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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Here is a set of words:

"Texas banned abortions after six weeks. Seven more states are copying the law. If the GOP wins in November, Virginia will be next. 'Well, I can tell you that would be me,' said GOP Lt. Gov. candidate Sears, 'I would support it.' The Virginia Senate is split. The Lt. Gov. casts the tiebreaking vote. If elected governor, Youngkin will sign it. Don't let Virginia be the next Texas. VOTE TODAY"

Here is a set of words:

Are those two sets of words the same set of words?

Yes and no.

Yes, if by ‘words’ you mean linguistic content.

No, if by ‘words’ you mean graphic marks.

Since ‘words’ are both linguistic content and graphic marks, the contradiction is unresolvable.

Which creates a problem for the definition of comics, since all definitions include the word ‘images,’ usually along with the word ‘sequenced’ (or ‘juxtaposed,’ but let’s not go down that rabbit hole right now). I call sequenced images the comics form (which is distinct from but overlapping with the comics medium), but however termed, graphic marks are images. Which means the graphic marks you are currently reading are images, and because they are also sequenced, they must be a comic (or at least must be in the comics form).

Spoiler alert: they’re not.

Explaining why they are not is complicated and requires a tool for prying apart words as graphic marks and words as linguistic content.

Look at those two sets of identical/non-identical words again. The are identical as far as their linguistic content, but they differ significantly as far as their graphic qualities. The first set is graphically formatted the way this paragraph is: all the letters are in the same font, are the same size, and are the same color. The words in the second set are also all in the same font, but they differ in size (which varies according to rows, with words in rows consisting of fewer words printed larger because each row is sized to have the same width) and in color (black or red).

Those graphic qualities may also indirectly alter linguistic content, since differences in size and the relative rareness of red gives greater emphasis to certain words, and emphasis influences meaning. Readers of each set are going to have different reading experiences due to the graphic qualities.

Since both sets of words are graphic marks, some graphic marks are therefore more graphic than others.

That claim is both true and complete nonsense.

It’s nonsense because being graphic isn’t a graded quality. The adjective ‘graphic’ is like the adjective ‘physical.’ Either something is graphic or it is not graphic.

But ‘graphic’ also refers to something that occurs in degrees. I would call that something ‘art,’ specifically ‘graphic art.’ Along the graphic-art scale, these words you’re reading right now are very low. They are still 100% graphic (because to be graphic is to be 100% graphic), but they are hardly or not at all graphic art. That’s because their graphic-art qualities are so minimal.

In contrast, the set of words in the second example are higher on the graphic-art scale. Though they are certainly not great graphic art, they still fall into the general category graphic art.

(If authorial intention matters, I can add that I made the second example in response to a request for a ‘graphic,’ one that could be shared as a social-media meme or printed as a poster or postcard. I also made the first example, which can be copied and pasted into the body of an email, with no concern about changing fonts, font sizes, or line breaks–and so no concern for graphic qualities.)

Since the second set of words consists of words that are higher on the graphic-art scale, does that mean it’s a comic?

Well, if a ‘comic’ is something that is in the comics form, and if the comics form is sequenced images, then the answer is (probably) no. That’s because I understand the second set of words to be a single image, and a comic requires at least two images. Since that concern distracts from the core question, look instead at this:

Whatever you call it, there are definitely two of it. And since I would call each an image, I would have to also call their combination to be in the comics form.

Unless each set of words is not an image. And here I mean ‘image’ to mean not simply graphic marks but graphic art or, because the art consists entirely of words, graphic word art.

So determining whether it’s a comic first requires answering this question: Where is the dividing line between words that have only minimal graphic-art qualities and so are not graphic word art and words that do have sufficient graphic-art qualities and so are graphic word art?

I have no idea.

I am confident though that the first example falls into the first category. Those words are graphic only in the sense that is akin to something just being physical.

I’m not sure, but I suspect the second example can be called an image in the graphic-art sense only if its graphic-art qualities exceed its linguistic qualities. In other words: if it’s more about how the words are rendered than what the words mean regardless of rendering.

In this borderline case, my gut votes no. The rendering primarily serves the linguistic content, and without the linguistic content, the set of graphic marks wouldn’t be sufficiently artful to be called graphic art. Though as soon as I type that opinion, I start hearing counter arguments in my head. Which gets to my next point:

Judgements will vary.

As a result, judgements about whether any particular sequenced sets of words are in the comics form will vary to the same degree.

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