Award-winning cartoonist Scott McCloud is known as a comics theorist, or as some call him, the Aristotle of comics. This title was bestowed on him after the release of his 1993 book Understanding Comics, which in part explores the definition, history, and vocabulary of comics. For his part, McCloud states “depending on who you ask, I'm either comics' leading theorist or a deranged
lunatic.” McCloud acknowledges his work has provoked reactions throughout the comics community and beyond. In reading the first three chapters of Understanding Comics, I can see why some may have an issue with McCloud, especially with his definition of comics.
After a lengthy explanation, McCloud defines comics simply as “sequential art.” He gives examples of a pre-Columbian pictorial manuscript and the Bayeux Tapestry depicting the Norman conquest as some of the earliest comics. I nodded my head along as I read this. He then argues that stained glass windows in churches and the pictures in your car manual are comics. My nodding slowed down at this point, thinking McCloud was perhaps stretching it a bit, but I was still along for the ride. That is, until he included a picture of little Billy from Bil Keane’s The Family Circus and emphatically stated it wasn’t a comic.
With McCloud’s definition of comics as sequential art, The Family Circus can’t be labeled as a comic because it is a single-panel comic. McCloud states, “There’s no such thing as a sequence of one!” I think of all the other single-panel comics I grew up reading, such as Reg Smyth’s Andy Capp, Gary Larson’s The Far Side, Tom Wilson’s Ziggy, Brad Anderson’s Marmaduke, and Jim Unger’s Herman. Maybe calling McCloud a lunatic is a bit strong, but it does seem crazy to exclude these from the realm of comics. After all, the term “single-panel comic” exists for a reason.
McCloud’s argument excludes this reasoning, and refers to single-panel comics at best as “comic art” but prefers the term cartoon. The Oxford Dictionary’s first definition of a cartoon is “a simple drawing showing the features of its subjects in a humorously exaggerated way, especially a satirical one in a newspaper or magazine.” The second definition it gives refers to animation, which, now that I think about it, is how I’ve always defined a cartoon. To me, if I watch it on television, it’s a cartoon. If I read it, it’s a comic, no matter the number of panels.
As far as a paneled comic, the Oxford Dictionary uses the term “cartoon strip” in its description, which implies the terms cartoon and comic can be used interchangeably. However, the Library of Congress uses the term “single-panel cartoons” instead of “single-panel comics”, seemingly siding with McCloud’s definition. The powerful media organization Andrews McMeel Syndication, formerly Universal Press Syndicate, labels both single panels and strips as comics. Creators are referred to as both comic artists and cartoonists. However, McCloud is adamant that although “there is a long-standing relationship between comics and cartoons, there is a distinct difference.
I am far from a comics expert, so I probably have no right to disagree with McCloud, but I do anyways. Consider Ernie Bushmiller’s comic Nancy. I would argue it frequently uses the same type of humor as Marmaduke, The Family Circus, and a host of other single-panel comics. But because Nancy is a strip, McCloud considers it part of his world while the others get pushed out. It feels as though McCloud uses the term sequential art just to prove how far back in history comics can be found. While this may give comics more reverence, to do so at the exclusion of others means that “sequential art” may not be the end-all-be-all definition of comics.
Perhaps it is time everyone stops trying to nail down a perfect definition. I’ve seen the same struggle with writing genres, such as nonfiction and prose poetry. Writers and critics alike strive to give strict definitions to a writer’s style and what can and can’t be considered a certain genre. In my view, artists should be able to call their work by any name they see fit. The importance is in the creation, not the label.
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