Craig Thompson’s Blankets (Top Shelf Productions 2003) ends with five pages of ‘silence’ (578-82). Since Blankets is a comic – it calls itself “an illustrated novel” (cover) and a “graphic novel” (front matter, unnumbered 4) – and thus consists entirely of visuals, including conventional visual representation of verbal and other auditory events, ‘silence’ means that on those final five pages no sounds are explicitly depicted.1 The first three of those pages (578-80) are wordless, indeed textless but for the page numbers, hand-drawn but non-diegetic, in lower left-hand (on verso) and right-hand (recto) corners. The last two pages (581-2), with a total of three panels, show one small rectangle of text per panel, but even those texts depict not spoken language but the thoughts of the work’s main character, Craig, who in this scene is by himself. “How satisfying it is,” he thinks, “to leave a mark on a blank surface. | To make a map of my movement – | – no matter how temporary” (581-2). The final scene may thus be read as depicting the main character’s final development in the work: in perfect silence, he privately meditates on the real but passing pleasure of human life.
An immediate complication of this reading is that the character’s ‘private meditation,’ in the form of his depicted thoughts, is not ‘private’ but presented to the reader or viewer. For that matter, it is unclear how any of the story could be called ‘private’ in an ordinary sense, since with rare exceptions the story consists of Craig narrating personal details and life events to the reader. If that complication is not unique to Blankets or even to the comics medium, but common to much narration, it nonetheless suggests some of the work’s features and interests as a narrative work of art, i.e., as a story in the comics medium, and as a metanarrative, i.e., as a comics story that explores the comics medium and the possibilities of comics storytelling. Comics that draw such attention to their own conventions may be considered ‘metacomics’ or ‘metapictures,’ “pictures that show themselves in order to know themselves: they stage the “self-knowledge” of pictures.”2 The fact that many comics metanarrate themselves thus as exploratory mixed media would trouble those insisting on distinction between media as a criterion of ‘high art.’3 Such traditional criticism of “mixed media” may be refuted by observing that all media are mixed, in reception as in production, and thus replaced by analysis of an artform’s formal and cultural modes.
More positively, and as already implied, comics’ metanarration draws attention to the complicated interaction of form and story. I discuss comics form generally further below. In the meantime, in this slightly expanded context we may say that Blankets presents its final scene in full awareness of how things like ‘silence,’ ‘privacy,’ and a feeling of ‘meditation’ are not naturally given but effected by conventions in comics representation. Since the work draws attention to its medium, as it tells the story it also tells its own story, metanarrating itself. In the final three panels the reader is thus asked not only to ‘hear,’ as it were on the surface of the work, the main character’s ‘private’ meditation on human life, but also to experience somehow the work’s deeper but, by contrast, paradoxically less private investigation of itself, of its medium, and of the material conditions of its being (its ‘life’). The main character may be depicted as considering how “a mark on a blank surface” represents him and his life, “map[ping his] movement” … “however temporar[ily],” and so with intimation of mortality, but the work itself is just that sort of mark, its being is defined as representation instead of by representation: ‘only’ image.4
All of this is emphasized by the weight brought to bear on what is, as noted, the story’s final scene. As suggested, the main character’s meditation may be read in the context of the story as indicating his eventual success in reconciling himself to certain aspects of his life, including issues of family and upbringing, sexuality, and Christianity. This adds to how the work dramatizes questions in representation, including the general definition of acceptable art and the particular question of art and religion: are profane, earthly, human materials able to represent the sacred, heavenly, and divine, and may the divine be represented?5
Since these large questions are focalized in through the life and thoughts of one individual, the work also raises the question of the universal and the particular. This is in line with the story’s interest in Christianity, including thematics of mysteriously distinct individuals and of the perduring difficulty of applying received teaching to changed circumstances. It is also dramatized by the fact that the story is (semi-)autobiography, with the main character Craig a seemingly straightforward cipher for the auteur Craig Thompson.6 If character-Craig’s contentment at leaving a mark suggested already that the work metanarrates its own being, it also suggests that auteur-Craig wonders about his; by extension, we are asked to consider the human condition on its own and relative to the divine. Read in light of these and other complications, the silence of the final scene makes audible the work’s investigation of itself, its comics mode of representation, and representation generally. What does it mean for an artwork to acknowledge its status as ‘mark’ or representation, i.e. to metanarrate itself as ‘only’ image, while also using images to represent a human condition defined as being “in the image of” God (Gen. 1:26-28)?7
II. Once more from the end, with seeing
