This article is about the medium and art form of comics. For the entertainers known as comics, see comedians.

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Comics (sometimes spelled comix) are combinations of words and images into a medium for telling stories. They are typically printed on paper, with the most common formats being newspaper strips, magazine-format comic books, and larger bound volumes called graphic novels.

Comics are thought by some to be an art form, also known as sequential art, although whether they are an art form or are merely a medium in which sequential art is practised is still a matter of debate amongst creators, scholars and readers.

Manga is the Japanese term for comics, and French comics are known as Bande Dessinée or "B.D." (literally, "strip drawings"), with the publication formats including comic magazines and graphic albums. In the UK, the term comics most often refers to domestic comic magazines or comic papers, whilst comic books implies that they come from the U.S. Historically, the German term is either Bildergeschichte (picture story) or Bilderstreifen (picture strip), but the term comics is now in common usage. In Italy the term is fumetto (meaning literally little puff of smoke, after the speech balloon). The Spanish use the term historieta to refer to the comic book, whilst in Portugal the phrase história em quadradinhos (story in little squares) is used.

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Little Sammy Sneeze by Windsor McCay


According to The Oxford English Dictionary, the first usage of comics to refer to humourous cartoon strips is in 1889.1

In January of 1977 Gary Groth changed the name of The Nostalgia Journal to The Comics Journal, using his editorial to declare the magazine to be, amongst other things, "...dedicated to serious discussion of one of the most neglected art forms."2


Note: Although it takes the form of a plural noun, the common usage when referring to comics as a medium is to treat it as singular.

Scholars disagree on the definition of comics; some claim its printed format is crucial, some emphasize the interdependence of image and text, and others its sequential nature.

In 1985, Will Eisner published Comics and Sequential Art, defining comics as "the printed arrangement of art and balloons in sequence, particularly in comic books." He differentiated between the medium of comics and the language employed within, which he preferred to name sequential art, defining it as "...the arrangement of pictures or images and words to narrate a story or dramatize an idea."3

In Understanding Comics (1993) Scott McCloud took Eisner's term sequential art, equated it with the medium of comics, and defined both thus: "juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer"4; this definition excludes single-panel illustrations such as The Far Side, The Family Circus, and most political cartoons from the category, instead classifying those as cartoons. By contrast, The Comics Journal's "100 Best Comics of the 20th Century"5, included the works of several single panel cartoonists and a caricaturist.

R.C. Harvey, in his essay Comedy At The Juncture Of Word And Image, offered a competing definition in reference to McCloud's: "...comics consist of pictorial narratives or expositions in which words (often lettered into the picture area within speech balloons) usually contribute to the meaning of the pictures and vice versa."6

However, Eddie Campbell has rejected the expansion of the term comics to define the art form, defining as "humorous art...but with the proviso that in our own times it has come to embrace not only cartoons but comic strips and comic books which are not necessarily humorous due to their own evolutionary patterns, but they remain under this rubric as they evolved from it."

Campbell offered instead that "'graphic storytelling' is the art of using pictures in sequence and its attendant language of forms and techniques, refined over many centuries."7

Most agree that animation, which creates the optical illusion of movement within a static physical frame, is a separate form. With comics, readers connect a series of static images at their own individual pace, usually with each in its own frame. Some digital-media works combine the techniques of comics and animation as a hybrid form.


When and where comics originated is another matter of debate, largely dependent on its definition. Many authors and sources, Scott McCloud being the most recent, observe precedents in Egyptian hieroglyphics, Japanese emaki, European stained glass windows, pre-Columbian Central American manuscripts, and the Bayeux Tapestry.4, 8

However, Roger Sabin has argued that this view is an attempt to co-opt a history with which to somehow justify comics as an art form.9

15th-18th Centuries

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Last image in William Hogarth's The Rake's Progress

Sabin prefers to cite the invention of the printing press as the moment when the form began to crystalis arguing that the medium of comics has been intrinsically linked with printing, and thus whilst variations existed before, they are antecedents and can not be viewed as within the same tradition. 9

An early surviving work which is recognisable as being in the form of comics is Francis Barlow's A True Narrative of the Horrid Hellish Popish Plot(c.1682)10. The Punishments of Lemuel Gulliver by William Hogarth, (1726), is another early work that bears similarities of form, although Eddie Campbell has argued7 that these may be more a collection of cartoons rather than actual comics. Other notable artists producing work in this period are Thomas Rowlandson, Jan Vandergucht, James Gillray and George Cruikshank. Rowlandson and Gillray are credited with having codified the speech balloon in its present form8, from the previous convention of having speech represented by banners.

An example of Rowlandson's work from 1782, satirising the politics of the day, shows it to be an early variation of the strip cartoon. His work popularised the strip form as a pictorial narrative8.

The 19th Century

Rodolphe Töpffer, a Francophone Swiss artist, is the key figure of early part of the 19th century. His work is reprinted throughout Europe and in the U.S., creating a market on both continents for similar works11.

