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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

I’m starting a manuscript tentatively titled The Color of Paper: Whiteness in the Comics Medium, and I’m very fortunate to be presenting the first section at the Invisible Lines conference in Venice this July. My panel paper, “A Sharp White Background,” explores the representational qualities of unmarked areas of line art understood to be a character’s skin. Since the paper used to produce a comic is typically some variation of white, that default color represents a range of skin colors of characters of different races and ethnicities.

The section I’m starting now focuses on characters originally published in color but that were later reprinted in black and white. One of the first comics I read growing up was Defenders #15 (September 1974), which introduced Alpha the Ultimate Mutant. Through the course of the next issue, Glynis Wein renders his skin color a consistent pink (though my low-quality scans below obscure that consistency), while his body and facial features transform radically:

When the issue was reproduced in the black and white volume Essential Defenders in 2007, the areas of Sal Buscema’s and Mike Esposito’s line art that demark Alpha’s skin are the color of the off-white paper. While I suspect paper color has no overt representational qualities, it still overlaps with whatever skin color a viewer perceives. The first image of Alpha appears to me to be a racist caricature of a Black man, and the next two images suggest racially white facial features, before veering into fantastical proportions. Does the original presence of pink ink lessen the effects of the initial facial features? Does the absence of colors block or reverse those effects? Those are the kinds of questions I’m currently exploring, while also searching for other examples to study.

When I was writing The Black Superhero chapter in Superhero Comics a few years ago, I read that artist Mike Grell had drawn a Black character that a DC editor had colored pink. I thought it was “Soljer” from Superboy Starring the Legion of Super-Heroes #210:

Live Journal blogger Jkahane has the same impression: “I remember reading an interview about this story where Grell said that he intended Soljer to be a black man, but that idea was nixed by editor Murray Boltinoff.”

I went back through my notes and found what Grell told Glen Cadigan in The Legion Companion (TwoMorrows 2003): “Murray explained to me, ‘You can’t do that because we’ve never had a black person in the Legion of Super-Heroes, and now you’re gonna have one in there who’s not perfect. We can’t do that. Besides, we’re working on creating a black super-hero, and he’s gonna be featured in the Legion.’ I said, ‘Okay, fine.’ So I changed a couple of things about Soljer, but left enough of them the same so that it was really obvious to anybody who looked at the artwork on the book that basically he had had been a black man who had been colored pink. And most of my black friends spotted that and gave me hell for it over the years, but when I told them the story, they pretty much understood.”

But when I tried to track down the actual issue (which I’d read as a kid along with that Defenders issue), the art didn’t match Grell’s description:

So I found a different Mike Grell interview from Back Issue #14 and discovered the incident was true but occurred three issues earlier in Superboy starring the Legion of Super Heroes #207 (March 1975). Instead of Grell’s misremembered Soljer, the episode is “about a member of the Science Police who at first betrays the Legion and then turns around and saves the day.”

Grell continues: “When I drew the character, I drew him as a black guy. And when I turned it in, Murray says, ‘You can’t do that. The guy’s black.’ And I said, ‘Yeah. Well, there’s nothing in the story that says he isn’t, so why couldn’t he be black?’ ‘Oh, um, well, you can’t do that because we’ll get a lot of negative mail from our black readers.’ ‘But there are no black characters in the Legion. Why not use one?’ He said, ‘Well, we’re actually going to do a black Legionnaire. We’re planning on it, and we’ve been talking about it for a long time. We’re planning a big launch of the new character, so you’ll just have to make the changes and wait.’ Reluctantly, I did change the character… ever so slightly, leaving enough characteristics that it was obvious to the readers that he had been intended to be black. Sure enough, we got mail from black readers who spotted it and knew it had been a black man colored pink.”

That issue was reprinted in black and white in Showcase Present Legion of Super-Heroes in 2014, and probably in the Australian Super Heroes Album in 1976. I have a used copy arriving in the mail soon, but knowing the background and Grell’s intentions, it’s impossible to know whether I would have understood the character to be Black if I had seen the black and white art first.

Raising these research questions on Florida University’s comics scholars listserv triggered another example. Originally intended as an on-going title, Jack Kirby’s “Dingbats of Danger Street” appeared as a one-off in 1st Issue Special #6 (September 1975):

When the two unpublished issues were collected and completed for Dingbat Love (TwoMorrows 1992), John Morrow explained: “Tom Ziuko … colored the whole batch in a 1970s-appropriate style. DC had oddly chosen to color Non-Fat with a Caucasian skin tone in 1st Issue Special #6, but we’re staying true to Kirby’s vision for this book’s presentation.”

Rob Steibel at KirbyMuseum.org notes that that the differences are more than coloring: “If [you] look closely at the pencil photocopy artwork I posted yesterday, you can see the character Non-Fat appears to have African American features in the original pencils; in the published version the character has been changed to look more like a Caucasian. I doubt this was [the inking artist’s] decision; the change was probably made at the DC offices. 40 years later artists still have to be careful when portraying characters from different ethnic backgrounds or they could face accusations of stereotyping or racism, so you have to think someone at DC figured it was a good idea to simply avoid any controversy altogether by changing the character’s ethnicity.”

But Kirby’s Non-Fat premiered well after other Black characters: Mal Duncan in Teen Titans #26 (March-April 1970), Kirby’s Black Racer in New Gods #3 (July 1971), John Stewart in Green Lantern #87 (January 1972), and Nubia in Wonder Woman #204 (January 1973). Also, “the DC offices” had not avoided stereotyping Black characters drawn by Kirby four years earlier. Against his advice, DC had assigned him to draw and write a Black romance series tentatively titled Soul Love.

Mark Evanier explains in Dingbat Love: “some were shown to a magazine distributor who was said to have expertise on the kind of mostly-black neighborhoods where DC hoped to sell most of the press run. This person—I know not his race—felt that the faces were ‘too realistic.’ … The order came down to have everyone redrawn so—and this is a quote—’…all the women look like Diahann Carroll and all the men look like Sidney Poitier.’ Those were two popular black stars of the day who were considered very attractive and perhaps more acceptable in some circles. … DC’s Production Department and inker Vince Colletta went to work on the pages that had already been completed. Much of what Jack had drawn was obliterated …. I recall the people on Jack’s pages looking very good, very human and very expressive when those pages left him. I do not think the revisions were.”

