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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

When Art Spiegelman’s Maus II premiered at number thirteen on the New York Times nonfiction best sellers list in 1991, graphic memoirs became the comics form’s most prestigious genre. Since Maus II had been listed on the fiction list until Spiegelman wrote a letter to the editor describing it as “a carefully researched work based closely on my father’s memories,” the change happened literally overnight.

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Frank Santoro would have been eighteen and starting his first self-published comics zine then. According to his own graphic memoir, Pittsburgh, he was more interested in Spider-Man and Aeon Flux than documenting family memories. But not only is the forty-something Santoro able to explore those memories now, he’s capable of expanding the limits of the genre in the process.

I’ll admit part of the memoir’s appeal to me is personal: I grew up in the Pittsburgh area (Penn Hills, not Swissvale); the author and I are similar ages (okay, I was twenty-five in 1991, but close enough); and my parents divorced too (though mine didn’t wait till I was eighteen). Unlike Spiegelman, who opened the door to the graphic memoir genre, or Alison Bechdel, whose 2006 Fun Home raised it to even higher literary prominence, Santoro’s subject matter is unremarkable in summary. He’s one of a demographic of kids whose empty-nest parents divorced while he was a first-year college student, and he places the continuing history of his parents’ estrangement at the center of his memoir.

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Though specifics add flesh to that familiar skeleton of a family story, Pittsburgh offers more than just “story” in the usual sense. Santoro’s graphic memoir is most significant for the “graphic” half of the term. It’s a comic—one that cannot be translated into another medium (including prose summary here) because its story is told not simply in pictures, but in a style of image-making that has no counterpart in prose or film or other medium.

Open to any page and you’ll find the photo reproduction of a yellow piece of paper covered in colored marker. I wanted to write “Magic Markers,” the brand I used as a kid. The paper looks like the kind of yellow construction paper I used too, what was once found under magnets on refrigerator doors across American suburbia. Santoro’s pages even show the wear of wrinkles. Those imperfections could be corrected in Photoshop, but he’s aiming for the opposite aesthetic. His pages look like they’ve been torn directly out of his childhood.

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And yet his style isn’t childlike. It fluctuates between quick gestural sketches and carefully crosshatched portraits. But even the most naturalistic images retain a rough energy, and the two styles are often superimposed. Traditional comics artists sketch in pencil and finish in black ink, leaving white areas for a colorist to fill later. Santoro overturns those norms. The still-visible bottom layer of his images are colored marker, variously thick- or thin-lined, sometimes gone over with additional marker lines in contrasting color and thickness. The colors—purple, red, blue, yellow, green, brown—seem to have been selected with a child’s intuitive randomness, with no regard for the colors of the real-world objects being drawn. Santoro also leaves the internal spaces of his figures open, allowing previously drawn images to remain visible as if through them. When his grandfather sits in a chair, the lines that compose the chair appear behind the lines that compose the body. Though the shapes of both sets of lines are naturalistic, the combined effect is not.

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Other times Santoro superimposes images with the aid of paper cut-outs and tape. Sometimes the cut-out paper is the same opaque yellow; sometimes it’s tracing paper that mutes but doesn’t block the images underneath it. The always-visible tape is even stranger, as though the entire book were a mock-up of some idealized but forever-undrawn finished version. The effect is odd and oddly poignant. For some reason the sight of the family dog Pretzel taped beside Santoro’s mother on their front porch resonates deeply for me—perhaps because the intentionally clumsy construction emphasizes the imperfection and so transitory quality of the moment.

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That metaphor runs under every page. His parents’ estrangement reduced his world to a permanently unfinished preliminary sketch. If the structure of his family could be revealed to be so unstable, so provisionary, then the entire universe may as well be cheap paper held together by bits of tape.

Santoro’s style is idiosyncratic. As it should be. A non-idiosyncratic memoir would defeat its purpose. While that’s arguably true of all memoirs, it’s especially true of graphic memoirs. If Santoro rendered his family members and neighbors in the generalized style of __________ [fill-in any name from the long list of renown graphic memoirist], then he wouldn’t be documenting personal experiences but a knock-off world peopled by familiar figures who happen to be performing parts in his family story. Though divorce may be a generalized story, the divorce story of Pittsburgh is not because of Santoro’s artwork.

