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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

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.

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