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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: The Walking Dead

Actually, this post should be titled “Framing, Abstracting, and Closuring the Walking Dead,” but that’s way too many verbs, plus closuring isn’t a word. Or at least it wasn’t. Maybe it is now. This post is also a follow-up on three previous “Analyzing Comics 101” posts on, you guessed it, framing, abstraction, and closure.

I’m once again picking apart the corpse of Tony Moore and Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead #1 to show how these concepts can come together. This time, just the first two pages will do the trick.

So framing first. The top full-width panel is symmetrical and misaligned, so the right side includes more than the primary subjects of Rick, Shane, and their police car which appear cropped in the foreground, plus the escaped convict and his truck in the middleground. The rectangular panel could include all of the rectangular police car, but instead provides surrounding detail, including a horse (the first hint at the Western motif), a Rotary Club sign (suggesting a small community theme?), and distant mountains in the background (further establishing the rural setting).

However, it’s the bottom panel that gives the initial framing its biggest meaning, since the open foreground space of that first panel parallels the page’s most important image in the bottom panel: Rick being shot. The bottom frame is symmetrical and proportionate, making the first misaligned framing a form of spatial foreshadowing. Moore also shifts the parallel angle of perspective, effectively rotating the shooter to the background, Shane to the middleground, and Rick to the foreground, the most significant visual space. Note also that Rick occupies the right side of the image, gaining further significance since as Anglophone readers we conclude the panel on right. We read top to bottom too, so Rick being shot occupies the concluding space of the overall page too (it’s also the peak image in an implied 4×2 grid, but we covered visual sentences and layouts elsewhere).

Rick is also emphasized because our perspective moves with him, beginning in panel five. These four middle framings are symmetrical while vacillating between proportionate and abridged, because the figures are sometimes cropped mid-chest, adding to the sense of Rick and Shane being trapped in a cramped space. Though drawn smaller than Shane in panels one and two, when Rick stands in panel three, he encompasses more space: his action literally makes him larger. Because the angle of perspective is the same in panels two and four, Shane remains the same.

Closure between the images is minimal. The first panel establishes the overall area, and the following five panels work within it, demanding little spatial closure. Though the time span of each panel and the gaps between them is inherently inexact, the first four transitions suggest no significant gaps, and so they imply a steady movement forward in time, requiring only basic temporal closure. The fifth transition, however, implies a gap in which Rick turns around to face the shooter. So in addition to temporal closure, the panel transition requires causal closure because the action of Rick turning is undrawn; we infer it in order to explain why Rick’s back is no longer turned to the shooter as it was in the previous image.

Finally, Tony Moore’s drawing style is roughly 3-3 on the abstraction grid, so it shows both a moderate amount of detail (translucent) and a moderate amount of contour warping (idealization). Arguably, the figures show a level of 3-4 abstraction, with intensified contours. In the second panel, Shane is impossibly wide and Rick impossibly thin, with Rick’s head roughly half the width of Shane’s shoulder.

shane and rick abstraction

The effect characterizes each through visual exaggeration and further establishes them as foils. Meanwhile, the shooter’s head contrasts the straight lines that compose Rick and Shane’s bodies with frenetic lines and lopsided features.

crazy guy

Though the effect is more striking, the shooter’s lines contours remain within an idealized range. Rick’s bullet wound, however, is intensified or even hyperbolic.

rick's wound

Since no human being could survive a wound that extreme, the image creates higher closure demand after the page turn because we retroactively understand the image to be exaggerated. There’s an overt abstraction gap between what is drawn and how it is drawn. And because a literal understanding of the image contradicts the story, we ignore it (diegetic erasure).

The leap to page two is major in other ways too. The image requires a great deal of temporal closure with details that also require a range of casual closure. After being shot, Rick was taken to a hospital–perhaps by paramedics in an ambulance, though most of the casual facts go unconfirmed. He is in a bed in a bedroom, not a critical ward or operating room, so presumably his wounds were successfully treated and he was left to recuperate. The time gap is ambiguous, but his beard growth suggest several days.

