We could equally ask whether comics are concrete poems. I think the answer to both questions is, almost certainly, “no”, at least, if we are concerned with generalities – that is, with asking whether all comics are concrete poems, or all concrete poems are comics. This of course leaves it open that some (perhaps special) comics are concrete poems (or vice versa).

As comics scholars, however, we can’t rest content with these sort of intuitions regarding whether one sort of art form is identical to, or a sub-form, of another art form. Rather, we need to strive to provide an explanation for what it is that makes comics different from concrete poems (and vice versa).

The problem is that it seems very difficult to provide such an account. For example, on any account that identifies and individuates art forms based on the properties of the work in question that are relevant to its aesthetic appraisal, the claim that comics and concrete poems are really just different instances of the same art form seems surprisingly plausible. After all, the sorts of characteristics we take to be relevant to judging a concrete poem qua concrete poem, for example: the content of the text, the shape and visual content of the arrangement of the text and other elements (note that both the Houedard poem and the Finlay poem contain non-textual, purely visual elements), the relationship between the two, etc., etc., seem eerily similar to the characteristics that we take to be relevant to judging a comic qua comic. Of course, there are other ways to individuate art forms, but I have reservations regarding whether they would fare any better here.

The story is further complicated if we take Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics taxonomy of word-image combinations into account. McCloud describes six different ways that words and pictures can interact within a comic:

  • Word specific
  • Picture specific
  • Duo-specific
  • Additive
  • Montage
  • Interdependent

Of interest to us here is the ‘Montage’ category. One of McCloud’s examples is a panel where a man is depicted in silhouette, and the shape is formed by a number of words. But this just seems to be a concrete poem (or at least, something so close to one as to be indistinguishable, formally). If an entire category of word-image combinations just are, or are relevantly similar to concrete poems – that is, if some panels just are or involve concrete poems in an integral and ineliminable sense – then it is unclear how we would go about arguing that comics generally can’t be (or, at least, usually aren’t) just a sub-caetgory of concrete poem.

As a final, only tangentially related observation, I would like to note that I find it odd that, in the panel above that appears in Making Comics (where he returns to the topic of word-image interaction),  McCloud represents words with a “W” – that is, with a letter, one of the building blocks of words themselves – but he also represents images or pictures with a “P”, rather than with a picture (or picture frame, etc.).

So, are comics concrete poems (or vice versa)?

About roytcook

Roy T Cook is associate 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 comics. He is the co-editor (with Aaron Meskin) of The Art of Comics: A Philosophical Approach (Wiley-Blackwell 2012)

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