[Guest Post by Aaron Meskin]

We all like different art forms and genres. I happen to like comics more than English folk music and crime comics more than funny animal comics. You might feel different. But let’s put aside our preferences for a moment and consider value. Not financial value…I’m talking about artistic value or quality. (And value isn’t just a matter of what you or I like. See Philosophy 101 for discussion.) So how good are comics; that is, how valuable an art form do they comprise? Can we legitimately say that comics really belong in the same category as painting, sculpture, theater and poetry? Is the art form of comics really the equal of those well-established and highly respected forms. Or do comics comprise a lesser, minor art form?

There is a long history of ranking art forms and genres against one another. Aristotle rated tragedy as better than the epic. Edgar Allen Poe argued that the prose tale or short story is better than the novel. Hegel made the case for poetry (especially dramatic poetry) as the ‘highest’ art. A contemporary philosopher, Elizabeth Telfer, has argued that food is an inherently minor art. If claims of this sort are legitimate then comics look like they might be in trouble. Comics artists simply have not produced the rich body of masterworks that painters sculptors, musicians, playwrights, poets and even filmmakers have. After all, Maus and, perhaps, Krazy Kat are arguably the only unquestionable masterpieces of the form.

But let’s not be too quick. The value of an art form surely has to do with what it can do—its potential—not what it has as a matter of fact already done. So from the fact that comics have not yet reached the level of achievement that novels and paintings have we cannot infer that those art forms are inherently better than comics. And comics surely have a great deal of potential—they can, it seems, do everything literature and drawing can do and more besides.

This raises (not ‘begs’!) the question of why comics have not yet realized their potential. In reply, it is worth remembering that (no matter what McCloud says) comics are a fairly young form. They have only been around since the middle of the nineteenth century. So it is not surprising that artists working in the medium of comics have not yet achieved what painters, sculptors, poets, musicians and architects have. Of course this can’t be the full story since film is an even younger form than comics and it has reached great artistic heights in the last century. It is interesting to speculate as to the rest of the story.

Of course it might just not make sense at all to engage in these overall evaluations and comparison of very different art forms. Perhaps asking whether the art form of comics is as good as music or theater or film is like asking which is better—Galactus or Enid of Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World.

About roytcook

Roy T Cook is CLA Scholar of the College and John M Dolan Professor of Philosophy at the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities. He works in the philosophy of logic, the philosophy of mathematics, and the aesthetics of popular art. He is the co-editor of The Art of Comics: A Philosophical Approach (Wiley-Blackwell 2012, w/ Aaron Meskin), The Routledge Companion to Comics (Routledge 2016, w/ Aaron Meskin & Frank Bramlett), and LEGO and Philosophy: Constructing Reality Brick By Brick (Wiley-Blackwell 2017, w/ Sondra Bacharach).

6 responses »

  1. roytcook says:

    It seems to me that there are two separate questions here:

    (1) Why do comics not seem to have developed as many ‘masterpieces’ as other art forms (and in particular, why do comics not have as many ‘great’ works in comparison to film, since the art forms are of similar ‘age’)?

    (2) Does the comics form have as much potential for ‘masterpieces’ as other art forms (again, film is an obvious comparison here)?

    Now, a negative answer to question (2) might serve as a sufficient answer to question (1). But if one thinks that the answer to (2) is “yes” (as I do, and as I suspect many Pencilpanelpage readers do), then this still leaves us with question (1).

    Now, one explanation that is commonly trotted out for answering question (1) is the Comics Code: According to this explanation, the art form suffered during its early years (at least, development of the form within the American comic book format suffered) as a result of the self-imposed limitations imposed by the CCA seal. Of course, film had its own set of regulations (and still has a rather problematic ratings system), but the Comics Code (so the story goes) was much stricter – it was as if we had insisted that all films had to be rated G.

    Now, there is no doubt that the Code had a negative impact on the development of comics as an art form. But this explanation has always seemed to me to be a bit of a cop-out. After all, there are films (many of them) that we consider great that nevertheless have a G rating (or have G-level content, if foreign, etc.) So it is certainly possible to create great works within a set of relatively stringent constraints. So why didn’t comics achieve this more often?


    • Aaron says:

      Hey Roy. Since the Comics Code was a US thing I don’t see how it could provide a general explanation of the lack of comics masterpieces. Think of the European and Japanese masterpieces of cinema…

  2. roytcook says:

    I agree (although one might wonder about a cross–cultural comparison of comics masterpieces – I am sure that there are many that would argue that the Franco-Belgian or Manga traditions have a higher ration of ‘great’ comics, and would place at least some of the explanation on the lack of self-imposed censorship in those traditions).

    In fact, the Franco-Belgian tradition provides a nice, focused case study (one separable from issues particular to the American tradition, such as the CCA). French comics and French film developed at roughly the same time, and French comics enjoy a much higher cultural status than their American counterparts. In addition, the French cinema tradition is a significant contributor to the class of film ‘masterpieces’. So why are there, relatively speaking, fewer French comics masterpieces than French cinema masterpieces?

    This question becomes even more pressing when one compares the relative costs of producing and distributing a comic, as opposed to a film.

  3. roytcook says:

    Of course, another big open question here is what counts as a masterpiece. I don’t expect anyone to have a precise definition (at least, not one that I would accept), but it would be nice to have some general criteria or guidelines here.

  4. Aaron,

    When I read your post the other day, I immediately began thinking about the question of aesthetics and how that question intersects the question of the canon. How do ‘great’ works of literature come to be called ‘great’? Part of it, I think, has to do with what the discourse community of literature scholars collectively decides upon. If most scholars believe that John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ belongs in the canon, then it does, and it’s considered a great body of literature.

    In a different way, a book like Thomas Pynchon’s ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ may also be considered a masterpiece. But it is very different from other masterpieces. In fact, I think Pynchon’s novel is considered a masterpiece not because of what it does aesthetically but because of what it does to reconfigure our understanding of how literature operates. Pynchon deconstructs notions of protagonist, of narrative time, and of ending.

    I am fortunate to own a collection of Schubert’s piano sonatas, performed by Wilhelm Kempff (issued as a 7-CD set by Deutsche Grammophon). In the liner notes, John Reed situates the importance of Schubert’s work by contrasting his standing in the 1820s with his standing today: “It is only in our own century that Schubert’s piano sonatas have taken their place in the repertoire beside those of Beethoven” (18).

    Maybe Krazy Kat is a masterpiece today, as you point out in your post. Maybe it won’t be in a hundred years. Given the explosive growth in the number of published comics (especially on the web), I believe that scholars who labor to understand the canon of comics have their work cut out for them.

  5. Ross Cameron says:

    Enid is better than Galactus.

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