Is This A Comic: Intent of the Creator

In this month’s column, we’re going to explore the first, and perhaps most mercurial of the four criteria, the Intent of the Creator. What does this criteria mean? How is it defined? Why do we need it?

Intent of the Creator means, quite simply, does the creator intend for this work to be a “comic.” When Creator X made Work Y, did Creator X intend to produce a work that would conform to the rest of the four criteria? Did Creator X desire that? Was that the goal?

This criteria is hard to nail down simply because it is paradoxical in nature. How can someone intend to make something if part of said creation’s definition is the intent to create a thing which we can’t define until it exists? Ugg. See what I mean? Just because this is difficult, however, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to do it or that it isn’t important!

Before we can go any further about the hows and whys concerning the Intent of the Creator criteria, we need to come to terms with the paradox. It is, I believe, human nature when confronted with a paradox to say either “neither is correct” or “only one can be correct.” There is a time, however, when humans are willing to forgo that initial reaction. We call that “the willing suspension of disbelief.”

“The Willing Suspension of Disbelief” is (according to Internet info-maven, Wikipedia) “the alleged willingness of a reader or viewer to accept as true the premises of a work of fiction, even if they are fantastic, impossible, or otherwise contradictory to "reality".” To simplify, which we all like to do, this means you know that something isn’t true or wouldn’t work in reality, but you’re willing to go along with it for the sake of the story. Common examples would be almost any superhero’s abilities, basic science fiction premises of “faster than light” starship engines, or even things like zombies and vampires. For the moment, we allow the story to lie to us. We believe what we are presented even if it is not true. We treat the untrue as the truth. That is a paradox if I ever heard one.

What I am asking here is that we suspend our disbelief of the paradox I have presented (at least for now). I have a good reason to ask your patience and if you follow me, I’m sure you’ll see that using the Intent of the Creator as one of the four criteria is not as paradoxical as it seems.

Any contemporary creator is lucky because they don’t need to invent comics. We already have comics. We can see them, read them, experience them. We may have trouble defining (for the moment) all the nuances of what a comic is, but generally speaking, we know it when we see it.

Comics are not an invention or a discovery. There wasn’t an inventor or a team of scientists working to discover comics. Comics are less like a light bulb and more like a living organism. Comics have evolved from other creatures over a matter of time. Just as homo erectus would be a step towards our modern homo sapien, the modern comic evolved from numerous past works, like hieroglyphics and Trajan’s Column. Evolution is the key to comics.

It’s probably impossible to say with any confidence when the first true “comic” appeared. Most scholars usually agree upon R.F. Outcault’s Hogan’s Alley, more specifically, The Yellow Kid, in 1895 as a modern starting point. Honestly, it’s a pretty good one because once it hit, comics began to crawl out of the primordial ooze and breathe on land for the first time. Comic strips would soon begin to pop up in magazines and newspapers. By the late 1920s, strips would encompass all sorts of genres and be read by people from all walks of life. No one person or entity had set out to invent comics, but they were here, and they were called “comics”.

The easiest way to know the intent of a creator is, of course, to ask them. If we have access to the creator, we can simply say, “Hey, is this thing you made supposed to be a comic?” Of course, we don’t have access to all creators. Darn you, death! That means it is up to us, the audience, to make an informed judgement.

The easiest way for us to ask if the intent was to make a comic is to take a work we know is a comic and compare it to the work in question. Are they similar? If the answer is “yes”, then it is probably safe to say we’re on the right track. The next question we ask is “how are these things similar?” This shouldn’t really be surprising. Humans and animals instinctively do this all the time. “Is this food? It appears similar to the other thing that was food because of x, y, and z. It probably is food.”

Of course, if it was just a matter of instinct, there really would be no point to this column. Instinct is the starting point. The next thing we can do to determine the creator’s intent is to study what was happening in the creator’s environment. What influenced the creator? Even if we don’t know exactly what the creator was doing, we usually know about where and when they lived. What was going on in the culture then? What was happening? Who else was creating in that time? All these little clues can help us gain insight we need to make a judgement.

