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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

I’m teaching a new course this semester, Intro to Graphic Novels. Where to start is always a hard question, especially given the messiness of comics history. Usually terminology adds clarity, but the opposite can be true for comics because so many of the terms overlap and contradict. Which also makes it a good place to start. Here are some of the main terms, with some quick historical explanations. Instead of the usual alphabetical order, I’m trying a chronological approach. Also, I seem to be using a Jeopardy question format–not sure why. This is of course a work-in-progress …

What is a “cartoon”?

Beginning in the 1600s, the term referred to the cardboard-like material artists used for preliminary sketches. After the satirical magazine Punch published a set of mock architectural sketches for a planned parliamentary building in 1843, a “cartoon” meant a humorous illustration drawn in the simplified and exaggerated style of caricature. Here’s a 1847 Punch political cartoon satirizing the U.S.:

Some cartoons included more than one image (which also makes them comics according to the definition below). This is a racist, anti-Irish, anti-Chinese, anti-immigration cartoon from 1860:

Image result for historical cartoon lincoln escape

What is a “comic”?

In the 19th century, a “comic” referred to humor magazines that published prose-only stories and cartoons. The term transferred to newspaper cartoon sections in the late 1890s and was synonymous with “funnies” or “funny pages,” which described the genre, but not the form. “Comics” now refers to the form, but not the genre. There is no single accepted definition, but most scholars agree that a comic is a sequence of juxtaposed images. Here’s Scott McCloud’s definition from his 1993 Understanding Comics:

What is a “comic strip”?

Comic strips were originally vignettes told in a strip of cartoon images, so the term combined genre and form.  Though there are many forebears, comic strips first achieved major popularity in the 1890s. The first did not appear in individual strips, but most evolved that way by 1913, especially those printed in daily newspapers, like George Herriman’s Krazy Kat:

Image result for krazy kat

Strips didn’t always appear in horizontal strips. Herriman sometimes worked in double rows:

comic image

Sometimes in columns:

comic image

And Sunday comics continued to be larger than strips, often with one comic to an entire page:

comic image

What is a “comic book”?

Originally a collection of comic strips published in book form, a comic book later referred to individual issues of a series, typically published monthly. A series is called a comic book too. The 1934 Famous Funnies established the standard size for American comic books, but the term was in use since 1904.

Action Comics made the form massively popular in 1938:

Image result for action comics 1

What is a “graphic novel”?

The term emerged in the 1960s and 1970s in attempt to differentiate book-length works in the comics form that were also not in the popular children’s comics genres of humor and action. Although a prose-only novel refers to the genre of fiction, a graphic novel may indicate form regardless of whether the content is fiction or nonfiction. Will Eisner used the term for his 1978 Contract With God:

Image result for will eisner contract with god

What is a “graphic narrative”?

A term that combines graphic fiction and graphic nonfiction, which includes graphic memoir and graphic journalism. Though not the first, Art Spiegelman’s Maus established the category of graphic nonfiction when he wrote to the New York Times requesting that it be moved from the fiction to the nonfiction bestseller list in 1991 (it won a Pulitzer the following year). Though the term graphic narrative addresses the ambiguity of graphic novel, not all comics are necessarily narratives. Abstract comics and poetry comics are examples.

Related image

Image result for Above the Dreamless Dead: World War I in Poetry and Comics

What is “bande dessinée”?

The French term for comics, literally “drawn band,” and so a more accurate term than “comic strip.” Herge’s 1940s Tintin is one of the best known:

What is “fumetti”?

The Italian term for comics, literally “little clouds of smoke,” meaning speech balloons. Many fumetti are also photo-based, so fumetti is sometimes synonymous with photocomics.

What are “word containers”?

There are several kinds. Traditionally character speech is contained in circles called balloons. They usually include pointers. Thought bubbles contain internal speech. Remote narration and other kinds of non-speech are typically placed in caption boxes without pointers.

What is an “image”?

There are two kinds: representational and abstract. The first is a drawing of something; the second is not representing anything visual beyond itself. A representational image has two elements: a) what is drawn (the subject matter), and b) how it is drawn (the style).

What is “style”?

An artist’s consistent tendencies for representing but also altering subject matter, including qualities of line and shape.

What is “encapsulation”?

The selection of moments of a story that are represented in images, leaving other moments undrawn but implied.

What is “closure”?

Inferences about undrawn story content, usually implied by juxtaposition.

What is “juxtaposition”?

Any two images arranged side by side are juxtaposed.

What is a “panel”?

An image in a comic. Traditionally panels are predominately rectangular and enclosed by a frame and separated from other panels.

What is a “frame”?

Actual frames are physical objects that contain paintings or other two-dimensional art. A frame in a comic is only a drawing of a frame and so, unlike actual frames, is part of the image.

What is a “gutter”?

The negative space between images. If the background is undrawn, the gutters will appear blank. If the images are rectangular, the gutters will appear vertical and horizontal.

What is an “inset”?

A panel placed as if overtop or within the space of a larger image.

What is “layout”?

The arrangement of images on a comics page.

What is a “reading path”?

The specific order images are to be viewed, usually implied by the layout. The most common kinds of paths are Z-paths (from left to right in rows), N-paths (from top to bottom in columns); paths that use a combination of rows and columns. Manga, of course, read right to left.

What is a “script”?

A prose description of planned image content, including the words to be lettered into the final artwork. The script is not part of the eventual comic.

What is “diegesis”?

From the Greek word for narrative, diegesis is an academic term for story. Diegetic is the adjective form referring to anything within the story world.

What is “discourse”?

The term is useful for separating the world, events, and experiences of characters from how a reader or viewer experiences them through the medium of a comic. Characters in the story world aren’t aware of the reading paths, layouts, frames, gutters, word containers, styles, and any other qualities of the discourse that creates them.

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