Skip to main content

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.

Re: Is This A Comic?: Four Criteria

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!

Re: Is This A Comic?: Four Criteria

It the intentention is to define "what is a comic?"... in a objective sense I suppose it has to be viewed as to what it was, at the very beginning, and what it has become today!

Everything changes in time, and change can only be defined as the moving away from what something was, and moving toward the opposite side of the equation. .. That being so, change is predictable!
Comics at the very beginning during the 1920's were funny and made people laugh, that is why they were called COMICS! The drawings were not regarded as illustrations, but as cartoons!
AS time marched on, in the 1930's the caricaturists and the illustrators quickly pushed the comic strips and comic pages into a more sophisticated drawing style! and with the passage of time we will probably see the hand drawing artist, being replaced by the photographer and the creator of special effects on the computer!
The saving of mankind and the planet from evil doers had a long run but nothing last's forever! That type of story line will eventually come to an end like the cowboy westerns of the recent past!
I am kind of old and I was inspired to entertain my generation with drawings and storyline that they and I could relate to! Every new generation will take comics away from what existed in the past and towards a future that you at the present time will not be able to relate to and you will hate it!
But you can't stop progress!

Re: Is This A Comic?: Four Criteria

"That type of story line will eventually come to an end like the cowboy westerns of the recent past!"

Hm... somebody's missed Loveless and Jonah Hex on the racks. Superheroes aren't gonna go away. Hopefully they'll lose a bit of their prominence... ideally by just having more readers who like non-superhero books, not less readers who like superheroes... because, really, there's nothing inherently bad about the genre.

Re: Is This A Comic?: Four Criteria

p.s. How do I get a cool picture by the side of my name?

Re: Is This A Comic?: Four Criteria

CyberLord's picture

At the top right of the screen below your name, click on "My account". Then click the "Edit" tab on the next page.

Down near the bottom you will see a field in which to load a picture. Don't hit the limit of 100 X 100 pixels. I tried that at first and was never successful. I had to reduce my image for it to be accepted.

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?: Four Criteria

I'm excited to see where this goes and how everything will be pieced together! It will be interesting to hear what you think the bit about a "comic being a comic because the creator intended it to be" means. Will you ever explore why someone feels drawn to creating a comic, as opposed to a movie or book or other art form, to express themselves? I think that could be fascinating to read about as well, although I understand that as with the definition of a comic, there is not really a concise answer to that question. Keep up the great work!

Re: Is This A Comic?: Four Criteria

Max Vaehling's picture

I'm with timtylor on this one. For any publication, being intended as a comic doesn't make it one. It's not a definition, it's a tautology at best.

The second category isn't much better. So it's a comic if it's perceived as one? I know that line of thought from sociology. (A social problem is anything perceived by society as a social problem, which sounds like a tautology but isn't.) But it doesn't add much to the definition because it doesn't clarify what the comicky bits are that make the audience perceive it as a comic.

I think i know where you're heading with that part (that bit about excluding hieroglyphs? Good start), but I don't think you're defining anything yet.

The most interesting part is the third category. That one's REALLY good, actually. Especially since you don't fail to mention the audience participation in this.

As for the visual language category, I'm having troubles with that. For a defnition, it's too broad. You could just as well say it includes pictures. Yeah, I know that Neil's definition of visual language goes way bexond "includes pictures". Still, doesn't help.

You left out the sequential nature of images in comics. Deliberately, it seems. To include single-panel cartoons. But i don't think a definition of comics should include cartoons. It's an entirely different approach to using visual language. (As are traffic signs.) Single-panel cartoons aren't read the way comics are read. They are looked at, and then you read the text, but if there's a synthesis at all, it's in the next step, the interpretation. In comics, the synthesis is part of the reading experience itself, because if it wasn't, you'd never to the second panel.

In my book, the most important characteristic of comics is the transformation of images into text (as in "texture", not as in "lots of words"). Words and images are swapping their traditional roles. The image carries the narrative (or argument or whatever) while the words provide extra information to go with the image - in a way they illustrate what the images are about. (Skip the words, and the narrative flow is still intact. Take away the pictures, not so much.) Without that transformation, a combination of text and image is not a comic. It's an illustrated text.

Sorry for rambling. Lots of text for only two cents... Looking forward to the next installment nonetheless, if only to find out if you meant anything more by the first category than I could see in it.

Re: Is This A Comic?: Four Criteria

marvelouspatric's picture
i want to say that you and timtylor and quite correct in your assessment of things as they currently stand. however, keep in mind that we will be exploring what this Four Criteria are all about in depth as we continue. In fact, next month is all about what Intent of Creator means.
Not only that, but please keep in mind that these are each four parts of a larger whole. That is to say, none of these alone define what a comic is, but help contribute to the definition.
Also, Audience Experience has very little to do whether or not the audience perceives it to be a comic and more with how the work is encountered and... well, experienced.
The third category will actually cover a lot of the sequential nature of comics (hence closure) and explain a theory i have about single panel works being sequential in their own way.
Lastly, visual language, a term I swiped from Neil Cohn, meaning that there is a specific, for lack of a better term, language used in comics. There are things, symbols, short-hands, etc, that appear in comics (or appeared in comics first) that don't appear in other art forms that help comics communicate.
i hope you all keep reading. These first two columns really are just set up and mission statement. Now we're going to get into the meat of the issue!

