Home / Comics / Bars on a cage: exploring the art and form of comic panels

Bars on a cage: exploring the art and form of comic panels

“They’re just bars on a cage. The story, the adventure, is locked behind them—separated from us.”

-Tom King, The Omega Men [1]

That in America the comic is condemned as a hybrid, that the form has no compelling tradition, that its emphatic demands are met only intermittently – all this has been said, and censured, often enough.[2] “Badly drawn, badly written, and badly printed – a strain on the young eyes and young nervous systems – the effects of these pulp-paper nightmares is that of a violent stimulant.”[3] It was the mark of the unacademic to engage in the field.[4] And yet, the comic represents a unique artistic structure, reflective of both literary canon, and its perceived menial place in said canon. While the signifiers of the comic appear juvenile, aliens in tights defending liberal values, the form is such that it cannot ever be truly replicated outside its medium. While Sartre writes of prose’s simultaneous certainty and ambiguity through the thing and the sign, and Deleuze’s writes of cinematic image and movement, the comic remains in purgatory; in a world of images and words, what value is there in the study of their combination?[5] The utterance of such a question has historically assumed its own answer. Rather than assessing the value, we ask whether the value even exists. Thus, the study of the comic is done in resistance to internal and cultural prejudice. The comic is, put simply, a form that is valued outside its own terms, and yet possesses that which cannot be reproduced outside itself, and to understand the comic is to articulate a critique of the dominant ideology of literature that allowed comics to evolve.

Literary canon often reflects a need for some dominate, unifying ideology, often referred to as something “organic.” Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory examines the history of the “organic” literary tradition. He writes:

“The largely concealed structure of values which informs and underlies our factual statements is part of what is meant by ‘ideology’. By ‘ideology’ I mean, roughly, the ways in which what we say and believe connects with the power-structure and power-relations of the society we live in. It follows from such a rough definition of ideology that not all of our underlying judgements and categories can usefully be said to be ideological.”[6]

The history of literature is that of value-judgements and cultural transformation, dictated by ideology. Thus, Eagleton argues, “canon” is a statement of cultural values. The dominance of literary canon only reflects the ideology of a culture, and it is imperialist and nationalist tendencies that allow for the integration of canon. The study of the organic culture serves only to empower the dominate class of study, and convert those that already agree with them.[7] And it is this tradition that has rejected the comic, except in the cases where its structure is subservient to the existing aesthetic ideology.

comic panels
Figure 1: Action Comics #1 (Art by Joe Shuster)

In the late 1920s, and early 1930s,when the comics industry was born, we find ingrained ideas of domination. Jewish domination is at the heart of Superman’s creation, along with early stories of superheroics that reflect social systems: land lords, mob bosses, and corrupt governments. The treatment of the comic by the arts runs parallel to the struggles of their writers.[8] This evaluation of canon and Jewish culture would require its own paper so rather than chase this thread, I introduce this element to showcase the ideology comics operate in. They are the subjects of domination and yet seek the approval of their masters. Comics are characterized by their appeals to evolve into whatever the dominate ideology considers “literature.”

comic panels

    Figure 2: Batman: Cacophony #2 (Art by Walt Flanagan)[9]

This demonstrates two features of the comic that are worth exploring. First, the comics that receive the recognition they so desire comes at the cost of its own unique artistic expression. The recognized literary comic is one that either deconstructs the value of the comic in the first place, or adapts itself into another, already recognized medium. Second, the development of comic production is characterized by a desire to mimic the tools of other mediums. What can be found in music, or film or prose is transformed to work within the structure of sequential art. However, as Alan Moore says, “If we only see comics in relation to movies then the best that they will ever be is films that do not move.”[10]

The last two decades’ host what many describe as the comic book film renaissance. This not only includes the creation of two cinematic universes, but daring comic book concepts put to film, like alternate dimensions, multiple time lines and alien invasions.[11]Prior to Marvel and DC’s streak of adaptions, we saw films that attempted to translate the experience of the comic into cinematic language. Ang Lee’s Hulk attempted comic panels on screen, while Zack Snyder utilized slow motion to recreate iconic imagery from Watchman and 300. In all of these cases, the translation attempted to only provide us with the superficial tells of comic tropes. Showing multiple images on screen is not the same as a panel grid, slow motion is not an accurate depiction of a panel’s place in space and time, and extravagant plots are not equivalent to a comic’s story structure. In every attempted translation, film must maintain its own superstructure or else it risks incoherence. While this does not discredit The Dark Knight or Captain America: Civil War as cinematic achievements, it also does not serve to legitimatize or integrate comics as artistic canon. It only entertains the notion of the comic in the language of the dominate forms.

