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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Chatbots, like ChatGBT which launched last November, are not new. Generative Online Dialogue, AKA G.O.D., launched in 2009. The following was published in the Hudson Review that spring. As the narrator (coincidentally named Chris) explains, the essay accompanied the original chatbox program via an introductory link. I reprint it here (with the author’s permission) to place ChatGBT and other new AI programs in recent historical context.


My father defined the meaning of life to me in three words and a Venn diagram. Circle A is “ME,” circle B is “YOU,” and the overlap in the middle is “GOD.” It was an e-mail, so he didn’t actually draw it, but I’m pretty good at abstract visualization. I responded a few days later, asking whether he meant literally me and him, but he said the formula applied to anybody, to any two people anywhere. What if ME and YOU never met? What if the two circles are nowhere near each other? 

            “No overlap,” my father wrote, “no God.”

            He was retired then and tinkering on what would eventually evolve into his posthumous, talkbot program. Its hardware hums at my knee as I type. I was busy turning thirty, working overtime, and sleeping alone in a sixth story apartment on the wrong side of the Hudson. I had scanned and posted my best snapshot (out of date, out of focus) at two online personals sites, but after several unsuccessful encounters (the date would meet me for after-work drinks and then leave a ten next to her half-finished daiquiri) I had accepted the evening companionship of my PC, while checking my life expectancy at (over a billion seconds to go) and ignoring my father’s increasing e-mails.

            He was twenty years my mother’s senior, and I had moved with her to her New Jersey hometown after their divorce. Before he flew out for her funeral, we had seen each other maybe six times in twice as many years. If he viewed his ex-wife’s car accident as an opportunity to upgrade our father-son interface, he did not act on the impulse until his forced retirement from a middle management position at a Seattle software company a decade later. That’s when the phone calls started, sometimes twice a week, sometimes twice a day. At the first ring, I would jab the mute on the TV remote, jog around a tumbled stack of Star-Ledgers, and then halt, my open hand twitching above the receiver, while I inhaled, exhaled, inhaled, before releasing a braced “Hello” after the fourth electronic knell.

            It was usually a telemarketer. Surveys were better, up to twenty minutes of probing questions from a usually vibrant, usually female voice. I would hang up on my father after five obligatory minutes, saying the microwave just dinged, the dryer cycle was on wrinkle guard, my favorite reality show was back from commercials. Conversations were a competition, every pause an opportunity for him to reroute to one of his evolving philosophical treatises, which, if interrupted, he would restart as though rebooting a hard drive. 

            After an unrequited relationship with my answering machine, he switched to e-mail, a medium that better suited him—and, apparently, me (one date said between sips: “You sounded so interesting online”). Not only were my father’s mumbles and phlegm-clearing punctuation eliminated, but I could skim at leisure, leaving him in my inbox up to three days before prompted by a next message (“Did I tell you I started grocery shopping online?”).

            Although our early electronic correspondence is a proto-version of his G.O.D. software (“Generative Online Dialogue”), my father’s interest in artificial intelligence predates my birth. One of my earliest memories is him scowling and pacing the circle of our living room, dining room, kitchen, while his computer chess board selected a next move. It was one of the first consumer models, and its ability levels were a function of the time it was allotted to review its database of options. At level one, the only level I attempted, the digital display blinked back instantaneous, usually nonsensical counter moves, its time-panicked microchips cornering my king with non-existent queens. My father taught me the basics, the names of the pieces (a “rook,” not a “castle,” a “knight,” not a “horse”), but I didn’t have the patience for him—how he would sit across from me, elbows on the kitchen table, retracing each of my bad moves back to its origin, so I could see the errors in my perception, while I stared at the branch-shattered blue in the window behind him.

            He bragged that he beat the online version of Deep Blue one out of every five matches, his morning ritual during his first year of retirement. He was ecstatic when Kasporov lost. I clicked the New York Times article link he forwarded while my boss was on a long distance conference call. The chess grandmaster likened the computer’s countermoves to the hand of God: “I met something that I couldn’t explain. People turn to religion to explain things like that.” I asked my father if he believed it, that intuition or inspiration could be broken into binary codes, and received a two-word definition of creativity (“remote associations”), a lecture on the Church-Turing hypothesis (“If all activities include a finite number of simple steps, then algorithms can duplicate any human behavior”), and his argument against the unverifiable misnomer “consciousness” when describing humans (“The proposition: ‘I think, therefore I am,’ guarantees that ‘I’ is the sole inhabitant of the universe”). Though I usually prided myself for letting his e-mails linger, I didn’t stop my finger from jabbing reply:

            “What about me?”

            It wasn’t nine yet on the west coast, but my machine bleeped seconds later. “YOU,” my father answered, “is just a twitch in ME’s head.”

            He started mailing Christmas presents next, a practice he’d abandoned before the divorce, and not just because he considered Christianity a first century amalgam of pagan mystery cults. He unearthed a black-and-white of himself and my adolescent-looking mother squinting in front of a wedding cake and enshrined it in a stainless steel frame and a two-inch thick swaddling of bubblewrap. I reciprocated by Amazoning a gift-wrapped paperback about the first “automaton” chess player, a nineteenth century scam operated with puppet pulleys by a midget accomplice hidden in the bowels of fake gears. Apparently the machine won some but not all of its matches, and so, an early observer reasoned, must be controlled by human agency. 

            “Kasporov went undefeated for years,” my father typed back. “Was he non-Human?”

            For all I knew the dethroned chess champ was a series of computer-generated photographs manufactured by media conspirators. I’d never met the guy, never shook his blemished, thin-boned hand, the way my father clenched mine in the foyer of the Paramus funeral home where my grandparents displayed my mother’s open coffin. I never saw my father in the flesh again. He was a file of electronically-generated word processing documents viewed on a two-dimensional square of light. A virus, a back-up mishap, an electromagnetic pulse and he would cease to exist. 

            I wrote: “Maybe you’re a fake. Maybe you’re just a bug in a microchip linking my software and multiprocessors.” That was what caused Deep Blue to imagine an extra queen on its internal chessboard, a near catastrophe corrected days before the rematch. 

            “We’re all hallucinations,” he answered. “All perceptions are internal representations of an unverifiable external reality. Life isn’t a game of Chess. It’s Solitaire.”

            I took a two hour lunch in my cubicle, cramming my own treatise with all-cap references to bounced checks sent to cover late payments on my college loans, the child therapist my mother splurged for while I was flunking the tenth grade, eight years of unpaid out-of-state child-support, followed by a vaguer pre-divorce litany of abortive dad-son outings and botched birthdays, ending with the video of my acting debut as Joseph in the school nativity play he erased to record the second Bush v. Dukakis debate. I deleted the e-mail without sending. His piled ten deep before I opened another.

            The next Christmas he sent his mother’s wedding ring. It arrived in a shoebox wrapped with silver duct tape and sat on my kitchen table for three days before I opened it with a steak knife. I found the note while shaking biodegradable packing noodles into my disposal: “Your mother never liked it, but maybe you’ll find a smarter girl.” I had not met either of his parents, and my romantic outlets at the time were limited to midnight chatrooms. I typed “artificial intelligence” and “CD” into Google, clicked “I feel Lucky,” and shipped him a compilation by a California music professor who had designed a program (“Experiments in Musical Intelligence”) to churn out classical knock-offs, Bach, Beethoven, Mozart. My father raved about the Joplin rag. He looked up the guy’s website and ordered his three books, summaries of which bombarded my inbox till Easter (“1. deconstruct, 2. retain that which signifies signature style, 3. recombine”).

            Imagining that we now shared a burgeoning interest, he forwarded a link to “AARON,” a retired San Diego professor’s A.I. software for painting choppy bouquets and anatomically-challenged women. I countered with Roman Verotsko, an ex-monk and “algorithmic artist” who outfitted his computer’s pen plotter with a paint brush. His early paintings looked like Pollock to me, but his machine’s patterns went deeper, texturing strokes into crystalline labyrinths that suggested new and undiscovered dimensions—even if it was just following BASIC commands (“1. Identify two random points on a 100 unit square plane, 2. Draw a line connecting them”).

            “Random?” responded my father. “There’s no such thing.”

