What Makes The Medium?

This article was originally published at The Nerd Cave on March 3, 2014.A-Contract-with-God

Comics are becoming more widely accepted as a form of entertainment both critically and as a form of popular entertainment every year. It has been an ongoing trend since 1986, when WatchmenThe Dark Knight Returns, and the first collected volume of Maus were all published. Yet the trend has increased in recent years and has managed to put much of the taint of the 90’s behind it. Yet as comics become more widely accepted, their place in popular culture, specifically in the arts, is undetermined. Many universities teach comics in their English departments, either as part of a wider study (Maus feature in Jewish literature courses as prominently as Elie Wiesel’s Night) or in their own special courses. Yet they are taught in a variety of other academic studies, such as media studies and design. Ivan Brunetti even teaches a specialized course in cartooning at Columbia in Chicago. So where do comics actually belong in the academic landscape? Are they a hodge-podge of other fields or a uniquely part of an existing one?

Comics are most commonly taught in English courses for two reasons: they share narrative similarities with literature and a historical accident. That historical accident occurred in 1978 when Will Eisner published A Contract with God at Baronet Books. The term had been used previously, but Eisner is famous for being the man to popularize it. He did not use the term because he felt it described his work, but because he wanted to be taken more seriously by publishers. In fact, A Contract with God is not novelistic in the least. It functions as an anthology that examines tenement life in New York City. It certainly has literary qualities, but is not a novel.

Yet that term stuck. Soon large publishers, like DC Comics, realized they could use the term to market comics outside of the direct market in comic stores and spinner racks at 7-11’s. It has reached the point where any bound collection of comics is deemed a graphic novel, without consideration of literary value or quality. Yet the phrase has stuck and bound comics to novels and other prose works.

Unfortunately, this connection has made out comics to be prose with pictures: picture books. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Comic narratives can be analyzed using many ideas from the study of English or other written languages. Concepts like characterization, theme, tone, metaphor, etc… all exist in comics. They also exist in film, television, theater, video games, and all other narrative works. This is not a unique similarity between comics and prose, but amongst all stories. When looking at concepts unique to prose like composition, style, and structure, there is no direct corollary with comics. Comics are a visual medium, while prose is not. They bear no resemblance to one another once narrative concepts are removed. Where else might comics fit?

The most obvious answer comes from their being a visual narrative. There is already a large academic field that studies just this sort of thing: film studies. This could also include various media studies, since television with its long, installment-based narratives tend to resemble comics. They rely on visual language in order to tell their stories. Angles, presentation of characters, and backgrounds are important concepts that comics share with film and television.

Understanding-Comics-678x1024

Some terms in film, like “suture”, have similar meanings in comics, but aren’t quite the same though. While suture is the effect of having the audience forget the camera is actually doing the looking, there is no camera in comics. Instead, the artist is providing an image and the reader is actually doing the looking. The reader must fill in the story between pictures though. Although the goal of removing artifice from the enjoyment of art is the same, the process is very different. This may be why Scott McCloud proposed the term “closure” in his text Understanding Comics.

Film studies and media studies do not make for a very good fit either. Comics present static images that readers must compile in their minds in order to create a story. This allows for readers to create their own pacing and requires them to shape much of the story in their head, significant differences from film. Comics are only limited by imagination, not budget, because they are drafted as art, not projections of the world.

So art studies seem to be the most obvious fit then. Comics are founded on the work of the artist. Without his or her layouts, compositions, and style, no comic could come into existence. Understanding the intent of any given comic comes from understanding the art, more so than the words.

Yet art studies focus on individual pieces. Comics are born from the juxtaposition of images. Art studies lack the narrative focus that English, film studies, and media studies contain. Comics are most certainly narratives, so they require a founding in narrative study. Art lacks this all-important component. So where do comics belong? Do they belong anywhere?

Of course they do. They should be a part of comic studies.

Comics are not part of film, literature, art, or television. They draw from all of these things, but are something else entirely. They are their own unique medium, not graphic novels, not collections of juxtaposed paintings, but just: Comics.

This answer may seem glaringly obvious to many people, but the status of comics in education today speaks to a large number of people who disagree with this assessment. Continually placing comics as parts of English and design departments shows that many educators do not know how to treat the medium. They draw from budgets meant for other studies, rather than providing one of its own.

That’s one of the biggest challenges that comics face moving into the future (the biggest being the need to find a larger, more diverse audience). It took film scholars decades to find funding for their own departments. They started out teaching in English lecture halls, before eventually attaining the recognition necessary to be treated as their own valuable medium. Anyone that has critically engaged with comics can understand the value and potential of the medium. In order for that understanding to be shared and increased though, academia has to understand the same thing.

So the next time someone refers to a comic as a novel or something else, let him or her know it’s a comic. Share the love.

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About chasemagnett

Chase is a mild-mannered finance guy by day and a raving comics fan by night. He has been reading comics for more than half of his life (all 23 years of it). After graduating from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln with degrees in Economics and English, he has continued to research comics while writing articles and reviews online. His favorite superhero is Superman and he'll accept no other answers. Don't ask about his favorite comic unless you're ready to spend a day discussing dozens of different titles.
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