Skip to content

The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Monthly Archives: June 2022

Since I discussed the new Philosophy of Comics in two previous posts (here and here), I thought it fair to give the authors a chance to respond, which they kindly do below.

Guest bloggers, Sam Cowling and Wesley Cray


We can’t thank Chris enough for the kind words about the book. Happy to report, too, that we specifically requested to Bloomsbury that they approach him for a blurb, given how useful we found his own work as well as his collaborative efforts with Nathaniel Goldberg. (Big plug for Chris’ “‘Something Like This Just Couldn’t Happen!’: Resolving Naturalistic Tensions in Superhero Comics Art” in Studies in Comics.) And we’re grateful, too, for the chance to say a bit in response to Chris’s perceptive remarks here.

There are a lot of moving pieces, and Chris points in some fruitful and interesting directions that we won’t be able to tackle in a short post. Mostly, we’ll aim to give a rough sense of how we are inclined to approach the taxonomic questions around comics (the things) and ‘comics’ (the word or concept).

It’s scarcely debatable that the term ‘comics’ is vague. When philosophers think about vagueness, we typically model it using precisifications: various contextually acceptable means of making the meaning precise. In this way, precisifications are sharpenings. One way (but surely not the only way!) to view the literature on defining ‘comics’ is as a purely semantic debate that presupposes that there’s a uniquely acceptable sharpening. We’re pretty happy to grant that there are actually a range of acceptable sharpenings, but that their aptness depends upon the context of inquiry and conversation. For our part, the aim of the first chapter of our book—aside from the implicit aims of introducing different kinds of comics and some general philosophical methodology—is to ask what might demarcate the most general sort of precisification that folks have in mind when they, say, debate who should win an award at Angoulême, be featured in Kramer’s Ergot, or be read in a class specifically centered on comics. Our best shot—a shot that requires a lot more than a chapter to count as a full-fledged account—is that comics are artifacts produced to be engaged with through a certain kind of reading.

We’re super interested in Chris’ proposal. (What are pre-orders for, after all?) In part, it’s because we’re not sure what a “form” is. We recognize that there can be—and is—ample disagreement about what categories count as mediums—e.g., Matthew Smith and Randy Duncan suggest that there isn’t a general medium of comics in The Power of Comics. Our untutored, prima facie hunch is that forms are intimately bound up with aesthetic engagement. Roughly, “form” is properly viewed as a distinctive kind of aesthetic category that subsumes all and only those things that are created with suitably related aesthetic purposes, engaged via suitably related aesthetic techniques, and evaluated using suitably related aesthetic criteria. That conception of form would make one sharpening of ‘comics’ pick out a unified aesthetic kind. It would presumably exclude certain artifacts that fall outside that aesthetic remit. That’s surely a relevant sense of ‘comics’ that we would want to point to in making sense of the medium—e.g., it would explain why certain kinds of non-art instructional comics might fall outside of the relevant form. We’re eager to hear more about Chris’s views and see if they point in this direction.

Pending a better sense of how to disentangle forms from mediums, our lone departure from Chris is probably about the semantics of ‘comics’. Homophonic ambiguity of the sort Chris mentions seems less apt than polysemy for capturing the proposed distinction in meanings. Since the meanings are clearly related—e.g., like ‘face’ (noun) and ‘face’ (verb)—rather than accidental homonyms. Our hunch is, however, that the multiplicity in meaning is more modest—that it’s vagueness rather than ambiguity (or polysemy).


What should our focus be trained on when taking up the venerable (but largely frustrating) question: which things are comics? In Philosophy of Comics, our general hunch is that we are best served to focus on comics as artifacts and, in doing so, keep in view their commonalities with things like bathtubs, doorknobs, and cowboy hats. They are human creations, produced by intentional processes, with certain kinds of functions in mind. As Chris aptly notes, any approach of this sort is liable to be messier than accounts that focus upon specific formal elements or historical traditions that seek a precise account of comics. This is liable to leave the account we prefer comparatively vague, but notice that it would be a tremendous surprise if we had laser-like clarity in definitions of other sorts of artifacts like bathtubs or doorknobs. That doesn’t mean, of course, that anything goes, and in this short note we’ll say a bit about how we’d respond to Chris’ criticism.