Since “Dingbats” and Superboy #207 were both published by DC in 1975, it seems possible that Murray Boltinoff, the editor who prevented Grell from making a Black character in the Legion of Super Heroes, also prevented Kirby from making a Black character in Dingbats. But Boltinoff doesn’t appear to have been involved in either the original Dingbats series plan or in 1st Issue Special.

I would have expected the decision to have been Mort Weisinger’s, because Jim Shooter, who wrote for Superboy Starring the Legion of Super-Heroes from 1966-70, said: “I wanted Ferro Lad to be the first black Legionnaire, and Mort said, ‘No, we’ll lose our distribution in the South.’” But Weisinger retired in 1970. Carmine Infantino served as DC’s publisher from 1971-1976, and he was also closely involved with 1st Issue Special. Artist Gerry Conway told Back Issue: “1st Issue Special was a peculiar book concept based on Carmine Infantino’s observation that first issues of titles often sold better than subsequent issues. Carmine’s brainstorm: a monthly series of nothing but first issues.” … “We used to sit at editorial meetings and [Carmine] would say, ‘Who has an idea for 1st Issue Special next month?’”

Though it’s hard to conclude for certain who “at DC figured it was a good idea to” alter Kirby’s character, the decision seems to reflect an attitude toward race held collectively by “the DC offices” at the time.

When does a photograph of me become not a photograph of me? Rather than trying to draw consistent (but almost certainly arbitrary) lines of division, I find myself increasingly evoking individual viewer perception in my comics scholarship. Here’s a test case. Which image in this sequence of digital adaptions ceases to represent me? And, since the later images reverse the level of facial distortion, do any become self-portraits again?

My next book, The Comics Form: The Art of Sequenced Images, will be released in June. Bloomsbury just finalized the cover:

This credit line will appear somewhere too: “Cover art: ‘Autochrome Sequence’ by Chris Gavaler.” Not the most most imaginative title, but the piece does explore the nature of “sequence,” which is the point of the book. The art is also a kind of narrative, documenting a selected progression of its own creative process. Here’s the fuller story:

Step One.

The Lumière brothers began selling autochrome plates in 1907, and by 1913 they were producing 6,000 daily. As a result, there are dozens of anonymous, amateur, public domain, c. 1910s, color images available on the web. I selected this one:

Step Two.

Because it was already digitized, the image consists of pixels, which became apparent when I selected and enlarged the figure’s face in MS Paint. Using the free-form selection tool, I drew curved shapes over the enlarged squares, copying and layering them to create a paradoxically more detailed face over the original.

Step Three.

I continued the process, selecting, copying, and pasting more digital shapes, until a new face, head, neck, and shoulders emerged.

Step Four.

I opened the PNG file in Adobe Illustrator, doubled the color saturation, pasted the new image back into Paint, and continued manipulating.

Step Five.

Happy with a final face, I reversed the pixilation by shrinking the image to roughly 1% and enlarging it again. I repeated the process for a further pixilated effect.

Step Six.

I reversed the saturation process too, incrementally reducing the color levels of the new pixilated images.

Step Seven.

I selected and cropped nine of the process images and arranged them in a rough 3×3 grid.

Step Eight.

I added and cropped the original autochrome, continued experimenting with the pixilated images, then eliminated the gutter in the final arrangement.

So what kind of story is that?

That’s the kind of question The Comics Form explores.

First, “Autochrome Sequence” is a sequence of images, and so it is in the comics form. Does that mean it’s a comic? Maybe. As I discuss in the introduction, if a work is in a certain form, and if that form defines a category of works, then the work is necessarily in that category. For example, an arrangement of words in the sonnet form is a sonnet because the sonnet form defines sonnets. Does the comics form define comics? Sometimes. But many non-formal definitions focus on context instead: to be a comic, a work may have to be created, published, and/or consumed with the understanding that it is a comic. Applied to sonnets, that would mean that an arrangement of words is a sonnet only if it appears in certain publication contexts, such as a literary journal, an anthology, an author’s collection, etc. Or form and context could be combined, so that a sonnet is a set of words arranged in the sonnet form and published in a certain context. No one talks about sonnets these ways. Sonnet definitions are exclusively formal. Publication isn’t required. If I paint a sonnet on the side of my house, it’s still a sonnet.

Comics are different because the term has (at least) two kinds of definitions: form and medium. So instead of comics, I wrote a book about works in the comics form, many of which also happen to be in the comics medium. My cover art, “Autochrome Sequence,” is in the comics form but not the comics medium, and so some viewers may call it a comic and some may not. There may also be viewers who define comics according to conventions common in the comics medium. If gutters and drawings are part of your comics definition, then “Autochrome Sequence” isn’t a comic. That kind of definition is a hybrid approach to medium and form, because its extracts qualities found in a certain context and the applies them as formal qualities of works regardless of context.

There are also two ways in which “Autochrome Sequence” may not be in the comics form. Despite its title, the cover image is an image. It’s a single unified work of art. A sequence of images requires there to be multiple images. If a viewer perceives the cover art as only one image, albeit an image presumably consisting of distinguishable parts, then it can’t simultaneously be a sequence of discreet images. My elimination of gutters and the cover designer’s superimposition of words likely reinforces that non-divided effect.

The word “sequence” presents a challenge too. Though the eight-step creative process detailed above is definitively sequential, the final arrangement may not be. My intended viewing path is three Z-shaped rows, but a viewer is free to view the images in different paths–which the cover design and lack of gutters likely reinforce too. Some viewers may discover the Z-path while wandering the images in initially different orders; others may not. Like “images,” I treat “sequence” as a viewer’s perception. The artist (me) perceives a sequence of images, but other viewers may not.

However, “sequence” is sometimes understood as a synonym for “series,” which when images are arranged with multiple contiguous borders, does not necessarily require a single viewing path. Some comics analysis doesn’t distinguish between the two senses of sequence, and so a sequence isn’t necessarily a sequence. If so, “Autochrome Sequence” is a series of images, open to any viewing path.

“Autochrome Sequence” also challenges the notion of narrative. Usually the term refers to a story within the world of the representational images. If “Autochrome Sequence” tells that sort of story, then it presumably is about the woman with the black umbrella standing in the dirt road in the original autochrome. In fact, my original PNG files were all titled some variation on “woman with black umbrella.” Still, I don’t think the sequence tells that kind of narrative. The progression is instead about the image itself, not the image’s representational content. The “woman with black umbrella” undergoes a sequence of transformations, but the woman with black umbrella does not. That form-and-content, or discourse-or-diegesis, division is key. “Autochrome Sequence” could be called a discursive narrative.

