Obviously, I'm not the first person to think about comics as a medium. What comics are and when they began are hotly debated topics, for which the interested reader can find any number of answers. While this WU is not really interested in addressing the admittedly interesting history of comics as a form other than the relevant tidbits required for discussing its modern development, it would probably be worthwhile to start the reader out with the simplest definition for what a comic is, which is generally agreed to be the one provided by the legendary Will Eisner. That is that what we know as "comics" would be more correctly referred to as sequential art, or a series of static images arranged to display some sort of narrative or concept. I prefer this definition because it clearly rules out much of the overlap with other art forms but readers interested in exploring the far boundaries of what constitutes a comic and what does not are encouraged to seek out Eisner's "Comics and Sequential Art" and Scott McCloud's popular work "Understanding Comics" for deeper discussion and an introduction to the central ideas of what is slowly becoming known as "comics theory". Additionally, one could and should consider trawling through Jet-Poop's own collection of nodes on the subject.
The point of this node though is to simply analyze what it means to think of comics as a medium. That is, I intend take a quick stock of where modern comics are at, how they are produced, what makes them good and bad, what the future holds, and how they currently stack up against other existing art forms.
To put the last first, I think it's beneficial to contrast comics with art forms that most of us are more well-versed in, as they are considered more canonically relevant to western civilization. After all, although the average person can recognize quite a few of the classic comics book icons from newspaper strips and the two biggest publishers of superhero comics, Marvel and DC, they may not be familiar with what comics can and cannot achieve within the boundaries of their format relative to the rest of the arts and a comparison should help to make evident the contours of the medium itself.
So, most everyone is familiar with the idea of that comics are a fusion of words and images. As a result, it's a common mistake to think of them as a close cousin to literature or the visual arts. This is not the case. Although writing and drawing are both obvious components of comic creation, you will never see a so-called "graphic novel" included in a list of canonical literature nor hung in a museum. Authors and artists involved in both literature and the purer visual arts have borrowed from comics with great success (see Roy Lichtenstein and Michael Chabon) but comics themselves are too visual to be considered pure literature and too sequential and narrative driven to be considered purely visual arts.
Instead, the closest companion of comics in the art world is likely conventional performance art. The written skeleton behind a comic is virtually identical to a screenplay and the way that a script is performed by an actor is a similar process to that of an artist who must draw out and interpret the scenes envisioned by the writer. Naturally, the end result of a performance is quite different from that of a printed comic but you may find it useful to proceed through the rest of this WU thinking of comics as illustrated performances, with each panel acting as a carefully selected snapshot of a play.
With that image in mind, I am led into a discussion of what comics can and cannot do relative to these other art forms. They struggle when faced with stories and are both wide and deep for instance, unlike the great literary doorstoppers, and they cannot summarize and abstract singular topics in the way that a dedicated work of visual art can, although good comics contain no shortage of iconic images and motifs.
What comics do rule supreme at, I feel, is telling a narrative. Even the most vacant and superficial narrative can shine and even thrive in a comic book, a fact for which there is no shortage of evidence. In the hands of a truly capable storyteller as in the cases of Alan Moore at his height or perhaps Mike Mignola, a narrative can be told in a way that illustrates a world far beyond the boundaries of the page and immerse the readers in its happenings, no matter how grim or absurd. Comics allow for unparalleled suspension of disbelief without the need for either the technical detail of literature or the movement of cinema and performance.
What makes this possible is that, as previously explained, comics sit at a crossroads between literature, visual art, and performance. While good writing delivers well-developed characters and engaging events and good art creates a rich tapestry that reaches into the readers imagination, these components are delivered in the form of panels. Panels, which are simply the self-contained frames of art and text placed upon the page of a comic book or within the limited bounds of a comic strip, offer unprecedented control to the creators of a comic regarding the delivery of a narrative. Where other mediums struggle in the depiction of co-temporal events or the thematic flow of one motif into another, comics find it trivially easy to succeed through the clever application of paneling. A good writer/artist team can condense the material of an entire film or novel down into a single page and still have the core concepts shine through.
Of course, that's if you have a good writer/artist team. While the ideal is perhaps to have just one person in control of the entire comic authorship process, this is a fairly rare event outside of simple strips. The reason for this is that comics are quite labor intensive and require a diverse range of skills to create effectively,including not just being an excellent and highly productive writer and an artist but also having some idea of cinematic direction and the ability to publish the end product, all while typically being under threat of a deadline. To this end, comics have classically been produced in the manner of an assembly line via an intricate division of labor among several individuals, including a writer, penciler, inker, colorist, and letterer. In the best of times these individuals would work together synergistically, hopefully within the same room. In the worst of times there were dramatic creative disagreements and sometimes catastrophic misunderstandings as in the case of Stan Lee's Sgt. Fury and the Howling Commandos, in which a character who was written as an African-American was instead portrayed in print as a Caucasian due to a lack of communication between the writer and the colorist.
