Comics Scholars Survey Results, November 1995


compiled by Peter M. Coogan

A. Defining the medium.
A.1. What is the definition of comics? and what is included in the term comics? (comic books, comic strips, single panel, editorial cartoons, etc.)

Two kind of answers came in, attempts to define the medium and questions about problems with doing so. Martin Barker wrote, "it seems to me that the concern with definitions here is a trap, which is curriculum-led, not materials-led." The consensus at the PCA was that definitions are important for the field, as they have been for other academic fields. Amy Nyberg summed up the difficulty of such definitions with her stateme nt, "I don't know. I just know one when I see one." This definition has served for many areas, art, literature, popular culture, and pornography, to name a few.

Some definitions were straightforward attempts to define the medium, like Jeffrey Brown's, "A comic is any printed story told in pictures (usually accompanied by a narrative script)," and Maurice Horn's that I offered, "A narrative form containing text and pictures arranged in sequential order (usually chronological)" (The World Encyclopedia of Comics, 728). Thomas Alan Holmes wrote, "Comics combine illustration and text in order to relate a narrative, and both elements serve intrinsic functions in relating the narrative." He goes on to distinguish between illustrated storie s and comics with criteria that "the illustrations shouldn't offer material already related in the text." Holmes also states that one "panel can be considered comics, because one panel can tell a story."

Others attempted to take in other considerations. Joseph Witek wrote that comics are a "part of a continuum of visual narrative. Therefore calling something 'comics' is a tactical issue rather than an essential one. For some critical purposes, for example, Hal Foster's Prince Valiant might reasonably be considered illustrated text rather than a comic; for others, particularly historical discussion of comic strips, to deny that Valiant is a comic would be absurd."

Matt McAllister stressed "the industrial nature of media," thus he sees "comic books and comics strips completely different (since they have completely different industrialized makeups)." Adapting Dr. Joseph Turow's definition of mass communication, McAllister gives, "The industrialized production, reproduction an d mass distribution of bounded pages of sequential art intended for sale primarily in comic book shops, book stores or other retail outlets."

In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud's formal definition of comics is: "com.ics (kom'iks) n. plural in form, used with a singular verb. 1. Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer." Importantly this definition excludes single panel cartoons because they lack sequence.

Gene Phillips echoed McCloud's definition with his comment that "no one has managed to improve on Will Eisner's definition of comics as 'graphic narrative'" with the qualification that this definition implies "the existence of at least two panels for there to be a progression of narrative." He continued that, although single-panel cartoons employ some of the devices best popularized by narrative comics--particularly the caption or dialogue-balloon, they should still be d esignated as "cartoons" only, despite the public's tendency to lump together such cartoons and comics. Because such single-panels capture only one moment in time, as book illustrations and paintings do, they cannot truly deal with the devices of nar rative, and comics imply narrative.

Over the phone David Corcoran mentioned a mini-comic whose author is exploring many of the issues raised by McCloud; I saw him and some of the comics at the First Annual Comic Arts Conference in 1992, but forgot to get the name of the comics or cartoonist.

A.2. Are comics unique? and if so, why?

Two kinds of answers came in: that comics are unique, and that comics aren't unique. Amy Nyberg wrote, "Comics are unique because they are a blend of words and p ictures in a way not done by any other medium." Joseph Witek indicated one "source of the peculiarity, if not uniqueness, of comics is the interpretation of words and pictures into a narrative form. . .The combination of narrative movement and visua l stasis makes comics a fascinating and dynamic semiotic process." I would argue that all media are unique and that the strengths of comics, discussed below, demonstrate their uniqueness.

Guillaume de Syon added that "Comics are unique as far as t heir quasi-universal appeal goes." This response seems to tie in will with Scott McCloud's idea of the universality of the cartoon image (Understanding 31).

Gene Phillips finds comics' uniqueness in the combination of "the kinetic appeal of media l ike films and TV with a more meditative appeal characteristic of the appreciation of books and paintings." One can take as much time as one likes to pore over a favorite scene. Comics, therefore, offer more meditative potential than film, and allow one to process greater amounts of information than with film, but less than with prose. Comic books somewhat overshadow comic strips in this area, "even when such strips are collected, their nature--which might be called 'punctuated,' as each strip must be as a sentence--confers a certain 'jumpiness' of texture, whether said strip is part of a larger continuity or not." This 'jumpiness' is much less pronounced in comic books, even when they appear in chapter-form, Phillips feels.

A.3. What are the particular strengths and weaknesses of the medium?

I feel that comics combine strengths from other media, especially the "camera" techniques of photography and film and literary techniques of both prose and poetry; comics allow the use of "p icture-words" (like sound effects) and the use of foreign languages (through typeface and other techniques demonstrated in Asterix), in a way significantly different and less mediated (no subtitles) than other media. I also believe that the potentia l low-cost of production (a person, a pen, and a photocopy machine) and the direct-sales distribution market gives the artist a greater level of control at a lower level of the industrial process (although I admit that my view here hasn't really come about in the real world). Comics obviously lack sound and motion. Carl Potts pointed out that with the freeze frame capabilities of VCRs the "static/moving difference between comics and film is fast disappearing."