Faced with this, comics attempts to (1) replicate the tools of the literary in its own limited capacity, and (2) deconstruct itself. Comics arethe jealous medium. They are not music, yet they wish to convey lyrics. They are not film, yet they seek to master pace. They are not prose, yet they plainly describe what can be seen. They are not fine art, yet they construct elaborate imagery through eclectic styles.[12] It is this jealously that leads the medium to deconstruct its own value. The defining texts of the modern age, The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, share one major question:the artistic relevance of their central characters. Dark Knight Returns ask what the world is missing without the Batman. Watchmen asks what the world can gain from the concept of the superhero. In attempting to answer these questions, both texts deconstruct the worth of the comic as a form of storytelling, as well as attempt to use cinematic tools of action, pace, and set design to achieve in comic form what is natural in other arts. The issue at stake here is that adaptions miss this intimate relationship of structural jealousy that motivate the comic’s use of form.

comic panels
Figure 3: The Question #17 (Art by Denys Cowan & Rick Magyar)

Watchmen cannot be translated to film for the simple fact that it is a comic about comics. The ability to control events at a turn of the page is integral to the story’s cathartic impact. Similarly, The Dark Knight Returns requires its deformed art and inner monologues to question the sanity of anyone engaged in as futile a war as Batman. It is these texts that became the standard for future generations of comic writers. Starman’s deconstruction of heroic motivation is a direct result of Alan Moore and Frank Miller’s pessimistic view of altruism.

It is no accident that Watchmen, the single most cited account of what has become known as comic book deconstruction, comes from Alan Moore, a fan of Jacques Derrida but perhaps Moore misunderstood deconstructionism?[13] Derrida saw deconstruction as revealing false assumptions and the value of the written word, Moore saw little value in the superhero comics he wrote. “Someone came up with the term graphic novel. These readers latched on to it; they were simply interested in a way that could validate their continued love of Green Lantern or Spider-Man without appearing in some way emotionally subnormal.”[14] His deconstruction lead more towards devaluation. Moore’s series retooled characters from previously held Charlton Comics, heavily influenced by Steve Ditko.[15] In choosing different characters, Moore had symbolically stated that any true evaluation of comics can only come from an outside view.[16] It’s the ability to turn Captain Atom into Doctor Manhattan that allows for a critique of Superman. It was a clear statement against what had come prior to the deconstruction. However, this is not wholly consistent with Derrida’s method. For Derrida, we inherit the past: “Here again what seems to be out front, the future, comes back in advance: from the past, from the back.”[17] Foundations of our Being come from traditions we cannot deny. And so deconstruction is the resolution of the tension between the old and creation of the new. The deconstruction allows one to displace key assumptions and push a text beyond itself. One can argue that Watchmen did this for comics, and yet such a method would benefit from the original characters. Furthermore, Alan Moore did not see his critique as opening up the text, and neither did Frank Miller when he wrote The Dark Knight Returns. Moore and Miller admit that what comics have taken from them is wrong. Thus, the goal of deconstructionism has not truly been satisfied.

However, what Watchmen truly did, whether intentionally or not, is reveal the structural power of comics that came from its decades under the heel of the other arts. It is with one tool that comics is able to appropriate the natural characteristics of the other arts that is spends its time in ressentiment of: the panel grid.  Artist Dave Gibbons’ helped Moore tap into this by creating a study of panel grids. Watchmen’s use of the 9-panel grid forces every panel to convey as much as possible. Any break in the standard structure is effective only because of its heavy use of structure. The 9-panel grid allows for a concrete narrative flow.

Setup. Beat. Payoff.

Setup. Beat. Payoff.

Setup. Beat. Payoff.

Every panel on the page becomes important to the flow and there are no miscommunications about the driving actions. However, this easy, expected structure is what allows for the full impact of structural deviations. Jack Kirby mastered the art of limited paneling and maximum action through his manipulation of this simple grid. Rather than nine panels, Kirby would convey story with four or six. The more panels on the page, the more we understand a single action, the less panels on the page, the more actions we have to understand. This unintuitive logic is powered by the expectation of the panel grid and creates a unique sense of pacing that film or prose cannot replicate. Gibbons understood these kinds of expectations and so Watchmen’s 9-panel grids became complex arrangements that manipulate expected actions.

