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The Beautiful Ambiguity of Blankets: Comics Representation and Religious Art

By Benjamin Stevens

I. Introduction

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.

Figure 1: “a silent meditation (final scene, fourth and fifth pages)” (581, 582).
Figure 2: “a silent meditation (final scene, fourth and fifth pages)” (581, 582).

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.

Figure 3: “final scene, first page” (578.3).

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.

Figure 4: “final scene, second page” (579.3-4).

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

Figure 5: “final scene, fourth page” (580).

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

Figure 6: “shadows stretch their longest” (245.3)
Figure 7: “patterns of snow” (260).

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.

Figure 8: “depiction becomes equation (snowflakes and sparks)” (249.4-5).

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.

Figure 9: “developing iconicity of shadows and other images” (254.6).

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.

Figure 10: “frozen in motion” (321).

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

Figure 11: “Thompson’s Sallman’s The Head of Christ” (201.5-6).
Figure 12: “it hurts Him when you sin” (208).

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.

Figure 13: “unable to trace the transitions” (228.3).
Figure 14: “closure” (229.1).

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.

Figure 15: “a first iconic shadow” (315.1).

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

Figure 16: “a second iconic shadow” (316.4).

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 to1. On sentimentality or kitsch see Solomon 1991 and McDannell 1995, 163-197.

