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Inventing Comics:

Scott McCloud’s Definition of Comics.

by Dylan Horrocks

(first published in the Comics Journal #234, June 2001)

Copyright 2001 Dylan Horrocks

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Mapping the Territory

‘...[T]he etymology of ‘terminology’ designates it as the study of boundaries. A ‘term’ is a boundary line, a line of demarcation. It defines a field in which work can be done, within the limits of the term. But, like all boundaries, even those meticulously surveyed, terms are social and arbitrary, not natural and inevitable. What divides my property from my neighbor’s is not a natural boundary but a social system within which certain functions of property prevail. It is important to remember that terms function in the same way. They limit and regulate our reading practices. But they do not do so by divine fiat. Their limits can be brought to consciousness, their regulations can be overcome. . . . It is not the job of this text to regulate those boundaries more carefully. Rather these essays attempt to denaturalize the limits that our critical system imposes.’

(Thomas McLaughlin, in Critical Terms for Literary Study, edited by Frank Lentricchia & Thomas McLaughlin).

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Scott’s definition (or map), then, is an attempt to free comics from the restrictive ghetto to which previous definitions/maps have confined them. Here he seems to suggest that our liberation from that ghetto will leave us completely free, with a whole universe to explore and enjoy. This is a suggestion he will repeat elsewhere, but here it is immediately undermined:

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In fact, what Scott seeks is not the eradication of borders altogether; on the contrary, he simply wants to expand our own borders - to claim more space. He begins by announcing where he will locate the comics homeland, by recalling Will Eisner’s definition of comics as ‘Sequential Art.’ The ‘form Vs. content’ metaphor is invoked as a justification: previous maps of comics, he argues, have been based on ‘style, quality or subject matter.’ Not surprisingly, these maps have confined comics to a few small plots of poor land. Defining our territory by ‘form,’ however, should produce quite a different map - especially with ‘Sequential Art’ as its determining factor.

Next he goes on to ‘expand [Sequential Art] to a proper dictionary-style definition.’ He does this by progressively excluding various things which are (in his opinion) ‘clearly not comics:’ animation, text-only works, single-panel cartoons. Having mapped out his borders, Scott then turns to survey the territory he has claimed. (6)

Earlier, Scott symbolically erased the history of comics, by emptying the jug (or form) of its vile contents (genres, styles, subject matter, themes, etc). But now he returns to the field of history, armed with his new definition/map:

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And look how much new territory has opened up:

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Having demonstrated how that territory now stretches back into the mists of time, he now starts ‘reclaiming’ cultural artefacts that have been ‘annexed’ by other artforms: medieval broadsheets; Hogarth’s narrative sequences; Rodolphe Toppfer’s picture stories; ‘wordless novels’ by Lynd Ward, Frans Masereel and Max Ernst; picture books by Maurice Sendak, Edward Gorey, Raymond Briggs and more.

Lastly, he erases comics’ marginal status by repositioning them as a central and pervasive method of communication:

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All of which is very inspiring and great for the comics community’s self-respect. It’s rather like the revisionist histories of other marginalized communities such as African Americans or gays and lesbians, which reclaim famous people from history and seek to assert for them a central role in the historical landscape. And as with these histories, Scott’s is ultimately concerned less with the past than with the future.... (7)

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The great thing about Scott’s definition is its inclusiveness. It invites cartoonists to break out of the traditional styles, genres, obsessions and techniques of comics: to push the limits of what can be done with the form. Yet this inspiring rhetoric (and the following page’s visual metaphor, suggesting an infinite universe of ‘possible comics worlds’) obscures the fact that Scott’s definition does indeed create new boundaries of its own. He has already apologized for ‘closing the door’ on single-panel cartoons. Another border will soon become even more troublesome for Scott when R. C. Harvey raises the question of children’s picture books during an interview in The Comics Journal, as we shall see.

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Reinventing Comics continues Scott’s project of expanding the comics nation’s territory, although this time Scott concentrates less on cartographic sleight of hand and more on urging the comics community to get out there and extend the frontiers on the ground. Particularly interesting is the sequence on page 22, panels 2 - 4, in which Scott spells out the distinction between a ‘nomadic’ project and an ‘expansionist’ one: (‘...this is only a problem if we see comics as a single indivisible entity - - unable to move to a new territory without first abandoning its present one. I think the challenge for comics in the 21st century is not to move "forward" as so many would have it. The challenge is to grow outward!’). This expansionist vs. nomadic message is also the point of page 18, panel 7 (‘To reach its full potential, both as an art form and as a market, comics must expand its territory, plunging into many areas at once and not losing sight of past gains as it chases present goals.’).

Equally interesting is page 231, panel 7, in which Scott argues that on the internet - with its ‘infinite canvas’ (or territory) - ‘comics will have found its native soil at last.’ Back


See Reinventing Comics page 8, panel 1: ‘Even as a kid, I was more interested in comics’ future than its past or present.’ Back



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Copyright 2000 Dylan Horrocks