STRIFE – On Defining Comics

22 Jun
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

5 Responses to “STRIFE – On Defining Comics”

  1. aaron June 22, 2011 at 3:35 am #

    i think you make an interesting point with the language argument, and you could even go so far as to point out that the english language has taken words from other languages. i still agree with darryl though… you’ve gotta draw the line somewhere. otherwise, who’s to say that something is a comic, a painting, or a sculpture? it might be ink on paper and two dimensional, but if the artist decides to call it a painting or a sculpture, you have to agree with them or painting and sculpture would become dead art forms, right?

  2. darrylayo June 22, 2011 at 8:55 am #

    To be fair:

    I don’t give a care about ink, paper or mechanical process. I hold a definition of comics which is nearly identical to Scott McCloud’s definition from his first book on comics. I part with McCloud on his blog a good deal.

    I don’t think that living or dead art is defined by whether or not people or practitioners continually change the bounderies of said art. I think that comics comes bound to a set of fairly basic and very slack parameters. Juxtaposed sequences of images which communicate an idea goes a long way. It also contains its own set of interesting problems and problem solutions that make this umbrella an attractive one.

    The problem with animation in the context of comics is that animation solves a problem in a different way than any comic does. So fundamental is the difference that I like to look at animation as its own thing. Conflating the two confuses their attributes and weakens the understanding of both.

    Is THIMBLE THEATRE (Popeye) a bad comic because it lacks music? Is POPEYE (the cartoon) a bad animation because it lacks diversity in panel design?

    When we look at HOMESTUCK, we have a really interesting question: WHAT IN THE HECK IS IT? When I was talking with my comic friends, I proposed a compromise of sorts: Homestuck is “an internet.” Or, a full on multimedia experience, neither fish nor fowl, but also both fish AND fowl. And marsupial and insect as well. Homestuck is a lot of things.

    I see on the website that Hussie identifies his work as “comics,” and as much as I am loathe to interfere with someone’s process of self-identification, I feel that adding the element of physical time to the equation, along with literal sound (rather than abstractions of both which is comics’ stock in trade), transforms Hussie’s work into something else.

    And then there are pure comics moments in Homestuck. Old fashioned picture-followed-by-another-picture comics.

    And in most cases, the animation aspect of Homestuck is limited to a simple repeating motion rather than a replacement for juxtaposed sequential storytelling. N/either fish n/or fowl. But certainly an odd duck.

    Note to comixcube readers: I have an article queued up for this Friday which speaks about limited animation in comics such as Homestuck. See there: I said “comics.” Kevin and I have discussed this upcoming post already so please offer your views and opinions on both posts!


  3. BradyDale July 10, 2011 at 9:24 pm #

    Ugh, I only barely skimmed this. We’re all so horribly trapped by Plato. It really makes us all quite dumb. Look… definitions, categories… we have to use them because we have very very simple brains and live in a very complex universe and WE, collectively, maybe only understand about 10% of it and any one of us only understands about .0000003% of it, right?

    So for such a complicated thing, we need to dramatically oversimplify wit nouns and verbs and categories and words… all of which aren’t even close to up to the task for which we assign them, but they are the best our pathetic little brains can come up with.

    Yet… we are silly enough to think pursuing precise definitions is really important. Plato was obsessed with this and we’ve been locked into this nonsense ever since.

    What is comics? What is a bicycle…… hell, what’s a subatomic particle… it’s all a bit of a mess and it all bleeds at the edges. And that’s because nothing is quite anything and even it is something, it’s probably all quite a few other things. So forget it. Use the terms as long as they are useful but as soon as you start to quibble over them it’s not much use.

    In my humble opinion.

    • L. Nichols July 11, 2011 at 12:34 am #

      I want to give you a high five for this! Don’t even get me started on my beef with Plato.

      • kevinczap July 11, 2011 at 8:49 am #

        Totally totally totally. I’m with you guys, although it may appear otherwise from skimming this post?

        High fives to everyone here in the comments.

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