[27] I have no Biblical or later authority in mind for this idea. Biblical shadows (Hebrew tsel, Greek skia; see Anchor Bible Dictionary 5.1148-50, Pieter van der Horst) may be literal, i.e. projections of objects interrupting light (e.g. Gen 19:8, Ps. 80:10, Mk. 4:32), or figurative in a variety of senses, ranging from shadows that ‘protect’ (as shade does from heat: most often the protective shadow is God’s, e.g. Ps. 17:8, 36:8, 57:2) to shadows that are images of temporality or mortal vanity (e.g. Ps. 102:11, 109:23, Job 8:9). In the New Testament, that last sense is extended to the Hebrew Bible: Mosaic law is figured as “no more than a shadow of what was to come” (Col. 2:17, with fascinating image of light traveling backwards through time; cf. Heb. 8:5 and 10:1), in contrast to the substance of Christ. Two instances of ‘literal’ shadows with ‘figurative’ powers are the subjects of much visual representation: the Annunciation, when Gabriel tells Mary that she will be impregnated by the power of the Most High ‘overshadowing’ her (Gk. episkiazein; Lk. 1:35; cf., e.g., Filippo Lippi’s 1440 diptych and Jan van Eyck’s 1437 triptych); and when Peter’s ‘overshadowing’ (again episkiazein) heals the sick (Acts 5:15; cf. Masaccio’s 1437-8 painting); on the paintings see Stoichita 1997, 67-87.
[28] Stoichita 1997, 87, on “the figuration of the cast shadow” (67-87).
[29] “It’s not cold … | … You just need to keep moving,” Raina says, nicely drawing attention to the problem of motion in unmoving visual art; the panel recalls 280.4, depicting Raina’s recollection, via a photograph, of herself as a child in the snow.
[30] McCloud 1993, 66; see generally 63-68 and 59.
[31] Gombrich 1969, 40. On “the Beholder’s Share,” cf. his 1961, 181-287. This general requirement of a contribution by an artwork’s reader or viewer raises fascinating questions about the reader’s or viewer’s responsibility regarding art. For a classic discussion of complicity in art, referring to photography but applicable more broadly, see Sontag 1977, 8-12 (12: “the person who intervenes cannot record; the person who is recording cannot intervene”); cf. her 2004. McCloud raises the question in somewhat loaded terms (and images), shading ‘responsibility’ into ‘complicity’: “the audience is a willing and conscious collaborator [in] closure as the agent of change, time and motion” (65), such that “every act committed to paper by the comics artist is aided and abetted by a silent accomplice. | An equal partner in crime known as the reader” (68, discussing a two-panel sequence depicting, first, a man attacking another man with an axe and, second, a scream written scrawled across a night sky).
[32] Quoted material: McCloud 1993, 9 and 67. On the role of the comics creator in establishing conditions for closure, see idem 85-93.
[33] On The Head of Christ, see Morgan 2005, 1998, and 1996, and McDannell 1995, 27-32. Blankets ‘ ‘program’ for The Head of Christ merits separate study, but some comment is made below as appropriate.
[34] The chorus of stuffed animals recalls a scene from the film Akira (Otomo 1988), in which another troubled young man sleeps away from home and has nightmarish visions of stuffed animals come to life.
[35] Acceptance of sexuality is emphasized by the work’s iconography somewhat later: after a more explicitly sexual exploration with Raina, Craig returns to the guest-room and finds that The Head of Christ, at first still facing away (430.5), presently turns back through its normal orientation to face him with an approving but beatific smile (431.1-2).
[36] Chapter five’s final scene includes the work’s longest silence, at six pages, but unlike the work’s ending it is not entirely textless: as Craig and Raina leave the house, they pass a sign reading “No Thru Traffic” (319.3), lightly ironic in the same frame showing Raina confidently blazing a trail through the snow.
[37] The ambiguity of both shadows, and the capacity of human beings to project images of the divine, looks ahead to a crucial moment: Craig’s approval of a Biblical ambiguity (Luke 17:21: “within” and/or “among’) as beautiful and meaningful; see below, VII.
[38] Blankets thus partakes of what David Morgan has identified as “an unmistakable difference between some “high” [sc. religious art and thinking about art] and much “low” [sc. ditto]” (1998:150): unlike the former, the latter does “not seek to call into question the relation between sign and referent, but to knit the two together in a seamless join” (Morgan’s examples are drawn from Magritte, 21-58, and Sallman, 124-151). In other words, “popular religious art is forever affirming its coincidence with text” (147), such that “a popular aesthetic pivots on seeing as real what one has imagined,” i.e., an “aesthetics of everyday life” (12-17) affirming or acknolwedging that “belief is mediated” (idem 2005: 8), as opposed to the ‘high’ art historical “aesthetic of disinterestedness” traced in philosophy to Kant (26) and exemplified in Christian theology by Calvin; cf. 2005, esp. 1-47 and 75-112; McDannell 1995, esp. 1-66; and Stolnitz 1961. Such a ‘popular aesthetic’ may characterize modern American art; see Drucker 1999, 40: “The belief system that sustained such work is pragmatic and positivist in its nature, rather than founded on the principles of aesthetic negativity that fostered difficulty and resistance to consumption as tenets of an avant-garde politics.”
[39] That such union has itself been ‘represented’ in the figurative traditions of various religions does not affect the essential logic of this wish for no art, but it does show that such a wish is not in itself a direct objection to religious art and that, of course, not all religions or communities of belief embody the wish.
[40] See Gombrich 1969; Arnheim 1972; and Elkins 2003, 125-195.
[41] See Mitchell 2005, 5-27 and 125-44; Gamboni 1997, esp. 13-50 and 255-86, and Barasch 1992. Since historical forms are variously contextualized, it is productive to replace a ‘definitional’ question (i.e., ‘what art is (ir)religious?’) with a ‘situational’ one (i.e., ‘when is art considered (ir)religious?’); see Goodman 1978, 57-70.
[42] Or “approved of”: as noted, Craig’s parents, like Raina’s, are shown owning a print of Sallman’s The Head of Christ. One may also consider the Bible as significant in certain Christian societies more as image or icon than as text; see Marty 1982 for an historical survey and McDannell 1995, 67-102, on “The Bible in the Victorian Home.”
[43] ‘Blankets’ of snow are important in a work called Blankets and set amidst the heavy snowfalls of Michigan and Wisconsin. Snow’s natural passing, its melting, suggests the impermanence of human making (any “marks” are “temporary”) and how materiality affects connection and communication. This is articulated in a complex scene near the middle of chapter eight (504-13). Craig has just discovered in a phone conversation that Raina wants “space” and “to stay best friends” (502.1-2); his discovery is likened to the experience of the philosopher who has left Plato’s Republic‘s cave (514a-520a, with, as starting-points, the essays in Ferrari 2007) and “look[s] directly into the light of the sun” (503.2). On the next page, a large panel shows a broiling sun in the upper left-hand corner and, in the lower right-hand corner, the slumping or ‘melting’ words “And slowly the snow began to melt” (504.1), a natural process first affecting art, i.e., ruining a snowman (504.2), before revealing on facing pages frozen ground, fields, and other natural and cultural features (504.3-505). Craig is then depicted comparing the thawful present with his more pleasant memory of the ‘same’ landscape blanketed by snow, concluding that “Nothing fits together anymore” (506). The scene ends with a second dissatisfying, even boring, phone conversation: in the wake of the melt it is evidently uninspired – we see Craig playing with the phone and fiddling idly with its cord, and may share his boredom with a conversation entirely about mundane details – and concludes with Craig’s precise and desultory words: “Yeah. It’s melted here, too” (513.5).
[44] This immature preference for not leaving a mark of course differs from the work’s concluding meditation (581-2, quoted above, I).
[45] Further implicating this scene into larger structures of the work, Craig’s first inspired image, and indeed the only such image depicted although we see him drawing more, is a sketch of what he ultimately (but, as always, temporarily!) paints on Raina’s wall (143.4): the two of them sitting together in a tree. Cf. similar constellations of Christian faith and non-Christian or even, depending on the perspective, pagan sources of inspiration in other Christian authors, e.g., Augustine spurred to philosophy by Cicero or Dante guided by Virgil.
[46] Does it mean something that the scene has Craig masturbating, and so leaving his masturbatory mark on paper, with his left hand, while otherwise he draws with his right?
[47] Cf. Dante’s stated desire not to “misuse the gift,” apparently divine, of his poetic spirit ([i]ngegnoInf. 26.19-24).
[48] 1969, 97; see further 1961, 63-90.
[49] Van der Leeuw 1963, 181; see 177-188.
[50] Idem 186-7.
[51] Visible is the book title “Lamentations” and what appears to be “Chapter 3” (after two clear verse numbers, “17” and “18,” and one unclear but resembling “20”). Craig’s right index-finger, so important in Christian visual art, draws attention to: “I am the man who has seen affliction by the rod of his wrath. (2) He has driven me away and made me walk in darkness rather than light; (3) indeed, he has turned his hand against me again and again, all day long.” Faced with text such as this, one understands how doubts about translation might be “reassuring” indeed!
[52] “[T]he gospel that paid particular attention to women and children,” 564.1; Blankets‘ gendering merits separate study.
[53] This essay has benefited greatly from, and I am very grateful to: the journal’s editors; the anonymous readers of an early draft; the insightful participants in the Fourth Annual Symposium on Comics at Bard College, 17 April 2009, to whose student organizers – Jonathan Gorga ’09 and Danny Lewis ’09, both senior project advisees of mine – I owe a special debt; and the members of my Humanities seminar on “Reading Comics” at the University of Colorado-Boulder in summer 2009. Errors or infelicities are my own.


