In an essay that Samuel R. Delany published in 1996 on “The Politics of Paraliterary Criticism,” the science fiction writer closes with a call for comics scholars to abandon the idea of “definitions” and “origins” as a scholarly imperative. Not surprisingly, Delany used Scott McCloud as the catalyst for his argument and while the essay praises much of Understanding Comics, he stridently challenges the premise of the book’s opening chapter in which McCloud settles upon the formulation of comics as “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.” Critics have since deliberated untiringly over McCloud’s words, but Delany takes issue with the entire definitional project altogether. He characterizes the enterprise as a series of “empty gestures” from the 1930s when “American critics wanted to make literary criticism more scientific” and that ultimately reinforce the false notion that paraliterature genres lack the quality and complexity of literary works (Shorter Views 239-240).

Delany advocates a different approach to genre collections such as comics, handling them as “social objects” that are incompatible with rigorous definitions and instead, “exist rather as an unspecified number of recognition codes (functional descriptions, if you will) shared by an unlimited population, in which new and different examples are regularly produced” (239). Many scholars seem to have followed Delany’s lead and left the constraints of definitions behind in the nearly two decades since Understanding Comics was published. Even our little corner of the blogosphere at PPP privileges “functional description” (see posts here, here, here, here and here). “A discipline is defined by its object,” Delany says, “But disciplinary objects themselves are not definable. That’s why they must be so carefully and repeatedly described” (212).

If comics scholars are, indeed, moving beyond definitions, then the authority of “origins” may pose our next disciplinary challenge. Among artists, the quest for origins can inspire, but it can also inhibit – or so the reasoning goes: “Because you have not studied the proper origins of the genres, you don’t really know what the genre is (its definition) and so are not qualified to work in it” (245). When critics take up this kind of logic, the results seem to foreclose meaningful inquiry, rather than open it up to fresh insight. The more I learn about the history of American comics – and I still have much to learn – the more unsatisfied I become with the way this knowledge is deployed to confer value and maintain exclusive narratives of influence in modern comics. As Delany cautions, “It is a relation that, in the recognition of similarities, can generate great reading pleasure, richness, and resonance. But it is not a relation in which the earlier work lends force, quality, or some other transcendental authority to the latter” (256).

This claim has become particularly important to me as I cast aside traditional modes of influence to evaluate representations of race and blackness in comics.  The “proper” origin stories don’t always work. Resonances can come from all sorts of cultural and historical sources. And sometimes it is not the recognition of similarities, but of differences, that are critically interesting. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with tracing a path from Little Nemo and Krazy Kat to Chris Ware, but I also think that it is useful to keep in mind Delany’s mantra for paraliterary critics: “The ‘origin’ is never an objective reality; it is always a political construct (246).

In his essay’s concluding pages, Delany effectively couples the discipline’s attempts at definition with the way we define ourselves as scholars. He writes that, “our discussions are striated by a fear that without the authoritative appeal to origins and definitions as emblems of some fancied critical mastery, our observations and insights will not be welcomed, will not be taken for the celebrational pleasure that they are. What can I say, other than that we need more confidence in the validity of our own enterprise?” (268).

How, then, do you read Delany’s approach to paraliterature and the “celebrational pleasures” of criticism? What do we gain (or lose) when we describe the comics we study, rather than arguing over how to define them?


About Qiana Whitted

Associate Professor of English and African American Studies

10 responses »

  1. aaronkashtan says:

    That reminds me of the debate we just had on comix-scholars about definitions of comics — yes, again; this debate comes up approximately once a year. It was prompted by a review of Bart Beaty’s new book Comics versus Art (, and apparently the position Beaty takes in this book is pretty similar to Delany’s position in the essay you cite. Beaty says that “comics are whatever the human members of the comics world (including but not limited to producers, critics and consumers,) deem to be called comics.” I think this is just about the only workable sort of definition.

    • Hi Aaron, thanks for stopping by! I’ve been following that conversation too and at a certain point, I just abandoned ship. So I’m glad that you’ve given me a reason to pick up Beaty’s book sooner rather than later. There might have been a time when his description would have been off-putting to me. I am always telling my students to make sure to “define their terms” but lately I am finding it more exhilarating to leave them aside and stop trying to police the boundaries when others try to step out of line, so to speak. (There is a Coltrane metaphor in there somewhere, maybe…?)

  2. roytcook says:

    I worry about wholesale rejections of the definitional project, since I worry that there is a sense in which we cannot theorize about an art form unless we know what artifacts do and do not count as instances of that art form. For example, it is not completely implausible to think that understanding how to evaluate and interpret an art work of type X requires knowing that characteristics and properties make something a work of type X. But that just amounts to requiring a definition of some sort.

