Redrawing the New York-Comics Relationship

Subjective Ramblings and Peripheral Thoughts from the Edges of a Comics Studies Project

Comics, a Discourse on Definition


A good question, from “The Platinum Age, 1888-1938,” by J. C. Vaughn & Gene Gonzales. In the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide, 38th edition (2008). © The artists and Gemstone Publishing, Inc.

Comics criticism has a long history and, over the past ten years or so, academic and popular science books and articles about comics, in all its guises, have been published at an increasingly rapid pace. Much of this criticism is good, some of it is excellent, and some of it… Well, some of it leaves a lot to be desired. In the post about 1842’s Obadiah Oldbuck, I noted in passing how some definitions of comics are tendentious in their attempt to situate the birth of comics and its many forms in the US, and that these are often self-contradictory. Following last week’s introduction of the 1849 album Jeremiah Saddlebags, we have an opportunity to return to this, because Jeremiah (and Rodolphe Töpffer‘s work) have recently prompted one of the most egregious examples of this practice that I have found to date.

Before we get into that, however, it can be useful to sketch a little background. The issue of defining comics has occupied scholars of the medium since Coulton Waugh took a first stab in his 1947 book, The Comics. Waugh claimed that comics owed its start to the newspaper “circulation war” of the late 1800s. Although it “would be possible to dig through history for thousands of years and find many examples of popular funny pictures,” he wrote in a somewhat circular manner, “yet they would not be ‘funnies’ in the modern sense, for they would not be included in the eruption of the sensational, modern newspaper” (6). Rather, the archetype, according to Waugh, was Richard Felton Outcault’s “Yellow Kid.”[i]

But, as Waugh also remarks, the “Yellow Kid” was not always sequential; that was a feature that only slowly began to take over newspaper cartoons and was, as we have already seen, not new to turn of the century American comic newspaper art. Nonetheless, Waugh traces the “development” of “innovations” in the “new” comic strip form, from Outcault, through Rudolph Dirks (creator of the still-running “Katzenjammer Kids,” premiered in 1897), and on to James Swinnerton (whose biggest claim to fame in Waugh’s estimation is the strip “Little Jimmy,” debuted in 1905). These supposed developments include sequentiality, bordered panels, speech bubbles, and recurring characters.

“Now that we have seen what the first true comics were and who made them,” writes Waugh, “we can define just what a comic is” (12). Comics in this definition exist to provide pleasure and to sell the medium in which they are presented (newspapers or magazines), and

usually have (1) a continuing character who becomes the reader’s dear friend, whom he looks forward to meeting day after day or Sunday after Sunday; (2) a sequence of pictures, which may be funny or thrilling, complete in themselves or part of a longer story; (3) speech in the drawing, usually in blocks of lettering surrounded by ‘balloon’ lines (14).

The first point is said to have originated with Outcault and Swinnerton (with his “The Little Bears” that first appeared in the San Francisco Examiner in 1892), but the British Ally Sloper, who first appeared in 1867 and had since been featured in cartoons and comic strips, had been familiar and beloved – indeed, something of a “superstar” – in his native land  for two decades by the time these American cartoonists put their characters on the market. And Waugh’s attribution to the “Yellow Kid” of a “personality striking enough to endear him to a large number of readers” seems applicable also to Obadiah Oldbuck who, as already noted, had an effect on the American language at least in the 1860s and was fondly remembered as late as 1899.

As for pictorial sequence as an innovation of this time, it is difficult to decide which is more problematic in relation to Outcault: that his work was not consistently sequential or that the use of panels following panels in narrative sequence was not new (this has been discussed in relation to Obadiah Oldbuck, Jeremiah Saddlebags, and the work of David Kunzle). Finally, the issue of speech being included in the drawing is not as much a determinant as Waugh would let on: speech balloons were neither novel nor universally used in those days, nor are they today. But Waugh’s definition did not aim to historicize the comics medium, but rather, as Jean-Paul Gabilliet writes, “aimed at circumscribing comics as a twentieth-century American phenomenon” (Of Comics and Men, 294), projecting the then-current state of American comic strips back onto their foundations.

It would be easy to move from Waugh through the following decades and present several similar definitions, but in order to keep this post from swelling overmuch, I will limit myself to one more, before moving on to the aforementioned definition of the comic book. Comics scholar M. Thomas Inge, one of the founding fathers of contemporary Anglophone comics scholarship, repeatedly bangs the drum of Americentrism in his 1990 classic, Comics as Culture: “Along with jazz,” he ends the first paragraph of the book, “the comic strip as we know it perhaps represents America’s major indigenous contribution to world culture” (xi).[ii] He supports his assertion that “the comic strip as we know it is a distinct form of artistic expression primarily American in its origin and development,” with the following:

Any effort at definition must take into account a number of characteristics, such as its open-ended dramatic narrative essentially without beginning or end about a recurring set of characters on whom the reader is always dropping in in medias res. Relationships have been established before we arrive, and they continue with or without our attention, even beyond the life of the comic strip in a world seldom bound by or conscious of time […] The story is told or the daily joke made through a balance of narrative text and visual action […] Dialogue is contained in seeming puffs of smoke called balloons […] and the strips are published serially in daily newspapers” (3).

