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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Comics studies—one of the few fields of study that can’t agree on what it’s studying–suffers from a decades-long disagreement over the definition of “comics.” I’m hoping to discuss that disagreement in my next book. Happily, explaining the disagreement isn’t a book-length project. I think I can do it in one paragraph here:

Setting aside supplementary terms such as “graphic novel” and “graphic narrative” coined to replace without helping to define “comics,” the ur-term has at least four overlapping yet competing meanings:

comics the form (any sequence of images);

comics the conventions (a subset of image sequences that use panels, gutters, talk balloons, etc.);

comics the cartoon (a set of image style conventions that simplify and exaggerate forms but not necessarily in sequences); and

comics the publishing history (which prevents the anachronistic application of the term to art created before the 1890s and also to any image or image sequence not understood to be a comic by the artist or curator).

Various comics scholars champion the various definitions, though usually without acknowledging that more than one is in play or that apparent disagreements are the result of talking past each other, since a “comic” is not a “comic” is not a “comic.” Thus Gary Larson’s one-panel The Far Side poses an unsolvable riddle for comics the form, while posing no challenge at all to comics the cartoon or comics the publishing history.

I could map the origins of the confusion (Punch magazine, 1843), but I’d rather map the concepts first. It’s a Venn diagram:Or actually two:Layered on top of each other:That creates 13 distinct zones, each with its own meaning. Since that’s visually complex, I’m adding gradations:The white sections have no areas of overlap, the light gray sections have two, the dark gray three, and the black center four:Now drop in the four corresponding definitions:

Every possible “comic” falls somewhere on the diagram. The least controversial land in the middle, which is the source of the confusion.Probably all would agree that a Krazy Kat comic strip is a “comic,” but each of us might have different reasons for making that conclusion, some of which we might share and some we might not. I, for instance, favor “comics the form” and so would classify Krazy Kat a comic because it is a sequence of juxtaposed images, regardless of its other characteristics. But it is also a comic in the other three senses. If someone else favors, for instance, “comics the publishing history,” then our apparent agreement about Krazy Kat masks a deeper disagreement. Or rather an unacknowledged misunderstanding, since my “comic” and your “comic” are secretly homonyms. We’re literally using different words.

Krazy Kat also fulfills “comics the conventions” and “comics the cartoon,” which massively overlap, since cartooning is one of many conventions, making it sufficient but not necessary to fulfill “comics the conventions.” That might mean that “comics the cartoon” is contained entirely within the area of “comics the conventions,” which the above diagram doesn’t demonstrate because a) I don’t know how to draw that and b) it might not be true.

Picasso’s late period includes a range of line art that satisfies the definition of cartoons but that very few would classify as cartoons. Image result for picasso line drawings

So is a cartoon that is not called a cartoon a cartoon in the “comics the conventions” sense? Or is the problem that Picasso doesn’t fall under “comics the publishing history”? I’m not sure.

Other examples will fall into other areas to reveal other previous ambiguities. Matisse’s book Jazz combines form and cartoon, but not conventions and publishing history.

Image result for matisse jazz

Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe is a comic in terms of form and conventions (panels, grid, color separation), but not cartoon and publishing history.

Image result for warhol monroe

The Far Side, mentioned above, lands in the bottom “3,” combining conventions, publishing history, and cartoon, but not form since each is a single panel.

Image result for the far side cartoons

As I continue to refine this definitional approach, I’ll need to number (and perhaps name?) each of the 13 areas and provide examples for each.  But I hope this provides the groundwork for defining the definitions of comics.

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