There have been many attempts at arriving at a definition for the comics medium. One of the defining elements in many of these definitions is the sequential arrangement of panels, arranged spatially adjacent to each other and separated out by the empty space surrounding them, the so-called “gutter” (see for example Kunzle 1973:2, Sabin 1993:5, Haymann and Pratt 2005:423). Thus one of the constituent elements of comics is the gap. In order to be able to follow the fragmented story told in the individual images, the reader has to mentally fill in the gaps, a process Scott McCloud called ‘closure’ (67). Both narrative and temporality are created in the gutter. In other words, the gutter is the major place for meaning making. This inter-frame gap has been extensively treated in research (i.e. Barnes 2009, Low 2012, Miller 2007). R. C. Harvey demonstrated in his 2001 essay ‘Comedy at the Juncture of Word and Image’ that the same principle of closure also applies to the gap between word and image in that the reader has to link both to be able to fully understand the panel. Finally, Barbara Postema showed in her dissertation Mind the Gap that gaps can be found on every level in comics: in image, page layout, sequence, image-text combinations and the narrative itself (3). She illustrates that according to Wolfgang Iser, the gap is an integral part of all fictional narrative as it ‘is always a matter of leaving openings to draw readers on’ (Postema 2011:5). This implies that gaps are responsible for engaging the reader, who must produce inferences to construct meaning in a narrative. The prime example for this is the crime story – the reader is left trying to figure out who the murderer is by interpreting the hints provided by the text and filling in the information gaps. While in literature this procedure is often invisible, the gaps in comics are often very noticeable, like the aforementioned inter-frame and word-image gaps. However, gaps can also be used to create narratives in which the gap explicitly takes on a thematic role.
This is exactly what happens in the comic El Cosmógrafo Sebastián Caboto: Trazar un Mapamundi (1992), in which Lorenzo Mattotti and Jorge Zentner apply the logic of the gap to the story itself. It is an account on the Italian explorer Sebastian Cabot who sailed to America shortly after its discovery by Columbus. Unfortunately, our knowledge of him is very patchy, his biography ‘nebulous’ (10). While gaps are something most biographers have to deal with to a certain degree, the ones Mattotti and Zentner are confronted with are particularly large. This may have influenced their decision to not smooth them over to create one harmonious, consistent story as is often done in fictional reconstructions of the past but to put its fragmentary nature at the center of their narrative, thus using the comic’s gutter structure to reinforce their own fractured narrative.
This is of even greater importance considering the story’s historical dimension. In the second half of the 20th century, two divergent models of interpreting history have emerged: the “nostalgia” model that interprets responses to traces of the past (Jameson, Boym) and the “archive” model that looks at disparate traces of the past (Foucault, Derrida). It is especially this second model that gains importance when analyzing how the comic’s form, story and historical background in Caboto are linked. As Didi-Huberman pointed out in his essay Das Archiv brennt (The Archive Burns): ‘The essential part of the archive is its gap.’ (7 [my translation]) No matter how detailed and apparently complete the archive, it will never be able to give a complete picture. Therefore every conception of the past must by definition be incomplete – at best it can be seen as an ‘infinite approximation’ (12 [my translation]). To be able to understand the past, one must also consider the things that got destroyed, pay attention to the gaps. This finds its echo in Caboto. As mentioned, there are hardly any reliable sources on Sebastian Cabot, and historical research sometimes praised him as the discoverer of North America, sometimes defamed him as a thief and liar, who tried to steal the glory of his father John (Harrisse 1898:61), supposedly the true discoverer of North America and founder of the first European Christian settlement in North America (Jones 2008:246). Faced with this confusing material, Zentner and Mattotti decided against a biographical account of Sebastian Cabot. Rather, the comic book became itself an approximation to the cartographer, incoherently stringing together short scenes from his life while constantly questioning the historical sources and their modern interpretation.
On a macro-level, the story seems to follow traditional structure. It starts with an exposition that roughly establishes time and place and introduces the protagonist. It ends with a scene similar to the first one, thus giving the impression of a main story and a framework. The middle part seemingly traces one voyage of expedition. However, this is misleading. Instead of telling one continuous story, Caboto wildly mixes several expeditions together and jumps between about 11 short episodes in Cabot’s life. Looking at the narrative’s structure in detail, it starts slowly with a long introduction to Sebastian Cabot, the navigator from Venice. The story then cuts to Cabot on board his ship, highlighting – in significantly shorter scenes – several landfalls, his travel farther along the coast line, encounters with the natives, the settlement Sancti Spiritus he and his crew erected, and finally his return to Europe. These scenes, however, are not interconnected and bear no consequences for the scenes to follow. They defy the creation of a continuous narrative as each of them stands for itself. This makes it difficult for the reader to fill in the gaps as no motivations or reasons are giving to explain the characters’ actions. The reader thus takes on a double role: that of a normal reader who tries to find sense in a fragmented story and that of a historian who is faced with a labyrinth of gaps and who temporarily fills in the gaps with what he thinks sounds plausible. Additionally, no personal documents of Cabot have survived – this is reflected in a frequent change of narrative perspective. Instead of following only Cabot’s narrative, many survivors of other expeditions that Cabot’s meets on his voyage are given the opportunity to tell their story and thereby fulfill the ‘task of the survivor’ (26 [my translation]). These different perspectives are difficult to reconcile as it becomes apparent that too many details are missing and we have too little information to resolve the tales’ contradictions. Since little is known about Cabot’s expeditions, the story incorporates aspects that could have happened on every expedition, drawing both on typical adventure stories and legends, trying to figure out how much truth they contain. This significantly complicates a coherent reading of the story as the reader has to constantly wonder what this story is really telling him about Cabot. The narrator further calls the events into question: ‘We imagine a river, older than eternity. We imagine a shipwreck. We imagine dead men’ (38 [my translation and italics]), and later: ‘Is this really how things happened? Telling, that means inventing destinies’ (48 [my translation]). By comments like these, Mattotti and Zentner emphasize our lack of knowledge, the many gaps in Cabot’s story.