Re: Is This A Comic?: Four Criteria

My problem with the first criterion, "Intent of Creator", is that it makes the reasoning circular: "It's a comic because the maker means it to be treated as a comic." That leaves "comic" undefined. That problem's addressed, but it doesn't solve it for me:

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.

Comparison to an already-established comic either pushes it back further, still leaving it undefined - "comparison to another work we think the creator meant as a comic" - or else refers it to the other criteria - "comparison to another work that fits criteria 2-4". In the latter case, why not drop "intent" and just apply the other criteria directly to the work in question? Bringing in the date of the work implies an undeclared historical criterion - "works created after 1600AD", say.

I think that if you want to pin "comics" to a hard definition, you can't let the definition refer to itself. The alternative would be to allow looser or multiple definitions, and allow the answer to "Is this a Comic?" to depend on the questioner's viewpoint and reason for asking.

Re: Is This A Comic?: Four Criteria

CyberLord's picture

Interesting article.

I do think there are still some problems. Anyone who has read the Sunday San Francisco Chronicle will recognize the little man in the movie critic pages of the Chronicle. It's an image of a man that immediately tells the reader whether a movie is worth watching or not.

If the movie is very good, the little man is leaping from his seat while applauding.

If the movie is good, the little man applauds.

If the movie is average the little man sits attentively.

If the movie should be avoided the little man is asleep.

Only once have I seen the image of an empty seat for a movie. :)

Now, I can't testify as to the intent of the artist and his editor, but ignoring "intent" this seems like a comic to me according to your definition.

Appended 20071204 2:25 PM Pacific Standard Time

I hate to be pedantic but I have thought about your definition some more and I have to challenge the "visual representation" part.

Say I write a novel, thinking to myself that I am creating a comic book. I have just satisfied the "intent" phase.

Now by putting words on paper, say this character "a", I am using visual representation. You may want to argue that a character is not a proper drawing, but I would argue that a typographer would agree with me. That particular "a" to the typographer is actually a glyph, a specific "visual representation" of a specific character.

To understand this further, just change the font on whatever web-browser you are using. Each change of font changes the glyphs for the 26 characters in the Roman alphabet. It does not change the character, just the "visual representation" of that character.

Novels, similar to comic books, have their pace controlled by the reader. A novellist may try to usurp some of that control by using words and sentences of differing length, but that has never stopped me from rushing to finish a chapter before my train reaches my destination.

From this it seems novels may be comic books. Or am I missing something?

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?: Four Criteria

Hey Patric,

Sounds good....still haven't figured out what it means. All I know is that I read comics to fulfill that little boy in me that never got to be the super hero he wanted to be

Re: Is This A Comic?: Four Criteria

You editorial writers are so much fun; desperately trying to build fences around an art form that the creators are happily jumping over and crashing through, like so many bison with something else to do. NO, please do keep nailing in the staples; the fences are so much fun to wham flat!

Donna BArr

Re: Is This A Comic?: Four Criteria

marvelouspatric's picture
i hardly think i'm building any fences in this series. if anything, i'm trying to be more inclusive that previous attempts. but, i do appreciate anyone who disagrees with me posting. my goal really is to stimulate discussion. even if i don't satisfy everyone with my definitions by the time i'm done, i hope i have given folks something to talk about and perhaps inspire someone else to give it a try.
further more, it's not like i'm only a critic or editorial writer. i have been making comics for at least a decade now. granted, that's not a long time when compared to some, but i have done a variety of different things. i've done strips, infinite-canvas comics, and even more traditional pages. in fact, it's because i've done some many different types of comics in so many styles that i really want to make sure i don't limit anything in terms of form, style, or genre.

Re: Is This A Comic?: Four Criteria

Xaviar Xerexes's picture

Donna - hey, welcome (back?) to the site!

I don't think the intent of this series is to tell you (or anyone else) what they can or can't do. Talking about where the fences are doesn't stop anyone from knocking them down (or never getting close to them either). To the contrary, having a discussion about where the fences are should be a red flag to some people -- who will take any talk of definitions or limits and try to undo them.

On the other hand I do think it is interesting to think about the question of what a comic is and I think Patric's series is tackling it in a way that should provoke some new insights or at the very least some spirited discussion around the subject.


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?: Four Criteria

Derik Badman's picture


I'm enjoying your series. Not sure I'm in agreement, but I'm looking forward to see where you go.

Derik A Badman

Things Change:


Re: Is This A Comic?: Four Criteria

marvelouspatric's picture
thanks for coming back and reading again! i'd be surprised if there was automatic agreement from everyone (anyone?) right away. especially because right now things are a bit nebulous still. but, once i start explaining the Four Critieria, there will be more examples of why I picked them and how they work. Then, we'll look at some real world examples and see what works and what doesn't.