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  1. ir)religious) art are mainly expressed through Craig’s Christian interlocutors, and although Craig himself is of course the work’s main artist, neither they nor he may be read simply as ciphers for, respectively and as it were, anti- and pro-religious art positions. Likewise, although the work as a whole may be read as embodying, and as suggesting in metanarrative, the possibility of a positive answer to this section’s opening question – because of its Christian interests, Blankets is at least ‘art about religion’ if not ‘religious art’ – less clear is how its narrativized discourses about art interact with that metanarrative and/or stand on their own. Even a partial list of those discourses is manifold: teachers both use and object to drawing; drawing in general is distinguished from particular drawings disapproved of by Craig’s parents;42 Craig’s fellow church-goers suggest that visual art, especially art school, leads through idolatry to what they consider to be sexual perversions (homosexuality, Pygmalionism); Craig and his brother delight in drawing together as children and continue to, separately, through adolescence; and of course Craig draws, thinks about drawing, thinks about the world through and as drawing, and at one point burns his art in a personal iconoclasm.

    Since the work’s narrativized discourses about art are so many and complicated, I focus on an exemplary scene in chapter three (131-148). The chapter is evocatively titled “Blank Sheets”: as throughout, this refers simultaneously to snow and paper, thus examining their statuses as artistic media; in the context of the work’s interest in art and religion, the examination takes on religious tones.43 I discuss this scene with additional narrative summary in order to try to indicate how even this single scene, focused mostly on a single character, articulates a complex range of ideas about art and religion: about creation in general, human beings and the world as created in particular, art as counter-creation, and inspiration.