Panels are a necessary structure of sequential art, and the basic unit of the comic.[18] Every panel is a singular moment of time, frozen in the middle of various other moments.The arrangement of these moments creates a progression, or flow of time.

comic panels
Figure 4: Time in Comics

Comic reading rests on the concept of closure, observing the whole, but perceiving the parts.[19] It is this effect that allows the reader to create the illusion of time passing as a story unfolds panel to panel. The amount that can be done through the use of one panel is limitless. Whereas Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s Ultimates 2 may create one eight-page fold out that encompasses the entirety of a multi-character battle, others might simply tell stories economically, using sizing and placement of objects to convey dominance, submission, power and identity. As is the case with Jack Kirby or Steve Dillon.

comic panels
Figure 5: The Ultimates 2 #13 (Art by Bryan Hitch)

In the exaggeration of only a single panel, the image can be treated as a thematic end in itself. The power of one panel in a sequence or its exaggeration into a full page spread allows that image to capture the idea of the moment as well as the moment itself. Hitch channels kakemono, stressing not the motion but rather the mythic potential of a single image’s implication of sequence. Individual moments serve no purpose here because it is the idea of the battle between the Ultimates and Liberators that the reader is left to grapple with. Comics as a medium is characterized by the panel layout and so images like these allow a moment to seem greater than the structure itself, since no sequence could convey the scale of this one, exaggerated image. And yet, this does not discredit the importance of layouts. It is the expectation of the structure that allows its subversion to have meaning.

comic panels
Figure 6: Watchmen #5 (Art by Dave Gibbons)

Watchman understood the power of its expected structure, so it took opportunities to manipulate the experience of the story through alterations in paneling. Watchmen #5, for example, has front-to-back mirroring pagesuntil we see Adrian’s attack in the middle of the issue. And while the panels use this mirror structure, the issue analyzes the mirror of black and white morality represented by Rorschach.Utilized correctly, the monotony of the basic panel grid canpower the spread, like Watchmen, or depower it like Hawkeye.

comic panels
Figure 7: Hawkeye (Vol 4) #1 (Art by David Aja)

In Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Hawkeye, the introductory spread is a moment of power, channeling the dynamic nature of superhero comics that one has come to expect, as well as referencing a moment from The Avengers film that comics operate in the shadow of. This powerful moment is immediately undercut by the sequence, a story consequence of allowing such a dynamic scene to occur. This then foreshadows the entire thematic purpose of the series. It puts into tension the dynamic nature of the medium with the idleness of the plot, focusing heavily on the structural tension that allows any single panel to have power.

While modern comics have liberalized the use of spreads and scope of singular panels, other works rested on the sequence to convey transformation or progression. Famously, Frank Miller retooled Stan Lee and John Romita’s Kingpin for his run on Daredevil. The difficulty for Miller was in trying to affirm his own identity in a character so visually defined by a previous era. Rather than any one moment in the character’s current status quo, Miller utilized the standard setup, beat, payoff format to encompass his reinvention.

comic panels
Figure 8: Daredevil (Vol 1) #170 (Art by Frank Miller)

The above sequence from Daredevil #170 has power through its three moments, and no one panel can be isolated. The first has Kingpin drawn in the style of John Romita. The features are clear-cut. Its use of color creates active engagement, while the expression conveys neutrality. Panel 2 is transformative. Here, the once clear features of mouth and eyes are obscured. The purple is put in contention with the blackness around it. Panel 3 now reshapes the character, showing rougher features, sharper eyes and a menace that inverts the previous neutrality. Whereas Panel 1 was a standard foe, Panel 3 is a neo-noir threat, thematically fitting of Miller’s story. This setup, beat and payoff works to affirm Miller’s new identity but the panel’s motion forces it to never leave the sequence. The constant movement of Kingpin’s hand towards the cigarette forces the panels to always remain connected.

These typical constructs are what Watchman attempts to define and challenge. For Alan Moore it shows the limitations of comics, however, for Grant Morrison it shows the potential. Where Moore may call himself a deconstructionist, Morrison calls himself a reconstructionist. In The Multiversity: Pax America, Morrison attempts to remake Watchmen to demonstrate this opposing view. However, he does so through the use of the original characters that Watchmen is based on. In this, we see a contrast to Moore’s devaluation: that comics are their own tool of evaluation and evolution. It is not that Captain Atom is not capable of critiquing ideas of Superman, it is that he has not yet done so. A point also affirmed by Dennis O’Neil’s The Question which had the title character read and take notes from his Watchmen-counterpart, Rorschach. Morrison’s reconstructionism is simply a clearer representation of Derrida’s deconstructionism aimed specifically at Moore. He channels the history of comics to tell what can be referred to as the reverse Watchmen.