We may approach this large question from smaller but significant moments in the work, starting with a bit more consideration of the final scene as actually depicted. Since Blankets is a comic, attention is rightly directed first to its deployment of visuals, including conventional visual representation of verbal and other auditory events. Although comics are commonly described as combining ‘visual and verbal,’ it is more precise to say ‘visual and textual,’ even ‘purely visual,’ to emphasize the visual and material sameness of ‘image’ and ‘text’ or ‘word.’8 Such descriptions suggest correspondingly precise and productive critical approaches that may start to take proper account of comics form, including studies of ‘word and image’ and ‘image/text.’9 It is true, and important to note, that the aim of such ‘visual culture’ studies is “not to stop with formal description, but to ask what the function of specific forms of heterogeneity might be,” and so in part to offer a critique of how ‘traditional’ art historical study and aesthetics are “almost invariably connected to larger social and cultural issues.”10 Such critique is an important part of comics studies, but cannot proceed, indeed can hardly begin, without precise attention to form. To borrow again from Mitchell on “pictures,” “[w]hat [comics] want from us, what we have failed to give them, is an idea of visuality adequate to their ontology.”11 Such attention paid to Blankets‘ final scene will help to specify some important themes for this essay. In light of the difficulty in using (image)text to discuss image(text), I use the term ‘essay’ – etymologically “an attempt” – deliberately to suggest the provisional status of the verbal forms of my ideas about a visual art.12
The final scene depicts Craig taking a nighttime walk in newly fallen snow. The first page of the scene (578) shows Craig leaving his parents’ house. In a first roughly square panel, showing only a small portion of the house but Craig in full, he is just outside on the porch, one hand still inside the open doorway; in a second panel, somewhat wider but otherwise similar, he is at the bottom of a short flight of steps, looking back at the now-closed door. (Craig’s gaze is important throughout). Craig’s motion between the panels is indicated in the second not only by his changed position but also by his tracks down the stairs.13 Continuing this, the bottom two-thirds of the page are occupied by a single panel showing a three-quarters overhead shot from much farther away: at the top and in the background is the house, framed and obscured by trees, while most of the panel is taken up by a tree in the left foreground partially obscuring a barn. Just visible in the bottom right-hand corner is Craig, a much smaller figure relatively and absolutely, with hands in his pockets and exhaling a cloud of breath, his face shadowed (although he does not cast a shadow). In the frame of house, trees, and character, attention is drawn to the central white space of snow marked by Craig’s tracks.
Even on the first page of the scene, then, our awareness of Craig’s path, what we have seen him later call his “movement,” depends on the visual, representational, or spatial rather than on the textual, discursive, or temporal, and highlights how the medium deploys one category in terms of the other: we are not told that he is moving, nor precisely do we see him moving, but must – and can easily, thanks to convention – infer from his tracks that he has been and is. That visual or mediated fact of his tracks is as important as any thematic symbolism of his ‘path.’ We notice the symbolism of Craig having ‘left his parents’ house’ and passing by, evidently without stopping, a metal barrel in which he once burned items from his first love, Raina (526-7), as well as, at least once, his own art (57-61).14 But we may be struck more by the fact of the path, a dotted curve, and by its implied continuation beyond the bottom right-hand corner of the panel. Craig leans in that direction, one foot poised to step, and that corner of the panel is left unframed, such that the white of the snow blends seamlessly into the white of the page.
Both the curve and the use or absence of framing are continued and thematized on the following pages, culminating in and as Craig’s meditation as described above. In other words, as the story is told through those and other visual devices, those devices themselves become objects of attention. On the following page (579), four panels show Craig, respectively: from the chest up, amidst taller trees that dominate the panel, as he breathes out white breath; from about the waist up, watching his breath approximate a white cloud against the black sky; from around his knees up, trailing his hand along a snowcapped fence; and finally, again in full, standing in the snow by the fence, looking down now at the tracks he has just left. The four panels stage a gradual direction of attention, its gradation emphasized by the page’s ‘panning out’ to reveal Craig in full, from the snowy outdoors in general to the particular fact of tracks in snow. Our attention is encouraged by Craig’s gaze: in the first panel, he seems to be looking at the trees; in the second, at his breath-cum-cloud, i.e. at a contrast of white on black; in the third, at the snow; and in the fourth, at his black tracks in the white snow.15 Since these first two pages face each other, respectively verso and recto, in the final panel of the second page Craig has reached the ‘same place’ as in the final panel of the first page: in the story he has moved, but on paper he has come, as it were, to the same place – he is ‘still’ or ‘again’ in the bottom right-hand corner.
