academia (including even Philosophy and Classics, where I had my first writing and classroom collaborations). The image-focused chapters are the cure.

After completing the first draft, I recognized that I was suffering from the passion of a convert, and so during revision we identified multiple approaches for creating comics:

Image-first (let the drawing process drive the story),

Story-first (the appropriate default setting for memoir),

Layout-first (there are more out there than you think),

Script-first (yes, it has its place too—though preferably not a medium-defining dominant one),

and Canvas-first (a smorgasbord of the best of the above).

Still, image-first is at the heart of book, providing a creative corrective for a script-dominated field. So instead of drawing from a prescribed script, the book explores the range of possibilities for how two juxtaposed images can interact—and having experimented with them all, artists can then select their favorite paths to continue down further. And each path has its own range of possibilities that we literally graph into units that can be shuffled, redrawn, reordered, and drawn again—always with new narrative effects emerging from the open experimentation. Instead of treating a comic as sequence of conceptually separate panels, we look at the page as a whole—because it is. A page is a canvas that must be understood as a single unit too. And if a canvas includes words, the artist-writer must consider how their renderings, placements, and interactions with images produces meanings distinct from words in a prose-only context.

Though our course is titled Making Comics, Making Comics is already an excellent book by Scott McCloud (2006)—and also now Lynda Barry (2019). I recommend them both—and also Abel and Madden’s Drawing Words & Writing Pictures. But they’re not sufficient. Barry’s is a brilliant (and for me emotionally moving) how-to for finding and unlocking a piece of your lost and probably somewhat damaged childhood self. Please read it. The others approach comics not as an open art form, but as a genre-shaped and industry-prescribed medium. That’s useful. But any conventions-first approach is also purposely limited. We tried to wipe the slate clean and identify a new set of underlying fundamentals.

Our subtitle changed too. Bloomsbury original asked for “A Writer’s and Illustrator’s Guide,” but reducing an artist to only an illustrator also reduces comics art to only illustrations, which illustrate words and ideas that exists before the image is created. Comics certainly can be that, but they can be more too.  

Because we wanted to throw the widest possible creative net (because it increases the odds of individual artists discovering something new-to-them to explore and uniquely expand), we avoid historical and medium-based definitions of comics and accept that any two images placed next to each other could be a comic. Some scholars might flinch at the radical inclusivity (though as a scholar, I would have plenty more to say on the subject), but that concern is literally academic. Creating Comics is instead about the hands-on creative process, but with a birds-eye perspective of the sometimes-overlooked possibilities.  

I’m also ridiculously proud of the fifty-or-so illustrations (and, since Creating Comics isn’t itself a comic, they really are illustrations). I’m a fledging digital artist, and so my contributions offer a fun contrast to Leigh Ann’s professional inks, but even better: the book is filled with artwork by our 2019 students. We were in the process of writing the first draft while teaching the second course, and as their comics began to emerge, we suddenly saw the obvious: they were already our collaborators. Without the course, we couldn’t have written the book, and our students’ artwork is the ideal document of the concepts and processes we describe.

And the grand finale:  a 143-page anthology of comics excerpts by over forty comics artists, including Barry, Bechdel, Davis, Hernandez, Satrapi, Tamaki, Tomine—I need another post to give due credit, but flipping through the anthology probably provides the best lessons in comics-making that any textbook could offer. It’s pleasantly humbling to write what you hope to be the book for teaching comics and see it instantly overshowed by its own second half.

If you’re interested in a copy, the Bloomsbury site offers slightly lower prices (including a PDF) than at Amazon (though Amazon is worth a glance for the preview of the first 33 pages). If you’re thinking you might want to teach from it, the Bloomsbury site also lets you “Request exam/desk copy.” Also, if you’re interested in writing a book review, email: AcademicReviewUS@Bloomsbury.com (if you’re in North America) or AcademicReviews@Bloomsbury.com (if you’re anywhere else on the planet) to request a review copy.

The World We Are Fighting for

A year ago it would have been hard to imagine a comics magazine with a taste for futuristic political dystopia overshadowed by the actual Armageddon of daily headlines.

When World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For was released last September, news reports were an apocalyptic smorgasbord: west coast in flames, world pandemic death count nearing one million, yet more tear-gassed BLM protestors, and a president fanning his weekly scandals on Twitter. Four months later, and the U.S. covid death count is over 400,000, Congress was physically attacked by rioters, and the former president prepares for his second impeachment trial.

