In Defense of Comic Strips AND Books

By | Monday, October 27, 2008 1 comment
Katherine Farmar recently blogged that comic strips and comic books, while sharing some of the same basic elements, are significantly different enough that they should generally not be considered together. While she makes some cogent arguments and a fair analogy, I find that I have to disagree with her.

One of her primary arguments is that the inherent form of comic strips is significantly different than that of comic books. That comic strips are so short and have so little room for character development or extended plots, that they are effectively a different animal than comic books. While I agree that you can't really place Beetle Bailey in quite the same category as Detective Comics much less something like Maus, those are all specific examples. If you take "comic strips" to mean "contemporary daily comics printed in newspapers across the country", I can see where her thought process makes sense. However, the inherent flaw in that thinking is that she's limiting her definition of comic strips a bit too much. Even if we don't include the potential of online comics, there were any number of comic strips "back in the day" that could easily fall under the same categories in terms of character and world development. Little Nemo in Slumberland and Krazy Kat both spring immediately to mind.

Both were comic strips that had long-running and complex character relationships, and spent as much time on developing their worlds as anything else. Granted, they had more narrative room to work with than you'll find in Garfield but that limitation current comic strips artists have is specific to newspaper syndicates. Marvel and DC publish 32 page pamphlet books, but there's no reason that another publisher can't choose to make a 36 page book. Or a 28 page one. The specifics of the form, while common, are still based on the current dominate players. Should someone desire, there's no reason a newspaper strip couldn't have more space allocated to comics, allowing creators to be more expressive or original in their form and layouts. Little Nemo and Krazy Kat (and many others) are rife with examples of unusual and experimental page layouts.

So just because current practitioners of comic strips often limit themselves to three and four panel gag strips with little to no continuity, I find that a flimsy argument to remove the whole milieu from the discussion.

Further, taking Farmar's argument to it's logical extension in the other direction, wouldn't that mean that we should separate discussions of comic books from those of graphic novels? After all, there's so much more a creator can do working in the substantially longer format and non-standardized page size of a graphic novel than what can be done in a typical 32-page pamphlet. Could you imagine even someone as talented as Will Eisner trying to fit A Contract With God into a serialized pamphlet format? (No doubt he could do exactly that, but it would assuredly generate a different result!)

But, then, where do long-form stories like Cerebus and Bone fall? They were written with an eye towards the ultimate collection, but were originally released in pamphlet form. Or Watchmen -- a work that is most often experienced as a graphic novel, but was in fact written specifically for a serial format? And The Dark Knight Returns which came out a series of 52-page square-bound volumes?

Oh, geez, and where would Action Comics #1 go? That was written as a newspaper strip originally, and then repurposed (literally cut and pasted together) for a comic book! Is it a strip because of its original design, or a book because that's the format it first saw print?

And I still haven't brought up web comics!

There absolutely is validity in discussing comic strips against other comic strips, and discussing comic books in relation to other comic books. And there's little direct connection between Hi and Lois and Persepolis. But these are individual titles by individual creators whose intents are radically different -- that we shouldn't normally talk about the two side by side has nothing to do with the outlet itself, but with the content. It's the same reason we don't really talk about Hagar the Horrible in the same breath as Doonesbury. They have very different purposes with very different creative voices.

Yes, there are some differences in how comic strips and comic books are generally read and understood today, but I don't think that necessitates talking about them in mutually exclusive discussions. That the method of delivery is different is no reason to separate comic strips from comic books. The fundamentals of storytelling and artistic expression are the same, and they use the exact same visual language.

Is it valid to compare Chaucer to Frost to cummings? There's more differences among them than not, true, but we're pulling out specific examples, and it's like trying to compare Beetle Bailey to Detective Comics. You can pull out any number of specific examples to showcase vast differences in style and approach, but in doing so, you're assuming that Beetle Baily (or whichever strip you choose) is a perfect representation of all comic strips and that Detective Comics (or whichever book your choose) is a perfect representation all comic books. Neither is true. They might be representative of THAT PARTICULAR TYPE of strip or book, but I think there's probably more similarity between Beetle Bailey and Detective Comics than between Detective Comics and American Splendor.

My point is that whether or not it's valid to discuss two works of sequential art has nothing to do with the venue in which they're first seen, but by the content itself. Who created the work and why should be the criteria, not whether it was sold to King Features or DC Comics. In fact, I find it hard to believe anyone would even dispute the validity of comparing Sky Masters of the Space Force with Challengers of the Unknown. Yes, the bland gag-a-day strips that are commonly thought of when people mention "comic strips" have little in common with the bland superhero-fight-an-issue books that are commonly thought of when people mention "comic books" but neither are the end-all-be-all of even their respective genres, much less their venues. I don't see how they're still not all considered "comics" and worthy of discussion in the same forum.
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Hear, hear. I had many of the same thoughts when reading Farmar's post. It's true that current strips are different from current pamphlet-format comics or graphic novels, but they have enough similarities to keep from excluding each other. She argues that the small format alters the reading pattern, but just because most current artists don't do more than tell a simple joke each day doesn't mean that it's an entirely different medium. Strips like Alley Oop, Dick Tracy, L'il Abner, and Thimble Theater (among many, many others) all used that small space to tell long involving stories full of developed characters; why would you exclude yourself from comparing them to Batman or The Spirit or Tales from the Crypt, or whatever. It's silly.

I think you could argue that one-panel cartoons (of the political variety or otherwise) could be excluded (and Scott McCloud does exactly that in Understanding Comics), but even that's a risky proposition. Even if you don't think the juxtaposition of words and pictures is enough to count as comics, many one-panel cartoons still manage to build a little world and tell enough of a story that it wouldn't be fair to say they don't "count". I guess that's the issue with any exclusionary line-drawing; sure, we like to define and categorize, but it's almost always more worthwhile to welcome something into a discussion than to shut it out.