The framing marks a major change too. Though still symmetrical, the full-page panel is also expansive. Rick’s figure is the subject, but a great deal of the surrounding room is drawn for a spacious effect unlike the previous page’s variously proportionate and abridge panels. The angle of perspective shifts from parallel to downward, so we are no longer viewing the image as a character would but as if from a more omniscient vantage.

The style of abstraction has shifted too. While Rick remains at 3-3 (translucent idealization), the room is closer to 2-2 (semi-translucent generalization). The level of detail is much greater than on the previous page and the line contours are only warped slightly below the level of photorealism. Notice the line quality of the shadows and reflected chair legs on the floor.

The 2-2 image is also a full-page panel, giving it further significance. When the first zombie later appears on page six, we retroactively fill in additional closure into the temporal gap: the zombie apocalypse occurred while Rick was unconscious and safe behind his bedroom door. Page two is the most significant image in the issue, because it is 1) the most detailed and least abstracted image in a stylistic context of less detail and higher abstraction, 2) the first of only two full-page panels, 3) the most expansively framed image, and 4) the image demanding the highest amount and range of closure.

There’s plenty more visual analysis available on these two pages (haven’t even started to talk about the difference in Moore’s rendering of sound effects and speech yet), but you get the picture.


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Having taught my spring term seminar Superheroes a half dozen times now, I’m converting it to one of the gateway courses for Washington and Lee students entering the English major. The overhaul means jettisoning the pre-history of the genre (I love that stuff, but I could just hand my students On the Origin of Superheroes and be done with it) and focusing much more on comics as an art medium. So I’m trying to boil down the basics, the must-know criteria for analyzing a comic book.

So now it’s time invite Neil Cohn to the lectern. If you haven’t read his The Visual Language of Comics, please do. Meanwhile, here’s my boiling down of his visual language grammar.

Narrative panel types: images may be categorized according to the kinds of narrative information they contain and how that information creates a visual sentence when read in sequence:

Orienter: introduces context for a later interaction (no tension).

Establisher: introduces elements that later interact (no tension).

Initial: begins the interactive tension.

Prolongation: continues the interactive tension.

Peak: high point of interactive tension.

Release: aftermath of interactive tension.

Cohn only looks at comic strips, which typically express a single sentence in a linear arrangement of three or four panels, but longer graphic narratives can express multiple sentences on a single page or extend a single visual sentence over multiple pages.  To analyze the different ways that can work, I’m adding some terminology to Cohn’s.

Closed sentences: two sentences that begin and end without sharing panels.

Overlapping sentences: sentences that share panels.

Interrupted sentence: an overlapping sentence that does not complete or initiate its tension before another sentence replaces it; sentences might share an Orienter, or an Establisher may introduce two elements that do not interact until later as a form foreshadowing.

Dual-function panel: in overlapping sentences, one panel performs two narrative functions. A panel may, for example, serve as the Release of one sentence and also the Orienter, Establisher, or Initial of the next. Or an Orienter may  serve as the Establisher of an interrupted sentence that initializes tension later.

Sentence Layout: the relationship of visual sentences to pages.

Page sentence: a sentence that begins with the page’s first panel and ends with the page’s final panel.

Multipage sentence: a sentence that extends beyond one page.

End stop: a page and a visual sentence end simultaneously.

Enjambed: a page ends before the visual sentence ends, also called a visual cliff-hanger.

This is all awfully abstract, so let me give specific examples from The Walking Dead again.

Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore like enjambment. Their first issue includes several cliff-hangers. The bottom row of page five begins with an Establisher (introducing the door to the already established figure of Rick), is followed by an Initial panel (Rick removes the piece of wood holding the door closed), and ends with a Peak (Rick is opening the door).

But the Release only appears after turning to page six. That full-page panel is also a dual-function panel because it serves as the Establisher (introducing the zombies to the already established Rick) for the next, overlapping sentence.

The turn from page nine to ten is similar. The first panel in the bottom row of page nine is an Establisher (Rick and the bicycle), followed by the page-ending Peak of Rick’s shocked reaction. The top of page ten provides the Release (we finally see what he sees).

