“Comics” is not a medium, nor a mode of expression

Academic Henry Jenkins has a couple outtakes from his book where he discuses “comics” as being a mode of expression rather than a medium, working off the McCloudian definition of “comics” as being equal to “sequential images with/without text.”

Though I frequently hear statements of faith in McCloud’s definition and the propagation of it. However, I have still not received any good argumentation for why “comics” equals “sequential images with/without text.” Frankly, this hasn’t surprised me, since I don’t think its possible to reasonably make such a claim.

Most people, I assume, are arguing this definition by following McCloud’s lead. However, at least in Understanding Comics, McCloud never provides an argument for his definition of “comics” either. Rather, he takes Eisner’s abstract notion of “sequential art” and then (as Horrock’s first noted) recasts it as the definition for “comics.” The reasoning for this follows no explicit argument, reasoning, or logic, McCloud does this solely out of preference stating,

“At one time or another, virtually all great media have received critical examination in and of themselves. But for comics this attention has been rare. Let’s see if we can rectify the situation. Eisner’s term seems like a good place to start.”

And from here he begins to construct his definition around the base of “sequential art.”

But, notice that from the very beginning he assumes that “comics” are a “media” to begin with, on part with “written word, music, video, theatre, visual art, and film.” When separating “form from content” he assumes that “comics” are the form, not content. He begins the discussion with his position already loaded to believe that “comics” are a mode of expression, not simply an object that uses a mode of expression. He doesn’t say that sequential art is the medium that goes into the object of “comics,” he makes them into the same thing.

There is no argument here for why “comics” should equal “sequential images,” it is just a definition that is constructed out of the already stated assumptions that “comics” is some kind of medium.

This all has also got me wondering when “comics” as abstract notion first started emerging. Is it attributable solely to McCloud? This would be the usage of “comics,” a plural, as a singular. Suddenly, instead of just being a type of book, it is able to be a medium or mode of expression (or even a type of scholarship – with far reaching implications here).

For instance, people talk as if “comics” was some sort of overarching category that subsumes manga, graphic novels, comic strips, bande desinee, etc. — “oh, they’re all just ‘comics.'” Contrast this with “graphic novel.” We don’t project “graphic novel” as an abstract; it’s a thing – a type of book.

If you reject the abstract formalist view in favor of “comics” only as a social object, these labels become more distinct in their own right. Graphic novels aren’t just a “type of comic,” they are a format and literary movement distinct from comics. The same goes for manga, though it has even more slippery issues signifying both native Japanese works as well as a burgeoning OEL community.

The interesting thing I find in Jenkins’ writing is that he heavily focuses on the associated social context of comics, while conversely saying they are a “mode of expression” that cuts beyond cultural context.

Again, to call “comics” a mode of expression misses the point. The mode of expression is drawing “sequential images with/without text” (aka “visual language” combined with “written language”). It is this mode of expression that is used within comics… and graphic novels and manga, etc. Though if you think you can prove otherwise, I’d love to hear the argument for why.


  • people talk as if “comics” was some sort of overarching category that subsumes manga, graphic novels, comic strips, bande desinee, etc.

    Some of your language is too academic for me to get much traction on, but when you get to this point, i have to ask a question: What do you call the “overarching category” you refer to, if not comics?

    i get that you are saying that “graphic novels” and “manga” and “comics” are all sub-categories of their super-category, but if you don’t want to call that super-category “comics” what are you calling it? i anticipate that you will be forced to create a new name for the super-category and i dread (i suppose) that the new name will be so technical or academic that it won’t have much meaning to the mass audience.

  • Thanks for reading my blog and for the comment.

    Sorry that you feel my language is tough to understand. While I think it’s justified to write academically in my essays, I’ve tried to make my writing accessible on the blog at least. If it’s not, that’s dissapointing to hear!

    I would hesitate to say that there actually is any super-category that subsumes all of those genres outside of “graphic books written in visual language.”

    Nor do I feel that we need a category unifying them necessarily. The need for a super-category dissolves when you accept the separation of the socio-cultural object/genre/etc. of “comics” from the visual language they’re written in (sequential images).

    I think that by categorizing things by the virtue that they all use this visual language gives the facade of similarity to things that are really very diverse.

    We don’t need a supercategory for everything that’s written in English, why do we for things that are written in visual language?