But Santoro’s approach to that story is effective in literary terms too. There’s a pleasantly odd looping effect, where a handful of moments keep returning in slightly different forms, sometimes retold from a different point of view (Did his grandmother really threaten to send his mother to an asylum if she married his father? Did his father really leave because he couldn’t bare refereeing his drunk brothers-in-law?), and sometimes simply retold. Like the layered pen strokes of Santoro’s images, each layer would be sufficient to communicate the content, but something deeper happens through the accumulations.

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[A version of this post and my other recent reviews appear in the Comics section of PopMatters.]

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Leigh Ann and I just got some final feedback from our series editors at Bloomsbury and so are now putting the finishing touches on our Creating Comics textbook. Part of the process for me was deleting most of the comics theory since undergrad comics creators don’t really care what French scholar Thierry Groensteen (that’s his actual name) has to say about general arthrology and spatio-topia (those are his actual terms). Happily all of that theory is finding a home in my next book, The Comics Form, due out from Routledge in 2021.

Meanwhile, there is literally one Groensteen term I’m keeping for Creating Comics. He describes how panels that occupy the same location on separate pages can “rhyme.” Because the layouts create a formal relationship between the images, they also connect their story content. Other techniques can create rhymes too: images in circular panels in a book consisting otherwise of rectangular panels; images that share a distinctive tilt or frame design; images that break the Z-path norm to produce brief N-paths. The range is wide. By rhyming two images, you make your reader experience a connection between two story moments that would otherwise be unrelated.

Rhyming can also apply to layouts overall. Abel and Madden note that grids provide “continuity to multiple-page stories,” which is true of any repeating layout. A comic that repeats the same layout on every page produces no layout rhymes—or rather it produces unvarying rhymes that differentiate no pages. A comic that repeats no layouts also doesn’t highlight and connect any pages through a rhyme scheme.

In poetry a rhyme scheme refers to the pattern of end-word rhymes. A Shakespearean sonnet, for example, follows an ABAB CDCD EFEF GG pattern, and a Petrarchan ABBAABBA CDECDE. Comics that use layout schemes relate pages for similar work-wide effects, connecting the entire story content of each page.

The sixth chapter of Charles Burns’ Black Hole (2005) includes twenty-seven pages. After an unpaired non-rectangular splash page, pages vary between row- and column-based layouts. Sixteen pages either use a 3×2 grid or imply it by combing panels, while another six feature 1×3 columns; the remaining four pages variously combine a regular row with a row of tall panels that echo the columns:

Divided into two-page spreads, Burns’ page scheme is:

AA BB BB AA BC BB BB CC BC BB BB AA BB

Since the 3×2 pages are most prominent, B is the base pattern, giving emphasis to the three A spreads and the three C pages. The scheme also connects the story content of the A pages, and the story content of the C pages. The A spreads are the most memory-focused, with flashback images interspersed into the current action. The C pages are transitions points, highlighting the introduction of a new character and then a movement into that character’s new space—each disrupting both the narrative and formal status quo. The scheme also reveals Burns’ pattern of rhyming couplets, giving additional emphasis to the one break in the pattern, when in the fifth spread a row layout pairs with a combined layout—further highlighting the new character.

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In Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore’s The Walking Dead #1 (2010), over half of the pages are regular 3-rows, establishing a dominant base pattern. The two full-page images rhyme the two formally largest moments in the narrative: the protagonist waking for the first time after his apocalypse-triggering injury, and the first, apocalypse-signifying depiction of zombies. The concluding pages also rhyme with page one, giving the issue implied 4×2 bookends. The half-page columns on pages eight and twenty-four produce the most striking rhyme, depicting the only two times that the protagonist kills a zombie. In both the zombie is beneath or below him, with its head lowest in the frame. An action-produced sound effect—“WHUMP!” and “BLAM!”—partially cover the hero both times. In the first panel, his zombie killing is accidental, as he tumbles down the stairs upside down. The second time the killing is intentional, and the hero’s body is rigid and right side up—a visual and thematic reversal suggesting the change in his mental state. The two columns are formally unique, shaping their two narrative moments into N-paths and so highlighting a contrast that would be lost if the story were drawn in identically sized and shaped panels.

