Roy T. Cook wrote a recent post trying to define comics, those tricksy critters. There’s a fun comments thread; I thought I’d highlight one comment from Peter Sattler.

Hi Roy,

I appreciate your interest in defining comics in part by “how” we read and interact with these texts. I’ve thrown around my own definition of this type in various conference talks: “COMICS ARE WHAT HAPPENS WHEN TEXTUAL READING HABITS ARE ACTIVATED IN A VISUAL (IMAGE-CENTERED) FIELD.”

[Please feel free, everyone, to let this go viral.]

But I also tend to think that all our definitions — yours, mine, institutional, genre- or reader-based, Wittgensteinian, deflationary — are fundamentally FORMAL in the the end.

Your definition and mine, for example, are still trying to capture something about sequence — the juxtaposition of images to be read in a certain order. People who try to formulate definitions based on what either general users of the term or experts in the field think, they still always seem to come down to aspects of the medium that can be described formally. Wittgensteinian “family resemblances” — at least when it comes to this term, comics — seem to resemble each other in formal features. Even people who want to say that comics didn’t exist until there was an institutional matrix for the medium ultimately have to develop new terms to talk about what links post-institutional comics from pre-institutional proto-comics, and those inter- and supra-institutional forms of analysis tend to be formal.

Of course, it didn’t have to be this way. But it is. Or rather, I’ve yet to see that any other definition of comics has any level of usage, pull, institutional support, or analytic heft as formalism. And definitions that try to account for other aspects, for interactive practices, for unavoidable vagueness, and for historical contingency still seem to be tacking their new ideas onto the old formalist structure.

Perhaps, in this case (for now), there is no “outside” or “after” formalism. And that’s okay.

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