Though I’m no fan of non-self-explanatory jargon, I rely heavily on that one pair, discourse and diegesis, because they are vital for exploring and clarifying the differences between a work’s physical properties (ink on paper, pixels on screens) and the subject matter those physical properties evoke when viewers perceive them. If the last image (or bottom right image part) were viewed in isolation, I suspect no one would perceive its arrangement of gray and black squares as a representation of a human face. That diegetic content occurs only through juxtaposition with the less abstract versions of the same face. Viewed in isolation, the last image does not represent anything. There’s no diegesis. It is a discourse only.

Such non-representational images are often called “abstract,” but the adjective also describes a style of representational images. Style is a larger puzzle, especially for fictional content in works in the comics medium. Since an invented subject is only perceivable through images, and since images necessarily have some sort of style, which image properties are the subject’s and which are the style’s?

The sixth image of “Autochrome Sequence” represents a woman’s face. So do the second, third, fourth and fifth. Do they all represent the same face or different faces? I perceive the sixth face as diegetically distinct from the second face. I also perceive the eighth face as a pixilated distortion of the sixth face (which in the historical creative process it is), but I do not perceive it as a pixilated distortion of the second face–even though the style of the two images are very similar and both are part of the same creative progression.

So maybe “Autochrome Sequence” is also a narrative in the traditional sense? There are two different people evoked in my mind. One representation presumably documents an actual person from around 1910. The other person is fictional, and to the extent that fictional people exist, she (I use the pronoun tentatively) exists in a fictional world and so not this world. All I know about either of them is their appearances in what seem to be two snapshot-like moments. The discursive transformations of their two faces (the first face into the second face, the second face into pure abstraction) could also evoke diegetic events. The two individuals have some kind of relationship to each other. Perhaps in additional to the literal discursive transformation of their images, the first individual metaphorically becomes the second. And then the second metaphorically becomes nothing. That sounds a lot like a “story” to me. (E. M. Forester might agree: “the king died and then the queen died.” Add “of grief,” and Forester would call it a “plot.”)

Or maybe those are only my perceptions. Authorial intentions determine little. I am one viewer with uniquely specific access to both the complete creative process and to the intentions the artist experienced during it. The physical results of that process and those intentions and how those physical results are perceived by other viewers is a different matter.

And that’s just the cover.

Bloomsbury also recently finalized the back cover text:

Answering foundational questions like “What distinguishes form and medium?” and “How do comics work?” in original and imaginative ways, this book expands formalist approaches to explaining the experience of viewing sequenced images. Taking stock of a multitude of case studies and examples, The Comics Form demonstrates that any object can be read formally as a comic so long as it displays a set of relevant features. Drawing from the worlds of art criticism and philosophy to put forward innovative ways of thinking and talking about comics, this book challenges traditional concepts and such fundamental but loosely defined terms as “frames” and “juxtaposed” and “narrative.”

In unpacking the ways in which images function in sequences, The Comics Form develops such tools for analysis as:

  • discourse and diegesis to explore the divide between a work’s physical qualities and the subjects it represents;
  • styles modes to map the complete artistic range of simplification and exaggeration combinations;
  • pseudo-form to theorize the treatment of comics layouts as physical parameters;
  • event inferencing to determine undrawn content;
  • erasure to account for drawn but conceptually rejected content;
  • text-narrator, image-narrator, and image-text narrator to clarify the overlapping relationships of linguistic and pictorial content, including in hybrid word-image art. 

The Comics Form fills conceptual gaps and harmonizes multi-disciplinary approaches to comics theory to provide a new basis for understanding sequenced images.

Chris Gavaler is Associate Professor of English at Washington and Lee University, USA. He is the author of On the Origins of Superheroes (2015) and Superhero Comics (Bloomsbury 2017) and co-author of Superhero Thought Experiments (2019), Revising Fiction, Fact, and Faith (2020) and Creating Comics (Bloomsbury 2021). He became series editor of Bloomsbury Comics Studies in 2021.

The Supreme Court's Newest Justices Produce Some Unexpected Results - The  New York Times

The Supreme Court is expected to make a new ruling about the Second Amendment in June. The case, New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. v. Bruen, will determine whether the Constitution allows individuals to carry concealed guns outside of their homes or if states can require individuals to demonstrate a special need in order to receive a license to carry a concealed gun. Oddly, whichever way the Court rules, that new decision will have always been true. Any change will rewrite history. The pop-culture concepts of sequels and retcons explain that paradox.

How can the Supreme Court have the power to change history? Start with the Constitution: “The judicial power of the United States shall be vested in one Supreme Court, and in such inferior courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.” The Constitution also defines the scope of that power (“shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity,” etc.) and gives judges the political independence to wield it (since they are to remain in office receiving “compensation, which shall not be diminished” for as long as they are in “good behavior”). But it does not define what exactly that “judicial power” is.

Woodrow Wilson expressed his opinion in 1912: “Living political constitutions must be Darwinian in structure and in practice” and so our Constitution must be “modified by its environments.” Those modification would not be by Congress amending the Constitution but by how the Court interprets it. Wilson describes an evolution of constitutional meaning in response to changes in the surrounding culture. Words that once meant one thing later come to mean something else in a progression—the root of the political affiliation ‘progressives’— of sequels.

James Madison expressed the opposite view in an 1824 personal letter: “If the meaning of the text be sought in the changeable meaning of the words composing it, it is evident that the shape and attributes of the Government must partake of the changes to which the words and phrases of all living languages are constantly subject. What a metamorphosis would be produced in the code of law if all its ancient phraseology were to be taken in its modern sense.”

Though words do evolve, according to Madison’s view, all later meanings of words in the Constitution should be rejected. They’re just sequels. That’s the contemporary view of many conservatives. The “proper role” of courts, argues the Heritage Foundation’s Elizabeth Slattery in her 2013 article “How to Spot Judicial Activism,” requires their “neutrally interpreting” the words of the Constitution and later laws “according to their original public meaning.” Slattery echoes Ronald Reagan at Justice Kennedy’s 1988 swearing-in: “The role assigned to judges in our system was to interpret the Constitution … certainly not to rewrite it…. unless judges are bound by the text of the Constitution, we will, in fact, no longer have a government of laws, but … the personal and capricious rule of a small elite.”

So non-activist judges must bind themselves by each word’s original public meaning. Though the view provides an unacknowledged means for avoiding the murkiness of authorial intent, Madison, Reagan, and Slattery do not account for the role of retconning required by their supposedly conservative approach. Though judicial power does not rewrite the text of the Constitution with sequels, it still revises it with retroactive reinterpretations.

