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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Thierry Groensteen

Comics are supposed to be funny so I’ll start with a punchline:

“A comics page is a panopticon atop a hereotopia.”

If that sounds like the least funny joke ending ever, here’s the beginning:

“A superhero, a French philosopher, and a prisoner designer walk into a bar.”

Or maybe:

“Batman, Michel Foucault, and Jeremy Bentham walk into a bar.”

Except there’s no bar. It was an email from an academic journal asking me to peer-review an article submission. I almost said no–does anyone really need to hear my opinion about a Foucaultian reading of the batcave?–but then I started writing a reader’s response in my head, gently critiquing the article for not addressing the formal qualities of the comics and their relationship to Foucault’s ideas. I didn’t actually know the author didn’t do this; it was just my very strong guess based on the abstract. So if only to satisfy my curiosity, I clicked ACCEPT and started reading.

Yep, no formal analysis. This is (to me) surprisingly common: discussions of comics that explore only their literary (textual and narrative) content while ignoring their visual qualities. It’s probably a result of comics studies growing out of English departments instead of Art departments–where comics are still struggling for a foothold. And in this case, the theoretical framework seemed especially well-suited to the comics form–so much so that Foucaultian interpretations started popping into my head.

I’m not a particular fan of Foucault, and certainly no expert, but here’s my first draft of panopticomix theorizing.

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First, the panopticon. Since surveillance cameras were not a late 18th century option, Jeremy Benthan designed circular prisons that gave a single watchman the ability to observe an entire complex of cells from one location. The term roughly translates “all seen.”

Foucault analyzed the panopticon as an embodiment and a metaphor for institutional power in his 1977 Discipline and Punishment. He begins by describing a parallel system for how a city copes with a plague threat: “First, a strict spatial partitioning” producing an “enclosed, segmented space, observed at every point.” The prison panopticon achieves similar results architecturally: “The panoptic mechanism arranges spatial unities that make it possible to see constantly and to recognize immediately.” It also works regardless of who sits at the center: “Any individual, taken almost at random, can operate the machine.”

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A comics page is a similar kind of visual system, one operated by a single viewer positioned in front of its multiple panels, or “cells.” Like a prison guard, the viewer perceives the range of available angles, while attending to only one at a time. Unlike a film audience, the comics viewer is in control, speeding up, slowing down, backtracking, and pausing at will. Prose readers have a similar degree of control, but prose is not subdivided into units as discreet as conventional panels. Framed art in a gallery exhibition is similarly subdivided, and the viewer does have similar control, but the gallery viewer must move to take in all of the art. In contrast, comics viewers, like panopticon watchmen, are stationary.

Foucault also discusses his own term “heterotopia,” literally “other world,” which further relates to the comics form. He writes in 1967:

“The present epoch will perhaps be above all the epoch of space. We are in the epoch of simultaneity: we are in the epoch of juxtaposition, the epoch of the near and far, of the side-by-side, of the dispersed. We are at a moment, I believe, when our experience of the world is less that of a long life developing through time than that of a network that connects points and intersects with its own skein.”

He outlines six characteristics, two of which are especially applicable: “The heterotopia is capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible,” and “Heterotopias are most often linked to slices in time.”

A comics page, the blank and so typically white background on which panels are superimposed, functions similarly. While existing outside of the spatiotemporality of the story world contained in the panel images, the gutters–the typically undrawn white space that is the page background visible between panels–are how comics arrange and juxtapose the images that create their stories. The content of each panel is spatially incongruent, with each displaying a different slice of story time, but the gutters and margins of the (seemingly) underlying page allows them to function together.

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Foucault later writes that hetertopian spaces “have the curious property of being in relation with all the other sites, but in such a way as to suspect, neutralize, or invert the set of relations that they happen to designate, mirror, or reflect.” Those relations are the comics panopticon, the layout of panels that is orderly and understandable–but only because it appears to be superimposed onto a non-place, the undrawn and literal negative spaces that allow the spatiotemporal progression of the panel images while existing outside of their logic.

In comics, the “other world” encloses the “all seen.”

