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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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The Definition as Metaphor

‘The very systematicity that allows us to comprehend one aspect of a concept in terms of another (e.g., comprehending an aspect of arguing in terms of battle) will necessarily hide other aspects of the concept.... For example, in the midst of a heated argument, when we are intent on attacking our opponent's position and defending our own, we may lose sight of the cooperative aspects of arguing....’

(George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By).

As Lakoff and Johnson argue, metaphorical concepts both reveal and determine how we conceive of and experience phenomena, or, to put it another way, how we construct experiences. They highlight some values and hide others. Scott’s definition of comics, like any definition, is itself a metaphorical system, built in turn upon other related metaphors. Let’s take a look at how some of these metaphors serve to reinforce and suppress particular values about what comics are or should be.

‘A Comic is a Sequence of Pictures’

At the heart of McCloud’s definition of comics is the idea that: ‘a comic is a sequence of pictures.’ As a metaphor, this ‘way of describing comics’ serves to highlight some elements at the expense of others, for example:

‘Comics are a cultural idiom’

‘Comics are a publishing genre’

‘Comics are a set of narrative conventions’

‘Comics are a kind of writing that uses words and pictures’

‘Comics are a literary genre’

‘Comics are texts’

One value it highlights, on the other hand, is the belief that ‘comics are a visual medium.’ This is an example of how a metaphorical system such as Scott’s definition is more than simply a descriptive model; it is also necessarily prescriptive. By reinforcing some values and suppressing others, it can influence the way we read and create comics, discouraging experimentation in some directions and imposing particular narrative structures and idioms.

Why, for example, do we criticize a comic for ‘describing’ key dramatic events with words rather than ‘showing’ them with pictures? Such a criticism comes from certain expectations we have of comics that in turn come from the (often unconscious) assumption that ‘comics are a visual medium.’ It implies that pictures should dominate words in comics; narrative should be pictorial, not textual.

Cartoonists and readers are informed by such underlying assumptions when they decide how to construct a narrative or decide whether a particular comic is successful. When someone responds to the text-dominated sections in Cerebus by saying ‘if I want to read a novel, I'll read a novel,’ they are expressing the belief that there really is a border between comics and novels and that the creators of both should stay as far away from that border as possible. Again - an underlying metaphorical structure and set of values.

To see how that set of values operates, let’s take another look at another metaphorical system used in Understanding Comics.

‘Form is a Vessel’

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McCloud uses the form as vessel metaphor primarily to suppress the perception of comics as ‘a cultural idiom’ (ie. a collection of cultural conventions, styles, genres, publishing formats etc). It allows him to separate comics from their ‘content’ - or history - which, as we have seen, is a primary cause of their ‘ghettoization.’ But it also allows him to select one element of comics (‘Sequential Art’) and to identify it as the ‘form.’ It becomes the essential element (the ‘vessel’), and all others are merely contingent (things which we have the option of putting into the vessel).

Indeed, this metaphor is part of an ‘essentialist’ conception of the arts, which assumes that each ‘artform’ is separate and distinct from every other, possessing unique qualities and abilities, as well as inherent limitations. Essentialist criticism goes on to argue that a ‘good’ work within any given artform is one which exploits those unique qualities and abilities and avoids the limitations. R. C. Harvey’s The Art of the Funnies is an example of this approach, in which he argues:

‘The thing that comics do that no other graphic art does is to weave word and picture together to achieve a narrative purpose. Comics are a blend of word and picture - not a simple coupling of the verbal and the visual, but a blend, a true mixture. . . . From the nature of the medium [therefore], we can draw up one criterion for critical evaluation: in the usual situation, in which both words and pictures are used, a measure of a comic strip’s excellence is the extent to which the sense of the words is dependent on the pictures and vice versa.’

As his book moves on to examining the history of comic strips, however, Harvey is forced to make some rather asinine critical judgements, as he attempts to determine whether the words and pictures are equally balanced in individual strips.

One problem essentialists are inevitably confronted by is the undeniable fact that there are plenty of artworks which do cross the borders between the artforms. This gives the lie to the ‘form as vessel’ metaphor - or at least makes it clear that it is a metaphor, rather than an objective truth.

After all, you can’t say one moment that the essential nature of comics is ‘a blend, a true mixture’ of word and picture, and then condemn every comic you find that fails to properly fulfil that criteria as ‘bad comics,’ or even ‘not comics’ (as Harvey does with Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant). Or rather you can; but not without demonstrating that your so-called ‘essential nature’ is really just a set of values about what comics should be.