Consider the Second Amendment, which establishes that “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” The fact that the meaning of the word ‘arms’ has later come to include nuclear arms—as illustrated in the paradigmatic cold war phrase ‘the arms race’—poses no problems since the authors and original public readers of the 1791 amendment were not referring to intercontinental ballistic missiles.

And yet many interpreters of the amendment—who align themselves with anti-activism—also reject the notion that ‘arms’ refers only to muskets. In its 2008 Heller decision, and reiterated in its 2016 Caetano, the Supreme Court “rejected as ‘bordering on the frivolous’ the argument ‘that only those arms in existence in the 18th century are protected by the Second Amendment.’” Regarding the word ‘arms,’ Justice Scalia concluded that the “18th-century meaning is no different from the meaning today,” citing examples of its being used synonymously with ‘weapons’. After establishing this extremely broad definition, which would include ICBMs and other weapons of mass destruction, Scalia then curtails it in two ways.

First that: “The term was applied, then as now, to weapons that were not specifically designed for military use and were not employed in a military capacity.” While it is presumably true that ‘arms’ was applied to non-military weapons, Scalia implies (and the logic of his claim requires) that it was applied exclusively in that way. It wasn’t. In fact, since the amendment was written when the United States still questioned the efficacy of a standing army and so wished private citizens to have the ability to withstand the assault of a foreign invasion, the non-military claim seems counterintuitive. The opening clause, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State,” references a military meaning.

Second, Scalia declares that the amendment applies “to all instruments that constitute bearable arms, even those that were not in existence at the time of the founding.” He adds the adjective ‘bearable,’ derived from the verb ‘bear,’ which he argues indicates that the weapon must be carriable. Though he does not explain his reasoning, he also implicitly understands that the carrying must be accomplishable by one individual without the need of mechanical or other aid. In other words, hand-held.

President Biden agreed with Scalia when he claimed last year: “The Second Amendment, from the day it was passed, limited … what type of weapon you could own. You couldn’t buy a cannon.” The Washington Post fact-checkers awarded Biden “Four Pinocchios,” its worst offense, explaining: “We have no idea where he conjured up this notion about a ban on cannon ownership in the early days of the Republic, but he needs to stop making this claim.” While it’s true that no such ban existed in the early penal code, it was always implied by the Second Amendment according to Scalia’s retconning. Because Biden’s claim was a historical claim, The Washington Post looked at historical documents to support it. They apparently did not look at twenty-first century court rulings that retconned the historical record.

Though he should agree with Biden about colonial cannons, Scalia also wrote: “the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.” In addition to constraining the size and non-military design of arms, the decision also retconned a constraining purpose of self-defense drawn from historical parallels. In full, Heller retcons the amendment to protect only the right of the people to keep and bear individually carriable, non-military Arms in defense of themselves and the state, both in 1791 and now.

Is that what the authors (or, according to the Heritage Foundation, the original readers) of the Bill of Rights understood the Second Amendment to mean? We can’t know. Did they imagine that a single person positioned in a thirty-second story window could fire over one thousand bullets, killing sixty people and wounding 441 people in ten minutes at a range of 590 yards with arms that were not “specifically designed for military use”? Does their inability to imagine the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting matter since ‘arms’ might refer to whatever it refers to regardless of anyone’s awareness or intent? Perhaps instead of retconning ‘arms’ with “specifically designed for military use,” a future Court might try to discern the amendment’s original meaning by retconning the term according to its killing capacity.

The Supreme Court’s unanimous 2016 Caetano decision even retconned stun guns into the Second Amendment—a technology even more alien to the 1791 authors and readers than the twenty-two AR-10 and AR-15 rifles with bump stocks and 100-round magazines that Stephen Paddock purchased and carried by hand to his Las Vega hotel suite. Heller did recognize an “important limitation on the right to keep and carry arms,” the prohibition on “dangerous and unusual weapons.” If the adjectives are understood separately, then stun guns are “unusual.” They administer a non-lethal but painful and sometimes briefly incapacitating electric shock through two metal prongs in contact with someone’s body. They are not firearms, but because the stun gun was hand-held, not designed for a primarily military purpose, and used in self-defense, Caetano conforms to the Heller retcon. This is true even though stun guns do not fit the “original public meaning” of ‘arms.’

“What a metamorphosis,” wrote Madison, “would be produced in the code of law if all its ancient phraseology were to be taken in its modern sense.” But because Heller is understood as a retcon, it doesn’t take ‘arms’ in its modern sense. It reveals its original sense, which just happens to coincide with its modern sense.

Unless it’s a sequel. Which, according to the FiveThirtyEight article, “The Second Amendment Didn’t Protect Your Right To Own A Gun Until 2008,” Heller is. According to the FiveThirtyEight authors, “the Supreme Court redefined the Second Amendment” and could “expand the meaning of the Second Amendment yet again.” Redefining and expanding meanings with a clear before and after division describes a sequel. Since judicial decisions are by default retcons, describing one as a sequel means the authors are rejecting the retconning. It’s their way of spotting what they consider judicial activism by conservative justices.

The larger disagreement is about reality. Since the past is often unknowable, claims about the past can’t always be verified. Maybe Heller gets the original meaning of the Second Amendment right. Maybe it doesn’t. All we can know is that Heller claims to, and that the claim, like any revealed reinterpretation about the past, is a retcon. We always had the right to carry stun guns.

Come June, we may discover that we have always had the right to carry concealed guns too. Or not. The Court is still writing that retroactive history.

I’m teaching Superhero Comics this semester, and I taught Introduction to Graphic Novels last semester, and though I retool every syllabus each semester, I find there’s one work of comics scholarship I always end up assigning: Joseph Witek’s “Caricature and Illustration in the Crumb Family’s Dirty Laundry,” from Critical Approaches to Comics.

The essay divides comics art into two modes, cartoon and naturalism. “The first,” Witek explains, “grows out of caricature, with its basic principles of simplification and exaggeration, while the other derives from the recreation of physical appearances in realistic illustration.” In my forthcoming The Comics Mode, I expand Witek’s two modes to four, the number of ways that simplification and exaggeration combine and not combine. But fine-tuning aside, cartooning and naturalism provide a great tool for analyzing comics art (also, non-comics art, but that’s a different argument).