That same position draws attention to an important change in, precisely, attention. In a combination of narrative and metanarrative, Craig now sees on the second page what we were encouraged to see on the first, and we may now see it in something like his or the work’s terms: he focuses on his tracks, and we are encouraged to see them in their visual status as black marks on white. The work thus draws our attention, through its literal and figurative ‘drawing’ of Craig’s attention (i.e., both the actual depiction of his gaze on the page and the diegetic focus it implies in the story), to the material conditions of the story’s existence: in this black and white comic, everything is ‘only’ contrast, black on white, only ballpoint pen and ink on paper.16
This reading is confirmed and complicated by the following page before culminating in Craig’s meditation on “leav[ing] marks.” The third page of the scene (580) is divided into four wide panels of roughly comic-strip proportions, showing Craig in full profile but against a white background broken only by the tracks he now self-consciously leaves behind him. On the one hand we have no trouble understanding that the marks are his footprints in the snow. On the other hand, the panels depict this in exaggerated or impossible terms: absent fence, trees, lines of hills, and other details from the first two pages, the third page presents a much more abstract landscape. Continuing the intersection of Craig’s and our visual attentions, white background is no longer ‘simply’ snow but also – in a way that is complicated diegetically but the literal truth – blank paper suitable for marking. Craig realizes this: in the first panel, he prepares to jump; in the second, he is in mid-jump at the mid-point of the panel, a vivid depiction of motion in this scene of many tracks but little movement; in the third, he has just landed and is looking back at the space between his last track and where he stands; and in the fourth, he has walked the few steps needed to take him to the edge of the panel, thus reaching, for the third time in three pages, the bottom right-hand corner of the page. By evoking its materiality, the sequence becomes metanarrative; since the narration is pictorial, metanarrative becomes metapicture and metacomics.17
From this metacomics moment, the scene culminates in the meditation described above. With the final scene read as metanarration, that meditation on the temporality of marks has to do with the human condition generally and with representation of that condition in particular. In other words, the work thus wonders about natural human mortality and the possibility of immortality in culture, about the (im)permanence of human making. In context the question is raised in religious terms: Craig’s “third visit home [is] for a Christmas” (558.1; cf. his mother’s formulation in the same panel: “We’re so glad you’ve come to celebrate our Savior’s birth!”). Craig’s marks are multivalent. Diegetically, they are his tracks in the snow. Non-diegetically, in their literal or visual existence as black marks on white background, they suggest the work’s awareness of its own mediated being, of its status as ‘track’ or ‘trace’; this is emphasized by Craig’s awareness of this valence through his gaze. And, both in the immediate context and in themes articulated throughout the work, they figure finite human gesture against the infinite backdrop of the immortal divine. That mysterious relationship is focalized in turn by the ‘eternal return’ of Jesus as Christ, the miraculous intervention of divinity into human history in the form of hypostatic union. All of this from ink on paper, from the work’s narrative and metanarrative equation of dark tracks in white snow with black on white, with ink on paper, and so from an exploration of contrast as the basis of representation or image.
III. Dimensional compression and ontological ambiguity: shadows as visual similes
In order to examine how this exploration is narrated, I follow Blankets ‘ lead in focusing on contrast as the basis of image, of comics’ materiality, and of the human condition in the work’s figuration of Christianity. In order to limit the range of material – in a monochromatic comic, everything is only contrast – I focus on a particular contrast: shadows.18 In the real world, shadows are as ‘real’ as the objects that cast them but, since lower-order or -dimensional, experienced as less ‘real,’ as images of objects rather than objects themselves. In semiotic terms, shadows are indices of their objects, signifying through contiguity, and so pointing towards the higher-dimensional objects they attend; at the same time, since shadows are cast by one object on another, they also indicate the higher-dimensional ‘reality’ of their medium.19 In the four-dimensional real world there are thus at least four interrelated items of interest regarding shadows: light, the object (not transparent, at least translucent, possibly opaque) that casts the shadow, the shadow itself, and the object whose surface is the shadow’s medium.