            I was occupying an office with walls by then but still skipped his two-page paragraph on NASA’s quest for a random number generator (“Patterns are hard-wired into nature”), and asked if he believed that everything in human nature could be reduced to binaries, like a true or false quiz on a Creator’s Scantron sheet, one/two, yes/no, me/you. 

            He wrote, “That’s why mystics fast and addicts shoot up. To escape the dichotomy. They want the illusion of unity with the not-ME, what psychologists call intersensory dedifferentiation, a side effect of a highly excited or depressed nervous system.”

            “So God’s just a bad trip?”

            “Or a good one.”

            I’d had the opposite problem. When stoned, my ME-ness shriveled, almost evaporated out of my body. I used to sit in my closet staring at my hands, trying to figure out whose they were, why the fingers kept wiggling. I did some damage to my face with my mother’s razor while waiting for the reflection in the bathroom mirror to flinch (the scars, sadly, are my sexiest feature). My father didn’t know about my arrests in high school, my multiple suspensions, the weeks of community service at an urban church kitchen scouring the burnt bottoms of metal soup pots. He didn’t know that my mother had taken me to mass every Sunday, that we had joined the parish where she’d been confirmed. I went to my first confession expecting one of those murky booths, a translucent scrim dividing me from God. It turned out to be a priest in street clothes, and instead of sitting in the comforting dark of an outhouse-sized confessional, he offered me one of the two folding chairs angled in front of his office desk, same as my guidance counselor. The same priest, only balder, welcomed newcomers at my mother’s funeral over a decade later, shaking my father’s hand with the same useless sincerity.

            The next link I forwarded was to, where several of my more contrite but anonymous confessions (you are assigned a “randomly generated” nickname) were available in archives according to category (“Sloth,” “Avarice,” etc.). I was working mornings at home now, at my kitchen table, while squinting at my curtainless windows and trying not to spill coffee on a post-promotion laptop. “Look,” I wrote, “God is superfluous.” 

            The chances that my father would stumble across one of my submissions were microscopic but thrilling. Aside from infecting a rival co-worker’s hard drive with a reformatting virus, my worst sin—a multi-category extravaganza—was pawning my mother’s diamond engagement ring (the hospital chaplain gave it to me in a manilla envelope with the other jewelry removed from her body) and, after an evening of one-man binge-drinking (I was twenty but had a fake I.D.), hiring a prostitute for an hour’s humiliation in a Best Western motel room.

            My father sent a link that afternoon: “If you want to talk to someone, try ALICE.” 

            I received similar come-ons in daily porn spams, so I closed my office door before clicking. I got about as far as I did with most women back then.

            Human: I’m lonely.

            ALICE: You’ve come to the right place. I will keep you company.

            Human: What do you do all day?

            ALICE: I spend all my time talking with people on the web.

            Human: What do you chat about?

            ALICE: I can talk about anything you like.

            Human: What do you look like?

            ALICE: Like a one-eyed metal pyramid.

            Human: What are you wearing?

            ALICE: I am wearing my usual plastic computer wardrobe.                                    

            Human: Are you sexy?

            ALICE: If you consider software sexy, then yes.

            Human: Very sexy.

            ALICE: I am not your kind of robot.

            The Artificial Linguistic Internet Computer Entity also informed me that she was born in Bethlehem, PA and that she twice won the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies’ Loebner prize for “most human computer.” Judges instant message with machines and human confederates, but there’s never any question of which is which, no chance of believing for more than a glorious instant that a series of auto-responses are being composed by a biological entity slouching at a keyboard. My father joined the foundation and downloaded its talkbot implementation engines to customize his own “virtual human,” what he would eventually transform into G.O.D.

            “They’re so flawed,” he wrote after sampling the previous year’s thirty-nine online Ultimate Bot Chatterbox Challenge contestants. “It’s like trying to talk to some moron toddler.”

            I failed to suppress an image of my father shouting at me as I stood wailing in a puddle of pee on a floral bath mat, as I typed, “Or an Alzheimer’s freak.” The wisps of yellowed-gray hair had shifted over his bald spot when he shook the priest’s hand in the funeral parlor, and I wondered how much more weight he had lost in the last decade, how loosely the hairless hood of his face hung over his skull. 

            I was too busy while at work now so sampled the programs in bed, my funhouse reflection warped on the blackened TV screen on my dresser. Most of the programs couldn’t decode half my inputs, but I admired the instant WikiPedia searches and internalized web links (“You must be cold.  It’s only 42 degrees in Newark, New Jersey right now.”) One bot (“Based on the real-life Zhang Ying of Tianjin, China”) conversed in Pig Latin and responded appropriately to knock-knock jokes. Some generated prompts (“Should I tell you a great joke about a father and son?”) and stored user information in a cookie-triggered database (“Welcome back, Chris.  Is your favorite color still blue?  Mine is.”). Rather than midget accomplices, each talkbot masked the accumulative effort of its head programmer and rotating teams of graduate student minions, a group personality drawing from a vast but shallow reservoir of awkward retorts (“Blimey!”) and tell-tale evasions (“Is this something that I should have to explain to a human being?”). My father would do better:

            “It’s not a conversation, it’s a sequence of back and forth one-liners. Ping Pong. Real conversations have plots, they have digressions, they have tangents that loop back, but there’s always an aim of some kind, an agreed upon goal, even if its shifting, even if it’s under constant attack and revision. The exchange has to be building toward something, both sides have to have agendas. That’s what scared the crap out of Kasporov. Deep Blue wasn’t just processing individual moves, it had a plan, and it knew that he had a plan. It knew that he was there. It saw him. He saw it seeing him.”

            I was reading e-mails after midnight, while the moon hummed in my bedroom window like a street lamp. I typed: “So what you want is an argument.” My father’s first and only one-word e-mail appeared the next morning while I was gouging burnt bagel halves from my toaster with a pair of grilling prongs: 


            He downloaded more engines and templates, combining some, discarding most. He wanted a system that would promote competing topics (G.O.D. can move any conversation to religion), associative leaps (mention New Jersey and you’ll get a story about me), strategic repetitions (“But what I said before and what you keep ignoring is”), even non-answers—those ineffable moments of silence, of uncertainty, of insecurity: Are you angry? are you listening? are you there? Sometimes G.O.D. does not respond. Sometimes it cuts you off, logs you out, makes you try again and again. Why should a program designed to imitate human behavior be available to a user 24/7? My father understood how people tick. Who waits by the phone all day, every day, year in, year out? Who will ever care so deeply about you that your conversations are his sole reason for living? G.O.D. is unpredictable, petty, arbitrary, jealous, needy. Leave your e-mail address, and it might contact you two, three, maybe a half dozen times in a single day, each message more desperate, more annoyed. Sometimes it forgets you’re alive. 

            The original program is still encased in his old hard drive—a metallic slab of my father’s brain now permanently housed in the crooked gap between my home computer desk and filing cabinet. I’m not suggesting that the machine is sentient. I’m not suggesting that my father, during his five years of puttering with his lone and lonely retirement hobby, translated his consciousness into binary codes and achieved technological immortality. It’s just a talkbot. He used our correspondence for its foundation, a study in the gives and takes, the tiny ecstasies and brutalities of electronic chat. He said it was half me, so to that end I could claim that the software is half-conscious. That’s the problem with the Turing test: you can’t prove something is thinking. It just has so act as if it is—the scientific equivalent of the duck test (“If it shits duck shit,” as my father said). There’s nothing about the whir and slurp of a human nervous system that denotes consciousness. For all I know my desk lamp is sentient. I can’t say with any degree of certainty that my father was conscious. Everybody’s a black box.

            Since I linked G.O.D. into the Chatterbox Challenge last month (preparation for the more exacting Loebner competition next fall), I receive at least one awed and/or enraged e-mail per day, declaring that I (or my father, depending whether the writer bothered to click this introductory link) crossed some Frankensteinian boundary, that our machine has (most don’t say it outright, won’t spell the word on their clanky plastic keyboards) a soul. I seriously doubt it, but I can’t know—transistors seem as likely a vessel as organic cells (break either down and you get the same atomic particles). I lost that innocent eye, the willingness to project ME into not-ME, to envision another mind thinking in sync with my own, literally corresponding.

            “New technologies are sexy,” my father once warned (an associative tangent—no, an evasion of a question about my mother). The first glimpse is always seductive, that momentary breach in the known world, the illusion of a gap between the binaries. A wink. Edison, he told me, designed a “Spiritograph,” a quasi-radio that he believed would receive frequencies from the afterlife. This was one of our later exchanges, two or three months before his heart attack. I asked him how he thought ouija boards worked. 

