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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

I am delighted to announce that Bloomsbury just officially published The Comics Form: The Art of Sequenced Images. My last three books were two-in-one team-ups, so it feels pleasantly strange to be solo authoring again. This is also a culmination of work I’ve been building toward for about seven years (a very very early version of a chapter subsection appeared as an essay in 2016). I’m humbly hoping to offer some helpful ways to rethink foundational ideas in comics theory, but others will have to determine just how helpful they are. The book is priced for institutions (hardback and ebook), so probably not something most folks will be buying for their own shelves, but I do hope that anyone with a deep interest in comics will nudge their nearest library to purchase a copy.

I also thought the clearest way to preview the content is to start at the end. That’s how you write a mystery novel, but in this case I mean it literally. Below is the actual Conclusion to The Comics Form. It condenses the preceding 206 pages into three very very dense pages. Rereading them now out of context hurts my brain a little, so good luck. Still, I hope there are enough intriguingly shaped fragments in there to pique your interest to explore the book. Raise your hand if you have any questions (ie, email me).

Conclusion

A poem consisting of fourteen blank-verse lines following an ABABCDCDEFEFGG rhyme scheme is a Shakespearean sonnet because it is in the Shakespearean sonnet form. A work in the comics form is formally a comic for similar reasons. Unlike Shakespearean sonnets, however, a comic may be defined by other than form. A work may be a comic contextually, stylistically, conventionally, or by other criteria independent of or non-exclusive to form. Though it may be a comic according to multiple sets of defining criteria, if the work satisfies one set but not another set, it is both a comic and not a comic. The apparent paradox is due to each set using the same term, even though each usage is distinct. A ‘comic’ is not a ‘comic’ is not a ‘comic.’

The Comics Form defines the comics form by extracting the two most common physical features from a range of comics definitions and combining them as ‘sequenced images.’ Sequenced images may or may not define comics generally, but if a work consists of sequenced images, the work is in the comics form and so can be analyzed formally as a comic. Although that may be sufficient for the work to be considered a comic, others might understand that a work must be, for example, a mass-produced replica or be created, produced, and purchased with the understanding that it is a comic. I refer to such media-defined works as the comics medium. A single-image cartoon in a newspaper comics section is in the comics medium, but because it is not in the comics form, it is outside the scope of this study.

The terms ‘discourse’ and ‘diegesis’ differentiate images’ physical qualities and representational qualities. All images have discourses and many also have diegeses. Since I derive ‘image’ from extant comics definitions, I also infer its discursive constraints: an image in the comics form is a visual, static, flat image juxtaposed with another. If it is also a representational image, it represents some subject matter: the diegesis experienced in the mind of a viewer interpreting its discourse. Like ‘discourse,’ ‘diegesis’ has other usages, but I adopt an expansive meaning: all representational content, either overtly depicted or implied, including the larger context of a world. Diegeses vary between viewers but also presumably overlap significantly. Non-representational images have no diegeses, only discourses—which must still be mentally experienced, but without the construction of a mental model with diegetic qualities understood to be separate from the discourse.

Analyzing representational images involves a range of approaches for relating their discursive qualities to the diegetic qualities they produce. Rather than focusing on unknowable authorial intentions or the illusion of intentions in characters, I focus on viewers’ experiences of intentionality in author-constructed narrators, focusing first on image-narrators, which communicate diegetic content through an image’s discursive qualities. An image’s style is in one sense discursive: an arrangement of marks on a surface. In another sense, style is diegetic: subjects depicted in a certain manner. Style may then be understood as semi-representational: discursive qualities that represent subjects non-literally and indirectly. Style may follow certain norms or modes, including cartooning and naturalism, as well as other combinations of exaggeration and simplification. Those norms are understood to represent subject matter through overspecified or underspecified details that are not aspects of the diegesis, except indirectly through connotations. Viewpoint and framing effects are similarly semi-representational.

To be in the comics form, a work must include more than one visual, static, flat image. Distinguishing multiple images from a single image with multiple units poses a challenge. Common terms ‘panels,’ ‘frames,’ and ‘gutters’ are metaphors to describe drawn qualities that are not determining. Unless images are physically divided—two framed paintings hanging on the same wall, for example, or two facing pages—image division is determined by viewer perception. A physically unified page or canvas of visual subunits consists of multiple images only if a viewer perceives it to be multiple images. Like style, a layout of gutter-divided panels straddles discourse and diegesis. The division of images is neither a discursive quality nor a diegetic quality in the same sense as the images’ subject matter, because the divisions are not part of that diegetic world. Where style seems diegetically transparent (subjects are drawn as if accurately reflecting their literal appearance in their world), image divisions seem discursive (images are drawn as if separated physically in the discourse). Distinguishing the two effects, style is semi-representational and layout is pseudo-formal. Because pseudo-formal qualities are not physical qualities like page dimensions and divisions, pseudo-form is a kind of diegesis, but one separate from the primary diegesis of the representational content, and so a secondary diegesis.

For images to be sequenced and so to be in the comics form, they must be juxtaposed in one of three possible ways: 1) contiguous: images appear simultaneously within a single visual field; 2) temporal: an image appears immediately after a previous image in the same visual field; or 3) distant: a non-contiguous image that does not immediately follow a previous image is mentally recalled while observing a current image. Contiguous juxtaposition describes the pages of most works in the comics medium in which viewers understand panels to be separate images. Temporal juxtaposition is the norm of films but occurs in static images when, for instance, a viewer turns a page. Distant juxtaposition is dependent on memory and so may be juxtaposition in only a metaphorical sense. A viewer of a sequence may at any time recall a previous image and relate it to a current image, discursively, diegetically, or both. Contiguous juxtaposition also includes braiding effects (with and without repetition) in which the discursive relationship of visual elements influences a viewer’s understanding of their corresponding diegetic qualities.

Juxtaposed images trigger inferences. The most fundamental inference is recurrence: marks in separate images are understood to be representations of the same subject. Recurrence is reinforced by a parallel phenomenon, diegetic erasure, in which discursive qualities that would produce diegetic contradictions are ignored. Juxtaposition produces ten additional types of inferences: 1) spatial: images share a diegetic space; 2) temporal: images share a diegetic timeline; 3) causal: undepicted action occurs between depicted moments; 4) embedded: one image is perceived as multiple images; 5) non-sensory: differences between representational images do not represent sensory reality; 6) associative: dissimilar images represent a shared subject; 7) semi-continuous: discursively continuous but representationally non-continuous images are perceived as a single image; 8) continuous: images are perceived as a single image; 9) match: otherwise dissimilar images share matching similarities; and 10) linguistic: images relate primarily through accompanying text. The first seven are diegetic only; the second two can occur both discursively and diegetically, or discursively only; and the last is not primarily a result of image juxtaposition and so arguably is not a type of juxtapositional inference. While the subtypes of diegetic inferences are only discernible through analysis of the story world, discursive inferences must be analyzed at the level of the page. Purely discursive inferences involve only discursive marks understood in terms such as shapes and values without reference to representational content.

For images to be sequenced, they must be juxtaposed, but the relationship between sequence and juxtaposition is ambiguous. The juxtaposed images of a sequence follow a specific order. The juxtaposed images of a non-sequence, or set, follow no specific order. Since a set can be juxtaposed contiguously, when, for example, organized into a book or gallery, order has two kinds: 1) discursive order: the successive but non-diegetic arrangement of images, reflecting only happenstance, convenience, and/or the needs of physical presentation; and 2) sequential order: the successive arrangement of the images, reflecting some diegetic quality of the representational content. Sequential order and discursive order are identical for sequences.