Cartoon science fiction and political parodies seem pleasantly quaint in comparison.

World War 3 Illustrated - Wikipedia

Of course, when World War 3 Illustrated took its name in 1980, the world was braced for an actual Armageddon as the U.S. political landscape lurched hard to the right, upending the Cold War with it. Comics authors and editors Peter Kuper and Seth Tobocman found their archvillain in Ronald Reagan—a president who even Democrats might have embraced in November to avoid another stranger-than-science-fiction term of Donald Trump.

Shameless Feminists (World War 3): Bannerman, Isabella, Jones, Sabrina,  Migdal, Rebecca, Bietila, Susan Simensky: 9781849353694: Amazon.com: Books

As Reagan sinks into ancient history, World War 3 Illustrated has continued to evolve as a living political document expressing the struggles and aspirations of its leftist activist-artists. Like the two previous issues, #51 is a book-sized annual, compiling a dizzying array of work by nearly forty creators. After 2019’s Shameless Feminists and 2018’s Now Is the Time of Monsters, the editors (founders Kuper and Tobocman are joined by Ethan Heitner) envisioned something more uplifting: a tribute to “the humane socialist vision of Bernie Sanders,” who last fall (when the issue was planned) appeared to be on his way to claiming the Democratic nomination and a November face-off with “the fascist future of Donald Trump.”

WORLD WAR 3 ILLUSTRATED MAGAZINE RELEASE PARTY #49 - Printed Matter

That alternative timeline diverged with an even more unimaginable premise: the Biden-Harris ticket. But the distance between our actual political present and the one World War 3 Illustrated longs for makes The World We Are Fighting For that much more compelling. No one predicted the CV-19 pandemic or the international George Floyd protests or Donald Trump’s sixty voter fraud court cases, but those instabilities are also opportunities. “Another world ACTUALLY IS possible,” the editors argue, and, more importantly: “That world is up for grabs.”

The 220-page issue features several authors that previous readers should appreciate returning: Sue Coe, Eric Drooker, Ben Katchor, Kevin Pyle, and of course the editors themselves. Most names are new to me, in keeping with the editors’ efforts to find and showcase new talent. The comics vary widely in length, from the single-digit sequences of Elizabeth Haidle, Jackie Lima, Terry Tapp, to the double-digit narratives of Sandy Jimenez and, the longest, Tobocman’s own twenty-six page retrospective.

Justseeds | World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For

I especially admire the one-page artworks of Coe, Meredith Stern, Joes Sances, and Mohammed Sabaaneh—all of which evoke the expressionistic woodblock styles of past political movements, an effect further strengthened by the images’ white lines printed on the volume’s black pages. Single images also allow faster turn-around, so, for instance, Coe’s June-dated image of Trump watching police beat protesters as he stands with a raised Bible is a clear reference to the clearing of Lafayette Park before his St. John’s Episcopal Church photo-op.

Other comics acknowledge the unexpected shift in reality in literal post-scripts. After Sasha Hill and Annabelle Heckler tell the story of squatters eventually purchasing abandoned Brooklyn buildings and transforming them into thriving communities, they add a pair of pages to show the continuing collective efforts in the face of the pandemic and the disproportionate hardships of the spring lockdown.

Steve Brodner’s “The Greater Quiet” was long conceived well after the editors’ original vision.

World War 3 Illustrated #51 - Big Talent Tackles Bigger Issues as They  Explore 'The World We Are Fighting For' – Broken Frontier

Brodner offers a half dozen caricature portraits of “those lost in the pandemic,” including a Walmart employee, a nurse, an incarcerated woman, a grocery clerk, a geriatric psychiatrist, and a hospital manager. Mac McGill’s “The Virus” tackles the topic through five full-page Trump portraits that evolve from swirling comb-over to CV-19 microbe in a balance of representation and abstraction.

Though primarily focused inwardly on the U.S., the issue also gestures toward international connections. Argentina-born artist José Muñoz provides the watercolor cover depicting his memory of La Pampa providence. John Vasquez Mejias’ excerpt from “The Puerto Rican War” is a study in woodblock-style of the colonial history and fight for independence of the territory the U.S. claimed at the end of the 19th century. Susan Simensky Bietila’s “Water Protectors” documents the struggles of the Menominee and Ojibwe tribes in northern Michigan and southern Canada, and Nere Kapiteni and Rebecca Migdal set their Trump parody in Antarctica where Donald and Melania have been exiled on a floating island of ice because no nation will accept them.