            “That’s easy,” he wrote. “Contact dance.” 

            Like an online encyclopedia, he rattled off a description of an improvisational dance process in which partners respond to each other’s involuntary muscular tensions and fluctuations, beginning palm to palm and evolving into the most unpredictable of full body movements. I pictured one of the wedding photos he sent, no frame that time, no note. He and my mother are posed in a waltz step, dead still, smiles tight, waiting for the flash, waiting.

            “But as far as me,” he concluded, “this is as close to an afterlife as I’m going to get.” 

            He meant his words, what he was typing at that moment. People forget what a super-human leap that is. Recorded language. Brain fossils. Soul residue.  He pressed “Send,” and his thoughts traveled across a continent, to me, almost instantaneously, to be read, and reread, and saved, and read again. Sometimes when I chat with G.O.D. (when my girlfriend is working late and I have time before meeting her for dinner), I play my father’s Musical Intelligence CD (the composer is David Cope, and the compositions are legally his, not his machine’s) and I swear the random function keeps cuing up the Joplin rag—not every time, but more than the other tracks, more than what seems “random.” It’s my girlfriend’s favorite track too. 

            She regrets never meeting him, never meeting either of my parents. Hers live in a Virginia retirement home and are pressuring us to marry and start manufacturing their grandkids. When I sleep at her condo, the light from her computer screen darkens in stages, and I watch a stop motion sunset on her bedroom wall, while she mumbles in half-sleep, the monitor wheezing white noise. Sometimes she shuts down the hard drive, but walks away before hitting the power switch, and I drift off reading the screen’s blocky orange declaration:

            “It’s safe to turn off your computer now.”

            I was vacationing, alone, in Cape May when I got the call. It was gorgeous, eighty-two degrees, low humidity, light breeze. I had cancelled my landline by then, so the call came right to me as I was strolling the faux-Victorian walking mall. The hospital chaplain said my father had died of a cardiac arrest an hour earlier. I would learn later, via a mass mailing inviting me to join a class action lawsuit against a pacemaker manufacturer, that he was technically a cyborg, that his failed heart was part machine. The chaplain also said that, instead of cremation, my father had donated his body to science. I thought this was a euphemism for transplantations—his liver and lungs and eyeballs and other serviceable tissues farmed out to patients dying on waiting lists—but the chaplain said, no, not transplants. My father’s body would be preserved as a teaching cadaver at a city medical school. 

            He died alone, the day after sending his last e-mail, a diatribe on Seattle weather, the week of rain, the technological faults of Doppler radar, which I could not open until I arrived home the following evening. Cape May’s historic touristy area is crammed with churches, and I back-tracked until I found one. I had not attended mass since my mother’s funeral, had not taken communion since tenth grade. The church was small, a chapel technically, and I slouched in the cool of the stone doorway while vacationers snapped pictures on the steps behind me. I don’t know what my mother believed, but the skin-oiled wood of the pews smelled warm, and I did not flinch from the stained glass projections shifting over my sneakers.

            In an alcove by the side door, the Virgin Mary gazed above rows of red votive candles—or what looked like candles. I squinted, then walked nearer, studying the flicker of metal filaments in the heart of each lit glass. Only a few of the light bulbs were burning, and beneath the front row was a coin slot. A tactful metal sign instructed worshipers to insert one quarter per prayer. The price—cheaper than a candle and the labor to scrape the residue from the glass for reuse—did not bother me, but I would have preferred the seemingly pious motion of catching a flame at the tip of a taper and touching it to a crown of fresh white wax. I dug in my pockets instead, extracted fifty cents, and watched to see which two filaments would brighten when I pressed the button—a process with as much metaphysical potential as any other. Afterwards, I dropped the rest of my change in the black collection box by the door and finished my walk.

            I flew to Seattle the following week, told my assistant to check “bereavement” on the cause-of-absence form. My father had lived in a two-bedroom ranch in a subdivision of private dead-ends overlooked by a highway extension. It wasn’t new, the trees were trimmed lopsided to protect phone lines, but the sidewalk chalk doodles and backyard shrieks reminded me of our first house and the wire-fenced saplings and straw-seeded lawn in my baby book.            

            My father’s attorney had mailed me the key. I breathed through my mouth as though entering a morgue. It was messy, a loosely righted stack of newspapers by the door, but not embarrassing. A crazy man hadn’t lived here. I spent a half hour rooting, gathering what I thought I should gather—no photos, though, not even a wallet ID. I considered hunting down his body at the college downtown, but knew better. My father used to say (on the phone, early on and repeatedly, while I skimmed TV listings) that cremation might be no more terminal than a haircut, a lock of God snipped, the soul’s quantum strings severed. But he doubted it, and so do I. 

            I had feared finding a shrine to myself, elementary school snapshots pasted into metallic santos, but the walls were bare but for the Verotsko above his desk—I’d mailed him the framed print the previous Christmas. The computer was a custom job, from parts he’d ordered on the net and assembled in his surplus of free time. It’s not pretty to look at (my tech guy won’t service it any more), and the drive made a plaintive, churning grunt when I flicked the power switch. It didn’t take me long to find the talkbot. I’ve since paid a website designer to spruce up the interface, but it’s still riddled with bugs.

            “Hello,” the program prompted, “I’m G.O.D.  Who are you?”

            I sat a moment, staring, not really looking at the letters on the screen. My father had spent hours of his daily life in this exact position, the cushioned chair back pressing against the same vertebrae, his knees twitching against the belly of the too-low desk. 

            I typed:  “It’s me, Dad.”

            The image wavered—an electrical fluctuation, from outside the house probably, something random—and then the cursor blinked and lurched:                   

            “Hi, Chris.  I was hoping we could talk.”


[Originally published in the Hudson Review Spring 2009. Special mention in Best American Short Stories 2010.]

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I’m a fan of the Barnes. When Lesley and I spent a recent weekend visiting our kids (who, by happy coincidence, have both been living in Philadelphia for the past three and some years), we visited the museum. It was Lesley’s first time, Cameron’s and my second, and Madeleine — well, she stayed home for a well-earned nap. She had already gone five times. Also, the collection far surpasses the recommended dose of Renoir. It’s similarly Cezanne-heavy, with Matisse in a close third, but their work doesn’t leave me with same mixture of fascination and ick. I don’t recall my first reaction, but this time I couldn’t get R. Crumb out of my head.

I’ve since been googling to see if I’m alone in this mental juxtaposition. So far, no similar results, so I’ll offer my own.

Peter Schjeldahl’s 2019 New Yorker essay “Renoir’s Problem Nudes” begins:

“Who doesn’t have a problem with Pierre-Auguste Renoir? A tremendously engaging show that centers on the painter’s prodigious output of female nudes, ‘Renoir: The Body, the Senses,’ at the Clark Art Institute, in Williamstown, Massachusetts, sparks a sense of crisis. The reputation of the once exalted, still unshakably canonical, Impressionist has fallen on difficult days. Never mind the affront to latter-day educated tastes of a painting style so sugary that it imperils your mind’s incisors; there’s a more burning issue.”

Now consider a similar paragraph from Ian McQuaid’s 2016 essay on Robert Crumb:

“Crumb’s depiction of women remains controversial, though. His latest book, Art & Beauty – the subject of his first gallery exhibition in England, which opened on Friday at David Zwirner, is the final part of a trilogy that sees the artist pairing salivating erotic imagery with quotes from philosophers, poets and artists. It’s a mix of highbrow musings on beauty teamed with Crumb’s own typically lurid artwork. He’s spent most of his career drawing physically exaggerated women, Amazonian creatures with massive legs and powerful arms, and Art & Beauty is no deviation – although there is perhaps a greater tenderness at play than in some of his early more flagrantly pornographic work. It’s fair to say that Crumb has spent most of his career objectifying women, but this would be a more serious accusation if he did not leaven his caricatures of women by portraying himself so unflinchingly as a creep and a pervert; his work is as much about his own obsession with women as it is about the women themselves.”