A similar grammatical pattern repeats on pages thirteen and fourteen. The first panel in the bottom row of thirteen is an Orienter. The second is an Establisher (Rick’s face seems to be reacting to something, a sound presumably), and the last panel is an Initial. Turn the page, and there’s the Peak.

The visual grammar also shows that cliff-hangers only work on the final panel of a two-page spread, in order to prevent a reader’s eye from skimming to the critical image prematurely (which happens in my arrangements above).

Also, Moore and Kirkman don’t always enjamb their visual sentences. Page one, for instance, ends on a Peak. The page also begins with an Initial, followed by four Prolongation panels. Page one is a complete page sentence, both beginning and ending on a single page.

Instead of a Release, the next page begins with an Orienter (Rick in his hospital room) for the next visual sentence, which does not overlap.

In terms of interrupted sentences, page ten begins a new visual sentence with the top Establisher (introducing the bicycle zombie to the already established Rick), followed by two Initials (Rick and the zombie interact) in the second. The bottom row begins with two Prolongations, followed by a Peak (Rick’s tear) and a Release (the zombie closes its mouth).

The visual sentence appears to have ended when the next page begins a new sentence with no further interaction between Rick and the zombie. So page ten reads as a complete page sentence, until the bottom of page twenty-three continues the interaction with a Prolongation panel, retroactively showing that the visual sentence was interrupted.

Page twenty-four provides a new Peak (Rick shoots the zombie), followed by two Release panels (Rick looking down, the zombie with a bullet hole in its forehead).

Rick’s tear is also a Prolongation of his tear on page ten, an additional overlapping sentence that reaches its Peak in the next panel when Rick wipes the tear away. The final three panels are Releases. They’re also their own overlapping, three-panel sentence: Initial (Rick and the car), Peak (Rick gets into the car), and Release (car has driven off). The page and the issue conclude with an end stop.

And, concluding this post, my apologies to the world of poetry for driving off with your terms “end stop” and “enjambment.” Until now they only meant “a poetic device in which a pause comes at the end of a syntactic unit” and ” the continuation of a sentence without a pause beyond the end of a line.”



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The end of the world is a comfort. Things have finally and definitively fallen apart, no more struggle, and, most importantly, all the Big Questions are answered. In literary terms, an apocalypse is mystery novel. The word means “uncovering” or “unveiling,” the exegesis Sherlock Holmes performs at the close of every story. Religions promise big reveals in the afterlife, delivered on a first come first served basis, but an end-of-the-world apocalypse provides closure to all readers at once.

Sometimes the answers suck. The Walking Dead apocalypse reveals that God is dead, life is brutal, and death a mockery and negation of all human values. But that’s still an Answer. Mystery solved. Horror usually tips the opposite scale: the universe overflows with supernatural import. Sure, most of the supernatural forces want to flay and eat you, but even when they succeed, the stench of blood and brimstone is still comforting. You finally know what’s what—whether Buffy or the Winchester brothers swoop in at the last-minute or not.

But the biggest horror is an apocalypse that doesn’t reveal anything. That anti-Rapture, the ten-episode adaptation of Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers, has been airing on HBO this summer. Although I’ve met Tom Perrotta (nice guy, drove him back to his hotel after his reading at UVA a few years ago), I have the blissful ignorance of having not read the novel. So I don’t know how season one will end, and based on ratings, season two is anything but a certainty.

leftovers book cover

That’s appropriate for a show about radical uncertainty. Left Behind, the book series Perrotta is at least partially lampooning, delivers the ur-apocalypse of Revelations, complete with an all-mysteries-solved Antichrist at the center of its plot. The Perrotta Apocalypse is way scarier. When 2% of the planet’s population pop out of existence, the leftover 98% are left without any answers. Dr. Who, in the form of Christopher Eccleston’s American-accented clergyman, says it wasn’t God. A three-year congressional report might as well be blank.

That abyss-deep level of not-knowing is too much for some people. Liv Tyler and Any Brenneman join a nihilistic cult of mute chain smokers hell-bent on proving life is worthless. Their evangelical pamphlets are literally blank. They are the show’s zombie horde: they stare at you blankly from the sidewalk outside your living room windows; they buy your church and paint its windows white; they stage protests at commemorations for your vanished loved ones; they break into your home and steal your family photos from their pictures frames.