The layouts don’t simply transmit narrative. The rhyme portrays character development in a way additional to the words and images. Here’s the rhyme scheme for our student Maddie’s ten-page comic: ABCDCDCDBA.

Maddie began image-first, creating her main character from a class doodle that she then visually researched, revised, and redrew multiple times from multiple angles until she could render it easily for any story situation that might arise. She developed her first page by drawing her character in a page-width panel, which she then repeated for the other images, adjusting the number of panels to suit the page and using a single line for framing rather than the white space of a formal gutter. Because page one ended with her fish feeling alone, the rest of the story developed into a search for companions. She had initially thought that one of the animals he meets would return with him, and that a wise mentor figure would convince him to return, but both characters and plot points seemed unnecessary once she was drawing the actual comic.

Her page scheme developed from her character’s first adventure away from home, which she drew in a three-row layout of full-width panels, except for the evenly divided middle row of the second page. When her character enters his second adventure, she used the same two-page template, rhyming the layouts and, more specifically, the center panel of the second page where in all three adventures the main character discovers that he can’t be happy with his new group of friends. When he returns, she repeated the opening two page’s layouts—but now in reverse order. Where on the second page the fish swims out into the full-page vastness of the ocean, on the penultimate page, he swims toward the viewer, with all of his ocean friends now visible behind him. And when he approaches his own fish community, it’s in the same 4-row arrangement as page one, only ending with his joining them.

Emily’s nine-page comic is less regular than Maddie’s, but she still uses page scheme effects:

Page one establishes both the story world space of the bookshelf and the formal space of the layout with a two-panel row at the top implying a three-row base for the following five pages. Page two then creates an internal, fantasy space of the cube’s thoughts by using panels shaped like thought balloons over a black background and gutters. Sometimes each page’s fantasy sequence begins in the second panel of row of one, and sometimes it ends in the first panel of row two, but the page scheme always includes the complete middle row. Emily then break that norm with page eight—which includes no fantasy and switches from an implied 3×2 grid to an overt 5×3 of square panels that echo the shape the cube. The new layout deepens the sense of the cube’s immobility within the story world—until the owner’s hand reappears at the bottom of the page and then rolls the cube on the final page in an unframed sequence of embedded images showing the cube’s actual movement. Without the repetition of the base layout in the first seven pages, the last two pages would have less formal significance and so their story content would have less significance too.

The best way I can summarize this graphic novel is the expression on my partner’s face as she flipped through it, her mouth locked in a grimace, eyebrows arching over each page.

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Kate Lacour’s Vivisectionary is surprisingly horrible—and that’s a compliment. I could say horrifying, but that implies horror in the genre sense (though technically it’s that too). Lacour’s art burrows past standard tropes to trigger a range of down-to-the-bone visceral reactions. It’s unpleasant viewing—the way a roller coaster would be an unpleasant form of public transit. It’s good in small doses. Lacour’s 136 pages sounds about right. My wife blinked at every one of them.

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Like “horror,” “graphic novel” might be the wrong word. Unless it’s possible to have a novel without such things as characters, plot, and settings. The back cover calls Vivisectionary a “compendium,” and the front cover a “convocation.” It is most certainly “biological art,” and the images both are and are of “experiments.” Lacour explains in her afterward that her inspiration came from the natural museum dioramas that fascinated her as a child, that grotesque combination of plastic, taxidermied animal flesh, and story fragments captured in cadaverous, three-dimensional freeze frames. She says they filled her with wonder. Her art fills me with something a lot more disturbing.

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Imagine you just pulled a textbook from your medical school library shelf. It’s leather bound, with one of those official-looking marble patterns on the inside of the covers. The following series of sixty two-page spreads feature individual “plates,” image on the right, number and title on the left, and a decadent swath of greenish beige space between. The first seems normal enough. Two rows show the parallel development of two egg embryos, a bird’s and a snake’s—until they hatch simultaneously and the baby snake kills the baby bird. While the weirdness of that should be obvious (medical illustrations are supposed to represent general phenomenon, not specific events), Plate No. 2 is significantly weirder: a how-to diagram for twisting off the cork from a champagne bottle, only wait, the bottle is suddenly a swan’s neck, and now you’re pouring the champagne down a funnel inserted into its mouth, before removing its head and extracting a row of white pill-like objects from the perfectly bisected wound. These are instructions for what exactly? And for whom?