    Of course, we should be clear about what we mean by definition. Beatty, for example, offers a clear and precise definition – one overtly modelled on institutional definitions of art (ala Dickie or perhaps Danto). I think Beatty’s definition is wrong (and, at best, ridiculously simplistic), but it is a definition.

    Further, I think that many attempts to locate comics as an art form historically – for example, perhaps along the lines laid out roughly by Qiana above – could also count as a definition (depending on the precision and detail) and again can be modelled on similar approaches to defining art in general (i.e. Levinson’s historical definition of art).

    When comics scholars get up in arms about the bankruptcy of the definitional project, I tend to think that they mean something like McCloud’s project – that is, the attempt to provide a FORMAL definition of comics. But formal definitions aren’t the only sorts of definitions, and we should be clear regarding what, exactly, we mean to be rejecting!

    Note that Aaron Meskin’s important paper on this topic does not end, contrary to how it is sometimes characterized, by rejecting definitions, but rather argues that any satisfactory definition will need to be appropriately sensitive to the historical development and situation of comics as they actually ‘evolved’! In short, Meskin doesn’t reject definitions, but merely rejects ahistorical definitions (at least, as I understand his paper). It seems to me that all the points he makes in that paper are compatible with both a historically sensitive definition of comics and the concerns and points brought up by Qiana in her post (I also think that Delaney is best understood as rejecting formal definitions – McCloud is his specific target in that essay – rather than definitions in the widest sense, since it is formal definitions that might confer the sort of ersatz scientific respectability that he seems most concerned with).

    • Absolutely, Roy, I do think that Delany is rejecting formal definitions – and that we should too, now that the definitional project has become stale and self-defeating. His issue is with prescriptive rules that not only may discourage innovation, but that give the impression that they are almost scientifically authoritative. Unfortunately I think some view McCloud this way (it’s especially tempting for students who are new to the study of comics to adopt his observations as fixed). This is why he uses the term “description,” which is really another way of defining – as you point out, and he does too in the essay. I have always thought that your posts were great examples of this, Roy. Your questions are often framed around functional descriptions of what comics are doing and what is potentially possible in the form. I think (correct me if I’m wrong) that your goal in doing this is clarity, so that the terms of your larger argument can be understood – and not to make judgments about the comic’s value or legitimacy.

    • Also – are you referring to Aaron’s paper from The Art of Comics? I definitely need to read that!

  3. timscomics says:

    I haven’t read the Delany essay (but I’m going to look for it now), so please take my contribution with a Costco-sized grain of salt. For me, the question boils down to whether the definition is well-done or not. Does the definition I’m reading cause me to see something I wouldn’t have seen before? Does it provide some new angle of vision? Like Qiana, I quickly stopped following the definition thread on the comix-scholars list serve; however, I didn’t stop reading the thread because I’m opposed to that sort of enterprise. Rather, I gave up on that particular discussion thread because it quickly began to remind me of a dog chasing its own tail. There was lots of motion, but it wasn’t going anywhere.

    I will say this about the impulse to define comics. Instead of being a formal investigation of the medium, which, as a literature professor, are often important questions that I investigate with students, definitions in comics scholarship often serve as thinly-veiled self-justifications. It’s as if the person who is attempting to provide a definition of comics is actually attempting to justify the study of the medium as a serious art form, one that is worthy of being an object of study, say, in university classrooms. Too often, comics scholarship begins with a definition of the art form, while very few essays on a particular novel begin with a definition of the novel as a literary genre.

    So, in that sense, Qiana, I do agree with you. Let’s skip the definitions and just get on with our work.

    • thinly-veiled self-justifications – yes! and I especially like the comparison that you give with the novel, Tim. Delany makes this point too, that we often don’t (anymore, at least) feel the burden of having to define novels, poems, and plays in literary criticism, even though the styles and narrative approaches vary. But paraliterary criticism continues to retread old ground, starting with definitions and moving on to origins.

      Having said all that, I found the first line of this review of Ware’s Building Stories to be very interesting: “Chris Ware’s new book, Building Stories, isn’t a book at all.”

  4. Brian Cremins says:

    Your post raises a number of questions I’ve been thinking about lately, Qiana, so thanks for this, and for the link to the Delany essay, which I look forward to reading! The nature of paraliterary texts has haunted me since my undergraduate days, when, in a Holocaust literature seminar, some of my fellow students took offense at Spiegelman’s _Maus_. The very idea of reading a comic book (!) about the Holocaust seemed absurd–that is, until they read it (I should mention that this happened in 1994, well before Spiegelman’s text reached the canonical status it now enjoys). I have a vivid recollection of trying to defend the merits of the book to my classmates. I’d never had to defend a comic book before, as I’d spent most of my life to that point reading the letters column in the _Comics Buyer’s Guide_, or Harlan Ellison’s essays on comics, or cat yronwode’s editorials–spaces where the art of comics was a given. I also recall writing a paper about how _Maus_ fit within the larger context of comic book history, especially the comics “renaissance” of the 1980s. So even then I was trying to frame and “justify” these texts!