Pax Americana demonstrates this through form; it pushes the perceptual boundaries of comics reading. Where typical comic panels demonstrate a forward progression of time, the first action of this story has every panel regress time.

comic panels
Figure 9: The Multiversity: Pax Americana (Art by Frank Quitely)

This opening act allows the comic to immediately remind the reader of how their perception serves the narrative. The Multiversity as a story actually uses the act of reading as the driving plot. Each issue features a panel of the characters discovering the next issue. The characters within attempt to explain that reading the comic is what forces actions in their dimension to happen. If one chooses to stop reading, the multiverse is saved. If one chooses to continue, the multiverse resumes its collapse. In this sense, the story can end at any point the reader chooses to stop reading because the act of perception is the plot. Pax Americana specially addresses the reader’s role in the construction of narrative:

comic panels
Figure 10: The Multiversity: Pax Americana (Art by Frank Quitely)

This self-awareness of the comic further pushes what Alan Moore wanted to deny, the ability of the comic to evolve from its own past. That maxim is a literal function of the story and the personal philosophy of Grant Morrison, a man who is no stranger to pushing the boundaries of comic perception.[20] For Morrison, the lesson of a comic is not its justification of existence to other arts, but rather the specific relationship any art can create with any reader, and how comics are able to add to that tradition. In reconstruction, Morrison demonstrates the foundational assumptions of who, for example, Batman is. Then, allows the deconstruction of those assumptions to yield new discoveries. The same is true of Pax Americana which ends with the affirmation of the hero’s place after discovering their faults rather than Watchmen’s suspension of the hero’s purpose given their faults. The tensions of the progression and regression of time is then a metaphor for the old and new methods of comics writing, marked by Watchmen.

This assessment of comic panel story telling has so far made several references to the perception and influence of time. Time is a powerful tool in comics since a complex understanding of space and time is what allows one to read a comic in the first place. We have thus far discussed how comics are viewed by literary canon, what literary canon truly means, and how comics desire to attain the rank of literature has resulted in its own devaluation (in adaptation and deconstruction) and the creation of its toolkit. This toolkit is a collection of studies in panel work that allow the comic to do differently what other arts are naturally capable of. However, the largest tool in comics’ favor is space and time since the unique characteristic of the panel layout allows for a constant immersion in time and space perception. This can then be discussed in multiple ways. First, as how continuity within comics metaphorically reflect the basicfeatures of time. Second, how panel layouts allow for an analysis of thematic content and Bakhtinian theory of chronotope.

Stan Lee often said that every comic is someone’s first. Due to this, every issue of a classic Marvel comic would recap every aspect of the story thus far; who the character is, where they work, what powers they have, what’s going on in their life and what they are about to do in this issue.[21] Even now, we feel the need to provide statements regarding where we are in the current story arc and who the characters are.[22] Mainstream comics is forever under the assumption that we are always in the middle of events. No reader is ever going to know everything that informs a certain story of a character, nor will we expect a reader to follow one story’s consequences into every other story. This assumption is what leads to debates on continuity’s place.

Like Umberto Eco wrote of Superman, there is a dissonance created inside the medium regarding whether or not previous stories matter.[23] Does Superman get one step closer to death as each monthly issue is released? Within the content of the story, linear life lines do not exist for most characters.[24] Systems of age do not exist in any coherent way. While Spider-Man aged from high school, to college, to marriage, this was all undone through several other storylines, and now his age is placed in a comic-limbo. We often mark several milestones, such as Batman: Year One, and Jim Gordon saying he’s worked with Batman for ten years after the events of No Man’s Land. And yet, for the purposes of comic production, these “ages” mean nothing. They are either contradicted, retconned, or simply remain unaddressed until they become convenient for future stories.[25]

Comics writers find this relationship to continuity difficult to work with and so we see several approaches to how timelines are handled. Morrison writes stories that intentionally question the structure of comics, as we’ve seen. In addition to The Multiversity, Morrison’s Doom Patrol, Seven Soldiers and Batman are all stories that address the relationship of the characters to their previous “lives.” Morrison favors a concept of hyper-time which simply means that continuity is a river. That river flows into several smaller lakes. It is up to the writer to decide which lakes the main river draws from. Geoff Johns, due to his power in the industry, retcons and creates in an attempt to unify continuity into a stable universe, evidenced by his reinvention of the Green Lantern mythology through the use of Emerald Twilight, and his hand in two rebooted universes: The New 52 and DC Rebirth. Writers like Jonathan Hickman and Brian Michael Bendis represent a middle ground between Morrison and Johns. Other writers may not especially care about continuity, choosing to focus on the single moment within decades of canon that their story represents. This would include Jeff Lemire, Scott Snyder, Judd Winick, Dennis Hopeless, Skottie Young and Mark Waid, to name a few. And as one would expect, the continuity oriented writers, the universe overseers, and the singular story writers create competing accounts of events that everyone is forced to work with; like the panel, a constant friction between a one writer’s linear progression of canon and another’s frozen moment in time.