When images, whether sets or sequences, are contiguously juxtaposed in a visual field, viewing them produces a viewing path that is either: 1) directed: determined by the image order of the sequence; or 2) variable: indeterminate and so open to multiple discursive orders. Since image orders and image viewing paths are apprehended simultaneously, both are an additional type of juxtapositional inference in which a viewer determines relationships between contiguous images. If other inferences (recurrence, spatial, temporal, etc.) suggest a sequential order organized in a directed viewing path, the images are hinged. Unhinged viewing describes variable viewing paths of a set arranged discursively but non-sequentially.

The image qualities of content, relationship, order, paths, and hinges suggest a six-part typology: 1) representational sequence: two or more related and ordered representational images, with, if contiguously juxtaposed, hinges that produce a directed viewing path; 2) non-representational sequence: two or more related and ordered non-representational images, with, if contiguously juxtaposed, hinges that produce a directed viewing path; 3) representational set: two or more related but unordered representational images, that, if contiguously juxtaposed, are viewed in variable paths; 4) non-representational set: two or more related but unordered non-representational images, that, if contiguously juxtaposed, are viewed in variable paths; 5) representational arrangement: two or more unrelated and unordered representational images with no contiguous hinges; and  6) non-representational arrangement: two or more unrelated and unordered non-representational images with no contiguous hinges. 

Representational sequences also provide a means to explain and constrict McCloud’s closure. Viewers make inferences about a diegetic world based on image content in combination with independent knowledge and assumptions about the depicted world. Those assumptions are usually mimetic, applying, for example, laws of physics to objects and human psychology to characters. The undrawn content that viewers experience through the juxtaposition of two or more representational images is the minimal content required by a viewer’s mental construction of a partially drawn but fully implied event, consisting of definable subunits. While anything could occur in the ambiguous lapse of time implied by paired images of discreet moments, viewers understand the images as parts of a unified event. According to event inferencing, any content that is not part of that event is not implied.

Though text is not a necessary quality of the comics form, many sequenced images contain text. An image-text is an image that combines linguistic and non-linguistic content, and sequenced image-texts are in the comics form. Since all text is necessarily images, there are two types: 1) word-image: an image with linguistic content; and 2) word-image art: a word-image rendered as graphic art. Since word-images and non-linguistic images function as though on parallel and independent paths, image-texts involve three kinds of narrators: 1) image-narration of non-linguistic content; 2) text-narration of linguistic content; and 3) image-text narration of combinational effects of linguistic and non-linguistic content, which produces embedded relationships including double referents.

These are the qualities of sequenced images, which together explain the comics form.

This a page from Dennis Hopeless and Javier Rodriguez’s 2016 Spider-Woman: Baby Talk. It’s another of my favorites, which is why I include it in The Comics Form: The Art of Sequenced Images. Or rather I include a gray-scale version of it. Though Bloomsbury gave me space for a quite a few illustrations, book publishing is always more limiting than blogging. While I couldn’t subdivided the page to talk about each juxtaposition there, I can here. The illustration appears at the end of Chapter 5’s discussion of juxtapositional inferences, and my analysis also draws on some terms from earlier chapters:

  • Discursive: qualities of the physical image.
  • Diegetic: qualities of the represented subject.
  • Spatial inference: images share a diegetic space.
  • Temporal inference: images share a diegetic timeline.
  • Causal inference: undepicted action occurs between depicted moments.
  • Continuous inference: images are perceived as a single discursive image.
  • Semi-continuous inference: discursively continuous but representationally non-continuous images are perceived as a single image.
  • Erasure: viewers do not register discursive elements that do not fit their diegetic understanding.
  • Ocularization: image viewed as though from the angle and proximity of a character.

The character is Captain Marvel, but because she goes unnamed, I don’t mention her by name. Though the page features a 3×3 grid, five of the panels produce a unified image through continuous inferences. Numbered by Z-path viewing, panels two, five, six, seven, and eight are a single discursive and diegetic unit.

Because that unit is the dominant feature of the page, it likely encourages a viewer to apprehend the page as a whole first rather than beginning in the top left corner as the viewing norms of a 3×3 grid would prompt. The centered “KOOF” art in panel five also likely attracts a viewer’s eye to the center of the page and so to the center of the continuous unit first. Switching to Z-path viewing requires some loosening of the continuous effect to apprehend each panel individually. Even though it contains only an ellipse and so indicates no spoken sound, the presence of a speech container in the top left panel encourages a Z-path by drawing a viewer’s eye to its starting point.

In terms of spatial inferences, the setting is minimal and is represented only by an undifferentiated green background discernable in most panels. The green is likely perceived as transparently literal, even if its slight discursive variations are not. The discursively white background in the bottom left panel, however, is likely diegetically erased or, if noticed, understood non-transparently through non-sensory inference.

Since the substitution of white for green probably suggests nothing diegetically, it likely does not trigger associative inferences. The white then is only for discursive effect.

Spatial inferencing also explains the differences between each pair of panels as the result of the differences in the position of the implied viewer in relation to the central and unmoving figure. The first juxtaposition involves a change in the implied viewer’s proximity and angle. The second juxtaposition involves both, too, but while the proximity of the third image follows the trajectory of the first two images (the implied viewer is nearing the figure), the angle instead reverts back to the forward-facing view of the first panel. Because such movements do not correspond to the movements of an implied character, the spatial inference suggests no ocularization.

But the final image could be ocularized by either of the two characters present in the backgrounds of panels six and seven. Even if non-ocularized, the implied viewer has rotated 180 degrees, explaining why the central figure is no longer facing forward.

Alternatively, the figure has turned herself around as inferred through a causal inference. If so, she is now facing the two background characters, who, due to framing, do not appear in the image. I suspect most viewers would interpret the figure’s ending posture as speaking over her shoulder to the characters behind her, and so no causal inferences would be involved. If the figure did turn around, a viewer would experience a different kind of temporal inference, one indicating a slightly greater period of time to account for the implied action.

Temporal inferencing is also necessary for parsing the five-panel continuous unit. The unit, because it appears more than once in the linear panel progression, represents more than one diegetic moment despite being discursively recurrent. Calling the combined continuous unit “A,” the linear viewing sequence is: 1, A(2), 3, 4, A(5–6), A(7), A(8), 9.

First, note that temporal inference combines panels five and six into a two-panel continuous unit within the larger five-panel unit because the mid-air position of the flying fragments indicates the same moment. The space between panels five and six therefore divides neither spatially nor temporally.

The space between panels seven and eight does divide temporally because the placement of a speech container within each segments time.

Similarly, the space between four and five is temporal because of the action of the figure crushing the object (identified in the story as a phone). The change in the color of her glove from red to white is presumably the result of the electrical discharge from the crushed phone. The three changes (untightened to tightened fist, red to white glove, whole to shattered phone) all produce the temporal inference.

Temporal inferences also challenge the transparency of the apparent five-panel continuous image. Though panels A(2) and A(5–6) appear to represent a unified image and so a unified moment, panel four establishes that the phone is not yet broken during the moment of A(2), meaning the effect between A(2) and A(5–6) is not continuous but semi-continuous.

It only appears to be a single continuous image, but the corresponding position of her fingers during the moment of A(2) could not match. In the first panel, which is temporally closer to A(1) than to A(5–6), the figure has not formed a fist yet since one of her fingers is higher on the phone.

Temporal inferences produced by the speech containers also requires that A(7) and A(8) represent different moments from the rest of the apparent continuous unit, producing instead a semi-continuous unit of a single, stationary figure viewed from the same angle and proximity, but subdivided into four temporal units.

Finally, while panels two and five are not contiguously juxtaposed, viewers likely recognize them as diegetically continuous.

The chapter ends with discussions of four other pages too (from Black Panther, Batwoman, and Hawkeye). These close viewings (I avoid using the verb “read” for visual analysis that involves almost no actual reading) were some of my favorite parts to draft.