Two quick caveats before digging in: (1) In the book, we place heavy emphasis on the practice of picture-reading and mark the centrality of a theory of picture-reading for comics theory. That said, we don’t develop a fully-fledged theory in the book, but we do note at least two very different ways to go in developing a theory–a hard-line psychological account and a rougher normative or sociocultural account. Our sympathies reside with the latter, but there’s a whole spectrum of views available in between. We hope to map them out and put them to work elsewhere, but however you go with your theory of picture-reading, it will have a substantial impact on which artifacts will count as comics. (2) It’s crucial to note that the Intentional Picture-Reading View takes artifacts to be those things that are created with apt intentions for picture-reading count. That means, among other things, that not just any object that could be picture-read counts as a comic. Doubtless, we can try to picture-read non-comics and we might even succeed in some cases, but we deny that all picture-readable things are therefore comics–indeed, that’s partly why we’re committed to an intentionalist view. A rough parallel: comics are like crowns, not door stops. For something to be a crown, it needs to be created with a certain kind of intention. Door stops merely need to serve a function and most anything can be appropriated as a door stop. Quick moral: the creative intentions matter in ways that merely possible uses do not.

This second caveat is a significant one for marking our departure from Chris and for explaining our view. While Chris is surely correct to note that creative or authorial intentions are a thorny topic, we take them to be absolutely essential to our preferred account. Chris’s interesting “adjusted” definition elides intentions and so the resulting view is one on which anything that could in principle be picture-read is a comic. We think that yields a far too generous view for pretty much the reasons Chris notes. There are paintings that aren’t comics that look markedly similar to things that are comics and the difference between the two can’t be explicated in terms of things someone could do with either. (Each could be a door stop, after all.) But on the Intentional Picture Reading View, the fact that, say, Gahan Wilson intended his comics to be picture-read is part of what separates them from a piece of line art that is, say, merely intended to depict a barn on fire. So although someone *could* certainly attempt to picture-read paintings and other non-comic artifacts, they regularly and correctly do other things with them (e.g., looking at them in ways that treat text and sequence differently than we would in comics) and that if they are picture-read, that wouldn’t make them comics. Again, that’s because it’s the artifactual intention that matters. Importantly, that makes our view potentially quite narrow contrary to the “adjusted” view Chris sketches.

The final concern Chris notes–namely, how informatively we can characterize picture-reading and, in turn, how distinctive it really is–strikes us as *the* question for the Intentional Picture Reading View. We reject the generic view that would assimilate picture-reading to the tremendously broad act of looking at picture-based artifacts. For our part, we take picture-reading to be a specific practice essentially tied to phenomena like panels, text-image interaction, and grawlix. Accordingly, articulating a comprehensive and credible theory of picture-reading is *the* project at the heart of the philosophy of comics. And maybe the project for another book.

As I discussed in a previous post, I’m a big fan of Sam Cowling and Wesley Cray’s Philosophy of Comics. I think it may surpass Nathaniel Goldberg’s and my Superhero Thought Experiments. Keeping in mind that praise, I do object to their definition of comics—the first new definition I’ve seen presented by any comics scholars for several years.

Sam and Wesley (who I call by their first names since Sam and I know each other by email) offer what they term a “functional approach to defining comics,” one based on “a characteristic use as objects,” specifically that “comics are to be ‘read.’” This would mean that “comics are ultimately a functional artifact rather than one that can be defined formally or historically.”

Though I agree that comics overall cannot be defined formally or historically, I instead define the comics form and the comics medium separately, and then I use those two definitions to determine whether a given work is in one, the other, or both. This approach produces no general definition of comics. Let’s call that the homonym approach, since it treats ‘comics’ as a word with two non-exclusive meanings. Sam and Wesley follow the single-definition approach, calling their definition the ‘Intentional Picture-Reading View.’