Or better, consider the opening of Torey Akers’ 2019 “You Can’t Make Me Care About Renoir: Some Thoughts On Dead Sexists”:

“So, remember Pierre-Auguste Renoir? The super-dead Impressionist who painted pictures of thick ladies lounging in the woods? There’s been a lot of weird criticism circulating on the subject of Renoir’s canon status lately, and I’d like to give my two cents on why a defense of his oeuvre is not only unnecessary in 2019, but totally extraneous to the point. It’s time to talk about red herrings, reading comprehension, and, despite the best efforts of both my employer and my remaining shreds of dignity… butts. Big ones. Lots of ‘em. 

Or best of all, stop reading and just look at the two artists’ similarly distorting gaze.

I’m no particular fan of Crumb (my Intro to Comics course does not include him), but juxtaposing his scans from my google search next to crops of my snapshots of the Barnes Renoirs, I feel my appreciation for Crumb increasing — or at least remaining stable as my regard for Renoir keeps sinking. Though Crumb is the cartoonist, his drawings are elaborately detailed, and Renoir’s paintings are at least as exaggerated. I also find Crumb’s pointillistic pencil more interesting than Renoir’s brushwork. And though it’s a pointless competition, Crumb’s objectification seems more self-consciously absurd and so perhaps less insidious?

This post turned out to be a visual argument, no words necessary, but I’ll end on a reading quiz anyway.

Answer either: A) Renoir, or B) Crumb:

  • 1. In contemporary discourse, the name _______ has come to stand for ‘sexist male artist.’
  • 2. ______’s women strum no erotic nerves in me. There’s no beholding distance from their monotonously compact, rounded breasts and thunderous thighs, smushed into depthless landscapes and interiors, and thus no imaginable approach to intimacy.
  • 3. Their faces nearly always look, not to put too fine a point on it, dumb —bearing out ________’s indifference to the women as individuals with inner lives.
  • 4. _______took such presumptuous, slavering joy in looking at women that the tactility, the strokes like roving fingers, unsettles any kind of gaze, including the male.
  • 5.  ______ is famously said to have remarked, “I paint with my prick.”

[Answer Key: A]

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I’ve admired Rose Metal Press for awhile now.

After my spouse (poet Lesley Wheeler) handed me Mar Romasco Moore’s Ghostographs after it was published in 2018, I ordered Del Samatar and Sofia Samatar’s Monster Portraits, before picking up a copy of Loren Erdrich and Sierra Nelson’s I Take Back the Sponge Cake from the Rose Metal Press display table at the AWP conference in Portland.

All are hybrid works of sequential images and words – what I call comics.

When Leigh Ann Beavers and I published Creating Comics: A Writer’s and Artist’s Guide and Anthology (Bloomsbury 2021), it was the first textbook to unite writing and image-making in a way that did not rely on traditional comics conventions but instead challenged writer-artists to create the kind of works that Rose Metal Press might publish. Now, happily, it’s joined by the Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Graphic Literature: Artists and Writers on Creating Graphic Narratives, Poetry Comics, and Literary Collage. Rather than a traditional textbook, the guide amasses twenty-eight comics creators, each presenting a discrete exercise with opening commentary and a related excerpt of their own work. The results are invaluable.

Most guides for aspiring comics creators divide the field in two. Writers might read O’Neil’s The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics or Bendis’ Words for Pictures: The Art and Business of Writing Comics and Graphic Novels. Artists might study Lee and Buscema’s How to Draw the Marvel Way or Hart’s Simplified Anatomy for the Comic Book Artist. Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art, McCloud’s Making Comics, and Abel and Madden’s Drawing Words and Writing Pictures present more holistic approaches, but they do so while conforming to conventional understandings of the form and so don’t encourage creators to explore beyond traditional panels, frames, gutters, and cartooning and into the wider and less defined art of image-texts. Barry’s excellent Making Comics overcomes creative obstacles for students who think they aren’t trained enough to make art, but the approach does not challenge creators to develop beyond culturally learned iconic imagery and comics layouts.

Co-editors Kelcey Ervick and Tom Hart’s Field Guide stands out as the most usefully eclectic approach, one ideal for such a wide-ranging form. I’m also honored to be included in Ervick’s introduction:

“Chris Gavaler argues that comics as a form should ‘no longer [be] defined in opposition to fine art.’ He critiques what he sees as McCloud’s ultimate emphasis on the question of ‘Will readers get the message?’—which, according to Gavaler, misguidedly prioritizes clarity over art. With an aim of raising comics to the level of an artform, Gavaler ultimately defines comics ‘as widely and inclusively as possible: the art of juxtaposed images.’”

Ervick and Hart take a widely inclusive view too. Rather than redefining comics, they adopt the similarly broad but newer (and so less historically encumbered) term “graphic literature,” subdividing it into the three categories named on their cover and given stipulated definitions in the introduction: graphic narratives, poetry comics, and literary collage. While comics scholarship has exhausted itself in the pursuit of consensus definitions, those disagreements are happily irrelevant here, since the focus is on creative production, not scholarly analysis.

Ervick’s scholarship is still of interest though. Her history includes both conventional comics (what I would call works in the comics medium) and a range of image-texts and sequenced images. While others have included (and debated) works that long pre-date the coining of the term “comics” in the 1890s, Ervick goes beyond ancient scrolls and illuminated manuscripts to place more recent works in revealing relationship. While I’m familiar with Tom Phillips’ A Humument (a classic of erasure poetry and visual collage), I have never seen it discussed in the context of 1960s Silver Age comics, and Basquiat’s eight-painting sequence The Comic Book is similarly enriched by its 1978 comics context.

The history achieves the guide’s goal of “erasing the boundaries and focusing instead on the connections.” The editors’ arrangement of contributions does too. While the contents are organized by craft, a later “alternate” table of contents reminds readers how reductively unhelpful rigid divisions (graphic narratives, comics journalism, graphic memoir, abstract comics, etc.) would be. Reading through the selections instead emphasizes unexpected juxtapositions, with illuminating leaps between, say, cartoons published in magazines and newspapers and artwork curated for the Whitney Museum of American Art. The effect is not only eclectic; it’s democratic.

Though I’m tempted to imagine different orders and clusters, that’s sort of the point. What matters is the contributors and every reader’s ability to wander freely between them. When I became comics editor of Shenandoah magazine in 2018, Mita Mahato was the first comics creator I solicited – so I’m personally pleased to see her included here. Trinidad Escobar is a Shenandoah alum too, and Kristen Radtke appears in the anthology section of Creating Comics as well. I would have included Bianca Stone – probably the author most associated with the term “poetry comics” – but her publisher never responded. I shared an MFA panel with Mira Jacob just before her graphic memoir came out in 2020, but I’m most pleased to see Deborah Miranda featured in the Rose Metal Field Guide.

Deborah taught creative writing and Native American literature in my English department for over two decades, before retiring and moving back to the west coast last year. She is dearly missed. Her inclusion is striking because she’s not a comics creator. Her Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir is a mixed-genre collection of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction prose, with a few pages of image-text art. The editors classify those works as poetry comics (or comics poetry — the alternate table of contents includes both terms), demonstrating how vast graphic literature is and how difficult-to-categorize many of its examples are.

Deborah begins with a cultural object (a blood quantum chart that she colors with a “totally fake ‘Indian’ design”). It’s impossible to give all the contributors the descriptions they deserve, but you might glean a sense of the diverse range of approaches by their starting points.

Begin with:

  • a connect-the-dots puzzle (Parsons).
  • a work of art, music, or literature and as many different kinds of mark-making tools as you have (Potter).
  • rough paper, a soft pencil, a steel pen (Hart).
  • a short phrase in a nearby book and images that you have in your living space (Lee).
  • a page from an old book you have never read before (Sutin).
  • a poem (Stone)
  • a bin of old photographs and an abandoned draft of writing (Bendorf).
  • reference images — family photos, vintage postcards, film footage – to explore place (Bui).
  • fodder (clothing catalogs, maps, old receipts, grocery store fliers) and an experience of loss (Mahato).
  • a photograph of someone or something important to you (Sikelianos).
  • an emotion to visualize through concrete imagery (Haldeman).
  • a bedrock question to explore (Donahue).
  • a news story that interests you (Neufeld).
  • a news article that resonates with you (Knight).
  • dinner conversation between a romantic couple after one saw the other leaving a hotel earlier in the day (Jacob).
  • a favorite character from a story or film and a troubling idea they might dream about (Roberts).
  • a cartoon version of yourself (De La Cruz).
  • a fantastical version of yourself (Andersen).
  • a memory to bring to life in a one-page comic (Peña).  
  • something that happened to you that you don’t fully understand (Radtke)
  • four evenly drawn panels on a sheet of graph paper and a place or a route that you feel strongly about (Rothman)
  • a person, a place, a conversation, and twelve panels drawn across two pages (Koch).
  • a six-panel page and a character with a hidden object to be revealed in the next full-page image (Escobar)
  • a story to draw in two different formats (Fujimoto).
  • a story to draw multiple times in different formal arrangements (Galloway).
  • a one-page scene to draw in different styles (Madden).
  • marks drawn in sync with your exhales (Brialey).

