Panels & Pictures: Definition Redux

Going back to my column from last month about defining comics, Neil Cohn offered a reply that deserves some type of response.  Neil notes that:

…definitions and categories do matter, as can be seen in very realistic terms in debates over whether gays really can get "married", or whether water-boarding is or isn't "torture." In terms of this debate, we see it in other places like whether "graphic novel" has its own meaning or if it's an upscale synonym of "comics." In all these scenarios the result of the decided-upon definition has legitimate real-world consequences.

Neil's first two examples are quite deceptive because they are of a decidedly different nature than "comics." Marriage and torture in the currently debated contexts are debated as legal issues. And for this reason, they do matter (definitions must be made for purposes of legality) and have consequences. But I really don't see how we can equate these with defining "comics". Would it not be preferable to compare these issues with a concept that has a closer relation to comics, such as the "novel" (which I mentioned in my column) or "art" in general?

As for his third example, while I would agree that the use of the term "graphic novel" has real-world consequences, I'm not sure having a definition for the term, if one were even possible, would clear up anything. I don't think "graphic novel" is very upscale but a lot of others seem to think so. I'm of the opinion that the term is an often abused term for a format, a comic with a spine, so to speak, that is more marketing than anything else. Which goes to Neil's point about socio-cultural context, so perhaps I'm making no point against what he means.

My perspective is related to formal/critical issues of reading and writing about comics. And I was delighted to find someone whom I agree with in an article Neil cites in his post. Aaron Meskin in his article "Defining Comics?" addresses a number of definitions of comics before turning to his own concepts, many of which are worth further consideration (I hope Neil does post on this article someday), but I'd like to focus on the end of his article where he asks: "What do we need a definition of comics for in the first place?" (Meskin 375)

Meskin identifies what he sees as the possible reasons a definition would be desired: identification, evaluation, or interpretation. (I'm open to other reasons, but I can't come up with any at this point.)

Identification is perhaps the most common purpose I see behind most definitions of comics. A definition serves as a way to establish a field that is "comics" which includes or excludes works in a way consistent with one's views. Scott McCloud seems to follow this path (excluding single panel comics), as does David Kunzle (including the 19th century works he writes about) and R.C. Harvey (excluding text heavy works like Prince Valiant). Meskin dismisses the idea of a definition as a necessary requirement for identifying comics. Certainly, the world has done well so far without an agreed upon one. He references two methods theorized for identifying "art" that do not require strict definitions: Noel Carroll's "historical narrative approach" and Berys Gaut's "Cluster" concept. He does not go into detail on either, so I followed some footnotes and did some (brief) researching. I'm sure both these ideas are significantly more complicated and caught up in aesthetic philosophy than I can address here, but I believe I understand the general concept.

Here's Carroll on his approach to identifying artworks: “I propose that … we identify works as artworks – where the question of whether or not they are art arises – by means of historical narratives which connect contested candidates to art history in a way that discloses that the mutations in question are part of the evolving species of art. I call these stories ‘identifying narratives’…” (Carroll 315). Basically, a work would be identified as a comic because it somehow engages with previous comics. This requires that we have some (many) original works that we would consider "comics", which would seem to require a definition, yet, in order to even try to define something there has to be that thing that we are trying to define in the first place (a bit circular, yes?). I see this type of narrative identification as consistent with Kunzle's work in The History of the Comic Strip and some of what McCloud does in Understanding Comics. This narrative approach also allows for an expansion of the field through works that test the limits of conceived ideas but retain a connection to more traditional works (for instance, one could use this approach to include infinite canvas works into "comics").

Gaut defines his cluster concept : "In holding that ‘art’ is a cluster concept, I mean that there are multiple criteria for the application of the concept, none of which is a necessary condition for something’s being art. A criterion is a property, possession of which conceptually counts towards an object’s falling under a concept; there are several criteria for a concept." (Gaut 273-4) A concept like "comics" can have many criteria but there is no single criteria which is required for inclusion. In Gaut's case of defining "art" he has ten criteria which are used to include a work in the art cluster. This path is much closer to what I discussed in my column (more on this further down).

