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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.

Re: Is This A Comic?

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.

Re: Is This A Comic?

I think the main problem with art in general, be it comics, movies, books and so on, is the never ending conjecture.

After all, those who can't, teach, review, or attempt to explain.

Unfortunately, our society is based on too much critical opinion.

Art cannot, and, should not be explained by anyone other than the one who created it. It's their own expression and should be viewed as such. Whether good or bad, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but it hardly matters. Individual expression begets individual interpretation.

Comics are comics are comics. Thats it. You can't define them, only make them. Too much time is wasted guessing on how to create a definitive answer to the question of 'What is a comic?', when the only thing that should be created is the comic itself.

Once a definition comes in to play you pigeon hole the industry.

I have wrestled with this for years. So much so that I gave up on creating the one thing that I love...comics.

This is mankind's problem. Did God create nature, or did nature create itself?

How about just stopping to enjoy it instead of analyzing it to death.

This, of course, is only my opinion.

I applaud you marvelouspatric for taking on such a daunting task. Just don't lose yourself in the critique.

Re: Is This A Comic?

My mother's ambition in life was to be a cartoonist. Not a comic artist, she dis-respected comic-books, she saw them as the worst kind of unthinking mush (in the oatmeal sense). Dell or DC or someone put out a graphic version of "The Prince and the Pauper" and she used this (rolled up tightly) to beat us over the head should we spend any time buying much less reading a comicbook. Helen Hockinson, Charles Addams, Hoff, and Geo. Price were her heroes. She drew 'cartoons' and that was so much a higher calling than comics. I still don't understand the distinction.

Years later I found a pile of her cartoons done at college, and if you put about thirty them together, they form a loose narrative of what college life was like in the 1940's. She produced, in effect, that which she reviled. So in the end, I consider it a comic, esp. because the point of view is consistant for the main character, and the use of humour and drama to move the character through the challenges and situations and to overcome obsticles; such as being attacked and held hostage by your own 3-dimensional design assignment. Is this a comic?

Re: Is This A Comic?

Xaviar Xerexes's picture

That's very interesting!

I think this is a good point to consider when reading this month's article by Patric more focused on "intent of the creator" -- the perception of the audience isn't necessarily going to match up with the intent of the creator; how do you reconcile that?


Xaviar Xerexes

Oh yeah... this place is called ComixTalk now.

I run this place! Tip the piano player on the way out.

Re: Is This A Comic?

marvelouspatric's picture
thanks for reading, everyone! the goal of this column is to explore some things a bit that cartoonists use or are affected by quite a bit. over the next couple of months, i'm going to be delving quite a bit into defining comics. i have this crazy Four Criteria theory, which is only briefly mentioned today.
Please do post links and questions and comments here! I totally want to stimulate conversation and debate! While the next month or so of columns are pretty much done, if i get enough questions and whatnot, i'll probably do a column to address them as best i can.
i'll be checking out the links! thanks for reading!

Re: Is This A Comic?

Neil Cohn's picture
Since you threw out my buzzword "visual language" you probably know that I've written a fair amount on definitions for "comics: too (which you may or may not have read).

I'm looking forward to reading where you're going with this!

------- Studying the Visual Language of "Comics" -

------- Studying the Visual Language of "Comics" -

Re: Is This A Comic?

oh neil... i have _so much_ to say about the things you've written! that's coming up in a few weeks! i really hope you keep reading! i think the stuff you've done is vital to so much of what i have to say.


Re: Is This A Comic?

brideau's picture
Comics, thanks in no small part from webcomics, seem to be evolving and branching out at such a speed, that it seems difficult to place one set definition upon the entire "comics family." So I do like that idea of a family, as well as the idea of intent of the artist, and perception from the audience being important factors within any definition.
To take a page from Potter Stewart, I can't define comics, but I know them when I see them. Not that we shouldn't try to expand and question our understanding of what comics are and can be.

I draw comics, [url=""]Sock-Monster[/url] [url=""]From the Well[/url]

Re: Is This A Comic?

This is very interesting to read, especially for those who enjoy comics but have never considered the ideas presented here consciously. I think that in writing this, people will become more aware of the breadth, depth, and complexity that comics hold. You have very good grammar by the way. Thank you!

Re: Is This A Comic?

DonnaBarr's picture

As a creator of the art form, my attitude is: rules? We don't need no stinking rules.

I like Scott (and all his cute spawn) and Eisner was a nice old man. Scott's words get academia noticing us and that's all to the good. Eisner worked so hard to make this industry work.

But Scott's rules are just boxes -- and Will invented the worst kind of sweat-shop structure for this industry, one we've all had to fight for years. lI've had to work like a dog since 1986 to help re-form the new systems that can liberate creators from what Will originally set up. He left me no legacy I haven't had to struggle against.

Love his art -- hate his idea of business.




Re: Is This A Comic?

CyberLord's picture


I agree with your paraphrasing of the quote from "Treasure Of The Sierra Madre":

rules? We don't need no stinking rules.

Assuming* we could actually define comics/comix we would find ourselves in a box and possibly unable to grow.

I remember reading an interview of Jack Kirby back in the day. He was asked if comics/comix had a future. From what I can remember he said that comics/comix would always be around but he did not know "in what form" they would be around.

We need to leave that door as wide open as Jack Kirby saw it back then.

"We'll see who goes to sleep first!" :)

*For English as a second language readers.

Never assume, because when you ASSUME you make and ASS out of U and ME.

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort but where he stands at times of challenge and discovery. -- Martin Luther King, Jr.---------CyberLord

Re: Is This A Comic?

Derik Badman's picture

A good start, Patric. I'm curious to see where this goes.

You may also want to take a look at French critic Thierry Groensteen's definitiong in The System of Comics.

You may also be interested in this post I wrote:

which borrows from Wittgenstein to think about comics as a "family", where a group of characteristics are shared amongst different forms, but not all the characteristics are shared by each (much better explanation at that post).


Derik A Badman

Things Change:


Re: Is This A Comic?

Derik Badman's picture

p.s. Here's my summary of Groensteen's book:

(its in English translation now, too)

Re: Is This A Comic?

CyberLord's picture


I'm not so certain we can define "comics/comix". I can't even decide how to spell it. :)

By complaining about overly broad definitions you place yourself in the same position Ben Bova placed himself when he was editor of "Analog" magazine. I don't remember exactly what Ben Bova's definition of science fiction was, even with an extra hour of sleep, but it focused on the use of science within a story. By Ben Bova's definition if you take the science out of "Frankenstein" or "The Man in the White Suit" you no longer have stories.

OK, let's use that definition. Hmmmm, by that token "Fail Safe" is science fiction because the story is based on atomic bombs. Atomic bombs are scientific, therefore all movies with stories dependant upon atomic bombs are science fiction.

Hmmmm. Let's see, gunpowder is a product of science. WOW, every cowboy movie I ever saw is science fiction!

So, Ben Bova's definition of science fiction is overbroad if we can use it to call westerns science fiction. I still like Ben Bova's definition. In fact I always use it, because it works so well to include works that might otherwise be excluded.


The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort but where he stands at times of challenge and discovery. -- Martin Luther King, Jr.---------CyberLord