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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Sophia Foster-Dimino

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 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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Sophia Foster-Dimino is an excellent cartoonist. So was Pablo Picasso. The difference is that no one ever calls Picasso a “cartoonist” because it sounds like an insult or a damningly faint, left-handed compliment. But in Foster-Dimino’s case I mean it as loud ambidextrous praise. She, like Picasso, understands and exploits the complexities of simplified distortion. Her ten-story collection Sex Fantasy is drawn in a consistent and deceptively simple style of clean black lines, occasional black shapes, and no grays or cross-hatched shading. Though the images suggest a world of equally simple experiences expressible through faces capable of only the most basic expressions, her subject matter and ultimately her technique are far more complicated.

Her first chapter includes Sex Fantasies 1-3, often surreal litanies of various first-person narrators carrying out or expressing variously mundane or impossible acts and feelings. The next chapter switches to narrative form, but with an accompanying increase in ambiguity. Is the figure whispering hurtful remarks into the main character’s ear only her self-destructive inner voice? Are the two women meeting for lunch actually aliens passing for humans? And if so, why does the picture on the wall keep changing expressions? Later fantasies vacillate between naturalism and the surreal. A horrible husband turns out to be only a horrible communicator. An inexplicably doll-sized woman unites with her inexplicably doll-sized boyfriend. The final, lone, and longest story is also the most realistic, with its two characters debating whether to have an affair despite his being married to her close friend, but the grocery store scene of a sex game devolving into infantilizing torment is perhaps the most disturbing. All are rendered in Foster-Dimino’s minimalistic cartoon style.

But what is a cartoon?

Pioneering comics scholar Scott McCloud describes cartooning as “amplification through simplification.” He writes: “When we abstract an image through cartooning, we’re not so much eliminating details as we are focusing on specific details,” creating a visual style that has a “stripped-down intensity.” McCloud illustrates his point with a series of faces beginning with a photograph and ending with an oval containing two dots and a line, which he calls a “cartoon” because it is the most “simplified.” But this is only half true. While the cartoon face is the simplest in terms of detail—it has the fewest number of lines—its lines also differ from the lines in the other faces in terms of shape: the cartoon lines are more exaggerated. They don’t match the shapes of the photograph, and so their intensity isn’t just “stripped-down.” It’s also warped.

A cartoon typically does both: simplify and exaggerate. That combination creates a story world very different from our world, a fantasy universe that allows for a range of impossibilities, from South Park anatomy to Road Runner physics. That’s why comics scholar Joseph Witek coined the term “cartoon ethos”:

“by stripping away the inessential elements of a human face and exaggerating its defining features, caricature purports to reveal an essential truth about its subject that lies hidden beneath the world of appearances. When structuring caricatures in sequence, the cartoon mode treats the comic’s page not only as a loose representation of physical existence, but also as a textual field for the immediate enactment of overtly symbolic meaning.”

But sometimes we, like McCloud, think of simplified but otherwise roughly realistic images as “cartoons” too. What sort of hidden truths and symbolic meanings do they reveal? Foster-Dimino takes brilliant advantage of that in-between ambiguity.

Her “Sex Fantasy 5” depicts a couple hiking together as they reveal stories about their pasts. Neither character initially has a name, and both are composed of a minimum of lines that simplify features to circular eyes and mouths and leave skin and fabric untextured by shade and depth. The first figure Foster-Dimino draws with short black hair and thick black eyebrows, wearing shorts and a sweatshirt. The second she draws with light hair tied in a ponytail and thin eyebrows, wearing a tank top, leggings, and a fanny pack. I registered the first as male and the second as female—probably because, as McCloud says, those few specific details are often-used markers of gender in the stripped-down reality of contemporary cartooning.

So is height. But even though the longer-haired blonde appears a few inches taller than the shorter-haired brunette, “she” was still female in my mind. Though the gender markers fluctuate in flashbacks, my initial assumptions filled in missing details—both visually and narratively—so both figures maintained their gender identities without corroborating visual evidence and even despite some apparent contradictions. When “he” describes his childhood, “he” sometimes has the same short black hair, but other times it’s longer and ponytailed. “She” says: “when I was young I looked very different from how I am now. It took me a long time to settle on this look.” The array of accompanying images demonstrates that range, each version appearing variously female or male—but despite that intentional visual ambiguity, I understood each to represent a biologically female body.

Image result for Remove term: Sophia Foster-Dimino Sophia Foster-Dimino

The punchline of course is that “she” is male and “he” is female, as Foster-Dimino reveals in the collection’s single, albeit mild sex scene in which “he” removes his shirt and then bra to expose breasts and “she” removes her tank top to reveal none. Did Foster-Dimino mislead us? Certainly. But look back at the previous pages and see that we also fooled ourselves, since the implied bagginess of “his” sweatshirt would easily obscure breasts, and “her” more tightly fitting tank top clearly covers no breasts at all.

So how can such “essential elements” of gender go unnoticed? Foster-Domino was cartooning in the simplifying but not exaggerating sense. Rather than assuming her characters existed in an impossible world of cartoon proportions typical of, say, Charlie Brown or Beetle Bailey, we understand them to be inhabitants of either our world or a realistic world very much like it. So instead of reading the lack of detail as a photo-like representation of that world, we understand it to be merely artistic style. The actual characters—who do not exist on the page but in our heads—are as detailed as anyone in our world. And yet those details exist only in our detail-providing imaginations, a fact Foster-Dimino knows and happily exploits. By stripping her characters down to stereotypical elements, she knows we will fill-in the corresponding but ultimate wrong set of gender details.

But that’s not her final punchline. Foster-Dimino takes “Sex Fantasy 5” one cartooning step further with a second reveal that returns the story world to Witek’s cartoon ethos, where stories:

“often assume a fundamentally unstable and infinitely mutable physical reality, where characters and even objects can move and be transformed according to an associative or emotive logic rather than the laws of physics. Bodies can change suddenly and temporarily in shape and proportion to depict emotional states or narrative circumstances, as when the body of an outraged character swells to many times its normal size, or appears to levitate several feet off the ground in a cloud of dust.”

Rather than levitating, the character formerly understood to be female swells into an enormous comet-shaped creature composed entirely of wings and suggestive of no sexual identity. The character formerly understood to be male watches nonchalantly before “she” grabs onto to “his” back as they fly away, saying: “I didn’t know you could do that.”

We didn’t know either—a fact far more biologically significant than “his” or “her” breasts. Does this winged being also have a penis or a vagina? At differing points during my first reading, I would have answered yes separately to both. Now, I’m not so sure. Which is Foster-Dimino’s point—one expressible only through the point of her deceptively simplifying cartooning pen.

[Check out more of Foster-Dimino’s work at her website. A version of this post and my other recent comics reviews appear in the comics section of PopMatters. Oh, and here are some Picasso “cartoons”:

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