Sequence from Understanding Comics, ©1993 Scott McCloud. Text by Harvey.
The traditional definition of comics is the one conjured up by Coulton Waugh in his book Comics (1947). He says comics consist of three elements: (1) sequence of pictures that tell a story or joke, (2) words incorporated into the picture usually in the form of speech balloons, and (3) continuing characters.
The last item snatches at sophistry. It’s there under false pretenses. Its function is purely rhetorical — to eliminate anything that came along before the Yellow Kid, the most conspicuous of the combatants in New York’s newspaper circulation battles of the 1890s. The Yellow Kid was seen as the first comic strip character mostly because he was a highly visible and successful commercial enterprise — the commercial aspect establishing the value to newspapers of comic strips.
But “continuing characters” clearly have nothing much to do with the intrinsic form of a comic strip, and I usually leave that part out. The rest of Waugh’s definition is a pretty good basis for starting. By way of making a start, however, we must return to an era earlier than that of the Yellow Kid and a form more primitive, more basic. And so I do, for a moment only:
There are stories, narratives. There are verbal narratives (epic poems, novels), and there are pictorial narratives (Egyptian tomb paintings, the Bayeaux Tapestry). In my view, comics are a sub-set of pictorial narrative; therefore, all comics are pictorial narratives, but not all pictorial narratives are comics. Horses are quadrupeds, and dogs are quadrupeds, but horses are not dogs, and dogs are not horses. There are different kinds of quadrupeds, and there are different kinds of pictorial narratives.
Egyptian tomb paintings are a species of pictorial narrative, but they aren’t comics. It seems to me that the essential characteristic of comics — the thing that distinguishes it from other kinds of pictorial narratives — is the incorporation of verbal content. I even go so far as to say that in the best examples of the art form, words and pictures blend to achieve a meaning that neither conveys alone without the other.
In his seminal Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud takes a somewhat different tack. For him, comics are “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence.” McCloud’s thesis prompted much refining of definitions of comics hither and yon. To McCloud and many of his adherents, “sequence” is at the heart of the functioning of comics; to me, “blending” verbal and visual content is. McCloud’s definition relies too heavily upon the pictorial character of comics and not enough upon the verbal ingredient. Comics uniquely blend the two. No other form of static visual narrative does this. McCloud includes verbal content (which he allows is a kind of imagery), but it’s the succession of images that is at the operative core of his definition.
I hasten to note, however, that regardless of emphasis, neither sequence nor blending inherently excludes the other.
Rodolphe Topffer, the 19th century Swiss school teacher often dubbed the “father of comics” these days, seems to lean in my direction. Commenting upon his verbal-visual creations, he wrote: “The drawings, without their text, would have only a vague meaning; the text, without the drawings, would have no meaning at all. The combination makes up a kind of novel, all the more unique in that it is no more like a novel than it is like anything else.”
Topffer’s comics would include even the humble single-panel gag cartoon in which, usually, the humor of the picture is secured, or revealed, by the caption below — and vice versa. The gag cartoon falls outside McCloud’s definition because it is not a sequence of pictures. In fact, gag cartoons fall outside most definitions of comics. But not outside my description (“description” rather than “definition” because something that is defined seems completed, and I think comics are still evolving).
In my view, comics consist of pictorial narratives or expositions in which words (often lettered into the picture area within speech balloons) usually contribute to the meaning of the pictures and vice versa. A pictorial narrative uses a sequence of juxtaposed pictures (i.e., a “strip” of pictures); pictorial exposition may do the same — or may not (as in single-panel cartoons — political cartoons as well as gag cartoons).
My description is not a leak-proof formulation. It conveniently excludes some non-comics artifacts that McCloud’s includes (a rebus, for instance, or stations of the cross); but it probably permits the inclusion of other non-comics. Comics, after all, are sometimes four-legged and sometimes two-legged and sometimes fly and sometimes don’t.
But leak-proof or not, this proffer of a description sets some boundaries within which we can find most of the artistic endeavors we call comics. Even pantomime, or “wordless,” comic strips — which, guided by this definition, we can see are pictorial narratives that dispense with the “usual” practice of using words as well as pictures. But that doesn’t make the usual practice any the less usual. Pantomime cartoon strips are exceptional rather than usual. Usually, the interdependence of words and pictures is vital (if not essential) to comics — “vital” meaning “characteristic of life” rather than “indispensable.”
The presence of verbiage in the same view or field of vision as the pictures gives immediacy to the combination, breathing the illusion of life into the medium. In a letter to me, Richard Kyle (who coined the term “graphic novel” in 1964) elaborated on the need he felt then, in 1964, for a new terminology for comic books instead of the terms already in circulation (albeit not very visibly by then — “illustories,” concocted by Charles Biro, and “picto-fiction,” the EC Comics invention): “Biro and the others apparently did not think about the fundamental nature of comics or understand some of the characteristics of our language. Comics are not ‘illustories’ — ‘illustrated stories.’ In comics, ideation, pictures, sound (including speech and sound effects), and indicators (such as motion lines and impact bursts) are all portrayed graphically in a single unified whole. Graphics do not ‘illustrate’ the story; they are the story…. In the graphic story, all the universe and all the senses are portrayed graphically” [i.e., in the static visual mode].
Kyle’s point, and mine (although he makes it better than I have), is that in comics everything is portrayed and conveyed in the same manner, visually. And the concurrent presence in the visual mode of speech as well as action, locale, etc., makes comics what they are, a unique kind of pictorial narrative. In fact, this concurrence, if not interdependence, may actually define the medium.
The importance to me of the verbal content in determining whether a pictorial narrative (or exposition) is comics may be best illustrated by a discussion of comic strips. Comic strips include an ingredient that gag cartoons do not. The technical hallmarks of comic-strip art — the things that distinguish it — consist chiefly of narrative breakdown and speech balloons. Narrative breakdown is an aspect of sequencing images and is therefore peculiar to the comic strip branch of the cartooning family tree and to pictorial narrative in general. The narrative is broken down into separate key moments that can be depicted visually in ways that clearly convey the essential elements of the story.
But in speech balloons, we have something that is unique to the comics medium. Speech balloons breathe into comics their peculiar life. In all other graphic representations — in all other pictorial narratives — characters are doomed to wordless posturing and pantomime. In comics, they speak. And they speak in the same mode as they appear — the visual, not the audio, mode of representation. This is unique.
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