    The first four pages (131-4) depict “a certain challenge [Craig’s brother] Phil and [Craig] would undertake each winter” (131), “walking ATOP the snow rather than THROUGH it” (132.1, capitals original), the challenge being “to find how far [they] could venture on the icy snow before breaking through” (132.6). Thus simply explained – and charmingly depicted, as the two boys “gingerly” (133.1) pick their way across the “crispy coating” (132.3) – this childhood challenge conceals important complications for the scene and for the work. Although Craig “most often won” (133.5) by venturing farther than his brother, in another “sense, [he] always lost” (134.4, a borderless panel on one of the work’s infrequent unnumbered pages, 35 out of 581). Before being made explicit, that second and truer sense is first implied through simile including Biblical allusion: the brothers “had to step ever so gingerly- | like a cat | or like Jesus walking on the water” (133.1-3). Since the allusion is only that, not citation (of Mt. 14:22-33, Mk. 6:45-52, or John 6:16-21), the implication may be taken broadly: if the cat simile makes of walking on snow something vaguely non-human, the reference to Jesus of course makes of it something specifically superhuman or divine. Craig thus imagined himself competing not against his brother but “against [his] own clumsy humanity,” 134.1. Given the work’s pervasive analogy of snow and paper, as again in the chapter title, this second sense of ‘competition’ suggests that although it might be preferable not to leave a mark, it is impossible not to: like eventually breaking through the snow, leaving a mark – making art by drawing or painting – is part of the work’s image of human nature.44

    The childhood challenge and its theological implications contextualize what follows as the scene focuses more on drawing and/as creation. On the facing page, present-time Craig is depicted experiencing ‘artist’s block’: he holds a pencil, and on the table before him is a ‘blank sheet,’ but his thought-balloon is empty (135.3). That empty space is immediately filled by a memory (135.4-138) of his fifth grade Sunday School teacher asking: “Does anyone have an idea of what we might be doing in heaven?” (135.4). Craig’s answer, “Drawing” (136.3), leads to a short exchange with his teacher, who is at first indulgent (136.4: “Draw? For all eternity?”), then expository about what is obviously her own image of heaven (136.5-137.3), and finally, cruelly dismissive: when Craig asks, “Couldn’t I praise God with my drawings?,” she responds, “I mean, “Come on, Craig.” How can you praise God with drawings?” (137.6). Craig tries a final time: ” – draw His Creation – like trees and stuff …” (138.2); and his teacher has a fatal response: “But, Craig … He’s already drawn it for us” (138.3), such that art could be only ‘counter-creation’ and, thus, unnecessary.

    That this exchange had a lasting impact is clear from its framing by images of older Craig’s ‘artist’s block’ (as above, plus 139.1). Older Craig is also depicted as better able to formulate, if not to respond to, the combination of representational and theological issues implicit in his teacher’s response. After a short walk in the snow, he wonders whether he might draw “Christian cartoons – | – to win people to the faith” (140.5). Upon returning to face the ‘blank sheet,’ he is depicted as imagining himself drawing a cartoonish version of John 3:16 recited by an offensively jocular dog and featuring a Jesus who smiles brightly despite his crown of thorns and his being nailed, albeit bloodlessly, to the Cross. As Craig abandons that imagination, sighing and leaving the room, the blank sheet and unused pencil are foregrounded, thus emphasizing further how religious art may be unnecessary or impossible: if, per Craig’s fifth-grade teacher, God has “already drawn [creation] for us,” then he has also already spoken it, or the crucial aspects of it, in the form of Scripture.

    Figure 17: “Christian cartoons?” (141).

    To escape the lasting effect of this theological argument against art, as well as the partially aesthetic dissatisfaction with imagined religious art, Craig requires a letter from Raina: “her letter renewed my faith in the notion of making marks on paper” (142.1). This formulation looks ahead precisely to the work’s final scene, emphasizing again its importance in the work as a whole. At this point in the work, in light of the theological aspects of childhood challenge and Sunday school disappointment, it may suggest a nascent sense that art, even if not in praise of God or in the service of “the faith,” may exalt through depiction of the human condition. In this connection, important is the precise and complicated combination of Christian or religious and pagan or secular vocabulary: Raina’s letter has renewed Craig’s “faith,” not in God, but in making marks – his belief in art —, and thus he “found [his] muse” to inspire that native appreciation for counter-creation.45

