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Imagetextuality: ‘Cutting Up’ Again, pt. III

By Donald Ault

The failure of representation produces rather than disrupts identity. That missing part which representation, in failing to inscribe, cuts off is the absence around which the subject weaves it fantasies, its self-image, not in imitation of any ideal vision but in response to the very impossibility of ever making visible this missing part.

—Joan Copjec, “Cutting Up” (1989)

How did I feel about the final appearance of my drawings? They almost never looked as well staged or technically executed as I had pictured them in my imagination. I did them, as Blake put it, by “copying visions from my imagination.” I admit, though, that after years have passed and my original “vision” has faded from my memory, I see my paintings and drawings much as you do—as being exactly like I must have intended them be.

— Carl Barks, Correspondence with Donald Ault, December 12, 1989

And if you look long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.

— Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil First German Publication 1886

I. Lacanian Meditations on the Comic Page

Comic book page format—a quintessential form of what might be called “imagetextuality”—invokes Jacques Lacan’s “imaginary,” “symbolic,” and “real” registers as they intersect with the “gaze.” These extremely complex registers, which are implicated in Lacan’s rewriting of the Oedipus complex in terms of linguistic signification, are expertly developed in Joël Dor’s Introduction to the Reading of Lacan, to which the following account is indebted.1 For Lacan, the imaginary is the locus of the “ego,” which takes itself to be a unified totality, and stems from a fundamental misrecognition (meconnaissance) at the mirror stage, an anticipation of mastery over one’s own body image. In Dor’s terms, in the mirror stage “the very unity of the body takes form as exterior to itself and inverted” and is thus subject to “chronic misrecognitions” and “imaginary alienations” (97) throughout life. The imaginary register is fundamentally dyadic, involving only subject and object, child and (m)other. In order for the child to enter fully into social relations, the imaginary must be intercepted by signification (in language) through the agency of Lacan’s “Name of the Father.” Dor notes that such symbolization involves “the subjective experience in which the child frees himself from an immediate experience and finds a substitute for it. This is the meaning of Lacan’s formula ‘the thing must be lost in order to be represented.'” (Dor 113) “Symbolic castration” entails primal repression (the original split between conscious and unconscious) and the replacement of the imaginary phallic signifier with the symbolic paternal metaphor, the Name-of-the Father as bearer of language: “the phallus appears, at the end of the oedipal process, as the symbolic loss of an imaginary object” (Dor 117). What is cut out or sacrificed by the intrusion of the symbolic order is the real, which is covered over by a process Lacan calls a “suturing” of the imaginary and the symbolic (Lacan 118). The real always has the potential to reassert itself as a disruption of the ego’s sense of its own self-sufficiency and completeness, an interruption usually accompanied by anxiety.

The comic page most directly invokes Lacan’s “imaginary” order through its pictorial dimension (its visual images); the “symbolic” order through its linguistic dimension (its letters, words, and syntax); and the “real” through the interruptions or cuts in the body-space of the page which leave blank spaces between the panels that correspond to (or mark the absence of) events that are assumed to be occurring “between” the panels.2 Any attempt to keep these three orders separate immediately breaks down, however. The heterogeneous semiotic dimensions of the page (the figural and the verbal) arise materially out of the same medium (ink on paper) and thus are physically homogeneous. The words, which are aligned most obviously with the linguistic field of the symbolic, not only are palpably visible in comics but also function in visual competition with the images and thus belong to the imaginary order as well. In turn, the images form networks of interrelations from panel to panel, panel to page, and page to page and thus participate in a symbolic order governed by laws of substitution and association (metaphor and metonymy). Finally, interruptions between panels cannot be straightforward transcriptions of the “real,” which, for Lacan, resists symbolization absolutely, because the shapes and sizes of the blank spaces between panels place constraints on the kinds of images that can show up in adjacent panels. Consequently, the gaps between panels serve imaginary (visual) and symbolic (metaphoric/metonymic) functions. The three orders are thus tied together materially and structurally on the comic page in a familiar Lacanian/Borromean knot.

II. William Blake’s Phantasmal Cut-Up “Body of the Text”

The fragmented comic page makes visible what is usually elided in paintings and drawings that use an undivided image to illustrate a verbal text. Many of William Blake’s illuminated works, however, serve as striking counterexamples to the tendency of unified drawings to resist easy conversion into the imaginary, symbolic, and real. Especially conspicuous are Blake’s illustrations to Edward Young’s Night Thoughts, whose blank spaces he used to write parts of the text for his massive manuscript poem The Four Zoas. The positions these Blakean figures occupy in relation to the de-centered rectilinear word-spaces on the pages invoke a precise anxiety in the spectator. The text-blocks cut into the image portion of the design in such a way that it seems as if events are going on behind the verbal text, as if decisive information is being hidden. In varying degrees the intrusive visual word-spaces interfere with the representational lure of the “seen” part of the design, activating in the viewer a desire to imagine the drawing as somehow “complete” behind the words. Yet Blake has constructed these designs to make it difficult to imagine exactly how the drawing might be completed behind the text.

In page 81 of The Four Zoas manuscript, for example (Figure 1), it almost seems as if completing the drawing would unnaturally elongate (or even disconnect) the right arm that we assume is extending from the body wielding the spear; and the torsional portion of the hand above the curve suggests that the disk-like shape may be rising, resisting the hand atop it, perhaps as if this curved form were a (prodigiously phallic?) part of his own body. But this is precisely the information that has been cut off. On page 83 (Figure 2) the dark figure’s face and body are so thoroughly “hidden” by the word-space that its rectangular shape seems to be the figure’s body. Stated otherwise, this is a figure whose face and body have been radically cut away, leaving feet too small to support either the imagined “body behind the text” or the literal textual body itself.

