What is a Comic?

If we’re going to be talking heavily about comics, it would be best to clarify                       what a comic is for starters. This is necessary because the

Definition of comics by Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics

word “comic” is an umbrella term for a lot of similar ideas such as cartoon, strip, comic book, and graphic novel. When you boil all of these down, there are only three elements that make up the format of comics: the use of panels, pictures, and words combined together to tell a story of some degree. Will Eisner wrote the first book analyzing comics as an art form, Comics and Sequential Art, and he wrote that “the fundamental function of a comic (strip or book) is to communicate ideas and/or stories by means of words and pictures involving the movement of certain images (such as people or things) through space.” The way comics move a story of words and pictures through space and time is by sequencing the panels or frames next to each other.


Will Eisner uses panels unlike traditional comics

Having comics reduced down to three elements is highly debatable because the use of these elements have been used in so many different ways that if you dig far enough, you’ll find that that’s more of a guideline for comics than an absolute set of rules. For example, some would say that words are pictures, reduced down to the most abstract means and have a style and effect all their own. Others would included the element of storytelling outside of the element of words because this is territory of literature, an art form in and of itself. But, for simplicity sake, we’ll just keep the three.




Panels from Understanding Comics that illustrate the art form of comics and other mediums as vessels

The next important concept that you should know about comics is that comics are a medium, format, or “a vessel which can hold any number of ideas and images. The ‘content’ of those images and ideas, is up to the creators.” When Scott McCloud wrote this in Understanding Comics, he is separating the medium’s form from the medium’s content. The form is the format, the three elements that make up the framework of comics. The content of comics is what goes in that frame work, from superheroes to Sunday “funnies.” He goes on to say that, “at one time or another virtually all the great media have received critical examination, in and of themselves. But for comics, this attention has been rare.” And that’s what makes comics so special. With written word, music, video, theater, visual arts, and film, they are so prevalent in our culture that it’s commonplace for people to be discussing their preferences over one piece of film or music compared to another. But, it’s only been recently that a conversation like that has been about comics, and that discussion was started in 1985 with the publication of Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art. This is the first book to give the art form of comics an almost academic analysis into what they are and what their made of and even what their potential could be.



Left to Right: Cave Drawings, Egyptian Hieroglyphs, Bayeux Tapestry


Comics are a sequential art and sequential art has been around since ancient times, from cave drawings to Egyptian Hieroglyphs, each are communicating a narrative through a sequenced series of pictures and symbols.  Even in Medieval Europe, we see examples of sequential art in the Bayeux Tapestry detailing the Norman Conquest of England, beginning in 1066. Then in the 1700’s there was a class of engravers that had their moment of fame in history. These craftsmen pushed sequential art one step close to what comics are today. Someone notable during this time is William Hogarth, an engraver who created two collections of engravings turned into full sized painting, A Harlot’s Progress and A Rake’s Progress, that told a visual story when they were put in a sequential order.

First three Panels of A Harlot’s Progress by William Hogarth


Fast Forward into the 1800’s and we find a Swiss Rodolphe Topffer who was an author and teacher who had a hobby of making satirical cartoons or comics. His cartoons are considered a pivotal point for comics because he “featured the first interdependent combination of words and pictures seen in Europe.” (McCloud) Rodolphe Topffer set the trend for comics up until the end of the second World War, with people using them as either propaganda for it, satire against it, or just overall themes of war. 

Left to Right: Comic Panel by Rodolphe Topffer followed by political cartoons made in the wake of Topffer’s influence ranging from 1864-1912


After the war ended, the themes of war became irrelevant and the content of comics had to change. With the end of war, came the end of an era for comics and the medium grew into it’s next stage.


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