Not So Black or White: What Comics Is
Radically Yours #08
Radically Yours

Not So Black or White: What Comics Is

Door: Erin La Cour

In his groundbreaking work Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, Scott McCloud defines comics as “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.”[1] To say the least, this definition of comics is striking. The mere mention of the word “comics” undoubtedly brings to mind an array of examples from newspaper strips to Superman to Tintin, and perhaps also a slight pang of nostalgia for lost childhood innocence. But McCloud's definition speaks not just to what comics are but rather, and more emphatically, to what comics is—that is, to its cultural value.Indeed, McCloud's definition quite purposefully aims to liberate comics from narrow popular views which equate it with what he calls “bad art, stupid stories and guys in tights.”[2] While his approach can be seen as quite noble in its aim to elevate comics from its lowly cultural status, it has been highly scrutinized within the growing field of comics studies precisely for that reason; not only is McCloud's definition problematic in that its vagueness allows for the inclusion of various forms of sequential art that are markedly not comics, such as the photonovel,—which obscures what comics are—, more importantly, his insistence on the separation of content from form ultimately works to undermine his point of what comics is.

That the overarching goal of McCloud's formalist definition is to position comics as a medium, the “ninth art,” is of little wonder, if ultimately misguided. Comics has a long history of being used as a prime example in the hierarchical division in art discourse, having been specifically named in arguments delineating artistic work that can be classified as a high art medium from the mere commodity objects of “kitsch.” Since Clement Greenberg's entrée into art criticism with his 1939 article, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” the paradigm within art discourse for the delineation between “genuine” and mass culture has been based on a system of value attributable to medium classification. In his article Greenberg draws a firm line between that which he classifies as the high art, medium-specific work of the avant-garde and the low- or non-art “kitsch” of popular culture. “Kitsch” he defines as non-medium-specific works intentionally created for market consumption, which have no real aesthetic value due to their mass reproduction. He clearly outlines various forms of “kitsch” when he writes:

Simultaneously with the entrance of the avant-garde, a second new cultural phenomenon appeared in the industrial West: that thing to which the Germans give the wonderful name of Kitsch: popular, commercial art and literature with their chromeotypes, magazine covers, illustrations, ads, slick and pulp fiction, comics, Tin Pan Alley music, tap dancing, Hollywood movies, etc., etc.[3]

While much of Greenberg’s formalist approach to art theory has been criticized in contemporary discourse, his appropriation of the term “kitsch” imprinted its use as an inextricable part of the vernacular; “kitsch” is still used as a label for low- or non-art works.

This tradition of using the term “kitsch” as a watermark and comics as a scapegoat are both interesting points to consider in the shift of the parameters of high art brought about by art critic Rosalind Krauss in her work, “A Voyage on the North Sea”: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition. Noting that the term “medium” had been haunted by Greenberg's insistence on the necessity of specificity in a given medium, she sets out to distance herself by arguing that it is an “essentialist reduction of painting to ‘flatness,’” and one that problematically excludes all but the traditional arts of painting, sculpture, and drawing.[4] She nevertheless comes to the conclusion that “medium” is a term too pervasive and one which carries too much weight to be abandoned completely. She writes:

At first I thought I could simply draw a line under the word medium, bury it like so much critical toxic waste, and walk away from it into a world of lexical freedom. “Medium” seemed too contaminated, too ideologically, too dogmatically, too discursively loaded.[5]

Moving away from medium-specificity, she argues instead for the criterion of self-reflexivity. Expanding Greenberg's narrow dismissal of “kitsch” objects, she argues that if such an object is used as a technical support for a work of art in a manner that exploits it, criticizes it, or subverts it, the work can at once avoid being labeled as “kitsch” and be viewed as its own new “post-medium” art. Taking as an example the work of artist James Coleman, she explains:      

One of the sources for Coleman’s “medium” is the photonovel […] where one sees grown                         men and women engrossed in these comic-books-for-adults on the Metro or the                                     Underground […] they point directly to an internationalist commercialization of culture in                           advertising on the one hand and a degraded form of literacy on the other.[6]

What Krauss clearly underscores in this statement is that while Coleman's work utilizes “kitsch” objects as a means of creating a new medium, works intended for the mass market—including popular literature, the photonovel, and comics—are themselves still “kitsch.”