That’s a page from Matt Fraction and David Aja’s 2012 Hawkeye: My Life as a Weapon, one of my all-time favorites. I discuss it in The Comics Form: The Art of Sequenced Images, but the very reasonable limitations of book publishing prevented me from dividing the page into various smaller units to illustrate the point-by-point analysis.

That’s what blogs are for.

I really do try to avoid jargon, but I have some terms I find increasingly useful, so I’ll gloss them first:

  • Discursive: qualities of the physical image (in this case that’s pixels).
  • Diegetic: qualities of the represented subject (in this case that’s the world of Marvel Comics).
  • Spatial inference: images share a diegetic space.
  • Temporal inference: images share a diegetic timeline.
  • Continuous inference: images are perceived as a single image.
  • Semi-continuous inference: discursively continuous but representationally non-continuous images are perceived as a single image.
  • Associative inference: dissimilar images represent a shared subject.

The characters here are of course Hawkeye and, well, Hawkeye, AKA Clint and Kate. Their names aren’t mentioned on this splash page, so I don’t refer to them by name either.

Here it goes:

Uniform vertical and horizontal negative spaces divide the page into twelve rectangular but otherwise irregular images. The presence of words from a continuous statement (“Okay—this looks bad … Don’t die.”) placed inside caption boxes in the top left corner and the bottom right area encourage a general top left to bottom right viewing, but the norms of either Z-path rows or N-path columns are disrupted by the image arrangement and image content, producing no clear viewing order or even a method for naming images discursively. If viewers do begin with the first captioned word, they likely switch to apprehending the page as a whole, focusing first on the largest panel and the dominant content of the two figures diving underwater as bullets speed past them. Because the bullets’ paths through the water follow the same lines as those in the top left corner, continuous inferences unite the panels as a single unit, even though they share only corners and no borders. After closer inspection, the bottom left panel likely joins the same continuous unit.

The bullet trajectory lines in the top right corner also follow roughly the same pattern, so a viewer’s eye may be drawn there next. Spatial inferencing establishes a more distant implied viewer since the bullet lines (which are through air rather than water and so literal only if understood as a kind of blur) and the figures are smaller. The contrast in distance blocks the continuous effect otherwise encouraged by the layout, since the top right panel content is also “above” the diegetic content of the larger panel below it discursively. Since the two are viewed from similar angles, it is only the difference of proximity that divides them diegetically. That almost continuous effect is further suggested by the near alignment of the pool edges in the top corner panels, which is itself heightened by the placement of a horizontal negative space between the middle panels in the same row, creating the discursive illusion of an intermediary step between the differing representations of the pool edge.

The second panel along the left margin also features a similar pattern of bullet trajectories, but spatial inferencing again divides the panel from the continuous unit, this time through an implied viewer placed in contrastingly close proximity to the bullets.

Two other panels in the top left region stand apart discursively because of the accenting use of yellow. The two are also diegetically linked because they feature the guns firing the bullets.

Diegetically, the second panel along the top margin belongs above and to the left of the first panel—a mental rearrangement that a viewer experiences through spatial inferences. The content of the second yellow-dominated panel is also diegetically “below” the discursively higher panel, but with the same change in proximity of the implied viewer as the panel abutting it, so that the bullets in the water and the bullet shells in the air are similar sizes. The two yellow panels also produce their own two-panel viewing path that cuts diagonally across the opposite diagonals of both the paths of the bullets and the reading path of the captions.

The seven panels described so far could occur simultaneously. The smallest remaining panel, the lone square positioned near the center of the page but grouped with the close-up panels, appears to represent a similarly close view of churning water and so is also likely understood to occur at the same moment.

Four images remain. Two are ambiguous because their content is not overtly related, and the other two produce temporal inferences distinct from the rest of the page.

First, the figure in a bikini from the top right panel recurs in a lower left panel; instead of being struck by a bullet and falling from a standing position, the figure is floating face down in the water. The diegetic trajectory of the figure’s previous falling posture aligns spatiotemporally with the body’s later position in the pool, producing a causal inference. The juxtaposition also requires a new implied viewer position situated on the other side of the pool and so opposite the implied viewer of the other images. The apparent stillness of the figure and the water suggest a similar temporal leap to a later moment well after the action depicted in the surrounding images.

The recurrent figure also creates a two-panel viewing path that echoes the right-to-left path between the two yellow-dominant panels that appear discursively “before” them if a viewer is attempting a general top left to bottom right direction. The second pair of panels are more discursively distant to each other than the first pair, but in the same diagonal relationship, and so their placements also echo the widening trajectories of the bullets in the continuous unit.

The final image in the bottom right corner features the recurrent figure of the diver discursively above it, producing the spatiotemporal inference that he is no longer descending into the water from the force of his dive but has now slowed. Though his arms are framed out of the image, they appear to be at his sides. The temporal inference would divide the two images by roughly seconds. This means that the “last” discursive image on the page is not the “last” diegetic image because the previously described panel containing the floating corpse would follow it temporally.

Finally, two of the panels feature graphic designs surrounded by uniformly black areas that seem disconnected from the diegetic events, in part because they do not suggest the illusion of three-dimensionality. Viewers with prior subject knowledge will recognize the higher panel’s spiral pattern as the symbol of the story’s villain featured on his hat, producing an associative inference. Viewers without prior knowledge will be introduced to the symbol and character six pages later, applying the associative effect retroactively. The juxtaposition of the spiral icon beside the image of the firing guns may suggest that they are being fired either by the villain or, since there are multiple guns, on his behalf.

A lower left panel contains another ambiguous icon, also later revealed to be associated with another villain employed by the first for similar foreshadowing.

Something I don’t mention in The Comics Form but that I’ll address here: Aja’s art works against Fraction’s tone and superhero genre norms. Hawkeye’s internal narration is comic and contrasts the dire situation. But it’s considerably less comic for the words “Okay—this looks bad … Don’t die” to appear between images of bystanders being struck by stray bullets and a floating corpse. Worse, because the deaths go unnoted by the heroes later, it suggests their indifference.

I assume that wasn’t the intention. Fraction’s script likely didn’t mention any deaths because Aja invented the incident while drawing. The heroes are unconcerned about dead bystanders because there were none. Or at least there were none as originally written by Fraction. The comic, however, is not the script.

Since I discussed the new Philosophy of Comics in two previous posts (here and here), I thought it fair to give the authors a chance to respond, which they kindly do below.

Guest bloggers, Sam Cowling and Wesley Cray

PART I

We can’t thank Chris enough for the kind words about the book. Happy to report, too, that we specifically requested to Bloomsbury that they approach him for a blurb, given how useful we found his own work as well as his collaborative efforts with Nathaniel Goldberg. (Big plug for Chris’ “‘Something Like This Just Couldn’t Happen!’: Resolving Naturalistic Tensions in Superhero Comics Art” in Studies in Comics.) And we’re grateful, too, for the chance to say a bit in response to Chris’s perceptive remarks here.

There are a lot of moving pieces, and Chris points in some fruitful and interesting directions that we won’t be able to tackle in a short post. Mostly, we’ll aim to give a rough sense of how we are inclined to approach the taxonomic questions around comics (the things) and ‘comics’ (the word or concept).

