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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Carolyn Capps

“What are the elements that make a comic book a comic book?”

That was artist Carolyn Capps’ first question when we started emailing about creating a graphic novel together. It was the perfect place to begin a conversation about not just our collaboration but the nature and norms of the comics form in general.

CHRIS: The technical term is ‘sequential art,’ because the key is the gutter, the space between the panels, and what conceptually is happening in that space. Usually some movement in time occurs, but not always, and it would be interesting to analyze any triptych as a comic strip, like yours from a few years back with the baby–maybe partly why I like it so much, it fires the comic book neurons in my head.

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CAROLYN: Would we each work on something independently first then give it to the other. Would you write something and I would illustrate?

CHRIS: I’m thinking a back and forth process, especially in the preliminary stages. My interest is in narrative and genre tropes, but I don’t want to create something that makes complete conventional sense. Something between dream logic and conventional comic strip sequences.

CAROLYN: I am considering whether the work should be large and messy and then photographed and digitally manipulated or if they should be small pencil pieces and then photographed and perhaps digitally manipulated. Maybe the content will determine the choices.

CHRIS: I think both, especially if the different approaches coincide with a repeated element; for instance, location A might always be drawn small and then expanded, and B starts large and is shrunk.  Any medium element (pencil vs. pastel vs. paint, etc) could be part of the identifying elements of locations and characters. So if you want to experiment with imagery, email me anything that strikes your own interest. Then, after we can decide together what a given character will consistently look like, we can see what directions they and locations suggest about potential story movement.

CAROLYN: Toying with the idea of a medical superhero

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CAROLYN: I also kind of like the idea of a fractal/chaotic superhero.

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CHRIS: I love how skeletal the body is, and how that stripped away form is offset by the explosive energy of the space around it. And how the face of the medical figure is “masked” without using stereotypical superhero imagery, and how all of the body is covered and perhaps contained, which implies some other quality/identity inside. I’ve been analyzing the figure of the superhero as the product of two worlds, an idea I think your art is already exploring. The medical figure also suggests some immediate narrative possibilities. For example, I’m suddenly picturing a three panel sequence:

  1. aerial view looking straight down at the bowl so the rim is a full flat circle.
  2. pulled-back and slightly angled view so the bowl has three dimension as the figure’s hands (those are really cool hands by the way) enter the frame, about to pick up the bowl.
  3. the image you already created, straight on view, the mouth of the bowl angled so its content is obscured now.

So what’s inside the bowl? Something rendered in a different style maybe, something not of the same stylistic world as the rest of the panel, the fractal energy of the other images perhaps? Here’s a possible treatment:

The medical incarnation is always covered and masked. Underneath is her swirling fractal form that has to be contained or the character will disintegrate and/or release fractal havoc on the orderly world. I think stylistically she lives in a gray tone universe with sharply defined panels. Literally behind that world is the unframed fractal chaos background that she keeps contained under her medical covering. She is the literal opening into that world. Perhaps fractal elements can be glimpsed through her glasses, or in gaps in her clothes and mask. The fractals allow her to combat threats by combining with them.

CAROLYN: So you might want to read the article I read. Just google New York Times Nurse and see a crying woman. There were also descriptions of young men who have stepped forward to dispose of the bodies. They are being ostracized by their families and communities for doing it. They can’t find places to live and sometimes they are not paid at all but do it because it has to be done.

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CHRIS: I can see how that would inspire you. And I understand that first image better. The trick is how to encapsulate the action, providing just the right number of panels. Too many and it’s redundant, not enough and the sequence is confusing. Plus the action is surreal, so more challenging to communicate clearly. Consider this sequence:

  1. a corpse dead from Ebola, represented with the superimposed Ebola cell
  2. a sick patient, also literally marked with Ebola
  3. medical figure enters carrying an empty bowl
  4. close-up revealing fractal elements through her goggles
  5. she removes a glove, exposing a fractal hand
  6. she lowers her hand into the bowl
  7. the bowl fills with fractals

CAROLYN:

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CHRIS: Oh man. That is creepy cool.

CAROLYN:

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CHRIS: It’s interesting experimenting with how these could be sequenced on a page. It could be a layout with only three panels, or it could be the first three-panel row. Even the order leaves some possibilities, because all three images could be interpreted as aspects of the same simultaneous moment, with the gutter marking point of view changes. And yet there’s also an implication of time sequence as if the figure is moving toward the beds.

CAROLYN: So I will continue to play and then try to gradually get more serious about how they will fit together.

CHRIS: The fitting together part is something I know a little about, so I can be more helpful at that stage, while the insides of the panels is really all you anyway. So, yes, keep playing. I’m also still toying around with page layouts. This is my favorite so far:

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CAROLYN: That layout looks great. Wow, I felt like these were just kind of preliminary get started pieces but they look pretty good. I am also interested by the way you have spliced them together to create a general story line.

CHRIS: Yeah, narrative sort of happens by itself just through sequential juxtaposition. The preliminary quality of the images adds a narrative difficulty because baseline setting isn’t always consistent between panels, but that also adds something cool, and neither Les nor Mad had any trouble “reading” it and both come up with the same basic narrative. Here’s how Mad summed up the page one layout:

Scientist with bacteria in Petri dish, surgery gone wrong, scientist made something out of bacteria and a dead body, something not good, I don’t like him.

 And Lesley agreed with the sinister quality:

A scientist is in a lab performing some sort of experiment in a Petri dish that involves some kind of nasty human experimentation and results in a magic orb thing.

 So this looks like a bad guy up to something badAdd New.

CAROLYN:

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CHRIS:  Totally different tone, and beautifully rendered. Because it combines a more realistic (is that the right term?) style with compassionate content, those two qualities are now associatively connected in contrast to the page one layout images which are more abstract and disturbing: abstract Dr. Frankenstein vs. realistic Nurse Healer.

CAROLYN: So if I am understanding you correctly this combination serves the same purpose as sinister music? Not really indicative of anything concrete but of something that is felt and alerts us to possible danger? So we need a real world situation colored by association with these images.

CHRIS: I like your connection to soundtrack. Yes, the sound of the imagery evokes as much meaning as the overt content.

CAROLYN:

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“I don’t think there’s any need to use language.”

That’s my favorite line from one of my favorite comics, Alan Moore and Bill Sienkiewicz’s 1990 Big Numbers No. 1. The sentence appears on page 9, breaking a 57-panel sequence of wordless narration. Actually the shout, “AAA! Shit!” breaks the silence, after a rock breaks a window on a moving train. The shattering glass receives its own one-panel page, but Sienkiewicz doesn’t draw and presumably Moore didn’t script any sound bubble BOOM! or CRASH! over the image. It doesn’t need it. We get the picture.

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The speaker is an old man upset by the main character’s profanity, but Moore is talking to us. This is two years after he and David Lloyd completed their V for Vendetta. When they started the project in the early 80s, Lloyd told Moore he didn’t want any thought bubbles. This was a radical idea at the time, and possibly the biggest moment in Moore’s growth as a writer, because he went further and cut captions too. If no one was speaking, the panel would be wordless.

I think at the time, the record for longest silent sequence was still held by Jim Steranko, for the opening three pages of the 1968 Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.E.I.L.D. No. 1, for which, Steranko claims, Marvel didn’t want to pay his writing fee because he didn’t “write” anything.

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Moore took Steranko’s experiment and turned it into his M.O. The first Watchmen script he gave Dave Gibbons included a four-page, 31-panel sequence, wordless but for Rorschach’s inarticulate grunts. Flipping through my copy of From Hell, I see Eddie Campbell draws as many as 7 consecutive pages of word-free narration. It’s a paradoxical approach for Moore, since his scripts are some of the most verbose imaginable—almost literalizing the a-picture-is-worth-a-thousand-words exchange rate.

So when I started talking with my friend Carolyn Capps—a painter and former next door neighbor—about collaborating on a comic book, I had Moore in mind. Is his old man right? Is there any need to use language? I recently finished revising a 71,338-word novel and drafting a 93,935-word non-fiction book, so I may be suffering from some of Moore’s perversity. But I just don’t like words in my comic books.

I’d suspected this for a while, but I proved it to myself when I looked at Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martín’s webcomic, The Private Eye. The publisher, PanelSyndicate.com, offers previews, three pages of each 32-page issue. I opened the first and was struck by the absence of words. No captions, no thought bubbles, no dialogue balloons. Just unimpeded visual storytelling. I loved it. I strained over an occasional panel, uncertain what exact information was being implied, but the story was all there, its effect all the more visceral by the effort required to follow it, the bursts of action followed by extended moments of minimal movement made more evocative by their lingering silence.

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And then I purchased the first issue.

Turns out PanelSyndicate deletes talk bubbles for previews. When I purchased and “read” the same pages again, I was annoyed by the redundancies. Yes, I gained lots of new information, but none of it was worth the trade-off. Following the words from panel to panel means I was no longer primarily focused on the panels themselves. The images were serving the language. (Though, for the record, The Private Eye is still quite a good comic—it’s the industry’s words-first norms I’m annoyed about.)

When Carolyn and I started exchanging brainstorming emails, and then preliminary sketches and sample treatments, I wanted our story to evolve visually. Instead of her illustrating my script, I wanted her images to dictate the characters, situation, and plot. Carolyn’s first drawings were unsequenced, each a separate experiment, a testing of style and content. So I started experimenting too, testing out the rhythms of visual logic, the what-does-it-mean-if-this-goes-here grammar of panel language.

The results were pleasantly chaotic at times, the intended meanings subservient to the connotations of the actual images. Without explanatory captions or guiding dialogue, the pictures were the sole source of meaning, their tonal nuances more important than the scaffolding of the original script. No language also makes the reader a more active participant. Below is a six-panel sequence I cut and pasted from some of Carolyn’s earliest sketches. I knew what I wanted them to mean, but when I dragged my wife and daughter over to my laptop screen, they read them in their own ways.

Now you can decide what they say too:

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