Comics: Defining or Ontological Understanding?
In the domain of comics studies, scholars and artists have time and again endeavored to define ‘comics’. However it seems that rarely any concrete definition of comics is agreed upon. Oxford online dictionary defines comics as a singular noun; comic, which means a periodical containing comic strips, intended chiefly for children. As an adjective it could mean a cause of laughter. To a layman with negligible knowledge about comics, this definition might work well. However, when inspected critically, this definition would seem to cover just a fraction of the broader meaning. It is not mandatory for comics to be a periodical. It could be a single-shot story, with only a single issue publication. Further, not all the times it is intended chiefly for children. Since, comics could often be spotted with a ‘strictly for adults’ or ‘Explicit content’ warning printed on the cover page. Therefore, this leads towards seeking of a more concrete (if existing) implied definition of comics.
Few centuries back, during the 15th century woodblock printing period, when ‘broad-sheets’ were widely printed for information, attained refinement and transformed into modern narrative artform which is also known as comics (Eisner, 1985). In the same context, Eisner also suggested that comics is a form of sequential art. Meaning, comics would contain images that would be arranged in a sequence in order to tell a story. The practice of sequential art was nothing sort of new. Sequential art has existed since the time of Trajan column or Bayeux Tapestry. However notion of comics as sequential art initiated newer thoughts in the years to come. Eisner’s seminal work on comics was a huge influence for Scott McCloud’s Understanding comics (1994). It was a more in-depth approach towards the mechanism of comics.
Even though McCloud gave a definition of comics, his primary foundational idea was sequential art (McCloud, 1994). The definition serves a more explicit purpose for clarifying the nature of comics and its two essential traits: Juxtaposition and Sequentiality. The definition is very much open-ended and may encompass a vast range of visual artforms as well as graphic design: films, infographics, instructional diagrams, sequential wood-block prints, single panel cartoons and so on. Still, the term comics is strictly used in terms of mass-produced flashy books and not for the paintings of great artists.
David Kunzle also approached to define the medium and its nature. Kunzle stresses on the sequentiality, preponderance of images, mass productivity, and the storytelling aspects of a comics. He proposed a historical approach whereas few other scholars have proposed an aesthetic approach for comics. David Carrier claims that comics is a composite art; when they are successful, they have verbal and visual elements seamlessly combined (Carrier, 2000).Legendary cartoonist and critic R.C Harvey points towards the notion among linguists and scholars, that they often compare comics based on literary models or like literary fiction: beginning, middle and end. However, a major part, the pictures receive little attention for analysis, as they form an important part of the narrative (Harvey, 1996). To analyze the effectiveness of comics, one should notice the extent to which the meaning of the words depends on pictures and vice-versa. This will lead toward better understanding of the inter-relationship of the elements towards meaning making of the comics.
Alan Moore, author of Watchmen (figure 3), opposes the idea of hybridity as a risky boundary. It might suggest collapsing comics with other hybrid forms especially films. He suggests that films are hybrid of spatial and temporal modes whereas comics are hybrid of two spatial forms: print and image (Wegner, 2014). The physical existence of printed comics is as important as the image which is printed on that.
One of the most celebrated sci-fi and fantasy writer, Neil Gaiman, considers comics as a medium which tells story through static images (Gaiman, 2005). The static images moves inside the reader’s mind and creates movement. Thus, in this context comic is closer to prose than films.