In 1845 Töpffer formalised his thoughts on the picture storyin his Essay on Physiognomics: "To construct a picture-story does not mean you must set yourself up as a master craftsman, to draw out every potential from your material—often down to the dregs! It does not mean you just devise caricatures with a pencil naturally frivolous. Nor is it simply to dramatize a proverb or illustrate a pun. You must actually invent some kind of play, where the parts are arranged by plan and form a satisfactory whole. You do not merely pen a joke or put a refrain in couplets. You make a book: good or bad, sober or silly, crazy or sound in sense."12

Sir Ernst Gombrich certainly felt Töpffer to have evolved a new pictorial language, that of an abbreviated art style, which worked by allowing the audience to fill in gaps with their own imagination13.

Satirical drawings in newspapers were popular through much of the 19th century. In Britain, in 1841, Punch, a magazine containing such drawings launched.9 In 1843 Punch referred to its 'humourous pencilings' as cartoons in satirical reference to Parliament, who were organising an exhibition of cartoons at the time. This usage became common parlance and has lasted into the present day6. Similar magazines containing cartoons in continental Europe included Fliegende Blätter and Charivari, whilst in the U.S. Judge and Puck were popular14.

In Germany in 1865 Max and Moritz by Wilhelm Busch was published within a newspaper. This strip is thought to be a significant fore-runner of the comic strip.15

It is around this time that Manhua, the Chinese form of comics, started to formalise, a process that lasted up until 1927, according to Wendy Siuyi Wong, author of Hong Kong Comics: A History of Manhua (ISBN 1568982690).

Ally Sloper's Half Holiday, (1884), is reputed to be the first comic strip magazine to feature a recurring character. In 1890 two more comic magazines debuted to the British public, Comic Cuts and Illustrated Chips. These magazines also republished American material, previously published in newspapers in the US. They established the tradition of the British comic as being a periodical containing comic strips.

In the US R.F. Outcault's Hogan's Alley, (1895), is widely recognized as the first ongoing newspaper strip to feature regular characters. Its success in promoting newspaper sales prompted the creation of other strips, and marks the beginning of comics as an ongoing popular art form as it is still known in the 21st century.

The 20th Century

The term comics almost certainly migrated to the US from Britain, but in the US came to define early newspaper strips, which initially featured humorous narratives , hence the adjective comic. In 1929, strips started to broaden their content, with Buck Rogers and Tarzan launching the action genre. More strips followed, with the term comic quickly adopting through popular usage to refer to the form rather than the content.

Collections of these strips, already common by 1929, were referred to as comic books. The Funnies, (1929), is reputed to be the first four-color comic newsstand publication in the United States. Newspaper strips were also called funnies and the collections funny books, though the latter term has faded from general use.

1929 also saw the first appearance of Tintin, with the first collection being published in 1931 in the European comic album format.

By 1935 comic books were commisioning original material, mostly influenced by the pulp magazines of the day, whilst also repackaging foreign material. Will Eisner was one who supplied foreign material, and in hs retooling of the material to fit the comic book format Eisner is credited with inventing the grammar of the comic book.

In 1938 Action Comics issue one was published, featuring the first appearance of Superman and ushering in the Golden Age of Comic Books.

After World War II the form in Japan, known as manga started to take shape, due to the lifting of a ban on non-propaganda publications. European comics also resumed publication.

The modern double usage of the term comic, as an adjective describing a genre, and a noun designating an entire medium, has been criticised as confusing and misleading. In the 1960s and 1970s, underground cartoonists used the spelling comix to distinguish their work from mainstream newspaper strips and juvenile comic books; ironically, although their work was written for an adult audience, it was usually comedic in nature as well, so the "comic" label still fit. The term graphic novel was popularised in the late 1970s, having been coined at least two decades previous, to distance the material from this confusion.

In the 1980s comics scholarship started to blossom in the US, and a resurgance in the popularity of comics was seen, with Alan Moore and Frank Miller producing notable superhero works and Bill Watterson's Calvin & Hobbes being syndicated.

In 2005 Robert Crumb's work was exhibited in galleries both sides of the Atlantic, and The Guardian newspaper devoted it's tabloid supplement to a week long exploration of his work and idioms.

Artistic Medium

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An artist sketching out a comics page

Comics artists will generally sketch a drawing in pencil before going over the drawing again in ink, using either a pen or a brush. Artists will also make use of a lightbox when creating the final image in ink. Some artists, Brian Bolland being a notable example, are now using digital means to create artwork, with the published work being the first physical appearance of the artwork.

Fumetti, (sometimes called fotonovelas), are comics using photographs instead of illustrations, with speech balloons added. By some definitions (including McCloud's, above) the definition of comics extends to digital media such as web comics and sprite comics.

Art Styles

Whilst almost all comics art is in some sense abbreviated, and also whilst every artist who has produced comics work brings their own individual approach to bear, some broader art styles have been identified.

The basic styles have been identified as realistic and cartoony, with a huge middle ground for which R. Fiore has coined the phrase liberal. Fiore has also expressed distaste with the terms realistic and cartoony, preferring the terms literal and freestyle, repectively.

Scott McCloud has created The Big Triangle ( as a tool for thinking about comics art. He places the realistic representation in the bottom left corner, with iconic representation, or cartoony art, in the bottom right, and a third identifier, abstraction of image, at the apex of the triangle. This allows the placement and grouping of artists by triangulation.