    Now, almost twenty years later, I still have to catch myself when I am writing about comics; I feel almost obligated to include those “thinly-veiled self-justifications,” especially when I am writing for academic journals or other venues whose readers might be skeptical of the significance (value?) of these texts. Even within the realm of comics studies, however, these questions remain significant–for example, is something like Edie Fake’s _Gaylord Phoenix_ a graphic novel? The Ignatz he received last year described it that way. However, he dispenses with the grid format we are accustomed to. Where does his work fit into a larger tradition? Does it even matter? Or, by trying to fit his work into a tradition or canon of some sort, are we silencing him and his attempts to create a form which will give voice to, in his case, the transgender and queer voices he celebrates in his text? (I bring up Fake’s work because I’ve been grappling with these questions as I’ve been writing about his work. I know of no other recent work of comics which contains so many “celebrational pleasures” while also so radically challenging the limits of the form.)

    And, for that matter, when reflecting on or asserting the origins or history of comic art–the line which for some might lead from Krazy Kat to Chris Ware, to borrow your example–are we creating a univocal discourse which will limit the field, leaving it the exclusive domain of the illusory “critical mastery” Delany refers to? I hope not. Comics have been and remain an exciting form because for most of their history (there is that word again!) they have resisted classification, or have offended those with the power to establish the classifications.

    So looking forward to reading more on this topic! Thanks, Qiana!

    • I enjoyed reading your comment, Brian. I hadn’t heard of Gaylord Phoenix, but I’ll be adding that to my list now. If you get a chance to read the Delany piece, you’ll have to let me know if I’m off the mark or not. I do think, though, that he also expresses an appreciation and knowledge of comics history in general, so we shouldn’t be afraid to refer to it when it can be useful. But to those who say that one comic has more value or greatness because it draws upon an older, cherished style or approach in a well-received comic seems to foster the kind of univocal discourse your mentioned. I think that makes sense to me – to acknowledge the history but not be bound by it.

      Also – you should write a guest post for the blog! Maybe something on Fake’s work? If you ever have the time/interest, let me know.

  5. roytcook says:

    I definitely agree with Tim and Qiana about the role that definitions have tended to play in comics scholarship. More often than not, the definitions aren’t there because the author thinks that having a definition will help the larger theoretical project at hand. Rather, the definition usually serves to justify the worth of the project itself (i.e. the “it’s okay to study comics, once you realize what comics really are” maneuver, of which McCloud is particularly guilty). Of course, the better strategy in such situations is to quote my favorite passage from the introduction to my anthology:

    “In fact, we think this [the status of comics as art and as worthy of serious academic scrutiny] should be non-controversial… (at least, by anyone who knows anything about comics and about art more generally).” (p. xvi)

    In short, as I tell my students, colleagues, deans, etc. whenever anyone dares to point the finger of scoff towards comics (and members of all of these groups do, but usually only once!): If you don’t think comics can be serious art and worthy of serious attention, then you haven’t read many comics or you don’t understand art!

    But back to definitions.

    Regardless of the misuse of definitions in comics studies in the past and present, there might nevertheless be some projects for which having a correct, fruitful, or insightful definition might be helpful. For example, there is a small literature (again, mostly Aaron Meskin) challenging the otherwise unchallenged assumption that comics are a kind of literature (by the way, I think that Aaron is absolutely right in arguing that comics aren’t – or at least, typically aren’t – works of literature). In answering this question, having reasonably accurate definitions of what makes an artifact a work of literature, and of what makes an artifact a comics, would be immensely fruitful,. Further, the project may have big payoffs, since presumably different answers to the “is comics literature?” question will have larger ramifications for our understanding of comics interpretation and, especially, adaptation (both comics-to-film and vice versa).

    Tim’s comment about definitions being well-done or not struck me as worthy of more attention, especially since it might be highlighting disciplinary differences (differences that probably underlie some of the things about my own approach to these issues that Qiana mentioned above). Philosophers (like mathematicians and scientists) care much more about definitions being right than about them being surprising or emphasizing something new. Of course, we always hope that a good definition will allow us to spot something new and surprising – after all, usually we are searching for a definition because we are worried that we don’t really understand the ‘essential nature’ of the subject matter under study (whatever ‘essential nature’ might be!) But an accurate definition that has no exciting consequences still seems superior to a misleading, inaccurate one that allows one to emphasize or notice new things about whatever it is we are studying (at least, it seems that way to me). Of course, if the definition isn’t going to provide any new insights, then one could and should wonder whether no definition at all would be better, and one’s effort expended elsewhere.


    PS: The paper I was referring to is Aaron Meskin’s paper “Defining Comics” in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. But the ontology paper in the anthology we co-edited is good too!

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