So you may notice, here on Art + Culture, that there is no up front category for ‘comics’. “Oh ho” you say, “but somewhere in the literature section there is a little pigeon hole for ‘graphic novels’, Jason”. Yes, I’m quite aware of that particular designation, (as well as the 'avant-comics' sub-category -- which I can't find anymore) but a little disappointed in the ghettoization of an entire medium – comics – to only one of its forms – the bookstore marketing term ‘graphic novel’. I am admittedly employing the definition of comics put forth so eloquently by Scott McCloud in his seminal 1994 comic book (or ‘graphic novel’ if you’re looking for it at Borders) Understanding Comics. I think the inclusive parameters of this term cover not only GNs, but pamphlet style comic books, comic strips, webcomics, and any derivative thereof.
“But under what meta-heading would the comics category be, Jason?” would be the next logical question. Comics’ infamous cultural illegitimacy makes it the proverbial black sheep at any cultural indexing party. My first choice, (and it is admittedly biased) would be under ‘Visual Art’. It is the broadest category, to be sure, and so inclusive to include ‘Sound Art’, which by very definition is not visual, certainly not as much as comics. What all these categories really have in common is cultural and academic legitimacy. Comics has all of these things on paper (so to speak), but are still wholly synonymous with Archie and Batman to most people. Don’t get me wrong, we can talk about Batman at some point. And I mean really talk.
But I digress. So how about the ‘Literature’ heading? Well, not bad, but not as inclusive, I think, as ‘Visual Art’. In fact the Literature meta-heading is the smallest one, and putting comics there I fear would perpetuate that all comics are ‘written’ and then illustrated, which, while this is generally the case for mainstream, corporate produced comics (some of which are great, worth studying, and quite “literary”), it excludes the more visually based works of some of comics most groundbreaking and important artists. It also gives further misrepresentation of the ‘graphic novel’ designation. This well meaning term, first popularized by the late great Will Eisner, has been shown to be an insecure medium’s attempt to rechristen itself with more culturally legitimate language, and has been pounced upon by bookstores attempting to find ways to market something that fits into what bookstores believe book buyers will buy. The math for having comics under ‘literature’ would qualify graphic design and printmaking as literature, which brings us to the next possible category…
“Design Arts”. This is quite an interesting and diverse meta-heading. It includes practices which could easily be their own meta-heading (architecture), and some that could perhaps be better included under a “Crafts” heading (jewelry design). Like crafts, comics have always enjoyed a controversial distinction when being defined and categorized. In my opinion the best thing categorization can do is inspire debate, as by definition a categorical designation is supposed to end it. While comics’ graphic art nature may put it along side graphic and information design, its designation as a sub-section of design based arts opens an interesting can of worms. For one, it quickly makes the Design Arts heading seem like a ‘miscellaneous’ category, and second, with an assertion of comics as a graphic art (i.e. one meant for reproduction and dissemination), we must now consider another controversial art category – illustration. Mysteriously absent as an initial category like it’s comics cousin, one wonders how it slipped through the cracks when advertising, which for many, (occasionally myself included) is considered the very opposite of art and culture, has an upfront category to call its own. Furthermore, the practical, functional nature of the practices under the Design Arts heading seem at odds with some of the intentions behind some of the most important comics and comics artists.
But alas, a solution I do offer. And it is a solution that only an endeavor such as Art+Culture.com could uniquely accommodate. Beings that this repository of information exists not as a linearly narrative printed tome, its words set eternally upon a page, but as dynamic, organic, fractal-connected data, it is my assertion that the formally broad category of comics find its home under all three meta-headings I have mentioned. They would all link to the same page, and a visitor doing a more general search could find their way to it as well. Visitors perusing Literature should be able to find Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman, those in Visual Arts should not be prevented from finding Gary Panter or the Kramers Ergot anthologies, and the Design Arts area should easily reveal Chris Ware or Paper Rad. The network like design of information on the web provides for looking at categories and designations not as pigeon holes to fit artists and works in, but as overlapping sets of issues that can be found in works that may be grounded in the conventional designations of previous centuries, but refer to and bring up the concerns of other disciplines and practices. Think Rauschenberg’s Combines, or the drawing references in Jean Dubuffet’s sculptures, the painterly quality of Pictorialism photography, the architectural concerns of Kristof Wodiczko’s video projections, the reference to fashion of Vanessa Beecroft’s performance based pieces, the Hollywood film style productions of sculptor Matthew Barney…the list goes on and on.
The irony here is that while the case is being made here for the multi-disciplinary nature of comics, perhaps one of culture’s most dubious products (the top prize going to television, in my opinion), the practice of relaying narrative through a sequence of images is the oldest form of expression there is. McCloud, again in Understanding Comics casually puts forth a possible revisionist history of art that puts comics as we know them at the terminus point of a legacy that begins with cave painting, and continues on to Egyptian hieroglyphics, Trajan’s Column, the Bayeux Tapestry, Mesoamerican codices, to the origins of written language and the development of the printing press. To get down to the business of what comics really is, as a medium, as a practice, as a concept, as an art form, is try to understand the primordial nature of humanity’s preoccupation with creating and using images in general. And perhaps therein, lays the dilemma.