Meskin concludes (without any explication) that a range of methods should be used for identification purposes. I'm not one to argue.

Evaluation and interpretation of comics is the area I am more interested in than circumscribing some field that is "comics". Meskin's arguments here are hard to summarize, but I can lay out a few of his key points. One is that interpretation and evaluation of works considered "painting" or "music" existed before any definition of these terms existed (if any such definition exists at all). Another point, more importantly for my needs, is that none of the various definitions conceived in the past for comics (Meskin, earlier in the article, discusses definitions by McCloud, Eisner, Kunzle, Carrier (Aesthetics of Comics)) offer any assistance in making value or interpretative assertions about a work. For instance, take McCloud's: "juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer" (you all know where to find that one). Nothing in that definition helps me decide upon a comic's quality or in understanding its meaning.

Meskin's conclusion here is worth quoting: "What then is required for the evaluation and  interpretation of comics as comics? To focus on  evaluation, I would suggest that what we need is  some grasp of the various styles, techniques, and  purposes found in the art form, as well as a broad  grasp of how to evaluate the variety of elements  that are typically (but not necessarily) used in it,  such as narrative, drawing, dialogue, and coloring… I see no reason to think knowledge of a definition of comics (or even some of its esential features) is requisite, and I suspect that the story about what we need to interpret comics will not be much different." (376) This is a sentiment which I can agree with wholeheartedly.

Evaluation relies on some understanding of a variety of factors specific to comics, including history, form, style, as well as many factor shared by numerous arts: narrative, for instance. These are areas worth spending time on, exploring, discussing, and that was and is my main point. I feel hypocritical in spending all this time on defining comics, but my reading brought up the Wittgensteinian "family resemblance" concept which I discussed in my last column. It is again worth quoting a passage from Gaut in his article on the cluster concept:

A fundamental move is to distinguish two forms of the family resemblance  view, which are often conflated. One version is the resemblance-to-paradigm  account: this holds that something is art by virtue of resembling paradigm artworks. The second version—the cluster account—holds that something is art  by virtue of satisfying a range of criteria. The first version falls to standard  objections, such as that the account is vacuous (since anything can resemble  anything else in some way) and that it is incomplete (since we have not been  told what the paradigms are). The second version avoids these objections: by  stating what the criteria are, vacuity is avoided, and by not appealing to paradigms, incompleteness does not threaten the account. (Gaut 275)

If I take what I discussed in creating a family tree of comics and applied Gaut's concepts, I might be lead to a better working method for comics identification. This would require a list of criterion which would "count towards" a work being a comic. Were one to pull together enough of the definitions in extant, these criterion would begin to accumulate quickly enough (word balloons, sequential images, “visual-verbal interdependence”, "iconic solidarity", etc). Perhaps readers of this column would like to offer some ideas in the comments.

Next month, I'll get to my planned topic for this month, "point of view" in comics.


Note: I apologize if I've been too (pseudo)academic here. I have not formally studied aesthetics, so my paraphrases could be lacking nuance and certainly are lacking in any kind of academic rigor, but following these pathways as they appear does prove interesting (to me at least).


Works Referenced:

  1. Carroll, Noel. "Historical Narratives and the Philosophy of Art." The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 51.3 (1993): 313-26.
  2. Cohn, Neil. "The Visual Linguist: Definitions of "Comics" and their unimportance." 3/15/2008.
  3. Gaut, Berys. "The Cluster Account of Art Defended." The British Journal of Aesthetics 45.3 (2005): 273-88.
  4. Harvey, Robert C. The Art of the Funnies : An Aesthetic History. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994.
  5. Kunzle, David. History of the Comic Strip. Berkeley : University of California Press, 1973.
  6. McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics : The Invisible Art. New York: Kitchen Sink Press/HarperPerennial, 1994.
  7. Meskin, Aaron. "Defining Comics?" Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 65.4 (2007): 369-79.

Derik Badman

Derik A Badman is a web developer (for Springshare, Inc) and comics artist/critic living in the suburbs of Philadelphia, PA with his wife and two cats. His comics are often abstract or poetic in nature, frequently drawing from appropriated sources.

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