I’ve been flipping through Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester’s Comics Studies Reader, and have been struck again by how much energy folks spend in trying to define comics, and at how pointless such efforts seem. In this volume, R.C. Harvey’s essay “How Comics Came to Be” is devoted to arguing that the heart of comics is the “‘blending’ [of] verbal and visual content”, and that therefore, contra Scott McCloud, editorial cartoons are too comics (though Owly is not). On the other hand, Thierry Groensteen argues in “The Impossible Definition” that defining comics is impossible — and then he goes on to state that “The necessary, if not sufficient, condition required to speak of comics is that the images will be multiple and correlated in some fashion,” — which puts us back in McCloud territory, with editorial cartoons out and Owly and Egyptian hieroglyphs in.

Neither Groensteen nor Harvey are especially militant about their positions; I’m sure Harvey would grant Owly its comicness (claiming its the exception that proves the rule) while Groensteen specifically states that he wants to “spare my reflections from any normative character.” Such Catholicism is certainly admirable, but it does raise the question: if you’re basically willing to admit that your definition is incoherent, why bother offering it in the first place?

As it happens, I have a fairly iron-clad definition of comics, which I offer with no diffidence. If you don’t agree with me, you’re wrong.

That definition is:

“Comics are those things which are accepted as comics.”

This definition has the virtue of including both Owly and editorial cartoons, excluding Egyptian hieroglyphs, and more or less ushering in things like photonovels and perhaps abstract comics. In fact, it fits perfectly the world of comics as we actually tend to define and experience it — and it has the added benefit of being both intuitive and perfectly understandable to all.

The main objection to my definition, of course, is that it’s tautological. But the thing is…the construction of aesthetic mediums as formal structures is tautological. How do you define poetry, for example? Rhyme? Rhythm? Short? Heightened language? You can find not one, not two, but numerous exceptions to all of these general rules of thumb.

Because, you know, aesthetics isn’t math. It’s not a deductive or even an inductive process. It’s a social and historical construction. And when I say “historical” I don’t just mean looking to origins and saying, “well, you can see how editorial cartoons developed so that they relied on both words and pictures blended, so blending is important to the form,” which is more or less what R.C. Harvey does in his article. Rather, I mean that we understand what comics are through a whole slew of markers, including style, history, individual creators, distribution methods, format, and on and on. If Dave Sim writes a work of prose, puts it in a pamphlet, and distributes it through the direct market, it can make sense to think of that as a comic; if Mo Willems uses a cartoony style and word balloons and sells it as a children’s book, it can make sense to think of that as a comic too. Egyptian hieroglyphs are simply not an important influence on most (any?) comics creators — suggesting that they are part of comics history therefore seems willfully obtuse. Ukiyo-e prints, on the other hand, have a significant influence on various manga-ka; it therefore makes sense to think of them as proto-comics, even though they don’t normally utilize sequence or blend words and images in the way that R.C. Harvey suggests that gag cartoons do.

The issue here isn’t, as Groensteen argues, that each comic “only actualizes certain potentialities of the medium” — rather the issue is that the “medium” that Groensteen writes about doesn’t exist as a static or formal structure at all. Comics — like literature, or art — is what people say it is. To define it is to try to reduce it to the whim of a single person — to replace a messy consensus with a cleaner, more unitary dictat.

Doing that is both futile and silly — but perhaps necessary for tactical reasons. Terry Eagleton in his “Introduction to Literary Theory” notes that literature professors were long at pains to define literature clearly not because such a definition was in any way tenable, but simply because it was hard to get your colleagues to take you seriously if you didn’t have a concrete object that you could say you were studying. Despite some advances, comics scholars are still definitively second-class academic citizens, most of whom tend to be moonlighting post-tenure from the English department. The effort to firm up this thing called comics is, therefore, no doubt helpful in the ongoing effort to secure funding and/or some modicum of respect for those in the academy — and presumably for those outside it as well (I don’t actually know whether Harvey or Groensteen have any university connections.)

It’s actually fine with me if folks with an institutional or personal stake in comics try to shore up thier positions; people have to earn a living, and nattering on about the elements which characterize comics hardly seems like even a venial sin. But I think it’s worth pointing out that, whatever its strategic benefits, the whole “how do you formally define comics?” debate is, from any other perspective, almost completely irrelevant.

Update: Slightly edited….

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