Superpose’s Heavy Light: How to Make A World Out of Neon

A young Rafael watches a lavender-neon lightning strikes through a car window. CJ and Anka, Superpose, 2018

Over the past couple years, neon has come into some serious vogue. Posters around town flash fierce magentas upon cyborg-seeking cops, gritty mystery teens, women wrestlers. From Riverdale ads, cobalt rim-lights hit figures leaning over a diner table. Just now, a city bus passing me billed two different movies in hyper-chromatic light.

Neon’s aesthetic usefulness feels obvious: it reliably conjures a feeling that’s difficult to get out of ordinary daylight. Lush late-night vibes, melancholic nostalgia, slick psychotropic richness—neon gets you wistfulness, gets you eeriness.

None of this feeling need be present in the film or show itself, of course; it usually isn’t. That feeling neon advertises is hard to sustain in the midst of storytelling, although the movies that do it (Akira, Blade Runner) are endlessly imitated. In most cases, the neon doesn’t make it past the ads. Or if they do, like in Riverdale, they make it one more visual prop, alongside Cheryl Blossom’s ghost-white dresses and spider broach.

What could it be like for a story to make good on its edgy lighting? On that feeling it seems to sell you—neon’s shining, ghostly nightscape?

The obvious answer is Seosamh and Anka’s alt-reality drama Superpose, a webcomic drenched in neon and nostalgic-surrealist vibes. It was nominated for a Prism Award this past year and also just printed its second volume (find it here).

Rafael, Royal, and Kasra sit around a pale purple table, talking about a secret job.
The gang gets lobster.

Possibly a cult film from an alternate dimension, Superpose follows disgraced astrophysicist Kasra, business school drop-out Royal, and overworked high school grad Rafael as they attempt to build a mysterious machine, which may end up going terribly awry. Throughout, they traverse the class-divided spaces of a thoroughly-imagined tourist town, Port City, and a web of seedy conflicts slowly draws each into the others’ orbits.

A Weird Kind of Glow

Taking a cinematic metaphor to its logical conclusion, Superpose’s homepage loops an animation of VHS tracking lines over its title (an uncanny effect that’s both familiar and out-of-place) and edits a cheeky MPAA rating below its cast of characters. The story’s first pages are a succession of panels in U.S. theatrical aspect ratio, first submerging the reader in watery darkness, then slowly allowing you to surface—gazing, as you do, into the pink lights of a seaside boardwalk. It’s our establishing shot: Port City, 198X.

The film metaphor also establishes a slightly different relationship to cinematic light than you’d usually see. From the beginning, Superpose has allowed “glowy,” chromatic lighting a much bigger role than most comics. Comic art typically defines its lighting with absolute blacks and flat colors, or with distinct value areas applied to a form. Less often, you’ll get painterly strokes of light or cleanly modeled gradations of flesh and fabric, the latter being what you’d spot on the covers of American superhero comics. Yet, for the most part, there’s a divide between strongly defined line-art and misted, aerosol-like applications of light. The latter is perhaps considered too illusionistic, too static, and also too labor-intensive for regular use.

That aerosol-like light finds its home in Superpose as a play between the stylistic conventions of comics, film, and cel animation. Seosamh and Anka’s clean line-art and pastel color flats radiate with diffuse light, or are sometimes overtaken by unruly mists and glares. It’s not just that the comic uses neon to depict emotional intensity—as in the harrowing scene when Rafael’s hook-up kicks him out and calls him a slur—rather, atmospheric light seems to operate beyond both set dressing and expressionistic signifier, as a weighty part of Superpose’s felt world. Light, and in particular neon, is a Port City presence and force of its own, establishing the feeling and presentness of place in tandem with the comic’s drawn environments and architecture. The light feels corporeal and makes the world feel corporeal too.

In the dark, backlit by neon, Rafael swipes at the neon and screams. The text reads "Aaaa Fuck." CJ and Anka, Superpose, 2018
Fighting with neon.

By blurring or blowing out the figures standing in its light, neon in Superpose actually obliterates characters as often as it illuminates them. Neon becomes a tangible (sometimes annihilating) presence, linking Port City to the reader’s world in more ways than just the representational, realist one. Consider, after all, the way we’re most likely to read it: our laptops’ glow pressing on us in the dark, colored light filling the space between reader and screen. From the blackness of each page’s backdrop, light grasps at us; it encircles and presses on Superpose’s characters, as it presses on us.