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Things only get worse: a woman morphing into a caterpillar—which is somehow related to both a butterfly with petal-like wings and a flower with wing-like petals depending on how you follow and interpret the flow of panels. (Is there a correct interpretation?). Soon a mouse is cocooning itself into a cocoon-winged bat, a hybrid dog-baby suckles at a woman’s breast (is she wearing Victorian clothes?), and pigs grow into squares and worms into bologna rolls convenient for food preparation. It turns out snakes and swans can be surgically combined—though for less self-apparent reasons. Brains also make great yarn and/or snakes, and mermaids evolve into land lizards. And that’s just “Phase I.” “Phase II” involves people: snake masturbation, penis bongs, food blenders for skeletons, sex with roasting chickens, babies born from ejaculate wounds, brains with vaginas, hummingbirds sucking life from fingers, frogs growing from eyeball placenta, bisected embryo reforming into kissing twins.

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I could go on (I didn’t even get to the drug theme: shooting up ground unicorn horn; snorting sands of time surgically removed from your own spine), but I will leave you to imagine the rest of Phases III-V. There might be a way to read a plot into the mounting discomfort, but if so the viewer is the main character, and the images are your deranged antagonist.

The horror isn’t just the skin-prickling discomfort the images evoke. It’s the implied but wholly ambiguous circumstances of the images’ production. Not Lacour’s actual images—she’s fully in charge of those—but who or what is responsible for the surgical operations Lacour documents? Whose undrawn body controls the scalpel? While the notion of a medical lab staffed by rogue physicians with macabre ethical standards would be sufficiently disturbing, the problem Lacour proposes runs considerably deeper. This isn’t a medical book documenting the gone-terribly-wrong. In Lacour’s universe, this is standard practice. And although the prospect of the entire branching field of medicine conforming to the norms of Vivisectionary is again thoroughly disturbing, it’s nature itself that appears to be most deranged. Human medicine is just responding to the inhumane absurdities Lacour’s naturally unnatural world produces. The mad doctor dictating from his operating theater must be God.

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It’s also uncomfortably possible to interpret Vivisectionary according to its cultural and political moment. Is this a treatise on transphobia? I don’t think so. But I doubt someone contemplating reassignment surgery would leave it on their coffee table. Is this a bizarre backdoor entry point for pro-life positions, including the sanctity of stem cells? Again, doubtful. But the volume does communicate visceral distrust of those wielding medical power, and these (often female) subjects have little control over their own (often headless) bodies.

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That merperson (their gender is strikingly ambiguous) on the cover, did they opt to have their tail removed and replaced with mechanical legs? Is there such a thing as mermaid conversation therapy in this funhouse mirror of a reality? Are these specimens volunteers? Did they have to sign a waiver permitting the use of their images in this collection, or is that just standard practice too, the way organs and other bodily content becomes the property of a hospital once removed? As far as all of those fetuses grown or removed from heads and brains and hearts and eyeballs and amputated fingers and forearms, if you’re pregnant, considering getting pregnant, or pregnant and considering getting an abortion, Vivisectionary is almost certainly not for you.

But if you’re comfortable with discomfort, and you like your graphic novels to experiment with the DNA of the comics form, then Kate Lacour is definitely your deranged doctor.

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[A version of this post and my other recent reviews appear in the Comics section of PopMatters.]

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I recently posted on the range of styles available between photorealism and cartooning. The post included my self-portrait divided into four prominent styles that combined contrasting levels of simplification and exaggeration. This week I’m featuring a wider range of self-portraits that are harder to categorize. They’re all derived from photographs, but none remain photorealistic after digitally adapted. The distortions can still be analyzed in terms of simplification and exaggeration, but the combinations are less obvious. My goal isn’t to undermine my own analysis, but it is good to keep myself honest by challenging simple categories. And once again, this is all from my favorite digital dinosaur, MS Paint.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I may have odd taste in graphic novels. If forced to choose between formal experimentation and clarity of storytelling, I’d go with experimentation every time. It’s just more fun. Comics are an inherently odd, hybrid form that merges the alien DNA of words and pictures, and so I enjoy the idiosyncratic ways each artist slices and sutures those visual materials on the surgical table of the page. But sometimes that inherent oddness gets flattened under the reflexive clarity of conventions: the same panels, the same gutters, the same reading paths, the same word containers, the same drawing styles, the same cartooning norms.