When represented in lower-dimensional visual art, including comics, such real-world items and their relationships are transformed according to artistic conventions that affect interpretation by determining ‘visual competence’ or ‘visual literacy’: a given artistic or representational tradition thus includes rules for how its representations are to be understood 20 In general, lower-dimensional representation of higher-dimensional items means, of course, a reduction in dimension: real-world four to visual artistic two; we may call this transformation dimensional compression.21 It also means, perhaps less obviously but important for attention to form, a corresponding change in actual or ontological status: everything represented is of the same material; we may call this transformation ontological ambiguity. The result is that, since everything depicted in a comic has, in reality, identical dimensionality and ontological status, whether something depicted is ‘more’ or ‘less’ real – i.e., taken as an image of a relatively higher- or lower-order object – is a matter not of ontology or even of visual evidence but of conventions in comics reading.22
For my purposes in this essay, dimensional compression and ontological ambiguity together mean that in-comics ‘shadows’ are not actually – and sometimes not even visually – but only conventionally different from in-comics ‘objects.’ Since Blankets is monochromatic, the real world’s four items of interest regarding shadows are reduced to or replaced by two items – black and white – or, more basically, one relationship between them: contrast.
Moreover, since in-comics shadows are of course not cast ‘naturally’ by the interaction of light and object, they need not be geometrical projections of their in-comics object: an in-comics shadow may be both properly indexical, i.e., attending a projecting object, and ‘incorrectly’ projected, i.e., drawn imperfectly or to represent a different object entirely. In-comics shadows may thus serve to link two objects, or orders of object, or even ‘realities’: the object projecting the shadow (i.e., the object signified by the shadow indexically) and another object which the shadow rather resembles (i.e., an object signified by the shadow iconically, by similarity of form). In this way in-comics shadows may link or even equate two objects, functioning as visual similes or metaphors.
Although in-comics shadows are by definition lower-order or -dimensional than their real-world counterparts, they are not therefore simpler, rather replacing real-world complexity with a complexity borne of their medium and so bearing on issues in representation. As such, in-comics shadows (henceforth, simply shadows) are well suited to raising questions in comics representation, including, given appropriate subject-matter, the question of religion and art raised above. Since objects and images are visually and materially similar, to the point of identity, what might follow, given the work’s Christian interests, about similarity between human and divine?
IV. ‘Stretching’ towards identity
An extended scene comprising all of chapter IV (226-61: “Static”) marks a high point in the work’s narrative deployment of shadows for metanarrative purposes by providing a thematically appropriate setting for contrasts: the morning after Craig’s first night at Raina’s house, plus the afternoon and evening that follow. In line with the post-lapsarian connotations of that ‘morning after,’ the chapter includes Craig’s and Raina’s first kiss. In this way, the image of late afternoon shadows “stretch[ing]” is analogous to the adolescent reach towards sexual union. As shadows and characters work against physical limit to overcome separation, both are charged. The charge is figural, given the prevailing Christian recommendation of physical separation and given how ordinary representation keeps object separate from image. But it is also, charmingly, literal, in an equation of snowflakes with sparks and stars. Since both dry snowflakes and sparks are thus the “static” of the chapter’s title, the chapter may be read as suggesting the possibility of identity or union, at least when understanding or experience is represented.