    The final part of this crucial scene is almost literally pregnant with meaning as the next “mark” Craig leaves on paper is his semen from masturbation. His and Raina’s “letters were a flirtation,” he tells us, as we see him beginning slowly to feel his own body (145) in parallel to his sensual consideration of “her handwriting” (146): first he lifts his shirt with one hand, holding in the other a letter from Raina (145); then (146), as he pays closer attention to “her handwriting – including the indentions traced on each page from the page above” (“She must have been pressing her pen hard”), as he examines in particular the “alluring line” of her l’s and f’s (evocatively, the latter “fell”), he is shirtless and flushed, his left hand reaching towards his penis, still in his pants. On the facing page (147) he is naked and masturbating with his left hand (his penis is hidden in the shadows between legs and pelvis), reaching with his right hand for a blank sheet of paper. The text makes the religious overtones clear: “You probably wouldn’t believe me – if I told you this was the ONE and ONLY time I masturbated my senior year – | – but such are the will powers provided by faith” (1, 4); two kinds of ‘faith’ are thus at odds, one in art as inspired by Raina, the other in God. The final panel shows a thread of semen on a blank white background; that image continues onto the following page (148). That final page of the scene shows a series of small panels focuses on the semen slipping around a ‘blank sheet’ as Craig’s hands gingerly and tensely pick up the page, crumple it up, and place it in a trash can. The final panel of the scene (148.9), a page-wide panel of roughly comic-strip proportions, shows Craig in fetal position on the floor, right hand on the trash can, left hand on his head.46

    The scene thus ends in literal and figurative climax. In each of its four parts (childhood challenge, ‘artist’s block,’ Sunday school, and epistolary flirtation as artistic inspiration culminating in masturbation), the scene closely associates artistic activity with human nature, specifying the latter and problematizing the former. If art is part of human nature, it is figured as inferior to Jesus’ miraculous nature (we cannot walk on snow as he could on water, but must invariably leave a mark); inadequate as creation both in itself (the block) and in response to the fact of Creation “already drawn” (Sunday school), i.e., not only inadequate to represent the divine but also inappropriate as a medium of praise; and ultimately, powerfully likened to wasteful misuse of our inherited, God-given procreative capacity (thus a kind of prodigality).47 If, as in the first and fourth parts especially, we invariably leave a mark, this is, again, something temporarily or wastefully (prodigally) human and not eternally and generously divine: such marking (the artistic version of which is a kind of ‘faith’) is something to be overcome and replaced by more appropriate mediation, communal and probably scriptural, i.e., textual, of human existence and religious belief in the divine (another, more appropriate kind of ‘faith’).

    In this connection, Craig’s Sunday school teacher’s image of heaven is precisely contrastive: she imagines that we will praise God not in drawing but by singing, i.e., not in private visual art, with its spatial dimensions and idiosyncratic meanings, but in an elevated, even ineffable discourse of temporal dimension and communal scope. Such an image would distinguish between visual or spatial representations and those that are discursive or temporal by privileging the latter’s capacity to “form propositions.” As Gombrich has it, “[l]anguage can form propositions, pictures cannot. … Art can present and juxtapose images, even relatively unambiguous images, but it cannot specify their relationship.”48 As we have seen, however, and as Gombrich himself has articulated, if visual art does not “specify” the relationship, nevertheless it establishes the conditions within which the relationship may be specified by reader or viewer: what Gombrich has called “the Beholder’s Share” is fairly identical – down to the phrase “juxtapose[d] images” – to our elaboration of McCloud’s discussion of comics readerly closure.

    As a result, although the distinction between visual or spatial and discursive or temporal must complicate how temporal or profane images may be taken to represent eternal or sacred objects, it does not altogether eliminate the possibility. Whether or not the possibility is realized – out of a given work of art, in the experience of a given reader or viewer – is a separate question which, depending on the reader, may admit of no worldly answer. As van der Leeuw has it, “[i]n pictorial art, motion is fixed, representation is complete– and terminal. Therefore, the unification of art and religion, as one of the possibilities of expression for beauty and holiness, is an even greater miracle in the pictorial arts than in the others.”49 He concludes by evoking, as do many in a context of image as ‘only image,’ a world without art: “Where human life empties into divine life and unites with it, all images pale. “Do you want to know how I passed beyond the creation of images?” This question of a medieval mystic reproduces the mystic experience superbly.”50

    One does not have to believe in van der Leeuw’s ‘miracle,’ nor aspire to a world without art – without human creation of image – to consider Blankets ‘ comics images as counterexample to Gombrich’s assertion, as arguing for how we may, indeed, “praise God with … drawings.” As discussed in this and the previous section, iconic shadows would seem to be precisely pictorial specifications of a relationship between lower- and higher-order objects. At the least, if they do not form propositions, they encourage the reader to meditate on the possibility of such a relationship being non-propositional, spatial instead of discursive, eternal instead of temporal.