  • The cartoony style is one which utilises comic effects and a variation of line widths as a means of expression. Noted exponents of this style are Carl Barks, Will Eisner and Jeff Smith.
  • The realistic style, also referred to as the adventure style is the one developed for use within the adventure strips of the 1930s. They required a less cartoony look, and used the illustrations found in pulp magazines as a basis. This style became the basis of the superhero comic book style, since Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel originally worked Superman up for publication as an adventure strip.

The Language

As noted above, two distinct definitions have been used to define comics as an art form: the combination of both word and image; and the placement of images in sequential order. However, it is worth noting that both definitions are lacking, in that the first excludes any sequence of wordless images; and the second excludes single panel cartoons such as editorial cartoons. The purpose of comics is certainly that of narration, and so that must be an important factor in defining the art form.

Comics, as sequential art, emphasise the pictorial representation of a narrative. This means comics are not an illustrated version of standard literature, and whilst some critics argue that they are a hybrid form of art and literature, others contend comics are a new and separate art; an integrated whole, of words and images both, where the pictures do not just depict the story, but are part of the telling. In comics, creators transmit expression through arrangement and juxtaposition of either pictures alone, or word(s) and picture(s), to build a narrative.

The narration of a comic is set out through the layout of the images, and whilst there may be many people who work on one work, like films, there is one vision of the narrative which guides the work. The layout of images on a page can be utilised by artists to convey the passage of time, to build suspense or to highlight action.

Conservation Issues

Comics, being a printed medium, should be stored in cool, dark places, as sunlight can bleach the pages, and heat and moisture can also damage them. Sunlight can also react with the paper, causing it to "yellow", as well as having a bleaching effect on the inks used within the comic.

Some collectors advise against storing comics in cardboard boxes, or using backing boards, as these are both sources of acid which can react with the fibres of the paper of comics, eventually destroying a comic. If these products are used to store comics, these collectors advise using products marked as acid free.

Mylar, polyethylene or polypropylene storage bags are popular, and allow a comic to be "bagged" in a contained environment, and have become the traditional way of storing comics. Most comic shops now sell comics already in bags, and although the quality of the bag can vary, all bags are of archival quality, meaning there is nothing in the composition of the bag which will harm the comic. It is argued these bags help to protect comics when stored in cardboard boxes, although it is also said to be inadvisable to place cardboard backing boards inside a bag with a comic book, as this may concentrate the effect of acid deteriation.

Corrugated plastic boxes can offer greater protection against acid, whilst also offering better protection against moisture damage or damage caused by vermin, and are prefferred by some collectors.

Original art can also be protected against direct sunlightand against acid deteriation by using an archival quality frame and ultraviolet colored glass.

List of comics collections

Many private collections of comics exist, and they have also started to find their way onto the shelves of public libraries. Museums and Universitys with notable collections of comics include:

Related Articles

Comic Formats

Regional categories

Comic Genres

Comics awards

Artistic techniques

Comics Creators

Comics Movements



Further Reading

  • Mike Benton, The Comic Book in America Taylor Publishing 1989
  • David Collier, The Aesthetics of Comics
  • Will Eisner Comics and Sequential Art Poorhouse Press 1985
  • Will Eisner Graphic Storytelling Poorhouse Press 1995
  • Mark Estren A History of Underground Comics Straight Arrow Press 1987
  • Ron Goulart Over 50 Years of American Comic Books Publications International 1991
  • Ron Goulart The Funnies: 100 Years of American Comic Strips
  • R. C. Harvey The Art of the Comic Book: an Aesthetic History University of Mississippi 1995
  • R. C. Harvey The Art of the Funnies: an Aesthetic History University of Mississippi 1994
  • Gerard Jones & Will Jacobs The Comic Book Heroes Prima 1996
  • David Kunzle A History of the Comic Strip University of California 1973 and 1989
  • Harvey Kurtzman From Aargh to Zap! Prentice Hall 1991
  • Rick Marschall America’s Great Comic Strip Artists Cross River Press 1989
  • Scott McCloud Understanding Comics - the Invisible Art HarperCollins 1994
  • Trina Robbin A Century of Women Cartoonists Kitchen Sink 1992
  • Roger Sabin Comics, Comix and Graphic Novels: a History of Comic Art Phaidon 1996
  • ed. Bill Blackbeard & M. Williams The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics Smithsonian Institute 1988
  • ed. Bill Blackbeard & Dale Crain The Comic Strip Century two-volume slipcased collection Kitchen Sink 1995
  • ed. Gary Groth & R. Fiore The New Comics Berkley Books 1988
  • The Comics Journal magazine



External links

ca:Còmic da:Tegneserie de:Comic eo:Komikso es:historieta fr:Bande dessinée he:קומיקס id:Komik is:Teiknimyndasaga it:Fumetto la:comicus mk:Стрип nl:Stripverhaal nn:Teikneserie no:Tegneserie pl:Komiks pt:Quadrinhos simple:Comics fi:Sarjakuva sv:Tecknad serie zh:漫画


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