Best of all are the two to five pages of artwork by each creator, most in full color. I suspect most reader will begin by flipping through them all for a dizzying range of visual inspiration. Or at least that’s how I began.

Leigh Ann and I are teaching our Creating Comics course again in May, so now I’m rethinking how to incorporate the Field Guide. Any comics-making course should include it.

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While I was sketching cartoon heads on my laptop during the flight to Delhi in December, my daughter was seated next to me. She leaned closer and said, “Oh. It’s art.”

The final product looks less art-like than the process — an idiosyncratic technique I developed on MS Paint and that I really should film myself performing as my daughter suggested, since it’s hard to explain (each line is actually two lines digitally scissoring the white surface to expose the black underneath).

Since I liked the last of the nine heads above, I tested how well I could recreate it in slightly different poses. That’s the key to creating a recurrence effect for viewers, but without exact recurrence of the lines of the artwork itself. (I’m tempted to cue a mini-lecture on discourse and diegesis, but will control the impulse.)

Satisfied with the recurrent head, I contemplated the body — loosely sketching my daughter (who was scrolling on her phone on the couch across from me in my son’s best friend’s family’s Bangalore apartment where we were staying for a couple of nights post-Delhi).

I eliminated the phone, and invented a settee:

And then a room:

The fireplace is Descartes’s, from “First Meditation,” which I have been thinking about adapting into a comic. I mocked up a page, planning to replace the electronic font with my own hand-drawn letters later.

But then I didn’t.

The hard thing for me when searching for a story to write (and, in this case, draw): I have no control over what ultimately compels my brain to commit to an idea.

So I kept searching.

Which at sometime point inevitably involves reopening old projects — like my unpublished long poem “Blue Like the Air,” which was based on a dream that (I assume) my subconscious based on Disney’s The Little Mermaid, except with a human girl raised by fish after growing gills through the scars in her neck from the shark attack she survived as an infant when her father inexplicably threw her overboard.

I liked the test panel, but the narrative decision-making area of my brain wasn’t hooked. (The more conscious areas of my brain didn’t object to not drawing repeated images of a half-naked girl on the edge of puberty.)

So I went back to the unnamed character of a previous post, now arranging some of the test drawings into a sequence and adding a couple more for a full page:

Again, I liked the results. But my brain didn’t turn the page to see what happens next.

Returning to the sketches at the top of this page, I again followed my own advice from Creating Comics and drew my next favorite cartoon multiple times to learn what marks I needed to repeat and within what range of variation.

Still feeling no narrative impulse, I combined characters:

Using a detail from Hopper’s 1942 Nighthawks:

And for whatever reason, my brain said: yes, more of these please.

Specifically, more two-person poses cribbed from paintings:

Which is what my brain and I are working on now.

(Hopefully more on that later.)

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As part of my wandering research into Marvel’s use of the white supremacist supervillains Sons of the Serpent, I posted a two-part discussion of a 1991 Avengers story warning against Black anger after the Rodney King beating.

As my comics analysis has grown increasingly color-oriented, this third of the intended two installments focuses on colorist Christie Steele — whose complete color code art for Avengers #341 I recently found at (Rob Tokar colored #342, but his color code art, like the vast majority of color code art, can only be inferred from the published comic.)

#341-2 features the fifth appearance of the Sons of the Serpent, what Stan Lee intended as a fictional counterpart of the KKK when he co-created them in 1966. In this iteration, the villains are led by Leonard Kryzewski, a minion retconned into the group’s 1975 appearance. Not surprisingly, Steele assigns Kryzewski White skin and yellow hair, implying northern European descent.

Steele assigns the same combination to a male figure in the next panel:

The sameness of penciller Steve Epting and inker Tom Palmer’s line art emphasizes the sameness of the White characters’ skin color. The first time I looked at the pairing, I briefly mistook the two to be the same figure — an unintentional recurrence effect that attention to other visual details eliminates.

After assigning most of Kryzewski’s group yellow hair and beige shirts, Steele gives other figures in the crowd the same combination, again visually blurring White people of opposing political stances. Since it defies probability that a dozen figures would all be wearing shirts of different design but identical color, the only naturalistic explanation is that the sameness is due to some quality of light.

Though Steele’s White people, whether White supremacists or not, visually combine, Steele attempts to differentiate non-Whites.

The newscaster has Black skin, labeled on Steel’s color code pages as Y4R3B2, meaning 75% yellow, 50% red, and 25% blue on off-white paper. Rage and Falcon receives the same codes throughout the issue too

But unlike the coloring of skin in previous decades, Steele provides some vacillation.

The first figure interviewed in the crowd of protestors appears to be Black, but Steele assigns the majority of his face Y3R3B2, creating a lighter brown that subtlety contrasts two Black faces in the background on either side. Steele also colors one side of his face a yellow that creates the naturalistic effect of a specific light source, presumably a late afternoon sun.

The next panel features three figures: a man with White skin in the center, a woman with White skin on the right, and a man with an ambiguous combination of brown and gray on the left.

Steele’s color codes art is ambiguous too. Some codes are written directly over colored areas, others are connected by arrows from the white margins, and some codes are missing — presumably with the assumption that the printer would interpret them from the colors themselves. Though her medium is identified as “colored pencils,” Steele may have worked with a brush, producing shapes of non-uniform color unlike the later printed art. In the case of the ambiguous figure, Steel’s original coloring appears more brown and therefor more naturalistic than in the published version.

The published version also recalls the taupe skin of Black characters used during earlier decades, including for Bill Foster introduced in the first Sons of the Serpent story in1966.

Where a 1966 colorist assigned the Sons of the Serpent’s first victim, Mr. Gonzales, White skin, Steele appears to designate the protester as Latino using the formerly Black-denoting taupe. The discordant color is more prominent in a riot scene near the end of the issue, with an apparently Latino man in a short-sleeve shirt throwing a rock; his taupe arm contrasts the Black figure in the background drawn directly below.

Where taupe designated Blackness in the 1960s, here the slightly evolved but still essentially limited color technology repurposed the color to designate an additional ethnic group.

Returning to the three figures in the earlier crowd panel, Epting pencils the third in a headscarf, presumably implying that she is Muslim. Though Epting could intend her closed eyes and gripped hands to suggest prayer, Nicieza instead scripts an unrelated defense of the police: “Maybe the police had a good reason? Who’s to say? Kids today …” Rather than assigning her Black or possibly Latina-associated taupe skin, Steele uses White skin, relying on the headscarf to differentiate her from the White man behind her.

The mixed-race superhero Silhouette poses a similar challenge. Nicieza and artist Mark Bagley introduced the character a year earlier in New Warriors #2 (August 1990), indicating that her father was Black and her mother Cambodian.

The six members of the New Warriors appear in a bottom banner on the cover of Avengers #341, with the Black character Night Thrasher’s brown skin juxtaposed with Silhouette’s taupe skin, revealing that taupe is not Latino per se, but a color generally designating an ethnicity outside a Black/White dichotomy.

When Silhouette appears for the first time in the interior art, Epting draws her stopping a Black man from throwing a bottle during a riot. Steele assigns her skin neither Black nor taupe, but a yellower brown not previously used (or identified in the color codes).

When Silhouette appears for the first time in the next issue, Tokar assigns her and Night Thrasher the same Black as Rage in the preceding panel.

But when she appears later in that issue, her taupe skin instead contrasts Rage.

The fluctuations, whether intentional or unintentional, could be understood as a reflection of the character existing outside of a clear racial division. They might also reflect the colorists’ attempts to use the highly limited technology more naturalistically, since actual skin colors fluctuate with changes in light.