It’s scarcely debatable that the term ‘comics’ is vague. When philosophers think about vagueness, we typically model it using precisifications: various contextually acceptable means of making the meaning precise. In this way, precisifications are sharpenings. One way (but surely not the only way!) to view the literature on defining ‘comics’ is as a purely semantic debate that presupposes that there’s a uniquely acceptable sharpening. We’re pretty happy to grant that there are actually a range of acceptable sharpenings, but that their aptness depends upon the context of inquiry and conversation. For our part, the aim of the first chapter of our book—aside from the implicit aims of introducing different kinds of comics and some general philosophical methodology—is to ask what might demarcate the most general sort of precisification that folks have in mind when they, say, debate who should win an award at Angoulême, be featured in Kramer’s Ergot, or be read in a class specifically centered on comics. Our best shot—a shot that requires a lot more than a chapter to count as a full-fledged account—is that comics are artifacts produced to be engaged with through a certain kind of reading.

We’re super interested in Chris’ proposal. (What are pre-orders for, after all?) In part, it’s because we’re not sure what a “form” is. We recognize that there can be—and is—ample disagreement about what categories count as mediums—e.g., Matthew Smith and Randy Duncan suggest that there isn’t a general medium of comics in The Power of Comics. Our untutored, prima facie hunch is that forms are intimately bound up with aesthetic engagement. Roughly, “form” is properly viewed as a distinctive kind of aesthetic category that subsumes all and only those things that are created with suitably related aesthetic purposes, engaged via suitably related aesthetic techniques, and evaluated using suitably related aesthetic criteria. That conception of form would make one sharpening of ‘comics’ pick out a unified aesthetic kind. It would presumably exclude certain artifacts that fall outside that aesthetic remit. That’s surely a relevant sense of ‘comics’ that we would want to point to in making sense of the medium—e.g., it would explain why certain kinds of non-art instructional comics might fall outside of the relevant form. We’re eager to hear more about Chris’s views and see if they point in this direction.

Pending a better sense of how to disentangle forms from mediums, our lone departure from Chris is probably about the semantics of ‘comics’. Homophonic ambiguity of the sort Chris mentions seems less apt than polysemy for capturing the proposed distinction in meanings. Since the meanings are clearly related—e.g., like ‘face’ (noun) and ‘face’ (verb)—rather than accidental homonyms. Our hunch is, however, that the multiplicity in meaning is more modest—that it’s vagueness rather than ambiguity (or polysemy).

PART II

What should our focus be trained on when taking up the venerable (but largely frustrating) question: which things are comics? In Philosophy of Comics, our general hunch is that we are best served to focus on comics as artifacts and, in doing so, keep in view their commonalities with things like bathtubs, doorknobs, and cowboy hats. They are human creations, produced by intentional processes, with certain kinds of functions in mind. As Chris aptly notes, any approach of this sort is liable to be messier than accounts that focus upon specific formal elements or historical traditions that seek a precise account of comics. This is liable to leave the account we prefer comparatively vague, but notice that it would be a tremendous surprise if we had laser-like clarity in definitions of other sorts of artifacts like bathtubs or doorknobs. That doesn’t mean, of course, that anything goes, and in this short note we’ll say a bit about how we’d respond to Chris’ criticism.

Two quick caveats before digging in: (1) In the book, we place heavy emphasis on the practice of picture-reading and mark the centrality of a theory of picture-reading for comics theory. That said, we don’t develop a fully-fledged theory in the book, but we do note at least two very different ways to go in developing a theory–a hard-line psychological account and a rougher normative or sociocultural account. Our sympathies reside with the latter, but there’s a whole spectrum of views available in between. We hope to map them out and put them to work elsewhere, but however you go with your theory of picture-reading, it will have a substantial impact on which artifacts will count as comics. (2) It’s crucial to note that the Intentional Picture-Reading View takes artifacts to be those things that are created with apt intentions for picture-reading count. That means, among other things, that not just any object that could be picture-read counts as a comic. Doubtless, we can try to picture-read non-comics and we might even succeed in some cases, but we deny that all picture-readable things are therefore comics–indeed, that’s partly why we’re committed to an intentionalist view. A rough parallel: comics are like crowns, not door stops. For something to be a crown, it needs to be created with a certain kind of intention. Door stops merely need to serve a function and most anything can be appropriated as a door stop. Quick moral: the creative intentions matter in ways that merely possible uses do not.

This second caveat is a significant one for marking our departure from Chris and for explaining our view. While Chris is surely correct to note that creative or authorial intentions are a thorny topic, we take them to be absolutely essential to our preferred account. Chris’s interesting “adjusted” definition elides intentions and so the resulting view is one on which anything that could in principle be picture-read is a comic. We think that yields a far too generous view for pretty much the reasons Chris notes. There are paintings that aren’t comics that look markedly similar to things that are comics and the difference between the two can’t be explicated in terms of things someone could do with either. (Each could be a door stop, after all.) But on the Intentional Picture Reading View, the fact that, say, Gahan Wilson intended his comics to be picture-read is part of what separates them from a piece of line art that is, say, merely intended to depict a barn on fire. So although someone *could* certainly attempt to picture-read paintings and other non-comic artifacts, they regularly and correctly do other things with them (e.g., looking at them in ways that treat text and sequence differently than we would in comics) and that if they are picture-read, that wouldn’t make them comics. Again, that’s because it’s the artifactual intention that matters. Importantly, that makes our view potentially quite narrow contrary to the “adjusted” view Chris sketches.

The final concern Chris notes–namely, how informatively we can characterize picture-reading and, in turn, how distinctive it really is–strikes us as *the* question for the Intentional Picture Reading View. We reject the generic view that would assimilate picture-reading to the tremendously broad act of looking at picture-based artifacts. For our part, we take picture-reading to be a specific practice essentially tied to phenomena like panels, text-image interaction, and grawlix. Accordingly, articulating a comprehensive and credible theory of picture-reading is *the* project at the heart of the philosophy of comics. And maybe the project for another book.

As I discussed in a previous post, I’m a big fan of Sam Cowling and Wesley Cray’s Philosophy of Comics. I think it may surpass Nathaniel Goldberg’s and my Superhero Thought Experiments. Keeping in mind that praise, I do object to their definition of comics—the first new definition I’ve seen presented by any comics scholars for several years.

Sam and Wesley (who I call by their first names since Sam and I know each other by email) offer what they term a “functional approach to defining comics,” one based on “a characteristic use as objects,” specifically that “comics are to be ‘read.’” This would mean that “comics are ultimately a functional artifact rather than one that can be defined formally or historically.”

Though I agree that comics overall cannot be defined formally or historically, I instead define the comics form and the comics medium separately, and then I use those two definitions to determine whether a given work is in one, the other, or both. This approach produces no general definition of comics. Let’s call that the homonym approach, since it treats ‘comics’ as a word with two non-exclusive meanings. Sam and Wesley follow the single-definition approach, calling their definition the ‘Intentional Picture-Reading View.’

What does it mean to ‘read’ a comic? They identify their use of the verb ‘read’ as a “linguistic accident,” because “whatever reading we do when we engage with comics, it is not the same activity as the reading we undertake when we engage with a novel.” Following Wertham, they call this distinctive kind of intended activity ‘picture-reading,’ and they characterize it is an “openness” to various “sociocultural practices” such as “incorporating one or more images into our unified attention,” “taking juxtaposed images as components of a narrative,” “finding closure among panels,” and “taking text (or a solitary image) as determining what’s true according to the narrative.” That produces the following comics definition: “x is a comic if and only if x is aptly intended to be picture-read.”

I think authorial intentions are an unnecessary and distracting topic, but rather than diving down a non-useful rabbit hole, I’ll adjust their definition to avoid it: “x is a comic if and only if x is perceived as aptly intended to be picture-read.” (Sam and Wesley seem to suggest something along this line through their later requirement that “competent audiences would be able to picture-read it and that competent audiences would recognize it as an attempt at producing something for picture-reading.”) The result is the same: something would be a comic because it is or can be “regarded with a certain kind of attention.”

