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

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


©2010 R.C. Harvey.


The life-giving quality of these puffs of dialogue is something every cartoonist recognizes. Doonesbury‘s Garry Trudeau says it’s “magic.” The normally reclusive Trudeau made an appearance with Ted Koppel in 2002 on Koppel’s late-night show, Up Close. Koppel, noting that Trudeau always referred to himself as a writer and never as an artist, asked why.

“I feel more comfortable referring to myself as a writer,” Trudeau said, “because it all starts with ideas, for me. And the writing is recreational. It’s great fun. I love it. I don’t think I’m particularly gifted as a writer. Comic strip writing is a weird intersection between two disciplines where you hope some kind of magic happens. If you look at a strip like Dilbert, which has awful art — and I’m the one who made the profession safe for bad art — Cathy, Dilbert, all the minimalist strips — if you look at the strip, the art is nothing to write home about, and the writing itself is sharp, but if it were in another form, it may not resonate as much as it does coming out of these little characters. There is something about the magic when you blend those two together. It just works.”

If speech balloons give comics their life, then breaking the narrative into successive images gives that life duration, an existence beyond a moment. Narrative breakdown is to comics what time is to life. In fact, “timing” — pace as well as duration — is the second of the vital ingredients of comics. “Vital” but not, here, “unique.” The sequential arrangement of panels cannot help but create time in some general way, but skillful manipulation of the sequencing can control time and use it to dramatic advantage.

My description seems to exclude Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon and Harold Foster’s Prince Valiant, iconic masterpieces that have served in such confabulations as this to elevate the status of newspaper cartooning to Art. Ditto the somewhat less iconic Tarzan by Burne Hogarth and Lance by Warren Tufts.

And for a long time, I agreed with the implications of my visual-verbal blend theory: These works, I said, are not comics. They consist of pictures with text underneath telling a story. They are, perforce, illustrated narratives but not comics. True, they were published in the Sunday comics section of newspapers. But the place of publication, I said defiantly, doesn’t make them comics. Not any more than William Donahey’s Teenie Weenies is a specimen of comics: The feature was published in the Sunday funnies, but it consisted of a single picture illustrating a text short story. Not comics despite its venue.

I have since thought better of this flip formulation. After all, the physical relationship of pictures to words in Prince Valiant is the same as in the venerable gag cartoon, and the words undoubtedly amplify the narrative import of the picture under which they appear, and vice versa. The words don’t explain the pictures as they do in a gag cartoon: They are not the key to a puzzle that the picture represents as captions are to the picture in a good gag cartoon. The relationship between pictures and words in Prince Valiant or Flash Gordon seems tangential rather than integral. In most instances of these works of Raymond, Foster, Hogarth and Tufts, the story is carried almost entirely in the text. We can understand the story without considering the pictures.

Well, yes, but — but the pictures in Prince Valiant undeniably create the palpable ambiance of the story; they give it sweep and grandeur. And without the heroic elegance of its pictures, Flash Gordon is a shallow, sentimental saga.

Many children’s books are not substantially different in appearance from Prince Valiant and Flash Gordon: Every page with its brief allotment of text carries an amplifying illustration. Still, Foster and Raymond did a little more for their narratives with their pictures than the average children’s book illustration does for its narrative. The pictures supply visual information that fleshes out the narrative text. And the text gives nuance to the pictures. The words and the pictures may not blend, precisely, to create a meaning neither conveys alone without the other, but their interrelationship is intimate and complementary. Within the category of pictorial narrative, Prince Valiant and Flash Gordon and Tarzan and Lance are therefore closer to being comics than they are to being illustrated children’s books. And that’s where I’d like to leave this part of the discussion — right here, with the question suspended in a warm limbo of imprecision, half-answered, half-unanswered, rather than to belabor it further with a fussy pedagogical exactitude.

Art is not precise. And appreciation of the achievements in art doesn’t require as much precision as the pedagogue imagines it does. In the last analysis (for the time being), comics are a species of pictorial narrative. So is a rebus. So is Prince Valiant. So are many of today’s children’s books. “Pictorial narrative” includes all of these as subsets. But the subsets are not interchangeable: Each has distinguishing characteristics that set it apart from the others. Maybe Prince Valiant and its ilk belong in a subset all by themselves.

The notion of comics as a visual-verbal blend does more than merely describe the art form. It also suggests a critical criterion: In the best examples of the medium, the words give a meaning to the pictures that the pictures otherwise lack, and vice versa. The blend creates a new meaning that is not present in either of the two vital ingredients alone without the other. I must emphatically add, however, that visual-verbal blending is only one of numerous criteria by which the cartooning artistry of comics should be judged — only one, albeit the first one.

The visual-verbal blend principle is the first principle of a critical theory of comic strips for two reasons. It is first in importance: It derives directly from the very nature of the art. But it is first also because it is the first step in the process of evaluation, a process that involves making a successive series of “allowances” by which the visual-verbal blend principle is modified to accommodate the various categories and genres of comic strips. Many comic strips (those that tell continuing stories, particularly) cannot consistently meet the visual-verbal blend criterion. And yet many of them are excellent strips. Their excellence derives from other aspects of the art.

Dondi and Peanuts are both about children, but Dondi is a storytelling strip about an orphan boy, and it seeks in its soap-opera tales and realistic rendering an illusion of real life. Dondi can be faulted when it falls short of achieving that illusion; Peanuts, which, ostensibly, aims simply to make us laugh, cannot. We can look for visual-verbal blend in both strips, but if Dondi fails to achieve it as consistently as Peanuts, there may be good reasons for that failure — reasons peculiar to the continuity genre.

Because storytelling strips tell stories that continue from day-to-day, they are freighted with an expository burden that gag strips, those that tell a different joke every day, never have to shoulder. Continuity strips tend to be much more verbal than gag strips, and the more exposition needed, the more verbal and less visual the strip becomes. A diligent cartoonist, however, attempts to restore the visual-verbal balance by resorting to variety in his compositions. Changing perspective, camera-distance, texture, and the like gives emphasis to the visual component and thereby revives the impression of visual-verbal blending.

To the extent that a cartoonist tries to maintain the visual character of his strip in the face of the expository imperative for more verbiage, so is his work better than that of a cartoonist who gives us a panel-by-panel parade of talking faces, all the same distance from the camera. Other criteria that apply more to storytelling strips than to gag strips include such things as characterization, realistic illustration, authentic-sounding dialogue and so on.

In a book of mine, The Art of the Funnies, I outline many more of the “allowances” that must be made in applying a visual-verbal criterion of evaluation and discuss other criteria, too. And in the last analysis, visual-verbal blending is scarcely all there is to the art of the comic strip. The notion, however, stresses both the visual and the verbal nature of the medium, and any examination of the art form must consider both if we are to achieve the kind of analytical perception that is not only appreciative but articulate, not only evaluative but appropriate. Too often, despite McCloud’s insistence upon the visual sequential nature of the medium, critical consideration concentrates on the essentially literary aspect of the work, the narrative and its implications. To look first for a visual-verbal blend, then, is to perform a sort of mental sleight-of-hand, a trick of perception by which we focus our attention on the visual character of the medium as well as the verbal means by which we might suppose the narrative and thematic thrust is conveyed. Only by fully embracing the visual as well as the verbal can we see that together they are the art form.


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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!