What does it mean to ‘read’ a comic? They identify their use of the verb ‘read’ as a “linguistic accident,” because “whatever reading we do when we engage with comics, it is not the same activity as the reading we undertake when we engage with a novel.” Following Wertham, they call this distinctive kind of intended activity ‘picture-reading,’ and they characterize it is an “openness” to various “sociocultural practices” such as “incorporating one or more images into our unified attention,” “taking juxtaposed images as components of a narrative,” “finding closure among panels,” and “taking text (or a solitary image) as determining what’s true according to the narrative.” That produces the following comics definition: “x is a comic if and only if x is aptly intended to be picture-read.”

I think authorial intentions are an unnecessary and distracting topic, but rather than diving down a non-useful rabbit hole, I’ll adjust their definition to avoid it: “x is a comic if and only if x is perceived as aptly intended to be picture-read.” (Sam and Wesley seem to suggest something along this line through their later requirement that “competent audiences would be able to picture-read it and that competent audiences would recognize it as an attempt at producing something for picture-reading.”) The result is the same: something would be a comic because it is or can be “regarded with a certain kind of attention.”

Interestingly, they assert that this kind of attention also applies to single images, “since juxtaposed images … aren’t required for picture-reading,” just “an openness to incorporating juxtaposed images into one’s pattern of attention.” Does an openness to incorporating juxtaposed images into one’s pattern of attention require the physical presence of juxtaposed images? If so, then can viewing a single image produce it? Looking at the Mona Lisa or an installment of The Far Side does not involve the expectation of additional images entering one’s attention or an openness to taking juxtaposed images as components of a narrative or finding closure among them. It would likely exclude such things since each single image is understood instead to be a complete work. When other images are juxtaposed (on a gallery wall or on a newspaper comics page), those other images are likely not regarded with the same kind of attention and sociocultural practices as the perceptually isolated single image.

That suggests to me that single images are not picture-read in the sense that their definition requires. Since Sam and Wesley reject what they term the Deliberate Sequence View because it does not account for “the objection from single panel comics,” their Intentional Picture-Reading View could suffer similarly.

Alternatively, picture-reading does apply to single images. When I look at the Mona Lisa I am certainly open to incorporating the solitary image into my unified attention and to taking it as determining what’s true according to the narrative. It would seem then that any single image could be picture-read, or certainly any single-image narrative artwork. If so, then so many things become comics that ‘comics’ does not appear to differentiate a meaningful category of works.  

Returning to multiple images, Sam and Wesley examine the example of an art gallery owner hanging three paintings on a wall and then afterwards declaring that the three images are a comic. According to their definition, the three paintings are a comic if “a component comics reader recognizes” them as a comic, and the three paintings are not a comic if such a reader does not. They acknowledge that perceptions will likely vary, concluding: “This, we suspect, is where we ought to expect and therefore accept vagueness in a proposed definition of comics.”

While individual perceptions of most anything can vary, the primary vagueness here is not general to any proposed definition of comics, but only to those that rely on vaguely defined sociocultural practices. Perhaps such practices are inadequate for comics definitions. 

Regarding such pre-comics works as the Bayeux Tapestry, Sam and Wesley argue that “the sociocultural activity of picture-reading in its current form had not yet arisen when it was created” and “simply was not operative in [that] context.” Therefore the Bayeux Tapestry is not a comic, even though its creators “intended for it to be looked at and read in some sense.” What sense might those creators have intended their work to be read and how does that kind of picture-reading differ from the picture-reading that has the “distinctive history” required for a work to be a comic? Sam and Wesley state that for such things as the Bayeux Tapestry to not be comics “a distinction is needed between picture-reading as a historically specific activity and a more general, arguably universal activity of pictorial storytelling.” Since they do not offer such a distinction, it would seem then that Bayeux Tapestry might be a comic according to their Intentional Picture-Reading View.

What images are not comics according to that view? The potential range seems to include all single-image and multi-image art of any culture and time period.

