Comic creator Will Eisner’s 1985 analysis of his own medium, Comics & Sequential Art, was an important step in freeing a long marginalized and ancient medium. The need for the cumbersome term “sequential art” shows the cultural baggage that the term “comics” carries with it. The earlier tendency of 1970’s underground comic artists to spell their medium “comix” was a similar gesture. In his book, Eisner considers comics not in terms of film or literature, but as its own medium, with its own considerations. He created a teaching tool to free the panels and dialogue bubbles of the comics page.
Almost a decade later, Scott McCloud surveyed comics and made prescriptions concerning the medium, presenting his ideas, appropriately, as comics themselves. His book Understanding Comics studies the capabilities and obstacles inherent to comics. He investigates the medium as Gotthold Ephraim Lessing did painting and poetry in “Laocoon.”
Now that intellectual culture was beginning to embrace comics, artists needed to learn how to do more than justify their medium, but create masterpieces. By stepping out of the shadows of books and movies, comics have flourished, experiencing a modern renaissance. In a phone conversation I had with McCloud several years ago, he cited the moment he realized this:
In 2001, sitting on a panel (along with Eisner) at the Chicago Humanities Festival, which for the first time designated comics as its own art form, he counted four Pulitzer Prize winners. It was a medium that had found its own terms.
Comics, as an art form, was once content to consider itself a bastardization of other media. Great works only emerge from this medium when they are considered on their own terms.
Lessing observed that painting and poetry are compromised when they attempt each other’s tasks. Hypermedia, like comics until very recently, is still a slave to old forms. Through experimentation and by analyzing its uses we can discover its fundamental affinities.