At least zombies are accidental. Reanimated flesh-eating corpses are random byproducts of a random universe. Perrotta’s zombies choose meaninglessness, abandoning their families and severing all emotional ties and then terrorizing others into adopting their philosophy—while inwardly struggling to maintain it themselves. People secure in their nihilism wouldn’t bother to terrorize or recruit converts or take vows of silence—behaviors as inherently meaningless as all other behaviors.

But the cult is a fundamentalist church. Most non-apocalyptic atheists don’t congregate in the name of non-God. They have better, more meaningful things to do. But being leftover raises the stakes. When the bank forecloses on Eccleston’s church, he gambles the existence of God at a roulette table. But do three double-or-nothing wins equal divine intervention? Are those pigeons gray-feathered messengers of the Supernatural—or are they just brainless birds? Are the voices in the ex-sheriff’s head evidence of his schizophrenia—or did they send a very corporeal, tobacco-chewing hunter to help his son shoot packs of wild dogs? These and many other burning questions will not be answered next week, or any other week.

Perrotta’s teenagers at least know how to channel their universe’s amoral indifference into an app (in addition to “kiss” and “hug,” a game of spin-the-cellphone includes “punch” and “fuck”). They know the baby Jesus in the town’s Christmas display is just a mass consumer object–yet one so haunted with a residue of meaning that burning it isn’t as easy as stealing it. In this world of heightened uncertainty, even the disappearance of a bagel into the bowels of an industrial toaster is enough to trigger existential crisis.

Although this agnostic apocalypse is Rapture-inspired, it reminds me more of Kurt Vonnegut’s brand of godless humanism. Vonnegut’s end-of-the-world revelations challenge basic assumptions of reality: water only freezes when cold, time moves in one direction, gravity is a constant, humans have free will. After a “timequake” causes years of predetermined repetition, humans find themselves suddenly at the metaphorical wheel again and are so unprepared they literally drive into each other. The Leftovers opens with a similar car wreck, a driverless car careening through a not-just-existential crossroads.

Vonnegut founds his own religions too. The Book of Bokonon announces that its teachings are lies, although useful ones, godly untruths that impose order on an unloving universe. Perrotta’s Guilty Remnant can’t cope with such abandonment and so their lies impose an uglier order. Their leader writes on her tablet: “There is no family.” It’s as true/false as any other religious claim. The “Lonesome No More” government in Vonnegut’s Slapstick randomly assigns the population middle names, providing everyone with an extensive family of siblings and cousins to care for them. It’s nonsense, but it also works. There might not be any Supernatural order to your life, but that doesn’t mean you have to act like a soulless zombie.

If that orderless order sounds too frightening for you, wait till October. The powers-that-be are giving the Left Behind franchise a second chance. Nicholas Cage will be our pilot through the end-of-days reboot.

I’d rather take my uncertain chances with The Leftovers.



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World War Z poster

According to World War Z, two things can trigger a zombie apocalypse: 1) stay-at-home dads, and 2) kindness to Muslims. It is nice, however, to see an American blockbuster starring Brad Pitt as that most un-American of creatures, a U.N. Investigator.

My book club recently spun off a zombie club of college professors, two in Economics and one in English,  me (a Philosopher may be joining us soon too). I presented a conference paper on The Walking Dead last winter, but my knowledge base is dwarfed by the guy who makes guac on movie nights. So far we’ve only watched The Night of the Living Dead. We’d schedule Dawn of the Dead (the remake for some reason), but postponed when a wife (also an Economics professor) got called to Abu Dhabi on a family emergency.

George Romero, director zero in the genre contagion, gave his ghouls a clear cause: radiation from a returning Venus space probe. Brad spends most of WWZ’s 116 minutes and $190 million dollars searching for clues. Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman doesn’t care. But in terms of theme and discourse, the answer is always scene one.