Happily, Connor Willumsen doesn’t make me choose. His Bradley of Him delivers an engagingly idiosyncratic visual approach that challenges comics conventions while still providing the pleasures of a vividly told visual tale.

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Here’s a basic comics expectation: the words in a panel and the image in a panel both refer more-or-less to the same thing. It’s so basic most readers might not even register it as an expectation, until it’s broken—which Willumsen dose on page one. I would say panel one, but there are no panels, not in the traditional sense of framed rectangles separated by the non-space of a gutter. Instead Willumsen draws a twelve-image sequence of a free-floating figure in running clothes performing warm-up stretches. Though his location is undrawn, his multiple images are superimposed over a psychedelic car, a grove of potted plants, and a row of velvet rope stanchions at the center of the page. If that’s not odd enough, according to the words trailing from his speech bubbles, he’s giving an awards-ceremony acceptance speech, though clearly he is not. In the bottom row, a woman leans over him, politely asking if he could use the fitness center instead. He says no.

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What the hell is going on?

As I said, I may have odd taste, but I find this level of ambiguity delightful. For those who prefer storytelling clarity over experimentation though, don’t worry, Willumsen soon pulls it all together for you: the main character is mentally rehearsing an acceptance speech while also preparing for a run by stretching on the lobby floor of the Las Vegas hotel he’s staying at where the weird car, plants and ropes are on display. The initial confusion seems banally simplistic in retrospect, the equivalent of a slightly misaligned camera.

That describes Willumsen’s aesthetic generally. Turn a page and you’re likely to feel an initial moment of visual narrative confusion that soon resolves into some retroactively pleasant clarity.

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Take page four. It opens with an image of a woman (the same one who was at the bottom of page one it turns out) with a phone to her ear with words freely floating above her head (Willumsen never uses caption boxes). According to comics conventions, the words should be the voice in her ear. Willumsen knows that but toys with us further by having the women answer “No” as if in response to a narrated question. Yet she’s actually responding to the unheard (and unprinted) voice on the phone while the main character waits to mail a letter before leaving for his run. The words floating above her head are words from the letter. Willumsen was just misaligning image and text for a playful but quickly-resolved moment of visual tension.

Willumsen maintains the approach. Turn to page eight and suddenly a father is sitting in a stopped car with his daughter in the backseat stressing about some animal he’s struck. Who are these people? How are they related to any of the narrative threads we’ve been following? They aren’t. Or they aren’t until our main character jogs past, refusing to stop and aid them. Page eighteen and we’re in the back of an ambulance listening to the unrelated banter of two EMTs. Why? Because, it soon turns out, they’re following our main character after (we have to infer) the cops shown on a previous page contacted them because our main character is apparently deranged and refusing to stop despite the dangerous heat and distance of his run.

While I find these visual and narrative sleights-of-hand entertaining in themselves, this isn’t just experimental self-indulgence. Willumsen’s misalignments serve a deeper purpose. They reflect his main character’s misaligned mind. I’ve been avoiding naming the “him” of the title because there’s more than one identity in play here. At the surface level “he” might be the real-world athlete Lance Armstrong. On page twenty-eight, we learn that the award ceremony includes the equally real-world Bradley Cooper, a Best Actor nominee for his performance in the film “Stronger: The Story of Lance Armstrong.” So is the jerk who won’t stop jogging to help a distressed driver the actor or the character he’s playing? And then there’s the still more ambiguous “Murray,” whose sister and niece are searching for him in his empty apartment. Is the main character actually Murray pretending he’s Bradley pretending he’s Lance?

Honestly? I don’t know. More oddly, I’m not that worried about it. Since the novel is about misalignments, a simplistic narrative resolution would betray that aesthetic. We’re supposed to be a little confused. Bradley-Lance-Murray is a little confused too. The world is a confusing place. A comic about a confusing world should be confusing.