In consideration of art discourse's continued denigration of “kitsch” objects, again McCloud's impetus for arguing that comics is a medium is unsurprising. Further unsurprising, then, is the faction of artists and scholars who have cut their ties with comics by insisting upon the new term “graphic novel.” Following self-proclaimed coiner of the term, renowned artist Will Eisner, advocates of the “graphic novel” argue that it is an emergent new medium different from—and better than—comics, a medium that leaves “the comics ghetto far behind.”[7] Implicitly agreeing with Krauss that comics cannot be salvaged from its “kitsch” status precisely because of, as McCloud notes, its “bad art, stupid stories and guys in tights,” advocates of the “graphic novel” position it as being different from comics based on its literariness, its “seriousness.”

In a particularly adamant keynote lecture at the 2002 University of Florida Conference on Comics and Graphic Novels, Eisner claimed: I’m here to tell you that I believe strongly that this medium is literature. […] The word “comics,” of course, we’re still living with it, is a misnomer. We can’t get rid of the thing. We can’t get rid of it—it’s like “Kleenex.” It doesn’t belong here and it’s partly our fault because comics originally were designed to be funny stories.[8]

While Eisner’s critical work, like McCloud's, has been highly contested in comics studies, his inexorable stance that the “graphic novel” is literature has been highly influential both within and outside of the field; the “graphic novel” has become a term that implies, funnily enough, exactly what Krauss sneers at about the photo-novel: “comic-books-for-adults.”

What makes both McCloud's and Eisner's insistence on establishing comics and the “graphic novel,” respectively, as high-art is that neither is particularly careful in their arguments. By focusing on the form of comics, McCloud aims to carve out a place for comics as medium-specific, but fails to engage with how comics can be self-reflexive. Like Krauss notes of Greenberg, McCloud's definition positions comics as being “disengaged from everything outside [its] frame.”[9] Also, while the “graphic novel” could stake its claims to post-medium status on its using comics as its technical support, not only have its advocates not taken this approach, the simple fact that most graphic novels are collections of comic book series ultimately undermines any substantial distinction between comics and the “graphic novel” in terms of both form and content. Moreover, the “bad art, stupid stories and guys in tights” both McCloud and Eisner try to sidestep in their definitions have been quite extensively, and convincingly, argued to be more than mere entertainment. These works in particular actually offer a means of arguing for self-reflexivity in comics, for example, through how the iterative nature of the superhero storyline speaks to the formal elements of the comic book.[10]

What both McCloud's and Eisner's arguments point to is a subscription to the black or white, moralistic gauge of the importance of cultural objects. As comics scholar Catherine Labio notes: The eagerness with which the phrase “graphic novel” has been adopted in academic writing points to a stubborn refusal to accept popular works on their own terms. “Comics” reminds us of this vital dimension. “Graphic novel” sanitizes comics;       strengthens the distinction between high and low, major and minor; and reinforces the ongoing ghettoization of works deemed unworthy of critical attention.[11]

Attributing medium classification to comics ultimately undermines its political potential. Rather than attempting to wedge comics into the narrow parameters for high art, either through asserting its medium-specificity or through the creation of the term “graphic novel,” instead, comics can be used to unmask the terminology that is instrumentalized to perpetuate value-based distinctions between cultural objects. In the interplay between its form and content, comics reveals its self-reflexivity and thereby puts the  rejection of “kitsch” objects in a position that is difficult to maintain. Comics exposes the faulty logic, the continued “toxic waste,” of medium classification. 

The exhibition Black or White takes this critical approach. In exhibiting so-called “kitsch” objects in the museum space, the black and white discourse of art criticism is confronted, exposed, and undermined. What comics is thereby becomes clear: comics is a valuable cultural object, not because it is a medium, but because it calls into question the black and white, because it reveals the grey.

Erin La Cour is a PhD researcher at the Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis (ASCA) at the University of Amsterdam.

[1]     Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (New York: Paradox Press, 2000), 9.
[2]     Ibid., 2.
[3]     Clement Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” in Art and Theory, 1900–2000, eds. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003), 533.
[4]     Rosalind Krauss, “A Voyage on the North Sea”: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition (London: Thames and Hudson, 1999), 6.  
[5]     Ibid., 5.
[6]     Rosalind Krauss, “...And Then Turn Away? An Essay on James Coleman,” October 81 (1997): 9.
[7]     Eisner used the term “comics ghetto” in his back-cover praise for Paul Hornschemeier’s 2003 Mother, Come Home.
[8]     Will Eisner, “Keynote Address, Will Eisner Symposium,” ImageTexT: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies. 1.1 (2004).
[9]     Krauss, “A Voyage on the North Sea,” 11.  
[10]    See for example Mervi Miettinen (2012).
[11]    Catherine Labio, “What’s in a Name? The Academic Study of Comics and ‘The Graphic Novel,’” Cinema Journal 50.3 (2011): 126.