December 2, 2011


My recent post about the roots of comics took me a little closer to confronting their elusive and controversial definition than I'd intended. I was afraid that, if I started on that path, I'd never be able to give up trying to find the perfect way to describe what comics are and are not. Well, I did give up, and I'm okay with that. In the mean time, I really enjoyed seeing how other folks have defined comics, so I thought I'd share my findings here. First up is Scott McCloud's definition from Understanding Comics.
Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce and aesthetic response in the viewer.1
This was the first "real" definition I ever came across, so it's rather near to my heart despite the problematic choice of excluding single-panel works on the notion that a sense of time is not expressed in them, which McCloud explains later in the book as the reason that comics are different from other media. As I have previously stated, I think it's important to acknowledge that multi-panel works can depict the passage of time, while single-panel works can only suggest it (except those that can, more on which another time). Not that he asked for my opinion, but I think that McCloud would cause a bit less grumbling in the comics world if he'd add this element to the definition.

I've also already shared R.C. Harvey's response to McCloud, but not his actual attempt at a definition.
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 or may not (as in single-panel cartoons--political cartoons as well as gag cartoons).2
If Harvey's subjective language weren't enough, he explicitly acknowledges after this excerpt that his definition lacks as much as any. Still, this feels less like a definition and more like a declaration that two things -- "pictorial narrative" and "pictorial exposition" -- have some conventions in common. Then again, lumping these items together in a definition accurately mirrors that lupming together that goes on in our minds and our comic shops. I do find it disconcerting that humor and politics are the only kinds of single-panel comics he mentions here and in the rest of the essay; for someone who is so devoted to single-panel comics' getting the respect they deserve, Harvey seems to have a restrictive opinion of what can be included.

In the essay that inspired this post, "The Impossible Definition",3 Thierry Groensteen provides a handful of definitions (below) to explain his general dissatisfaction with the range of comics definitions out there.
I would propose a definition in which a "comic strip" of any period, in any country, fulfills the following conditions: 1) There must be a sequence of separate images; 2) There must be a preponderance of image over text; 3) The medium in which the strip appears and for which it was originally intended must be reproductive, that is, in printed form, a mass medium; 4) The sequence must tell a story which is both moral and topical.
-- David Kunzle
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 its equivalent and generally minimal narrative text.
-- Bill Blackbeard
Comics would be a story (but it is not necessarily a story...) constituted by handmade images from one or several artists (it must eliminate cinema and the photo-novel), fixed images (in difference from animation), multiple (contrary to the cartoon), and juxtaposed (in difference from illustrated and engraved novels...). But this definition applies equally well to Trajan's Column and the Bayeux Tapestry.
--Pierre Couperie
Groensteen decries Kunzle's and Blackbeard's definitions for being "normative and self-interested, each made to measure in order to support an arbitrary slice of history". Kunzle, he says, is unreasonable in stating that comics are essentially a mass medium. I agree, especially considering that almost nothing isn't "reproductive" with today's technology, making that requirement unfair, for example, for painters working before the days of color photography and so on. (Kunzle was writing in the 1970s, but that's not so long ago, technologically speaking, that we should overlook this shortsightedness.)

Both Kunzle and Blackbeard also declare that comics must tell a story. Kunzle's "moral and topical" requirement is far too subjective to be part of a valid definition, and Blackbeard's notion that the story must be serial, episodic, open-ended and minimal in "narrative text" is equally ridiculous. These are all accurate descriptions of widely-practiced conventions in the comics world and, if definitions of anything, are only definitions of what Kunzle and Blackbeard consider to be "good" comics. 

Groensteen includes Couperie's definition as an example of how difficult it is to produce "a definition that permits discrimination in that which it is not but which excludes none of its historical manifestations, including its marginal or experimental visionaries." It's imprecise, to be sure (and self-consciously so), but I kind of like it. "Comics are this one thing, except when they're not." Sounds good! Also, I'm intrigued by the photo-novel and what makes it worth excluding; is it just a bias against photography, or is there something inherently different? I hope I can explore this more another time.

Groensteen's solution to the question of defining comics is not to define them at all, but to construct a system of understanding that acknowledges the incredible diversity of "things" people call comics. "The notion of the system," he says, "...defines an ideal ... [and] will be a conceptual frame in which all of the actualizations of the 'ninth art' can find their place and be though of in relation to each other, taking in to account their differences and their commonalities within the same medium."

Even though I never settled on a definition for myself (and I'm sure there are many more out there that would be worth investigating), this exercise has been worthwhile. It definitely forced me to reconsider aspects of comics I'd taken for granted, and that's always a good thing. I'm especially encouraged by Groensteen's "system" approach and will accordingly add his book on the subject4 to my reading list.

Top image from the cover of Mad Magazine no. 1, drawn by Harvey Kurtzman. Source:, © Mad Magazine
1. McCloud, Scott. (1993). Understanding comics. New York, NY: Harper Perennial
2. Harvey, R.C. (2009). How comics came to be. In J. Heer and K. Worcester (Ed.), A comics studies reader (pp. 25-45). Jackson, Miss: University Press of Mississippi.
3. Groensteen, Thierry. (2009). The impossible definition. in J. Heer and K. Worcester (Ed.), A comics studies reader (pp. 124-131). Jackson, Miss: University Press of Mississippi.
4. Groensteen's The System of Comics is published by the University Press of Mississippi; more information at

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