Now consider French comics theorist Thierry Groensteen in The System of Comics:

“What is put on view is always a space that has been divided up, compartmentalized, a collection of juxtaposed frames, where, to cite the fine formula of Henri Van Lier, a “multi-framed aircraft” sails in suspension, “in the white nothingness of the printed page.” A page of comics is offered at first to a synthetic global vision, but that cannot be satisfactory. It demands to be traversed, crossed, glanced at, and analytically deciphered. This moment-to-moment reading does not take a lesser account of the totality of the panoptic field that constitutes the page (or the double page), since the focal vision never ceases to be enriched by peripheral vision.”

While Van Lier’s lyric description of a white nothingness that suspends but is not part of the compartmentalized content echoes Foucault’s heterotopia, Groensteen’s “synthetic global vision” and its continuous reliance on the viewer’s “peripheral vision” is the key to Benthan’s prison design. And of course Groensteen uses the adjective “panoptic” (or, like Foucault, the French equivalent).

Since Foucault’s panopticon focuses on the state’s system of power and discipline, a full Foucaultian application to the comics form would involve an analysis of the viewer as operating a system designed to give her power over the page’s partitioned content that she maintains in a fixed peripheral relationship as she inspects individual panels. The viewer is especially empowered since the comics form’s juxtaposed images co-produce inferences in her thoughts that allow the static, isolated images to flow as a narrative. The orderly power of the comics page then is also dependent on undrawn and so unviewable story events that emerge from the murky non-place of the gutters. The all-seeing panopticon layout paradoxically requires the unseeable heterotopia of the page background.

I could go on about prison bars and the bars of a comics grid–while circling back to the bar that Batman, Foucault and Bentham were walking into.

But I think you get the picture.

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In his 2013 Comics and Narration, comics theorist Thierry Groensteen describes “regular page layout,” meaning pages with rigid panel grids, and “rhetorical layout, where the size (and sometimes the shape) of each frame is adapted to the content, to the subject matter of the panel” (). Groensteen goes on to discuss relationships of panels to each other, especially “irregular” layouts that have “no basic structure,” but he does not relate them to subject matter. So his “rhetorical” layout may be the same as any “irregular” layout.

However, Groensteen’s definition—the size and the shape of a frame is adapted to its content—does describe an essential type of framing. In fact, it defines all types of framing, since a frame always has some sort of relationship to its subject matter. This is true whether panels follow a rigid grid or vary radically, because the frame-subject relationship has to be analyzed one panel at a time.

Comics theorist Benoit Peters also describes layouts in terms of panel and content relationships, arriving instead at four categories: 1) conventional, in which panels are all the same size and shape regardless of content; 2) decorative, in which panels vary in size and shape but not in relation to content; 3) rhetorical, in which panels vary in relation to content action only; and 4) productive, in which panels vary in relation to content in general. But again, since the size and shape of a panel always relates somehow to its content, the four categories are misleading. A frame could be all four simultaneously—or at least conventional, rhetorical, and productive, since only decorative stipulates that a frame is unrelated to subject. But it is unclear in what sense form and content could not be related since content exists only in form. Peters is instead describing a creative process in which an artist selects a layout in advance and then adapts content to it. After the page is drawn, however, the layout cannot be “decorative” any more than a sonnet’s meter and rhyme schemes can be said to decorate its words. Form and content are inseparable.

To analyze framing then, we need to divide two overlapping issues. The size and shape of a frame may relate to its subject. And the size and shape of a frame may relate to other frames. If a frame is larger than all other frames on the same page so that its subject is emphasized over the subjects of the smaller frames, that is an effect of layout. But the apparent size of a subject in relation to its frame is independent of layout. This is an effect of individual framing only. Analysis then requires two approaches:

Layout rhetoric: how a layout of multiple frames relates the subject matter of each frame to each other. As discussed in the previous section, any framing quality that distinguishes a frame from other frames also distinguishes its content.

Framing rhetoric: how a frame relates to its subject matter. Framing may be broken down into two broad categories according to the aspect ratios of the frame and subject (symmetrical and asymmetrical) and five subcategories according to frame and subject sizes (proportionate, expansive, abridged, misaligned, broken).