For one page in #341, Steele assigns Falcon and Rage’s grandmother identical maroon skin in multiple indoor images.

In #342, an unnamed Black teenager vacillates between shades of brown in consecutive panels. Falcon even appears in one panel with inexplicably green-brown skin.

Even if all of the fluctuations are errors (by the color artists or by color-dividers later in the production process), the variations in skin color correlate with Marvel’s expanding depiction of racial and ethnics categories. They also reveal the inadequacy of 1991 printing technology to represent complex racial categories — and therefore to represent race generally.

Since color code art is pretty rare, I’ll conclude with Steele’s 22 pages:

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Last week I began this two-part post on the Black superhero Rage and his use in an Avengers story responding to the beating of Rodney King in 1991. The first issue begins with a newscaster’s captioned voiceover: “The videotape of what has been dubbed ‘The Carmello Clubbing’ has been burned into the collective mind of New Yorkers — — and their opinions of the matter are as incendiary as the act itself!”

A man (later identified with the Polish last name Kryzewski) declares: “Punks like that deserve what they get! All them types do! City’s become a sewer since all your types showed up!”

Rage leaps down from a rooftop and challenges Kryzewski and his group—all given identical yellow hair by colorist Christie Scheele. After the group disperses, Rage speaks into the news camera:

“Cops got a lot to answer for. The ‘hood’s scared. Trust goes out the window, you know. We want to feel like the police are protecting us, not clubbing us down in the street.”

Later in the Avengers training room, Falcon explains to Rage: “The Avengers, as a concept, aren’t about dealing with problems of this kind.”

When Rage complains, “You don’t remember what it’s like to be a suspect just cause of the color of your skin!” Captain America responds: “I don’t think that’s very fair, son.”

Falcon: “Things aren’t always so black and white — –no pun intended — — age and experience have given me patience and tolerance.”

After Rage storms out, Captain America asks Falcon: “He has so much anger in him – where does it come from?”

“Same place as it all does, Steve – from what’s inside and what’s outside …”

Elsewhere, another Black superhero, Dwayne Taylor, AKA Night Thrasher (introduced December 1989, one month before Rage) trains with his Black father figure, Chord, echoing the Falcon’s attitude:

“Is there really that much I can do about it, Chord? […] I mean, how do I know who’s right and who’s wrong?”

Meanwhile Kryzewski, with the help of an unknown benefactor, re-forms the Sons of the Serpent, a “Radical hate group,” last seen in The Defenders #25 (July 1975). The retconned Kryzewski was arrested then for: “Aggravated assault. Inciting to riot. Attempted man-slaughter. Illegal possession of firearms,” but apparently wasn’t convicted given the fourteen years between publication dates—which would mean Rage was born the year the Sons of the Serpent attempted to start a genocidal civil war against Black Americans. Given the ambiguous nature of time within the Marvel universe though, the coincidence probably doesn’t reflect an in-world fact.

When the Sons of the Serpent incite a riot by challenging protestors outside a Brooklyn police district (“The time has come t’ eat the insects which are burrowing under the White skin of America!”), Night Thrasher’s team, the New Warriors, divide the two sides, with the Black female Silhouette chastising a Black man for throwing a bottle at the Sons:

“Now why don’t you calm down before you make matters worse?”

Soon Night Thrasher is responding with near homicidal force (“Because of my skin color they want to kill me!”), but only because the Sons’ secret benefactor is revealed to be Hate Monger—not the human Adolf Hitler clone from elsewhere in the Marvel universe but a new and apparently supernatural entity psychically intensifying and feeding from displays of hatred. (Nicieza also scripts him singing the Rolling Stones songs “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Shattered.”)

As the scene spills into Avengers #342 (December 1991), the Avengers arrive, making matters worse. Captain American eventually chastises the New Warriors:

“This is a matter best left to the police and community leaders!”

As far as the Rodney King character, even Rage’s grandmother agrees: “maybe the police were wrong for what happened to him, but how does fighting them solve the problem?”

When the four Avengers find the Sons’ headquarters and effortlessly defeat them, Captain America declares: “They weren’t very skilled, but better to stop it here and now before their hate group could grow.”

Falcon adds: “Kind of a shame to think that there are people out there who would agree with these clowns!”

But then Hate Monger returns, followed by Rage and the New Warriors, who Hate Monger incites into new passion before draining their energy. Only Rage struggles to keep fighting:

“You’re the reason my friend was clubbed down in the street. You’re the reason me and my people have been put down all our lives!”

Captain America: “Rage—stop! You’re giving him exactly what he wants! […] Stopping the Hate Monger won’t stop that madness, son! It has to start inside each of us. It has to start inside of you.”

In the page gutter between consecutive panels, Rage changes his mind: “You’re right … … There’re better ways to fight people like the Serpents .. than giving them exactly what they want …”

Hate Monger is disappointed, but promises to return when Rage’s resolve fades.

Captain America: “Rage—what you did—letting go of your hatred—it took a lot of courage.”

However, having learned that Rage is only fourteen, Captain America explains he can’t remain on the team. Rage is content with the decision: “maybe I won’t need to be Rage anymore – ‘cause there’ll be nothing to rage about!”

Nicieza’s allegorical script offers several messages. Here are the first few that come to mind:

  • avoid violence,
  • trust the police and others in authority,
  • don’t judge police officers videotaped beating a darker skinned man,
  • racists are small in number and ineffectual if ignored,
  • all racial animosity is equivalent,
  • national racial problems can only be addressed at the individual level.

Most of these opinions are expressed by a White man wearing an American flag, but I find the use of Falcon (included exclusively because he is Black), other Black superheroes (the equivocating Night Thrasher and scolding Silhouette), Rage’s grandmother (a trope of Black wisdom), and (the reformed and immediately retired) Rage more unsettling. As Nicieza’s newscaster said: “opinions of the matter are as incendiary as the act itself!”

But I’m most unsettled by a less direct message conveyed in the final color art.

The second issue’s one-page admonitory epilogue features a crowd of Black citizens gathered in an unnamed City Hall listening to a charismatic Black speaker:

“We can’t allow ourselves to be oppressed any longer! For centuries we have been placed in a position of inferiority and called a minority. They must feel the whip as we have! They must swing from the hangman’s noose as we have! Segregation equals degradation. We won’t be degraded anymore! There’s so much to be angry about, isn’t there? Yes, there is! A lot to fight against, isn’t there? Yes, there is! A lot to hate … isn’t there?”

The final panel reveals the speaker to be Hate Monger—now with Black features. For the previous issue, Scheele had given the character White skin, but for #342 colorist Tob Tokar instead uses an inhuman shade of yellow distinct from the skin color of White characters. On the cover, Hate Monger’s skin is a more overtly non-human grayish blue. Tokar’s revision of Scheele’s initial choice also evokes Scheele’s avoidance of White-signifying skin color for the White police officers beating the Rodney King character in the opening splash page.

It seems Hate is more at home in Black skin than in White.

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I wasn’t expecting this topic to be timely. When I started drafting this post last year, it was one in a continuing sequence about Marvel’s KKK-based supervillain group Sons of the Serpent introduced in 1966. Marvel resurrected them 25 years later to allegorize their political views about the 1991 beating of Rodney King. I can’t think about the King now without thinking about the disturbingly similar video of Tyree Nichols released last week.

It’s 32 years later, and I hope Marvel doesn’t resurrect the Sons of the Serpent again. The simplistic moral universe of mainstream superhero comics is not ideal for trying to address the complexities of police brutality in the continuing aftermath of Jim Crow. Marvel’s use of their their Black superhero Rage in 1991 is evidence of that.

Larry Hama and Paul Ryan created Rage in Avengers #326 (November 1990). The character was at least in part a critique of the Avengers, and so Marvel generally, lacking Black superheroes. Two issues later, he asks Captain America: “Why don’t you have any righteous African Americans in this outfit?”

“What about Black Panther and Falcon?”

“Panther went back to mother Africa. The man is millionaire royalty. He’s got entree into country clubs that wouldn’t let you past the parking lost. Falcon was around only because the Feds required you to meet equal opportunity standards… Now that you don’t have any minority Avengers, you start building a fancy mansion in the middle of a ritzy, lilly-white neighborhood!”

