What is a Comic Book?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as "a book of strip cartoons." However, comic books have developed many different names and definitions over the last several decades due to the increased critical consideration of the form and the development of it within the context of this increased critical attention. In the struggle for acceptance as a mainstream literary form, comic books have been given many different names in an effort to both demystify them to the layperson and to elevate them as a literary form worthy of critical attention. Douglas Wolk, in his book Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean (2007), states "...when people want to differentiate rather similar things from one another, there are always struggles over names, and where there's class tension over taste, there are always social climbers: people who want to make it very clear that what they like is a higher-status thing and not a lower-status thing." (p.60)

Out of this struggle for legitimacy came the term "graphic novel," which has been applied retroactively to mean any longer narratives told using "sequential art" and bound in large single or multi-volume sets. However, this definition is quite loose and the term is often used to refer to collections of short stories and even compilations of individual comic issues bound in a larger volume. In fact, the term seems to be more often used by those who would seek to elevate these works to the status of legitimate literature in the eyes of skeptical "serious" intellectuals. However, any real definition of "graphic novel" is hard to pin down and difficult to distinguish in any tangible way from "comic books" or other sequential art or graphic narratives.

The difficulty in defining "comic books" and "graphic novels" has partly to do with the way the form developed. It also has to do with the difficulty in placing these items within a linear historical context. Wolk laments, "that's what you get when a medium develops before it starts thinking of itself as an art form." (Wolk 2007, p.61)

The development of comic books happens slowly over time and thus it becomes very hard to separate them from what came before and what has developed after in terms of content or form. What exactly does separate these forms from other literary or artistic forms?

Graphic narratives, namely stories told through the use of sequential art, have existed in many different forms throughout history and have been given many different names. Long before the development of a written language, people were using, recognizing, and interpreting visual symbols as a means to communicate ideas and narratives. Arguably the first graphic narratives are prehistoric wall paintings.

Other examples throughout history include: Egyptian hieroglyphs and oriental ideographs, medieval tapestries and religious murals, illuminated manuscripts, religious or political pamphlets, picture books, funny pages, comic books, graphic novels, et cetera. Films are arguably graphic narratives.

Taken within this context, one can see how the "reading" of words is really only a subset of a broader skill, namely the recognition and interpretation of symbols. In this way, the reading of sequential art is analogous to the reading of a sentence, requiring us to see and recognize certain symbols, and interpret their meaning within the context of other symbols in a specified order (Eisner 1985).

This makes it difficult to talk about "comic books" or "graphic novels" as somehow distinct forms within the context of graphic narratives as a whole as they have existed throughout history. Furthermore, seen in this way it seems evident why the use of the term "graphic novel" is both unnecessary and complicated. The term itself is highly problematic in that it is frequently used in reference to items that by no means qualify as "novels" by definition: collections of short stories, non-fiction, etceteras. It implies that the works published as "graphic novels" are somehow more serious or legitimate than the mere "comic book." "Comic book," on the other hand, has its own problems. The term "comic" implies that the works are funny, or at the very least lighthearted, which by no means always the case. And the term "book" falls short of describing the flimsy pamphlets that the form traditionally takes.

Take for example the crime "comic strip" which appeared in the Illustrated Police News (circa 1889) chronicling the investigation into the Jack the Ripper murders. It is a perfect example of early graphic narratives printed in newspapers. What distinguishes this from a comic book in content? These were published sequentially in the newspaper much in the same way comic books are published sequentially in pamphlets or issues. And if we were to collect all the Jack The Ripper narratives from the Illustrated Police News and bind them into a volume, what would differentiate this from a graphic novel?

For these reasons (and for the purposes of this website), we prefer to use the broader term "graphic narrative" in the critical discussion of the use of sequential art forms in story telling of all kinds. By using this term, we can place our discussion within the broader context of human history, examining the merit of sequential images as equally legitimate story-telling devices as text, thus avoiding having to descend into false hierarchical dichotomies.



British Library. (1889). Jack the Ripper. In Illustrated Police News [Illustration]. Britain. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Illustrated_Police_News_-_Jack_the_Ripper.jpg

Eisner, Will. (1985). Comics and sequential art: Principles and practices of the world’s most popular art form. Tamarac, FL: Poorhouse Press.

Leonardo, J. (2009). Sistine Chapel [Photograph]. Washington, D.C. Retrieved from http://www.fotopedia.com/items/flickr-3526589648

Valroe. (2008). Cederberg rock art [photograph]. Retrieved from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:San_Rock_Art_-_Cederberg.jpg

Wolk, Douglas. (2007). What’s good about bad comics and what’s bad about good comics. In, Reading comics: How graphic novels work and what they mean (60-88). Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.