A Better Word for Comics

Posted by on March 27th, 2010 at 6:43 AM

The confusion inherent in the word comics has been apparent to those writing in the field for years. The word has a plural form but is singular in application. And in its singular form, comic, it can be an adjective for something humorous or another name for a comedian. In short, comics lacks the precision it ought to have for ordinary communication.

Let me submit an alternative. Let us derive a usage from the history of the medium. And let us start with the root of the word that is used for those who practice the art, cartoonist.

A cartoonist is one who draws cartoons. But cartoon is a relatively old word; cartoonist is wholly modern. Cartoon comes from the Italian cartone, meaning “card.” Italian tapestry designers and fresco painters and the like drew their designs on sheets of cardboard at full scale before transferring those designs to the cloth or walls they were intended for. These designs were called by the name of the material upon which they were drawn—cartones, or cartoons. Later, the word cartoon was applied to any preliminary study for a final work.

But none of the artists who used cartoons in those days were called cartoonists. The word cartoonist is associated only with the medium known in modern times as cartoon.

The modern usage of cartoon began in London in the 1840s. It was first employed in the modern sense in reference to Punch, the London humor magazine. The Houses of Parliament had been all but destroyed in a fire in 1834. The building that took the place of the gutted relic was called the New Palace of Westminster and was built over the next decade. By the mid-1840s, it had been determined that the New Palace would contain various murals on patriotic themes, and a competitive exhibition was held to display the cartoons (in the ancient sense) submitted as candidates for these decorations.

Punch, then only a couple years old, entered the competition on its own, publishing in its pages satirical drawings about government and calling them “Mr. Punch’s cartoons.” The first of these, happily entitled “Cartoon No. 1” by John Leech, appeared in the weekly magazine dated July 15, 1843, and was greeted (we suppose) with howls of joyous appreciation.

It is a matter of supreme gratification to me to observe that the Leech drawing, the official “first cartoon” in the history of the medium, is one in which the verbal-visual blending is thoroughly interdependent: the meaning and import of the caption, “Substance and Shadow,” referring to the substantial  wretches in the cartoon and to the exalted subjects of the paintings, the shadows, that the homeless of London’s streets are contemplating in this scene, is achieved through the picture, and the picture acquires greater significance by virtue of the caption. Neither words nor picture make the same sense alone without the other—a perfect exemplar of the best that cartooning can achieve.

At first, Punch continued to call its humorous drawings “pencilings.” Eventually, it applied the term cartoon to any full-page satirical drawing. But to the man in the street, any funny drawing in the magazine after the summer of 1843 was termed one of “Punch’s cartoons,” and by this route, the word came into use for any comic drawing. By the time Americans launched their imitations of Punch in the 1880s (Puck, Judge, Life), cartoon was well on its way to being established in the modern sense. And so was cartoonist.

The persons who drew the humorous pictures in these publications were sometimes called comic artists (because the pictures they drew were funny), but the term cartoonist was in use, too (and had been since at least the 1860s, if we are to judge from the OED). Thus, cartoonist is a word that has always referred specifically to the medium we now call comics; and cartoonist is the only word reserved exclusively for those who ply their skill in this medium. Cartoonist refers to nothing else. A comic artist, on the other hand, could refer to a comedian (who is a performing artist) or to an illustrator who draws humorous paintings (which are not necessarily cartoons).

By means of this etymological safari, we come at last to the terms I offer for the medium—terms exclusive to the medium and therefore incapable of the kind of semantic corruption that blurs meaning and distinction. I begin, then, with cartoonist, the most exclusive of those terms.

A cartoonist may produce single-panel cartoons, animated cartoons, newspaper cartoon strips, or cartoon short stories (or cartoon story magazines or, even, paginated cartoon strips—awkward perhaps, but more accurate than comic books). The word that embraces all these media is cartoon. It is the generic alternative to comics. And by adding the appropriate modifier, we can make cartoon accurately and precisely describe any of the genre in the medium.

I have no illusions that this campaign of mine will win any converts. And even if it does, I doubt that even legions of the converted would impinge much on the common parlance in which the term comics has come to apply to the medium. Language is like that. Its terms and usages are established by general practice, not by prescription. And English, perhaps more than any other language, is particularly open and receptive to this kind of evolution.

Indeed, linguistically speaking, “English” is not a language at all: it is, rather, a sort of accumulation of usages, most derived from other languages. And this accumulation leaves us with comics, a term washed up on the beaches of the medium after weekly humor magazines had sunk into obscurity. We’re doubtless stuck with its wobbly imprecision even if we can think of better, more exact, terminology.

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One Response to “A Better Word for Comics”

  1. mblind says:

    We read “novels” all the time, without thinking of why they are ‘novel’ — and in fact the term has gained additional meaning as some _paginated serial cartoon strips_ are referred to as Graphic Novels.

    Of course the novel (or ‘Roman’, a shortening of roman a clef — depending on your native language) is a term now 500 years old, and so we seldom consider its etymology in everyday use.

    In another 350 years, we might view and use the term “comics” in the same way.