Is this a comic?
Admittedly, that is probably the last question a reader consciously asks themselves when reading a comic. Yet, subconsciously, most readers have already asked and answered that very question each and every time they view a piece of work.
For the moment, letâ€™s assume that this is a question worth asking and answering. If that is true, then there must be some kind of definition of â€œcomicsâ€ in play. Letâ€™s start with the olâ€™ standby, Websterâ€™s Dictionary.
- of, relating to, or marked by comedy <a comic actor>
- causing laughter or amusement : funny <a comic monologue>
- of or relating to comic strips <the newspaper’s comic section>
Okay, of those three definitions, I think we want the third one. But, even that really doesnâ€™t tell us if something is a comic! So, letâ€™s see what Webster says about comic strips.
- group of cartoons in narrative sequence.
Well, thatâ€™s a little closer to helpful. Yet, there are two words in that definition that really bother me. First, the word â€œcartoonâ€. This would seem to imply that comics: (a) must be drawn; and (b) must be drawn a very particular way. If that was true, then weâ€™d have to assume that works such as Kingdom Come, by Mark Waid and Alex Ross, which has painted artwork, or Delta Thrives, by Patrick Farley, which is computer generated 3D imagery, are in fact not comics. Frankly, that doesnâ€™t feel right. I think Webster, while having a wealth of knowledge on various topics, is not the source weâ€™re looking for.
Secondly, I really donâ€™t like the word â€œnarrativeâ€. Narrative implies that comics can only be used to tell a story, which really limits them in terms of genre and form. Comics can clearly be used for poetry, as Scott McCloud showed in Porphyriaâ€™s Lover. I donâ€™t think any definition of comics can dictate style, genre, or form.
If not Webster, then where? Well, letâ€™s look and see what other comic creators have had to say on this matter. The Great Grand-Poobah, Comic-Messiah, and All-Around-Awesome-Guy Will Eisner was known for, among other things, trying to define comic. Letâ€™s see what he came up with….
- sequential art
- the arrangement of pictures or images and words to narrate a story or dramatize an idea
Okay! Now this is sounding a little better! At no point does Eisner tell us how comics have to be made or what genre they must belong to. I already like this guy a lot better than Webster. My complaint about Eisnerâ€™s definition is that it could be interpreted too broadly. For instance, any two images seen together could be considered comics technically by Eisnerâ€™s definition. Or, even an illustrated childrenâ€™s book could hypothetically be considered a comic. It feels as though there is a lack of intent in Eisnerâ€™s definition. Weâ€™re on the right track, though!
The next place to look is another creator who is probably best known for analyzing the minutia of comics, Scott McCloud. In his first book, Understanding Comics, McCloud devoted pages to trying to define comics! Letâ€™s see what he came up with….
- juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer
While McCloudâ€™s definition is better, it has some quirks. I like the idea of â€œdeliberate sequenceâ€ because that means the creator is at least acting intentionally. Also, McCloud steers clear of anything that would limit genre or style. As we read further into Understanding Comics, however, we see that because of the use of the word â€œsequenceâ€, works such as Egyptian Hieroglyphics and Trajanâ€™s Column are now considered to be comics, but any single-panel work, such as Gary Larsonâ€™s Farside, would not be considered comics. (McCloud calls the single-panel works â€œcartoonsâ€, which once again would imply a certain method to any single-panel workâ€™s creation.)
McCloudâ€™s definition is paradoxical in nature. It is broad enough to include ancient works thousands of years old, yet excludes recent works by creators who would argue they are in fact making comics. Itâ€™s not that ancient works couldnâ€™t be comics just because they are ancient. Rather, I feel that the intent of the creator to make a comic just wasnâ€™t there. I prefer to think of things such as these as â€œproto-comicâ€. Much like the neanderthal is an ancestor of todayâ€™s humans, ancient works such as those are important to the evolution of the modern comic, but are not actually comics.
Clearly, something is wrong here. Yet, most students of the comic would likely hold McCloudâ€™s definition up as the closest thing we have to gospel truth on the subject.
Iâ€™m not saying that Eisner or McCloud are wrong. But, Iâ€™m not saying theyâ€™re right either. I think what weâ€™ve gotten as McCloud built upon Eisnerâ€™s definition, was a good starting point.
Mind you, theyâ€™re not the only ones who have tried to define comics. R.C. Harvey has his own definition of comics [â€œcomics consist of pictorial narratives or expositions in which words (often lettered into the picture area within speech balloons) usually contribute to the meaning of the pictures and vice versaâ€], and Eddie Campbell offers two definitions, one for graphic storytelling (â€œthe art of using pictures in sequence and its attendant language of forms and techniques, refined over many centuriesâ€) and one for comics (humorous art…but with the proviso that in our own times it has come to embrace not only cartoons but comic strips and comic books which are not necessarily humorous due to their own evolutionary patterns, but they remain under this rubric as they evolved from itâ€).
I donâ€™t feel like these are definitive either. Harveyâ€™s definition would mean you have to have text in the piece for it to be a comic. Obviously, we can have silent comics, so Harvey is out. Campbell offers two definitions for two terms. Clearly, this is his attempt to reconcile two halves of a paradoxical whole. Even Campbell fails here, as he has to make exceptions right inside his own definition for it to satisfy!
Given all this I think it’s clear that we have still not come up with the best definition possible for a "comic" and I want to propose an alternative approach to this problem. All of the existing definitions I have reviewed here make some valid points, but the fact is that all of them have flaws that preclude them from being completely successful at defining comics.
I’d like to propose an alternative approach to the problem by setting forth four criteria to use when considering what is a comic:
- Intent of Creator
- Audience Experience
- Closure & Synthesis
- Use of Visual Language
Only if a work meets all four of these criteria should we consider it a comic. My working definition under this approach is:
- a piece of art work that was created with the intent to have it perceived as a comic, experienced by the audience singularly with the rate of the experience controlled by each individual audience member, which creates the experience of closure and/or synthesis in the audience, and uses a visual language.
I realize that we have a lot of ground still to cover in explaining this new definition and exploring in more depth what each of the four criteria mean. We’ll do that in my next column for ComixTalk.