Defining Comics Again: Another in the Long List of Unnecessarily Complicated Definitions

Posted by on December 20th, 2010 at 12:01 AM


Sequence from Understanding Comics, ©1993 Scott McCloud. Text by Harvey.


The traditional definition of comics is the one conjured up by Coulton Waugh in his book Comics (1947). He says comics consist of three elements: (1) sequence of pictures that tell a story or joke, (2) words incorporated into the picture usually in the form of speech balloons, and (3) continuing characters.

The last item snatches at sophistry. It’s there under false pretenses. Its function is purely rhetorical — to eliminate anything that came along before the Yellow Kid, the most conspicuous of the combatants in New York’s newspaper circulation battles of the 1890s. The Yellow Kid was seen as the first comic strip character mostly because he was a highly visible and successful commercial enterprise — the commercial aspect establishing the value to newspapers of comic strips.

But “continuing characters” clearly have nothing much to do with the intrinsic form of a comic strip, and I usually leave that part out. The rest of Waugh’s definition is a pretty good basis for starting. By way of making a start, however, we must return to an era earlier than that of the Yellow Kid and a form more primitive, more basic. And so I do, for a moment only:

There are stories, narratives. There are verbal narratives (epic poems, novels), and there are pictorial narratives (Egyptian tomb paintings, the Bayeaux Tapestry). In my view, comics are a sub-set of pictorial narrative; therefore, all comics are pictorial narratives, but not all pictorial narratives are comics. Horses are quadrupeds, and dogs are quadrupeds, but horses are not dogs, and dogs are not horses. There are different kinds of quadrupeds, and there are different kinds of pictorial narratives.

Egyptian tomb paintings are a species of pictorial narrative, but they aren’t comics. It seems to me that the essential characteristic of comics — the thing that distinguishes it from other kinds of pictorial narratives — is the incorporation of verbal content. I even go so far as to say that in the best examples of the art form, words and pictures blend to achieve a meaning that neither conveys alone without the other.

In his seminal Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud takes a somewhat different tack. For him, comics are “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence.” McCloud’s thesis prompted much refining of definitions of comics hither and yon. To McCloud and many of his adherents, “sequence” is at the heart of the functioning of comics; to me, “blending” verbal and visual content is. McCloud’s definition relies too heavily upon the pictorial character of comics and not enough upon the verbal ingredient. Comics uniquely blend the two. No other form of static visual narrative does this. McCloud includes verbal content (which he allows is a kind of imagery), but it’s the succession of images that is at the operative core of his definition.

I hasten to note, however, that regardless of emphasis, neither sequence nor blending inherently excludes the other.

Rodolphe Topffer, the 19th century Swiss school teacher often dubbed the “father of comics” these days, seems to lean in my direction. Commenting upon his verbal-visual creations, he wrote: “The drawings, without their text, would have only a vague meaning; the text, without the drawings, would have no meaning at all. The combination makes up a kind of novel, all the more unique in that it is no more like a novel than it is like anything else.”

Topffer’s comics would include even the humble single-panel gag cartoon in which, usually, the humor of the picture is secured, or revealed, by the caption below — and vice versa. The gag cartoon falls outside McCloud’s definition because it is not a sequence of pictures. In fact, gag cartoons fall outside most definitions of comics. But not outside my description (“description” rather than “definition” because something that is defined seems completed, and I think comics are still evolving).

In my view, 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. A pictorial narrative uses a sequence of juxtaposed pictures (i.e., a “strip” of pictures); pictorial exposition may do the same — or may not (as in single-panel cartoons — political cartoons as well as gag cartoons).

My description is not a leak-proof formulation. It conveniently excludes some non-comics artifacts that McCloud’s includes (a rebus, for instance, or stations of the cross); but it probably permits the inclusion of other non-comics. Comics, after all, are sometimes four-legged and sometimes two-legged and sometimes fly and sometimes don’t.

But leak-proof or not, this proffer of a description sets some boundaries within which we can find most of the artistic endeavors we call comics. Even pantomime, or “wordless,” comic strips — which, guided by this definition, we can see are pictorial narratives that dispense with the “usual” practice of using words as well as pictures. But that doesn’t make the usual practice any the less usual. Pantomime cartoon strips are exceptional rather than usual. Usually, the interdependence of words and pictures is vital (if not essential) to comics — “vital” meaning “characteristic of life” rather than “indispensable.”

The presence of verbiage in the same view or field of vision as the pictures gives immediacy to the combination, breathing the illusion of life into the medium. In a letter to me, Richard Kyle (who coined the term “graphic novel” in 1964) elaborated on the need he felt then, in 1964, for a new terminology for comic books instead of the terms already in circulation (albeit not very visibly by then — “illustories,” concocted by Charles Biro, and “picto-fiction,” the EC Comics invention): “Biro and the others apparently did not think about the fundamental nature of comics or understand some of the characteristics of our language. Comics are not ‘illustories’ — ‘illustrated stories.’ In comics, ideation, pictures, sound (including speech and sound effects), and indicators (such as motion lines and impact bursts) are all portrayed graphically in a single unified whole. Graphics do not ‘illustrate’ the story; they are the story…. In the graphic story, all the universe and all the senses are portrayed graphically” [i.e., in the static visual mode].