Figure 1. The Four Zoas manuscript, p. 81
Figure 2. The Four Zoas manuscript, p. 83

Imagining the drawings complete behind the text by connecting the lines that have been cut off by the sharp borders of the word-spaces requires a surrealistic bodily dis-memberment and re-memberment. In cutting off the drive toward closure and completeness that informs the ego-affirming visual imagination, this incisive dis-membering tabula rasa literally opens up a space to be filled in by language. By denying access to the (imaginary) unified visual body of another, this interposition of the (symbolic) cutting edge that opens up a space for words threatens the unity of the viewer’s own ego-body—the eruption of the real.

III. Winsor McCay: The Gaze, Simultaneity, and Sequentiality

By dividing up the body of the page in this peculiar way, Blake’s layout of his Four Zoas pages dramatizes how the imaginary, symbolic, and real can be simultaneously allegorized and enacted in the spectator even without the use of panel divisions as such. The space of the comic page, however, is a scene of reading where the interruption of the symbolic and the imaginary by the real is perpetually repeated. Corporeal framing, that is, panel boundaries cutting into the body-space of the page and figure boundaries cutting into the space within the panel, re-enacts both the primal umbilical cut and the psychic castration or sacrifice of being that, for Lacan, is entailed in the entry into the symbolic or social order.3 In the fragmented panels of a comic page, space is forced to give way; things are squeezed out of one space of the page into another; one image is sacrificed for another; one part of one body is excised so that another part of another body can find its place. The comic page thus celebrates the incompleteness (lack) which produces its structural specificity precisely at the cuts of the panel frames. What is left over, the remainder in the blank space between the panels, performs the disruptive function of the real. There is nothing in this space, but it introduces discontinuities into the spaces of representation and allows the panels to assert themselves as fragments. It is tempting to think that what has been left out can be bound up, covered over, or healed by the Lacanian process of “suture,” an intersection of the symbolic and the imaginary performed through the act of reading; for, as Lacan affirms, “The moment of seeing can intervene here only as a suture, a conjunction of the imaginary and the symbolic,” which is performed by the insertion of the Lacanian subject into this dialectical process (Lacan 118).

The possibility of suture is, however, complicated by the labyrinthine function of the “things” of the real that Lacan calls the “gaze.” Lacan describes it: “I only see from one point, but in my existence I am looked at from all sides” (Lacan 72) and then further elaborates it: “[I]n our relation to things, in so far as this relation is constituted by way of vision, and ordered by the figures of representation, something slips, passes, is transmitted, from stage to stage, and is always to some degree eluded in it—that is what we call the gaze” (Lacan 73). As it shows up in the comic page, the gaze exposes the spectator to being looked at by the panels from a multiplicity of places at the same time, rendering the spectator simultaneously constituted and fragmented by this kaleidoscopically dispersed gaze. Although for Lacan’suture involves a stitching together of the symbolic and the imaginary—a dialectic of the gaze and seeing—the comic page flattens this unconscious aspect of the real (the gaze “from all sides”) into a two-dimensional, specular format. Yet the comic page makes the gaze no more manageable or masterable. The comic panels crack open the body of the page, placing the viewer in the position of being fragmented in a mosaic mirror. Imagining the comic page as a fractured mirror, with the panels serving as mirrors of varying curves and angles, the viewer appears as a multiplicity of imaginary captures, and these views are actual aspects of the spectator caught in the gaze of the world. By this means, the misrecognition and anticipated mastery of the mirror stage is both reenacted and radically destabilized by the comic page. Although this destabilization is apparently covered over when the gaps between panels are presumed to disappear through the fiction of temporal lapse or perspective shift, they nevertheless leave a residual trace in the spatial field of the page’s body.

This fragmentation of the gaze allows comics to participate in two different ontological and semiotic fields at once: as multiple appearances of the same character at different places at the same time on the page and as a representational sequence of windows that show the same character at different times, a unified embodied consciousness residing in a world that exists independent of the actual drawings. In the former sense, a comic “character” is analogous to an alphanumeric letter or piece of punctuation in a conventional language that takes on significance only relationally or differentially as it is repeated and gathered up into signifying clusters. It usually does not point to its own individuality as a repeated character. This sense of character (whether alphabetical, mathematical, or ideographic) functions most transparently when it presents itself as flat or two-dimensional. Imagine reading a sentence or an equation composed of three-dimensional characters’, all of which are turned at a ninety-degree angle from the surface of the page. Thus the identity of alphanumeric characters’is of an entirely different order from that of characters’who serve the function of embodied consciousness.4 This other and admittedly more common sense of character in comics, however, is most transparent when the lines that constitute it (that is, establish a boundary between inner and outer as if on the surface of the character) are assumed to signify the edges of a solid, three-dimensional figure; otherwise the flatness of the page and frozen, repetitive character poses move into the foreground, as they do in many contemporary American comic strips. Whether articulated as potentially genuine beings who can be looked at from any side or as more limited, two-dimensional visual figures, comic characters’are presented as occupying spatial and temporal locations distinct from other such characters’and belonging to an underlying world that exists independent of the panels in which the characters’appear—an alternative universe whose “real” dimension seems to depend on events that have been cut out or are occurring between the panels.

Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo page from September 23, 1906 (Figure 3), impressively displays how the very form of the comics page can capture the viewer in a simultaneous, multiple gaze (concentrated here in the repetition of the elephant’s eyes) while exhibiting the disruption of the imaginary and the symbolic by the real. McCay draws this page as if it were a representative sequence of photographs or motion picture stills shot from a stationary camera as an elephant moves toward it. The spatial slices that cut into the presumed bodily totality of the elephant, however, push to an extreme the fiction of a lapse of time and differential distances from the framing panels. It is as if the series of temporal/spatial slices existed before the elephant entered into the space of the page in order to cut its body into pieces. Because the panels can’t “give” way to their contents, the cuts in the body of this page allow a gigantic phallus/vagina to be unveiled, hovering over the mother/son dream-limit in the last panel. The imaginary genitalia and the oedipal situation that underlies them are forced into the open and visually produced by the rigid, incisive walls of the vertical panels as they presumably cut huge portions out of the elephant’s body. It is as if the “dream” has momentarily reversed the end of the oedipal process, which, as already noted, always involves the symbolic loss of an imaginary object (Dor 117). The imaginary phallic signifier that rears its head in the next-to-last panel has expelled the imaginary father (the bearer of the Name-of-the-Father) from the final panel.

