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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

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.

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