Here's some research I did for my MA. Since writting this I've read Neil Cohn's 'The Visual Language of Comics: Introduction To The Structure and Cognition of Sequential Images'. There's a few points in here I think I'll be revising in my thesis.
What is a comic? The English language lacks an all encompassing word like the Japanese manga. Manga can refer to many forms of sequential illustration or cartoon [Johnson-Woods 2010, p. 336]. English also lacks a specific phrase like the French bande dessinée, meaning drawn strip. However, even the French phrase is contested by academics and professionals. The phrase has gone beyond its narrow definition and has been used for works which are not strips and even not drawn [Groensteen 2012, p. 130].
'Comic' originates from American publications at the turn of the twentieth century. The name comes from comedic newspaper strips pioneered by R.F. Outcault in The Yellow Kid (1898). Akin to bande dessinée, the term has grown to mean more than its original definition. Comic can also refer to drama, romance, horror, etc. as long as the narrative is told in a visual depiction which meets a certain criteria [Groensteen translator's note 2012, p131].
What is the expanded criteria for a comic? We may have a vague idea of what a comic is, but can we define its boundary? Can the work be called a comic if it was not drawn? Is classical architecture or medieval tapestry a comic? What about a storyboard?
The first definition offered in western culture is by Rodolphe Töpffer. Töpffer is thought by many to have originated the tradition with his work Histoire de Monsieur Cryptogame (1830). He argued that what defined a comic was the combination of text with image [Thomas 2010, p. 158]. This theory was expounded upon by other theorists and practitioners such as R.C. Harvey, Will Eisner and Pierre Couperie. Couperie adds that the images must be compartmentalised in order to be different from an illustrated novel. He admits that this definition can apply to historical examples including Trajan's Column [Goensteen 2012, p. 125].
Where does this leave sequential illustration which is not accompanied by text? Thierry Goensteen argues in The Impossible Definition(1999) that this definition ignores works which function in pantomime [2012, p. 126]. The Little King by Otto Soglow (1931) is one of many examples.
American cartoonist Scott McCloud defines comics as, 'juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer' [1993, p. 9]. This definitions includes non textual works, but Harvey points out that this excludes single panel cartoons like The Family Circus by Bill Keane (1960) [Harvey 2010].
Couperie also argues that comics are defined by, '...the permanence, within the panels, of at least one identifiable character...'* Although the reoccurrence of a character is overwhelmingly common it is not essential, argues Goensteen. In A Short History of America by Robert Crumb (1979) the narrative is depicted by the repetition of a location that changes over time. In each frame the objects in the scene change with no reoccurring human or animal. The character may also be not shown and only referred to as in the case of a first person narrative. If the character is reoccurring, but is not identifying due to his image being construed or changing, this also does not fit the definition. The narrative may be told collectively, not focusing on individuals, or with a population that is uniform and indistinguishable [Groensteen 2012, p.126]. Couperie's definition is very narrow and has the same flaw as McClouds's. If the character is reoccurring, this implies the sequencing of images and ignores single panel cartoons.
Goensteen attempts to define comics with two conditions. He first states that although it is not a requirement the foundation of the comic is multi-panel sequences illustrations [2012, p.128-130].
The first condition is that a comic must have 'iconic solidarity'. This not only applies to the overall visual appearance or style of the work, but also its formal construction. An artist brings a uniformity, order and system to the narrative in order to communicate to the viewer. This is done through elements of abstraction such as the speech bubble and onomatopoeia known as sound effects. The compartmentalisation of images, even if singular, is a method of ordering. Without consistent or well contrived image making, the series or singular visual will not be readable.
Goensteen admits that this definition does not separate comics from the historical examples named by Couperie.
His second condition is more abstract and he attempts to separate comics from other images. Goensteen compares comics to a definition of literature. He quotes, 'Literature is characterized by "a rupture with the ordinary regime of language."' and, '..."that which makes a verbal message a work of art," according to the formulation of Roman Jakobson recalled by Genette.' This sets the comic aside from other forms of visual depiction, i.e. safety or technical instructions, which could have fallen into the first condition.