Figure 3. Little Nemo September 23, 1906

This Nemo page forces to a (psychoanalytic) crisis the side-by-side, top-to-bottom juxtaposition of panels, a feature of comics that is structurally analogous to the linguistic categories of metonymy and metaphor, which Lacan, via Roman Jakobson, rewrote as algorithms of the unconscious. The arrangement of panels on the comic page corresponds to a syntagmatic or metonymic function in the visual field of writing and drawing operating along the axis of contiguity and combination where characters’ appear to be outside themselves in separate panels, emphasizing their alterity, spacing, self-alienation, and self-duplication. This feature presupposes that the comic world is constituted by the drawings (what you see is what you get). The composition of the page allows images to exhibit interconnections across panel borders and is the condition of the possibility of self-reflexive comics. This condition is analogous to the surface structure of the page and tends to make the visual gestalt of the total page primary, as in this Nemo page. The gaps between the panels draw attention to themselves as such. This aspect of comics is analogous to the dream-work of displacement in Freud and Lacan. In reading comics, the viewer is invited to combine displaced character aspects (metonymically) into subjective unities by taking a part (a visual aspect) for the whole (the character for which it stands), a synecdochic subset of metonymy.

In contrast to this metonymic dimension of the comic page in which characters’are potentially aware of themselves as outside themselves and able to see themselves seeing themselves in prior and subsequent panels, comics have the power to draw the reader/viewer into a potentially totalized, alternative world in which the same character reappears unproblematically panel after panel under the spatial fiction of a lapse of time. This process allows both the reader and the character to be constituted as a coherent identity by a synthesis of visually similar elements. This function of “representing” the same character at different times corresponds to the dream-work of condensation and to the paradigmatic or metaphoric dimension of the visual field operating along the axis of substitution and selection. Yet, like the metonymic dimension, this metaphoric function can operate on the comics page only in conjunction with displacements of images along the syntagmatic axis of contiguity. In this metaphoric dimension, the panels function as if they are windows on an ongoing world into which the reader is given only periodic glimpses. Analogous to the deep structure of the page, this world depends on visual cues that draw attention away from the surface gestalt of the page and the visual cuts at the panel boundaries and into a world constituted not by but through the drawings.5

In this metaphoric or paradigmatic dimension, each view of a character is analogous to a linguistic element that the artist selects from a paradigmatic set or ontological schema of potentially substitutable poses or postures that exist in the artist’s imagination. Such a schema must not be confused with ordinary three-dimensional figurines or two-dimensional model sheets which produce only frozen, pre-selected visual aspects as guides for artists to keep their drawings within a certain range of acceptable poses. Paradigmatic schemata or ontological model sheets in the artist’s imagination, which may have “non-Euclidean” dimensions, are the condition for the possibility of standard model sheets and figurine approximations of the schemata. The evidence for such schemata is the way they allow an artist to produce surprising variations and unpredictable deviations from standard poses, which are nevertheless still coherent with the character’s subjective unity. Such a paradigmatic set constitutes what could be called a figural lexicon of potentially interchangeable morphological elements. In this sense the visual lexicon of a character exists in relation to the possibility of its insertion into the syntax of narrative situations in general but is both independent of any particular situation and constrained by the paradigmatic set to which it belongs. Every individual comic artist employs a constantly evolving visual lexicon or spectral band of gestural possibilities that acts as a key element of artistic signature. An aspect of the uniqueness of Carl Barks’s Ducks is that, by virtue of capturing features such as character intersubjectivity, indirect access to individuality, and non-Euclidean gestural features, Barks’s Ducks exceed the boundaries of any consistent, specifiable two-dimensional model sheet or three-dimensional figurine.

IV. Carl Barks: Non-Euclidean Disney Ducks

Barks’s comic narratives hold a central position within a Lacanian framework because his readers characterize his stories as unusually “real,” that is, they feel themselves constituted as exceptionally coherent identities in the face of, indeed by virtue of, his manipulation of narrative fragmentation. Barks’s techniques usually de-emphasize the metonymic surface gestalt of the page and emphasize the constitution of characters’and plots through exceptionally transparent processes of metaphoric condensation. The characters’Barks drew and narrated were humanized “Ducks,” which could have contracted his field of representation to “Disney” paradigms of character condensation and narrative displacement. Barks himself has insisted, however, that he allowed his Ducks to conform to his imaginative vision in any situation in which he placed them, no matter how incommensurable the drawing in a particular panel might require the character to look in relation to other neighboring drawings.6 Thus, although his techniques do not usually call attention to themselves the way McCay’s do, Barks’s incorporation of potentially incommensurable visual aspects of his characters’into otherwise transparent narratives exposes the unconscious dimensions of his texts that allow his narratives to operate at the limit of Lacan’s explanatory categories.

Even in textual situations such as covers and splash panels with no panel disruptions, where one might expect the least possible dissonance, Barks often insinuated virtually invisible cuts—or rather he developed scenes in which the cut and the suture are so seamlessly interwoven that they seem to disappear as separate functions. Two of Barks’s single-page layouts are sufficient to show how he invoked subtle temporal and spatial discrepancies that produce a visual surplus or excessivity. These excesses are not noticeable until you begin to think through the implications of the “at-the-same-time-ness” of the structure of the events being presented, that is, the way a single scene exceeds or overrides the need for a series of panels by performing multiple functions at once.

Figure 4. Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories (#134). © 1951.

The Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories (#134) jack-o-lantern/pumpkin pie comic book cover (Figure 4) bears no explicit markings of cut and suture; everything is presented as if simultaneous and unproblematically self-present. Yet the whole composition is about cutting and looking, and it lays out different temporal events aligned with each of the figures: the transgressive act of cutting the pie, an event which has apparently already happened but seems to be happening “again” (and yet for the “first” time because the nephew is in the process of making an incision into the pie-face’s mouth, a portion of the pie-face that has already been cut out); the act of indulging in the fruits of the transgression (yet one of these nephews is displaying the sign of satisfaction before he has tasted the piece of pie that has been cut in the shape of a mouth); the sudden materialization of Donald (like a jack-in-the-box, apparently having given the nephew no warning of his approach); and the state of being discovered (with the transgressive nephew seeming to be caught forever in the surveillance of Donald’s androgynous authoritative stare). The joke is grounded in the simultaneous togetherness of events (transgression, indulging, sudden materialization, and discovery) that belong to different orders of sequentiality.

Figure 5. “Vacation Time” Opening Splash. Original 1950 version (right) and 1972 revision (left). © 1950 and 1972.

By contrast, the “Vacation Time” opening splash (Figure 5) does not invoke different sequential “moments” but three different spatial “perspectives ” on a single event, with the axes of perception being aligned with the three nephews—down on the whirlpool, up under the bridge, and behind the rock at the same time. The way these perspectives work can be clearly seen by contrasting the original drawing with Barks’s restructuring of the space of this panel for the oil painting he did of this scene in 1972 where he “corrected” the perspectives. In the original splash panel, space functions as a surplus. Here more is shown here than is possible from a single vantage point—a utopian excess of the scopic drive. The scene simulates the Lacanian gaze because there is no single “place” from which these events can be viewed realistically, and the spectator is simultaneously occupying multiple scopic positions as if situated within a multiplicity of “things.” It is as though we get a glimpse of what it might be like to be the gaze of the world: we are able to look at the scene at the same time we are seeing it.

In addition, because Barks maximized his freedom to draw the Ducks any way his imaginative vision dictated, they do not always share three-dimensional congruence with themselves from panel to panel. That is, they cannot easily be captured by the gaze. One way Barks dealt with these potential discrepancies was to draw the Ducks from two perspectives at once. First, he exploited the metonymic displacement of the images on the flat page and the simultaneity of the lines that constitute both the words and the images in order to make the potential three-dimensionally incongruent aspects of the Ducks fit together at the level of their positioning in relation to themselves in their reappearances on the same comic page. Through this first technique, Barks promoted the feeling of a complete, satisfying composition—a visual gestalt of the page that draws attention away from the potential non-Euclidean nature of the Ducks in their imagined transitions from panel to panel. Second, Barks drew the Ducks directly for the intersubjectivity of the characters’themselves and only indirectly for the reader. In this way Barks transformed the way readers metaphorically condense and metonymically combine different aspects of characters’across panel cuts. By positioning them in relation to narrative points of view that persuade the viewer that the characters’simultaneously share their various potentially non-Euclidean aspects, Barks induced the impression that those aspects that are “unseen” by the comic reader are perceived by other char acters and that these “unseen” aspects perceived by other characters’look the same to them as they would if seen by the comic reader from the other characters” perspectives. This possibility arises from the fact that he designed the Ducks in a way that would allow him to control exactly which aspects would remain “unseen” and to allow any aspect, no matter how incommensurable, to be “seen” if necessary. In this way, Barks expanded the paradigmatic set from which he could select visual aspects by incorporating the gaze directly into the characters’ intersubjectivity.

Since a trademark of Barks’s style is that he drew characters to seem as though they exist primarily for their access to each other and only indirectly for the reader, his style allows a kind of voyeurism. Every detail Barks chooses emphasizes positive relatedness and community among objects, words, balloons, and characters. Barks’s clean lines insist on an absolutely clear distinction between inside and outside: a world in which the desire to hold things in their place is secure. In a world where there is a minimal acknowledgment of the spectator, and characters exist for each other, the viewer is, in Lacan’s terms, more voyeuristic and the style is more narcissistic than in comics that exist as a spectacle (as in superhero comics) or in comics where the characters act as if they know they are being watched (for example, where characters refer to the fact that they are characters in a comic book or comic strip). Pervading all of Barks’s work, however, is a counter-force, an irreducible, anti-utopian moment,7 which sometimes makes his pages verge on tilting in the direction of the self-alterity of the characters, thus threatening the presumed totalized world from which the discrete images have supposedly been extracted. When, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Barks experimented with radically jagged and dislocating panel shapes, especially in “Vacation Time” and “Big-Top Bedlam,” a virulent, aggressive aspect of his work forced its way to the surface. While these two stories are grounded in hilarious slapstick humor, they are anxiety-inducing, both in plot and page layout. Both stories invoke a “lost object” (in “Vacation Time” it is an imaginary photograph that forever eludes Donald, and in “Big-Top Bedlam” it is Daisy’s brooch, “the only one like it in the world,” which undergoes radical relays during the story); and both stories allegorize in the very structure of their plots how the metonymic and metaphoric dimensions of comics fulfill Lacan’s famous dictum that the unconscious is structured like a language.

