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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

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.

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