 Symmetrical framing: the proportional relationship between the frame’s height and width (its aspect ratio) matches the aspect ratio of the subject. Although the frame and subject may be very different shapes (for example, a human form with extended limbs within a rectangular frame), measuring from the subject’s furthest points produces roughly the same ratios.

Symmetrical and proportionate: the subject and frame have similar ratios, and the subject fits inside the frame. Because content and frame are balanced, the effect draws no attention to their relationship and so appears neutral. This is the default framing style in superhero comics. A frame-subject relationship is significant to the degree that it varies from this norm.

Symmetrical and expansive: the subject and frame have similar ratios, but the subject matter is smaller than the frame, so the panel includes surrounding content. The effect is spacious.

Symmetrical and abridged: the subject and frame have similar ratios, but the subject is larger, so the frame appears to crop out some of the subject. The effect is cramped, as if the frame is too small.

Symmetrical and misaligned: although the subject and frame have similar ratios and the subject appears as if it could fit the frame, the frame appears to crop out some of the subject while also including surrounding content. The effect is of a misaimed camera.

Symmetrical and broken: the subject and frame have similar ratios, but the subject is larger, with elements of the subject extending beyond the frame. The framing would be misaligned if the subject stopped at the frame edge. The frame-breaking elements are often in movement or otherwise expressing energy, implying that the subject is more powerful or significant than the frame.

Asymmetrical framing: the frame and the subject have different aspect ratios.

Asymmetrical and proportionate: although the subject fits inside the frame, because of their dissimilar ratios the panel also includes surrounding content along one extended dimension.

Asymmetrical and expansive: because the subject is smaller than the frame, the panel includes surrounding content, and because of their dissimilar ratios, the panel also includes additional surrounding content.

Asymmetrical and abridged: the subject is larger than the frame in one dimension, creating the impression of the frame cropping out content, and because of their dissimilar ratios, the panel also includes surrounding content along one extended dimension. The effect is an image placed in the wrong shaped panel.

Asymmetrical and misaligned: although the subject appears as if it could fit inside the frame, the frame appears to crop out some of the subject while including some surrounding content; and because of their dissimilar shapes, the panel also includes additional surrounding content. The effect is of a misaimed camera.

Asymmetrical and broken: the subject is larger than the frame, with elements of the subject extending beyond the frame edge; because of their dissimilar ratios, the frame-breaking elements further emphasize imbalance.

An image may also be unframed. If unframed, an image may use surrounding panel frames as a secondary frame. An unframed image also implies a symmetrical and proportionate frame by remaining inside the undrawn borders. Multiple implied frames may appear in a single row. Interpenetrating images eliminate the illusion of implied frames by combining two or more unframed images so that elements appear to overlap. A content element of one image may serve as a framing line for an adjacent image, making a diegetic frame. Finally, if a frame contains only words, it is a caption panel, which tend to be smaller and subdivided from larger panels. Secondary frames, implied frames, diegetic frames, interpenetrating images, and caption panels may be analyzed in the same rhetorical relationships of size and aspect ratio as drawn frames.

Because a majority of comics, including essentially all superhero comics, are drawn in a naturalistic mode, framing also creates three-dimensional effects through reader perspective or point of view. Where frames establish an image’s height and width, perspective creates an illusion of depth. An image is often divided into three planes of increasing distance: foreground, middleground, and background. In superhero comics especially, an artist may foreshorten a subject or part of a subject, making it appear to be closer to the reader by disproportionately expanding its dimensions. Generally, the subject is more significant the closer it appears. Subjects on the same plane will more likely appear equal. This is partly because closer subjects typically occupy more image space, though larger, more distant subjects that occupy more image space may also appear more significant than smaller, nearer subjects.

Angle of perspective may also influence a reader’s perception, altering a subject’s significance by looking upward, parallel, or downward. A subject drawn higher in the image space and so above another subject may appear more significant too, and generally the more centered a subject it the more important it is, while off-centered subjects may seem literally and figuratively marginal.

