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

The traditional definition of comics is that 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. But 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 aclick to enlargend 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); 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.

            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 narrative, 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 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 don'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 artform. 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 an 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. But 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 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 otherwise 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 artform.

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