Comics’ Identity Crisis: Claiming “Art” is a Misguided Quest

Comics have a bit of an identity crisis: our culture cannot decide what they really are, leaving them to pay the price both financially and legally. A common remedy for this is the insistence that comics are "art", which is probably the number one expression used to justify their worth as a medium. This statement abounds in comics literature. Claiming "comics as art" is an overt part of Eisner’s term "sequential art," and a primary argument running throughout McCloud’s Understanding Comics. However, is the quest to claim "comics as art" really worth doing in the first place?

In this piece, I will examine the problems found in claiming "comics are art", and how "comics as language" is a more beneficial perspective.

This is not to imply that the clear success of comics breaking into nationwide MOMA exhibits and establishing their own art museums is for naught. Indeed, these strides mark great progress towards the public perception of the medium. Granted, various comics (the objects) can rightfully have cultural value as art. However, broader problems arise when stating that the "comics medium" is art.


Clarifying our terms

Designating "comics as art" most likely arises from the perception of the medium as a synthesis of two "traditional" art forms – literature (textual writing) and picture making (painting, drawing, etc). However, in my book and last article, I discussed how the term "comics" refers to a cultural and social category that is separate from the structural "comics medium" of sequential pictures. I continued this split by stating that the "comics medium" is actually a visual language (a point that I will return to), doing away with any terminological remnants of cultural association to "comics". In splitting apart the social from structural concepts, we no longer need to treat one as an essential part of the other. This same sort of dissection of terminology can help us to understand "art", as well.

Generally, "art" is an expression applied on top of the nature and creation of some object or action. This might be a response to some evocative aesthetic, a commentary about the creator’s vision or methods, or any number of things that the term "art" evokes. However, what it does not refer to is the avenue of expression itself.

"Art" has become applied to painting, sculpture, dancing, drawing, and a myriad of other activities, yet these actions and their resulting products are not necessarily "art" by inherent definition. The result of the act of sculpture isn’t art, it’s the creation of a statue, just as the result of painting (the action) is to produce a painting (the object). Likewise, not all statues and things painted are considered "art" by definition, only the ones that meet certain individual and cultural qualifications to be included in that category. Thus, like the divide between "comics" and the "comics medium", "art" can be understood as a social term applied interpretively to varying actions and objects.

In America, comics (and the community that surrounds them) do not get much respect in the public eye, are repeatedly stereotyped negatively, and are even persecuted legally with dire consequences. As a tactic to combat this, raising the banner for artistic appreciation is unsurprising. But, by trying to change public perception by using "art" as justification, the "nature" of the medium remains unaddressed, while one social category (comics) is attempted to be equated with another (art).

Notice also that the same sort of problems arise from the social connotations evoked in the term "sequential art" as do in "comics medium". As a term, it also conflates cultural aspects into an intended structural term. A more beneficial approach would be to educate the populace on the actual nature of the form, divorced from these sorts of associations, and then let them derive their own (social) interpretations of that structure’s usage.

Addressing the "nature of the form" brings us back again to the "comics are a language" position. Or, rather, that the "comics medium" of sequential images is a language, which combines with textual language in the social objects of "comics". I’ve discussed why the "comics medium" is a language before, so I won’t belabor it here. Promoting this notion of the comics medium as a language – a visual language – can aid in gaining the respect desired by those previously fighting under the banner of "art."


A change in perception

Let’s look at some ways in which the conception of visual language (VL) differs from that of "comics as art".

First off, humans have a basic biological inheritance to language. Everyone has the inborn capacity for language – it’s just a question of learning. Visual language is no different: everyone has the capacity to make pictures; it’s just a matter of acquiring the grammar of putting them in sequence coherently – both for the ability to read and to produce them. In comics, we simply have the production of two languages being written at once, a visual one and an aural/textual one.

Notice also that language implicitly emerges from an individual source. Though writing can be tempered by various people, it ultimately comes from a person’s mind – a very personal and individualistic process.

This type of individualized creation is in stark contrast to the predominant "shop style" of manufacturing comics, which distributes the jobs amongst a variety of specialized workers. In the current assembly-line method of making comics, the productively fluent VL person is usually the penciler. However, they often must deal with "translating" a textual script written by a non-fluent writer who indicates what to draw. Isn’t this a bit backwards? Shouldn’t a final visual product be written visually from the start by a person capable in that form, not dictated by a person without such fluency? In an idealistic sense, acceptance of the notion of visual language is an acknowledgment of those fluent in it, elevating the status of the diminishingly named "writer-artists" to be considered the norm – not the exception.