    As already suggested, Blankets figures ‘official’ dismissal of the possibility – and its ‘unofficial’ counterparts in other diegetic disparagements of art – as a mistaken inversion of the truth. In the work’s theological economy, visual art is figured as better suited to representing eternal being than are discursive media – like song or language – whose representations are even more temporary or transitory. Lower-dimensional visual representations – whether visual art like pictures or comics images, or things like in-comics shadows – supply static imagery that require a certain kind of readerly closure, a meditative closure whose internal timelessness may allow timeful, mortal humans to approach the timelessness of the eternal divine.

    VII. Conclusions: the ‘beautiful ambiguity’ of comics representation

    In this connection – out of the contrasts between visual or spatial and verbal or temporal kinds of representation – comes the work’s dénouement, and the final stage of Craig’s development, culminating in the closing meditation on human marks on which this essay focused first. The first page of the final chapter (545) has a single, central panel depicting that Protestant icon, the NIV Bible, and short text of Craig speaking of making “a conscious effort to leave [his] Bible behind” as he leaves his parents’ house. His effort is prompted by his discovery of a “troubling matter” (547.3.4): the book of Ecclesiastes was evidently composed at “different points in [Hebrew’s] history” (548.2.3) including “phrases … penned more than 600 year’s after Solomon’s time” (3.6) and thus arguing against the traditional attribution (given ‘official’ voice in this passage by Craig’s pastor, 2.4-5) of the book to that “good king.” Ecclesiastes is only the starting-point: Craig cannot accept his pastor’s suggestion of “recogniz[ing] this as a growth process of the Bible” (549.3.3), an idea he takes as running counter to “the words of the Bible [coming] straight from the mouth of God” (549.4.6). He thus concludes with precise evocation of the contrasts in representation just discussed and implied throughout: “It suddenly struck me as absurd that something as divine as God’s speech could be pinned down in physical (mass-produced) form” (549.4.8). His “faith came crumbling down so easily” (550), and he “hid [his] Bible” (551.1).

    Craig rediscovers his Bible, and seems to renew his faith, only after returning home for the third time, “for a Christmas” (558.1, perhaps evoking the trinity and the three days of Jesus’ resurrection). In the meantime, Craig had moved to the city and gorged himself on books: they are depicted without titles, but we may infer that the Bible was not among them. On his third return home, and on his rediscovery of his Bible deep in a box in a closet, the Bible’s previously troubling ambiguities are a source of relief and renewed faith: as Craig puts it, precisely, they “grac[e] nearly every page of the Bible” (563.4.4). “I like “OR”s. Doubt is reassuring” (5.6).51 For Craig, a particularly “beautiful ‘OR'” is in Luke,52 when Jesus says, as the work quotes on a fragment of paper, the “OR” torn away to the bottom-right corner of the panel: “The kingdom of God does not come visibly, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is WITHIN you.” “or AMONG” (ibid.). Craig’s imagination of the scene is depicted in three panels over two pages. In the first (564.2), a man asks Jesus to “tell us when the kingdom of God will come” (with interesting focus on the temporal, not the physical as in Jesus’ response), and Jesus speaks Luke’s “The kingdom” through “VISIBLY” (thus capitalized); in the second (564.3), Jesus is depicted facing the reader, arms lifted to his sides (neither “HERE IT IS,” his right, nor “THERE IT IS,” his left), recalling Craig as Christ the Redeemer (316.4); and in the third panel, occupying the entire facing page (565), Jesus is depicted with face uplifted beatifically and eyes closed, his hands loosely to his chest, speaking Luke’s “because” through “WITHIN and/or AMONG you” as anonymous individuals look on and accept spiraling branches from his chest into theirs.

    Figure 18: “‘WITHIN and/or AMONG'” (565).

    Despite Jesus’ and/or Luke’s suggestion that the kingdom of God is invisible, then, the work is able to depict Craig imagining in the narrative – and so itself depicts as metanarrative – the scene of Jesus’ statement, culminating in a representation of the kingdom of God as both “within” (Jesus and the individuals, each with hands clasped to his or her own chest) and “among” (they are interconnected by the spiraling branches). In other words, although the kingdom of God itself cannot be depicted – it “does not come visibly” – visual art is nonetheless able to represent how that kingdom, how the divine, is experienced and understood by human beings both individually (“within”) and socially (“among”). By offering a kind of visual commentary or exegesis on Luke, the scene may be read as suggesting the possibility of such visual commentary via comics art more generally.