Again, of course, Outcault is credited with an inordinate role in the development of this form.

It is difficult to determine what in the first section of this definition is special to comic strips. Does this not describe most serialized fictions? Read it again, but think instead of The Simpsons, for example, and see if that tv show doesn’t fit the bill equally well. Extending the idea outward, I am hard pressed to find any fiction or piece of writing containing characters, where these characters do not have previously established relationships, barring, perhaps, the Bible and its Adam and Eve. The balance of narrative text and visual action is equally applicable to earlier examples of sequential art storytelling, like, again, Obadiah and Jeremiah’s adventures. And, as already noted, the requirement of speech balloons is a heavy-handed construction that not does have the generalizability that the definition suggests.

The above cited definitions have revolved largely around the comic strip, the comics form that has historically been regarded as something that could potentially be allowed into the hallowed halls of “Culture.” The issue of what makes a comic book a comic book, however, seems to have been a little less contentious, since they have been deemed inferior for so long.

That is not to say that comic books have not also been subject to this type of purpose-minded definition, especially since the seemingly “natural” placing of comics’ origin in the US has been upset by those who present Töpffer as the “father of the comic strip.” In the introduction to his 2008 book A Complete History of American Comic Books, former Marvel Comics publisher Shirrel Rhoades repeatedly makes the claim that the comic book’s history began in the US. In doing this, he rushes past comic strips and breezes past earlier definitions of comic books in a rambling and flippant manner, reminiscent of nothing so much as Stan Lee’s old “Bullpen Bulletins” or “Stan’s Soapbox.”

Rhoades’ “favorite” definition calls comics “the rock ‘n roll of literature,” but this is dismissed as perhaps a bit vague. I agree; it says nothing. One dictionary definition that describes a comic book as a “magazine devoted to comic strips” is dismissed as “perhaps a bit simplistic.” The definition is not simplistic, but straight-forward, although it is certainly problematic to the extent that the word “devoted” also makes it fit the trade press, or magazines about comic books. And Scott McCloud’s description of comic books being “considered a visual piece of art in sequence” and his definition of the comics medium as “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer” are brushed off with a “huh?” The description of the comic book might be a little vague, but the definition of the medium is not; it is perfectly clear, and if it is difficult for someone to grasp in its “dictionary form,” it is clearly explained by McCloud in the pages preceding its final formulation (Understanding Comics, 4-9).

Following his “huh?,” Rhoades goes on: “Heck,” he writes, “let’s take a crack at it ourselves,” before presenting this biased and problematic definition:

com·ic book (n.) Most often a 6 5/8-by-10 3/16 inch stapled magazine that consists of thirty-two pages plus cover and contains sequential panels of four-color art and written dialogue that tell an original story for entertainment purposes.

Before discussing the problems with that definition, it is worth also quoting Rhoades’ subsequent dismissal of Jeremiah Saddlebags and Töpffer in its entirety because of its ahistorical Americentrism, circularity, and unwarranted mock triumphalism:

Some sticklers contend that comic books had been around since the previous century. The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck, a pirated translation of Rodolphe Töpffer’s Histoire de M. Vieux Bois, was published in the United States as a magazine-formatted newspaper supplement in 1842. And Journey to the Gold Diggins by Jeremiah Saddlebags–”the earliest known American-created sequential comic book”–had appeared in 1849.
These early efforts were sequential art storytelling but didn’t quite resemble today’s comic books in size and presentation. You might say, “Close, but no cigar!”
Not until Maxwell C. Gaines (father of Mad magazine founder William M. Gaines) came up with a little number called Funnies on Parade in 1933.

Fighting the urge to return the author’s condescending snarkiness in kind (and, admittedly, only half-succeeding), I would ask Mr. Rhoades to pile a copy of Funnies on Parade, a copy of Action Comics #1, and a copy of, say, X-Men (vol. 2) #1, on top of each other and see how well they stack up. He will find that neither his parade example nor the comic book that inaugurated the “Golden Age” of American comics will fit with his own ideal size; early comic books were around 7 3/4 by 10 1/2 inches, as opposed to today’s 6 7/8 by 10 1/2 inches. This might be a small (non-)issue, but the matter of contents is not: Funnies on Parade contained no original material, only eight pages of reprinted comic strips. The first comic books… sorry, stapled multi-page sequential art pamphlets to include only original comics material, published by Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson in 1934, were black-and-white.

