by Kevin Czap
Last week my blog mate and comrade in arms Darryl made some bold proclamations about what comics are and, more emphatically, what they are not. We’re all free to hold dissenting opinions of course, it’s part of what’s so important about communication. In this case, I felt pretty strongly in the opposite direction of Mr. Ayo and so I sent a warning shot and hadn’t the time to back it up with a proper rebuttal. I figured it might make a good topic to jaw about on the ‘Cube so that brings us just about to where we are.
“Whenever somebody asks ‘is this comics?’ the answer’s ‘no.’” — Darryl
“Disagree. You’re sentencing comics to existence as a dead artform with proclamations like this.” — Me
Darryl argues that without clear boundaries, a thing does not exist. Therefore, if the definition of comics is a slippy sliding line wiggling all over the place, then there’s just no such thing as comics. If everything is comics, then nothing is, essentially. This logic is sound and I don’t fault anyone for caring about the meanings of words. My position is that if we were out categorizing species of frogs, this would be a very handy measure to guide you. Or, if you don’t like frogs, substitute it with any other subject for empirical study. My interest in comics is not from the point of view of a scientist, however, and I don’t believe that this is a useful method for understanding comics.
I used the term “dead artform” specifically to contrast it with what I consider the ideal for any art, which is existence as a living and responsive aspect of active culture. What I mean by this is that is changes, it stretches, it grows along with its active use. Think of languages. From a certain point of view, the English language is fucked — no one pays any attention to the rules, it’s always changing and people are just making it up as it goes along. On the other side we have Latin, which is perfect and pristine, mostly because no one actively uses it anymore. It’s a dead language. From a different point of view, the ever-changing quality to the living English language is fascinating whereas Latin might hold no interest, or at least not as much.
The thing is, no matter how far English-speakers stray from the rules, there’s generally no question they are still using the English language. The dictionary writers just need to be paying attention so they’re not left in the dust. I see the same principles being applied to comics. The argument might come up, however, that by using this comparison of living and dead languages that I haven’t escaped totally the issue of boundaries. Sure, English is adaptive to its continuous use, but there’s still a set of rules that define exactly what English is, and what makes it English, and not Japanese.
True enough. I don’t have any disagreement with this being applied to comics as well, but my issue is with how tightly defined that set of rules is. If we’re going to say that a comic needs to be narrative cartoon static images on a piece of paper, made of pen and ink and reproduced through specific mechanical processes, blah blah, I just can’t get behind that. What’s the problem though? Nobody’s saying that limited animation in picture stories is bad, it’s just not comics. Separate but equal, right? Well, for me, I question the seemingly arbitrary nature of that designation. Why are those the particular parameters for comics and not ones that include animation, sound physical space, abstract imagery, etc.? If the answer to that question is, “because that’s how comics always have been,” that is not good enough. What circumstances led to that being those being the unifying qualities of the medium? Certainly, there was no committee that sat down together and hammered out the details before the first comic was produced. Comics, like every other aspect of culture, was developed over time from the cumulative experiments of various human beings.
We’re still left wanting for even a loose definition of what comics are. The best approach to this that I’ve come across is in Thierry Groensteen’s The System of Comics. Rather than follow McCloud’s tactic of putting together a sentence-length definition, Groensteen examines the common characteristics of just about everything that’s been considered comics and evaluates them together to see where the unifying thread is. Part of the reason he takes this approach is to avoid excluding worthy entries. More importantly, I feel, is that he also wants to avoid closing the door on the future of comics. By leaving the boundary loose and ill-defined, he leaves the way clear for future artists to cultivate the medium to areas that can’t be predicted in the present.
This is why I feel so strongly about the issue, that it’s a matter of artistic diversity. The more artists who are led to believe that comics is a small circle in which to work, the less colorful and unexpected the comics of our future will be.
I’m not really interested in winning an argument about this, largely because I don’t think it’s an argument that can be won. Culture and, by effect, art are going to progress and grow and change the way they will, regardless of whatever any of us want. This is because culture is alive, an endlessly complex organism that is made up of the innumerable actions of individual agents. So in the end, trying to tell the culture what comics are or are not is like trying to tell the ocean where to put its tide.
There’s still more to say about this topic, particularly to address the question I implied earlier about what the common characteristics that unite comics are. I’ve already written enough for one post, so I’ll pick it up again next week. Take care, y’all.
Image credits, in order of appearance: Andrew Hussie, Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg, Marcel Duchamp, Allan Kaprow, Yoko Ono