Every zombie story (and, arguably, every story of every genre) begins with something rotten in the state of Denmark. It takes less than ten minutes (including the insufferably slow credits sequence) for that creepy old man to lurch at Barbra in the cemetery, but Night of the Living Dead has already provided a horde of apocalypse-triggering conflicts spawning across issues of religion, nation, capitalism, and family:

Johnnie’s stopped going to church and jokes about being damned. Romero shoots the American flag flapping backwards from a veteran’s grave. Is the exploitive funeral industry stealing the wreath off the grave and selling it back to them every year? The family unit is shattered in multiple directions: parents vs. children, brother vs. sister, grandparent vs. grandson. The kids discuss digging up the only vaguely remembered dad so they don’t have to drive hours out of town on their mother’s orders.  Time itself is upturned. The first line of the film is a complaint about daylight savings.

World War Z is simpler. The pre-zombie preamble is an ode to the domesticated male. Brad Pitt is the perfect stay-at-home dad. His blissfully happy daughters joke that all he does since quitting his job is make breakfast, but his pancakes are better than Michael Keaton’s in Mr. Mom. Brad doesn’t mind scolding everyone to put their dishes in the sink, but in thematic terms, this is an apocalyptic inversion of stability. His bread-winning wife doesn’t even help with the plates.

When things heat up during the morning commute (Brad is chauffeuring everyone to school and work), his wife takes the wheel while he assumes the traditionally maternal duty of comforting the asthmatically panicked daughter. If you were hoping for a 21st century vision of shared gender roles, the formal plot doesn’t start till the wife is safely tucked away with the children. Her only job now is being a mom. Dad, meanwhile, reveals the secret depth of his professional prowess, including the power to call rescue helicopters down from the sky. In fact, he may be the only man left with a shot at saving the world. Sure, he only takes the job to safeguard his family, but at that moment the world has already been righted. Zombie plague restores domestic order.

Kirkman plays a similar game in Walking Dead. The comic book is a paean to traditional gender—though kudos to the TV team for trying to shake that up a bit. The zombie ur-heroine Barbra is significantly worse, a knock-off of Hitchcock’s Melanie in The Birds. When the going gets tough, the gals collapse into semi-catatonic dementia. Fortunately, Barbra retreats to a farmhouse first, which Ben (he wasn’t black until Duane Jones showed up for the casting call) boards up. This is where economic theory comes in. How do external threats alter group behavior? Which is the more profitable strategy: staying mobile or hunkering down?

World War Z is explicit about both. Director Marc Forster literally spells it out in subtitles: “Movement is life.” Not that those very nice but ultimately very stupid Spanish parents listen to Brad. And look who gets eaten in the next scene. Meanwhile, Israel boards up their whole country. But they also let in Muslim refugees, figuring a grateful live Muslim is better than an angry dead Muslim. Cooperation skyrockets as Israeli soldiers nod and smile and even hand over the PA system for group singing. I’ve never seen an airport customs line half as chummy.

But as every zombie fan knows, hunkering never works for long. Images of Middle East peace last two, maybe three minutes. Romero boarded up the Monroeville Mall (about two miles from my childhood home) for his first sequel, Dawn of the Dead, but its collapse is nothing to the geysers of Palestinian zombies flooding into the last nation on Earth. CGI turns Romero’s lurching latex-painted extras into blood cells gushing through urban arteries. Israel dies from its own kindness—a political allegory a lot of right wingers can probably live with.

That’s where Romero would have left things, with Brad ascending from the Tel Aviv airport into the ambiguous but not particularly hopeful unknown. WWZ is a 1950s scifi. When Don Siegel tried to end Invasion of the Body Snatchers with a chillingly open-ended “They’re coming!”Hollywood sent him back to the editing booth to tack on their contractual, world-is-saved last scene. Forster uses the same one. It turns out zombies dissolve in water! Or something like that. Which is also why at its surprisingly non-gory heart, WWZ isn’t a zombie movie.