Despite this very personal production, language is also something that is socially shared, whereas art is almost wholly associated with an individual’s style, expression, and message. The social aspect of VL is evident throughout comic culture, where a group of people share this common visual language and gather around its usage. This is especially honed in the webcomic community, which features a relatively identifiable social group organized around a common avenue of VL use: Internet comics.

Potentially, such a perspective change could help in the legal battles fought over comics as well. It is easier to make the argument that a language is not inherently subversive, rather than to argue for the validity of the medium to be considered socially as "art".

Indeed, society conceives of language as being more democratic than art, most likely because of language’s social aspect. People are generally more suspicious of the subversive potential of art than of language. They trust language more, even though its use has every potential to be as manipulating or divisive as "art" (as a century’s worth of prevalent propaganda is a testament to).

Such judgments tap into the most important difference between these positions, which I raised early on: language is only a process that begets a product, while art usually defines the resulting outcome of a process. That is, language is the means by which people make expressions, not the expressions themselves. Indeed, imagine dictionary and grammar book burnings where people backlash against English itself. The construal of something as art is applied on top of its medium of creation.

In this way, the "comic medium" cannot be defined as "art" any more than we can define English as being literature. Visual language can be used to write any variety of topics, artistic or not, just as textual language is employed to write an uncountable array of expressions. Language itself is not considered art – only the interpretable product of its process.

When we acknowledge the linguistic status of visual language, its use as a language beyond the constraints of "comics" can then follow. Hopefully, since language places no restrictions on how it is utilized, such treatment will give rise to a boom of diverse content, any of which can be determined as art or not, uninfluenced by the associations immediately drawn up by "comics".

Most importantly, such a designation would not make or break the inherent identity of the medium itself.

Neil Cohn


  1. Just because you’re a great artist doesn’t mean you can tell a great story or a great joke. If I’m reading this correctly, it appears that what you’re saying is essentially the same as saying that only cinematographers should write movie scripts.

    That’s not quite what he’s saying. He’s saying that in comics the wordsmithing ought to come from pictures, not the picturesmithing coming from words.

    What can’t necessarily be determined is whether, on an instance by instance basis, the wordsmith creating a script for the picturesmith is creating that script from pictures in his head. For instance, I once read that the scripts for Watchmen contained very detailed descriptions of each page’s panel layout and the action in each panel. I’d feel safe claiming that Alan Moore was not doing what Cohn complains of; Moore could have, and perhaps would have, drawn the book except he and his editors thought Dave Gibbon was a much better picturesmith than he was. Similarly, when Phil Foglio was scripting Dynamo Joe for Doug Rice to draw, he didn’t literally script; he laid out each page with stick-figure sketches and dialog handwritten in. Then of course there are those who write and draw their comics both.

    I imagine there are comics writers out there whose scripts consist only of panel numbers and dialog, either because the writer doesn’t visualize what s/he’s writing or because s/he can’t or won’t describe it any more fully; and that’s the sort of thing being objected to here, I think. (I don’t know of any examples of this as I do of the obverse. Maybe writers who do this don’t produce work warranting interviews by fan magazines.)

    The issue isn’t whether the artist can think up a story – the issue is whether the writer is thinking in pictures.

    Paul Gadzikowski, since 1995 New cartoons most days

    The judge asked whether I was a real doctor.

  2. I’m not sure what this has to do with claiming comics as art. Assuming that we agree that putting pictures in sequence is a language, wouldn’t the act of telling stories in that language be a form of art? And isn’t the set of cultural constructs dealing with using that visual language for the purpose of storytelling what you are calling comics? Therefore, comics are art that uses this particular form of visual language. I suppose that an airline manual that uses visual language is not art, but by your definition it isn’t comics either.

    But even if we do put aside the idea that comics are art, how is convincing people that there is this other thing called “visual language” going to increase the standing of comics in court? Jesus Castillo wasn’t convicted because people thought that comics weren’t a form of language, he was convicted because people thought that all comics were for kids. By your cultural definition of comics, the piece of work that Castillo sold to an undercover policeman was still a comic. Defining comics as a certain social group reinforces the idea that comics are for kids, it doesn’t undermine it. I just don’t see the benefit.