V. Barks: Cutting-Off and Cutting-Up

Figure 6. “Vacation Time” p. 557. © 1950


In “Vacation Time” the problem of the “same character” persisting from panel to panel shows up in extremely complex form as Donald undergoes radical transformations in his narrative roles as he moves through textual switch points. In addition to local shifts in aspectual incommensurability, Donald is essentially three different characters in the three main segments of the plot.8 In “Vacation Time” the utopian scopic (lost) object, the photograph that never was and never will be in the world of the plot is the image of the deer Donald attempts to capture. Though it eludes Donald in the “real,” this object makes an extremely precise appearance in Donald’s “imaginary” projection of it. On page 557 (Figure 6), where Barks is exploring most fully the relations between photographic and comic book “representation,” even the massively distorted panel seven is incapable of containing the antlers of the deer. The deer in Donald’s imagination, however, is so confined in its rectangular frame that its antlers are precisely cut off.9 On this same page Donald is shown in so many different poses that, except for his sailor suit, cap, and feet, he bears little resemblance to himself from panel to panel. Donald is unusually incomplete and segmented on this page. Panel seven, for example, precisely shows the portion of Donald that is cut off in panels one and six.
Figure 7. “Vacation Time” p. 567. © 1950

As Donald attempts to master the gaze through the photograph in this sequence of events, the pages constantly fragment the unified field of the narrative, shattering the possibility of any simple imaginary capture by Donald or the reader. At times these cuts in the body of the page are so severe they call attention to the surface of the text, threatening to break the illusion of an underlying totality: This is perhaps most striking in page 567 where Donald is encapsulated in a circular panel as he refers to “going around in a circle” (Figure 7).10

Figure 8. “Vacation Time” p. 565. © 1950

In the extremely distorted panels of page 565 (Figure 8), Barks maximized the anxiety of the potential of the page being cut up into (dis) ordered fragments and yet reigned this anxiety in through the slapstick humor that dominates the sequence. For example, panel one cuts off the bear’s head, then the close-up in panel two cuts off major portions of Donald’s body as he is shown (along the axis of contiguity) looking back at himself being violated in panel one (supposedly, however, he is not really looking at his past but just about to see in full view what was partially cut off from our view in panel 1). The bear then disappears from this half of the page as the arrangement of the panels conspires to enact the pointed trajectory of collision of Donald with the deer who suddenly and surprisingly materializes from the opposite side of the page. The bear shows up again in the bottom half of the page, but we now we see from behind what was cut off in panel one. In this same moment the bear snaps a photo of himself—a comic transcription of Lacan’s formulation of “myself seeing myself.” This momentary allusion to the desire to master the imaginary by transferring it to the fortuitous actions of the bear is neatly inverted and turned into a joke. Donald is not photographed in this scene, but he is mastered by the scene anyway. The variations in lapse of time presumed to transpire between panels, along with the way the panels seem to be reacting to their contents, balances the gestalt of the page with the jagged framed moments being “represented” In the final panel the word “censored,” etched in white on black, marks the way Donald is cut off from the symbolic field of language by means of the imaginary cutting up of the page.11

VI. Barks: An Allegorization of the Metaphoric and the Metonymic

One of Lacan’s most famous seminars analyzes the path of the signifier in Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Purloined Letter.” In many ways Barks’s “Big-Top Bedlam” puts Poe’s story to shame in its multiple intersecting trajectories of misrecognition, its relay of signifiers, its explicit mobilization of the roles of metonymy and metaphor, and its disruption of the suture of the imaginary and symbolic by the real, which produces identity through the failure of representation. While emphasizing both the surface gestalt and the fragmentation of the body of the page, “Big-Top Bedlam” traces the paths of Daisy’s brooch and the nephews’ slingshot—two signifiers whose trajectories allegorize the metaphoric and metonymic dimensions of comic book narrative, even as they show how the real perpetually interrupts the intersection of the imaginary and the symbolic.12 Through the main body of the story the brooch remains in the hands of the “same” character (Zippo the quick-change artist), but Donald perceives it as constantly changing hands, sliding from one character to another (Zippo’s disguises). The slingshot is the obverse of the brooch: it is an object that actually changes hands between three different, yet visually identical characters (Donald’s nephews). The complex relaying of these signifiers derives from a precise set of misrecognitions. First, in the center of the story Donald thinks the pin/brooch keeps slipping away at each new incarnation of Zippo’s act. Because he is so captured by Zippo’s spectacular mastery of appearances, Donald does not recognize that Zippo is the “same” character from panel to panel. Second, Huey, Dewey, and Louie recognize the continuity of Zippo but utterly misperceive Donald’s motives—they do not know he is chasing the brooch—a misperception that initiates their assault on Donald with the slingshot. Third, Zippo misperceives Donald to be a bill collector (or agent of the law or symbolic order, which Zippo as imaginary delegate of the real perpetually resists). Fourth, Donald never knows that his nephews are the ones who are undermining him from afar (and behind) with their slingshot. Fifth, the audience misperceives Donald’s relation to Zippo; they think Donald is simply Zippo’s stooge. The humor of the slapstick violence toward Donald arises out of the interplay of these multiple misrecognitions and the reader’s recognition of them all simultaneously. It is as if there are holes, absences, or areas of indeterminacy in each of the character-sets that encourage misrecognition and initiate slapstick aggression.

Figure 9. Zippo’s quick change, panel 1 © 1950

Zippo’sets the allegory of metaphoric/metonymic process in motion. In the first panel of Zippo’s quick-change act (Figure 9), we witness what might ordinarily be imagined as the disruption of a character’s identity between panels—Zippo disappears as a figure within panel two, leaving only his clothes suspended in a whirlwind,13 and at this very point the three-dimensional, embodied character Zippo is literally replaced by two-dimensional characters that spell a portion of his name: “ZIP!” The next several pages are dominated by opposing forces and fractured panel structures that drastically cut up the body of the pages, just as Donald is being humorously brutalized in the plot. In these pages, words begin to materialize as palpable two-dimensional things in visual space, and solid black areas attach the shifter character (Zippo) to the stationary audience, linking the one who wants to be seen to those who think they know what they are seeing. Lines of flight—the trajectory of the slingshot—and lines of sight—Donald’s seeing materializing as dotted lines—begin to emerge into visibility on these pages, and these vectors of action at a distance (by slingshot and eye) parallel, oppose, and dislodge the panels’ jagged shapes and Donald’s putative “movement” through them. At the same time, the difference between the nephews is marked only once by the use of a name (the symbolic). As one-by-one the nephews take possession of the slingshot, the only way to tell them apart is by possession of the slingshot, which thereby becomes a surplus marker of sameness that distinguishes them from one another. Given the plot of shifting and misperceived signifiers, the nephews’ visual identity with each other takes on a context-specific meaning in this story—repetition of similarly “represented” three-dimensional volumes is no guarantee of the “same” character, just as visual difference in this story is no guarantee of the representation of a different character.