The condition of separating ordinary imagery from the comic does not exclude the weakness of his first condition. One could argue that Trajan's Column was a, 'rupture with the ordinary' imagery of ancient Rome or that the Bayeux Tapestry is a work of art.
Early in his paper, Groensteen rejects one argument that does separate comics from these historical examples. One of the conditions David Kunzle states in The Early Comic Strip (1973) is that, 'The medium in which the strip appears and for which it is originally intended must be reproductive, that is, in printed form, a mass media.' Groensteen quickly dismisses this as, 'normative and self-interested' [2012, p.125].
The development of the comic cannot be separated from developments in mass media. Kunzle can be forgiven for limiting mass media to printing since he was writing two decades before revolutionary changes in electronic communication. Early predecessors in Japan and Europe worked with the current printing technology. The expansion of comics into being recognised as their own media in the 18th and early 20th centuries coincided with the growth of periodicals. The invention of the internet brought a new outlet for circulation.
The material differences between the comic and the historical examples raised by Couperie are intrinsic. Artworks like Trajan's Column or the Bayeux Tapestry are for the most part static. The viewer must attend the artwork and is not capable of taking it with or having it brought to. Mass production changes the experience of viewing from one which is normally public to one which can be on the viewers terms. It also makes it possible for a global audience to experience the artwork. Finally the comic can be completely possesed by many owners not restricted singular or collective ownership.
Of the mentioned definitions of comic, Groensteen's is the least exclusive and encompasses all of the modern examples, but by being so encompassing, he allows the definition to become too broad.
Beaty, Bart (2012). Comics Versus Art. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Beaty, Bart (2005) "Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture". Univ. Press of Mississippi
Buckler, Rich (2007). How To Draw Dynamic Comic Books. Clinton: Vanguard Productions
"Dürer’s paper triumph: the arch of the Emperor Maximilian" The British Museum. Great Russell St, London WC1B 3DG. 8/11/2014.
Eisner, Will (1985). Comics and Sequential Art. Poorhouse Press.
Groensteen, Thierry (2012) [Originally published in French in 1999]. "The Impossible Definition". In Heer, Jeet; Worcester, Kent. A Comics Studies Reader. translated by Bart Beaty. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. pp. 124–131.
Groensteen, Thierry (2012) [Originally published in French in 2000]. "Why Are Comics Still in Seach of Cultural Legitimization". In Heer, Jeet; Worcester, Kent. A Comics Studies Reader. translated by Shirley Smolderen. Museum Tusculanum Press. pp. 29-41.
Harvey, R. C. (2001). "Comedy at the Juncture of Word and Image". In: Varnum, Robin; Gibbons, Christina T. The Language of Comics: Word and Image. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. pp. 75–96.
Harvey, R. C. (2010) "Defining Comics Again: Another in the Long List of Unnecessarily Complicated Definitions". The Comics Journal. 20/12/2010, http://classic.tcj.com/top-stories/defining-comics-again-another-in-the-long-list-of-unnecessarily-complicated-definitions/, 02/11/2013
Johnson-Woods, Toni (2010). Manga: An Anthology of Global and Cultural Perspectives. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group.
Kunzle, David (2007). Father of the Comic Strip: Rodolphe Töpffer. Jackson:
McCloud, Scott (1993). Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. Kitchen Sink Press
Thomas, Evan (2010). "10: Invisible Art, Invisible Planes, Invisible People". In Aldama, Frederick Luis. Multicultural Comics: From Zap to Blue Beetle. Austin: University of Texas Press. pp. 157-174
This comic comes from my MA Illustration study at the University of Hertfordshire. In it I discuss what are digital comics capable of that print are not and what are the boundaries of comics. My thesis will be a digital comic, so this was very helpful as a practice run.