    Indeed, that suggestion is embodied by the work as a whole, which both in narrative and as metanarrative suggests how the ‘beautiful ambiguity’ inherent in human experience of the divine may be well captured by the formal ambiguities and ironies of comics art. In the scene just discussed, that possibility is given a particular visual form: Craig is depicted kneeling in Jesus’ shaped but empty train, reaching his conclusions about beautiful ambiguity while contemplating a gift from Raina – the only memento he didn’t burn —, a hand-made blanket. Of obviously marked importance in work called Blanekts, this blanket (or, “quilt”) embodies the work’s metacomics awareness of itself as an art object open to readerly interaction and so to positively conflating seemingly distinct domains of experience or existence. On the very next page, the blanket is explicitly described as “like a comic strip”: when its squares are “read in sequence, like a comic strip, they told a story” (566.4.5). That the story allows or requires readerly interaction, closure, is made clear upon the blanket’s first appearance, where Craig and Raina are shown moving through – ‘within and/or among’ – its squares just as if they were characters in its comics story, and it were the paneling on a page not otherwise (i.e., straightforwardly or traditionally) paneled (183).

    Figure 19: “blanket as comic” (566 and 183)
    Figure 20: “blanket as comic” (566 and 183)

    The blanket is only a particularly marked example of how the work’s metacomics interests more generally raise questions about representation and religious art. The medium’s formal facts of dimensional compression (i.e., three or more dimensions represented in two) and ontological ambiguity (i.e., all in-comics ‘objects’ are of the same material ‘stuff’), and Blankets ‘ particular approach to contrasts and in-comics shadows, are analogous to, and so help to represent, the religious or theological question grounded in textual ambiguities like “within and/or among”: the question of a human condition defined at least in part as being “in the image of” God (Gen. 1:26-28). At the same time as Blankets is a complex exploration of the comics medium – raising the question, as above, of what it means for an artwork to metanarrate itself as ‘only’ image when ‘image’ links human and divine – it raises, and responds to, the most general question of religion and art: as posed above, are profane or earthly or human materials able to represent the sacred, the heavenly, and the divine? As an extended meditation – narrative and metanarrative – on the human fact and pleasure of leaving marks, and as itself an example of such marks, Blankets would seem to offer a very positive answer indeed.53


