Re-un-defining “Comics”

Every now and then it’s good to revisit the fundamentals. I had articulated the whole division between “comics” and “visual language” fairly well in a listserve discussion awhile back, so I thought it might be worth reposting it here for any (hopefully?) new readers that might have popped up since I started the blog…

The reality is that a notion of “comics” is not entirely grounded in aspects of structure (text/image, sequential images). “Comics” are not “juxtaposed sequential images,” nor are they “text/image relations.” I say this because there are examples of things that people call “comics” that fit nearly every possible distribution of these elements. Comics can have…

• wordless sequential images (should be obvious)
• text integrated with sequential images (should be obvious)
• text integrated with a single image (Family Circus, etc)
• text dominating non-sequential illustrative images (Cerebus “Reads” volumes)
• a single image (instances from various newspaper strips: The Far Side, Ziggy, etc)
• text with no images at all (Kenneth Koch’s The Art of the Possible: Comics Mainly without Pictures, or “Panel One” by Alexander Danner)

This is the evidence: we call instances of all these things “comics.” Given that all of these examples do exist, no precise definition can capture exactly what the label “comics” encompasses. At most, we can say that these aspects fall on some sort of graded range of prototypicality for how we determine what “are” “comics.”

Yet, at the same time, there are also plenty of examples in society that do fulfill these distributions, but are not called “comics” because they don’t fall into the proper social context: instruction manuals, advertisements, storyboards, illustrated books, etc. If one pursues a prescriptive definition, some of these things could be called “comics” – but that isn’t the common usage by speakers of English.

Given this evidence, where does that leave our definition of “comics”? It leaves it ungrounded in structural concerns, but based on a variety of socio-cultural factors, including but not limited to:

• a physical object
• a sub-culture
• an industry
• a collection of genres (superheroes at the forefront)

The result is the realization that aspects of visual creation are entirely separate from the socio-cultural notion of “comics,” despite their prevalent place used in that social context. “Comics” are written in a visual language the same way that novels are written in English.


  • Very interesting observations. You’re right, comics are defined more by their processes of production than their structure. Food for thought as I procrastinate on my work.

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