The chapter begins with midday light and mostly absent shadows (on 231, the house is lit from without, and Craig “need[s] the light to wake [him]”), proceeds through the low-slung sun and longest shadows of late afternoon (245, 247), and ends at night that is black but still ‘lit’ by the falling snow likened to static and to stars. The chapter thus begins when natural light is highest and strongest, and shadows are least existent. That relationship is then inverted: Raina takes Craig “up the mountain” (244.2), and when they have reached that literal height, although the combination of sun and snowy landscape is still “blinding” (245.2), the sun has started to set, such that the shadows stretch their longest: “[CRAIG] I’ve never seen shadows stretch so far. [RAINA] They’re ambitious” (245.3). The chapter ends with the contrast between night-time black and snowflake white giving way to a pattern of snow in which “the sense of space, of depth, is lost” (260.1) but which resolves, for the reader, into the sign of the cross. The final panels (260.2 and 3, 261) are wordless patterns without internal orientation, almost non-images; since in pictures time is represented by space, these panels’ senseless space may suggest an experience of limitless time.23
Foregrounded by those changing contrasts, Craig and Raina are depicted as interacting with and commenting on shadows and light. On the one hand, as noted, at midday the characters are completely black against the white background of windows lit from without (231.4). Likewise, as if to emphasize his continued difference from light, or perhaps his inability still to experience or understand it, Craig finds the mountaintop combination of snow and light “blinding” (245.2; Raina responds that “the forest will shelter [them] from the sun”).24 On the other hand, as late afternoon turns to night both characters are ‘brighter,’ i.e. whiter, than the darkening landscape, as if to emphasize by contrast their status as ‘objects’ that cast shadows instead of being shadows or ‘images’ themselves. That difference is spelled out when Craig comments that “[t]he shadows retreated into the roots of each tree, but we remained where we were” (247.5). On a metanarrative level, this statement of fact may be read as implying that, ordinarily, the characters would have retreated along with the shadows, and only in the charged circumstances do they not, emphasizing their awareness of casting shadows or being illuminated in themselves. Craig and Raina are thus linked thematically and visually to the snowy landscape of the earlier afternoon (“the light fell from the sky and began glowing up through the carpet of snow,” 247.2) and to the later falling snow, also ‘brighter’ and certainly whiter than the black background.
In turn, the falling snow is likened to static electricity and, ultimately, to stars. At two points (248-53) static electricity is the explanation for a seemingly magical phenomenon, respectively the “soft, tinkling sound” (248.3) of dry snowfall in the present and will-o’-the-wisp sparks in the woolen bedding of Craig’s childhood (250-51). The similar depiction of snowflakes and sparks becomes equation in Craig’s recollection, as static sparks in one panel become snowflakes in the next (249.4-5). Implicit here and throughout is a sort of visual logic, in which likeness of form betokens likeness of essence: pushed to its furthest, this means that an iconic ‘image’ is its ‘object’ and vice versa, with iconicity guaranteeing identity. The work has not yet reached that furthest point when it comes to shadows, but seems to prepare for it here: as Craig recalls, the snow becomes static, and in his memory the static simply is living light. As the scene thus suggests the visually logical possibility of identity through representation, it simultaneously emphasizes how human experience and understanding change in time: the visual logic is thus connected to, or a condition of, human understanding, such that the world may be affected by human representation.
All of this – identification of character with snow and light, inner illumination, and the possibility of identity between ‘object’ and ‘image’ – culminates in the final portions of the scene. When Craig and Raina kiss, attention is drawn to a special contrast, seemingly an inversion of preceding contrasts, perhaps an emphasis of existing but previously understated inversion, and in any case suggesting identificatory iconic shadow-casting to come. As they work towards the kiss, they are still within the snow-angels they molded into the snow.25 This adds a level of sentimentality – earlier, Craig had called the snow-angels their “gingerbread molds” – but also a deeper level of meaning from visual contrasts.26 Craig and Raina are depicted as darker characters framed by the white snow-angels against the even darker background, as if (but not “as if” visually: for visually they are “actually”) ‘casting’ not true or traditionally darker shadows on a lighter background but lighter or brighter ‘shadows’ on a darker background. The work’s Christian themes suggest a theological reading, in which the human characters, defined in part as ‘images’ themselves, are figured as ‘casting’ not the dark shadows of earthly bodies but brighter ‘shadows’ or ‘images’ of their heavenly existence, as if the soul casts its shadow in light.27
In other words, if in secular visual art it is conventionally ‘realistic’ for human figures to cast shadows, in certain Christian art “the doctrine of the icon has never ceased to repeat that the painted image is only possible thanks to the Incarnation and that it only represents Christ Incarnate.”28 In these terms, Craig’s and Raina’s ‘unpainted’ Ð properly, uninked – ‘images,’ their bright snow-angel ‘shadows,’ may be read as “thanks to” or “representing” not their earthly incarnations, their bodies, but what of heaven their bodies incarnate, their souls; this may be read as suggesting something of their share of or union with the divine. Since, as discussed above, everything in comics is composed of the same stuff, there is every visual reason to conclude that characters and objects are as they are represented as, including, in this case, their developing iconic shadows and other images.
