Deleuze warns against appropriating the concept into disciplines other than philosophy (10-11). His warning is against designers and marketers, but he is also careful to point out that art and the sciences have their own concepts and that those differ from the philosophical concept (5). However, he also points out that they are inseparable from each other (66). Working on this border between philosophy and art, comics scholarship reconceptualizes itself.
Some of the most notable comics released in 2012 include Chris Ware’s Building Stories, a multi-comic object; Jimenez Lai’s Citizens of No Place, a visual essay on architecture and urbanism; Will Bingley and Andrew Hope-Smith’s Gonzo, a biography of Hunter S. Thompson; and volume 2 of Russ Kick’s Graphic Canon, an anthology of literary adaptations. None of these fits our traditional idea of what a comic is, yet even Ware’s is not quite avant-garde. Building Stories is readable and popular, bought by readers of the New Yorker and Action Comics—hardly comparable to DuChamp’s fountain. The comics industry itself seems to have no qualms about comics’ ambiguous definition. Beaty argues that comics scholarship trails art scholarship by forty years in its definitional task. It seems that it also trails the comics community by at least a few decades. The comics world needs no definition. Conceptualized as an institution or a world made up of a network of relations, comics needs a scholarship that can lead and not follow. Getting beyond a defensive desire for definition is one of the first steps on that road.
In this essay I tried to do three things. I retold our history, bringing in other voices and focusing on comics studies’ ambivalence about definition. I tried to rearticulate the problem of definition as one of conceptualization, an attempt to solve the problems that definitions failed to solve while avoiding their pitfalls. Finally, I built off of that conceptualization of comics a conceptualization of comics scholarship. The question I began with, “Is this article a comic?” is no longer answerable.
In this comic, because let’s just call it that, I have tried to minimize my own textual commentary on other authors so that the images would act as that commentary. Beaty’s conceptualization of comics is a fine one, resting on a plane of immanence that includes single-panel comics, wordless comics, comics theory, letters from artists, scripts, pens. Even the Bayeux tapestry must be accepted as part of this comics world, though the question of whether it is or is not a comic has ceased to have any meaning. Such a question relies on the identity of Sameness touted through the dogmatic image of thought that Deleuze critiques. Instead of asking, “what is a comic?” Deleuze would asks “what might comics become?” Such a question can unite comics scholars, artists, writers, and fans in a common effort through which comics can differentiate itself even further. The Deleuzian concept has the advantage of calling us to focus on the formal elements without asking us to find an essence. It pays attention to the historical while being open to the surprise of anachronistic readings. It puts into play a network of relations without setting a system in stone.
Under this concept, I will ask again, is this article a comic? There is no longer a desire to pin down its identity. However, as part of the comics institution it occupies the same place as any other comics scholarship, whether or not that scholarship attempts to self-consciously ape the form of comics. However, in attempting this form, it connects to even more concepts in thicker ways, even connecting the disparate planes of art and philosophy and the recto and verso of sense and sensibilia.
Thought more broadly, as visualization, scholarship as comics is already being done in the digital humanities, and not on comics. Comics scholarship might become comics, which of course is a moving target. If we’re sharp, comics scholarship might even do some things comics don’t do. Comics’ bridging of time and space, image and text, form and function, provides a medium and a mode in which digital humanists can work. As such, it might provide new ways of talking about some of the debates in the digital humanities, bridging the gap between the intellectual work of making and the necessity of theory and cultural studies. But that will be for others to do. For now, we can ask one last time:
Is this article a comic?
Sure. It’s a comic, but a comic becoming something else, and a pale shadow of what comics scholarship might become.
Is This Article a Comic?
part three: and yes I said yes I will Yes.