Toward a Deleuzian Conception of Comics

In transferring Dickie’s conception of the art world into comics, Beaty refers to his own effort not as an attempt to define but to conceptualize comics:


By conceptualizing comics as the products of a particular social world, rather than as a set of formal strategies, it is possible to highlight the various conventions that are frequently used by comics artists. While most theorists of comics have come to identify certain traits (sequential images, word/text relations, continuing characters, reproducibility, word balloons, and so on) as essential to the comics form, given the difficulties presented by border cases, of which children’s illustrated picture books and artist’s books are but two, it seems much more productive to say that these traits are merely conventions of the comics form, rather than the defining elements of it. (44)


While it is not clear that by using the word ‘conceptualizing’ Beaty realizes that he is no longer defining comics, my own reading is that he is doing this very deliberately. In fact, the key term “concept” shows up not just here, but in his introduction when he describes the necessity of “a new conception of comics as a specific creative form” (8), in his concluding sentences for the chapter on definition: “At present, any attempt to further the discussion of the conventions of comics in the absence of a larger conceptualization of the art world would be fruitless”(47-8), and in his overview of the changing conceptualization of art through the work of C. J. van Rees in distinguishing journalistic, essayistic, and academic criticism: “It is important to note how each stage of criticism narrows the conception of the field. . . . Significantly, van Rees conceptualizes the relationship of criticism not to power . . . but to the passage of time. . . . academics, who claim to be more selective [than journalists] and hold to a higher set of criteria, draw on creators from the past based on a conception of artistic worth that can be reconciled within specific theoretical frameworks” (103). This emphasis on the term ‘concept’ and its derivations leads me to distinguish concept from definition.


Conceptualization is a philosophical act, definition a taxonomic act. Definition walls in the thing defined, allowing some examples and excluding others. No doubt, Aristotle’s principles of genus, species, differentia have a philosophical history and merit, but it is Deleuze’s work on the concept that I think can help comics most.


Deleuze’s articulation of the concept occurs in his final book with Felix Guattari, What Is Philosophy?* which I will return to shortly. However, it builds on his influential earlier work Difference and Repetition, to which we go now.


*  While Guattari is listed as co-author, the book was written entirely by Deleuze (Dosse 456). Guattari’s writing credit was a tribute to their long partnership. Nonetheless, I will use Deleuze to refer to the author of What Is Philosophy?

Difference and Repetition