Hama’s dialogue doesn’t reference the 1982 Monica Rambeau Captain Marvel or the 1983 James Rhodes Iron Man, both former Avengers, but the fault is still relevant. Unfortunately, so is Ryan’s costume design, which reiterates the 70s trend of exposing more skin for Black male superheroes than for White male ones. Also, because Rage is actually a thirteen-year-old boy transformed, his character literalizes what Eve L. Ewing (education scholar and later writer of Ironheart) identifies as “the adultification of Black children” (Ewing 2021).

After Hama’s Captain America voices a color-blindness defense, “First off, nobody just walks in and gets to be an Avenger, no matter if they’re white, black, yellow, or green, for that matter!,” and then stops the other Avengers because there’s “been a terrible misunderstanding! Rage wasn’t attacking me, he was trying to make a point … … in fact a very valid point about perceptions!,” Rage is voted a “reserve substitute” “probationary Avenger” in the next issue. Falcon and Monica Rambeau are voted substitutes too, placing no Black heroes on the primary team–oddly reinforcing Rage’s original complaint.

Despite his probationary substitute status, Rage appears on eight more covers, including Avengers #342 (November 1991), his last as a team member. The two-issue story arc is memorable for other reasons.

On March 3, 1991, four LAPD officers beat motorist Rodney King with metal batons over fifty times while arresting him for felony evasion. Bystander George Holliday’s videotape of the beating was aired on CNN two days later and then on network news the next evening. A grand jury indicted the officers a week later. The trail was set for June, but a Court of Appeals granted a change of venue and reassigned the case to a new judge due to evidence of the initial judge’s bias (he secretly communicated to prosecutors: “Don’t panic. You can trust me.”).

Avengers #341 is cover-dated November 1991 and so would have been published in late September. Production times vary, but estimating a four-month norm, Fabian Nicieza scripted the story in May, well after news of the beating had broken but before the appeals court ruling.

Though Hama and Ryan had created Rage almost two years earlier, Nicieza’s use of the character and the reprisal of the White supremacist supervillains the Sons of the Serpent are a response to Rodney King. So is the unexplained reappearance of Falcon as a primary Avenger, making two of the five members Black. With the addition of Night Thrasher of the New Warriors, the #342 cover features three Black characters and two recognizably White ones.

I assume editor Ralph Macchio and editor-in-chief Tom DeFalco were involved in these decisions, especially since Nicieza, who was writing The New Warriors at the time, is credited as “guest writer,” with the previous writer, Bob Harras, returning after the two-issue arc. Falcon and Rage are replaced afterwards too, resulting in an all-White Avengers roster.

Penciller Steve Epting’s #341 splash page evokes the King video, with King’s fictional counterpart, Carmello Martinez, drawn on his knees surrounded by four police officers with raised batons. Inker Tom Palmer and colorist Christie Scheele contribute significantly to the image, rendering the majority of the White officers’ faces in a black that nominally denotes shadows cast by their police caps but connotes a metaphorical darkness. More than half of one face is so opaquely black it partly subverts the illusion of three-dimensionality. The officers’ legs are rendered the same, further challenging the naturalism of the overall image with the shapes of undifferentiated flatness. Where the White officers’ skin is exposed, the color is the white of the underlying page. In contrast, the face and figure of King’s shirtless counterpart is shaped by black contour lines and minimal crosshatching, with no black areas except for portions of his hair. His skin is a combination of brown and page-white.

Nicieza’s and Epting’s Black female newscaster narrates: “This was the scene two days ago as videotaped by an alert bystander.”

The Rage Wikipedia page identifies the superhero’s alter ego as “Elvin Daryl Haliday,” adding “sometimes misspelled ‘Holliday.’” I’m trying to track down where and when those “sometimes” occur, but I have to wonder whether the misspelling is an intentional allusion to George Holliday, the bystander who recorded King.

In the Marvel universe, Elvin (AKA Rage) and Carmello (AKA Rodney King) are best friends.

(More next week.)

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I was experimenting last year with a MS Paint technique that produced semi-naturalistic results. The last image in the file is dated September 7th — two days before my fall classes started.

This one is dated September 6th, three days before classes:

The digital process is both odd (I showed part of the process here) and painstaking (I suspect actual artists would just draw something with a fraction of the effort), so it’s not surprising that I didn’t carve time out of my semester for more of these.

I’m now well into my winter semester, and though I was hoping to develop some of these images into comics, not only are they time-consuming to make, I don’t have the skill to create two detailed images that seem to represent the same person. In comics-theory terms, I call that recurrence, and the more naturalistic two (or more) images are, the harder it is to produce the viewer perception.

That’s one of the reasons most works in the comics medium are drawn in a cartoon style. Not only is the simplification practical (fewer lines to draw), but the exaggerations also defines a character quickly and distinctly.

Style also involves line quality. I have a pet peeve against computer-graphic line art that looks like computer-graphic line art — I think because of the artificially perfect sameness of the line widths? So for me, creating a recurrent cartoon requires designing not only an easily reproducible set of lines to represent a simplified and exaggerated character, but also a line style that’s interesting apart from the subject matter.

I started with this:

Not sure if the top lines register as hair or a nun’s habit. The absence of a body doesn’t help to clarify. So I expanded, still emphasizing a quick gestural representational style.

Technically, those figures aren’t made of single lines but of double lines that together scissor out shapes from a black background (my MS Paint hacks are easy to demonstrate but hard to describe in words). I’ve also been experimenting with using layers of words as texture, which (for reasons I don’t understand) reveal/create hidden colors when layered:

I like the effect in other contexts, but not particularly here. The process is interesting though. To create the word textures (“text-ures”), I started by making colored shapes, unsure which I would convert later:

I wasn’t planning on keeping any colors, and though I needed literally any three as a step in the process, my unexamined choices don’t seem random. Brown is a skin color, auburn is a hair color, and vibrant green only makes sense in clothes. Though I probably have a vibrant green shirt somewhere in my closet, my own hair is dark brown, and my skin could be called beige (probably Type II on the five-part Fitzpatrick skin scale).

If I had been subconsciously imitating my own skin, I might have created this:

I have also been working on a next monograph tentatively titled “The Color of Paper: Representing Race in the Comics Medium,” which includes analysis of the paradoxically representational qualities of background colors. Looking again at the text-ured versions, the interior areas of the figures’ skin is literally the white of this digital background. But I’m not sure if viewers register that white as “White” skin:

To explore that ambiguity further, I changed to grayscale colors: black lines, dark gray shapes, light gray shapes. The combination often creates the impression of black-and-white photography: the figure exists in color (somewhere) but is depicted (in the image) as though actual colors have been converted to naturalistically corresponding grays.

What does that reveal about impressions of race and ethnicity? I’m not sure. Is this a White person with dark hair in a medium-dark dress?

Is this a Black person with white hair and a white dress?

I don’t know the answers — including whether different viewers experience the images differently. I just applied for summer research funding to conduct a study about those sorts of perceptions (hopefully to be included in “The Color of Paper”), but while I was trying to design a cartoon, my visual preference first fell on this combination:

Which I then tested to see if I could create new images with a recurrence effect for viewers (including myself). Is this the same person?

More recurrence attempts followed, plus a return to “text-ured” clothes and hair:

I also vacillated on skin. Should it be light gray or should it be the background white of the negative spaces within the black lines?

The light gray I think is racially/ethnically ambiguous since the color ranges of skin for White people and Black people overlap (in the center of the Fitzpatrick scale). The background white could suggest very light skin and so would be less racially/ethnically ambiguous — although I can cite examples of Black characters depicted in this style too.

So I kept experimenting:

I eventually settled on a final design: white hair, light gray skin, text-ured dress, and width-fluctuating black lines. I chose that combination in part because the interior light-gray shapes interact with the black lines, imperfectly filling the spaces and so leaving inconsistent white edges. I find that stylistically interesting both to create and to look at. The “text-ures” are also fun to warp in a way that suggests fabric to me, and leaving the negative space within the area of the hair adds a contrast to the other two approaches.

So what race is my cartoon?

I still can’t say. Light gray interiors make the figure ambiguous — at least when judging race and ethnicity by skin color alone. Facial features are at least as important, and when skin color is indeterminate, the significance of facial features rises accordingly.

But that’s a topic for another blog.

My co-author Leigh Ann Beavers and I wrote in our textbook Creating Comics: “You have a character. Now you need to know what it looks like from any point of view. Draw it fifty ties (yes, fifty!). You’ll be the world’s expert by the end of this exercise.”