Willumsen’s inventiveness doesn’t stop there. The looping time structure is equally engaging, making me question whether the award ceremony flashbacks are flashbacks at all. And who exactly is the women he’s writing that letter to? There’s a lot to unpack. Another comics artist might have filled in all these intriguing gaps by expanding the story beyond sixty-four intensive pages. Happily, Willumsen keeps his narrative as lean and off-balance as his maybe-deranged main character.

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[A version of this post and my other recent reviews appear in the Comics section of PopMatters.]

 

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This is the first illustration I made for my next book, The Comics Form: The Art of Juxtaposed Images. I signed a contract with Routledge in December, and have to submit the complete ms by next December, so you can guess how I’ll be spending the rest of my sabbatical. Chapter 1 is already spinning a little out of control at just over 20,000 words.  Fortunately it divides into pretty manageable subsections. Below is a draft of “Modes,” which explains this freaky self-portrait:While style can be analyzed as a range of separate qualities, those qualities can be combined into patterns that categorize an artist’s overall style or a group of artists’ shared customs. Joseph Witek calls such comics customs “modes” and identifies two, naturalism and cartoon, which can be distinguished by their degrees of simplification and abstraction. The terms “simplify” and “abstract,” however, have multiple, overlapping usages.

Lefévre refers to line quantity as “detail,” meaning “the amount of details versus the degree of simplification” (2016: 75). “Simplified” in this sense refers to a representational image that reduces the amount of detail of its source material. While all but photographic and photorealistic images are simplified, comics artists tend to simplify significantly. The verb “abstract” shares a similar meaning. An abstracted image extracts details from its source subject and so is therefore simplified. An abstract image, however, usually refers to an image that represents no source material and so cannot abstract details from it. As discussed above, I prefer the adjective “non-representational,” and use “abstract” to describe style, but even when limited to style, abstraction is an ambiguous term since it also refers to non-realistic alterations in optic experience that are not “simplified” in the extracted sense.

The uses of “simplify” are similarly problematic. In Understanding Comics, McCloud draws an “iconic abstraction scale” that illustrates five styles, ranging from a photocopied photograph of a face to a drawn face comprised of an oval, two dots, and a straight line (1993: 29). He claims that all of the faces to the right of the photograph simplify it by “eliminating details” (30). While this is largely true of the second, “realistic” face and the middle face containing only “outlines and a hint of shading” (29), the later faces differ in more than line quantity. The qualities of their details change too. Though McCloud concludes that the end result is “stripped-down” (31), each step to the right of his scale illustrates two kinds of changes: each contains fewer lines, and those lines alter the contours derived from the originating photograph. McCloud also refers to each face as “more abstract” than the previous, further conflating extracted and altered (29). Witek introduces a similar confusion by citing two drawings of Bob Hope to illustrate the cartoon mode and the naturalist mode, even though both are composed of an essentially identical amount of detail. Stuart Medley prefers the term “distillation” over simplification, meaning “some removal of realistic detail,” but also treats abstraction and simplification interchangeably (2010: 53). I will only refer to simplification as the reduction of details. While abstraction can refer to the alteration of details, Lefévre instead describes a drawing’s degree of “deformation” as measured against “normal proportions” (75). The verbs “distort” and “warp” are also applicable, as is the more common term “exaggeration,” which visually refers to lines that magnify or compress the shapes of their source material.

McCloud’s final face then is both “simplified and exaggerated,” what Witek identifies as the two stylistic qualities of the cartoon mode (31). McCloud also identifies the final face as “the cartoon,” differentiating it from the middle face which he says reflects the “style of drawing found in many adventure comics” (29). Comics art then might be divided into resemblance-based naturalism and custom-based cartoons, but Witek and McCloud both acknowledge overlap. Witek’s two modes are “by no means mutually exclusive; comics combining both modes are extremely common” (28), and McCloud claims that “nearly all comics artists apply at least some small measure of cartooning” (42). Cohn refers to the same simplified and exaggerated combination as the “Barksian” visual dialect, named after Scrooge McDuck artist Carl Barks, though its customs predate Barks. Unlike Witek, who identifies the naturalistic mode as “the preferred approach for stories of adventure and domestic romance,” Cohn does not consider the Kirbyan dialect to be naturalistic and does not place the Barksian dialect in opposition to it.