  • Well, I can’t say I actually understand your argument fully… But it seems like you are uncomfortable with the label “Comics” that is given to categorize all of manga, BD, manwa, american comic books and all graphic novels, (etc). But I don’t really get what your argument is against it. I think you are saying that ‘visual language’ combined with ‘written language’ is the mode of expression and ‘comics’ along with ‘graphic novels'(and other various forms) are objects that contain this combination of language and art.

    Ok, I am going to assume that is what you are getting at. I think you are missing an important distinction though. I’m sure you know that ‘comics’ can either mean ‘comic books’ as in the things made of paper that we buy and read and meticulously collect, or it can be used like McCloud and others to describe the art of creating ‘juxtaposed static images/text… etc’… basically the ‘mode of expression’ that you are talking about (Let’s call it Comics with a capital C). But if all you use to define that mode of expression is “‘visual language’ combined with ‘written language'” then I think you need to pay more attention to the rest of McCloud’s book.

    It goes beyond that to include the art of juxtaposing images separated by a gutter, invoking closure, and telling a story that uses “visual language” combined with “written language” in such a way that they cannot be separated without becoming something completely different… ‘Comics’ is more than the sum of its parts.

    Under your definition, any illustrated book, textbook, magazine, newspaper, etc that uses both text and images is lumped in with comic books, graphic novels, and the like. But although they are all a part of a large category of printed, published materials that contain both written and visual language, they are all most definitely not ‘Comics’ (with a capital C)

    So, although written language and visual language are the building blocks of Comics, it’s the language that results from written and visual language being entwined and completely inseparable that makes up true Comics. It is a third and distinct category, much like water + dirt = mud, but mud is its own thing.

    As for how and why it became known as Comics or Sequential Art? Who cares? As long as we know what it is… lets not split hairs. A rose by any other name etc.

    Essentially, Comics IS the form/mode of expression, and comic books, graphic novels, BD albums, funny pages, bathroom walls etc are the objects. I hope I was clear without running on (too) long… Your post got me thinking, and I am posting this in all respect. I’d love to hear your counter as this is very interesting to me.

  • Hi Brandon, thanks for commenting.

    My post here is a rebuttal against McCloud’s definiton entirely. If you read through other parts of my website, you’ll see that I have alternatives to most of his theories — closure, text image relations, etc.

    In your summary, you do seem to have gotten my point. However, part of my general argument is that McCloud’s definition for “comics” is unfounded as a whole. What he calls “comics” (with a capital C, to use your term) — sequential images — is what I think is “visual language.” I’m expanding here on the problems with thinking VL and “comics” are the same thing.

    Before I write my fingers off in the comments as I’m headed for bed, would it be alright if I direct you to read this post first? That one (and others if you poke around) should hopefully address your concerns, and if not, please comment again!

  • I only have a few minutes, and I read your link that you sent me to. I guess it cleared up your argument a little. I might not be getting the full scope though. It sounds like you are saying:

    All Comics are Visual Language, but not all Visual Language is Comics. So the whole idea of ‘Comics'(Capital C) is flawed. I guess I see what you are saying, but I still don’t subscribe to it. I for one consider instruction manuals (for example) to be Comics(Eisner did too obviously, spending many years on instructional comics) as I do Family Circus and other gag strips (I know McCloud makes a distinction on this point, but I disagree with him.) I think you are saying that ‘Comics’ are too rooted in their social context to fully entail all the other ‘Visual Language’ that should be grouped with it?? I may be missing something, and please tell me if I am, but I just think that you are splitting hairs with this rigorous definition. After all, Comics as an artform is appropriately mallable… as most art forms are. There are always outliers that fall in a grey area or can be defined as more than one thing. Cerberus books that you reference may be called Comics, or just an illustrated novel. But who cares if it is ellusively definable? I sure don’t. For me, Comics is one of those things where I don’t exactly know how to describe it, but I know when I am looking at it, and I know when I’m not. So maybe I am closer to understanding your point, but I still don’t know why you are making it. Would the world be a better place if we called ‘Comics’ ‘Visual Language’?

  • Hi, Neil. i’m not faulting you for the use of academic language as much as i am myself for not wanting to engage with it. Thinking is hard!

    We don’t need a supercategory for everything that’s written in English, why do we for things that are written in visual language?

    Because people find the supercategory useful in very practical ways. If i go to the “comic” store, i hope to find there manga *and* “comics” *and* graphic novels and maybe even some bande dessinée. These things you are splitting out from each other have shared history, and parallel developments, and crossover trade shows. Studies in manga can bear (and have borne) fruit in American comics. Manga has roots in American comics. They pragmatically fall under the same umbrella.