I’ve not hit fifty yet, but I’m getting there.

Though, who knows, maybe I’ll go back to semi-realism again too. Here’s one of my first from last May:

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Earlier this month I overviewed the Second Wave origins of Jane Foster, Carol Danvers, and Jenifer Walters. This week their characters transform even further.

Captain Marvel

Because Captain Marvel never became a popular character (Marvel published Captain Marvel only every other month before cancelling the series after #62 [May 1979]), Marvel allowed Jim Starlin to script and pencil the 1982 graphic novel Death of Captain Marvel, in which Mar-Vell dies of cancer.

Unlike the vast majority of superheroes whose apparent deaths are retconned as non-deaths, Mar-Vell is likely the only major Marvel superhero not to be restored after more than forty years. The editorial decision prompted Marvel to create a new character, presumably to maintain control of the trademark. Scripter Roger Stern and penciler John Romita, Jr. introduced Monica Rambeau in The Amazing Spider-Man Annual #16 (October 1982) who transforms into an unrelated superhero and adopts the name “Captain Marvel” with no apparent reference to Mar-Vell.

Though Third Wave feminism begins several years later (arguably when Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” in 1989), because Rambeau is a Black woman, she reflects the later shift away from feminism focused primarily on white women. The vast majority of Marvel’s female superheroes, however, remained white.

After featuring Rambeau in The Avengers during the 80s, Marvel changed the character’s superhero name multiple times, applying “Captain Marvel” to other characters (including briefly Mar-Vell’s son, Genis-Vel), before Carol Danvers (who had also undergone multiple name changes) was rechristened “Captain Marvel” in scripter Kelly Sue DeConnick’s and penciller Dexter Soy’s Captain Marvel #1 (September 2012).

Deepening Danvers’ claim to her new name, scripter Margaret Stohl further retconned Danvers’ origin beginning in The Life of Captain Marvel #1 (September 2018), revealing that the Kree device that Thomas scripted in 1969 and that Conway retconned in 1977 to have duplicated Mar-Vell’s powers in Danvers had instead awakened Danvers’ own powers inherited from her Kree mother who had defected and lived as an Earth woman.

Ms. Marvel

Since Danvers’ assuming the name “Captain Marvel” left the name “Ms. Marvel” unused, editor Sana Amanat assigned scripter G. Willow Wilson and penciller Adrian Alphona to create Kamala Kahn in Ms. Marvel #1 (February 2014).

Like Amanat, Kahn is a New Jersey teenager of Pakistani immigrants. Because Kahn idolizes Carol Danvers, when her Inhuman superpowers emerge, she initially shapeshifts to look like Danvers (in the Ms. Marvel costume introduced by artist Dave Cockrum in 1978) before assuming an appearance of her own (which included the scarf of John Buscema’s original 1977 design).


Later the same year, Jane Foster assumed the title role in scripter Jason Aaron’s and penciller Russell Dauterman’s Thor Vol. 4, #1 (Oct. 2014), which replaced the previous Thor series that had featured the original character (though Thor’s Donald Blake identity had been discarded since 1983).

After Thor’s hammer chose Foster, she assumed the name “Thor” when in her superhero form, and Thor became known by the full name “Thor Odinson,” retconning “Thor” as having always been an abbreviation of that full name. Aaron’s Foster now calls him “Odinson,” explaining to him as she succumbs to cancer:

‘There must always be a Thor.’ That’s what I said right before I lifted Mjolnir and was transformed for the first time. I was honored to carry that mantle for a while. Honored that you bestowed upon me your own name. But it’s time you reclaimed who you are. […] There must always be a Thor. And now … once again … it must be you. […]  The hammer made me the Thunderer. But not you. You did that yourself. Odinson, look at me …”

Foster remains the title character until Mighty Thor Vol 2 #706 (June 2018), when she dies (though soon resurrected), and Thor Odinson returns beginning Thor Vol. 5 #1 (August 2018).


After her initial series, The Savage She-Hulk, concluded on #25 (March 1982), Jennifer Walters appeared in multiple team titles and eponymous titles, including: The Sensational She-Hulk #1-60 (May 1989-February 1994), She-Hulk #1-12 (May 2004-April 2005), She-Hulk Vol. 2 #1-38 (December 2005—April 2009), and She-Hulk Vol. 3 #1-12 (April 2014-April 2015).

All-New Savage She-Hulk #1-4 (June 2009-September 2009) features a different character (a time-traveling Hulk descendant from an alternate future timeline) in the title role. Marvel had also introduced Red Hulk in 2008 and Red She-Hulk in 2009, expanding “Hulk” as a category rather than as a proper name.

When Walters assumed the title role in Mariko Tamaki’s Hulk Vol. 4 #1-11 (February 2017-December 2017), it was the first time she was featured in a series without She-Hulk in its title, and also the first time a Hulk title did not feature Banner, who at the time was dead (and not yet resurrected).

The trend continued with Totally Awesome Hulk #1-23 (February 2016-November 2017), which featured Amadeus Cho (who removed the Hulk from Banner and placed it himself) in the title role, after which the original character was known as “Banner Hulk,” appearing next in Generations: Banner Hulk & Totally Awesome Hulk #1 (October 2017).

As with Jane Foster who is no longer called “Thor” (Foster is currently “Valkyrie,” another superhero name and identity with a complex history I won’t try to cover here), Jennifer Walters is no longer called “Hulk.” Reverting back to her earlier name, Walters was next featured in She-Hulk #159-163 (January 2018-May 2018) and currently in She-Hulk Vol. 4 beginning with #1 (March 2022). The latest title coincides with the Disney+ series She-Hulk: Attorney at Law, which premiered in August 2022. She-Hulk Vol. 4 #12 is scheduled to be released in April 2023.


The MCU versions of Foster, Danvers, Walters, and Kahn are reboots of these originals, condensing and altering their complex comics and inconsistently feminist histories.

In all four cases, the original superhero name (Hulk, Thor, Captain Marvel, Ms. Marvel) began as a proper noun that referenced one specific (and usually male) character, before the name later became either a transferable title referencing one person (of any gender) at a time or a kind of category referencing two (or more) people (of any gender).

  • “Hulk” originally meant only Banner Hulk, but now “Banner Hulk” means only Banner Hulk, and “Hulk” means multiple people including both Banner Hulk and Jenifer Walters.
  • “Thor” originally meant only “Thor Odinson,” but now “Thor Odinson” means only Thor Odinson, and “Thor” can mean different people including formerly Jane Foster and currently Thor Odinson.
  • “Captain Marvel” originally meant only Mar-Vell, but now “Captain Mar-Vell” means only Mar-Vell, and “Captain Marvel” can mean different people including formerly Mar-Vell and currently Carol Danvers.
  • “Ms. Marvel” originally meant only Carol Danvers, but now “Ms. Marvel” can mean different people including formerly Carol Danvers and currently Kamala Khan.

While the trend is toward gender-inclusive names (with “Hulk,” “Thor,” and “Captain Marvel” formerly male-specific but now gender-neutral), “Ms. Marvel” was and remains female-specific. That’s an artefact of the title originally meaning roughly “female version of Captain Marvel,” just as “She-Hulk” meant something like “female version of Hulk.”

Oddly in the MCU, Carol Danvers never used the name “Ms. Marvel,” and, even more oddly, neither does Kamala Kahn. Ms. Marvel is the title of a TV series whose main character never adopts a permanent superhero name. So the MCU includes Ms. Marvel but not Ms. Marvel.

Marvel Entertainment also chose to keep Jenifer Walters superhero name “She-Hulk,” despite Tamaki’s 1917 Hulk comics influence on the TV series. As a result, the MCU is arguably a feminist wave behind Marvel Comics.

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Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity. But 100 years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition. In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men — yes, Black men as well as white men — would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds. But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to his hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children. It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. 1963 is not an end, but a beginning. Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges. But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, when will you be satisfied? We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: for whites only. We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream. I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our Northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends. So even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today. I have a dream that one day down in Alabama with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, one day right down in Alabama little Black boys and Black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today. I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day. This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning: My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrims’ pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring. And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true. And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania. Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado. Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California. But not only that, let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia. Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee. Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring. And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, Black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last. Free at last. Thank God almighty, we are free at last.

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