Is This A Comic?: Four Criteria

In my first column, I took a look at the various previous attempts to define what exactly is a comic. I looked at definitions provided by Webster’s Dictionary, Will Eisner, and Scott McCloud, to name a few. None of these fine people agreed on a singular definition, but each made some valid points. The fact that so many people have struggled to define comics demonstrates that we have yet to do so successfully. I believe the reason for the lack of success is that people have always been looking for a singular definition that would sound good if they read it in a dictionary. That is to say, something tight, concise, and easy to remember — similar to how they used to make us learn definitions for things back in high school.

Well, if everyone else is trying, why not me? I am going to propose something a little different from a standard definition. In order to answer the question “Is this a comic?” we need ask that question each time we view a work and to answer said question, we need to apply four criteria:

  • Intent of Creator
  • Audience Experience
  • Closure & Synthesis
  • Use of Visual Language

Only if a work meets all four of these criteria can it be considered a comic. Why these four? Well, this is something I struggled with a for a good long time. Over the years, I have taken classes, attended lectures, and just had really cool conversations with all sorts of cartoonists on the subject of “what is a comic”. I noticed that different people emphasized different aspects of comic as “the most important”. It wasn’t until Gene Ha said to me that comics have a “garage band aesthetic”, that I got to thinking that maybe I was looking for the wrong thing. Instead of a singular aspect that makes comics comics, maybe it’s more like a band, needing different pieces to be whole.

I took a look back at all the different conversations and whatnot I had on the subject. Though many people emphasized different aspects in their personal definitions, there were certain themes that continued to come up more often than others. It was from these ideas that I came up with the Four Criteria. Only then if a work meets all four of these criteria can it be considered a comic.

The big question now is what do these criteria mean? In future articles, I will explore each of the four criteria in depth , but for now I’ll simply review what each of them mean:

Intent of Creator

This one is exactly what it sounds like. The creator of a piece of work must create it with the intent that the audience viewing it perceives and accepts the work as a comic. Granted, this is the most subjective of the four criteria, however, I do believe we can establish some guidelines to help us discern the creator’s intent, such as the date of the work and a comparison of the work to a comic we’ve already established fits within the four criteria.

Audience Experience

The audience must experience the work singularly and each individual member of the audience must be able to control the rate at which they experience the work. This audience experience must be valid for the intended conception of the work, but not necessarily always true. There are times a cartoonist’s work may be put on display in a museum or shown as a slide in a lecture and at times such as these, the work is taken slightly out of context, as someone else is controlling the rate at which we experience the comic. All of this can be contrasted, however, with a work that was originally presented in a way that does not allow the audience to control the rate of experience.

Closure and Synthesis

For a work to be a comic, the act of closure or synthesis (or both) must be performed by the audience. Closure, as defined by Scott McCloud, occurs in the audience’s mind when seeing two images together and describes the process in the mind of connecting the two images to form a single idea. Synthesis, as I am going to use it, means taking the information presented to the audience by the creator via imagery, dialogue, etc. and combining it with the information the audience has created via closure.

Upon first inspection, closure and synthesis may appear to be the same thing. The main difference, however, is that closure takes place only with the information literally provided by the creator. Synthesis, however, is more meta in concept. Synthesis involves the audience bringing information to combine with what the creator provided. This would mean that two different audiences could, theoretically, synthesize two different, but similar, things.

Use of Visual Language

Visual language is the use of visual elements combined in a way non-specific to audio or sign languages and purposely sequentially juxtaposed to communicate an idea. This includes the use of iconography and visual “short-hands” (such as “speedlines”) non-specific to any audio or visual language to communicate an idea. A visual language is understandable by people who do not speak or read the same language of the creator. Right now, you’re reading my words in English. If I were to draw a comic, the visual language aspect of it would communicate to anyone independent of their spoken language.


Now, if you’re still one of those people who need a dictionary-esque definition, it would read something like the following:


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.


This definition allows for things to be related to comics and even share traits with comics, but not have to be included in "comics". For instance, it is easy to breakdown why an animated movie shares traits with comics but is not a comic as an animated movie does use visual language elements, tells a narrative, but it is designed to be experienced by an audience of multiple people, with the rate of the story controlled by the creator rather than the audience. I think a lot of people see similarities between comics and film (or animation), but know they are two separate things. By using the four criteria, we can both highlight the similarities between these cousins, as well as the differences.

In addition, this definition is both broad enough to include single-panel works and specific enough to disallow things such as paintings or Hieroglyphics. A single panel work, for example, can meet the four criteria by way of Intent, Audience Experience, Synthesis, and Visual Langauage. In this case, the Synthesis is a second or third panel the audience may create in their mind. (More on this in a few weeks.)

Moreover, nowhere within the four criteria is made mention of how a work is made or what form or genre it must take. Granted, most of us are used to thinking of comics as things drawn or painted to tell a story. However, as a huge proponent of non-fiction and non-narrative comics, this definition is wide open to comics that have yet to be! Imagine a comic that is actually a physics text book! It could happen! Not only would it be awesome, it would still clearly be a comic according to the four criteria because it doesn’t matter what the work’s form or genre is! Not only that, but could cartoonists of yesteryear imagine making comics with 3D imaging tools? Or even photographs? Yet, we have comics made just that way. Heck, making comics with color was a big deal once upon a time! Any definition we make now cannot put any limitations on the tools used to make comics some time in the future. When the Snoodlebork Infinity (whatever it is) becomes the most commonly used tool to make comics in the year 7432, this definition is still going to work.


Stay tuned next month as we start our in depth-looks at what the Four Criteria are, and what they mean to comics. Up first: the Intent of the Creator.

Xaviar Xerexes

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


  1. Cowboy Westerns has moved away from being a popular genre! There will be bursts of rebirth now and then, that are like a flame that bursts brightly just before it dies completely, but when you hear the death rattle it is a sound that screams to the world that it is passing from the scene of consciousness and will exist no more!

    The same can be said about the super hero genre! It is still alive in the consciousness of the artists and the generations that brought it into being, but it will fade, along with the artists, and that generation, into oblivion!

    What about the classics you say, that has defied the ravages of time and are still alive and well in the consciousness and the hearts of past,present and most likely future generations?

    They are certainly still with us I must agree, .. but not as a POPULAR present day art form, but as a nostalgic reach back into our dead past that some how gives us a feeling of immortality!

    What is good and what is bad about a genre, is a subjective notion, that is very fragile, in an objective world!

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