However, continuity in this large-scale sense is not always a factor. Only universe oriented comics like mainstream Marvel and DC perpetuate problems in continuity, and thus often feel the need to write comics about the concepts of continuity, such as Secret Wars (2015) and Flashpoint. Like the macro-scaled impact of ideology on literary theory, there is a micro-scaled impact of ideology in comic continuity. Again, this can be the subject of its own paper but I want to make clear the point that comics are motivated and often characterized by their relationship to literary ideology, comprised of the jealousy towards other mediums, the justification of its own existence, and the long history of comics reinventing other artistic tools. A final point is found in how Tom King’s The Omega Men uses panels to conveys thematic content, and an understanding of chronotope.

Where other arts rely on their ability to create subtext within their work, comics is capable of doing this through its own structure. The layouts are the subtext. King and artist Barnaby Bagenda designed an intentionally mirroring structure throughout all 12 issues of The Omega Men. Like the Omega symbol(Ω), the series’ layouts are symmetrical. Issues 1-6 mirror 7-12, and the first ten pages of each issues mirror the last ten.[26] This allows for a thematic representation of the story’s events, as well as creating a detailed study of how comics tell story. The Omega Men is a metaphor for middle eastern conflict; Imperial nations relocating people to already occupied land (Israel/Palestine), wars over natural resources (oil), and religious conflicts over two variations of the overall same story (Shia/Sunni). In order to understand the narratives of these opposing views, King uses an intentionally mirrored structure that calls attention to the concept of framing events.

comic panels
Figure 11: The Omega Men (Vol 3) #12 (Art by Barnaby Bagenda)

All information is received after it has already been interpreted. A news report is not objective. The presentation of the news report is an interpretive presentation of events which is then reinterpreted by the viewer. Omega Men uses the concrete, intentional structure of the 9-panel comic to convey events characterized by shades of gray. No one is truly good or truly bad in this series. The sureness of the structure is then at odds with the chaos of the events. And the idea of narrative is always a limit on our knowledge.

The panel grid allows for the manipulation of control, showcased most effectively in The Omega Men #9.

comic panels
Figure 12: The Omega Men (Vol 3) #9 (Art by Barnaby Bagenda)

It seems odd to separate a single image into various panels when we have the tool of the full page spread. However, what King and Bagenda have done is highlight the very point of their structure: the inability to present something clearly. As the series addresses the idea of conflict only being understood through narrative structure (news media, panel structure, history), this single page addresses the loss of control and clarity in a completely structured and clear way.

Kyle Rayner is the White Lantern, meaning that his power accesses the full emotional spectrum. Each emotion’s corresponding color is recapped within the issue:

emotional spectrum
Figure 13: Emotional Spectrum

All of these conflicting emotions are given their own panels, elongating a single moment, painting a clear image that, when seen as a whole, presents a complex and uncertain affair.

Omega Men #9 leads to this image through its internally mirroring pages. The issue opens with the standard 9-panel grid. Then, each page loses one panel until we meet a two page spread in the middle of the comic. Then, we gain one panel until we see the last page of Kyle separated into the 9 panel grid. Losing each panel demonstrates a losing grip of control. Since Kyle is the focus of this issue, the growing unrest around him forces him (and the reader) to slowly lose footing in the concrete panel structure. Regaining a panel each page builds to Kyle’s reacquisition of his power ring and, simultaneously, his regained sense of control. These types of readings depend heavily on the concept of closure mentioned previously. Without a way to perceive the parts and whole simultaneously, the space-time dynamic of the comic is impossible. Omega Men understands this and so can also be seen as a study of the relationship between space and time in comics.