Figure 10. © 1950
Figure 11. © 1950
Figure 12. © 1950

Significant switch points of these signifiers come thick and fast in this section of the story. In the same panel (at the same moment) that the slingshot first changes hands, the nephews acknowledge that they have not been fooled for a moment; they know that Zippo is the same character in different costumes.14 The curtain (or veil) behind which Zippo performs his “changes” functions, when seen almost head-on, as a stand-in for the panel divisions of the comic itself (Figure 10). By including within the panel the curtain an allegorical surrogate for the panel breaks, Barks imports the process of transformation between panels into the panels, with a dotted line marking where Zippo has supposedly just been—a trace of his simultaneous presence and absence from a definite space in the panel. In his “drag” finale shown in (Figure 11), Zippo is, remarkably, the “same” character in two different places in the same panel. At this same moment, the double Zippo-as-woman both does and does not have the brooch. The Zippo-in-drag to our left is wearing the brooch; the one to the right is not.15 This is a brilliant move and not a mistake on Barks’s part. This discrepancy functions as a (perhaps unconscious) acknowledgement that the brooch is itself an allegorical figure for signification itself: A signifier is always something that denotes simultaneous presence and absence—something present that stands in for something absent. At the moment that Zippo is split, the curtain is itself doubled by perspective, suggesting that there is nothing behind the curtain except another curtain, that there are no props to facilitate Zippo’s transformations and no way for the transformations to occur except by their being drawn on the comic page. As a figure for our desire to see what happens in the gap between panels, this glimpse behind the curtain suggests that the disruption by the real is neither directly representable nor simply a void. Given the crisis to which the panel structure has been driven at this point, it is no surprise that the gap between this panel and the one adjacent to it is immense. In the second panel of Figure 11, Donald appears to be a voyeur: he seems to be looking (metonymically) toward the previous panel but cannot see what is in it; its contents are utterly cut off from him because the panel borders are understood to shift him into an entirely different room. In this panel, which is juxtaposed to the split image of Zippo, Donald’s body and even much of his beak are radically cut off, obscured by the costume trunk (the ostensible source of the disguises) in Zippo’s dressing room, just as Donald’s vision is cut off. In the first panel of Figure 12, Zippo remains in full drag costume (even sporting shapely feminine legs) until his body-image is cut off by the left margin of the panel, with the two-dimensional space-occupying word “RIP!” emanating as if from outside the panel in the presumed underlying world of the narrative where events occur “between” panels, signifying a tear that is simultaneously in his costume (at the level of the metaphoric world of the story) and in the body-space of the page (at the level of metonymic contiguity). This cutting off of Zippo’s body by the panel also implicitly enacts a tear in the curtain which has been standing in for the gap between the panels (the real) where Zippo has been able to transform himself, suddenly allowing the imaginary props which seemed to be absent behind the curtain to come into full view in the next panel. Zippo is uncovered, demystified, exposed as awkward and unbalanced, and shown in a state “between” disguises, with a double face as his mask partially detaches yet remains connected to his “real” face within our view.16 What exposes his “betweenness” to our view, the object that pulls his disguise off, is the anchoring point of the pin.

Figure 13. © 1950

Figure 13 marks the outcome of the final change of hands of the slingshot. This time we are drastically placed at the eye of the shooting nephew, positioned behind the Y shape of the slingshot, at the origin of its trajectory; thus we are directly implicated in performing violence on Donald, just as he has recovered the pin. At this very moment the panel structure itself forms a precise tilted “Y” in the upper half of the page. It is as if the final transfer of the Y-shaped slingshot to the third nephew (and simultaneously to the reader) has made an impact on the structure of the page being looked at, precisely at the point Donald is about to lose the precious object once again. This repeatedly lost object will be returned once more, only after Donald no longer wants it, after he has become aware that it designates his potential domination by Daisy. For Lacan this is the moment of frustration—the imaginary lack of a real object (Dor 103); that is, the real object of Donald’s desire will become the absence of the very object he has been seeking.

VII. Phantoms, Doubles, and Shadows of the Abyss

Figure 14. The Phantom of Notre Duck © 1950

“Big-Top Bedlam” is a difficult act to follow. It shows Barks at his boldest and most experimental. In stories like “Vacation Time” and “Big-Top Bedlam” Barks most clearly marks out the space of his uniqueness as a comic artist. If we now look briefly at a page from The Phantom of Notre Duck (Figure 14), one of Barks’s later stories where he seems not to be experimenting with panel shapes and bizarre narrative configurations, we can see how thoroughly Barks internalized the process of comic narrative in what appears to be a completely straightforward page about which it might seem difficult to say anything interesting. The composition of the page is not unusual: the panels are all rectangular, four-tiered, symmetrically placed, with one full-page-wide panel in the second tier. One thing to note, however, is that the only character present on this page is Scrooge (and the “Phantom” who later turns out to be an exact double for Scrooge). Another thing to note is that, except for panel seven (where he speaks), Scrooge is alone with his thoughts: since the words in these balloons purport to contain interior speech, they seem to bestow momentarily a subjectivity on Scrooge in which he is totally present to himself. But the first balloon refers back to a previous phase of the story; and although “DONALD” is not present as a visual character, he is present as a word in Scrooge’s thoughts. This interior speech also refers ahead to “THAT GUY” who will show up in panel five and the “TRAP” Scrooge is about to fall into in panel seven. Consequently, in this first panel Barks drew Scrooge’s body oriented in two directions at once, walking ahead into an ink-black space of the panel while looking backwards with a light. In the metonymic dimension of the page, this light is aimed toward the solid black space aligned with the left side of panel two, which Scrooge’s body transgresses when he loses balance from not looking where he is going in the first panel. Yet the words of this second balloon refer back to the first panel where he is about to “TAKE ANOTHER PASSAGE”17 and then comment on the gap between his own loss of control as he falls on his “behind” with the visible words “BUMP! BUMP!” (suggesting a sequence within the panel but without motion lines) positioned behind him and transgressing the other black wall of this “PASSAGE,” while he is planning to “COME UP BEHIND HIM [the Phantom].” Thus already Scrooge’s movements through these passages in the imaginative world of the story are being enacted in a different way by the panels themselves; by the end of the page this parallel between openings in the imagined world and the openings in the panels not only becomes obvious but becomes threatening as well.