Joseph Witek indicated that comics "are superb at breaking down action into separate parts. They can do very well at creating narrative atmosphere and at indicating character and relationships among characters." Other scholars stressed the communicative powers comics have, due to the immediacy of the blend of text and graphics. This strength comes out especially in the educational ability comics have for reaching audiences without high levels of literacy. Jeffrey Brown mentioned that comics allow the reader to proceed at h is or her own pace, and "unlike straight literature, subtle narrative techniques can enhance the story less obtrusively (i.e. a visual clue in a detective story that the reader must spot on his own)." Along these lines I think comics is one of the o nly medium which allows "guest stars" the way Dave Sim has used them in Cerebus. Lord Julius IS Groucho Marx in a way impossible for film, television, prose or poetry. Thomas Alan Holmes mentioned "the nonrestricted nature of subject matter," w hich R.A. Jones expressed this way, "Even a multi-million dollar movie cannot credibly show Superman juggling stars" (Amazing Heroes 6/1/88 77).

Guillaume de Syon put forward the idea that "the very strength of comics (they can be understood and e njoyed at many levels, hence their wide appeal) is also its weakness, for how many people will try to go beyond the primary story/art display?"

The weaknesses mentioned include the domination of superheroes/adventure formula , the perceived associat ion of comics with children, and corporate and marketing limitations that gear comics toward children (although these are obviously not related directly to the medium itself). Understanding Comics addresses all these issues in detail.

A.4. Do we need a new term?

The overall response was, "No, but. . ." In other word there was a recognition of the inadequacies of "comics," but a hesitancy to adopt any of the possible replacements due to their awkwardness or inaccuracy (sequential art, grap hic narrative, pictorial fiction, Commix, illustories, etc.). Jirina Polivka demonstrated one problem with the term comics in her response, "You are addressing yourself, as it seems to me, to COMICS. I would like your work enlarged to a wider conce ption of humor." This confusion of comics and humor makes me want to call the MSU newsletter "Comics Art Studies" instead of "Comic Art Studies" to maintain the distinction between comics and humor, but "Comics Art Studies" grates on my ear.

Scott McCloud's solution seems the most efficient and workable; keep the familiar term "comics," but define it specifically so that it can be used to denote the medium exactly. Luca Somigli made this analogy, "Novels may not be that 'novel' anymore, but the term is there for better or worse. And so is 'comics.'"

Maurice Horn discussed this and other problems and commented that, "It would be a great advance in the study of the form if such a simple word [as fumetto] (preferably from a Greek root) could be coined in the English language." He also mentioned the problem of "grammatical derivatives (e.g., there is no comics equivalent to the word 'cinematic')." (Encyclopedia 728-729) I have seen the term "comicsmatics" used (probably in the Comics Journal), but I don't find it very user-friendly.

A.5. What is included in the term comics? (comic books, comics strips, single panel, editorial cartoons, etc.)

Joseph Witek indicated a difference between single and multi-panel comics because "the sequencing of the latter seems crucial," Scott McCloud's point, and Matt McAllister thought "it's valuable to maintain a distinction between comic books and other types of comics forms, because they are distinct economically and industrially." Ot herwise, scholars indicated that all the things listed in the question and more can be designated as comics.

A.6. What are the extremes, in terms of balancing words and pictures, that are acceptable as comics?

Martin Barker response, "Why are you wanting to be so prescriptive," led me to a consideration of the openness of our field of study, and the advantage we have over some other fields that have gotten bound up in restrictive terminology. I wasn't trying to be prescriptive in this question, but rather to discover what comics scholars think, and to, perhaps, obtain a descriptive answer. Jeffrey Brown's answer speaks to the difficulty of defining the medium, "A comic without any words is still a comic, but without any pictures it isn 't." Barb Rausch echoed this definition, "Comics can be a wordless narrative sequence of illustrations--like Lynd Ward's woodcut novels--but not a pictureless narrative sequence of words!" Scott McCloud addressed precisely this issue in Understandi ng Comics when he switched the word "static" for the words "pictorial and other images" (8-9).

I changed my mind on this issue, after discovering comics with no pictures in Understanding Comics: blank panels with word balloons and sound effects are comics (John Byrne's "Snowblind" in Alpha Flight #6 is an example of comics with almost no pictures). Dave Sim has explored these boundaries in Cerebus, and I think this is an area more fruitfully explored by creators than academics (and this question received only two responses, so the academics seem to agree).

Carl Potts looked at this issue from a different angle, "The 'writers versus artists controversy' can't even be discussed unless terms are defined." He pointed out the interrelationship between plotting and scriptwriting, noting that many people fail to consider plotting as writing, and indicated that even a story without dialogue or captions needs a plot for the art to follow.

Back to the Introduction and Survey Outline