  3. Telling stories does not equate to art, and I don’t think the “nature” of any media can be inherently art. Nor do I see a reason why we should apply a blanket labeling of “art” to all social objects of any sort. An analogical example would be the relationship of English to novels — a particular social use of that language for storytelling. It would be ridiculous to claim that all novels are art, and even more ridiculous to claim that English is art. So, I don’t think it should be a crux for identifying comics and visual language either.

    In addressing the legality issue, the language position is useful because it splits comics the Objects away from comics the Medium. The “comics are for kids” position is made by mixing those two ideas. To them, the Medium and the Objects (and thus their content) are inherently tied.

    If we separate the language out from the Objects, people can no longer insist that the language is something that is only for kids, because no language is exclusively for one age group or another. A language is only something used to write something. This also separates the content from the language.

    If the medium is no longer recognized as divisive, what can they claim is only for kids? The content of those Objects is self-evident as diverse, so they can’t all be for kids either. This would be like claiming that all novels are for kids. They will only be able to address the content of individual books, and will no longer be able to make generalized statements about the language or the social objects.

    I don’t see how comics as a social group reinforces the associations to children. A social group can have any variation of ages in it. And, last I checked more adults were reading comics than kids were anyways.

  4. This is a really interesting issue.
    I have to give a talk at a my local library about censorship in May and this article will help me quite a bit. It made me join this forum.:)

    The argument that “English can’t be art” or that written language isn’t art is ungrounded. The truth is that ANYTHING can be art if the viewer (interpretant) makes that decision. The person who created the expression;either visual or textual, loses control of the message once it’s in the public eye. The viewer makes the meaning. That’s the nature of communication. The viewer’s context/personal experience is the only one that matters in the end. The recipient’s view ALWAYS filters the communication. That’s why advertising specialists do so much research. They are trying to tailor the experience. The context is what determines if something is art or not. If you take the computer that you work on everyday and place it in a museum;then claim it’s art…it’s art.

    Neil brought out some excellent points in the article. The section dealing with legal issues was particually well articulated. The public does view comics as being for kids but, why is that? It’s because the industry ALSO viewed them as being for kids. The godfathers of comics didn’t know what they had…too bad. They were looking at profits…nothing else. For so long the form of comics has been geared towards comics and adults generally think of them as being juvenile in nature. We are talking about decades of marketing that we have to try to get through.

    Comics are really intriguing as a communications form. They combine all aspects of semiotics in their makeup. The image (drawn,painted,etc.) is ICONIC in nature. The written/textual part is also VISUAL. The text of a comic is SYMBOLIC in nature. Words are IMAGES (or a related sequence of images to be exact). Any book in print is sequential art..(especially according to McCloud’s classic deifinition). So, even this response is a collection of juxtaposed images. The NATURE of the images is what makes it different. In fact, the nature of these two groups of signs is SO different that it makes people think that they are not highly related. They are opposites but, words AND pictures are both images. All written language is a visual language.

    The problem lies within the public view of comics. When the ICONIC nature of comics combines with the SYMBOLIC nature of comics you have the third type of sign in semiotics..the INDEXICAL SIGN. Indexical signs rely upon memory and learned associations to be effective. Neil is correct that comics ARE a visual language. The learned association of the public of what a comic book should be is what is at the crux of the validity of the medium. We have to re-educate the masses. That’s why I am speaking at the local library to basically defend the medium.

    Separating the form from the content will be very,very diffiicult. Even the nomenclature (comics) denotes something that ISN’T to be taken seriously. Marshall McLuhan was right: ‘the medium IS the message”.
    Even if the public embraces comics as a true artform it will always have a “low culture” or “fringe culture” stigma attached to it, in my opinion. I will try to fight the good fight. I believe it to be a worthy cause.

  5. I agree with you that what makes something “art” is largely subjective, which is why I have hesitated to define it. My statement that “English is not art” is an attempt to illustrate how one cannot expressly link a form of expression to inherently being art. The interpretations of the expressions can be whatever the viewer(s) decide.