In literary theory, Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin developed the concept of chronotope which address this relationship. “We will give the name chronotope (literally, ‘time space’) to the intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships that are artistically expressed in literature.”[27] This concept is an attempt to collectively refer to the space, and time events of literature occur in, connecting the reader to the text via system of time-space perception. “This is ultimately an ideological perception; a way of comprehending human life as materially and simultaneously present within a physical-geographical space and a specific point of historical time.”[28] Accomplished here is a relationship between the reader and text that forces a historical view. “Time, as it were, thickens, takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible; likewise, space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot and history.”[29] Meaning, time and space are now indicators of each other, and the responsiveness to the text alters, causing a critique that must be greater than simply the formal components of the text itself.

Bear in mind, Bakhtin has developed this concept as a study of the novel, and critique of formalism. Chronotope uncovers and studies the intrinsic generic significance of literature.[30] He illustrates this through a case study of three different novels, as well as the concept of genre which is tied to a similar study of time-space. This argument then functions as a critique of the ahistorical method of the formalists. Eagleton characterizes formalism as a study of the “…organization of language. [Literature] had its own specific laws, structures, and devices, which were to be studied in themselves rather than reduced to something else.”[31] The issue, however, is that these tenants of critique presupposed a “normal” language that was then mystified by the literary. Thus, the study of devices was more akin to a scientific uncovering. However, “The idea that there is a single ‘normal’ language, a common currency shared equally by all members of society, is an illusion.”[32] It created a “closed-ness” to literary critique that ignored the cultural influences of the work, as well as the reader. Thus, chronotope is a concept that makes such critique impossible, since now the material conditions of the text, the perception of time, and spatial awareness become an inherent part of the work and interpretation of it.

In comics, this concept mirrors the panel structure. Such a format forces the reader to engage in constant awareness of space and time, or else the text is incomprehensible. Each left-to-right (or right-to-left in manga) movement allows one to control their experience of time, as well as understanding of space within the text. A complete awareness of both is the only way the narrative can be seen as progressing.

Figure 14: Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #1 (Art by Edward Hannigan)

Comics then operate as chronotopic by virtue of their form, what Sue Vice refers to as the third level of chronotope.[33] However, comics are also capable of operating in the other two levels, as argued by Harriet Earle.[34]

In “Comics and the Chronotope: Time-Space Relationships in Traumatic Sequential Art,” Earle describes the function of comics in the three levels of chronotope:

“At the most basic level, it would be entirely feasible to look at comics through the lens of the third chronotopic level only – the work as being bound up in space-time connections by the virtue of its form. However, the first chronotopic level is of equal importance in relation to a story based on actual events… Thus, the historical time of the event and the physical space of the page become inextricably linked – the second level of the chronotope.”[35]

In Earle’s work, the focus is on trauma as reflected in the time-space relation of comics. “Traumatic representation… thrives on atypical temporality and chronological inexactitude…” The comic form is a constant presentation of time-space relations. Through this necessary structure, Earle reads comics through Bakhtinian chronotope, allowing for a connection between the history of Vietnam War trauma and understandings of time perception.

To explain this in more detail, take for example Kyle Rayner at the end of The Omega Men #2.

Figure 15: The Omega Men (Vol 3) #2 (Art by Barnaby Bagenda)

The prologue of the story featured Kyle getting his throat slit, presumably dying. However, it is later revealed that he is alive and is forcibly inducted into the ideology of the Omega Men and the state that oppresses them. Kyle’s utterance of the Green Lantern oath, and altering of the Omega symbol into the lantern shows his refusal to break under the weight of dominate ideological forces. Focus on chronotopic analysis is placed on the physical injury Kyle suffers. The injury itself is now a marker for the time Kyle spends with the Omega Men, as well as the distances he travels to aid them in their war. This inseparable characteristic of the content is then mirrored in the comic form. The panels hang on Kyle as he goes through the motions of redrawing his lantern symbol to demonstrate his confinement. The 9-panel grid, as Kyle states at the end of the story, is a cage. The reader seems him through bars that reflect his location and the time he spends there. A reader can hang on each panel or rapidly complete the page. Yet, the effect of the layout forces one into controlled, incremental changes in time-space that one cannot escape.

This disjointed representation of one action, one moment in time, is representative of trauma psychology. Quoting Kurt Vonnegut, Earle refers to trauma experience as becoming “unstuck in time.”[36]Meaning, a person’s inability to maintain timekeeping. Their experience is simultaneously stuck in a particular place and time of traumatic rupture that ripples into their daily experience of time. Kyle’s experience throughout the story can then be categorized as a disjointed traumatic rupture. His ultimate allegiance to the Omega Men does not alleviate his refusal to be taken prisoner, reflected in his repeated pleas of “Not again” in The Omega Men #7. Here, the three levels of the chronotopic are reflected as (1) a representation of Kyle’s history, (2) a relation of space and time through Kyle’s injury, thus constructing history, and (3) as a formal property of the text, or simply the comic’s panel structure.