Even more fun, Witek also argues that each mode has an ethos: “the naturalistic mode makes the implicit claim that its depicted worlds are like our own, or like our own world would be if specific elements, such as magic or superpowers, were to be added or removed. … that claim supplies the metaphysical structure underlying the visual and narrative strategies of the naturalistic tradition of comics.”

The comics mode and ethos are opposite. Though cartoon and caricature are different (cartoon is exaggerated and simplified, while caricature is exaggerated but often not simplified), Witek treats them as one: “The art form of caricature, on the other hand, specifically disavows any attempt to render the surface appearances of the physical world and makes a very different claim to a very different kind of truth. That is, by stripping away the inessential elements of a human face and exaggerating its defining features, caricature purports to reveal an essential truth about its subject that lies hidden beneath the world of appearances.”

In my own digital art, I’ve been exploring the relationship between these two styles, and so also their two ethoses. The image below on the left is in the naturalistic mode; the image on the right is in the cartoon mode:

As Witek describes, the left image resembles a human head of roughly realistic proportions viewed from a specific angle in space. It is composed of various marks of differing density and darkness, suggesting three-dimensionality through shading. The undrawn spaces imply areas of the head that reflect more light and so are unshaded.

The right image appears comparatively flat. It is made of one kind of line that forms anatomically unrealistic shapes that do not appear to occupy three-dimensional space. The undrawn areas likely evoke no lighting effects or other realistic techniques. The images likely resembles a head enough to evoke that category, but the dissimilarities are more significant. Its proportions are humanly impossible.

According to Witek, those differences produce two very different kinds of truth claims. The naturalistic ethos evokes a mimetic world that somehow exists apart from the rendering of the image on the page (or in this case screen). The cartoon ethos instead draws attention to the image surface, to the rendered lines themselves and the fact of the non-mimetic world of the page/screen.

Both style-dependent worlds interest me, but I’m more intrigued by the gaps between them. Where do naturalism and cartoon meet, and does that style have its own world-evoking truth claim too? How many ethoses exist between the extremes of the naturalism-cartoon divide?

To begin exploring those possibilities, consider how I created the two images. I drew the cartoon first with a mouse in MS Paint. I layered it and then used the layered image as a transparency to sift away details, while rearranging pixels and repeating the process, until the naturalistic image emerged:

I’m not sure where the sequence shifts from cartoon to naturalism, but here’s the original again:

And the final image:

I’m not yet sure what this might suggest about either of Witek’s two styles/worlds/ethoses, but the creative process definitely merges the two — perhaps emphasizing that naturalism is no different from cartoons, its three-dimensional illusions just as flat and surface-defined? In other words, the heart of every naturalistic image is a cartoon.

The answer is of course unknowable. It will probably remain unknowable right up to the election. All we can know right now are the factors that will shape the outcome.

So first question, how many senate seats are up for election? That’s easy:

  • 34

How many of those seats are currently held by each party? Also easy:

  • 14 Democrats
  • 20 Republicans

Does that mean the Democrats have an almost 3-to-2 advantage because they’re defending a third as many seats? Technically, but not really because of the not-so-easy question: how many seats are competitive?

That depends on whom you ask. I gathered answers from five sources.

1.

Despite the headline, “These 10 races could determine control of the Senate in 2022,” NBC News identifies five states as “battlegrounds”:

  • Georgia, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Wisconsin

With “5 other big races to watch”:

  • North Carolina, New Hampshire, Ohio, Florida, Missouri

2.

Cook Political Report identifies 25 races in the “Solid” ranges:

  • Solid R: 15
  • Solid D: 10

Of the remaining nine races, six are “Toss-ups”:

  • Georgia, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Wisconsin, North Carolina

With three races in the “Lean” categories:

  • Lean D: New Hampshire
  • Lean R: Ohio, Florida

Cook puts Missouri in the “Solid R” range, with no states in either “Likely R” or “Likely D.”

3.

Instead of ten or nine, or six or five, FiveThirtyEight identifies “The 7 Races That Will Likely Decide Control Of The Senate.” Their partisan lean chart explains the number. Of the 34 races, Sen. Brian Schatz is the safest Democrat, because Hawaii has a Democratic lean of +34.6, and Sen. John Hoeven is the safest Republican because North Dakota has a Republican lean of +37.2. It’s the middle of the chart where things get complicated:

Their seven races include three “Leans”:

  • Lean R: Wisconsin, North Carolina
  • Lean D: New Hampshire

And four “Toss-ups”:

  • Georgia, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Nevada

4.

270 to Win identifies six “Toss-ups”:

  • Georgia, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Wisconsin, North Carolina

They place New Hampshire in the “Leans D” category.

5.

Race to the WH identifies just four “Tossups” (I don’t know why they dropped the hyphen):

  • Georgia, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Nevada

With four “Tilts”:

  • Tilts D: New Hampshire
  • Tilts R: Wisconsin, North Carolina, South Carolina

Combined Answer:

So while anything can happen between now and however long it takes to count the votes after election day, it seems control of the Senate largely balances on four states. Of those four, Democrats currently hold three, and Republicans one:

  • Democrats: Georgia, Arizona, Nevada
  • Republicans: Pennsylvania

So the nearly 3-to-2 Democratic advantage on the whole map boils down to a 3-to-1 Republican advantage in the toss-up map.

Sort of.

Keeping in mind that the Senate is currently evenly split 50-50, because Vice-President Harris is the tie-breaker, Democrats have to maintain the same number of seats, while Republicans have to win at least one more to gain control.

Look back at the FiveThirtyEight chart, and of the four toss-ups, three incumbent Democrats are in states with a Republican advantage.

So can Democratic Senators Kelly, Warnock, and Cortez Mastro hold their seats in unfavorable territory?

Kelly and Warnock seem to face bigger obstacles, but the advantages of incumbency are real — though hard to calculate except in retrospect (“Incumbent Advantage“, “How Much Was Incumbency Worth In 2018?“). Race to the WH slightly favors Kelly’s and Warnock’s odds of winning over Mastro’s:

If any two lose, the Republicans control the Senate. If only one of those Democratic senators loses, control of the senate then hinges on Pennsylvania.

Because of Pennsylvania’s Republican senator is retiring, the seat is wide open, with over a dozen candidates competing in both party primaries. Personally, I’m betting the current lieutenant governor, John Fetterman, wins both the Democratic primary and the general election.

Hell, I’ll reach even deeper into my pile of sheep intestines and predict that Senator Fetterman will win the 2028 Democratic presidential primary and then the White House (the “15104” tattoo is the zip code for Braddock where he was mayor and continues to live).