Interestingly, they assert that this kind of attention also applies to single images, “since juxtaposed images … aren’t required for picture-reading,” just “an openness to incorporating juxtaposed images into one’s pattern of attention.” Does an openness to incorporating juxtaposed images into one’s pattern of attention require the physical presence of juxtaposed images? If so, then can viewing a single image produce it? Looking at the Mona Lisa or an installment of The Far Side does not involve the expectation of additional images entering one’s attention or an openness to taking juxtaposed images as components of a narrative or finding closure among them. It would likely exclude such things since each single image is understood instead to be a complete work. When other images are juxtaposed (on a gallery wall or on a newspaper comics page), those other images are likely not regarded with the same kind of attention and sociocultural practices as the perceptually isolated single image.

That suggests to me that single images are not picture-read in the sense that their definition requires. Since Sam and Wesley reject what they term the Deliberate Sequence View because it does not account for “the objection from single panel comics,” their Intentional Picture-Reading View could suffer similarly.

Alternatively, picture-reading does apply to single images. When I look at the Mona Lisa I am certainly open to incorporating the solitary image into my unified attention and to taking it as determining what’s true according to the narrative. It would seem then that any single image could be picture-read, or certainly any single-image narrative artwork. If so, then so many things become comics that ‘comics’ does not appear to differentiate a meaningful category of works.  

Returning to multiple images, Sam and Wesley examine the example of an art gallery owner hanging three paintings on a wall and then afterwards declaring that the three images are a comic. According to their definition, the three paintings are a comic if “a component comics reader recognizes” them as a comic, and the three paintings are not a comic if such a reader does not. They acknowledge that perceptions will likely vary, concluding: “This, we suspect, is where we ought to expect and therefore accept vagueness in a proposed definition of comics.”

While individual perceptions of most anything can vary, the primary vagueness here is not general to any proposed definition of comics, but only to those that rely on vaguely defined sociocultural practices. Perhaps such practices are inadequate for comics definitions. 

Regarding such pre-comics works as the Bayeux Tapestry, Sam and Wesley argue that “the sociocultural activity of picture-reading in its current form had not yet arisen when it was created” and “simply was not operative in [that] context.” Therefore the Bayeux Tapestry is not a comic, even though its creators “intended for it to be looked at and read in some sense.” What sense might those creators have intended their work to be read and how does that kind of picture-reading differ from the picture-reading that has the “distinctive history” required for a work to be a comic? Sam and Wesley state that for such things as the Bayeux Tapestry to not be comics “a distinction is needed between picture-reading as a historically specific activity and a more general, arguably universal activity of pictorial storytelling.” Since they do not offer such a distinction, it would seem then that Bayeux Tapestry might be a comic according to their Intentional Picture-Reading View.

What images are not comics according to that view? The potential range seems to include all single-image and multi-image art of any culture and time period.

What are the necessary and sufficient qualities of ‘picture-reading’? I suspect the term could be substituted with something like ‘comics-reading’ or ‘comics-medium-reading’ without a discernable change in meaning. If so, the proposed definition seems circular: “x is a comic if and only if x is aptly intended to be read as a comic.”

The above, and my previous blog too, are my tentative objections to the only two claims that I didn’t find immediately persuasive in all of Philosophy of Comics. Which is to say: it’s a pretty damn persuasive book.

But to be fair, I’ve invited Sam and Wesley to respond, and I will post their comments to my comments tomorrow.

Poet and literary critic Lesley Wheeler writes in her new hybrid essay collection Poetry’s Possible Worlds:

“The distinction between [fiction and nonfiction] rests not in intrinsic differences but on information external to the text. This story is on the front page of a trustworthy newspaper: factual. That one appears beside a moody illustration near the end of The New Yorker: you think ‘fiction’ and you assume references are invented or at least disguised and manipulated.”

My co-author Nathaniel Goldberg and I draw a similar philosophical conclusion in our Revising Fiction, Fact, and Faith: “A discourse is a fictional or factual diegesis if and only if read as that kind.” And we include an example that vacillates according to the kind of “information external to the text” that Wheeler mentions.

The New York newspaper The Sun published Richard Adams Locke’s “Great Astronomical Discoveries Lately Made by Sir John Herschel” in daily installments in August 1835. Though The Sun proved extremely untrustworthy, most readers read the story as factual—until they got to descriptions of bat-winged creatures building temples on the moon, and even then many believed the hoax until the newspaper announced it was fiction the following month. Had the story originally appeared in the New Yorker (though hybrid newspapers like The Sun may be the closest early nineteenth-century equivalent), or at least been identified within the publication as fiction, probably no one would have read it as a work of nonfiction. 

Note the point that Goldberg and I share with Wheeler: “Great Astronomical Discoveries” is not intrinsically fiction, even though its author wrote it as fiction. That’s because, in our shared view, the status of something being fiction or nonfiction is determined entirely by the experience of readers.

When Wheeler writes “you assume references are invented,” she means references to some world: “The effects readers experience as they enter possible worlds—such as transportation—don’t rely on the authors’ intent to mimic verifiable events, or, for that matter, to distort or ignore them entirely.” It’s about the world a reader imagines.

Goldberg and I discuss that too: “when a factual diegesis refers to the actual world, and a fictional diegesis refers to a merely possible one, each does so by reporting on its respective world.” Wheeler’s invented references are understood to report on a merely possible world, though she’s equally interested in the actual world. Both are kinds of possible worlds. Goldberg and I explain: “While there is only one actual world, which is itself possible, there is an infinity of merely possible worlds.”

Poetry’s Possible Worlds explores that infinity through the world-building enacted by readers of poetry.

Disproving Marie-Laure Ryan’s claim that a short lyric poem such as William Carlos Williams’ “This is Just to Say” is not “a system of reality,” Wheeler reports her experience of its reality: “I visualize an old-fashioned kitchen with an early-model icebox and linoleum table, the kind with a corrugated metal rim. Williams is wearing a light button-down shirt, cuffs open because it’s summer, and his posture is cocky.”

That’s not the kitchen I see, but the fact that I do see some kitchen (the one from my childhood home) proves her point. She continues: “As a reader, I may be an outer-limits case, yet where there is plot and character and sensory detail, imaginative world-building is possible.”

Later she describes a bar she imagined while reading another poem: “I mentally placed it … not in a pub I had really visited but in my Universal Fantasy Tavern. Like many people who seek to lose themselves in books, I recycle imagined settings to save attention for other elements of the work and speed immersion. None of this was conscious until I started researching the cognitive science of literary transportation, but I must have generated many of these spaces as an untraveled preteen.”

The term “transportation” is apt because it implies transportation to somewhere—though apparently never to the same place. Goldberg and I acknowledge this point in order to set it aside: “no two readers may read the same discourse in precisely the same way. Even so, typically there would reman overlap. If extensive, call the resulting diegesis ‘the diegesis.’”

Rather than setting them aside, Poetry’s Possible Worlds delves into those individual readerly worlds fully, revealing that “Taking Poetry Personally” (the title of the introduction) is an inevitability to be embraced rather than ignored. In the process, she also reveals the underappreciated fact that poetry relies on and produces the same levels of transportive and immersive world-building as longer works of fiction.

Poetry’s Possible Worlds is itself narratively immersive, merging a sequence of literary essays with a novel-like progression of short memoirs about not only the author’s reading experiences but the personal life experiences that surround them and give them context-specific meaning. I read early and multiple drafts of each chapter, but as I reread passages now, I am transported to events in my own life too.