Kyle’s point, and mine (although he makes it better than I have), is that in comics everything is portrayed and conveyed in the same manner, visually. And the concurrent presence in the visual mode of speech as well as action, locale, etc., makes comics what they are, a unique kind of pictorial narrative. In fact, this concurrence, if not interdependence, may actually define the medium.

The importance to me of the verbal content in determining whether a pictorial narrative (or exposition) is comics may be best illustrated by a discussion of comic strips. Comic strips include an ingredient that gag cartoons do not. The technical hallmarks of comic-strip art — the things that distinguish it — consist chiefly of narrative breakdown and speech balloons. Narrative breakdown is an aspect of sequencing images and is therefore peculiar to the comic strip branch of the cartooning family tree and to pictorial narrative in general. The narrative is broken down into separate key moments that can be depicted visually in ways that clearly convey the essential elements of the story.

But in speech balloons, we have something that is unique to the comics medium. Speech balloons breathe into comics their peculiar life. In all other graphic representations — in all other pictorial narratives — characters are doomed to wordless posturing and pantomime. In comics, they speak. And they speak in the same mode as they appear — the visual, not the audio, mode of representation. This is unique.


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9 Responses to “Defining Comics Again: Another in the Long List of Unnecessarily Complicated Definitions”

  1. AACRO says:

    I mostly agree with you that it’s the visual verbal blend/synergy that defines a comic, but your definiton is incomplete for me. I personally see comics as the blend of three forms of communication, text, image, and diagram defined as a layout that collectively illustrates one or more narratives.
    So along with the visual and verbal we also must also acknowledge the scematic elements of comics.

  2. See, my problem is that it REALLY isn’t necessary for there to be words for there to be comics.

    If there are even Batman comics out there without words (and there are, one of my absolute favorites from my childhood was an almost completely wordless issue – and all those pages before the single word were still very much comics.) how can we exclude them with this definition?

  3. angus77 says:

    Comics that were longer than 30 pages or so were “not usual” a generation or two ago, either. Will you update your definition if we have a generation that decides pantomime is the “thing to do”, the way that autobio was the “thing to do” a generation ago?

  4. leoc says:

    I think part of the vitality you describe in comics is down to the curious sense of time passing intra- and inter-panel. Surely one of the key functions a speech bubble performs is to modify our perception of a still image so that it is no longer a ‘photographic’ instant but a period—however short—in time.

    Is this a way to marry the reader’s sense of what a comic in your definition and Scott’s? Pictures can capture the passage of time either through being sequential in themselves or by containing something that must by its nature take place in time. Speech balloons are simply the most common version of this, blur marks would be another etc.

  5. […] Two think-pieces of note: At Graphic Novel Reporter, Brigid Alverson discusses “The Pitfalls of Age Ratings,” while at The Comics Journal R.C. Harvey tries “Defining Comics Again.” […]

  6. R.C. Harvey says:

    To AACRO: Seems to me that a diagram is an image. But if by diagram you mean “layout,” as you seem to, then we’re talking about “strip format,” “panel breakdown,” etc. That’s part of the image, but it also contributes something over-and-above image to the mix. I’ll have to ponder that one some more.
    To Ian: I’m not excluding wordless comic strips; read my essay again.
    To Angus: In my description, I think I say that comics “usually” consist of…. certain elements. “Usually” doesn’t mean “always”; so my description would include pantomime comics.
    To Leoc: Good point. The “time” that passes in a single panel while a character of characters is/are talking is a fascinating phenomenon in comics, no question. I don’t think it can bridge the gap between my notion and Scott’s, but the idea that time can be made to “pass” in a single panel image is provocative and worth further, er, study.
    Thanks, all, for making me think some more.

  7. angus77 says:

    By that token, “usually” would mean that you could include *anything* not already explicitly included. Talk about a “flexible” definition! It also doesn’t answer the question I posed—what if pantomime *did* become usual? If you drop the bit about words from your definition (as you would have to), you’re left with “pictorial narratives or expositions”.

  8. R.C. Harvey says:

    Yours is a hypothetical not worth pursuing. Pantomime strips are not likely to become “usual.” And if they did, we’d need a new description (definition). And, yes, my description is pretty flexible. But we know cartooning when we see it, eh? When we see it, it almost always includes words as well as pictures, and that’s what makes cartooning different from a rebus.

  9. angus77 says:

    I think you meant we know “comics” when we see them, rather than “cartooning”. Of course we do. But defining them in terms that are not universal to the medium isn’t going to lead anywhere. I remember seeing kids in comic shops back in the ’80s who were disgusted to see a B&W comic on the rack (I think it was Usagi Yojimbo—they called it a “colouring book”—not a *real* comic!). Obviously they had seen B&W strips in the newspapers before, but had defined comics for themselves as being “usually colourful”, as millions once did (one of the traditional stereotypes of American comics was their garish colours, no? Which was also their appeal to millions). Who would have thought that B&W comics would become so prevalent (especially with the manga boom) when they had once been *expected* to be in colour? To the point where Marvel felt they *had* to colourize Akira in order to get people to buy it?

    And while we’re at it—what makes Frank different from a rebus? It sure ain’t the dialogue!