Finally, consider image and frame orientation. The depicted plane may be parallel with the frame, or it may be tilted. Because parallel framing is the norm, tilted framing may create a sense of disorientation. In rare cases, the plane may be so tilted as to be perpendicular (see The Authority and House of M). Frames are also typically drawn as rectangles parallel with the page edges, but they may also be tilted or perpendicular in relationship to the page.

That’s all really abstract, so check out some examples:

Nick Fury’s body fits inside the full-height column but intrudes into the second column. The unframed panel is symmetrical and broken.

With the exception of the top right close-up (which is asymmetrical and misaligned), each panel shows Beast’s whole (or nearly whole) body, which is drawn to fill the shape of the panel, and so is symmetrical and proportionate. 

Wolverine’s body, however, does not entirely fit; his feet, part of his arm, and the top of his head are cropped. The column panel is symmetrical and abridged.

The top panel is asymmetrical and proportionate (because the two figures make a square not a rectangle, leaving a lot of space to the left and right). The second panel crops the face (part of the lower lip and both eyebrows are missing) but includes a lot of surrounding space, so it’s asymmetrical and abridged, as is the third. The last is symmetrical and proportionate.

The first panel is asymmetrical and proportionate (or partly misaligned depending on whether you consider his elbow primary content). The second column is drawn as if too thin to contain all of Flash’s face, so the panel is asymmetrical and abridged. The last is asymmetrical and proportionate.

The top panel is asymmetrical and proportionate, with detailed elements of the wall in the foreground.  The bottom left panel contains Spider-Man, but with ample additional space all around the figure, so that non-essential elements of the city landscape are included in the frame. The panel is symmetrical and expansive.

The bottom, page-width panel includes its two primary subjects, Batman and Alfred on the balcony behind him, but the angle and distance includes additional content, including the entire moon, distant buildings, and the wall below the balcony. The panel is symmetrical and expansive.

The second row includes a face with a corner of an eye and mouth cut off. The panel, however, is large enough to include those complete features, but the subject has been drawn off-center to produce the cropping effect. The panel is symmetrical and misaligned.

The face in the bottom left panel is cut off at the mouth, even though the subject matter could be drawn higher in the panel to include the entire mouth. The panel is symmetrical and misaligned.

The top right panel content could be composed to include Cyclops’ face, but instead his head is more than half out of frame. The panel is asymmetrical and misaligned.

The top panel is wide like the subject matter of the street and so is symmetrical and proportionate. The subject matter of the second frame (the heads of the passenger and the driver visible through the car window) fit the frame, but the frame shape extends to the left to include the reflection of a building in a backseat window, so the panel is asymmetrical and proportionate.


The width of the second panel of “Avengers Mansion” also includes several distant buildings, the front yard, and fence–elements included as if the wide panel shape requires a view of more than the primary subject of the mansion front. The panel is asymmetrical and proportionate.

Not only is the subject of the Hulk much smaller than the frame, the frame itself is shaped so that it must include more than the subject. The panel is asymmetrical and expansive.

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The shape of the full-width panels of  the second and third rows extend beyond the subject of the two figures. The panels are asymmetrical and expansive.

Batman’s leg extends beyond the frame, as if his movement was too fast for the frame to capture. The hand in the final frame also breaks the panel border, again emphasizing action. The panel is asymmetrical and broken.

Every panel of the fight scene but the last is symmetrical and broken. The last is symmetrical and misaligned, cutting off Bucky’s chin while leaving space above his head.

The second row begins with a symmetrical and expansive panel; the second panel is symmetrical and proportionate; and the third symmetrical and abridged. The sequence suggests physical and psychological intensification, but exclusively through framing since the Hulk’s expression remains essentially unchanged.

The first panel of a figure stepping through a door is symmetrical and proportionate. The next symmetrical and expansive panel includes its subject matter (the individuals in the classroom and the classroom itself) but also the darkened top of (presumably) a bookshelf. The spaciousness contrasts the cramped effect of the subsequent panels which are mostly asymmetrical and abridged, except for the second which is symmetrical and abridged.


And I’ll leave it at that for now, but expect further application in future blogs.

Since originally writing this blog post, I’ve expanded these ideas in Creating Comics, published by Bloomsbury in January 2021.


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