The issue is also bookended with the colorful comics of Colleen Tighe and Peter Kuper, giving The World We Are Fighting For a fittingly vibrant entrance and exit. The eclecticism is difficult to summarize, as every few pages offer some new and boldly different artistic style and storytelling vision. Yet they all cohere in the political thrust of the magazine’s political mission and artistic call-to-arms. Although Bernie Sanders did not become the 46th president this month, the U.S. has so far avoided the Civil War that even the creators of World War Three Illustrated didn’t want to imagine.



Vogue is featuring Vice President Kamala Harris on its February covers. Vanessa Friedman of the New York Times describes the photo on the digital cover as a “more formal portrait of Ms. Harris in a powder blue Michael Kors Collection suit with an American flag pin on her lapel, her arms crossed in a sort of executive power pose against a gold curtain.”

But it’s the photo on the print cover that received criticism as soon as the magazine released a preview in early January. Friedman writes: “Ms. Harris chose and wore her own clothes. The selected photo is determinedly unfancy. Kind of messy. The lighting is unflattering. The effect is pretty un-Vogue. ‘Disrespectful’ was the word used most often on social media.”

Apparently, Vogue unexpectedly swapped covers, placing the less formal version on the more prominent print edition, without telling Harris in advance: “The team at Vogue loved the images Tyler Mitchell shot and felt the more informal image captured Vice President-elect Harris’s authentic, approachable nature — which we feel is one of the hallmarks of the Biden/Harris administration.”

Friedman responds: “Ms. Harris may be authentic and approachable, but she is also about to become the second most powerful person in the country… She is, no matter what happens during the Biden administration, a game-changing participant, one that belongs on a pedestal.”

Prior to seeing the Vogue covers, I was digitally adapting photos of Vice President-elect Harris, as part of my ongoing experiments in abstraction using the aggressively antique technology of MS Paint. While the images are all certainly “un-Vogue,” some are also “messy,” and perhaps “unflattering”–though the intent isn’t the exaggerated distortions of visual critique. They’re not political cartoons in that sense. The distortions aren’t meant to communicate disrespect, but I doubt any belong on an art gallery pedestal either.

Representation usually requires resemblance: an image of a person is an image of that person because the image looks like that person. But representation also involves distortion: a two-dimensional photograph can never be a replica of a three-dimensional subject, even before factoring in elements of framing and perspective and lighting and the fleeting fragment of time it impossibly freezes. My images distort a lot further by literally abstracting (removing) pixels and then rearranging and duplicating them in evolving patterns, creating images further and further removed from their photographic source material.

When does an image of the Vice President stop representing the Vice President because the image no longer sufficiently resembles her? I’m searching for that answer.

I started this blog in the fall of 2011. It received a little over 18,000 views its first full year, a little over 32,000 last year, and 235,681 total. It is a tiny tiny corner of the Internet. I named it after a novel I drafted in 2011 and was hoping to promote. The novel remains unpublished, though I now have an agent submitting a graphic novel to London publishers, so my fingers remain permanently crossed. Since starting the blog, I’ve also published five academic books about (mostly) comics, including one out later this month (Creating Comics). A sixth is under contract for 2022. The first was a revised version of the blog’s first four years. Some of those posts still get the most views—not just in total, but each year. Here’s my 2020 top ten:

    1. Analyzing Comics 101: Layout
    2. Science Fiction Makes You Stupid
    3. Is Harry Potter a Superhero?
    4. Ferris Bueller’s Missing Sex Scene
    5. Why I Asked my University to Remove ‘Lee’ from its Name and my Town to Remove ‘Stonewall Jackson’ from the Name of its Historic Cemetery
    6. Hundred-Year-Old Racist Superman from Mars
    7. A Brief History of the Pornographic Superhero
    8. The Best (and Worst) Superhero Sex of All Time
    9. Why I Shouldn’t Be Fired for Teaching Comics
    10. Analyzing Comics 101: Rhetorical Framing