    [1] On ‘silent’ comics or ‘wordless books,’ see Beronä, 2008 and 2001, and Groensteen 1997 and 1998, with Gutjahr and Benton 2001.
    [2] Mitchell 1994, 48; see generally 35-82. In comics, see the work of Chris Ware (e.g., “I Guess,” juxtaposing a superhero visual narrative with an unrelated text, reprinted in Brunetti 2006, 364-369; see Kannenberg 2001 and Raeburn 2004) and Grant Morrison (e.g., The Invisibles (DC/Vertigo 1994-2000), with Wolk 2007, 258-88).
    [3] See classically Lessing 1766 (1984), more recently Greenberg 1940.
    [4] On representation see Summers 1996.
    [5] See van der Leeuw 1963; Morgan 2005 and 1998; Gombrich 1961, 116-178. On positive and negative responses to this question, see further below, VI.
    [6] “This graphic novel is based on personal experiences, though the names have been changed, and certain characters, places, and incidents have been modified in the service of the story,” unnumbered 4. On autobiography in comics, see Hatfield 2005a, 108-151.
    [7] In that Biblical context, “image” is Hebrew tselem and demut; cf. Gen. 5:1-3, and 9:6. On the idea, cf. Curtis 1992.
    [8] Cf. McCloud’s seminal definition of comics as “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence” (1993: 9).
    [9] On ‘word and image,’ see Mitchell 1996: ‘word and image’ is (54) “a dialectical trope rather than a binary opposition,” (56) “a pair of terms whose relation opens a space of intellectual struggle, historical investigation, and artistic/critical practice.” On ‘image/text,’ see Mitchell 1994: “the figure of the image/text [is] a wedge to pry open the heterogeneity of media and of specific representations.”
    [10] Mitchell 1994, 100 and 55. Cf. Morgan 2005, 1-47: “[t]he underlying question for scholars of visual culture is: how do images participate in the social construction of reality?” (30); and Drucker 1999, 46 n.4: “The continued disdain for the relation between media culture and fine art has retarded the development of useful critical frameworks for discussion of a changed dynamic in which fine art’s potency as a tool of radical critique and epistemological defamiliarization has been largely circumscribed by its insular isolation within academic culture”; with Elkins 2003, Homer 1998, and Summers 1996.
    [11] 2005, 47; generally 28-56. I have been especially inspired in my provisional approach to comics reading by Hatfield 2005a, 32-67. Cf. Carrier 2001; Harvey 1996, esp. 1-15; and Mitchell 1987, 75-94.
    [12] See Mitchell 1996, 48: “What is art history, after all, if not an attempt to find the right words to interpret, explain, describe, and evaluate visual images?”; and Carrier 1996 on “the contrast between the art writer, who must describe in a text, and the artist, who may feel that such a narrative takes us away from the artwork itself” (134), concluding that “[t]he task of art history is to do justice to the concerns of both the structuralist and the aesthete” (140).
    [13] The sequence emphasizes the role of ‘closure’ in sequential art (see below, n.27).
    [14] “I wanted to burn everything I’d ever drawn” (57.3), including “my memories” (59.3); see VI, below, and cf. 497 (Craig’s burning art is the light-source in Plato’s cave), 147-8 (Craig ejaculates onto paper, then discards it in a trashcan), and 47 (Craig and his brother discard discovered animal skulls in the barrel).
    [15] Cf. 83-87, where a much younger Craig takes a similar walk in the snow, leaving but not noticing his tracks; and 139-140, wondering whether to draw (discussed below, VI).
    [16] Hatfield 2005b.
    [17] Furthering this metacomics moment, the page may allude to comic strips via the comic-strip proportions of its panels and the visual device of the dotted line, familiar from, e.g., Bill Keane’s The Family Circus (whose Sunday dimensions and vantage-points are also evoked by the single-panel page of 578).
    [18] On shadows in visual art see Milner 2005; Casati 2003; Stoichita 1997, esp. 42-122; Kaufmann 1993, 49-78; Nodelman 1988, 153-4; Bauer 1987; Junichiro 1977; and Gombrich 1961, 267-70; and cf. the Kuntshallen Shadow Play catalogue. On light, color, and perspective see Kemp 1990.
    [19] A convenient introduction to semiotics and types of signs is Sebeok 1994; see seminally the work of Charles Peirce, conveniently edited in Peirce 1991.
    [20] E.g., “[p]eople who work with [some kinds of twentieth-century microscopic] images learn not to look at them as if they were ordinary photographs of translucent objects. … In effect, light and shade have to be rethought, producing a very unexpected kind of visual competence” (Elkins 2003, 161, emphasis added; see 125-195).
    [21] Cf. Lefèvre 1999, 142: “The form of a drawing draws attention to the object represented in a way that deviates from ordinary perception. … Thus a drawing or a painting does not present itself to us as a kind of copy of the original object but rather as a representation of this object on a flat surface.” This is emphasized in Blankets by the facing pages of chapter beginnings: a verso page displaying the Roman numeral and title of the chapter in a rectangle, and a recto page whose single ‘panel’ mirrors that rectangle: the formal identity of non-diegetic and diegetic material suggests ontological identity.
    [22] Cf. Arnheim 2005, 54: “In a work of art, everything is equally true, and all truth is known by one and the same means of visual evidence.” Cf. the 20th-century art historical interest in ‘simulacra,’ images problematizing the status of objects; see esp. Benjamin 1968, 217-52; Baudrillard 1994, 1-42; and Jameson 1991; with a helpful discussion in Camille 1996.
    [23] That suggestion is strengthened by how the nonsense pattern is associated elsewhere with Craig’s dazed awakening (228; discussed below, V) and television static (235.4).
    [24] Blankets‘ ‘program’ of trees merits separate study. For blindness and other failure of sense-perception of the Christian divine, cf., e.g., Ex. 19:18 (Moses on Mt. Sinai), John 1:7-9, Augustine on divine ‘light’ (Confessions 7.10.16), and Dante on the brightness of heavenly beings (Purgatory 2.37-39).
    [25] Craig is an amusingly slow learner and Raina more insistent through ‘kinds’ of kissing: his “Eskimo” kiss, her “butterfly,” and finally, wordlessly, the kiss. Cf. 552-3, where Craig, living in the city, is comically distracted by various women to the point of physical danger.
    [26] Blankets ‘ undeniable sentimentality is part of a mixture of tones, including much darker tones and diegetic comment on sentimentality (e.g., when Craig lays it on thick about Raina’s eyes, “the richest, deepest brown – almost black – mysterious pools you could drown yourself in,” she laughs and says, “Maybe you’ll drown yourself in your own cheeziness!” (270.4 []

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