The art is precisely evocative in this regard. Earlier in the scene, when Craig sits up to recall his childhood sparks, he braces himself on one hand between his and Raina’s snow-angels’ ‘heads’ (249.3); for the rest of the scene, his hand-mold remains, a fine oval. When they lean in for their first kiss, the oval resolves into an image of candle-flame above their heads (254.6). In that ‘light,’ they are depicted from directly overhead and seem both shaded and poised to leave the flat page behind. Craig in particular seems to step away from the background, a dimensionally and materially impossible motion emphasized by how the angel outlines, like the oval-candle flame, break the outlines of the panel: like the “ambitious” shadows “stretch[ing] so far,” here Craig’s fingers, the oval flame, and Raina’s snow-angel wing stretch past the panel borders. All of this may be read as gently arguing, or rather illustrating, the capacity of lower-dimensional images to represent higher-dimensional objects or concepts, and so of the possibility – at least in visual representation of human understanding and experience – of identity between human and divine.
V. Iconic shadows and the identity of object and image
Two shadows in chapter five further the work’s suggestion of meaningful identity of object and image by drawing, in their turn, on the visual capacity for in-comics shadows to be both indexical of their in-comics objects and iconic of other objects or ideas. That these two shadows are meant to be read in this way is emphasized by structural and thematic parallels linking chapter five to chapter four and to the final chapter nine: chapter five generally casts four’s themes in new light and looks ahead to the work’s concluding silent meditation in the snow. As chapter four ends on a single, centered panel, in that case snowfall without pattern or image, so chapter five also ends on a single panel, but in its case an image as such: Raina in coat and boots, elegantly frozen in motion across the fallen snow as false flakes of snow (or sparks?), shaken by Craig from a covered tree-branch, seem to attend her (321).29 The scene ending on that panel, chapter five’s final scene (314-21), is, like the work’s final scene and other important moments, a silent walk in the snow. The scene and the chapter also mark developments from chapter four in characters and themes.
In line with the work’s metacomics interests, these developments are depicted in ways that draw attention to comics processes. Of special importance is what Scott McCloud has called ‘closure,’ the process by which a comics reader, when presented with juxtaposed images, “takes two separate images and transforms them into a single idea.”30 On the one hand, this process is a normal part of the experience of visual art more generally. Thus Ernst Gombrich, under the rubric “the Beholder’s Share,” writes that “no two-dimensional image can be interpreted as a spatial arrangement without such a constructive contribution of our spatial imagination.”31 From this perspective, visual art in general is a kind of interaction between an artwork’s unchanging or static image, only suggestive of relationships (in this case, “spatial arrangements”), and a beholder’s more dynamic capacity for interpretation (in this case, “spatial imagination”). The work of art is a necessary but insufficient condition for an artistic experience: the beholder – reader, viewer – is necessary, too.
If this sort of readerly ‘closure’ is thus a normal part of visual art, it seems to play, on the other hand, a distinct, even constitutive role relative to comics. With closure operating on “juxtaposed images,” if we accept McCloud’s definition of comics as “images in deliberate sequence,” we may conclude with him that him “comics is closure”: comics’ particular visual and material being depends on continual readerly closure, in time, of what are essentially static or inherently timeless images.32 As a result, a metacomic may draw special attention to its status as a comic – to its visual and material being – above all by thematizing closure and by emphasizing how its visuals make closure possible. As a metacomic, Blankets draws such attention in a sophisticated way by linking readerly or comics closure with the more ordinary ‘closure’ that is a desire for coherent emotional response to lived experience. These metacomics considerations condition the depiction of developments linking chapters four, five, and nine.