    It’s interesting that you bring up the issue of semiotic signs. I happen to be working on a rather long essay for my own website about that same topic, largely to debunk the myth that language (either in words or in images) need be symbolic.

    Your bringing up the issue of the “nomenclature of comics” is important I think, because how people categorize things defines how they respond to them (think of the current “marriage” argument). One of the things I mentioned in my last article is how promoting the understanding of visual language will dissolve the idea of “comics.” “Comics” are not a language , they are just objects that use a particular language. If VL is recognized as a language separate from “comics,” the uses of that language can be varied and diverse, without needing to draw associations to any particular usage. (Here again is the strength against legality issue) So, as I discussed in that article, the question is which do you want to promote: 1) the language or 2) the social objects?

    Good luck on your library presentation!

  6. You’re right, both claims would be ridiculous, but I think the difference lies in part in how you go about proving it. If you are just claiming something is an “art form” (i.e. “a medium”) you have no grounding evidence except as a battle of opinion. It’s easy to say something is not art, because that is defined subjectively.

    Language has qualifications and requirements that can be met in defining it, art does not. My method is by systematically showing that visual language engages the same types of cognitive mechanisms as spoken and signed languages, thereby meeting those qualifications.

  7. i was thinking about the comment you made about comics
    “not being a language”. i think about certain aspects of written
    language(syntax,structure,grammar). the way that comics
    (sequential art) handle information is very particular. the way
    the panels are arranged. the way that it deals with the fourth

    are you sure that it isn’t a language?

    i think of heiroglyphics and the aztec paintings…comics have those
    kinds of associations. the particular way that sequential
    art handles information gives it the qualities of a language.

    that’s why “the hulk” had so many problems,in my opinion.
    ang lee was basically imposing one language’s “grammar”
    onto another language. it didn’t work for me. he was thinking of these
    panels as SYMBOLIZING comics instead of realizing that the
    panels were part of the “sentence structure” of a comic
    communicates. the movie’s “visual grammar” is different
    than a comic’s….highly related…but, very different.

  8. All the structure that you mention about language there is correct. However, it is not “comics.” This is again an issue about the separation of the term “comics” and the Medium that comics are written in that I discussed in my last article . Visual language and comics are NOT the same things. McCloud mixed these two important differences in his terming of “comics,” but its important to keep them unique and separate.

    My latest way of showing this is to attach an adjective to the two terms. “Crime comics” sounds fine, while “Crime visual language” sounds preposterous. This is because you can’t attach a genre term to a structure (this would be akin to “Crime English” versus “Crime novels”). So, simply, comics (the objects) *contain* two languages: a visual one and a textual one.

  9. Never feel that you’re intruding when posting to a message board (especially to one of my articles – I love feedback…). That’s what these things are for aren’t they?

    I can understand how one might consider the union of two languages as a language unto itself, provided that “language” in this sense means “a systematic and organized manner of communication.” However, I think that “language” requires a bit more qualifications in its literal defining.

    Nevertheless, your point is correct: the interactions between the two are rich and systematic, and out of the two languages emerges a single unified expression. Just like combined units of gesture and speech, these expressions can be called “composite signals,” and I discuss them in my essay Interactions and Interfaces .

  10. “Shouldn’t a final visual product be written visually from the start by a person capable in that form, not dictated by a person without such fluency? In an idealistic sense, acceptance of the notion of visual language is an acknowledgment of those fluent in it, elevating the status of the diminishingly named “writer-artists” to be considered the norm – not the exception.”

    This is silly. Just because you’re a great artist doesn’t mean you can tell a great story or a great joke. If I’m reading this correctly, it appears that what you’re saying is essentially the same as saying that only cinematographers should write movie scripts.

  11. Now I’m confused. How is claiming an entire medium is for kids and less ridiculous than claiming a language is for kids?

    And if you can’t even convince people that comics can be made for adults, how are you going to convince them of anything so abstract as this visual language business?

  12. > So, simply, comics (the objects) *contain* two languages: a visual one and a textual one.

    I don’t want to intrude too much here, but the interaction between the textual and the visual one seems a whole different language in itself again, to me, in the light of your article. Which would mean that comics (the objects) contain three languages – correct me if I’m wrong. The way the two ‘languages’ are combined also uses its own grammar etc. if you look at it, that’s a third language in a way.

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