“What is a comic? That’s easy”, I hear you say as you bring me the latest copy of Batman. “But that’s a ‘Comic Book’”, I would reply, “which part of it is the actual ‘Comic’? What makes it distinctive? How does it compare to other, similar, publications?”
You would probably stop talking to me at this point.
My questions, however, would still stand. There are hundreds of thousands of readers all over the world and the term ‘comic’ means different things to different people. For the majority of people, comics are entertainment, like movies or television series. As long as they help to pass the time in an enjoyable and satisfying way then Comics don’t need to be anything else. For a much smaller group, the production of a Comic is important. These people will understand why Watchmen is one of the best Superhero comics and why Maus is culturally important. An even smaller group of readers are fascinated by the concepts behind the comic’s narrative, the reasoning in the creations and the very notion of what makes a comic a Comic.
If you are reading this I am going to assume you have read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: if not you can sneak off now and read it, we won’t say anything. The entire function of the book is to break down what a Comic is and the elements involved in their creation. McCloud does an excellent job of explaining the main elements of a comic book structure and the importance of the Art used in their creation. Where his analysis begins to come up against problems is in trying to create a definition for what a Comic is and fix this to a historical timeline. Unfortunately for McCloud, no matter where he states the history of comics begins there will be someone with an opposing view, whether this be an earlier or later date.
Depending on how specific you make the definition, the start and progression of the Comic will wildly differ from one view to the next. It will also be affected by the society you are a part of, the country you live in, and your own personal experiences with what a Comic is. For example, there are a number of Ages of Comics, the Golden age, the Bronze age etc. These however only apply to the American Comic Book, something which arguably started with a reprint in English of a Swiss comic called ‘Histoire de Mr. Vieux Bois’. But this instantly negates the history of European Comics and those from different continents. In Japan, for example, sequential images have been used for centuries to tell tales and pass on folklore, all heavily influenced by an 11th Century painter, Toba Sojo.
The problem of cementing a historical timeline depends entirely on your definition of what you are trying to tie down. The history of cinema also has a similar problem: what is your definition of cinema? Does it start with feature films or the projection of moving images? Is Louis Le Prince’s ‘Roundhay Garden Scene’ from 1888 the first ever movie? Clocking in at less than 3 seconds long, the oldest surviving film footage is enough for the Guinness Book of Records to record it as such. However, a movie should include such elements as character and plot, shouldn’t they?
The same arguments can be, and often are, raised when discussing comics. Comics must have a series of sequential images that tell a story, but this leaves out Abstract Comics that contain most of the other requirements to be a comic book. Comics must combine visual imagery with text. In response to that I would recommend The System by Peter Kuper, a wordless comic that exposes the underbelly of city living. The more you try to define what a Comic is, the more examples there are to disprove your definition.
The intention of this series of articles is to delve into what makes a Comic. Instead of trying to pinpoint a hard and fast definition of what a comic is or should be, I am hoping to produce a growing concept for modern comic book creators and readers to sample and digest. A move away from an obsession with attempting to map out a complex history and onto producing a manifesto, similar to an Art movement, which can inspire and influence people in their own work. Not everything that is included will necessarily ring true for everyone, and there may be omissions that others feel are important. Over the coming months, as I look at various aspects of the Comic, from concepts and inception to production and consumption, I am hoping to stimulate thought processes and create a dialogue about this medium that everybody reading this is passionate about.
The way forward may not always be linear, as time constraints and availability of resources will ultimately dictate what I can do, but I intend to give you something to think about in each post or a new insight into the production/history of this wonderful medium. By the end, whenever that maybe, I hope to have created a document expressing the malleable shape of what a Comic is and its place in modern society.
Where to Start
Earlier in the article I mentioned the concept of a Manifesto. The purpose of a manifesto is to declare and state a set of principles or aims by which something can be measured or held accountable. Often Art movements have such statements by which the artists in the group adhere to but on occasions, the principles are attributed to a particular movement during or even after the fact.
The idea of a manifesto is not new to the comic book world either. Publishers have set themselves objectives and styles of working, creating a ‘House Style’. This is usually to produce a consistency within their own publications but it illustrates the fact that people are thinking about Comics in a broad term not just a single issue or run.
When DC Comics hit upon a successful run of off-beat and non-superhero comics, they created an entire Imprint to put all the titles under: Vertigo. In 1993 Karen Berger, who was a former Art History student, headed up the new imprint that worked outside the Comics Code Authority allowing for adult themed stories and, more importantly, experimentation's with the format of the monthly comic. Just like any Art Movement, a new wave of artists and writers flooded the American Comic Book market, reinventing characters and expectations.
The Comic Code Authority itself was a form of manifesto, dictating what was and was not allowed in mainstream comics. However, this was counter productive as it limited Art and expression. Instead of encouraging the form and inviting experimentation, it sought to control and censor. I will come back to the CCA at a later date.
Outside of publishers and other companies, the creators themselves often create their own set of rules to follow. More often than not it’s related to their own work and the processes they follow but occasionally a person or group attempts to create an ideology for many to follow. As an example, the self published writer/artist Adam Lumb set up his own publishing imprint, Rich and Strange Press, and along with it a set of principles that the imprint would strive to achieve. The full outline can be found here and it is exciting to see that one of the principles is about pushing the potential of the medium. Whether it succeeds or not, we’ll have to wait and see but the fact these ideas exist is encouraging.
There are a number of new publishers beginning to challenge the established ranks of IDW, BOOM! Studios and, in intent at least, even Image Comics. There are companies like AWA Studios whose aims are geared towards the production of comics and support for the creators, retailers and promoters. Whereas AfterShock Comics are dedicated to ‘Shattering Expectations’ by telling ‘original, uniquely compelling stories’.
In order to produce something that is worthwhile, and takes into account the history and creativity of Comics across the entire field of publications, there has to be some initial guidelines, a foundation from which to build. The articles in this series will focus on one, or more, of the following three guiding principles:
Artistic and Literary merit
Ingenuity and Experimentation
From a critical point of view, it is my belief that these are the main factors required in discussing the importance and relevance of Comics today and from the past. I have no desire to dismiss comics that are created for ‘entertainment’ only just as I wouldn’t dismiss a Dan Brown novel from discussions about literature. However, to justify the existence of the medium, entertainment is not, and will never be, enough. For Comics to last and be remembered there must be an element of them that strive to be something more than disposable time fillers.
For every Michael Bay movie that is forgotten, the minute the next Michael Bay movie comes out there is a Stanley Kubrick work of Art that is watched and studied again and again. Comics as a medium needs those works of Art as much as any other medium. In order to find those there must be some definition, some guidelines, around what makes a comic a work of Art. That is my intention over the following months and beyond: to find and establish what turns a comic into a work of Art.
Life long comic book reader, collector, and reviewer.