Trying to define "comics" is the starting point for a great many works on comics: Will Eisner's Comics and Sequential Art, Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, R.C. Harvey's Art of the Funnies or Art of the Comic Book, David Kunzle's History of the Comic Strip, Thierry Groensteen's System of Comics, all spend time defining comics in their different ways. ComixTalk even has a current series running that is attempting a definition.
I was recently reading Samuel R. Delany's Shorter Views: Queer Thoughts & the Politics of the Paraliterary (Wesleyan UP, 1999), a collection of essays and interviews that include a section on what Delany calls the "paraliterary". For those not familiar with Delany's work, he is perhaps best known as a science fiction author, but his works also include autobiography, a book about the changing face of Times Square in New York City, and a host of critical essays about science fiction, race, sexuality, and literature. He's even had brief forays into comics: a few issues of Wonder Woman back when she was briefly a non-costumed feminist hero (he wrote the last 2 issues before DC ditched the idea and put her back in the star-spangled bathing suit), Bread and Wine (Juno Books, 1999) an autobiographical comic with Mia Wolff, and Empire: A Visual Novel (Berkley Publishing, 1978) a collaboration with Howard Chaykin. I returned to Shorter Views recently after a brief mention of it in Douglas Wolk's Reading Comics (Da Capo, 2007) (who, by the way, avoids the definition issue, but still seems undecided on whether he wants to call comics a "form" or a "medium"). Wolk notes that reading Delany's "Politics of Paraliterary Criticism" shied him off from attempting a definition.
Delany's essay is concerned with the idea of the paraliterary, a field that includes such genres and forms as science fiction, mysteries, pornography, and, yes, comics. He takes apart three related concepts that he believes "hold back the development of paraliterary criticism." ("Politics of Paraliterary Criticism" in Shorter Views, p. 223) These three concepts are: "craft" when used in opposition to "art", "origins", and "definition of the genre." All three are interesting arguments and in discussing them, Delany focuses a great deal on comics and science fiction, with a particular emphasis on Understanding Comics. But what I'm interested in here is the definition part.
What McCloud and the other critics of the paraliterary (e.g. James Gunn, in science fiction) don't seem to realize is that our very insistence that our genre might be, must be substantially less complex and vital than any of the literary genres. Our adversaries reason: "Since their genre is created only with craft (and not art — note here the two functions in distinct opposition), a paraliterary genre can be art only under the larger and inclusive meaning. It can't be art in the limited, value-bound meaning: Science fiction, comics, pornography, mysteries can be considered art, at best, in the way Morris chairs or Wedgwood china (easily definable objects, by the bye) are art, but obviously not in the way that a poem (in the undefinable genre of poetry) is art. The fact that any given one among these genres is definable (or that its most interesting critical practitioners, such as McCloud, keep insisting that it is) is proof positive it must be simple and second rate!" (240)
Here we see Delany's key summation concerning definition. My interpretation is: despite centuries of existence and miles of shelves of critical tradition, literary concepts like "poetry" or "novel" remain undefined and in this undefinability retain a sense of the wonder and metaphysics that comes along with "literary" or "art". Take the time to look up "novel" a few places and tell me if any of them feel any more adequate than all the definitions of "comics" you've seen. Yet, not every book of novel criticism starts out trying to define "novel". It is assumed the reader knows what the novel, as the object under consideration, is.
How do you know what the object under study is? I'd like to steal a concept from Ludwig Wittgenstein. I originally found this quote back in May of 2006 in a book on Picasso's etchings of Ovid's Metamorphoses, and it immediately felt relevant to comics. I quote at length:
66. Consider for example the proceedings that we call “games”. I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all? — Don’t say: “There must be something common, or they would not be called ‘games’ “-but look and see whether there is anything common to all. — For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don’t think, but look! –
Look for example at board-games, with their multifarious relationships. Now pass to card-games; here you find many correspondences with the first group, but many common features drop out, and others appear. When we pass next to ball-games, much that is common is retained, but much is lost.– Are they all ‘amusing’? Compare chess with noughts and crosses. Or is there always winning and losing, or competition between players? Think of patience. In ball games there is winning and losing; but when a child throws his ball at the wall and catches it again, this feature has disappeared. Look at the parts played by skill and luck; and at the difference between skill in chess and skill in tennis.
Think now of games like ring-a-ring-a-roses; here is the element of amusement, but how many other characteristic features have disappeared! sometimes similarities of detail. And we can go through the many, many other groups of games in the same way; can see how similarities crop up and disappear. And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and cries-crossing: sometimes overall similarities.
67. I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than “family resemblances”; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc. overlap and cries-cross in the same way.-And I shall say: ‘games’ form a family. (Ludwig Wittgenstein. Philosophical Investigations. 1953. Quoted from here.)
You can go back through this passage and replace "games" with "comics," peppering the examples with various types of comics from comic strips, comic books, silent comics, text heavy comics, single panels, comics with balloons and comics without balloons, comics on paper, comics online, comics with flash animated parts, and comics drawn on a gallery wall.
To me, the idea of a family of comics, is a beautiful and positive metaphor. There are no definitive origins (unless you are a strict creationist) and there is no end result. Families are always growing, taking in members from other families, and creating new members from the mergings. In this way comics grow and evolve with experimentation and borrowings, an every changing art, just like its literary and fine art relatives.
I return to Delany:
This man [McCloud] passionately desires that comics change and grow. Why should someone with such desires attempt to strait his arguments and observations of his cherished object within the restrictive wall of definition? Won't careful analytic description of what is vital, intriguing, newly noticed, and wondrous about comics (what they are; how they work) finally do the job much better? Why do we need the appeal to that extra, transcendental authority of science that "definition" falsely holds out, but which, as we reach for it, finally and only betrays (and, for certain critics, confirms the truth of) our own inferiority? (245)
To me, the analytic description of comics, the criticism, not only adds depth to the reading of individual comics but can also, through a broader sense of vision and explication, add to the ever growing family that is comics. There needs to be more of it.