In a key flashback part way through its second arc, business school drop-out Royal struggles in the dim dawn light to remember which class he’s going to. He’s in the middle of a nervous breakdown. Disoriented, bewildered, Royal says to himself, “I don’t understand how I got here. Everything’s too bright, fits wrong. This can’t be it.”

Light works this way in Superpose, not just as part of the comic’s visual beauty, but as an estranging and upsetting part of the physical world. One that can push us past wistful, past eerie, straight into dissociated and awful.

Closeup of an arcade game screen with abstract neon shapes; Royal explains glitch teleportation. Text reads, "I don't know if it's -- What you'd call it? -- Teleporting -- You can't choose where it goes." CJ and Anka, Superpose, 2018
Playing with neon.

Worldbuilding with Neon

Usually the icon of world-building is the fantasy map or maybe the invented language (see Evan Dahm’s Riceboy). Here, it’s neon. Colored light is a part of the setting that Seosamh and Anka give precise identity; it brings its atmospheric effects and body-like volume to each segment of the story it illuminates, each body and space it touches. (Ludwig Wittgenstein: “Where our language suggests a body and there is none: there, we should like to say, is a spirit.”)

This is world-building on the level of sensation. Not just on the larger scale of the world’s skeleton, rules, languages, but at the level of color and light. The neon works slyly within the comic’s thematic registers as well, intensifying at key moments of drama or epiphanies, but it’s also, constantly, laying the ground for being in this world in general. Because the light of the comic presses on the boundaries of characters as well as on us, Superpose’s neon becomes the condition of possibility for feeling, and not just an indication of it.

And neon’s queer, too, by the way. A ghost of public streets at odd hours, synthetic light on meat-space bodies. Neon’s a form of lighting that—though I’ve mentioned has hit mainstream saturation—continues to work its uncanny magic on us. In Superpose, neon also signals an opportunity to slip out of reality’s onslaughts: it’s the light and color of a glitching video game, and so of the hell-machine that the glitch inspires. It’s the color of a lightning strike in Rafael’s memory and of the glint on the water’s surface before you duck under the waves, at the end of Arc II—a cinematic reversal of the comic’s opening shots.

A young Rafael watches a lavender-neon lightning strikes through a car window. CJ and Anka, Superpose, 2018
Young Rafael sees lighting.

The worlds that stories live in are sometimes thin pretenses of a background, and sometimes fuller and more grounding parts of the work. The former doesn’t have to be bad, but the latter can use a depth of frame to its advantage. James Joyce famously asked his Aunt Josephine to find out whether or not someone could climb over the railing at 7 Eccles Street, since his big opus required a middle-aged man to scale the railing at that exact address. He wanted his work to be exhaustively “real,” responsible to a Dublin that no longer existed, a city that had been thoroughly bombed and reshaped since Joyce left it in 1904.

Superpose is like this, dedicated to the weight of mimetic world-making in an all-consuming way, without actually being tied down to “realism” or the fixed stillness of a perfect image. The comic’s creators, Seosamh and Anka, have imagined with exactness the details of grass in a character’s lawn, the species (crabapple) and the texture (dry, underwatered). They make themselves unforgiving documentarians of the world they’ve written, as well as loving fabricators of its light. “Each flourish of an ugly thing,” Anka wrote on the comic’s Patreon, “is an attempt to say something.”

It’s the intricate work that both artists put into Port City, light and all, that makes the characters’ lives and mistakes feel so real and consequential. Rafael, Kasra, and Royal, amongst so many others, live in what seems like an existing, forgotten town, one carefully and faithfully reconstructed for us by people who used to live there. The light changes from moment to moment; you notice it the way you notice an odd shadow on your walk home, and get a funny feeling or a shiver. 

I’m not comparing this webcomic to Joyce to lend Superpose the literary capital of Ulysses. (Or, I am a little, obviously. But it’s also Joyce who comes off worse in the comparison.) The question I want to address is actually one of devotion, light, and world-making, all things at the heart of this 1980s-styled sci-fi drama. Can you make, or remake, a reality without getting stuck in the old one’s image? Could a flash of light be the way out?

Of course, Superpose is just firing up its third arc; the hell machine is in construction. Which means we all have to wait in our dark rooms and see. When the thing is done, what strange light will hit us?

Tony Wei Ling

Tony Wei Ling

Tony Wei Ling (they/he) studies contemporary literature, new media, and comics at UCLA, and is a fiction editor at Nat.Brut. They tweet @tonyweiling.