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Review of Christopher Gavaler’s The Comics Form: The Art of Sequenced Images

By Sam Cowling, Denison University

Gavaler, Christopher. The Comics Form: The Art of Sequenced Images, Bloomsbury Academic, 2022.

This is the best scholarly book yet written on the formal structure of comics and mandatory reading for scholars within comics studies. Alongside the theoretical toolbox Gavaler carefully assembles over seven chapters, this book accomplishes something of evident disciplinary importance: it places extant research on the comics form (e.g., regarding layout, style, and closure) in productive dialogue. Too often, formal theories of comics engage one another in glancing, anecdotal, or unproductive ways. Throughout The Comics Form, Gavaler articulates and usefully criticizes competing approaches, marking points of theoretical agreement and disagreement. So, while the novel proposals advanced in The Comics Form are substantial and capably defended, this book is no less notable for its successful critique of methodologically disparate work on the comics form by a broad range of scholars. On this front, Gavaler is a careful and clear-eyed expositor as well as forceful critic and, over the course of the book, he sheds light on essential questions about images, sequences, narrative, and our readerly practices.

A familiar challenge for formal approaches to comics is finding an apt starting point for the construction of a theory. Is the page “the basic unit of thought” in comics as Art Spiegelman claims or is the panel the “fundamental unit of comic art” as Lawrence Abbott suggests? Is narrative the central cog in comics theory or are comics best understood by focusing on, say, the aesthetics of drawing? Gavaler’s search for and subsequent defense of his preferred starting point is conspicuously democratic: he assembles a litany of proposed definitions of comics and notes that, if anything has claim to being the orthodox view of comics, it is that they are images in sequence. As he puts it “Sequenced images is the most common denominator of comics definitions” (2). In contrast to approaches that might hinge upon some putatively a priori principle of comics as the foundation from which to build, Gavaler’s strategy actively seeks out the limited common ground among theories of comics. There’s a laudable humility to this methodology. This ecumenical stance also ensures that the specific theses Gavaler defends in the book are of direct relevance to most approaches for understanding comics. Gavaler relies upon the same democratic approach at other points in the book as well—e.g., when carefully navigating views regarding the nature of sequences. The result is a book-length antidote to worries about the fragmentary character of theorizing about comics and the paucity of productive engagement between competing or even complementary formal investigations into comics.

The structure of the book reflects its central aim: to equip readers with an approach suitable for analyzing all sequenced images. An introductory chapter places Gavaler’s project in relation to various approaches for analyzing the comics medium. Chapter One then spells out the distinction between discourse and diegesis that underpins subsequent investigation of images and sequences. Chapter Two dives into issues raised by images when considered in relative isolation—e.g., how to understand depiction, style, viewpoint, and framing. Chapter Three tackles questions about the partitioning, arranging, and grouping of images with an eye towards understanding phenomena like layouts and panels. Chapter Four connects the preceding issues by examining the “recurrence” of images and how, for instance, features of sequenced images shape the diegetic properties of comics. Since our capacity to read most comics turns on our ability to infer salient connections between sequenced images, Chapter Five explores the variety and rationale for these sorts of inferences, while digging into rival accounts of closure and panel transitions. Chapters Six and Seven catalogue a dizzying range of formal possibilities for both sequenced images and sequenced image-texts. Importantly, however, the wide range of Gavaler’s examples serves to clarify the theoretical vision advanced rather than merely complicate it. For, as Gavaler notes toward the end of the book, the “roles of words and images in sequenced images are complex but not chaotic” (209).

A key element of Gavaler’s approach is an explicit effort to distinguish debates about the medium of comics from those regarding what he calls the comics form, which is nothing more and nothing less than sequenced images. This demands a theory of images and sequences and, in turn, a distinctively formal rather than medium-focused approach for analyzing sequenced images. According to Gavaler, “The approach is formal because images and sequence are intrinsic features of perceived objects, and because they are necessary and sufficient to define the form, they are also formalist features” (2).

