What is Comics? Everything you should know
Games and Comics London is founded on the idea that being a fan of comics or a nerd, in general, should not come with prerequisites. We’ve made the assumption that up until this point everyone reading the article and even ourselves knows what comics are, or is, We guess. So in the interest of upholding our roots, We would like to answer the burning question on everyone’s minds: What is Comics?
What is Comics?
As it turns out, it’s not a very easy question to answer. It may seem like a really weird question to ask. What are comics? But do you know what they are? Mean, obviously, you likely have read one or seen one or know the basic idea of what they are. Can you define what comics are? Now before we go any further, We should explain that the word “Comics“. It can be used as the singular word that represents the entire art form of the comic, comic strip, comic book, graphic novel, etc. So when We say “Comics, “just know that we are referring to the art of the comic form. That’s pretty important in finding a definition for what comics are.
Comprehensive vs Fastidious
Believe it or not, defining comics is a heavily debated subject. In trying to come up with a solid definition for comics, people have come up with many descriptions that vary pretty heavily, but everyone usually falls within two camps:
- People who want a quick and snappy definition that is typically pretty broad to allow for inclusion and experimentation.
- The other side is people who want a strict and detailed definition where things have to meet certain criteria to be classified as comics.
I like to call these two camps the Comprehensive vs the Fastidious, or the Loosey Goosey vs choose if that’s easier.
On the Loosey Goosey side, we have things like the general dictionaries. Merriam Webster, for example, defines comics as “A series of cartoon drawings that tell a story or part of a story.” Thierry Groensteen, a leader of comics studies who We will be pulling a lot from in this article said, “The necessary, if not sufficient, a condition required to speak of comics is that images will be multiple and correlated in some fashion.”
Will Eisner probably has the most succinct definition of comics with just two words, “Sequential art.” You probably can already see the issues with this definition are a little too broad. Music is an art and when it’s compiled onto an album it’s put into a sequence. So a CD could be considered sequential art, but does that mean that albums are comics? Groensteen’s definition of multiple correlated images could be applied to you scrolling through your phone showing your friends pictures from the crazy weekend you just had. Are that comics? Webster’s definition of a story told through cartoon drawings could be applied to, well, cartoons. Are cartoons comics?
What is Comics? On the Choosey side, we get a lot more specific with people like Bill Blackbeard, founder of the San Francisco Academy of Comic Art. He says, comics are “A serially published, episodic, open-ended dramatic narrative or series of linked anecdotes about recurrent identified characters, told in successive drawings regularly enclosing ballooned dialogue or it is equivalent and generally minimal narrative text.“That is a lot of words. Additionally, David Kunzle author of, The Early Comic Strip, created four criteria for what can be considered comics.
- One: It’s a sequence of separate images.
- Two: A higher importance is placed on the images over text. The opposite would be something like a school textbook where there are pictures. The main focus is more on the words.
- Three: It must tell a story that is BOTH moral and topical.
- Four: The medium it appears in and was originally intended for must be able to be mass-produced.
Again, we see some issues with these definitions being incredibly exclusive. If we break down Blackbeard’s interpretation, we can find examples of comics that don’t fit his description.
One-and-done silent comics like Bill Watterson‘s latest comic. For example, abides by the rule of having an identifiable character, but it’s not episodic, nor does it contain dialogue or narrative text. So even though it looks like comics, to Blackbeard, it’s not comics. Our favorite example that breaks all his rules is A Short History of America by Robert Crumb which doesn’t even have recognizable characters. We still think and it looks like a comic.
Moral and Topical
With Kunzle’s definition of What is Comics, he says stories have to be both moral and topical. Going back to A Short History of America or even instructions or safety procedures portrayed in a sequence of pictures, there’s really no moral story here. It’s simply conveying information. Take any Internet comic you find, is it both topical and moral. Or, maybe it’s just simply trying to express a random joke. Plus, with the requirement that comics have to be able to be mass-produced. This basically means that there were no comics before the invention of the printing press.
Some would argue that paintings and carvings and tapestries of stories from ancient civilizations are comics. But, Kunzle’s definition prohibits them from being defined that as such. We’d be remiss if we didn’t at least mention Scott McCloud‘s definition of What is Comics as “Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.” At first, this sounds like a Choosey side description, because it’s a little bit wordy. But, it’s still open-ended for things like children’s books and even things like a physical photo album to be considered comics.
Even Kunzle’s definition leaves room for something like movies that are technically a series of images that could definitely tell a moral and topical story and is easily mass-produced. Especially in the age where anyone can just download as many movies as they want completely legally. So, while none of the definitions are really perfect. We do want to point out that interestingly enough, all of these definitions seem to agree on one root of what comics is: Sequential art, successive drawings, a series of images, etc. Every definition we’ve talked about describes comics as at least two images. Single panel comics aren’t comics at all, at least by these definitions. McCloud says these are examples of “comic art” which are images that reflect the style of comics but are not comics in themselves. No more than a frame of a movie is a movie itself.
Loosey-Goosey vs Choosey
There are dangers in both sides of the argument Loosey-Goosey and Choosey. Some say that strict definitions limit what we can do in the art form. It doesn’t allow for experimentation of new ideas or concepts. On the other hand, though being too broad has to have limits somewhere or else everything could be comics. Roger Odin, which is a great last name for a show about comic books. He described a similar frustration with defining cinema to include experimental works and even animated films.
He said the fact that the definition of cinema excludes these productions is reason enough to change the definition. However, if we broaden it too much, then we’ll arrive at a definition that tells us nothing about the subject. When asked “How do you know what a word means?” Oxford Dictionaries replied by saying, “Dictionaries are descriptive, not prescriptive.”
Comic is Subjective
The resulting definition should reflect how a word is actually used instead of how we think it should be used. The problem with a lot of the definitions we’ve covered is that they feel like they are describing how the person behind it wants comics to be instead of how it’s actually used. So perhaps comic is a subjective term. Maybe you judge what is and isn’t comics. Not based on any explicit criteria or analysis, but just a gut reaction when you see it. Of course, X-Men is comics and Cyanide and Happiness and sure, Marmaduke as well. But, we draw the line at Cat in the Hat, safety instructions, and vision boards. They just don’t feel like comics to us, even though they do share some similar elements.
That being said, if there ever was a community of comic fans who are qualified to workshop a better definition of what comics are, We know it’s the Games and Comics London community. What do you guys think? How do you define comics, or is it even possible to define them?