Only one of those was newly posted in 2020, which means the rest attract attention from somewhere other than the weekly links I post on my Facebook page, Twitter account, and my university’s campus notices. Seven of the ten are also high on my blog’s all-time top list:

    1. Science Fiction Makes You Stupid
    2. Is Harry Potter a Superhero?
    3. The Best (and Worst) Superhero Sex of All Time
    4. Hundred-Year-Old Racist Superman from Mars
    5. Analyzing Comics 101: Layout
    6. Jean Valjean, Wolverine, and What Boys (Are) Like
    7. Carrie White Vs. Jean Gray
    8. Why I Shouldn’t Be Fired for Teaching Comics
    9. Are Batman and Robin Gay?
    10. Layout Wars! Kirby vs. Steranko!
    11. Ferris Bueller’s Missing Sex Scene

Two have the words “sex” or “pornographic” in the title, which I’m guessing are very popular search engine terms. Type in “superhero” next to either and apparently my blog appears somewhere in the results list. The 2018 Ferris Bueller post has “sex” in the title too, so another mystery solved. I’m really not sure why Harry Potter is still getting so many hits in 2020 (I wrote it back in 2013), or, more weirdly, John Carter of Mars (though it did annoy some Edgar Rice Burroughs fans in 2012 when I published the post-colonial critique of the novel and film). My unfortunately click-bait titled “Science Fiction Makes You Stupid” got unexpected international attention in 2017, including from annoyed SF fans—though the actual post and the cognitive science research study it describes (as well as the follow-up study) should make a SF fan (like me) happy. At least the two “Analyzing Comics” make sense since analyzing comics is mostly what I do here. “Why I Shouldn’t Get Fired for Teaching Comics” is from 2019, so the youngest post on the all-time top ten and the second youngest for 2020. It was my response to an essay written and distributed by an alum suggesting that my courses and I be eliminated for dumbing down the W&L curriculum.

The outlier is “Why I Asked my University to Remove ‘Lee’ from its Name and my Town to Remove ‘Stonewall Jackson’ from the name of its Historic Cemetery” because it’s the only top-ten post from 2020 that was actually published in 2020. Since I wrote it in July, my town has renamed the cemetery. A statue of Stonewall Jackson was also removed from the Virginia Military Institute, the college literally next door to mine. My school’s board of trustees has not yet made a decision regarding our name.

I wrote “Why I Asked” for Rockbridge Civil Discourse Society, a Facebook group that I co-founded and was still moderating until fall. The group was designed to foster conversation between folks coming from opposite sides of the political divide. The issues of statue removals and name changes was getting a great deal of attention on the page, and the post was my attempt to explain my positions in a way that I hoped a conservative could at least understand (though almost certainly not agree with).

I had written “Why I Don’t Like Trump” in 2019 for the same reason: a conservative member of RCDS sincerely asked my why I didn’t like Trump, and I gave him the most thoughtful, non-inflammatory answer I could. I republished it in October—which is why “Why I (Still) Don’t Like Trump” hit sixteen on my top posts of 2020. Number fourteen was “How Rightwing Pundits Destroyed America and my Facebook Page,” published the same month. After moderating RCDS for three years, I got a little tired out. My farewell, “Things I Learned from Civil Discourse,” only hit thirty-one. It’s a list of best practices for trying to engage in political conversation with someone who doesn’t vote like you. Very few folks on the page follow them.

I also got a bit obsessed with poll watching in 2020, publishing a four-part series “Predicting the Next President,” which mapped the polling shifts and Electoral College predictions. It ended with “After Math: So How Wrong Were the Polls?” Short answer: pretty wrong.

I published twenty-four reviews of graphic novels. Since I started writing reviews at PopMatters.com three years ago, those reviews have dominated my personal blog too.

Another eighteen posts focused on other kinds of comics analysis, my own comics, my creative process, comics I helped publish through Shenandoah, plus one comic my daughter made during the lockdown with one of her former students whom she was nannying after their pre-school was forced to close because of the pandemic.

There were also six posts about zombies.

Weird fucking year. Glad it’s over.

 

Mister invincible : local hero by Jousselin, Pascal (9781942367611) |  BrownsBfS

Two annoying terms I can’t seem to stop using when discussing comics: ‘discourse’ and ‘diegesis.’ They’re sort of the same as ‘form’ and ‘content,’ or ‘form’ and ‘story.’ Except sometimes comics seems to crash form and story together, obscuring the distinction. Other art forms (prose fiction, films, live theater) have discourses and diegeses too, but the effects in comics might be unique.

