Legitimation of “comics”

Comics scholar Domingos Isabelinho posts a critique of Thierry Gröensteen’s paper on comics’ search for legitimation. Domingos keys in on this quote in particular, so I’ll do the same:

“Although comics have been in existence for over a century and a half, they suffer from a considerable lack of legitimacy. To those who know and love it, the art that has given us Rodolphe Töpffer and Wilhelm Busch, Hergé and Tardi, Winsor McCay and George Herriman, Barks and Gottfredson, Franquin and Moebius, Segar and Spiegelman, Gotlib and Brétecher, Crumb and Mattotti, Hugo Pratt and Alberto Breccia, not to mention The Spirit, Peanuts or Asterix… in short, comic art, has nothing left to prove.”

His critique of this is that an analogy to literature would be ridiculous: why would literature have anything to prove?

However, we can take this one step further. In his work, Gröensteen conflates the socio-cultural “comics” with “sequential images with/out text”. If he means the former part of this dichotomy (comics, the sociocultural phenomena) then Domingos’ argument stands. If he means the latter (the expressive system of sequential images), the claim becomes even more bizarre:

Why would any type of expressive form (drawing, writing, etc.) need legitimation? Do we really have to have justification for why drawings (in sequence) are worthy of attention at all? From a cognitive perspective, this seems crazy: all of these things are just ways in which humans express themselves.

To exemplify this, try replacing some of those names above with friends of yours, and the last sentence as: “in short, English, has nothing left to prove.”

The justification of English should be self-evident, and so it should be with the visual language of sequential images too.


  • Perhaps it should be, but then you have not explained why the legitimacy of comics is in question to begin with. For an answer to that, one would need to start looking into language ideologies and cultural ideas about literacy and visual language.

    I don't have much to offer here, except for noting two things: first, that it may be worth asking whether comics suffer from this perceived legitimacy problem in each and every culture area (i.e. does the problem scale cross-culturally – and if not, why not?); secondly, that a phenomenon related to visual language, namely onomatopoeia, has suffered similar image problems in English linguaculture. As for the second problem, I can tell you that it doesn't hold cross-culturally — in a lot of the world's languages, the use of vivid sensory language is a sign of eloquence rather than a marker of childishness.

  • Thanks for the comments! I think the questions you pose are exactly the right way to go about it.

    I do not think such ideologies hold for visual languages in places like Japan (or at least, didn’t appear to when I was there) or Australian sand narratives (which are considered part of everyday “talking”). I’d think this would show that it’s culturally relative sense of illegitimacy.

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