Essentialism, then, tends to privilege conventions which apparently reflect the supposed ‘essence’ of the ‘form,’ and discourages techniques or experiments which transgress the supposed ‘borders’ between the forms. At its most prescriptive, essentialism expresses a longing for each medium (or form) to remain separate and a belief that when elements of one form enter another, they somehow ‘dirty’ it, lessening its purity. It suggests that the ‘mission’ of each form is to release the potential of its unique ‘hidden power’ - to do the thing that only that form can do and that any ‘mongrelization’ of the form reduces its power and prevents it from achieving its mission.

There are film critics, for example, who believe that because the movie is essentially a visual medium, its purest expression is the silent movie. Likewise there have been literary critics who despise such ‘gimmicks’ as ‘shape poems’ because poetry is essentially a verbal medium. And plenty of people believe a painting should make sense without recourse to captions, a textual gloss or even prior knowledge of its subject matter or context.

‘Form is Genre’

The ‘form as vessel’ metaphorical system, then, suppresses alternative conceptions which erode the borders between the arts, for example ‘form as genre.’

A genre is made up of a set of conventions and shared expectations between the creator and the audience. We recognize a superhero comic because it is an established ‘type,’ with such conventions as superpowers, costumes, secret identities, supervillains, superhero teams, sidekicks, etc. A superhero comic may include all or only some of these elements. It may fulfil all the reader’s expectations of the genre, or it may surprise the reader by confounding almost all of them. It may be readable as several different genres - perhaps it’s a sci-fi superhero, or a superhero-murder mystery or a soap opera about superheroes. We feel no need to definitively pin it down as belonging to one genre or the other, but are happy to identify it as belonging to several.

When an author writes a story, they don’t have to decide which genre they will use and even if they do, there’s no law saying they have to remain within its limits. Genres provide a vocabulary of elements and devices which the author may explore at will, directed only by their own and their audience’s expectations, all of which they are free to obey or ignore. In fact, those expectations can themselves become tools in the author’s toolkit.

So when ‘form’ is conceived of as ‘genre,’ distinctions such as ‘novel,’ ‘poem,’ ‘comic’ or ‘illustration’ work the same way as ‘detective story,’ ‘science fiction,’ or ‘superhero story.’ An author sets out to put ink on paper (or whatever). There is no natural law that forces them to arrange the ink one way or another - just a set of social conventions that lead us to expect a ‘novel’ to look like this and a ‘comic’ to look like that. The strength of those expectations will determine how much they effect our critical judgements when faced with works which confound them - such as Derek Jarman’s film Blue, which consists of a static blue screen with a soundtrack of noise, music and speech, for the duration of the movie. Or for that matter, comics like Prince Valiant or Cerebus.

But this is not where McCloud is coming from, as he demonstrates when he tells Harvey:

‘Sound is not definitive to motion pictures. Most film scholars see Charlie Chaplin as working in the same medium as Orson Welles. So to speak of the formal qualities of film, you have to speak to the formal qualities of the moving image. Then you can move on to talk about sound.’

For Scott, form is a vessel and each artform is distinguished from every other by an essential nature and the borders between them. There is one border to comics, however, that reveals just how arbitrary (and prescriptive) Scott’s map of that vessel is.


‘If any single caveat can alert map users to their unhealthy but widespread naivete, it is that a single map is but one of an infinitely large number of maps that might be produced for the same situation or from the same data.’

(Mark Monmonier, How to Lie with Maps)

‘A map can organize the world according to almost any principle of order.... All classificatory grids are arbitrary. They have no necessary or absolute status. It does not matter what kind of grid is used on the map. Any system of lines or points of reference can be imposed to provide orientation, although different mappings may serve very different interests.... For those who inhabit particular mappings, they are likely to be viewed simply as reality.’

(Geoff King, Mapping Reality - an Exploration of Cultural Cartographies)

The belief that ‘comics are a visual medium’ sits guard at one of comics’ most fragile frontiers - the one between comics and illustrated texts (children’s picture books and so on). In fact, in Understanding Comics Scott fails to define it at all. And by including a number of children’s picture books (such as Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen), he even seems to leave it wide open.

But when R. C. Harvey raises the question of this border, it soon becomes clear that this was not Scott’s intention:

‘Harvey: ‘Do you think that your definition also includes children’s literature - books in which there is a picture on every page and prose beneath each picture?’

‘McCloud: ‘not if the prose is independent of the pictures. Not if the written story could exist without any pictures and still be a continuous whole. That’s how it’s usually done, whereas the pictures are usually discontinuous...’