One of the presents I unwrapped Christmas morning was Pascal Jousselin’s Mister Invincible: Local Hero, a collection of French comics translated and published in English in 2017, but new to my radar this year (which is why I put it on my Santa list–though all actual credit goes to my spouse). It’s one of the most playfully brilliant interrogations of the comics form I’ve seen, literally illustrating the discourse/diegesis divide and its peculiar comics conundrums.

First, with massive apologies to Jousselin, here are six panels from one of his collection’s one-page comic strips, rearranged in my own cascading column:

Though obscured by my arrangement, you probably see the key connection between panels 2 and 5. Ignoring the also vast issues of framing and perspective, my arrangement attempts to isolate each panel and emphasize the linear relationships of their content. This is close to the story as experienced by the woman worried about her cat.

Here’s another rearrangement, one that could more easily appear on an actual comics page, with paired panels in three rows:

The trick is still between panels 2 and 5, which is a little easier to see now because this arrangement places the interior content of each panel in roughly the same position relative to each other: the six trees line-up in two columns, parallel to the middle gutter.

Of course the drawings are all of only one tree: the one in the story world. That’s where annoying terms become usefully non-annoying. Using their adjective forms: there’s one diegetic tree, but six discursive trees. I could still says there one story-world tree, but saying there’s six formal trees is less clear, plus the formal effects of the cascading arrangement and the three rows of paired panels are different.

But not as different as the two rows of three panels that Jousselin actually drew:

Only now is the key conceptual connection between panels 2 and 5 also a physical connection. The arrangement is the joke. Mister Invincible’s superpower is the comics form. He seemingly reaches out of the diegesis and into the discourse of the page.

Though that’s not quite accurate. Understood diegetically, he just has time-travel powers: he can reach his arms out of his current moment and into another moment, removing an object (the cat) from that other moment and bringing it into the current moment. That would be the woman’s understanding of what happened. Mister Invincible, however, knows that his diegetic time-travel powers are rooted in the panel arrangement of the page. That’s why my first two arrangements ruin the joke.

But it’s more than panel arrangement. If, for example, panel 5 were drawn from a more distant perspective, so that the discursive space between the top of the tree were longer than the discursive length of Mister Invincible’s arms as drawn in the other panels, then he could not reach down and retrieve the cat. So it’s not just the layout of the panels but also the interior arrangements of their drawn content, including framing and perspective effects.

That means Mister Invincible sees everything that the viewers sees. He is aware of the page. That’s a delight of metafiction, but it reveals something else about the comics form: the layout of panels is not a formal quality; it’s a diegetic quality. Layout is part of Mister Invincible’s story world (and also his superhero-defining chest emblem).

Characters in other artforms can have metafictional qualities too: a character played by an actor turns and addresses the audience, either directly from a stage or seemingly through a camera and screen. A character in a prose novel might metaphorically break that fourth wall too, revealing that she knows she’s an author’s construction living in a constructed story world. But if so, she’s probably not aware of the ink that comprises the words that comprise her and that world. She’s not aware when the typeset words reach the right margin requiring a reader to shift to the left column to continuing reading. She’s not aware of paragraphs or page breaks either. She’s aware that her diegesis is a diegesis, but she’s unaware of the discourse (the physical book) that creates the diegesis (in collaboration with a reader reading it).

That doesn’t describe Mister Invincible. He doesn’t seem to be aware of his creator, Jousselin, or of viewers viewing his actions. I don’t know if he knows he’s in a diegesis. But I do know that an aspect of his diegesis is the discursive arrangement of image content on each page. That creates an interesting puzzle: while content and form can be related in all kinds of interesting ways, form can’t BE content. Instead of breaking the discourse/diegesis divide, Mister Invincible reveals that no such divide exists when it comes to what is typically called “form” in comics.

