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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Leanne Shapton

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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Leanne Shapton Was She Pretty? is not a comic in a traditional sense. No talk balloons and caption boxes, no panels and gutters, not even recurrent characters or a plotline. Shapton instead offers variations on a single theme, a litany of ex-lovers and their lingering presence in new relationships.

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The table-of-contents features over fifty first names, the vast majority women, their status as ex- or current girlfriends unmarked, because each couple is also a triangle. Josephine and Robert plus Robert’s ex, Alicia. Jennifer and Richard plus Richard’s ex, Cassandra. Alicia and Cassandra remain not only as memories for Robert and Richard but as new, evolving conflicts for Josephine and Jennifer. Most of Shapton’s drawings are of women, with about a dozen of the one hundred or so images featuring men, making women both the primary haunters and the haunted.

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Shapton’s form reflects her subject well. Each two-page spread is a kind of couplet: words on the left, drawing on the right. The words, usually one or two sentences, are typeset and centered on otherwise blank pages. The drawings are ink sketches, executed in a quick, gestural style, that occupy the majority of their pages. While the words and images are linked by their exclusive use of black on open white backgrounds, the effect is division, with the center margin separating the two halves of each image-text. The thin, regular shapes of the font also contrast the thicker, irregular lines of the sketches that evoke their moments of creation by Shapton’s living hand. The words evoke only the impersonal process of book manufacturing.

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The contrast is especially pronounced since Shapton presents the words of the cover and preceding Prelude in her own handwriting, a style that emphasizes the same, intentionally uneven line qualities as her drawings. The cover art consists only of the looping letters of her title with no other illustration, further emphasizing the drawn quality of the words—reminiscent of Henry Matisse’s own over-sized handwritten words in his 1947 Jazz. Shapton’s Prelude pages also include words and images on both left and right pages, further preparing her contrasting couplets.

In nearly every case, a lefthand sentence names a character who the accompanying drawing appears to depict. Shapton writes, “Jason’s ex-girlfriend was Taylor,” and so the drawing of a woman on the facing page appears to be Taylor. This is deceptively simple. Gender assumptions prevent the image from representing Jason, but Shapton sometimes includes two female referents: “Martin had never mentioned his hauntingly beautiful ex-girlfriend Carwai to Heidi.” The sketch of a woman’s head fills the next page. She appears to be Carwai, not Hedi, in part because her minimally drawn face could be described as “beautiful”—though those features are “hauntingly beautiful” only as a result of the juxtaposed words.  The image might as easily be Heidi. But when Shapton writes, “… Mimi found out that it was Evan’s ex-girlfriend Cindy who tried to strangle her in the schoolyard when she was eight,” the facing image of a child appears to be Mimi, not Cindy the ex. This is likely because the child’s eyes are downcast and her hands pocketed, the posture of a victim not a bully. But again the link is inherently ambiguous.

Roughly a fifth of the drawings depict objects belonging to an ex. Katya’s ex-boyfriend’s postcards appears on both pages, as does Lucy, the only figure to span a two-page spread. Fiona doesn’t appear at all, only her hand-drawn name, because its sound triggers an eleven-minute silence over dinner. While Shapton’s characters usually change with each page turn, seventeen of her micro-chapters extend for two or three couplets, two for four, and the penultimate for eight. Josephine’s three-couplet dream that her boyfriend’s ex keeps trying to give him “articles of used clothing” also disturbs the formal symmetry, with an article appearing on the second left page and the third remaining entirely blank. Graham’s second and third lefthand pages are blank too, apparently a result of his giving “a number of girlfriends” the same romantic CD compilation. Instead of focusing on exes, Elizabeth’s worry about the women who replace her divides her multi-page sentence into the book’s only fragments.

Margaret’s sixteen-page sequence serves as finale, a sub-list of Scott’s exes from a box of journals that Margaret finds and reads. As an unexpected result, Margaret experiences not just guilt but also love for Scott “because everything she adored about him was evident” in his past relationships. The final spread, however, literally reverses this positive realization by placing Margaret’s final words on the right: “This did not go far to alleviate her nausea, or slow the spool of images rushing through her head.” But in fact it has: the opposite left page is now blank. The relief is momentary though. The final couplet returns to form, detailing the rash and stomach pain Louise suffers at the sight of Greg’s ex.

Although each triplet of characters is independent, the accumulative effect is still narrative, with all of the girlfriends, boyfriends, and ex-girlfriends forming three conglomerate characters, whose details vary but not their core experiences. Shapton quotes Kierkegaard in her Prelude: “The chain is very flexible, soft as silk, yields to the most powerful strain, and cannot be torn apart.” Kierkegaard is alluding to Norse mythology, but Shapton implies the impossible-to-break links between exes, as well as the far wider links between all of the characters suffering these same anxieties.

Existentialism aside, Shapton’s characters also share basic features, literally through her unifying gestural style, but also ethnically, sexually, and socioeconomically. Makeda and Olivia are the only African American faces, and Ghislaine and Sophie the only non-heterosexual couple. But privilege is nearly ubiquitous. In addition to educations involving “Med school” and “PhDs,” characters travel between cities for business and continents for pleasure. Character-defining descriptions include: “daughter of two prominent pyschoanalysts,” “heiress,” “critically acclaimed” singer, “fashion designer,” “chief designer of a centuries-old fashion house,” “fine-art photographer,” “child prodigy,” “theater director,” and “Argentinian supermodel and the face of a multinational cosmetics conglomerate.” There is also a “nurse” and “salesperson,” but wealth is far more common and overt: Edie “enjoyed Brahams” but “preferred money,” and “Lena’s ex-boyfriend made less money than her other boyfriends. She loved him the best, but he always felt he had something to prove.”

While Was She Pretty? may suggest that anxieties over exes are universal, it also subtlety critiques its circle of privileged sufferers: well-off, good-looking people with an abundance of romantic relationships. These are problems worth having.

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[The original version of this and my other recent comics reviews appear in the comics section of PopMatters.]

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