Because customs are socially constructed and maintained, few artists outside of comics traditions would consider the reduction and alteration of details as “cartooning,” but many twentieth-century artists simplify and exaggerate to similar effect. Don Arr correctly notes that Picasso’s 1920 Portrait of Igor Stravinsky “would be a cartoon if in a comic book” (1982: 1). And in what formal sense is Picasso’s 1955 ink drawing Don Quixote not a cartoon? Or Matisse’s equally famous 1952 cut-out Blue Nude II? Or any of Schiele’s dozens of drawings from the 1910s? None are called “cartoons” because the term is traditionally understood as specific to comics as a publishing tradition well outside of fine art. The style may also have a biological basis. According to Stuart Medley, the human “visual system apprehends the world” according to “simple propositions that the mind prefers,” duplicated in how “most comics artists tend to draw and ink their worlds – some degree of abstraction away from realism, clear outlines, flat colours, reliance on closure, a tendency towards caricature” (2010: 68).

“Cartoon” originates from the French and Italian words for the cardboard-like paper used for preliminary sketches in the 1600s, and it acquired its satirical connotation from Punch magazine in 1843. It is often used synonymously with “caricature,” which dates to the 1700s and denotes a style of drawing that selectively alters a subject’s features for comic effect or, according to Jack Hamm, “the art of distorting by exaggeration a person so he still retains his identity” (1927: 33). Drawing from the root term “caricare” (“to load”), Buhon Lynch calls caricature “overloaded representation” (1927: 1), and Johnson “exaggerated resemblance” (). Edward Lucie-Smith considers cartoon and caricature synonyms (1981: 9, 13), but caricatures often but do not necessarily reduce the amount of detail. Contemporary political artist Jason Sieler creates caricatures that are both highly exaggerated and highly detailed, as are many of José Miguel Covarrubias Duclaud’s 1930s and 40s magazine illustrations. Hogarth’s 1743 Characters and Caricaturas is a visual argument against caricature, an Italian style then newly introduced to England, emphasizing grotesquely detailed exaggeration over Hogarth’s equally detailed naturalistic approach. Defining caricature by exaggeration alone would add many more non-comics artists to a purely formal application of the term. Modigliani’s portraits, with their definingly long necks and facial features, are clearly exaggerated but also highly detailed.

Instead of Witek’s two modes, the combined elements of simplification and exaggeration instead suggest four. Cartoons remain clearly opposed to the detailed, optically accurate style of naturalism, but two additional modes emerge from a crisscrossing spectrum. Some caricatures are not cartoons because they are exaggerated but not simplified. This style has no term, and so rather than coining one, I will refer to it descriptively as detailed caricature. Images that are simplified but not exaggerated are similarly unnamed. Where detailed caricatures are often aligned with cartoons, viewers sometimes regard unexaggerated simplifications as a form of naturalism. Comics artist GG works in this style, and reviewers Sean Rogers of The Globe and Mail and Alex Hoffman of Sequential State described her graphic novel I’m Not Here as “photorealist” and “photorealistic.” The claim is peculiar considering that most of GG’s images are composed of opaque shapes lacking interior detail of any kind. They are highly simplified, but their contours also appear realistic, suggesting photographic source material, which apparently triggered the reviewers’ erroneous responses.

In Superhero Comics I offered an “Abstraction Grid” that divides exaggeration and simplification each into a five-point scale and then combines the scales into twenty-five sections (2018: 238). Since the two spectrums can be scaled into any number of subdivisions, only the four defining regions are necessary to indicate the overall range. The four sections of my self-portrait corresponds to each mode: 1) the bottom left corner is an actual photograph, and so it is neither simplified nor exaggerated; 2) the bottom right corner is adapted from the same photo by erasing everything but the minimum lines needed to represent a face, and so it is simplified but not exaggerated; 3) the top left corner is adapted from the same photo by variously expanding and rearranging details, and so it is exaggerated but not simplified; and 4) the top right corner is drawn using roughly the same number of lines as the image below it and with roughly the same degree of distortion as the image beside it, and so it both simplified and exaggerated.