    Does your blog cover comics, manga, or graphic novels? If the answer is “all three,” how do you then describe it to the layman? (No irony here, i’m just curious.)

    It strikes me that in attempting to attack McCloud’s definition (which i confess to finding useful), you have gone so far as to attack the term he is defining. The best analogy i can think of is that of throwing the tub out with the bathwater.

    Unfortunately, people seem to insist on continuing the practice of bathing. And i’m not yet convinced that it’s helpful to discourage them from it.

  • Thanks for stopping back in Brandon, I’m glad to see I’ve given you some food for thought.

    You do seem to get it— what McCloud calls Comics is what I call “Visual language.” McCloud is essentially trying to say that “the visual language that comics is written in” should be called “comics.” (Again, as I said in the post, he doesn’t give an argument for why, he just establishes it and moves on).

    I think its important to distinguish these two things for a number of reasons.

    First of all, once you do, you don’t have to assume that “comics” is a “medium.” That’s McCloud’s assumption, and it doesn’t have to be carried over. VL is the medium — comics are the (most widely used) carrier of it.

    Though, I will grant that “comics” can be an artform, but only to the extant that “novels” are an artform. This is the analogy I always use:

    Comics are to Visual Language as Novels are to English.

    The “language” part only facilitates a role within the artform. They aren’t the artform itself.

    Second, the notion of “comics” becomes unconnected to words and images in general. If you want to call instruction manuals, or illustrated books, or a book that’s wholly text “comics” — fine. But it isn’t because of some inherent property of sequential images combined with text. This definition is wholly of the “I know it when I see it”-kind, because “comics” is defined only by socio-cultural criteria.

    Third, splitting the two can allow the promotion of one without promotion of the other. The word “comics” carries a lot of baggage. You can then make the choice to promote this idea of “comics” or you can promote the use of the “visual language.” Language can be used anywhere, in any setting. Promoting this sort of usage for VL expands it in ways that it never could by carrying the label “comics.”

    I’ve written about this more in a couple other posts, like this really long essay or this shorter one.

    I’m interested to keep hearing your feedback. Thanks!

  • Oh, I forgot to mention, that splitting these two notions also gives you a way to talk about the other labels we use, like “manga” and “graphic novels.”

    Those just become other places that VL is written. Plus, you avoid the whole “does manga=comics” debate, since manga just becomes another thing written in VL — but it happens to be a different VL than American comics use. Manga, BD, manhua, etc. all just become books written in different visual languages.

    Plus, identifying this as language allows you to tap into all the resources lingusitics and psychology have for studying it. And this is what my research is doing.

    (On a personal note, I should point out that I started in the comic industry. I loved McCloud, started making connections of his stuff to linguistics in college, and that altered my viewpoint. I still love McCloud, but I disagree with him now about a lot of things).

  • Hi Skipper, thanks for hanging tough, despite my hard language.

    I can see how you can consider the benefit of grouping these categories together, but I think separating them will get even bigger rewards.

    As I mention here, using “comics” as an overarching label might actually be hurting (potential) sales. This doesn’t bother you or me, because we already belong to this subculture (or, as I think, the “language group of VL”).

    But, using that super-category might be hurting the potential growth of visual language into areas that aren’t a part of this subculture or don’t want to be.

    As I say in this long piece, my vision is not to have comic stores as the primary place for selling this stuff — it’s to have bookstores (etc) integrating these works into existing shelving by genre. Not just comic stores, no “comics” section of the bookstore: No discrimination for graphic works.

  • Your point about bookstores is well taken, although i still think that you leave creators’ interests (shared across your categories, e.g., “What kind of brush do you use?” “How do you figure out your pacing?”), historians’ interests, and academic interests unaddressed.

    But by that token, would you also argue against a bookstore having a separate section for poetry? And aren’t these types of decisions always driven by market forces?

    In the meantime, i note that you are using “Visual Language” as shorthand for the supercategory, which i suspect answers my original question.

    It may be, however, that you insist that there is no supercategory, and if that’s the case, then here’s another way to think of the problem you’ve posed me: When i teach my writing students the classical formula for writing a definition, i teach them to name the class to which the term belongs and then to name the features that distinguish the object from other members of the class.

    So my question for you is that if there is no supercategory to which these belong, what classical definitions would you use for “comics,” “manga,” “graphic novels” and the like. If they don’t belong to the same genus, what genus do they each belong to?

    Thanks for the thought prompts.

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