‘Harvey: ‘[That is] the narrative is continuous and independent of the pictures. And the pictures really are illustrating some moment in the prose narrative. There’s no necessary narrative strand in the pictures themselves.’

‘McCloud: ‘If you turn that on its head, you have comics. If the pictures, independent of the words, are telling the whole story and the words are supplementing that, then that is comics.’’

This exchange is a revealing one. If we were to take his definition at face value, we would expect Scott to agree that children’s picture books are indeed comics. So long as there are two pictures somewhere in a book - and so long as those pictures form a narrative, then that book is a comic by Scott’s definition. After all, there are those books by Sendak, Feiffer and Gorey he includes in Understanding Comics. And if he’s willing to include stained glass windows, photo-booth strips and Hogarth’s etchings, then surely he’s happy to welcome the countless literary classics that the inclusion of picture books would bring into the realm of comics.

But McCloud is not willing to concede the point. Instead he struggles to qualify his definition in such a way that it will exclude ‘mere illustrated texts.’ It is no longer enough that there be spatially juxtaposed pictures, nor that the reader performs closure in reading those images. Now the pictures must tell the whole story, independent of the words - which are only allowed to supplement the pictorial narrative. In effect, McCloud has added an amendment to his definition: comics must not only contain pictorial narrative; they must be dominated by it.

In the spirit of McCloud’s diagrammatic models, let’s imagine a spectrum going from word-only texts at one extreme to picture-only texts at the other. Where on that spectrum should we draw the border between comics and illustrated texts?

How much closure do we allow between two illustrations before we decide they contain ‘continuous narrative?’ How do we decide what parts of the narrative are important enough to constitute ‘the whole story?’ If the words tell us things the pictures don’t (such as characters’ names), can the pictorial narrative be said to tell ‘the whole story’ without them? Or vice versa (if the pictures tell us things like the color of the hero’s shirt)?

On which side of the border would you put Art Spiegelman’s The Wild Party? Or Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, a novel which relies on the inclusion of several photos for the continuousness of its narrative? Or Italo Calvino’s The Castle of Crossed Destinies - a novel in which a group of mute characters tell their stories by rearranging tarot cards (which are shown in the margin)? Or Tove Jansson’s Moomin books, whose illustrations provide much of the atmosphere and poetry of the stories? If the pictures provide the reader information not included in the text (and any picture will, even if it’s information some might consider unimportant), then doesn’t the complete experience of the text depend on their inclusion?

Ultimately, any borders we may draw along that spectrum are arbitrary and depend more on what relationship we wish to see between words and pictures in comics than on any objectively valid criteria. Of course, this doesn’t stop people from trying; one cartoonist friend of mine even argues that if words fill more than 50% of a panel, ‘it ain’t comics.’

What interests me is why Scott (and, in my experience, most cartoonists) should feel the need for such a border in the first place. After all, Harvey’s example (‘books in which there is a picture on every page and prose beneath each picture’) is essentially the same as the woodcut novels of Lynd Ward and Frans Masereel that Scott embraces in Understanding Comics - with only one difference: the ‘prose beneath each picture.’ But this is apparently a crucial difference. It’s as if the very presence of words - any words - in a comic is a potential threat to its identity as a comic. To protect that identity, it is essential for the pictures to dominate the words. The moment the words take control of the narrative from the pictures, we are cast out of the realm of comics and into that of illustrated text.

It is interesting that Scott does not attempt to define this border in Understanding Comics. Given how hostile most cartoonists are to suggestions that comics are illustrated texts, you might think this was a border we would be constantly delineating in the clearest terms. But on the contrary, it is an area most of us seem desperate to avoid - perhaps because the border is so vague. One could easily wander too far into that foreign territory, unwittingly leaving our homeland forever.

At times it almost seems the danger is one of moral contamination - as if by dabbling in text-dominated narrative, comics like Cerebus are somehow betraying their very nature, diluting their essence; the presence of so many words destroys the point of its very existence: ‘why didn’t he just do it as a novel?’ As cartoonists, it seems, it’s our duty to create not just great works, but works which constantly assert their comic-ness. Those who mongrelize the form should not be allowed to use it at all.

This fear of textual narrative conquering the ‘visual’ medium of comics - a kind of logophobia - is so pervasive among cartoonists as to be almost universal. (8)   But just what is the problem with words?

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One of my more annoying party tricks is to ask a group of cartoonists "why can’t you have a comic without pictures?" and then run for cover. My favourite reply is the dismissive: "Don’t be stupid. A comic without pictures is a novel." I mean, that’s right. A novel is a comic without pictures. Back



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Copyright 2000 Dylan Horrocks