These gaps are also obvious on the microstructure. In the very first panel, the book offers a view on a haven, large ships dominating the image, before moving through a window into a high study room (Fig.1). In the middle of this room, taking up most of the space, is a desk with a lit chandelier. From behind, the reader can make out the silhouette of a figure in a high backed chair. The next panels show artifacts lying in the room: thick leather-bound books and maps, a globe, binoculars, a framed painting with ships, indigenous statues (Fig.2). Another shot back to the figure in the chair links these objects to this person. Mattotti thus uses these artifacts to refer to what we know about Cabot as a person: He was a cartographer, a navigator and he must have sailed to far-off shores. By doing so, the artifacts become visual representations of the sparse information historians extricated from documents. The panels, however, do not stand for a progression in time. They are interchangeable, arbitrary and demonstrate the fractured nature of our knowledge on Cabot. Similar problems arise with depicting Cabot: We have one portrait of Cabot at a very advanced age, created by Hans Holbein around 1550 but no conception what he really looked like at the time of his voyages. To underline just how strongly our perception of Cabot is based on assumptions, Mattotti produces several variations of Cabot’s face, juxtaposing them next to each other to demonstrate that any of these versions – an infinite number of versions – is possible. It is at the hands of the narrator to choose one version. It is a task every illustrator has to face, normally, however, it is not explicitly addressed within the story. Incorporating it into the narrative highlights once again the central role of the gap.
The most explicit and impressive use of the gap as a visual device can be found on page 16 (Fig. 3). Here, we see a whale rise up to the surface of the sea but his body is split in two, so that it spans two panels. On the first one, the background is a dark blue but in the distance one can make out an orange light, signifying that it was discovered by one of Cabot’s ships. In conjunction with the second panel it becomes obvious that something about the whale’s shape is off. It is too regular and too elongated – it is more like a ship. Furthermore, the fountain of water pushed out of the whale’s breathing hole in the first picture turns into to the St. George’s cross and King Henry VII’s coat of arms, the dark night becomes a bright blue sky. Here, the gap thus expresses the fundamental importance of the expeditions and its findings. Unknown parts of the world were explored (depicted by the changing background light) and by claiming them for England, nature was at the same time tamed and became part of the civilized world. Here the passing of time is secondary to the shift in paradigm represented by this gap.
This demonstrates that absence – in this case absence of historical knowledge – can be elevated to a thematic role using the gap as a self-reflexive element. Here, it is not employed to create smooth transitions between panels but to explicitly reference its gaps. It thus destroys the reader’s basic assumption that the comic would retell a given (hi)story by not giving a coherent structure that would allow one to make sense out of the individual episodes in Caboto. This creates esthetic tension as the reader tries to inject meaning into the comic’s fragmented narrative but cannot succeed as the comic constantly raises doubts about its own narrative.
Caboto was first published as El Cosmógrafo Sebastián Caboto: Trazar un Mapamundi by Planeta di Agostini in 1992. In the following year it was published in French under the title Le Voyage de Sebastian Caboto by Albin Michel. Casterman republished it as Caboto in 2003. It was also translated into German, Dutch and Italian.
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Harrisse, Henry. “The Outcome of the Cabot Quarter-Centenary.” American Historical Review 4, October 1898: pp. 38–61.
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Jones, Evan T. “Alwyn Ruddock: ‘John Cabot and the Discovery of America’”. Historical Research. Vol. 81, no. 212 (May 2008): pp. 224–254.
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Mattotti, Lorenzo and Zentner, Jorge. Caboto. Paris: Casterman, 2003.
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Barbara Uhlig studied protohistoric archaeology and art history at the Universities of Munich and Eichstaett (Germany). She is writing her dissertation on the work of Lorenzo Mattotti and published articles on Guerrilla Gardening, early illustrated editions of “Alice in Wonderland” and, of course, Lorenzo Mattotti. Her main research interests lie in subversive art, text-image-relationships, and the development of Italian comics since the 1960s.