Is This A Comic?

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, let’s assume that this is a question worth asking and answering. If that is true, then there must be some kind of definition of “comics” in play. Let’s start with the ol’ standby, Webster’s Dictionary.


  1. of, relating to, or marked by comedy <a comic actor>
  2. causing laughter or amusement : funny <a comic monologue>
  3. 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 doesn’t tell us if something is a comic! So, let’s see what Webster says about comic strips.

comic strip:

  1. group of cartoons in narrative sequence.


Well, that’s a little closer to helpful. Yet, there are two words in that definition that really bother me. First, the word “cartoon”. 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 we’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 doesn’t feel right. I think Webster, while having a wealth of knowledge on various topics, is not the source we’re looking for.

Secondly, I really don’t like the word “narrative”. 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 Porphyria’s Lover. I don’t think any definition of comics can dictate style, genre, or form.

If not Webster, then where? Well, let’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. Let’s see what he came up with….


  1. sequential art
  2. 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 Eisner’s definition is that it could be interpreted too broadly. For instance, any two images seen together could be considered comics technically by Eisner’s definition. Or, even an illustrated children’s book could hypothetically be considered a comic. It feels as though there is a lack of intent in Eisner’s definition. We’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! Let’s see what he came up with….


  1. juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer


While McCloud’s definition is better, it has some quirks. I like the idea of “deliberate sequence” 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 “sequence”, works such as Egyptian Hieroglyphics and Trajan’s Column are now considered to be comics, but any single-panel work, such as Gary Larson’s Farside, would not be considered comics. (McCloud calls the single-panel works “cartoons”, which once again would imply a certain method to any single-panel work’s creation.)

McCloud’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. It’s not that ancient works couldn’t be comics just because they are ancient. Rather, I feel that the intent of the creator to make a comic just wasn’t there. I prefer to think of things such as these as “proto-comic”. Much like the neanderthal is an ancestor of today’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 McCloud’s definition up as the closest thing we have to gospel truth on the subject.

I’m not saying that Eisner or McCloud are wrong. But, I’m not saying they’re right either. I think what we’ve gotten as McCloud built upon Eisner’s definition, was a good starting point.

Mind you, they’re not the only ones who have tried to define comics. R.C. Harvey has his own definition of comics [“comics 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 versa”], and Eddie Campbell offers two definitions, one for graphic storytelling (“the art of using pictures in sequence and its attendant language of forms and techniques, refined over many centuries”) 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 it”).

I don’t feel like these are definitive either. Harvey’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:


  1. 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.

Xaviar Xerexes

Wandering webcomic ronin. Created Comixpedia (2002-2005) and ComixTalk (2006-2012; 2016-?). Made a lot of unfinished comics and novels.


  1. Hey Patric,

    I can’t abide by your definition because you used the word you’re defining in the definition… which is a big no-no. For example, you can’t define a fish by calling it a ‘fish-like creature’.  I also disagree with a sense of closure as criteria… there are plenty of comics that either give you a cliffhanger, or simply end without closing.  But your other three i completely support.

    Intent is everything, from comics, to painting, to performance art, to sculpture.  If you’ve done something, you better know why you’ve done something, and why you tried to do it.

    Audience experience also ties into art-making.  Professional artists, unless completely on the neurosis/catharsis path, consider who will be viewing their work, and where.  I would broaden this category into ‘intendend context’.

    Use of visual language is absolutely correct.  Everything from word bubbles, frames, path of eye movement, these are parts of a method of reading comics, and contribute to a visual language.

    So when left with intent, audience consideration (intended context), and visual language you have…

    … any kind of visual art.  All of those things go into the production of any piece of artwork imaginable. Even when including ‘closure’.

    So I throw my vote in with McCloud’s definition, though I don’t like to read his stuff much.  I feel your definition proposal, while a great discussion, splits hairs and inadvertently brings us back to square one.  Or panel one, I guess.

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