That means layout is not part of the comics form. It’s a kind of diegesis. Usually that diegesis is distinct from the character-populated world of the story, but it’s still a kind of diegesis, meaning a set of representations. The frames around the panels are not frames: they’re drawings of frames. The spaces between panels are not empty; they are drawings of emptiness. The only formal (meaning physical) parameters of a comics page are the physical edges of the paper that the ink is printed on. Mister Invincible is powerless against them because they exist only in the viewer’s world. The arrangement of panels is drawn to look like it exists in the viewer’s world too (like a gallery wall of framed images would actually exist in a viewer’s world), but that effect is no more real than the tree or the cat or the woman or Mister Invincible.

What do you call layout then? I’ve been puzzling through this while drafting my next book, The Comics Form: The Art of Sequenced Images (I just signed a new contract with Bloomsbury this month). While layout is a ‘secondary diegesis,’ the phrase misses its most salient features and could mean something entirely different (a story world within the story world). I first tried ‘pseudo-discourse,’ which made one of my collaborators (co-author of Creating Comics) laugh out loud–and not in a good way. So I’m currently going with the slightly less pretentious-sounding ‘pseudo-form.’

Comics panels are often drawn as though they are card-like images placed on the surface of a page. Sometimes they appear to overlap, either partially at corners, or entirely with insets, including panels that are insets on a full-page image. The word “on” is key. That’s a diegetic illusion. It’s all just ink marks beside inks marks (or pixels beside pixels). Only an illusion of diegetic content can appear to be “on” something else, as though that something else would be visible if the “top” content were somehow removed. It’s an illusion of depth–or let’s say ‘pseudo-depth’ since it’s distinct from the effects of depth created within the framed images through traditional naturalistic drawing techniques (three-dimensional perspective, light-sourced shading, etc.)

And that’s Mister Invincible’s improbable superpower: a panoptic awareness of and ability to navigate non-linearly but contiguously through the secondarily diegetic pseudo-form of each comics page.

He’s also a character in a really cute children’s comic I got for Christmas. Thanks, Santa!

Invincible v1: "Justice and Fresh Vegetables" (i.e. "Mister Invincible") -  Pipeline Comics

That isn’t the name of my first-year writing seminar, but I considered it when revising my syllabus for the upcoming winter term.

I’ve taught my “Superheroes” section of WRIT 100 for years now, making incremental syllabus changes but never an outright reboot. I invariably begin with the first year of Superman, beginning with Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s Action Comics No. 1 (1938). I originally followed that with the first year of Batman in Bill Finger and Bob Kane’s Detective Comics (1939), establishing the cornerstones of the comics genre. After that I’ve swapped around a range of other media.

For films, I’ve always liked M. Night’s Shyamalan’s 2000 Unbreakable (though absolutely not his recent sequel Glass). It paired well with Peter Berg’s 2008 Hancock, especially the contrasting roles of Will Smith’s hero and Samuel L. Jackson’s villain. But the homophobia (not just Hancock’s casual insults, but the use of sitcom-style music playing after Hancock apparently shoves a man’s head into another man’s asshole) was just too much. At my daughter’s much appreciated insistence, I replaced it with Patty Jenkin’s 2017 Wonder Woman. (And if you think the gender of the director is insignificant, compare how Justice League director Zach Snyder centers his camera through Gal Godot’s thighs.)

For prose works, I started with Austin Grossman’s 2007 Soon I Will Be Invincible (still one of my favorite novels), but soon swapped it for editors Owen King and John McNally’s 2008 collection Who Will Save Us Now? Brand-New Superheroes and Their Amazing (Short) Stories (assigning literally all of the female authors, to balance the all-male authors of the early comics).

For poetry, Gary Jackson’s 2009 collection Missing You, Metropolis (which won the Cave Canem Poetry Prize) is unbeatable. (And as a happy result of teaching him, I also just completed a chapter on Jackson for the essay collection Mixed-Race Superheroes forthcoming next year from Rutgers University Press.)

At the end of each semester, I would return to comics for a contemporary look at superheroes. G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona’s 2014 Ms. Marvel: No Normal was always on the top of my and later my students’ favorite lists. Greg Rucka and J. H. Williams’ 2010 Batwoman: Elegy got more mixed reviews the more times I taught it, happily because the presentation of the first lesbian hero to star in her own series grew more dated as students questioned why the writer was making such a big deal about the character’s sexuality.