Chapter four begins with Craig waking from his first night in Raina’s house “in a fuzzy daze.” In part his confusion comes from how the setting and increased intimacy with Raina fuel his conflicted feelings, including curiosity and prohibition or shame, about sexuality and the body. In chapter three, upon first finding himself alone in Raina’s bedroom, Craig notices that “keeping watch over her bed [is] the same portrait of Jesus that had hung in [his] parents’ room” (201.5.3), Warner Sallman’s iconic The Head of Christ.33 Craig’s contemplation of the portrait then serves to hinge the story from present to past, when a much younger Craig contemplates the same portrait from the foot of his parents’ bed (202.4-5). On the following pages (203-8), that younger Craig is confronted by his parents about his drawing of a naked woman (202-8) and imagines The Head of Christ turning away from him in sadness, “[b]ecause it hurts Him when you sin” (quote from 208.1). As a result, and having transferred both curiosity and shame about nudity and sexuality onto Raina, he had fallen asleep in Raina’s guest-room to an imagined accusatory chorus of stuffed animals ventriloquizing Jesus’ question from Lk. 8:45, “Who touched me?” (223-4).34
If this first representation of anxieties is made possible by an implicit sort of ‘closure,’ with Sallman’s portrait seamlessly linking Craig’s past and present considerations of sexuality and the body, Craig’s anxious experience is represented in more explicitly comics-readerly terms upon his waking. Upon waking, Craig mutely and, at first, unsuccessfully attempts to “trace the transitions” (228.3) to his new setting and set of experiences. His attempt is depicted as a grid of comics panels. Since the panels depict more or less random moments and images – from the first night at Raina’s house, from Craig’s imagination of Jesus, and from his childhood drawing, in addition to static and extra-diegetic text —, Craig’s waking confusion and its underlying anxieties are represented as a failure of straightforward comics ‘closure.’ ‘Closure’ is achieved, Craig’s waking confusion is resolved only when he remembers he is at Raina’s house, and her face fills every previously disjointed panel (229.1). This brief scene thus emphasizes the work’s and character’s intimate connection between comics or readerly closure and ordinary or emotional closure.
By contrast, and so summarizing development from precisely those anxieties and confusions, the final scene of five begins with Craig’s much more peaceful awakening from a first night spent partly in Raina’s room. While she was getting ready for bed, Craig’s head filled with Biblical quotation arguing against lust (304-5). But when she appeared before him, she seemed to him – and is depicted as – an angel, attended by exaggerated snowflakes (as are other attractive women throughout, e.g., 552.3 and 553.3), venerated by smaller Raina-angels, and in Craig’s mind worthy of quotation from Song of Songs 4:7 and 9 (306). Before falling asleep back in his guest-room, Craig wondered whether he “should feel guilty” (313.1); instead he decided that he feels, as idiom and work’s iconography both have it, “as clean and pure as the snow” (313.3).35
It is in light of those developments, distinguishing chapter five from four and linking it to the work’s end in nine, that Craig is able to wake peacefully into five’s final scene and, equally, the work’s readers may be prepared for the two iconic shadows it includes. The scene’s depicted ‘silence’ may be read as a kind of visual comment, drawing extra attention to its art, including shadows.36 The first iconic shadow is cast when Craig, having just awoken, walks into the kitchen, finds Raina sitting on a chair facing his room, and takes her hand (315.1). Together they cast a shadow that is ambiguously a pose of supplication (her shadow looks up to his, inverting their actual expressions as he seems to take her hand and she guilelessly to offer) or – perhaps more probably given chapter four’s emphasis on (snow-)angels – of two figures, one her projected angel (her wings thanks to her chair’s wood-work) and the other his projected man. Through these shadows cast in the peaceful light of morning, and in the light of Christ’s depicted approval of Craig’s and Raina’s sexual exploration, the scene offers a doubled vision. Not only does Craig see Raina as taking part in angelic being. In addition, the work sees, indeed shows, how the two of them in their very human being, their bodily human condition – for these are properly dark shadows cast by earthly bodies – may share in higher orders of being.
As the scene continues, Raina wordlessly arranges Craig’s body for a particular purpose, incidentally but dramatically (and ‘gracefully,’ in so many words?) causing it to cast the scene’s second iconic shadow (316-7). Although we find out immediately (317, the facing recto page), that Raina’s purpose is arranging Craig like a coat-rack to place on him a heavy winter coat for a morning walk, the work allows just enough ‘time,’ i.e., space – the final panel on 316 (facing verso) – for Craig, standing upright and with his arms stretched out to the sides, to project the second iconic and ambiguous shadow (316.4). It is either a simple cross, suggesting Christ in general, or, given its conically pointed tip, a visual recollection of Christ the Redeemer. If the latter reading is right, the shadow adds to the purity of the scene an appropriately redemptive or salvific element. In any case, by casting that iconic shadow the very human Craig is implied to contain within him, or indeed to be, something that shares in the divine.37
It may thus matter, in line with the work’s interest in Craig’s visual attention or gaze, that neither iconic shadow is noticed by either character. Such a literal limit to the diegetic gaze may suggest more figurative limits to human vision or understanding of the higher dimensions of experience or existence. Although elsewhere both Craig and Raina are able to comment on theology, and although, as discussed above, Craig is later able to make metanarrative comment about the “marks” of his existence, only the reader is privy to the characters’ iconic shadows. It is as if, at this point in the story, the reader alone is able to understand the divine aspects of the characters’ experience and existence. The scene’s silence may thus be read as a comment on the limits of discourse, drawing contrastive attention to the visual to emphasize how those divine aspects may be represented not, as usual, in so many words but, precisely and powerfully, in so many images. (See further below, VI and VII.)