Identifying the major races is relatively easy. Predicting who will win each and which party will control the Senate, that’s impossible. Or rather, your odds of guessing correctly are the same as a coin toss.

If you don’t like those odds, then now is a good time to improve them.

Rockbridge Delegate Ronnie Campbell is co-sponsoring four House bills designed to prevent absentee voting in Virginia:

  • HB 34 would eliminate drop-off locations for the return of absentee ballots.
  • HB 35 would require a registered voter to provide a reason for being unable to vote at their polling place on election day in order to receive an absentee ballot.
  • HB 36 would prevent registered voters from receiving absentee ballots for all elections.
  • HB 39 would limit absentee voting in person to the two weeks immediately preceding an election.

Why does Virginia need these new laws? Is there any evidence that absentee voting, whether submitted by mail, placed in drop-boxes, or delivered in person, is prone to fraud? If there is evidence of such past fraud, then, yes, preventing more future fraud would be a reasonable goal. But if evidence is scant or non-existent, if absentee voting has been shown to be no more prone to fraud than any other form of voting, then these laws are not about reducing voter fraud. They are about reducing voting.

Ask Delegate Wren Williams. His name is on those four bills too, and I suspect he, not Campbell, is the driving force behind them. When Williams primaried a twelve-year incumbent Republican last summer, he made “Securing our Elections” one of his top talking points. His website brags:

“Our elections are the most sacred part of American democracy. In 2020, Wren volunteered his time to aid President Donald Trump and the Republican National Committee’s (RNC) election integrity efforts in Wisconsin. Virginia Democrats have pushed voting without any form of ID, and will continue to push liberal policies that harm the fabric of our voting system. Wren believes election integrity and trusting our elections is one of the most important issues facing the Commonwealth. In Richmond, he will bring his national courtroom experience on this issue and will be a fierce fighter for integrity in our elections.”

So what exactly happened to “election integrity” in Wisconsin?

According to a court brief filed on behalf of Trump: “in Wisconsin, the largest cities all deployed hundreds of unmanned, unsecured absentee ballot drop boxes that were all invalid means of returning absentee votes under state law.” The drop-off boxes were anchored to the ground, sealed against tampering, and subjected to 24-hour video surveillance, so, no, they were not “unsecured.” Trump’s legal team, which apparently included Williams, tried to invalidate over 200,000 Wisconsin votes on these and other false grounds, but the Wisconsin Supreme Court rejected their arguments. That’s the “national courtroom experience” Williams brings to Richmond.

But the evidence disproving the false fraud claims goes much deeper. Last month, the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty completed their 10-month investigation, finding “no evidence of fraudulent ballots or widespread voter fraud.” That includes absentee voting: “The number of absentee ballots counted on election night in Milwaukee is consistent with what was reported to be outstanding. Put simply, there was no unexplained ‘ballot dump.’”

The same is true for Virginia. Last March: “A statewide audit of Virginia’s 2020 election results verified President Joe Biden’s victory in the state, finding only a 0.00000065117 percent chance the state’s voting system could have produced an inaccurate outcome.”

That “voting system” included 1,202,087 absentee ballots.

And what about the November 2021 election that Republican Gov. Youngkin won? Days before the election, conservative radio host John Fredericks claimed : “We’ve got all kinds of irregularities right now going on.” Epoch Times commentator John Mills warned that “people can walk in and out” of Virginia’s unsecure ballot-counting facilities. Republican state Sen. Amanda Chase claimed “Democrats are cheating” in the early absentee voting (Business Insider). And yet after the election, these and other Republicans showed no concern about or evidence of any “irregularies” or poor “security” or “cheating” of any kind.

So why now that he’s in office does Williams claim absentee voting “harms the fabric of our voting system”? And why is Campbell co-sponsoring legislation attacking a form of voting that allows more Virginians to vote with no increased risk of fraud?

Keep in mind that Wren Williams is the same delegate who was widely mocked earlier this month for introducing a bill that would require Virginian students to study “the first debate between Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.” Lincoln debated pro-slavery Senator Steven Douglas. Frederick Douglass and Lincoln both opposed slavery. The same Williams bill would also prevent history from hurting students’ feelings by prohibiting the “divisive concept” that “an individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s race, religion, ethnicity, or sex.” I think anyone who reads the history of slavery and Jim Crow in the U.S. “should” feel a great deal of “discomfort” and probably even some “psychological distress,” but that would be on account of their being human, whatever their particular “race, religion, ethnicity, or sex.”

Meanwhile, Ronnie Campbell is the same delegate who was stripped of his committee positions last January after he and two other Republican delegates wrote a letter to Vice President Pence asking him to “nullify the Certificate of Ascertainment of Presidential Electors issued by the governor of our state.” The other 42 Republican delegates and the 18 Republican state senators did not join in the effort to disenfranchise all of Virginia’s voters based on false claims.

Speaker Filler-Corn responded: “By seeking to disenfranchise millions of Virginians and undercut faith in our democratic institutions, Delegate Dave LaRock, Delegate Mark Cole and Delegate Ronnie Campbell showed exceedingly poor judgement and conducted themselves in a manner unbecoming of their office. Their attempt to cast doubt on our elections process in order to impede the peaceful transfer of power between one President to another is an affront to our democracy and violates the public trust.”

In Campbell’s defense, LaRock was the author of the letter. Campbell was just foolish enough to co-sign it. The same may be true of these new anti-voting bills that Williams got Campbell to co-sign too. Does either Republican actually believe they are safeguarding democracy—or do they know that the baseless claims about non-existent voter fraud are just an excuse to try to reduce voter turnout? I have no idea. I don’t care either, because whether these Republicans are merely deluded or knowingly placing party interest above the most sacred part of American democracy, their legislation will harm the fabric of our voting system.

“Virginia must renew its commitment to teaching our children the value of freedom of thought and diversity of ideas,” declared Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin in his first executive order on January 15. He even included conservatives’ favorite cherry-picked MLK quote: “Only then will we realize Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream that our children ‘will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.'”

But how do Virginia Republicans renew a commitment to teaching children the value of freedom of thought and diversity of ideas? By trying to ban ideas they dislike. No more “divisive concepts, like Critical Race Theory and its progeny.” Or rather no more “inherently divisive concepts.” The adverb is apparently important. It appears eighteen times in Executive Order Number One. To his schizophrenic credit though, Youngkin does at least acknowledge the following:

“We must equip our teachers to teach our students the entirety of our history – both good and bad. From the horrors of American slavery and segregation, and our country’s treatment of Native Americans, to the triumph of America’s Greatest Generation against the Nazi Empire, the heroic efforts of Americans in the Civil Rights Movement, and our country’s defeat of the Soviet Union and the ills of Communism, we must provide our students with the facts and context necessary to understand these important events.”