The chapter exploring the thresholds of a poem by a poet she met while on a Fulbright in New Zealand includes the sentence: “Meanwhile, my husband, Chris, planned to work on a novel in our rented house.” My Alzheimer’s-suffering mother haunts the chapter on poetic “Fiction”: “Chris reproached himself for having missed so many signs, but Judy was smart enough to mask incapacity.” “Voice,” which explores another poet’s creative relationship with her husband, includes: “Chris and I are fascinated by literary couples.” But more revealingly: “You’d think Chris, whose first book was a novel, would believe in narrative. Yet since our first years together, Chris has resisted transforming real experience into tales.”

Do I co-write works of philosophy to avoid writing memoir? Possibly. But as Wheeler tells her readers: “All literature, however, even when it’s autobiographical, is fantasy.” Poetry’s Possible Worlds is one of my favorite works of fantasy, and not just because I’m married to the author or because the Acknowledgements and the book as a whole concludes on this sentence: “My real and imagined worlds are indebted to him.”

First some unqualified praise: “With the methodological patience and precision that their multi-faceted subject demands, Cowling and Cray provide the comics medium with its most thoroughly philosophical analysis to date.”

That’s the back-cover blurb I wrote for Philosophy of Comics by Sam Cowling and Wesley Cray. If you’re not a philosopher (which I’m also not, but I’ve been spending a great deal of time in that corner of the multiverse in recent years), you might miss the eye-bulging exuberance of that statement. (Seriously, read it again.)

I assume Bloomsbury requested my endorsement because I co-wrote Superhero Thought Experiment with philosopher Nathaniel Goldberg—which, not coincidentally, Sam reviewed back in 2020. After Nathaniel contacted him and introduced us by email (philosophers who study comics is not an enormous demographic, so we have an impulse to wave hello when spotting one from a distance), Sam and I corresponded about the manuscripts we were working on then, my The Comics Form: The Art of Sequenced Images and his and Wesley’s Philosophy of Comics, both from Bloomsbury and both forthcoming in 2022. Sam’s is available this month, and mine next month.

(Sidebar: I’m the series editor of Bloomsbury’s Comics Studies, which does not include either Philosophy of Comics or The Comics Form. That’s because Bloomsbury publishes a range of comics studies works outside of their Comics Studies line. Their Comics Studies line would be more accurately called “Critical Guides in Comics Studies”—which is what I asked them to change it to when I become its editor. Bloomsbury said yes, but more recently it seems Bloomsbury may be saying no, due to marketing reasons and so definitely not philosophical ones.)

I’d like to focus on Sam and Wesley’s second chapter, “What Are Comics?” Though comics scholars have largely abandoned the question, most do not approach it with Sam and Wesley’s thoroughly philosophical precision. I address the question (I hope with similar thoroughness) in the introduction of The Comics Form, concluding that no single definition of ‘comics’ is possible. I then spend the rest of the book analyzing the nature of sequenced images.

Applying image sequence as a general definition of comics (which I don’t), Sam and Wesley term the approach the ‘Deliberate Sequence View,’ and they identify two objections:

  • “The objection from single panel comics works by noting a discrepancy between the critical practice surrounding comics and the formal features identified in the Deliberate Sequence View.”

Let’s call this The Far Side objection. Since single-image works such as The Far Side appear in newspaper comics sections, single-image works must be a subcategory of comics, which therefore are not necessarily sequenced images. The objection is self-evidently true: single images are not multiple images. Their second objection is similarly true. A part of a work is not a whole work:

  • “The Deliberate Sequence View therefore entails that things that we don’t ordinarily treat or think of as comics—the juxtaposed mere parts of comics—are errantly deemed to be comics…. Since the Deliberate Sequence View is not equipped to avoid counting arbitrary mere parts of comics as comics, it delivers another incorrect verdict about the conditions for being a comic.”

Call this the Alexander Pope objection. Pope’s long poem The Rape of the Lock is composed of 794 lines in heroic couplets. Any two juxtaposed and rhyming lines within the complete poem is a heroic couplet. That’s because heroic couplets is a form that applies equally to a compete work and to mere parts of a work. Just as a heroic couplet requires at least two rhymed lines, an image sequence requires at least two juxtaposed images.

Combining their objections, Sam and Wesley conclude: “Each of these challenges dims the hope of defining comics purely in terms of their sequential features.” That conclusion is both correct and misleading.

‘Comics’ cannot be defined purely as sequenced images because ‘comics’ has more than one definition. It’s a homonym.  Consider the word ‘bark.’ It cannot be defined purely in terms of the sounds that a dog makes. That’s because ‘bark’ also refers to the outer part of a tree—which also does not purely define it.

Comics has (at least) two meanings:

  • (A) works in the comics form
  • (B) works in the comics medium

As is obvious from my book title, The Comics Form, I’m interested in the first definition. As is obvious from my book subtitle, The Art of Sequenced Images, I define the comics form as sequenced images.  If you prefer, substitute ‘sequenced images’ for the first definition. However, if you think some other necessary and sufficient set of intrinsic features defines the comics form, substitute that instead.

Regardless of what the comics form is, the comics form is not the comics medium. Unlike the form, the medium is historically and so contextually based. Though not attempting to define the medium, Sam and Wesley summarize a comics medium definition: “the production of [works that] is appropriately historically connected to the tradition began in the middle of the nineteenth century and developed largely out of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British humor magazines.”

They also show that a medium-based definition of comics opposes any form-based definition: “there is reason to reject any formalist definition of comics, since the medium of comics is a historically specific one.” Again, this is misleadingly true. There is also reason to reject any dog-related definition of ‘bark,’ since the nature of ‘bark’ is a botanically specific one—only if the definitions are all-encompassing. 

There’s usually nothing confusing about a two-definition homonym because the definitions tend to be mutually exclusive. To the best of my knowledge, no bark is both a dog sound and a tree part. In the case of comics though, the two definitions produce a very large overlap since many works are in the comics form and in the comics medium simultaneously. Sam and Wesley call that combination the ‘Historicist Deliberate Sequence View,’ and they reject it as a definition of comics generally (because manga).

I also reject it as a definition of comics generally, but for a different reason. It’s the middle section of the form/medium Venn diagram, and so it defines neither the form or the medium, only subsections of each.

Comics scholars, including Sam and Wesley, resist treating ‘comics’ as a homonym, preferring instead either to champion one definition exclusively (Sam and Wesley have their own, which I look forward to exploring another time) or to reject all definitions as necessarily false. I don’t understand either impulse. I first offered the two-definition approach in MoMA magazine last September (“What Are Comics?”), and I will offer a more involved explanation in The Comics Form, which I hope might uncontroversially tilt some scholarly interest in that direction soon.

Meanwhile, go read Philosophy of Comics. It’s excellent.

I’m on my way back to Virginia after spending several days in Budapest, plus three more in Venice for the Invisible Lines comics symposium. During scattered downtime I found myself toying with what I’m tempted to call my digital charcoal technique in MS Paint. I’ve been fiddling with the approach for a while now, but I think the results have mutated significantly again. Here are the five I made in Budapest:

And here are two I made earlier in May:

Plus two I made last year but then altered and extended further with the same technique this month.

I’m delighted to report that I am currently in Budapest vacationing with my family and soon will be in Venice where I will present a paper for the Invisible Lines comics conference. The paper (which I started drafting last summer after I was invited to a comics forum workshop in Michigan) is growing into a book project, but it started as an observation about the effect paper color has on images of people. Here’s an excerpt:

When Ebony Flowers draws a mother and narrating daughter in the title chapter of her 2020 collection Hot Comb, their bodies are shaped by black lines without additional colors or gradations. The art is printed on white paper, and so that shade of white represents the two characters’ skin colors because it is the literal color visible within the body-defining black lines. If the art were printed on a different shade of paper, that shade would instead represent those same actual skin colors. If “Hot Comb” is understood as a memoir (its status is ambiguous) the representations of Flowers and her mother are likely perceived as having the same or similar skin color, but whether Flowers and her mother actually have the same skin color is impossible to determine.