In developing his formalist approach, one distinction plays a central role: the divide between the discursive and the diegetic. The intuitive purchase of this distinction is clear enough: we can think about a comic as a physical object, much like a jeweler might think of a diamond, and describe or assess it solely as “marks on surfaces” (100). In doing so, our concern is only with its discursive properties. We might note its size, the proportion of a page covered in cyan rather than magenta, or the number of concentric circles on a canvas. But we can also think about comics in terms of their diegetic properties, which, according to Gavaler, are those properties that concern what and how images represent: “A representational image is both the subject matter simulated (diegesis) and the physical substance that simulates (discourse). More simply, a representational image has both form and content, while a non-representational image has form only” (16). Quite clearly, if our hope is to make sense of comics, we need to know what, if anything, happens according to them, which, according to Gavaler, is ultimately due to the formal properties of comics. (As I’ll suggest below, however, his ultimately presents a challenge for Gavaler’s view regarding the representational properties of images within comics.)

When it comes to the discursive properties of the comics form, Gavaler argues that, along with being sequenced images, comics are flat and static, distinguishing them from, say, sculpture and animation. Gavaler rightly notes that neither “flat” nor “static” admit of uncontroversial accounts, but, in a book rife with intriguing examples, it is tempting to raise some unexplored questions here about the limits of these categories. What should we make of, say, lenticular comics which are presented on biconvex surfaces? More generally, how crucial are these limits to the comics form when we find them contorted in experimental modes? Gavaler quite reasonably brackets these questions to explore the focal concern of the book: the nature of sequenced images.

Crucially, Gavaler resists any view that requires images to be drawn. This is obvious enough from Gavaler’s use of photographic images throughout the book, but it should be noted that this verdict is also a direct consequence of his view of formal analysis. If the comics form is to be distinguished solely by reference to intrinsic features—roughly, those properties a thing has independently of anything else—then we cannot invoke a range of familiar and perhaps intuitively intimate properties of comics. This is indeed the case with the property of being drawn: such a property is no less extrinsic than more general historical properties. Notice, for example, that we can readily imagine two images that are indiscernible regarding the distribution of ink on the page. While one of them has a history traced to a specific human hand, the other distribution of ink might owe to some more intensive technological process. The moral here is an interesting one about method: if we are concerned with the comics form rather than the comics medium and contend that the comics form is a purely intrinsic matter, certain familiar features of comics like those regarding production will soon fall outside of the scope of our analyses and definitions.

Gavaler puts the discursive-diegetic distinction to substantial use over the course of The Comics Form. The interplay between these two dimensions of comics is essential to the exploration of sequences and the way we construct narrative readings. The distinction proves especially interesting when Gavaler takes aim at some perennial issues in the analysis of comics like, for example, layouts and panels. On this front, he offers what might seem a striking verdict: “The traditional comics panel is not a panel: it is a pseudo-formal representation of a panel” (70). This proposal flows from the recognition that, since the canvas or page of a comic is not discursively paneled, panels must instead be creatures of diegesis. So, while they are discursively marks on paper just like a drawing of Sluggo or Batman, they must constitute what he calls a “secondary diegesis,” distinct from what we would normally identify as the story or representational content of a comic. In turn, layouts are built up out of what Gavaler calls “pseudo-formal qualities” of works, where “pseudo-formal qualities are a kind of representational content, they are typically distinct from other diegetic elements, suggesting two kinds of diegeses: the primary diegesis of the story world and the secondary diegesis of the pseudo-formal image arrangement” (61).

A similar kind of complication emerges when Gavaler turns his attention to the nature of style and seeks to analyze it with reference to the discursive and the diegetic. On the one hand, we are inclined to view two drawings of the same person as diegetically alike since they represent the same person. But, if they vary in style, we seem forced to take them to have either different diegetic content or, instead, to hold them to differ merely in discursive terms. But, as Gavaler suggests, neither option seems satisfactory. Instead, Gavaler notes that “Style and modes exist ambiguously in the discourse-diegesis divide, displaying semi-representational elements neither clearly diegetic nor entirely discursive” (33). In turn, this notion of the semi-representational is taken “to describe image qualities that have an ambiguous relationship to their represented subject, since an image’s rendering style, perspective, and framing evoke connotations but do not necessarily reflect a subject’s literal qualities” (64).

One might, at this point, be tempted to argue that if the discursive-diegetic distinction proves this murky when it comes to the case of layouts and style, perhaps we should be wary of its widespread deployment in the formal analysis of comics. But this line of criticism should be resisted. These are precisely where we should expect analytic friction in making sense of comics. Some of the deepest puzzles about how comics work are those regarding layout, style, and emanata. A theory like Gavaler’s that emphasizes the discursive/diegetic divide arguably predicts that puzzles and peculiarities in comics arise when this divide blurs which is regularly when layout, style, and emanata play atypical roles.