Agreed.

In fact, I agree with the vast majority of the executive order, because the vast majority of the executive order bans things that already do not exist. The adjective “divisive” is subjective, so the final section provides a much-needed definition of “inherently divisive concepts,” which for the purpose of the order “means advancing any ideas in violation of Title IV and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

Title IV ended segregation in public schools, and Title VI states:

“No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

So Youngkin has come out against segregation and that no student should be prohibited from attending public school. And he has done this by redundantly banning ideas that would violate a law passed six decades ago—whether those ideas actually exist or not. Such theoretical ideas include but are “not limited” to a list of seven provided in the order:  

  • (i) one race, skin color, ethnicity, sex, or faith is inherently superior to another race, skin color, ethnicity, sex, or faith;
  • (ii) an individual, by virtue of his or her race, skin color, ethnicity, sex or faith, is racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously,
  • (iii) an individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of his or her race, skin color, ethnicity, sex or faith,
  • (iv) members of one race, ethnicity, sex or faith cannot and should not attempt to treat others as individuals without respect to race, sex or faith,
  • (v) an individual’s moral character is inherently determined by his or her race, skin color, ethnicity, sex, or faith,
  • (vi) an individual, by virtue of his or her race, skin color, ethnicity, sex, or faith, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race, ethnicity, sex or faith,
  • (vii) meritocracy or traits, such as a hard work ethic, are racist or sexist or were created by a particular race to oppress another race.

The first and fifth include the above-mentioned adverb “inherently,” which means naturally or necessarily. To believe that someone is “inherently superior” is to believe they were born that way. The same is true with any “inherently determined” moral character—with the exception of a moral character determined by a person’s “faith,” since people are not born with religious beliefs. Though some religious beliefs do oppose the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (many Christians believed the Bible justified slavery), membership in a religion does not necessarily require such beliefs.

So I agree with Youngkin’s (i) and (v).

The second and sixth ideas do not include “inherently” but instead an equivalent phrase: “by virtue of.” Racism and sexism are not inheritable traits, so no one can be racist or sexist simply by being born of any race, skin color, ethnicity, or sex. Faith repeats the same categorical problem, but as long as your faith does not require you to adopt racist or sexist beliefs, you are not racist or sexist “by virtue of” your faith. Whether such racist or sexist qualities would be “consciously or subconsciously” is moot since none necessarily exist “by virtue of” anything listed. Similarly, “by virtue of” being born into a group does not make an individual responsible “for actions committed in the past by other members of the same” group. Responsibility does not follow simply from the existence of historical events, but would have to include some additional contemporary element and so would not be “by virtue of” belonging to a group but by something more.

So I agree with Youngkin’s (ii) and (vi) too.

The third and fourth ideas are uncontroversial too. Of course no one should be discriminated against because of their race, skin color, ethnicity, sex or faith—that’s the whole point of the Civil Rights Act. I’ll be honest and admit that the phrasing of (iv) confuses me, but I think it’s arguing that members of a group should treat people not in their group as individuals and not just as non-members. If I’m reading that correctly, then absolutely.

That leaves (vii). To the very best of my knowledge, “meritocracy” and “hard work ethic” were not created “to oppress” anyone. Whether after being created they later resulted in some kind of oppression is a separate question not addressed in Executive Order Number One.

So Youngkin and I agree on seven out of seven of his anti-Civil Rights concepts. Of course these “inherently divisive concepts” don’t belong in schools. According to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, they don’t belong anywhere. And the rest of Executive Order Number One details how exactly they should be prohibited, ended, and removed from policies, guidelines, websites, best practices, and instruction.

Meanwhile, so-called “Critical Race Theory” goes undefined and is mentioned only once and only in the opening “Importance of the Initiative” section before the actual “Directive.” According to Youngkin:

“Inherently divisive concepts, like Critical Race Theory and its progeny, instruct students to only view life through the lens of race and presumes that some students are consciously or unconsciously racist, sexist, or oppressive, and that other students are victims.”

I’d be happy to debate any of that, but Executive Order Number One makes it moot because that sentence is not part of the “pursuant to the authority vested in me as the Chief Executive Officer of the Commonwealth, and pursuant to Article V of the Constitution and the laws of Virginia, I hereby order” section. They’re just words.

Since the legally binding “Directive” section does not mention “Critical Race Theory” and applies only to things made illegal sixty years ago, it’s just words too.

Bottom line: Executive Order Number One is inherently meaningless.

According to Justice Kavanaugh: “The Constitution’s neither pro-life or pro-choice on the question of abortion, but leaves the issue for the people of the states or perhaps Congress to resolve in the democratic process.”

The first half of that sentence is true in the literal sense: abortion is mentioned nowhere in the Constitution.

However, since the determining question is whether zygotes, embryos, and fetuses have rights under the U.S. legal system, the Constitution does speak on the issue.

Article 1, Section 2 establishes the national census: “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.”

So, for the purposes of determining population, the authors counted free people and indentured servants equally, and enslaved people unequally. Since enslaved people were considered the property of their owners, it might seem illogical that they would be counted at all, but without the Three-Fifths Compromise, the 1787 Constitutional Convention would likely not have produced a constitution.

Note what is missing from the state’s “respective Numbers”: zygotes, embryos, and fetuses. Any of the Convention delegates, either northern or southern, could have stipulated that pregnant women be counted twice—or perhaps one and three-fifths or some other additional fraction. No one suggested that. All agreed on the implicit minimum requirement of being counted as a “Number”: you must be born.

“Numbers,” however, do include undocumented immigrants, people who conservatives often dehumanize with the noun “illegals.” The U.S. Census Bureau is explicit: “all people (citizens and noncitizens) with a usual residence in the United States are included in the resident population for the census.” The Trump administration attempted to alter that standard for the first time in U.S. history, but a panel of judges blocked the executive order, and the Supreme Court refused the appeal. Yet as far as I’m aware, no one has ever argued that zygotes, embryos, and fetuses of undocumented immigrants should be counted in the census.

