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.