What are the necessary and sufficient qualities of ‘picture-reading’? I suspect the term could be substituted with something like ‘comics-reading’ or ‘comics-medium-reading’ without a discernable change in meaning. If so, the proposed definition seems circular: “x is a comic if and only if x is aptly intended to be read as a comic.”

The above, and my previous blog too, are my tentative objections to the only two claims that I didn’t find immediately persuasive in all of Philosophy of Comics. Which is to say: it’s a pretty damn persuasive book.

But to be fair, I’ve invited Sam and Wesley to respond, and I will post their comments to my comments tomorrow.

Poet and literary critic Lesley Wheeler writes in her new hybrid essay collection Poetry’s Possible Worlds:

“The distinction between [fiction and nonfiction] rests not in intrinsic differences but on information external to the text. This story is on the front page of a trustworthy newspaper: factual. That one appears beside a moody illustration near the end of The New Yorker: you think ‘fiction’ and you assume references are invented or at least disguised and manipulated.”

My co-author Nathaniel Goldberg and I draw a similar philosophical conclusion in our Revising Fiction, Fact, and Faith: “A discourse is a fictional or factual diegesis if and only if read as that kind.” And we include an example that vacillates according to the kind of “information external to the text” that Wheeler mentions.

The New York newspaper The Sun published Richard Adams Locke’s “Great Astronomical Discoveries Lately Made by Sir John Herschel” in daily installments in August 1835. Though The Sun proved extremely untrustworthy, most readers read the story as factual—until they got to descriptions of bat-winged creatures building temples on the moon, and even then many believed the hoax until the newspaper announced it was fiction the following month. Had the story originally appeared in the New Yorker (though hybrid newspapers like The Sun may be the closest early nineteenth-century equivalent), or at least been identified within the publication as fiction, probably no one would have read it as a work of nonfiction. 

Note the point that Goldberg and I share with Wheeler: “Great Astronomical Discoveries” is not intrinsically fiction, even though its author wrote it as fiction. That’s because, in our shared view, the status of something being fiction or nonfiction is determined entirely by the experience of readers.

When Wheeler writes “you assume references are invented,” she means references to some world: “The effects readers experience as they enter possible worlds—such as transportation—don’t rely on the authors’ intent to mimic verifiable events, or, for that matter, to distort or ignore them entirely.” It’s about the world a reader imagines.

Goldberg and I discuss that too: “when a factual diegesis refers to the actual world, and a fictional diegesis refers to a merely possible one, each does so by reporting on its respective world.” Wheeler’s invented references are understood to report on a merely possible world, though she’s equally interested in the actual world. Both are kinds of possible worlds. Goldberg and I explain: “While there is only one actual world, which is itself possible, there is an infinity of merely possible worlds.”

Poetry’s Possible Worlds explores that infinity through the world-building enacted by readers of poetry.

Disproving Marie-Laure Ryan’s claim that a short lyric poem such as William Carlos Williams’ “This is Just to Say” is not “a system of reality,” Wheeler reports her experience of its reality: “I visualize an old-fashioned kitchen with an early-model icebox and linoleum table, the kind with a corrugated metal rim. Williams is wearing a light button-down shirt, cuffs open because it’s summer, and his posture is cocky.”

That’s not the kitchen I see, but the fact that I do see some kitchen (the one from my childhood home) proves her point. She continues: “As a reader, I may be an outer-limits case, yet where there is plot and character and sensory detail, imaginative world-building is possible.”

Later she describes a bar she imagined while reading another poem: “I mentally placed it … not in a pub I had really visited but in my Universal Fantasy Tavern. Like many people who seek to lose themselves in books, I recycle imagined settings to save attention for other elements of the work and speed immersion. None of this was conscious until I started researching the cognitive science of literary transportation, but I must have generated many of these spaces as an untraveled preteen.”

The term “transportation” is apt because it implies transportation to somewhere—though apparently never to the same place. Goldberg and I acknowledge this point in order to set it aside: “no two readers may read the same discourse in precisely the same way. Even so, typically there would reman overlap. If extensive, call the resulting diegesis ‘the diegesis.’”