Through its iconic shadows, chapter five represents a culmination of the work’s depiction of metanarrative, metapictorial, and metacomics interest in the relationships between objects and images. Given the shadows’ iconicities, and in line with the work’s generally Christian thematic, that general interest is specified as the question of religious art: can profane images represent sacred objects? Of special interest in reading the work is its use of the capacity of lower-dimensional art to suggest via the formal, visual, or material sameness of object and image an ontological sameness of higher- and lower-dimensional things. Because of comics’ dimensional compression, although in-comics shadows are conventionally ‘only’ images of in-comics objects, visually and ontologically they are no lower or lesser than those objects, which are – of course but, as I hope to have shown, complexly – themselves ‘only’ images. In this way the work explores the possibility of identity or union, at least in representation, between image and object: between traditionally or theologically lower-order images like shadows, comics pages, and human beings, and higher-order objects like people, the real world, and the divine.38
VI. “Couldn’t I praise God with my drawings?”
Read in this way, Blankets bears strongly on the question of religion and art. Certain religious thinking would have us wish for a world without art, or more precisely for a world in which art is unnecessary or even impossible, or perhaps most precisely and ideally for no world at all – the world itself being a properly if inhumanly artful thing (acheiropoetika, ‘not made by [human] hands’). If art depends on and posits a separation of image from original, when the original in question is, as it were, the ultimate original, the originary, the divine, then the human world is at best only its image, at best a distant second best. In that situation, any separation of image and original is itself an image of the separation of heaven and earth, something to be endured and hardly celebrated. In theologically ideal contrast to that situation, there would be no need or possibility for art because, in heaven as not currently – as only miraculously – on earth, there is union of human and divine.39
From a Christian theological standpoint, the situation has been summarized nicely by van der Leeuw (1963, 187; see 177-188):
Representation always moves between two dangers: the perfection of the image (the autonomy of what is depicted) and the disappearance of the image (the prohibition of images, iconomachy, and finally the dissolution of contours into the nothing and all of mysticism). Religion calls the first danger idolatry; art opposes the second danger with the motto “art for art’s sake.” But the theology of the Christian Church circles about the problem of the image of God as about a mid-point. The concern is not peripheral questions nor liturgical problems, but the central facts of revelation of God and man. The relationship to “pictorial art” is determined by the relationship to the great doctrines of the creation of man in the image of God, and God’s incarnation.
Direct religious objections to art have seemed historically to depend on two distinct and even opposite arguments. First, that profane material is incapable of representing the sacred, making of all would-be religious art a kind of category mistake or instance of human pride. This is in turn part of a larger question that has long preoccupied European art theory and practice, of “standards of truth” in representation: what sorts of information are kinds of representation able to convey, and according to what standards may their accuracy be judged?40 This question leads in turn to that of the universal in the particular, which from the perspective of visual culture is that of the mutually constructive relationship between society and individual via media. Reaching that same question from the opposite standpoint, the second argument against religious art is that profane materials are, either in themselves or in their reception, too capable of representing the sacred and so tend to encourage idolatry. This raises again the question of art in society: when the community of viewers is also a community of believers, the question is loaded indeed. The historical forms assumed and inspired by these objections have ranged from ‘simple’ objection or discussion, through more complex doctrinal debates, to the active destruction of art, ‘iconoclasm.’41
As I hope already to have shown, Blankets is both itself an attempt at religious art and an extended meditation on the question of religion and art. In this section I seek to develop this reading further by focusing on how the work figures objections to religious art in a series of important moments and motifs in Craig’s life. As with the historical forms mentioned above, the arguments and counterarguments in Blankets are complicated. Although objections to 1. On sentimentality or kitsch see Solomon 1991 and McDannell 1995, 163-197.
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