Trouble with categories in “Comics are not Literature”

Listening to the downloadable mp3 of the “Comics are not Literature” panel from Comic-Con is fascinating as a demonstration for how different people’s categories are relating to the definitions of “comics,” “literature,” or even “reading” it seems. (all of the issues seem resolvable by accepting the notion of a visual language)

As I’ve been claiming for awhile, “comics” for these people seems to really be bound to the genre(s), so the notion of that as literature would indeed seem troubling. It also seems rather ridiculous in general for anyone to make a blanket statement about the notion that all comics are literature, as opposed to literature being something that individual comics can attain. Is this just a terminological straw man? Perhaps this is just a problem created by using “comics” as a singular noun?

Concerning the one person’s notion that comics are not “read” just seems ridiculous. Calling the process that we do to decode comic sequences just “looking” is revealing as belonging to a paradigm of thinking holding images into a subjugated position. “Perceiving” or “looking” are passive processes compared to the active “reading.” I’d argue, with empirical evidence, that “reading” is indeed the closer category.

I find it also very interesting that the panel has next to no one who is actually draws comics — i.e. no one with “visual language fluency.” And, for a conversation that keeps going back to formal properties of the medium, perhaps they’d have done well with someone on the panel who actually knows about that stuff?

In general, it seems like most all of these issues that they struggle with are almost wholly resolved by accepting a paradigm that acknowledges that images in sequence are literally a visual language. No more struggling with whether someone is a “cartoonist” or “writer” or “artist” — they’re a “visual author”, or even better, just a “writer” who writes in pictures as opposed to words. I could go on and on (and, in fact, I have).

These were exactly the issues I was addressing in two of my older articles: The “Literature” issue is essentially encapsulated by the “Comics as Art”-debate, while the issues that they’re struggling with in general are instances of the limitations of the network of concepts that “comics” encapsulates where these peoples’ categories are running up against troubles.


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