Rather than setting them aside, Poetry’s Possible Worlds delves into those individual readerly worlds fully, revealing that “Taking Poetry Personally” (the title of the introduction) is an inevitability to be embraced rather than ignored. In the process, she also reveals the underappreciated fact that poetry relies on and produces the same levels of transportive and immersive world-building as longer works of fiction.

Poetry’s Possible Worlds is itself narratively immersive, merging a sequence of literary essays with a novel-like progression of short memoirs about not only the author’s reading experiences but the personal life experiences that surround them and give them context-specific meaning. I read early and multiple drafts of each chapter, but as I reread passages now, I am transported to events in my own life too.

The chapter exploring the thresholds of a poem by a poet she met while on a Fulbright in New Zealand includes the sentence: “Meanwhile, my husband, Chris, planned to work on a novel in our rented house.” My Alzheimer’s-suffering mother haunts the chapter on poetic “Fiction”: “Chris reproached himself for having missed so many signs, but Judy was smart enough to mask incapacity.” “Voice,” which explores another poet’s creative relationship with her husband, includes: “Chris and I are fascinated by literary couples.” But more revealingly: “You’d think Chris, whose first book was a novel, would believe in narrative. Yet since our first years together, Chris has resisted transforming real experience into tales.”

Do I co-write works of philosophy to avoid writing memoir? Possibly. But as Wheeler tells her readers: “All literature, however, even when it’s autobiographical, is fantasy.” Poetry’s Possible Worlds is one of my favorite works of fantasy, and not just because I’m married to the author or because the Acknowledgements and the book as a whole concludes on this sentence: “My real and imagined worlds are indebted to him.”

First some unqualified praise: “With the methodological patience and precision that their multi-faceted subject demands, Cowling and Cray provide the comics medium with its most thoroughly philosophical analysis to date.”

That’s the back-cover blurb I wrote for Philosophy of Comics by Sam Cowling and Wesley Cray. If you’re not a philosopher (which I’m also not, but I’ve been spending a great deal of time in that corner of the multiverse in recent years), you might miss the eye-bulging exuberance of that statement. (Seriously, read it again.)

I assume Bloomsbury requested my endorsement because I co-wrote Superhero Thought Experiment with philosopher Nathaniel Goldberg—which, not coincidentally, Sam reviewed back in 2020. After Nathaniel contacted him and introduced us by email (philosophers who study comics is not an enormous demographic, so we have an impulse to wave hello when spotting one from a distance), Sam and I corresponded about the manuscripts we were working on then, my The Comics Form: The Art of Sequenced Images and his and Wesley’s Philosophy of Comics, both from Bloomsbury and both forthcoming in 2022. Sam’s is available this month, and mine next month.

(Sidebar: I’m the series editor of Bloomsbury’s Comics Studies, which does not include either Philosophy of Comics or The Comics Form. That’s because Bloomsbury publishes a range of comics studies works outside of their Comics Studies line. Their Comics Studies line would be more accurately called “Critical Guides in Comics Studies”—which is what I asked them to change it to when I become its editor. Bloomsbury said yes, but more recently it seems Bloomsbury may be saying no, due to marketing reasons and so definitely not philosophical ones.)

I’d like to focus on Sam and Wesley’s second chapter, “What Are Comics?” Though comics scholars have largely abandoned the question, most do not approach it with Sam and Wesley’s thoroughly philosophical precision. I address the question (I hope with similar thoroughness) in the introduction of The Comics Form, concluding that no single definition of ‘comics’ is possible. I then spend the rest of the book analyzing the nature of sequenced images.

Applying image sequence as a general definition of comics (which I don’t), Sam and Wesley term the approach the ‘Deliberate Sequence View,’ and they identify two objections:

  • “The objection from single panel comics works by noting a discrepancy between the critical practice surrounding comics and the formal features identified in the Deliberate Sequence View.”

