When a Comic Isn't a Comic

By | Tuesday, April 04, 2023 3 comments
There has been, for many years now, some debate on how we define "comics." Scott McCloud, in Understanding Comics, probably most famously tried to codify it as “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.” We could argue on the specific definition there, and debate whether this or that qualifies as a comic. I think everyone would argee that the latest issue of Superman qualifies, as does any given volume of Tintin, or a Garfield strip in the latest paper. Things get a little murkier when you look at, for example, single gag cartoons like Heathcliff and Family Circus or historical capital-A Art pieces like The Rake's Progress or Eyptian hieroglyphs.

But one aspect I've been thinking about lately are so-called comics where the words and pictures are effectively indpendent of one another. For example, I don't think most people would consider children's picture books as comics. So even when you had creators like Crockett Johnson who did the comic strip Barnaby and was clearly working in the comic medium, he also created Harold and the Purple Crayon which is pretty well NOT considered in the comic medium. Why? I think primarily because the text of Harold can be read entirely separately from the images with no appreciable impact on the storytelling. There's no real integration of words and pictures; the drawings are illustrative of the text but they don't really add to it.

This can be said of most children's books, I think. From Dr. Seuss to Jan and Mike Berenstain to Maurica Sendak, the images are often very evocative but still only illustrative of the existing text. They don't integrate with the words in any way other than appearing on the same page.

But you also see this in books that many people still claim are comics. Not infrequently, it shows up in graphic biographies. While the page layouts are reminscent of comic books, and the art uses comic ideas like caption boxes and hand lettering, there is no integration of the text with the art. The writer wrote what is effectively a prose piece, and an artist came by afterwards and illustrated it. They can be crafted well -- good writing, good artwork, informative, etc. -- but this, to me, is not comics. This is no different than a children's picture book in terms of media format.

That's not to say that the text has to be directly incorporated into the art -- like using speech balloons or sound effects -- but there needs to be an integration and consideration of one when utilizing the other. That could include silent panels where there is no text but the images are used by themselves to relay the narrative. Doing this would require the writer and author to be working together in some fashion, even if the writer does not put down literal words to appear on the page.

I don't think my definition here is a common one. I see a lot of people who think that a written manuscript that is illustrated in a manner that bears some superficial resemblance to the latest issue of Superman qualifies as being a comic. But, personally, I think these are closer to Green Eggs and Ham in terms of media utilization. They're picture books, perhaps lavishly illustrated and beautifully written, but picture books all the same.
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Reno said...

Would Prince Valiant then be considered a non-comic, then? Although formatted as a Sunday comic page, the words effectively work without the pictures.

Valiant is certainly very heavily captioned, but the art doesn't just illustrate the story. The art and text are not well-integrated but there are often story elements that are only conveyed visually. So while it is incredibly well-drawn, it is a poor example of comics as a medium. It counts as comics, as I see it, but only just barely. (At least under Hal Foster -- I can't say I've really looked at much of the strip that he didn't personally work on.)

I agree with your definition, and I thank you for stating it simply. The goal should always be to state complicated truths in the plainest, most direct form (even at the risk of someone protesting, "It can't be that simple"), as otherwise an assertion becomes untestable. Which leaves no room for discussion or debate. Needless to note, contingent truths are assertions which, even while true, could just as easily be false. (E.g., "It's raining today.") Any claim which can't be discussed or debated, even if it exhibits a perfect internal logic, is useless to research.

And, while I agree that children's books aren't comics, in that the pictures are purely illustrative, the modern text/picture format found in such texts could well have formed the foundation for modern comics. After all, the modern illuminate-text style dates back at least as far as the latter 1800s. And there are many examples from this period of text/image pairings that are highly imaginative, even experimental, and which in some instances cry out to be regarded as comics, if only because they LOOK like same, even if they don't quite function as such. Taking a quick look through my own late-Victorian children's magazine and book holdings, I only discovered one comic page which can qualify as the modern type--from an 1884 "Youth's Companion" publication, it consists of successive panels of the familiar type, all containing short explanatory lines of text. Neither the text nor picture story could have meaningfully functioned on its own. Only in conjunction. It seems only a small evolutionary step from such a comic page to the kind we know today.