Does Subject Matter Define “Comicness”? Can a Religious Icon be a comic?

In class we have approached the debate surrounding “What defines a comic?” by looking to the formal techniques for answers. Should comics have words and images, or only images? Can a comic be only words? In our last class we looked at cave paintings which put into question the idea that comics can take on many physical forms.

The Importance of Content

However, what we haven’t discussed in great detail yet is whether the content can determine a definition, or in other words, are there certain thematic elements that could be used to define comics?

When I was a kid and someone said the word comic to me I would instantly envision a superhero, which would range from batman to ninja turtles. In my mind comics would include a good guy vs bad guy, both cloaked in some cool costumes. As I got older and more knowledgeable about comics I realized that there are multiple fusions of genres and ultimately pointing to one would be impossible. The one thing I am certain of however is that comics are meant to be outlets used for the power of speech, often from the author’s point of view.

Are there controversial  topics that do not fit into the concept of comics?

If defining comics based on a particular genre is not an option then its important to acknowledge topics that challenge people’s idea of “comicness”. The subject of Religion is a tricky one to approach because it is viewed in such extremes on a spectrum that ranges from belief, fantasy to propaganda.

To be considered a comic should there be boundaries regarding the type of content being expressed and could religion be one of those? I would like to look at the Stations of the Cross as an example of a relic that could be considered a comic due to its technical characteristics, however thematically it expresses not a story but a belief system.

The Stations of the Cross as a Case Study


The stations of the cross are a series of artistic representations that depict Jesus carrying the cross. The traditional images were displayed as 14 sculptures or pictures presented in a chronological order without words, and the more modern images are printed on cards with words and sold as sets.

In mStationsfinaly mind there is certainty a good argument for why The Stations of the Cross could be considered a comic, due to its serialized depiction of actions. However what makes it less of a comic and more of an excerpt of the Bible is that the context of the scenario is one that requires a background in order to fully grasp the narrative. Considering that religion is taught not as a story but as a faith infused in our culture it is hard to understand the true significance of the images without believing what they represent. Also if the reader were to try and interpret the images as a fictional story or real life experiences of Jesus Christ they would be unable to separate them from its religious discourse. Ultimately the audience either views the images as a fragmented fictional story or one deeply rooted in the Catholic Faith. If a comic is meant to embody the author’s individual vision then how can we label the Stations of the Cross as doing the same thing when it is meant to express a spiritual movement rooted in our societal norms.

Penelope MacGillivray

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3 Responses to Does Subject Matter Define “Comicness”? Can a Religious Icon be a comic?

  1. Linda Le says:

    I agree with you that subject matter doesn’t define the “comicness” of work. I think comics are just a medium and the subject matter can be anything from the DC/Marvel super hero types to the slice of life or shonen/shoujo styles. Comics I think are the same as any other artistic medium out there. There is a medium such as comics or books, then you have genres such as horror, historical, comedy, etc.

    However, I do doubt if religious pictures such as the ones you presented can be defined as comics. Comics as a term and medium didn’t exist then and to apply the definition to older works that definitely predate comics (as we know it today) seems a bit anachronistic. I think images were mainly used because not everyone was literate back then. It’s much easier to teach ideas and values orally and through the use of images then through the written word. If we use the definition of “juxtaposed images” as our definition for comics then anything can be a comic like a picture book or even a series of photographs. The definition is far to unclear, it’s similar to saying a a movie of a bunch words on the screen is a book. When we say that there is something I feel that is intrinsically wrong. A bunch of scrolling text on a screen is not a book (and let’s not get into a debate about ebooks and such). I’m not sure what defines a comic book, but I think it’s safe to say if we see one we can point it out.

  2. jaygervais says:

    The boundaries between what to call a comic and not seems extremely blurry, and I have often asked myself this same question. Many historical art forms seem to resemble today’s modern comics, including cave paintings, the Egyptian Hieroglyphics, and as you have pointed out, many religious-themed works such as the Stations of the Cross. All of these examples feature a series of sequential images that tell some sort of narrative, which allows them to be read in a comic-like structure, so why not define these examples as comics? Whether or not the subject matter includes themes of religion, sex, politics, royalty, everyday life events, or if it is written in a book or on a wall, they all share similar structures, so what is the major difference?

    What I think separates historical art forms from the comic book label is the marketing that surrounds comics. Cathedral paintings of religious scripture, Egyptian Hieroglyphics, and other such art forms were created for the purpose of preserving knowledge and ideas. There is no doubt that the techniques used by these artists have influenced the art, style, and structures of modern comic books, but they have become separated by the commodification of emerging marketing innovations. Comic books are mass-produced and marketed with an identifiable label, being the comic book, which has lead to its popularity. The term given to comic books is no more than a marketing technique, and despite the comic books similarities to past art forms, it is commodification that that has distinguished its term.

    Jay Gervais

  3. nadim says:

    I honestly think that The Stations of the Cross can be considered a comic. I think peoples reluctance to referring to it as such makes it seem as though that classification of “comic” takes away from the piece. I dont think so; i think that The Stations of the Cross falls into the criteria of what a comic is. It has juxtaposed images, with text, and it tells a story through the combination of its text and images.

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