What the “sequential panels” bit in the definition is about is admittedly somewhat difficult to understand, unless it is meant to simply denote panels coming after each other, a feature common to comic strips, comic books, and, yes, Jeremiah Saddlebags and Töpffer’s work. One could, plausibly, conclude that if this is not what it means, it can also refer to narrative cohesion which, again, causes trouble. Most of what was published in the first decades of the American comic book industry, including Action #1 with its first appearance of Superman, was anthology books, many of them sixty-four-pagers with a number of different stories and a few brief text pieces thrown in for good measure (and to get around postal restrictions). This, I daresay, differed just as much from the size and presentation of today’s comic books as did Obadiah Oldbuck or Jeremiah Saddlebags. Indeed, few early American magazines that I would not hesitate to label comic books fit Rhoades’ definition.

The present-day format that Rhoades uses as his norm came about only after a long development. But even when we get closer to the date of his book, however, the definition remains problematic. Seminal latter-day serialized pamphlets of narrative sequential art with written dialogue, like Jeff Smith’s Bone or Dave Sim’s Cerebus, are excluded by definition because they are black-and-white. Sorry, guys: close, but no cigar! You should have sprung for four-color printing! Strangely, however, 100-page plus black-and-white paperback graphic novels like Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis are welcomed into Rhoades’ “Complete History of American Comic Books,” no questions asked.

But Rhoades has immunized himself to these objections. After all, he notes:

That’s not to say that there aren’t exceptions: variation of sizes (digests, slims, and so on), variation in page count (sixteen page minis, thick ‘phone books’), variation in coloring (spot colors, black-and-white only), variation in editorial content (factual stories, Bible stories, memoirs, diaries), variation in purpose (educational, promotional, journalistic). Yep, you can easily find every rule being broken.

You could even say that these variations are enough, really, to invalidate the definition on the spot, if you want to be a “stickler.” But Rhoades makes it clear why he has chosen the set-up he has: “the majority of mainstream comics–those published by the two dominant comic book companies, DC and Marvel–fit our ad hoc definition.” And, it turns out, little else does, without making a few of those exceptions. But consistency doesn’t really matter, as long as 19th and early 20th century Europeans are barred and comics can be claimed as “An American Art Form,” which is the title of the section that comes immediately after Jeremiah Saddlebags and Töpffer’s dismissal.

Historian of religions Bruce Lincoln has written about definitions, that they are perhaps better understood as “provisional attempts to clarify one’s though, not [meant] to capture the innate essence of things” (Holy Terrors, 2). The definitions cited above certainly seem to make the underlying thinking quite clear; they serve to plant the American flag on the cultural territory of comics, and occupying it and its history with the current state of American comicdom. But none of them are sustainable or useful for the investigation of comics – as is their putative purpose. These definitions are, if anything, reactionary, and potentially detrimental to comics scholarship and criticism. They are restrictive, biased, and exclude some of what their articulators nonetheless go on to call comics. They try to capture the “essence” of the medium and to delimit one or several of its particular forms of expression in its entirety.  Since all of these forms have historically been, and continue to be, in constant development, such attempts are doomed to failure; comic books have changed layout and format, content and structure; comic strips have had their Sunday pages and daily formats, neither of which have remained static; of late, graphic novels in myriad shapes and sizes have come to dominate the market; and digital technologies have started paving the way for digital and motion comics.

That is why I will stick with McCloud’s definition for the time being. It is inclusive, allowing Töpffer to sit side by side with (some of) Outcault’s work, which in turn is allowed to co-exist with Superman and the anthropomorphic lions of the Pride of Baghdad. It puts no limits on production, distribution, or economic factors. It does not discuss content, nor require continuing characters or speech balloons. It provides a lowest common denominator that allows scholarship to move on, to make new discoveries, to draw comparisons and to trace developments, rather than locking the medium down to a grand, but low-yield, claim in a symbolic, banal nationalist vein. Thus, it helps us answer the most important question: is it comics? If the answer is yes, then we can start thinking about whether it is a comic strip or a comic book, a graphic novel or an album, or something else, or from where it hails.


[i] It might going a little too far to attribute, as sometimes happens, the idea that Waugh explicitly claimed that comics were born with this occasional strip, since he puts Outcault in a trio of “founding fathers,” along with James Swinnerton and Rudolph Dirks. But the primacy which he gives Outcault is difficult to miss: the New York World’s Charles W. Saalburgh, whom Waugh credits with suggesting the yellow tint, “could hardly have known that his own experiment was to have a large part in starting an entirely new form of entertainment” (1); New Yorkers who read the cartoon “were quite unaware that a new form of communication was about to be built on this foundation” (2); the “Yellow Kid’s” appearance, in conjunction with the circulation war “started” comics (6)… Dirk’s “Katzenjammer Kids,” premiered in December 1897, is in turn described in the following fanciful terms: “How little the nineteenth century readers must have realized the significance of these ‘Katzenjammer’ pages, which first contributed to comics the use of a developing idea, with picture after picture on the same page, and with a permanent cast of characters!” (11).

[ii] Later, on pages xv–xvii, he writes: “Perhaps a major reason for recognizing and studying the comics is the fact that they are one of the few native American art forms. […] In comic strips and comic books […] Americans have defined the forms, expanded their aesthetic possibilities, and become the first masters of their unique visual and narrative potential.”



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