Yes, these zombies are sprinters. And, no, they don’t eat the flesh off our bones—just a nibble and it’s welcome to the team. But their real genre faux paus is their willingness to bow to the deus ex machina of the human spirit. That’s the formula and American self-image Romero so thoroughly gutted in 1968. In Night of the Living Dead, the center doesn’t hold. Daughter eats mother, brother eats sister, and a posse of deputized rednecks gun down the last rugged individual. In fact, there never was a center. Government, family, God, those are just boards we nail around ourselves while waiting for oblivion to splinter through.

Not true of WWZ. Sure, the American experiment fails (our cops are just more lawless looters), but the world government holds. Instead of retreating to upstate Maine to wait out the vampire plague of I Am Legend (Romero’s literary influence), Brad’s patriarchal family reunites in Nova Scotia. Yeah, that’s right. Canada and the U.N. save humanity. Talk about a horror story!


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I’ve been enjoying two shows this season, The Walking Dead and Fringe. Maybe “enjoying” is the wrong word. I’m stricken by the first, and lazily tolerant of the second. Average that and you get something in the vicinity of enjoyment.

Now I would not be the first pop cult guy to point out that American TVs have been radiating a lot of post-apocalyptic dystopia lately. My wife and I tried Revolution, but just couldn’t hack it. We have yet to wade into Falling Skies, Defiance, or The Hundred, but the nightly catastrophe of the post-work wind-down could trigger a Hulu meltdown at any moment.

All these broken futures are nothing new (I still mourn the loss of Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, the BBC’s Survivors, and, yes goddamn it, the final episodes of Dollhouse), but commentators like Warner Todd Huston read this current crop as political theater, entertainment tailored for the “Age of Obama.” That’s true to the extent that the “Age of Obama” is also the “Tea Party Age,” the ying and the yang of our seesawing political times.

Republicans and Democrats have been lunging at each other’s throats more than usual this season, and our TVs have been broadcasting the blow-by-blow. And I don’t mean the Obama-Romney debates or post-election punditry. All these end-of-the-world tales are variations on the ur-trope of speculative fiction: the future is just like right now, only more so.

Each show is a test tube, a scifi experiment exaggerating the possible outcomes of today’s political warfare. Fringe and Walking Dead are the polar ends of that what-if spectrum. Each populates its future with a species of villains mutated from our Obama-Tea Party Age, strawmen warped into absurdist caricatures.

Republicans think Democrats will destroy America with Progressive Government. So who are the monsters of Fringe season five? Men from tomorrow. Progressives in the most literalized sense. They want to change the way things are now in service of the future. Why are they bald? Because those snobby egghead liberals think they’re so much smarter than everybody else. And they want to turn our country into a totalitarian regime, stomping out everything good America has ever stood for, like FREEDOM and INDIVIDUALITY and those other words wrapped in barbwire in the new grey-tone credits.

Democrats think Republicans will destroy America too. They want to gut government and return to an idealized past. So who are the monsters of The Walking Dead? People from yesterday. Look what happens when the past crawls out of its grave. It’s not just government getting gutted.  Conservatives are just mindless, shuffling automatons incapable of rational thought. Bash a few in the brain, but the horde keeps coming. You think Big Government is scary? Try No Government. A decimated America collapsed into anarchy, that’s the Republican platform.

These are live feeds from our worse case futures. This is what happens if ideologues from either end of the spectrum seize the controls of the political time machine.

Fortunately, our TVs tell us there’s room for compromise too. The Observers have their own nostalgia streak; they cover their domes with fedoras, a fashion sense straight from the 1950s. And the original zombies from George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead arrived via our future-focused space program, when a NASA probe brought back an alien virus.

If that’s not enough to build some common political ground, The Walking Dead is going into its winter hiatus, not to return until after the next Congress is sworn in. And Fringe is winding down its final half-season, its post-apocalyptic flavor gone before Christmas.

What does this say about the Debtpocalypse our government is steering toward right now? Is there any hope of swerving away from the “fiscal cliff”?

If those unreasoning zombies and eggmen crawl back into their graves and dimensional portals, then the centrists and moderates can meet in the middle. The present. It’s a very practical place, ill-suited for ideologues of any breed.

Imagine, politicians acknowledging that their opponents aren’t monsters but partners. That compromise is the whole point of democracy.

It might make for boring TV, but I’d watch every minute.

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