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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Are social-media memes comics?

You might be surprised how often that debate erupts on the comics scholars listserve. There are two short answers:

  • If by “comic” you mean a work in the comics medium (which is defined by publication context), then: No.
  • If by “comic” you mean a work in the comics form (sequenced images), then: Sometimes.

Though most memes include words, most are not in the comics form because each tends to be perceived as a single unified image (and so therefore not as sequenced images). Here’s an example featuring a local candidate in my town:

The meme consist of one image (a screenshot from a candidate forum video) and three sets of words: the “Chamber of Commerce” (captured in the screenshot), the quoted words (in response to a question about how city council candidates would address local childcare needs), and a name.

The word-image relationships are so common, they likely go unnoticed. The juxtaposition of the quoted words imply that they are being spoken by the figure (who appears to be speaking), and the juxtaposition of the name to both the quoted words and the speaking figure implies that it identifies both.

I don’t think anyone would describe the meme as a sequence of images. Though some works in the comics medium are similar (one-image cartoons in newspaper comics sections are formally the same), the meme is not a “comic” in that sense either.

Analysis gets more complicated when memes have multiple image parts in addition to words, and those parts tend to be viewed in a certain order and so in a certain sequence. The above meme is the most recent and (I hope) last political meme I make this election season. The one below was the first. I designed it after learning that the above MAGA candidate was running for office:

The meme is a single page (I want to say “digital canvas,” but that sounds pompous even though it’s more accurate), but it breaks into three conceptual units divided by white space identical to the white background. If I had framed each unit, the meme would more clearly be in the comics form:

Since any sequence of (at least two) images is in the comics form, the meme is in the comics form, and so is (formally) a comic. It is not, however, in the comics medium (I posted it on Facebook), and so I suspect most viewers would not call it a comic. I wouldn’t either. I would call it a work in the comics form, which is less catchy than “comic” but hopefully clearer.

As with the first meme, the word-image relationships are so straightforward they likely go unnoticed. The words and the images in the first panel duplicate. The “3 open seats” and the image of three identical chairs refer to the same subject. Both are also metaphorical, since “seats” and the photograph of chairs are not what’s “open,” which is abstract (an elected government position defined by duties and a duration of time).

The second conceptual panel is straightforward too: the words and images duplicate again. Each photograph represents a candidate, and the words under the photographs are their names. Though most viewers (even ones from my very small town) don’t know what each candidate looks like, most probably assume that the order of left-to-right photographs and the order of top-to-bottom names correspond. That assumption is reinforced by the frame around the fourth photograph and the letters of the fourth name both being red — as well as the shared blue frame around the first three photographs and the blue letters of the first three letters. The election context also likely translates the two colors, blue and red, into a political dichotomy: Democrat/Republican.

The third conceptual panel frames only words, so there is no image-text relationship. Still, the words establish the point of the meme, that like-minded voters should vote for the first three candidates and not the fourth. While that’s probably obvious, notice how that message is not conveyed by the words alone:

  • “There are 3 open seats on Lexington City Council. There are four candidates: Nicholas Betts, Chuck Smith, David Sigler, Collette Barry-Rec. Beginning September 23rd, you can vote for three of them.”

Read (rather than viewed) the meme is politically neutral.

It also helps that the first three photographs have similar content (headshots), while the fourth is a medium shot of a person holding up a handmade protest sign with the message in red letters, “TRUMP LOVES ALL PEOPLE,” and a smiley face. I suspect that even a viewer who did not read the protest sign would glean that the meme was supporting the other three candidates — even though none of the words (including the ones in the photograph) state that.

Like a joke, I think all of this is both obvious and understood instantaneously. Also like a joke, explaining it feels redundant and the opposite of funny. But I’m an academic, so that’s pretty much my job description.

Next meme.

The first two examples both clearly include at least one image, making them at least potentially comics. But does this one include an image?

The middle section includes the only four elements that are not words: a frame, three white ovals, an outline oval, and a thin rectangle that seems to block most of a name. If you perceive those elements, plus the three names and fourth obscured name, as representing a ballot, then they are an image. Because the rest of the meme includes only words, the overall meme is not in the comics form.

In this case, the words alone convey the message. I’m not sure if a crossed-out word is primarily a word or primarily an image, but adding it doesn’t significantly alter anything:

  • “50 Ways Rockbridge supports David Sigler, Chuck Smith, Nicholas Betts, Colette Barry-Rec for Lexington City Council. Early voting starts September 23rd.”

Since the names are ordered as they appear on my town’s actual ballots, the meme is also instructive, showing voters how to fill-in the ovals for the first, second, and fourth candidates. (Though it’s not necessary to cross out the name of the third candidate, it won’t hurt.)

The next meme is not in the comics form:

And yet it reveals something key about words: they’re images too. The visual styles of the six word renderings are the most significant elements of the meme. First, words in English (like layouts in the English comics medium) are read left-to-right and then top-to-bottom (AKA, the z-path). Yet if that common-sense fact is applied here, you get this:


I don’t think anyone reads them in that order. I’m pretty sure most readers instead experience this:

  • “Betts, Sigler, Smith [for] Lexington City Council.”

Why? Because three of the words are large and blue, and three of the words are small and black. The visual style reorders them and determines their combined meaning. Style then isn’t just some additive quality working separately from word meaning. It can rewire the most fundamental language norms.

A last variation:

If we apply the blue then black rule again, you get this:

  • “Betts Sigler Smith Vote Lexington City Council Now.”

Reverse the color rule and it’s this:

  • “Vote Lexington City Council Now Betts Sigler Smith.”

I don’t think readers experience either. I suspect it’s probably this:

  • “Vote [for] Betts, Sigler, Smith [for] Lexington City Council Now.”

Or, since the first and last words are largest and may be apprehended together, this:

  • “Vote Now [for] Betts, Sigler, Smith [for] Lexington City Council.”

Where the first version created a definitive word order that determined sentence meaning, the expanded variant may allow for some indeterminacy. Either way, how each word is rendered is the determining factor. And the ordering effect isn’t a visual puzzle. Our brains perform it at a mostly pre-conscious level of perception.

I suspect it occurs almost as quickly as decoding the unremarkable order of these words:

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