Philosopher Roy Cook proposed the “panel transparency principle,” claiming that: “Characters, events, and locations within a fictional world described by a comic appear, within the fictional world, as they are depicted in typical panels within that comic” (2012: 134). Since Flowers’ and her mother’s skin are represented by the same page color, a strict interpretation of the transparency principle might require understanding them both to have paperwhite skin. Alternatively, if paper color is understood to be outside the principle (perhaps because it is selected by the publisher and so beyond Flowers’ artistic control), viewers might still conclude that the absence of other differentiating details indicates that Flowers and her mother have the same skin color, one represented by whatever color paper the line art happens to be printed on.

Even this less strict interpretation, however, is difficult to support. Cook later rejected his own transparency claim, arguing instead that “our access to the physical appearance of drawn characters in general is indirect, partial, inferential, and imperfect” (25). If so, viewers may understand skin color, along with a range of other details, to be underspecified, meaning the unmarked negative spaces within body contour lines lack representational information. The pristine white of the page does not correspond to complexion or other related qualities.

While Cook’s second claim replaces his first, it does not reverse it. Where the panel transparency principle concludes that represented subjects are as they appear, the second claim draws no corresponding conclusion. Represented subjects may, may not, or may partially be as they appear, and a subject’s individual qualities may each vary along unknowable spectrums. As a result, the representational nature of a white page varies too.  

In the cases of Flowers and her mother, viewers likely understand that neither has paperwhite skin and, while their precise skin tones are unknowable, that each is considerably darker than they appear in their representations. However, in the case of Flower’s childhood friend, Ellie-Mae, the representational nature of the white background shifts. Because Flowers’ text identifies her friend as racially white, viewers likely understand her skin color to be nearer to the whiteness of the page than is Flowers’ skin color. While Ellie-Mae’s skin color is still unknowable, the page whiteness is more representationally suggestive for the racially white friend. Also, for Flowers and her mother, because both are Black and also related, the white page represents an unknowable but possibly similar skin color. The contrast between Flowers and Ellie-Mae is presumably greater. The same whiteness then implies two racially dissimilar skin colors and also two racially similar skin colors simultaneously. 

Rather than an exception, Hot Comb encapsulates a norm. Yuan Alagbe’s collection Yellow Negroes and Other Imaginary Creatures reveals the same relationship between page color and race. Page whiteness makes the skin colors of an interracial couple indistinguishable, prompting viewers to project colors based on facial and hair features alone (2018: 29). Viewed in isolation with hair significantly cropped by the panel frame, the female figure might appear racially ambiguous. Though Alagbe’s text previously establishes that the character is White (because her father is shocked to learn that she is in a relationship with a Black man), the text does not account for differences in skin color within the racial category.

Theo Ellsworth makes the conflated relationship between page and skin colors explicit in Secret Life, an adaptation of a Jeff VanderMeer story. Ellsworth draws a fountain pen in the white space between two panels, and inside the lower panel, he separately frames two interior images:

The same pen drawing a line across a cropped area of a white piece of paper, and fingers touching a cropped area of a figure’s back. Through a Gestalt effect, the black line defining the top edge of the represented paper and the black line defining the top edge of the figure’s back seem continuous, as though the two diegetically distant areas are a single area interrupted—which, as ink-framed portions of the same actual piece of paper, they are. Above both images a caption box contains: “The point rode across the page as effortlessly as his fingers rubbing his wife’s back” (2021: np). The color of “the page” within the represented world and the color of the wife’s back are both represented by the actual color of the actual page, which is white. Though the visually implied assumption that the represented page is a similar color as the actual page may be justified, an assumption that the wife is White is not.

Ellsworth draws the wife’s face four pages later, but his cartooning style is simplified and exaggerated in ways that do not provide sufficient detail for determining ethnicity. Ellsworth follows the image of the two having sex with two caption boxes: “He could not think of the pen without thinking of her soft, hot skin” and “He could not think of the pen without remembering her nakedness, shining in the dark room.” In the mostly undrawn and therefore white area between the captions and their connected panels Ellsworth draws the pen again. The description “soft, hot” suggests nothing about skin color, and “shining” might describe a range, especially when contrasted to the literal blackness of the surrounding room. But the white space framed between the two texts is connotative, likely directing a reader to imagine the wife to be very light-skinned—even though nothing in the text suggests that.  

Page whiteness then literalizes the assumption of racial whiteness as universal, representing the skin color of all characters, regardless of race.  Yet page whiteness is comparatively more representational for racially white characters than for non-white characters. If a character is understood to be dark skinned, viewers must see past the contradictory quality of the page color. Since light-skinned characters are also not literally white, viewers must also see past the page color in those cases too, but to a lesser degree. Moreover, the literal whiteness of the page and the metaphorical whiteness of racial Whiteness are aligned and so easily conflated. The statement ‘White people are white’ seems self-evidently redundant, while ‘Black people are white’ seems overtly paradoxical.

(More on all of that after I return!)

Last week I compiled a political portrait of 1966, to explain the context of Marvel’s first portrayal of the KKK through the counterpart villains the Sons of the Serpent.

This week I delve into the story.

The Avengers #32 (September 1966) opens with the team returning from the previous issue’s adventure and Goliath upset that he’s permanently stuck being ten-feet tall. After Captain America picks a fight with him, Goliath rededicates himself to finding a cure, thanking Captain America for knowing “sympathy won’t do me any good! I’ve got a problem, sure – but I’ve got to face it – like an Avenger!” The attitude may reflect Stan Lee and artist Don Heck’s attitude toward race relations too. The Sons of the Serpent debut at the bottom of the same page.

Following the so-called “Marvel Method,” Heck would have penciled the images with empty caption boxes and speech bubbles, which Lee would have filled with text afterwards. Reverse-engineered, Lee’s script would look something like this:

Page 4, panel 5:

  • Narrator: But, just when it seems as though the Avengers are in for some peace and quiet, in another section of the city we find –
  • Sons member: “We warned you not to move into this neighborhood!”
  • Gonzales: “But, it’s a free country! I’m a law-abiding citizen! You have no right –”
  • Sons member: “You dare speak to us of rights?”
  • Sons member: “You —  were not even born here!”
  • Sons member: “Enough talk! He must be taught what it means to defy the Sons of the Serpent!”

Page 5, panel 1:

  • Woman: “Henry! What’s the commotion outside the window?”
  • Man: “It’s the Sons of the Serpent! They’ve cornered Mr. Gonzales! We – we have to do something –!”
  • Woman: “No! Come away from there! It’s dangerous to get involved!”
  • Man: “But, they’re beating him!”
  • Woman: “It’s none of our business.”

Page 5, panel 2:

  • Narrator: Thus, we take our leave of Henry and his wife – two less-than-admirable citizens who feared to get “involved” – as we return to the street once more –
  • Sons member: “We’re lucky no one called the police! Now, let’s go — !”
  • Sons member: “We’ll leave our Serpent sign – as a warning to any other foreigners!”

Instead of anti-Black, the Sons are anti-immigrant, specifically anti-Latino. This is a closer match to the eugenics-oriented KKK popular in the 1910s and 20s that supported the Immigration Act of 1924, which based national-origin quotas on the 1890 census and barred Asian immigration entirely.  Lee’s script also emphasizes the generalized values of “freedom” and being “law-abiding.” Even the Sons are surprised that none of Mr. Gonzales’s White neighbors contacted the police, and the narrator condemns only the White couple’s inaction, not the Sons’ criminal assault, which occurs mostly between panels.

Similarly, when Black Widow infiltrates a meeting, she thinks: “If such poison is allowed to spread, there’s no telling where it will end.” The poison metaphor, which Lee uses multiply times in the two issues, implies that the Sons are primarily a threat to the American public, rather than to the “foreigners” they persecute.

Lee and Heck also need to make White supremacy legible in the all-White context of the Avengers, requiring the introduction of a new Black character to assist Goliath’s work. Lee’s script never mentions Bill Foster’s race, and Heck draws him with a bowtie—an ambiguous fashion item that could reference Malcolm X, who had been murdered the year before, though White viewers might have associated it with Sean Connery’s first four James Bond films or formal attire generally.

Uncredited colorist Stan Goldberg gives Foster the gray-brown skin tone standard for Black characters of the period. I think his face and hands are closer in color to the gray machinery surrounding him in his first panels than to the human, White-denoting color of Goliath’s face.

Lee and Heck also create a space for Foster within the Avengers tiered social structure through misogynistic treatment of the lone White female member. When Wasp tries to assist in Goliath’s private lab, he scolds her: “I keep tripping over you every time I turn around! You’ve got to leave me alone, Jan!”

“But, you need an assistant!”

“Sure I do – and I’ll get one – a top-notch scientist – not a chattering female!”

After Goliath has told Foster to call him by his first name as they conduct experiments, Wasp returns with a steaming food tray: “I figured you’d starve to death if I didn’t return to look after you! Hi, Bill! I’m Janet Van Dyne – happy Henry’s hand-maiden!” The men continue working as she sits with a coffee cup: “You gents certainly have a way of making a girl feel needed!”

Though Wasp is clearly less skilled than either man, her portrayal is not necessarily different than in surrounding issues. In The Avengers #56 (September 1968), Roy Thomas scripts Wasp staying behind while the male characters perform a time-travel mission; her one job is to watch the controls, but she dozes off, nearly trapping them in the past.

When the Sons of the Serpent beat Foster unconscious outside Goliath’s home )a violence that Heck again obscures between panels), Goliath sets aside his personal quest to seek revenge, “before their deadly venom spreads any further!”

Wasp objects: “Can’t the local police cope with a few bully boys like the Serpents?” The complaint clarifies that the Sons of the Serpents are not primarily a supervillain organization of the kind typically introduced in Marvel superhero comics, but a fictional counterpart to the actual KKK.

Since no Avenger has ever been shown having a personal relationship with a Black person, Foster also serves the purpose of demonstrating that a White hero can feel passionately about Black people. Goliath declares: “We’ve been on many missions before – but never was there one that filled me with such a burning desire for vengeance!” However, he justifies his passion through a connection to other White people: “Every second that they remain free is an insult to the men who made this nation great!”

Lee and Heck next introduce General Chen, one “of the leaders of a hostile Oriental nation,” “an enemy … whose troops have fought ours on the battlefield in Asia,” but who is allowed in New York to address the United Nations. Though Lee does not name Vietnam, readers would have recognized the allusion. The U.S. had deployed 184,300 troops in Vietnam in 1965, and was in the process of deploying 385,300 in 1966. U.S. casualties had risen from 216 in 1964 to 1,928 in 1965, and would reach 6,350 in 1966.

After surviving an apparent assassination attempt, Chen complains about the protestors: “They are probably members of the Sons of the Serpent!” In the following issue, he taunts a “special committee” that includes Senator Byrd: “America claims to be a land of freedom – and yet they allow the Sons of the Serpent to preach their doctrine of hatred and tyranny on every corner!”

Byrd: “You come from a land where countless thousands live in abject fear – where they may not speak, or read, or even think as they please! And you talk of freedom!”

Chen: “I will not trade epithets with you, Senator Byrd! When the world one day comes under our rule, we will know how to deal with the likes of you!”

Byrd: “The world will never follow your lead – not while one free man remains alive!”

Byrd is the only real-world character depicted in the two-issue story. He had served as a West Virginia senator since 1958, supporting segregation. He participated in an 83-day filibuster of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, before it passed 77 to 18. He would be one of only 11 senators to vote against Justice Thurgood Marshall’s Supreme Court nomination the following year.

Byrd had also been in the KKK, recruiting a local chapter of 150 members in 1941-2, before running for state delegate in 1946, the same year he wrote to the KKK’s Grand Wizard: “The Klan is needed today as never before, and I am anxious to see its rebirth here in West Virginia.” The year before Byrd complained that Truman was integrating the military: “Rather I should die a thousand times, and see old Glory trampled in the dirt never to rise again, than to see this beloved land of ours become degraded by race mongrels.” His KKK affiliation was revealed during his first run for Congress in 1952, but he apologized and won, explaining that he joined the Klan “because it was strongly opposed to communism.” (I’m pulling quotes from Eric Pianin’s “A Senator’s Shame” published in the Washington Post in 2005).

Lee accordingly scripts Byrd seeing through Chen’s plan. He thinks: “The whole purpose of Chen’s visit here is to win a propaganda victory – and the Serpents are handing him one on a silver platter!”

Understanding the Sons of the Serpents as a thinly veiled representation of the Klan, Lee’s Byrd places opposition to communism ahead of loyalty to the Klan and so presumably also ahead of opposition to Civil Rights through a Klan mentality. The scene also reverses Hoover’s warning against Black activism as communist-supported, since it is the White supremacists who are, still apparently unintentionally, aiding the general’s communist cause.

After a convoluted plot involving the false appearance of the Avengers supporting the Sons of the Serpent, which prompts Foster to quit working for Goliath (“you can get yourself another boy –!”) and White public opinion to vacillate (“See? I told you the Serpents can’t be so bad – not if the Avengers themselves are behind ‘em!”), General Chen is unmasked as the Supreme Serpent on the final page.

A White bystander remarks: “And he almost got away with it! Why were we so blind – so gullible?”

Goliath offers a final lesson: “Beware of the man who sets you against your neighbor!”

Heck draws the face of a listening Black man as the most prominent element of the concluding panel.

Marvel’s first portrayal of apparent White supremacy is instead a communist plot to poison White Americans with racial antipathy. Though Mr. Gonzales is beaten for moving into an otherwise White community, and Bill Foster is beaten for walking through Goliath’s White neighborhood, the primary plot threat is to the body of the White population: “For, so long as their insidious poison can corrupt even one man, America will never be secure!”

The meaning of “man” in Stan Lee’s sentence is implicitly “White man,” since a non-White person would not be so susceptible to White supremacist beliefs, and by extension “America” is “White America,” then between 84% and 87% of the population, which must be made secure against communism. White supremacy then must be opposed, not because of its overt harm to its non-White victims, but because of its potential harm to its White supporters.  

On a side note, last week I also quoted the Marvel Database about this two-issue arc: “The plot twist at the end of this story is in extremely poor taste. Having a foreigner who had been a victim of racist violence be revealed to be the mastermind behind it all undercuts the presumed message of racial tolerance and quite literally blames the victim of racist violence for what happens to him. Hawkeye’s final comment (“Boy, if ever there was an undesirable alien, it’s him.) actually SUPPORTS the Sons of the Serpent’s racist attitudes. Even more unfortunately, it’s a plot twist that seems to get repeated whenever the Sons of the Serpent appear.”

Oddly, that Hawkeye comment is not in the issue. Also, the fictional communist general at first appears to have been attacked by the Sons of the Serpent not because he is a “foreigner,” but because he has been waging a war against U.S. soldiers in Vietnam. The “extremely poor taste” is instead at the deeper level of indifference to the two actual acts of racist violence against a Latino man and a Black man and the use of racial tolerance as a means of protecting White Americans. The unmasking “plot twist” though is repeated in the next two appearances of the Sons of the Serpent and without the complicating factor of an anti-communist message. (More on that another time.)

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