Next consider the Fourteenth Amendment. It begins: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States ….” Conservatives call that “birthright citizenship,” and they want to rescind it. Senator Lindsey Graham said in 2010: “We should change our Constitution and say if you come here illegally and you have a child, that child’s automatically not a citizen.” In a 2016 Federalist Society essay, Gerald Walpin argues that birthright citizenship misconstrues the intent of the Amendment, citing two non-binding Supreme Court opinions that draw the same conclusion.

No one, as far as I’m aware, has ever taken issue with the word “born.” No one has suggested that the Amendment includes or should be amended to include zygotes, embryos, and fetuses. If life begins at conception, then zygotes are people, and if a zygote is conceived in the U.S., it would also therefore be an American. If “life” begis at conception, then citizenship must begin at conception too. The pro-life argument requires either reinterpreting or amending the Fourteenth Amendment to include “conceptionright citizenship.”

Alternatively and more logically, the Fourteenth Amendment’s use of “born” intentionally excludes zygotes, embryos, and fetuses. Since Article 1, Section 2 also intentionally excludes zygotes, embryos, and fetuses, the Constitution has a great deal to say about abortion.

Constitutionally, zygotes, embryos, and fetuses are not “unborn people” because they are categorically not people. They are not born and so are not residents, let alone citizens of the U.S. They are not even “temporary visitors” or “foreign nationals,” and so none of Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs’ policies apply either. Zygotes, embryos, and fetuses do not receive visas, but: “All travelers, including children, need a visa to travel to the United States … There must be a separate visa for the child, even if they are traveling on their parent’s passport.”

Because zygotes, embryos, and fetuses are not citizens or residents or foreign travelers, they have no rights. They are not entities: things with distinct and independent existence. Yet pro-life advocates argue that the non-existent rights of legally non-existent so-called “unborn” non-entities outweigh the actual rights of actual people who reside in and are citizens of the U.S.

The core of the pro-life claim is unconstitutional.

This is Italian painter Cesare Laurent’s A Parable (or Bridge of Life), which I saw in the Telfair Museum in Savannah, Georgia, while vacationing with my family after Christmas. My son was solving chess puzzles on his phone in the park outside the museum at the time, but when my daughter saw me taking a picture of the diptych, she knew why:

It’s a comic.

Or maybe it’s not. Folks have surprisingly strong opinions about that word, so instead of asking whether something is or is not a comic, I prefer three slightly less annoying questions:

  • Is the work in the comics medium?
  • Is the work in the comics form?
  • Is the work in both the comics medium and the comics form?

Short answers: no, yes, no.

Long answers:

Laurent painted A Parable around 1895, shortly after the word ‘comic’ emerged to mean multi-image cartoons published in humor magazines. Despite coincidentally fitting the time constraint, the work is not in the comics medium. Though such works can but tend not to be painted, they are paradigmatically viewed and distributed as multiple reproductions, not as a single object mounted in a single location. If the painting is reproduced (on a Telfair Museum book or pamphlet for instance), the multiple reproductions are still likely not in the comics medium because they are not identified as ‘comics’ by their producer (the Telfair Museum) or by consumers (patrons of the museum gift shop). The artist also did not identify the painting as a ‘comic.’

Laurent, however, did paint A Parable in the comics form, which can be defined in two words: ‘sequenced images.’ Working in the comics form does not require an artist to use the term ‘comic’ or even for the term to exist at that time. Caravaggio and Rembrandt are known for their use of chiaroscuro, even though the name of the technique was coined after their deaths. A Parable is in the comics form only because it consists of more than two images, and the images create a sequence. The precise meaning of ‘sequence’ is debatable because it is sometimes used synonymously with ‘series’ and so may or may not require a definite order. However, in the case of A Parable, the two images are not only juxtaposed but the movement of the figures within the images suggest left-to-right viewing and so a definite order.

Scott McCloud applied the unfortunate term ‘closure’ to certain effects produced by juxtaposed images. ‘Closure’ was already a Gestalt psychology term for the tendency to perceive parts as a complete whole by closing visual gaps (a dotted line is a line and not simply dots). McCloud’s closure is conceptual rather than directly visual, and so his list of transition types does not account for the effect in A Parable in which the two balconies align as though continuous across the center gutter.

When Leigh Ann Beavers and I published our article “Clarifying Closure” in 2018, I termed that ‘gestalt closure,’ because the effect is the same as the original psychological meaning. We used the same term in our textbook 2021 Creating Comics. I’ve since decided that ‘closure’ it too confusing a term to keep using in comics scholarship, and that the meaning of ‘gestalt’ is far from self-evident. So in my forthcoming The Comics Form: The Art of Sequenced Images, I call the juxtapositional effect simply a ‘continuous inference.’

But Laurent’s effect is more complex. The illusion of a continuous balcony across the center gutter is only partial because the two image’s settings are otherwise unrelated. Rather than producing the illusion of viewing a single location briefly interrupted by an ellipsis-like gap, the alignment of the two balconies seems coincidental or contrived because the implied position of viewing changes. A viewer is somehow standing in two places at one. In “Clarifying Closure” and Creating Comics, I called that ‘pseudo-gestalt.’ While accurate, I doubt it clarifies much to anyone not already familiar with the background concepts. So in The Comics Form, I instead use ‘semi-continuous.’ The result isn’t exactly jargon-free, but I do think it’s an improvement:

Laurent’s juxtaposed images produce a semi-continuous visual inference.

A Parable also produces other type of visual effects common to the comics form: recurrent and embedded inferences. Or it possibly does. First read Laurent’s own description of the work’s two parts:

“I have determined to develop the first part of my Parabola with a lively feast in which two young men invite the gay crowd of girls to participate in songs and smiles of joy.”

“I imagined the second part at the door of a church because inside the poor suffering souls seek relief.”

From that description, the first image features a “crowd” and the second several “souls.” But when I look at the work I instead perceive a single individual depicted at different moments as she moves up, across, and then down her decades-spanning life. For me there is one recurrent figure or “soul” painted as though she were a “crowd.” Each painting then contains more than one embedded image. Though he does not mention it in the above letter that the Telfair curators excerpted in the museum plaque, I strongly suspect Laurent intended that effect or one very much like it. Admittedly, it requires a good deal of erasure to perceive the various figures as fully recurrent rather than only thematically recurrent.

Though none is necessary for a work to be in the comics form, I discuss recurrence, erasure, and continuous, semi-continuous, and embedded inferences in The Comics Form because they are common effects of sequenced images. They are also common in the comics medium, but that’s because many works in the comics form are in the comics medium. Laurent’s A Parable, however, is only in the form. By consistently differentiating the two, I’m really hoping to make analysis both more logical and easier.

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