I like to assign a range of secondary readings too. Editors Robin S. Rosenberg and Peter Coogan’s 2013 essay collection What is a Superhero? (from Oxford) and Matthew J. Smith and Randy Duncan’s 2011 Critical Approaches to Comics (from Routledge) are useful. The gender balance in comics scholarship is not great, so I tend to highlight female scholars. Claire Pitkethly’s “Straddling a Boundary” is one of my all-time favorite essays, and Jennifer K. Stuller’s “What is a Female Superhero?” and “Feminism: Second-wave Feminism in the Pages of Lois Lane” have been equally helpful. Kara Kvaran’s “Super Daddy Issues: Parental Figures, Masculinity, and Superhero Films” was key for Unbreakable and Hancock. And how could I not include the introductory essay “Representation Matters” from Carolyn Cocca’s 2016 Eisner Award-winning Superwomen: Gender, Power, and Representation?

This year I’m adding an excerpt from Rachelle Cruz’s textbook Experiencing Comics (even better, Cruz is also joining the editorial board of my university’s literary journal Shenandoah as guest comics editor this winter). I’m also adding Kenneth Ghee’s “Will the Real Black Superheroes Please Stand up?! A Critical and Analysis of the Mythological Cultural Significance of Black Superheroes” from Black Comics: Politics of Race and Representation. That’s from Bloomsbury, an increasingly impressive home for comics studies, since they also publish Carolyn Cocca and Neil Cohn. (Happily, my and Leigh Ann Beavers’ textbook Creating Comics will be out from Bloomsbury next month, and I just signed a contract with them for my next book, The Comics Form, for 2022.)

In the past, I’ve tended to change one primary text at a time. For the section that starts in January, I’m adding works by three new authors: Nnedi Okorafor’s 2019 comic Shuri: The Search for Black Panther and her 2015 novella Binti (which won both the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novella);

Eve L. Ewing’s 2019 comic Ironheart: Those With Courage and her 2017 poetry collection Electric Arches (Ewing, who has a Ph.D. from Harvard, also wrote the 2018 Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side, which I considered excerpting, but a syllabus only has so much room);

and Ta-Nehisi Coates 2017 comic Black Panther and the Crew: We Are the Streets. I am also adding an excerpt of G. Willow Wilson’s 2010 memoir The Butterfly Mosque.

Okorafor’s Binti is not a superhero text, but I’m looking forward to reading the science fiction story about a young Black woman from a futuristic Earth traveling across the galaxy to attend a university against Okorafor’s portrayal of Shuri, the sister of the original Black Panther. Ewing’s Electric Arches is not superhero text either, but it should also read well against her portrayal of Riri Williams, the young Black woman who assumed the renamed role of Iron Man in 2015. It will also be nice to give Gary Jackson some poetry company. Wilson’s The Butterfly Mosque describes her conversion to Islam, which should add an interesting angle of analysis to her portrayal of Ms. Marvel, AKA Kamala Kahn. (Unlike previous years, my students should enter class with plenty of exposure to the correct pronunciation of her first name.)

Ta-Nehisi Coates is best known for Between the World and Me, which won the 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction. Marvel Comics responded by offering Coates a new Black Panther series, which premiered in 2016. Black Panther and the Crew is one of his short-lived but therefore stand-alone spin-offs, featuring a range of Marvel’s Black superhero characters. I suspect it will especially resonate in our current Black Lives Matter context. (Unfortunately, my college announced after I placed my book orders that our winter calendar will include three “class free” days TBA, requiring some scheduled syllabus content to be cancelled. Since Coates is flying solo, his comic is a potential sacrifice–though I really hope not.)

I’m also adding a collection of William Moulton Marston and Harry Peter’s early 1940s Wonder Woman comics to pair with Superman (though the creators are all still male). In total I’m keeping three primary texts (Superman, Ms. Marvel, Gary Jackson) and adding six. That’s the most I’ve shaken up my WRIT 100 since I switched the course topic to superheroes five years ago (it used to be called “I see Dead People” and featured a lot of Henry James and zombies). An alumnus wrote and distributed his opinion essay to the W&L community two years ago, advocating that, based solely on my title “Superheroes,” the course and I should be “eliminated” for “dumbing down” the curriculum at W&L. Since my revised syllabus adds a National Book Award winner, a Nebula and Hugo Awards winner, and a Harvard Ph.D, in addition to a pre-existing Cave Canem Poetry Prize winner, I hope I am safe from that criticism this year.

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