Let’s call this The Far Side objection. Since single-image works such as The Far Side appear in newspaper comics sections, single-image works must be a subcategory of comics, which therefore are not necessarily sequenced images. The objection is self-evidently true: single images are not multiple images. Their second objection is similarly true. A part of a work is not a whole work:

  • “The Deliberate Sequence View therefore entails that things that we don’t ordinarily treat or think of as comics—the juxtaposed mere parts of comics—are errantly deemed to be comics…. Since the Deliberate Sequence View is not equipped to avoid counting arbitrary mere parts of comics as comics, it delivers another incorrect verdict about the conditions for being a comic.”

Call this the Alexander Pope objection. Pope’s long poem The Rape of the Lock is composed of 794 lines in heroic couplets. Any two juxtaposed and rhyming lines within the complete poem is a heroic couplet. That’s because heroic couplets is a form that applies equally to a compete work and to mere parts of a work. Just as a heroic couplet requires at least two rhymed lines, an image sequence requires at least two juxtaposed images.

Combining their objections, Sam and Wesley conclude: “Each of these challenges dims the hope of defining comics purely in terms of their sequential features.” That conclusion is both correct and misleading.

‘Comics’ cannot be defined purely as sequenced images because ‘comics’ has more than one definition. It’s a homonym.  Consider the word ‘bark.’ It cannot be defined purely in terms of the sounds that a dog makes. That’s because ‘bark’ also refers to the outer part of a tree—which also does not purely define it.

Comics has (at least) two meanings:

  • (A) works in the comics form
  • (B) works in the comics medium

As is obvious from my book title, The Comics Form, I’m interested in the first definition. As is obvious from my book subtitle, The Art of Sequenced Images, I define the comics form as sequenced images.  If you prefer, substitute ‘sequenced images’ for the first definition. However, if you think some other necessary and sufficient set of intrinsic features defines the comics form, substitute that instead.

Regardless of what the comics form is, the comics form is not the comics medium. Unlike the form, the medium is historically and so contextually based. Though not attempting to define the medium, Sam and Wesley summarize a comics medium definition: “the production of [works that] is appropriately historically connected to the tradition began in the middle of the nineteenth century and developed largely out of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British humor magazines.”

They also show that a medium-based definition of comics opposes any form-based definition: “there is reason to reject any formalist definition of comics, since the medium of comics is a historically specific one.” Again, this is misleadingly true. There is also reason to reject any dog-related definition of ‘bark,’ since the nature of ‘bark’ is a botanically specific one—only if the definitions are all-encompassing. 

There’s usually nothing confusing about a two-definition homonym because the definitions tend to be mutually exclusive. To the best of my knowledge, no bark is both a dog sound and a tree part. In the case of comics though, the two definitions produce a very large overlap since many works are in the comics form and in the comics medium simultaneously. Sam and Wesley call that combination the ‘Historicist Deliberate Sequence View,’ and they reject it as a definition of comics generally (because manga).

I also reject it as a definition of comics generally, but for a different reason. It’s the middle section of the form/medium Venn diagram, and so it defines neither the form or the medium, only subsections of each.

Comics scholars, including Sam and Wesley, resist treating ‘comics’ as a homonym, preferring instead either to champion one definition exclusively (Sam and Wesley have their own, which I look forward to exploring another time) or to reject all definitions as necessarily false. I don’t understand either impulse. I first offered the two-definition approach in MoMA magazine last September (“What Are Comics?”), and I will offer a more involved explanation in The Comics Form, which I hope might uncontroversially tilt some scholarly interest in that direction soon.

Meanwhile, go read Philosophy of Comics. It’s excellent.

I’m on my way back to Virginia after spending several days in Budapest, plus three more in Venice for the Invisible Lines comics symposium. During scattered downtime I found myself toying with what I’m tempted to call my digital charcoal technique in MS Paint. I’ve been fiddling with the approach for a while now, but I think the results have mutated significantly again. Here are the five I made in Budapest:

And here are two I made earlier in May:

Plus two I made last year but then altered and extended further with the same technique this month.

%d bloggers like this: