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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Dave Gibbons

Scott McCloud categorizes seven ways word and pictures can combine to produce meanings that words or pictures alone can’t. Let’s instead focus on just three broader categories. Do the words and image: echo, contrast, or divide? Below are descriptions from published comics, followed by visual examples from our students.

If they echo, the two are in sync to communicate the same content in unison. Sound effects are an obvious example: the word “BANG” drawn inside the jagged lines of an emanata burst at the end of a gun barrel. McCloud might call that picture-specific, since removing the word doesn’t change much, but not word-specific, since “BANG” without the image of the gun could be ambiguous. He might also call it duo-specific if the image and words are just duplicating each other. Early superhero comic books were heavily duo-specific. In Batman’s first episode in Detective Comics #22 (1939), Bill Finger scripts caption box narration: “He grabs his second adversary in a deadly headlock … and with a mighty have … sends the burly criminal flying through space,” which Bob Kane’s drawings visually repeat. While there may be specific aesthetic reasons to have words and images echo at times, redundancy is generally a bad idea. Avoid it. If words and images convey the same content, the easiest solution is to cut the words. In fact, if words don’t add something unique and essential, always cut them. They’re crutches—or training wheels, a useful step in the creative process, but don’t let them get in the way later. Comics are first and foremost image-based. Trust the images.

Words and images can also complicate and even contradict each other through contrasts. In Sex Fantasy (2017), Sophia Foster-Dimino draws the words “I water the plants” beside a figure in a space suit and jet pack hovering above a row of various plants as she waters them from a device attached by a hose to her suit. While the image doesn’t contradict the words, it doesn’t match any of the expected images the words suggest on their own. In Was She Pretty? (2016), Leanne Shapton writes: “Joel’s ex-girlfriend was a concert pianist. He described her hands as ‘quick and deft.’ Her nails were painted with dark red Chanel varnish.” The accompanying image is a woman’s head looking over her shoulder in profile—presumably of Joel’s ex, who we see has long hair and bangs. McCloud might call this combination word-specific, since the image adds less than the words do, but the lack of overlap is intriguing. In contrast to the words, the image includes no hands and so no fingernails and no piano or anything else indicating a connection to music. The image might be understood as quietly disagreeing with the words, a visual counterpoint suggesting that Joel was focusing on the wrong qualities.

Other contrast combinations are sharper. In The Epic of Gilgamesh (2018), next to Kent Dixon’s translation: “they went down to the Euphrates; they washed their hands,” Kevin Dixon draws only Gilgamesh washing his hands but Enkidu diving into the water head first—implying that the text is so incomplete that it’s essentially wrong. In “Thomas the Leader” from How to Be Happy (2014), Eleanor Davis draws the main character angrily pinning and crushing the breath out his best friend, before pulling back and saying, “I was just kidding, Davey. It was a joke.” In Anya’s Ghost (2011), Vera Brosgol writes “See you, buddy” in a talk balloon above a frowning character who doesn’t seem to consider the other character a “buddy” at all.

Sometimes contrasts are ambiguous. The Defenders #16 (1974) concludes after the supervillain Magneto and his allies have been transformed into infants by a god-like entity. Scripter Len Wein gives Doctor Strange the concluding dialogue: “A godling passed among us today and, in passing, left behind a most precious gift! After all, how many lost souls are there who receive a second chance at life?” Penciller Sal Buscema, however, draws not just any children, but temperamental ones, their frowning, tear-dripping faces repeating the geometry of the adult Magneto’s shouting mouth from earlier panels. Because the images imply that the supervillains were always toddler-like in their immaturity, the babies appear innately bad, their inner characters unchanged by their outer transformations. The image contradicts Doctor Strange’s hopeful conclusion, creating a dilemma for the reader: which is right, the text or the image? The ambiguity may be a result of the creative process involving a separate writer and artist, but it occurs in single-author comics too. In Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (2006), a caption box includes the text: “Maybe he didn’t notice the truck coming because he was preoccupied with the divorce. People often have accidents when they’re distraught.” The image underneath depicts Bechdel’s father crossing a road while carrying branch cuttings on his shoulder. Not only do his blank expression and relaxed posture not communicate “distraught,” the cuttings are blocking his view of the oncoming truck and so they, not his preoccupation with his divorce, are the visually implied reason for his not noticing the truck. Bechdel’s text stated earlier that her father “didn’t kill himself until I was nearly twenty,” the first reference to the memoir’s core event, and yet one undermined by the image five pages later. Again, who should we believe: Bechdel the prose writer or Bechdel the artist?

In the third possibility, words and images divide as if down unrelated paths, what McCloud calls parallel combinations. The text of Chris Ware’s six-page “I Guess” (1991) reads like a childhood memoir about personal incidents involving the narrator’s mother, grandparents, best friend, and stepfather—while the images depict a superhero story in the style of a Golden Age comic. More extensively, Robert Sikoryak’s book-length Terms and Conditions (2017) arranges the complete iTunes user agreement into word containers on pages based on other artist’s iconic work— Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half, etc. Divided combinations can also eventually connect. In It’s A Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken (2004), Seth divides words and images for the first three pages. The seventeen panels depict the main character walking down a city street, entering a book store, browsing, finding a book, buying it, and walking down the street again. The text in black rectangles at the top of each panel describes how important cartoons have been to the narrator, with a detailed description of a specific Charlie Brown strip. If the words and images echoed each other, the book the main character is looking at would be a Peanuts collection. Instead, the narration reveals in the middle of the third page that “it was on this day that I happened upon a little book … by a Whitney Darrow Jr. I picked it up on an impulse”—a description that retroactively applies to the preceding dozen panels.

Divided combinations can also create double referents when words and images at first appear to reference the same subject before retroactively revealing a division. In Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá’s Daytripper (2011), the main character who has just turned down treatments for cancer stands in a jungle-like setting gazing toward an undrawn but brightly colored horizon—while circular word containers ask: “Did you have enough? Are you satisfied?” The page resolves with the realization that the containers are his son’s talk balloons, and he’s asking if his father would like more coffee as they sit at a backyard patio. Alan Moore is especially well-known for double referents. In his and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen #2 (1986), an opening panel shows a female statue in a cemetery with the words in caption boxes: “Aw, willya look at her? Pretty as a picture an’ still keepin’ her figure! So honey, what brings you to the city of the dead?” The word “her” appears to reference the statue, and “city of the dead” the cemetery–but in the next panel, the dialogue continue in talk balloons pointed at a woman addressing her mother in a retirement home—retroactively establishing the intentionally obscured references to the first set of words.

Here are examples of Leigh Ann’s and my students’ word-image combinations:

1) Coleman’s three panels all contrast. The first includes the narration, “I was very alone, and very tired, but I could not sleep,” with the image of a ceiling fan. It’s up to a viewer to connect the two by inferring that the image is the narrator’s view while lying on his back in his bed. Without that inference, the words and image are non-sequiturs. The second caption box contains: “She then ran into the kitchen while my brother and father were distracted.” The image of a cutting knife block is presumably an aspect of the kitchen, so not a contrast—except the text doesn’t mention that the mother ran into the kitchen in order to get a knife. That’s implied only by the empty knife slot. The third caption reads: “I met up with my brother and friend Dan down the street.” The hand lighting a joint is presumably one of the three characters, adding key information excluded from the narration, and so the image turns the words into a kind of lie of omission.

2) Katie mixes the unframed words “My doctors tried everything” with three images of her cartoon self lying in bed with an eye mask, receiving a shot in the neck, and wearing a neck brace. Though the words don’t mention those three actions directly, they appear to be specific examples of things the doctors tried. The images echo the words, while still providing additional information. While it’s possible that the images alone might communicate the content of the words, the combination also suggests that the list of things the doctors tried is longer than just the three included on the page.

3) Henry combines an image of pressure valves with the words: “If you participate, we’ll provide you with food and a place to stay.” Taken in context, a viewer would know that a corporate researcher is addressing a homeless man. Because the words are in a talk balloon pointing out of frame, we know the two characters are in the same room as the valves. A viewer will also likely assume the close-up isn’t a random aspect of the setting but one related to the request. The combination is contrasting because the connotation of the valves is nothing like the researcher’s positive assurances.

4) Daisy places the phrase “On our first date” in the top left corner of her panel and “she helped me file my financial statements” at the bottom right. Under the first phrase she draws manila folders, and above the second she adds a black bra—implying visually that the narrator and his date had sex. The words either omit this significant fact, or the image turns the statement into a metaphor for sex. Either way, the contrasting combination is effective.

5) Grace’s contrast is more extreme. Though the unframed words state: “The only way forward is to keep moving,” the character in the image is seated on a bench and so not moving forward. If the words are the character’s thoughts at that moment, the character becomes a kind of faulty narrator, apparently unaware of the contradiction. If the words are a third-person narrator’s or the pictured character’s narration looking back from another point in time, the words may read as an intentional critique of the character’s inaction.

6) Maddie draws her fish protagonist being accidentally stung by a jellyfish and exclaiming in a speech balloon, “Ow! That stings.” The words clarify the image content by echoing it. This level of redundancy is usually unnecessary and unaesthetic—except in children’s books, the genre Maddie’s comics is working in.

7) A later page of Daisy’s comics consists mostly of words. Before the couple introduced in the fourth example begins officially dating, the narrator hands her a contract to sign, saying in in the circular, center panel: “You may want your lawyer to look this over.” The content of the contract legible in the background page panel is complex: “The Couple will make available their geolocation via the ‘Find My Friend’ iPhone application at all times, excepting instances in which revealing their location would compromise a pleasant surprise …” The extreme detail either supports the narrator’s advice or makes his advice an understatement. Also, his posture as he leans back in his chair at the opposite end of the table echoes the anti-romantic effect of the contract.

8) In Hung’s first panel, his main character’s hand reaches for a phone on a bedside table, and the second is a close-up of the phone screen, showing that the character’s mother has been calling and texting him for the past month without his responding. The words are both part of the story world and essential narrative content.

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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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England’s Literary Review awards a Bad Sex in fiction prize every year. They list “redundancy” as the cardinal sin (an odd criterion since sex tends to include a great deal of repetition), but I think it’s simile and metaphor that most offend the judges: “like a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned insect with a too blunt pin he screwed himself into her” (Rowan Somerville 2010); “he starts to steer her enjoyment like a ship towards its home port, to the deepest anchorage, right to the core of her pleasure” (Amos Oz 2009).

Being British, the magazine does not award a Great Sex prize.

In the multimedia genre of the superhero (or at least the superpowered), both the all time best and worst awards would probably go to Nicholson Baker for his 1994 novel The Fermata. (Baker’s protagonist abuses his ability to freeze time by molesting women for 300 pages).

But I’m voting for a different double winner.

For me, Watchmen takes both categories.

Zack Snyder’s 2009 adaptation includes one of the least erotic sex scenes ever filmed. Technically it’s Malin Akerman and Patrick Wilson pretending to fornicate in the Nite Owl hovercraft. But there are no people in a Snyder movie, only balletic cyborgs. Snyder’s camera reduces the human body to mere digital effect. It’s why his violence is so grotesquely idealized. The technique kills his erotics too, dehumanizes one of the most absurdly human acts. (Jeff Buckley crooning “Hallelujah” in the background doesn’t help either.)

Not that you could call the 1986 comic book erotic either. Dave Gibbons’ pen is postage-stamp precise but nowhere near expressionistic enough to evoke bodily pleasure.

A better partner for Alan Moore’s sexual creativity is, happily, his own wife, graphic artist Melinda Gebbie. Their Lost Girls is a pleasantly pornographic tour of Victorian literature, featuring “mature” renderings of the child heroines of Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and The Wizard of Oz (three books I will never never never read to my children again).

But we’re talking superheroes.

Watchmen #3: Laurie Jupiter, AKA Silk Specter, in a ménage à trios with her blue-skinned husband, Dr. Manhattan. Two of him. (Another of his bodies is busy in the lab). This is the opposite of a turn-on, proof that her lover has lost all understanding of her (“I don’t know what stimulates you anymore”) if not the human condition in general.

The woman needs a man, not a superman. Pudgy everyguy Dan Dreiberg is a better match, but nuclear Armageddon dread has left him feeling impotent in both the metaphorical and literal sense. While their former teammate Ozymandias performs superhuman acrobatics on TV, Dan can’t even maintain an erection while on Laurie.

Fortunately, the solution hangs downstairs in his batcave of a basement. Dan is a new man when in costume. Gibbons draws Laurie naked but for her Silk Specter heels, but Nite Owl is cloaked when his hovercraft ejaculates fire (literally).

Moore tore the page from Johnston McCulley’s Zorro: “I donned cloak and mask . . . My body straightened, new blood seemed to course through my veins . . . fire came to me!”  During a post-coital smoke, the reignited Nite Owl declares: “I feel so confident it’s like I’m on fire.”

Ultimately though, a costume is more than a fetish. It’s not something just to be seductively peeled away but a barrier to be overcome. Real intimacy requires nakedness.

The next time Laurie reaches for Dan’s Nite Owl goggles, she whispers: “Here, take these off. I want to see you.” When Dr. Manhattan discovers the pair dozing and naked, he looks happy for them. Even if human sexuality is far beneath his God-like comprehension, he can still smile benevolently down at us.

Sex is silly and messy and anything but superhuman. Somehow Zack digitized Alan’s entire book without figuring that out.

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Panel one:

“For the splash page I’m seeing ‘Singulas’ launching himself from the craggy edge of his mentor’s mountain cave for the first time. Bird’s eye view, fists high, cape aflutter, and the bone-thin ‘Onlyone’ seated below, lotus-style, age-beaten face angled to watch his newborn pupil ascending. His mouth should be an ambiguous half-grin. That’s important later. Leave me a wide caption box to recap the origin. I’ll do all the words later.”

That’s the first paragraph of my short story “Script Outline, ‘The One and Only!’ Draft 1.” It appears in the new issue of The Pinch literary magazine. I just  tore my complimentary author’s copy from its mailing envelope. (Something that, even after some thirty-odd short stories, still thrills.)

My superhero, Singulas, is invented, but my (unstated) narrator is Stan Lee just before Marvel hits it big in the early sixties. “The One and Only!” is his first superhero plot, one he’s describing to a freelance artist. I think it’s probably also a lesson in how not to write a comic book script.

Will Eisner in Comics and Sequential Art assures his students that there’s “no absolute ratio of words-to-pictures” in comic book writing, but his example scripts average 40 words of visual description per panel. My panel above is 75. The whole story runs about 4,500 words. I don’t think many of Stan Lee’s “scripts” filled more than a cocktail napkin.

Which was the point.

While DC editor Mort Weisinger was pounding his scripters with endless rewrites, Stan would dash off a verbal thumbnail for Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko to beat into shape. AKA, the Marvel Method. The laissez-faire approach had obvious benefits for an overworked editor.  It might also help explain that office closet of unused and unusable story boards Lee hid from his boss in the late 1950’s. (When Goodman found them, he fired everyone but Lee, until the inventory was used up.)

The Lee of my story has more in common with Alan Moore. Surely the most verbose scripter in comic book history. The guy would mail poor Dave Gibbons reams of paper. Watchmen even includes Moore’s self-parody, a faux bio of a fictitious writer famed for “harassing the artist with impossibly detailed panel descriptions.” Moore can fill a single-spaced page for a one panel. More than ten times the Eisner ratio. Gibbons’ Watching the Watchmen includes only a glimpse of the original transcripts, but it’s enough to see the enormity of the artistic task. Gibbons had to code sentences with colored highlighters just to organize all the instructions.

Back in the sixties, Kirby and Ditko were handing their pages to Lee with the captions and talk bubbles empty. Which, paradoxically, is one of the reason why Marvel’s Silver Age comics are wordier than today’s image-centered graphic novels. The artists were careful to leave their boss plenty of room for his witty (though ad-hoc) dialogue.

But Moore’s Watchmen scripts were also personal letters to Gibbons. There are asides and exclamations wonderfully outside the conventions of any formal script outline. And that’s what attracted me to experiment with the form as a short story. The “One and Only!” is a personal letter, not only from editor to artist, but between ex-lovers. Lee and my fictitious freelancer are collaborators both on and between the sheets.

The story is also my first toe-wetting dip into the material I’m now expanding in my novel-in-process. (Working title? “The Patron Saint of Superheroes.”) I’m not handing the pages (136 so far) to any stressed-out artists with color-coded highlighters. Though sometimes it would be nice to scribble a few words on a napkin and watch them come back as full blown storyboards. Lee was no fool. But neither is Moore. I recommend aiming somewhere between.

(For anyone in Memphis on Saturday November 5th, I’ll be reading from “The One and Only!” at The Pinch launch party. Festivities start at 7:00 at Splash Creative, Inc., 2574 Sam Cooper Blvd @ Bingham St.)

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