Panel three positions Scrooge at the far left facing the opposite direction from panel two paralleling his position in panel one directly above it, but with his body turned around so that he is facing directly ahead. In the metaphoric/metonymic logic of the page he has fallen down the steps from the right boundary of the page toward the center of the page (toward himself in panel one) and landed facing the center of the page again in panel three; but now the space through which he has fallen is presumed to exist beyond the left boundary of the page (as if the point of view has swung around almost 180 degrees). In typical Barks fashion, the money cathedral given in such detail in panel three encloses and incorporates the blackness through which Scrooge has fallen into a well-lighted extremely organized vision, which in fact is an exact model of the exterior of the architectural space through which he has been passing and thus serves as a simulacrum of the panel structure of the story now seen from the outside. Note that he does nothing more than look at this structure; he does nothing to disturb the delicate balance of unstable coins forming the cathedral itself (which mirrors the stability of the page as a whole).

In the fourth panel, Scrooge’s body appropriates the blackness through which he has been moving as he enters into total silhouette with a shadow trailing off beyond the boundaries of the page. Although it is absolutely clear what direction Scrooge is moving in relation to the page (at about a ninety-degree angle to his previous appearances in the two panels above him and, again, toward the center of the page, at this point it is impossible to know what “direction” he is moving within the imagined cathedral of the comic’s story space. The presence of the narrative word “SOON!” in the fifth panel suddenly calls attention to the lapse of time that has passed almost unnoticed in the nearly contiguous temporal “events” of panels one through four (though a “LATER!” in panel four would have indicated that Scrooge spent a good bit of time focused on the money cathedral, the comic gives us no idea how much fictional time might have elapsed between panels three and four). Most important in this panel is the fact that for the first time on this page Scrooge’s body is cut off by an object in the story’s imaginary space (and is positioned in such a way that the panel border would cut his body off anyway) and that for the first time in the story Scrooge glimpses the “Phantom” who materializes as a near-double of the silhouetted Scrooge in the previous panel. The phantom thus first shows up as a mapping of Scrooge’s shadow outside himself, a shadow which is right “THERE” “LOOKING AT ME!” For the first time on this page, Scrooge who has believed himself to be the one who was looking (not being looked at by the things in the spaces around him or by a reader) is stunned by being looked at, not from the reader’s point of view but from a character who stands at the place a reader might be reflected if the page were actually a mirror and who is looking not only at Scrooge but also directly at the reader (the gaze is here palpably contracted to the function of a single character within a panel).

The last two panels re-enact and retroactively revise the rest of the page by inversion. No longer in the dark (Scrooge has emerged from underneath the “surface” of the page and of the cathedral in panel five), no longer uncertain where is going and no longer simply thinking but speaking to the phantom (which dictates the change in word balloon conventions), his line of seeing is for the first time itself leaving a visible trace as he races (in typical Barks fashion with his whole body suspended above ground, in this instance emphasizing Scrooge’s emergence from underground to above the surface) toward the “SECRET DOOR, OR WHATEVER IT IS!” More than anywhere else on the page, the architecture of this space within the panel looks like the panels on a comic page; and when, in the next panel, he opens this rectangular space revealing a gaping hole, his body for the first time on this page is radically cut off by the panel boundaries themselves; and he finds that instead of a secret door that would reveal his Phantom-double, he finds, “NOTHING’S THROUGH HERE BUT RAREFIED AIR!” This is the closest view we have of Scrooge on this page, and we are looking over his shoulder, realizing how vulnerable he is to being pushed, not simply into the empty white space of the panel to which this open “door” corresponds, but into the empty space of the imagined world below the borders of the page. We are now located in the position of the Phantom (“behind” Scrooge) who is about to kick Scrooge through this hole in the imaginary space, even as we are caught off-guard by Scrooge looking intently away from us while the “hole” in the space of the page is gazing back at us.

In this inquiry I have attempted to recover some of the mysteriousness of the comics format of Barks’s stories, where often the strongest opposing tendencies of comics appear side-by-side: surface flatness with three-dimensionality, self-reflexivity with character self-presence, subversion of an underlying world with the coherence of a total world. I also hope to have shown how Barks’s narrative strategies and some of Lacan’s categories such as the gaze, the imaginary, the symbolic, and the real can illuminate one another and, in the process, to have suggested how Lacan and Barks could have been speaking to one another all along.