There are benefits to dividing up the process of comics creation of course. Writers are rarely artists and vice versa, so dedicating everyone to the singular task at which they are best will generally increase the quality of their work, even if it comes at the cost of the nebulous concept of artist/writer synergy. Plus, it makes it much easier for everyone to hit their deadlines so the two publishing companies that were best able to organize these creative workflows (Marvel and DC) quickly rose to dominance within the American comics industry following the post-WW2 boom of dedicated comic books as soldiers returning from combat continued their dedication to the entertainment that had so reliably arrived on the front lines.
These two newly minted giants quickly saw the downside of the assembly line format however, as comic readers tended to jump ship when there was a major shift in the make-up of the creative team behind their favorite books. So they created the concepts of "house style" and editorial primacy to better ensure corporate-style consistency behind their books, which were rapidly generating complex and intertwined fictional mythologies as things like cross-overs and shared rogue's galleries became more common. House style prevented the ship jumping problem by creating a clear set of artistic guidelines for how books should be drawn and editorial primacy helped to prevent contradictions in lore and ensured that writers stuck to approved topics within the confines of their books. This, combined with the self-inflicted implementation of the so-called "Comics Code" resulted in a complete flattening of the creativity within the American comics industry and contributed to the eventual crisis of the 90s in which both Marvel and DC nearly folded entirely.
This general repression of the comics medium in America however, led to the creation of new and excellent comics traditions in other locations around the globe, notably Britain, France, and Japan, where new styles arose and genres were explored. And, starting in the early 2000s, along with the sad decline of newspaper comic strips, all of this contributed to the modern rise of webcomics.
Indeed, while DC and Marvel have both made astounding recoveries from their low points in the 90s and early 2000s, webcomics are probably the surest sign that the genie has exited the bottle as far as their dominance over comic book creation goes. While there has always been a rich tradition of underground comix, advances in technology like the internet and easy accessibility to graphic design software have both reduced the labor intensiveness of comic creation and made it possible for anyone with a web connection to publish their work for the world to see.
While the pros and cons of online self-publishing could be the subject of another node and WU entirely, it seems like the future of comics is in fact increasingly digital. Independent creators have better access to funding via the proliferation of crowd sourcing websites like Kickstarterand Patreon and readers increasingly consume and share the end-product via electronic device, most notably tablets and PCs. The comics industry and readership being what it is of course, there have been no shortage of detractors screaming that this has caused a proliferation of shoddy work by amateurs to muddy the art form but these people are entirely blind to a history that consists almost entirely of mud in the first place.
Still, these fears are not entirely unfounded. Evolutionary dead-ends are not uncommon in comics history and adventurous readers will occasionally come across their sad remains as they explore the vast body of independently published work and comix that were published beneath the spectres of the Marvel/DC regimes. And of course, the newspaper comic strip has been reduced to a bland side-show alongside the sports section. Print sales are not wonderful and income for the big publishing houses comes increasingly from translating their intellectual property into film or video games.
To this observer it seems unlikely that the conventional comic book as we know it will ever evaporate entirely. In addition to being wonderful collectibles there is an undoubted appeal to having a physical rather than digital copy of something to hold, a preference that is often discussed rather loudly in more general discussions of print vs. digital. But it should not be forgotten that comics are a young medium and thus subject to vast shifts in both mode of delivery and aesthetic preferences. It should not be forgotten that novels were once exclusively the domain of literate aristocrats before being regularly delivered in the 1800s by penny dreadfuls and newspaper serials or that paintings, once expected only to deliver photo-realistic depictions of events, had to change their standards almost completely when cameras became widespread technology.
The circumstances and fortunes of any medium can change drastically at any time and I think we are in such a transitional period right now when it comes to comics. Though I expect we are still decades from shaking off the stereotypes and cliches of the superhero genre, I think the 2000s and 2010s will be looked back on as a renaissance period eventually, especially as a proper canon of "classics" finally begins to take form. The future is different but bright and for those interested now is the time to look beneath the pop culture skin of comics and uncover a seething underbelly of raw creativity, waiting to be examined and cataloged.