Routledge will only allow black and white illustrations, so it will look like this in the book:

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Michael DeForge’s recent graphic novella (Stunt is too short to call a novel) is a compelling combination of excess and restraint. Except for the red letters snaking cage-like around the main character in the cover image, DeForge limits his palette to blue and white on black backgrounds. The dimensions of the physical book are unusually limited too, about 3” x 8”, making each page a small, wide rectangle that DeForge consistently grids into single panels or two equally sized square ones. The book could have been printed in a more standard shape, arranging three rows down each page, but the resulting 24-page comic would be less engaging. Like the title letters, the physical format creates a kind of “stunted” cage holding the main character inside rigid panels made even more unescapable by the ever-present page edges surrounding the black margins.

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And that form is a good match for its story. DeForge’s narrator is a suicidal stunt double trying to escape the confines of his existence. He fantasizes about plunging to his death while shooting a skyscraper scene. He literally dreams of crashing a car into an exploding oil tanker, but even then he survives due to a filming mishap that placed the actual star at the steering wheel. The stunt double (he goes unnamed except for one severely cropped panel of his imagined “in memory of” death credit at the end of the film) is terrible at dying. Even his actual suicide attempts by razor and pills fail, leaving him still boxed inside DeForge’s panels.

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While the book’s structure coordinates well with its subject matter, DeForge’s drawing style deepens those connections further. Like most cartoons, the stunt double’s body is impossibly malleable. His rubbery muscles enclose only the vague idea of a skeleton as the lines of his body curve to exaggerate his actions. Sometimes the exaggerations are loosely naturalistic, as when DeForge draws him from extremely foreshortened angles, but the effects run much deeper, altering the fabric of the story reality. His hair could be a fifth limb. His blue skin sweats blue droplets as if his whole figure were in the process of oozing apart. When he imagines his fatal impact, his body seems to splash across the sidewalk. When he imagines being consumed by blue flames, the lines of the flames are indistinguishable from the lines of his body, as if emerging from him.

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Instead of windows into a film-like story world, sometimes the panel edges serve as barriers that his body contorts to fill.  When his suicide attempts fail, he imagines exercising himself to death, literally wringing his body out: “Nothing left of me but knotted muscle and pools of sweat.” DeForge draws the visual metaphors of a twisted towel and puddle—but are they metaphors? Is this a naturalistic story drawn in a distorted style, or is this an actual cartoon world that obeys different laws of physics? DeForge exploits that ambiguity well.

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The world is absurdist. The narrator doubles for an actor named Jo Rear, providing the dreamed death headline joke: “Rear, Ended.” Fortunately, DeForge mostly avoids that kind of comic excess, instead emphasizing the surreal plot development of Jo hiring his double to impersonate him in his so-called “real” life. Starting with innocuous commercial photoshoots, the arrangements escalates to TV interviews and then personal dates. Together the two attempt a kind of career suicide, turning “Jo Rear” into a self-destructive, relationship-ending, contract-breaking, conspiracy-theory-espousing, public-urinating performance piece. The “stunt,” however, only makes the persona more popular, spurring a viscous cycle of increasing degradation and humiliation.

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But who is declining? Is it the actual Jo giving the look-alike main character his instructions? Is it the double literally embodying the role? Is it some third, technically non-existent entity who exists only in performance? Is it all of the above? None of the above? The interrogation of identity extends to Jo and the narrator even when alone together and so not performing for the public. Their bodies seem not only increasingly interchangeable, but the two figuratively and literally merge as they have sex in the walled privacy of Jo’s mansion. Though homoerotic, DeForge’s images are too surreal, too formally abstract to create any prurient effect. These aren’t two human bodies having sex. It’s barely even cartoon sex since so many of the curves and blue shapes are indistinguishable. Out of context, the last two panels of the sex scene wouldn’t even register as representational images.

I won’t give away how DeForge concludes his metafictional comics stunt, but it is a fitting ending to both his narrator’s personal plot as well as his own visual experimentation. Since Koyama Press is closing down soon too, Stunt may also be a fitting ending to DeForge’s multi-book career with the publisher.

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[A version of this post and my other recent reviews appear in the Comics section of PopMatters.]

 

 

 

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