The chronotope is an essential feature of the novel in Bakhtin’s work. However, is loosely defined structure allows it to be analyzed in various other forms of art. The comic does not invent the concept; it merely allows for a unique depiction of it. Comics as a whole, defined by their constant inferiority to other arts, regularly appropriates features of common literary theory and presents them within its panel structure. Every story told in a comic is a necessarily different experience than a similar story in other mediums. Obviously, all artistic mediums can make this claim. It is not the content of the material, but rather the structurally unique presentation that allows one to differentiate between the forms of art. Comics literally frames everything through its use of panels, as examined in The Omega Men. Thus, what we are left with is not a medium of inferiority, but rather one that perfectly reflects the workings of art in ideologically dominated societies.

References

Adorno, Theodor. “Essay as Form.” Notes to Literature Vol 1.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Morris, Pam. The Bakhtin Reader. 1994.

Derrida, Jacques. The Specters of Marx.

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory. 1983.

Earle, Harriet. “Comics and the Chronotope: Time-Space Relationships in Traumatic Sequential Art.” HARTS & Minds: The Journal of Humanities and Arts. Vol 1, No 2. 2013.

Eco, Umberto. “The Myth of Superman.” The Johns Hopkins University Press. 1972.

Fraction, Matt. Aja, David. Hawkeye (Vol 4) #1. (Marvel Comics 2012).

Kelly, Stuart. “Alan Moore: ‘Why Shouldn’t You Have a Bit of Fun While Dealing with the Deepest Issues of the Mind?'” The Guardian. 22 Nov. 2013.

King, Tom. Bagenda, Barnaby. The Omega Men (Vol 3). (DC Comics 2015-2016).

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. 1994.

Millar, Mark. Hitch, Bryan. The Ultimates 2 #13. (Marvel Comics 2007).

Miller, Frank. Daredevil (Vol 1) #170. (Marvel Comics 1981).

Moore, Alan. Gibbons, Dave. Watchmen. (DC Comics 1986-1987).

Morrison, Grant. Quitely, Frank. The Multiversity: Pax Americana. (DC Comics 2014).

North, Sterling. “A National Disgrace.” Chicago Daily News, 8 May 1940.

O’Neil, Dennis. Cowan, Denys. Magyar, Rick. The Question (Vol 1) #17. (DC Comics 1987).

O’Neil, Dennis. Hannigan, Edward. Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #1. (DC Comics 1989).

Siegel, Jerry. Shuster, Joe. Action Comics (Vol 1) #1. (DC Comics 19380.

Smith, Kevin. Flanagan, Walt. Batman: Cacophony #2. (DC Comics 2008).

The Mindscape of Alan Moore (2005) – IMDb. Dir. DeZ Vylenz. Perf. Alan Moore. Shadowsnake Films, 2003. DVD.

Vice, Sue. Introducing Bakhtin. 1997.

Footnotes

[1] King, Tom. The Omega Men (Vol 3) #12

[2] This line has been re-contextualized from the following: Adorno, Theodor. “Essay as Form.” Notes to Literature Vol 1. P. 3.

[3] North, Sterling. “A National Disgrace.” Chicago Daily News, 8 May 1940.

[4] Such is the case with early comics not printing the names of its creators, and Stan Lee famously using this pseudonym rather than his birth name so that he could still pursue “serious literature.”

[5] In the case of Sartre, the analysis of prose can be found in What is Literature? In the case of Deleuze, the analysis of film can be found in Cinema 1 and Cinema 2.

[6] Eagleton, Terry. “What is Literature?” Literary Theory. P. 13

[7] Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory. This analysis of canon can be found in his introduction:What is Literature?, Chapter 1: The Rise of English, and Chapter 2: Phenomenology, Hermeneutics and Reception Theory.

[8] Understanding of comic history and the Jewish mythological ties can be found in Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked (2003), Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle (2013), “How the Jews Created the Comic Book Industry” (2003) by Arie Kaplan.

[9] This panel highlights Kevin Smith’s creation, Onomatopoeia. He speaks using the comic sound effects that correspond to his actions. As the page writes “BLAM!” when a gun fires, Onomatopoeia says “blam,” thus the comic attempts to call attention to something it inherently lacks: sound.