Typically, that is what this first criteria is all about; making a judgement. You, the audience, must make the call. Can I discern the creator’s intent? You must make the call, either “yes, they wanted to make a comic” or “no.” Don’t think that just because you answered “no” that there was failure. Even if something is not a comic, it can still be related to comics and can still influence and add to the culture of comics.

Simply put, intent is a bigger piece of a puzzle. Comics were not created by invention, that is, no one person “discovered” or set out to “invent” comics. Instead, comics came to us by way of evolution. Once comics arrived on scene, we had them. We now have something in our collective consciousness that is “comic”. What a “comic” is defined on academically is certainly up for debate (hence this column), but we know they exist.

Because we know comics exist and are not something that need to be discovered or invented, it is safe to say they are no longer created by accident. People make comics on purpose. That is what the Intent of the Creator criteria is all about; that the creator intended for their work to be a comic when completed. The creator intends for the audience to experience the work as a comic (which will be discussed more when we look at the next criteria: Audience Experience). The creator intends for their work to be a comic when experienced as a whole. All of it, together, is a comic. Any separate piece of it, such as a single panel, page, or even the script, is intended to be part of a comic. Not to say the individual pieces do not have value or merit on their own. They are not what the creator intended to be a singular comic.

Intent of the Creator is also a safeguard for other creators who never wanted their work to be considered a comic. The obvious example of Roy Lichtenstein comes immediately to mind. Lichtenstein was obviously, and admittedly, influenced by comics and cartooning. However, he did not consider his works to be comics or himself a cartoonist. He described himself as a cubist painter, and later a classicist painter. He described his paintings (to which I’m referring) as parodies of cartoons. As much as we’d love to say Roy Lichtenstein was making amazing comics, the truth is that isn’t what he would say. That was not his intent.

Now, the reason there are Four Criteria that must be met is because anyone of these alone isn’t going to cut it. Just because someone intends something they’ve done to be a comic does not automatically make it a comic. Let’s face it, failure is an option. I would like to think, however, that the first step on an individual’s journey to making comics is to simply intend to make a comic. If a finished comic was a cake, the first step the baker would take, even if only instinctively or internally, would be to say “I’m going to make a cake.” Whether or not the baker succeeds is another matter, but at least we know what the baker was going for.

Granted, Intent of the Creator is probably going to be more useful in determining what is not a comic than what is. That’s okay. I think this criteria will help us identify a lot of work that helped contribute to the evolution of comics. It will also enable us to (potentially) predict what other art forms comics may give birth to (or already have in the case of animation). Just because something is not a comic does not mean it is not in comics’ extended family.

I would propose labeling as "proto-comics" anything that is similar to comics, but is not comics and was created before the appearance of The Yellow Kid in 1895. This would include things like Trajan’s Column and Hieroglyphics, but would exclude things such as the work of Roy Lichtenstein. Similarly I would propose labeling as "para-comics" any work that is similar to comics, but is not comics and appeared after The Yellow Kid in 1895. A para-comic would be work influenced by comic, but is not a comic, such as the Lichtenstein paintings, or even some animation and film. Both para-comics and proto-comics would very likely appear to be comics on the surface, but would fail at least one of the four criteria.

Intent of the Creator is a quick and easy way to help sort works in question. If the work was before 1895, chances are the creator had no intent to make a comic. Such a work could be related to or influence comics but not likely be comics. For work post-1895, if it is easy to establish the Intent of the Creator to make a comic, then move on to the other four criteria and continue. If there is no intent, then you have a para-comic.


The Intent of the Creator is only the first of the four criteria. It is important because it helps establish the motive, if you will. However, it can only be an educated guess at times as to what the creator intended. For that reason, it alone cannot define what a comic is or isn’t.

Next time, we’ll examine closely the next of the four criteria, Audience Experience. How does the audience experience comics? What is unique about that experience to comics that makes it important to the definition?


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