[1] I am also indebted to Judith Feher-Gurewich who helped me with the formulation of this Lacanian theory.
[2] Most precisely, these unmarked intermediate spaces serve as delegates of the real. Nevertheless, the temptation is strong to say that the “real” is actually “represented” by the white (black, colored, etc.) spaces between panels on the page. In this connection, comic pages in which images overlap or exclude discrete panel separations as in some contemporary comic books would be seen as attempting to prohibit entrance of the real into the equation of the page.
[3] The analogy between the fort/da experience (in which the child attempts an imaginary and linguistic mastery over the comings and goings of the mother) and the way objects seem to disappear from one panel in a comic and reappear in another is tempting, but partially misleading. One of the problems with importing the fort/da experience into the space of comics is that the “same” object does not reappear in successive panels, and does not disappear from previous panels unless the page is turned, though the fiction of temporal unfolding is mimicked by the panels and their objects. Comics occupy a problematic status in relation to fort/da: who is taking the object away; who is returning it? The artist leaves the image there in the previous panel while (in the finished page) sending a new delegate or representation for the narrative of the lost object. This process allows the child both to perform and undo the disappearance/reappearance. Turning the page is indeed closer to fort/da: the set of object-delegates disappears from the scopic field but without the linguistic mastery inherent in the speech act where sounds become signifiers of unconscious signifieds.
[4] See Tom Conley, The Graphic Unconscious in early modern French Writing (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992), and Lloyd Davis, Guise and Disguise: Rhetoric and Characterization in the English Renaissance (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993).
[5] For A. J. Griemas, Roland Barthes, and others who attempted to develop a “structural” grammar for narrative, characters are organized “paradigmatically” (Barthes’s image of vertical “storey”) in the sense of groupings of details along a vertical axis of substitution) while events are syntagmatic along the horizontal axis. Image, Music, Text, (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977): 78-124. In “Rhetoric of the Image” Roland Barthes notes that all metonymy involves substitution, so he wants to avoid that usage (Image, Music, Text, 50), but the particular valence of metonymy is essential for Lacan (and for comics). In comics the possibility of substitution (i.e., the metaphoric, paradigmatic grouping of “similar” sets of lines/signifiers) can only occur through contiguous “representations” of the signifying images.
[6] See my “Visual Narrative in ‘Vacation Time,'” The Carl Barks Library VI (Prescott: Another Rainbow, 1990): 765-68.
[7] This anti-utopian moment is perhaps best summed up verbally at the end of “Vacation Time” (Vacation Parade #1, 1950): “Everything would be perfect except for one thing!”
[8] See “Visual Narrative in ‘Vacation Time.'”
[9] Ibid. Barks is here clearly differentiating between the ontological possibilities of photography and those of the comic panel. The puncturing of the panel border by the antlers corresponds to the anxiety of imaginary castration, while the border cutting off the antlers correspond to symbolic castration.
[10] In an interview with me on June 14, 1997, Barks indicated that it never occurred to him that the shape of a panel could be related to the words appearing in the balloons in a way that would enact the verbal/visual pun in this panel.
[11] In the1997 interview Barks commented on his use of such panel distortions: “If the drawing used up a lot of the white paper, I’d draw the panel around it instead of putting the panels down there and sticking my characters in those confined spaces…. That gave a little better view of what was going on in that panel.”
[12] Daisy’s brooch is marked by a cross or an “X” on its surface (making it a possible delegate of what Lacan calls the objet a), and the nephews’ slingshot which is marked by its “Y” shape (which may be a version of the phallic signifier). The brooch, clearly exhibiting its “X” or cross, first appears in a close-up panel. The rectangular box that frames the pin extends into the word-space of the panel below. At this point, the box quite obviously serves as a stand-in for or displacement of the comic panel itself as appropriate container of this transformational object, since the outline of this panel has itself disappeared (except around the words which are firmly anchored to the page as if to prevent then from floating away). The cross (or plus sign which suggests the sign for metaphor in Lacan, the trope that crosses the bar of the unconscious and links the signifier to the signified) is obscured in the colored versions of this panel; and there is a graphic “typo” glitch, a hole in Donald’s eye in the printing of the panel in the black and white Carl Barks Library. The minus sign which, for Lacan, stands for the metonymic slide of the signifier above the bar of the unconscious is traced in all the rectilinear trajectories of the slingshot’s propulsion in the story. In the panel where the brooch initially appears, Donald is referring verbally only to what is already missing from the box, (the money that has been lost with no possibility of return, rather than to the pin which is about to be lost repeatedly with no possibility of its not returning. The final return of the pin by the agency of the boy’s having hooked a fish that had swallowed it quite amazingly parallels Lacan’s graph of the anchoring point, the double hooking of the sentence as it turns back on itself and achieves significance only retroactively.
[13] He rematerializes in panel three and four with his body delineated in full costume, gesturing in X’s and Y’s. The circular motion here is recapitulated when he later “winds up” his act.
[14] This time the shot’s trajectory is direct from panel to panel, not simply parallel, offset, and displaced as in the previous shot, indicating that a change of hands dictates a different visual layout, an angular shift which will be exaggerated even more in the final transfer of the slingshot.
[15] I am indebted to my former student Brian Rhinehart for pointing this discrepancy out to me. The fact that Zippo both does and does not have the brooch only in his double form as female suggests that the brooch is itself linked to phallic signification as well as the object a.
[16] The only other time in the story he is shown with a mask partially detached is when he transforms from a gorilla into a fireman in panel three of page 236, when the mask is clearly detached from his face, and he is floating, fully in control, in an angular borderless frame.
[17] Barks’s apparently simple choice of the word “passage” at this point is, in fact, rather complex: it conjures up domains of space, of time, and of textuality (a “narrow passage,” “a passage of time,” a “passage of text”) as well as implying the routes of navigating from one panel to the next in reading a comic. In this case, all of these meanings are invoked simultaneously.


Barks, Carl. The Carl Barks Library of Walt Disney’s Donald Duck. Prescott: Another Rainbow, 1986.

Barthes, Roland. Image, Music, Text. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977.

Conley, Tom. The Graphic Unconscious in early modern French writing. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Davis, Lloyd. Guise and Disguise: Rhetoric and Characterization in the English Renaissance. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993.

Copjec, Joan. “Cutting Up.” In Between Feminism and Psychoanalysis. Ed. By Teresa Brennan. London and New York: Routledge, 1989.

Dor, Joël. Introduction to the Reading of Lacan: The Unconscious Structured Like a Language. Northvale, N.J.: Jason Aronson, 1997.

Lacan, Jacques. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. New York and London: W.W. Norton, 1978.

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