There is, however, a potential challenge to Gavaler’s approach that might prove harder to address. Recall, as noted above, that Gavaler’s methodology singles out the comics form in terms of its constitution by intrinsic features of images and sequences. Unlike the comics medium, which we might aim to analyze with reference to extrinsic features like, say, artistic conventions or historical facts about production, the comics form is delimited by intrinsic features and apt for study with reference to such features. So, if we attempted to define the comics form in terms of historical conventions, which are extrinsic properties of comics, our analysis would, by Gavaler’s lights, prove to be non-formal and therefore incoherent. A challenge therefore emerges when we ask whether this conception of formal analysis can be squared with the use of the discursive and diegetic distinction as an essential device for formal analysis.

As noted above, Gavaler separates the diegetic from the discursive in representational terms: diegetic properties are had because of things representing other things. And, while there is no uncontroversial theory of pictorial representation on offer, there is little to be said for any theory according to which representational properties are intrinsic. It is perhaps clearest in the case of linguistic representation that things represent things in virtue of their relationships and histories, but it is no less true in the pictorial case. And, although things represent the things they do partly in virtue of their intrinsic properties—roughly, how they look—this doesn’t mean that representational properties of images are themselves intrinsic properties. Consider, for example, cases where two drawings might be intrinsically the same yet differ in what they pictorially represent: one child’s stick figure drawing of dad might be intrinsically just like another child’s stick figure drawing of mom. More generally, some images might differ in whether they have any diegetic properties even while they look precisely alike—e.g., a mere line and a drawing of a shoelace.

The methodological challenge for Gavaler’s view is that, if formal analysis concerns the intrinsic features of objects and representational properties aren’t intrinsic, then the crucial distinction between the discursive and the diegetic can’t be satisfactorily drawn, since the distinction must be sensitive to extrinsic properties regarding representation. And, if that’s correct, it’s not clear whether analytic focus on the comics form so defined is going to be illuminating or productive. What to do?

One option might be to argue that, even if representational properties aren’t intrinsic, we can replace the notion of intrinsic features with formal, manifest, or perceptible features. Three problems now arise. First, one might now worry that the comics form quickly proves no less difficult to define than the comics medium, so why concern ourselves with the former instead of the latter? Second, even if we opt for a different notion than intrinsic, it’s not clear that representational properties necessary for understanding comics will prove to be formal, manifest, or perceptible upon closer analysis. Third, and perhaps most importantly, one of the central aims of comics theory ought to be understanding style. But investigation into style is irreducibly connected to whether what is pictorially represented is a physical object and what that physical object is like. Daumier’s caricatures are caricatures partly in virtue of exaggerating features of real people, but, if we were in a world where people had radically different facial features, those same images would not be exercises in stylistic exaggeration and hence not caricatures. For, as Gavaler notes, style concerns the semi-representational and this, in turn, depends upon the notion of “a subject’s literal qualities” (64).

Moreover, a biographical comic about Richard Nixon drawn in the style of Schulz’s Peanuts would be a bold stylistic choice, but a comic about Snoopy drawn in a style approximating Schulz would be a staid stylistic choice. In this case, the difference hangs, not merely on what physical objects are like, but whether the images represent any physical object at all. Since Snoopy is a merely fictional character, the parameters of his representation and the role of style in his depiction hinge, not on the physical qualities of a specific dog but partly on the fact that what is represented isn’t real. In these and many other ways, our judgments of style depend upon us looking beyond what’s on the comics page to where comics images fit into reality. This can be done but, to do so, we must make reference to a broad range of representational properties—e.g., those concerning what the depicted object actually looks like or how certain fictional characters are usually drawn— and these are far from intrinsic. Indeed, some of these properties seem far from being “formal” in any standard sense.

Given the role that representational properties play in Gavaler’s analysis, it is unclear whether we can isolate and analyze the comics form in precisely the manner he suggests. At the same time, it’s not clear that we need to in order to make use of many of the insights Gavaler provides. After all, many, most, and perhaps even all comics are sequenced images that will call for analysis as images in sequence even if they also demand analysis regarding other notions like artistic convention, historical production, or critical approbation. For this reason, the theoretical dividends of Gavaler’s exploration of sequenced images are available independent of what one might think about the comics form per se. So, regardless of how the debate over the comics form and the comics medium unfolds, this book affords us an impressively richer understanding of the foundations of comics.

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