[10]The Mindscape of Alan Moore (2005)

[11] This refers specifically to 1998 to 2016, encompassing the rise of dark, leather glad heroes like Blade, up to the first two, and start of the third, phases of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As well as the rise of the DC Extended Universe and the various films within the X-Men and Spider-Man franchises.

[12] This jealousy can be seen in the following examples: Song in Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, pace in Frank Miller’s 300, prose in Kevin Smith’s Daredevil: Guardian Devil, and fine art in David W. Mack’s Kabuki.

[13] Kelly, Stuart. “Alan Moore: ‘Why Shouldn’t You Have a Bit of Fun While Dealing with the Deepest Issues of the Mind?'” The Guardian.

[14] Kelly, Stuart. “Alan Moore: ‘Why Shouldn’t You Have a Bit of Fun While Dealing with the Deepest Issues of the Mind?'” The Guardian.

[15]Watchman’s counterparts from Charlton include: Blue Beetle (Dan Garrett) becoming Nite-Owl (Hollis Mason), Blue Beetle (Ted Kord) becoming Nite-Owl (Dan Dreiberg), Captain Atom becoming Doctor Manhattan, Nightshade becoming Silk Spectre, Peacemaker becoming Comedian, the Question becoming Rorschach, and Thunderbolt becoming Ozymandias.

[16] It is worth noting here that DC editorial realized that Moore using the original characters would make them unusable for later stories. The creation of new ones in their likeness is a comprise at the story’s conception. Yet their absence is still a layer of the story’s critique of comics.

[17] Derrida, Jacques. “Injunctions of Marx.” The Specters of Marx. P. 10

[18]Earle, Harriet. “Comics and the Chronotope: Time-Space Relationships in Traumatic Sequential Art.” HARTS & Minds: The Journal of Humanities and Arts. Vol 1, No 2. P. 4

[19]McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. P. 63

[20] Morrison famously had Animal Man see the reader, and have a conversation with an in-story version of Morrison. That entire run played with the notion that we as people create worlds for our entertainment, disturbing the reality of 2-dimentional beings, making us their gods. However, still leaving room for what a concept of a fourth dimensional being might mean for us.

[21] This usually refers to the Silver and Bronze age of comics.

[22] Rather than in-story exposition, this is now achieved through an opening page that provides a one sentence summary of who the title character is, followed by roughly a paragraph about the current status quo.

[23] Eco, Umberto. “The Myth of Superman.” The Johns Hopkins University Press. 1972

[24] I say “most” because of the permanent deaths of certain characters. There once existed the rule that “No one stays dead except Uncle Ben, Bucky, and Jason Todd.” Yet, both Jason Todd and Bucky are now alive and well, proving what “permanent” really means in comics.

[25] Retroactive Continuity, referring to occasions where certain aspects of previously established canon are re-written to serve the current status quo.

[26] This is not perfect, however. Issue 4 does not perfectly reflect issue 9, and the DC Sneak Peak issue which opens the story does not have a reflecting epilogue.

[27]Bakhtin, Mikhail. “From M. M. Bakhtin, the Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays.” The Bakhtin Reader. P. 184

[28] Morris, Pam. “15. Aesthetic Visualizing of Time/Space: The Chronotope.” The Bakhtin Reader. P. 180

[29]Bakhtin, Mikhail. “From M. M. Bakhtin, the Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays.” The Bakhtin Reader. P. 184

[30]Bakhtin, Mikhail. “From M. M. Bakhtin, the Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays.” The Bakhtin Reader. P. 184

[31] Eagleton, Terry. “What is Literature?” Literary Theory. P. 2

[32] Eagleton, Terry. “What is Literature?” Literary Theory. P. 4

[33] Level One: Text represents history. Level Two: Relation of images of time and space, constructing history. Level Three: Properties of the text itself. Vice, Sue.Introducing Bakhtin. P. 201-2

[34]Vice, Sue.Introducing Bakhtin. P. 201-2

[35] Earle, Harriet. “Comics and the Chronotope: Time-Space Relationships in Traumatic Sequential Art.” HARTS & Minds: The Journal of Humanities and Arts. Vol 1, No 2. P. 5

[36] Earle, Harriet. “Comics and the Chronotope: Time-Space Relationships in Traumatic Sequential Art.” HARTS & Minds: The Journal of Humanities and Arts. Vol 1, No 2. P. 3

Loading...

About Aesthetist in Exile

Steve Baxi, aka the Aesthetist in Exile, is a philosophy graduate student working on comics and aesthetics. He creates videos on YouTube as well as more general writing on his blog. The goal of his research is to better understand the philosophical depths of superheroes.

Leave a Comment!