Defining "Comic Books"

Previously I outlined our first four goals with this project this way:

  1. Define what we mean by a “comic book"
  2. Find out how many “comic books” were published in each year
  3. Randomly select two per cent of those to form a data set
  4. Track down electronic or physical copies that are in the data set

Yesterday the three investigators on this project sat down to talk about this for the first time since we received our grant funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. It was an epic four-hour Skype call, much of which addressed that first point.

Here’s the sticking point - this is an interdisciplinary team. Bart Beaty is trained in Communication Studies but works in an English department. Ben Woo is trained in Communications and works in Communications. Nick Sousanis is trained in Art Education and is hoping to continue in that area. Nick is a practicing artist, Ben was an aspiring artist, Bart can’t draw a lick. So we all come to this project with slightly different backgrounds and interests. We all want to use the data set that we will produce to do slightly different things. This is, we believe, one of the strengths of the team-based approach. But it also means that we have to initially get on the same page before we can even take the first steps.

So: what are we actually studying? “American comic books”. Great. But what are those exactly? Are we referring to a publishing format? If so, we need to start from the fact that the “American comic book” has been 64 pages, 52 pages, 36 pages, even occasionally 80 or 100 pages, and that its dimensions are not constant. If we focus on format we lose magazine-sized comics from Warren and Fantagraphics and we lose digest-sized comics from Archie, even though all of those things seem, intuitively, to be comics. Moreover, we predetermine a good deal of our results. Format, distribution channel, publisher - all of these were considered and rejected as inadequate starting points. 

In the end we returned to something that I wrote in my book Comics Versus Art:

By conceptualizing comics as the products of a particular social world, rather than as a set of formal strategies, it is possible to highlight the various conventions that are frequently used by comics artists. While most theorists of comics have come to identify certain traits (sequential images, word/text relations, continuing characters, reproducibility, word balloons, and so on) as essential to the comics form, given the difficulties presented by border cases, of which children's illustrated picture books and artist’s book are but two, it seems much more productive to say that these traits are merely conventions of the comics form, rather than defining elements of it.

The key for us moving forward is to study the “social world” of “American comic books”. In a tautological way, you might say that we want to study the “American comic books” that are recognized as “American comic books” by people who create, sell, and read “American comic books”.

So how to do that? 

In our preliminary work so far we have been working with the data in the Grand Comic Book Database. This has been an incredibly useful launching point, but it is not without problems for us because they seem to be more expansive in their definitions than we might be. One solution would simply be to defer to them and use everything that they index, including Ballyhoo and other collections of gag cartoons, and the Spirit Supplements. This seemed to us to be ceding too much authority to a group that has a slightly different mandate than we do.

The solution that we arrived at was to use a three-pronged approach. We will include in our master list any “American comic book” that is included in at least two of these three reference sites: The Grand Comic Book Database; the Overstreet Price Guide; and,

The rationale for these selections is as follows:

The GCD is the most comprehensive public database attempting to catalogue comics production around the world.

The Overstreet Price Guide has been the standard reference work for comic book collectors for more than forty years. While it is admittedly more selective than the GCD, it has had an indelible influence on the self-image of the “comics world” for decades. was selected because it is an extensive site that lists both items for sale even when they are not in stock. It also has a very friendly interface.

We are very interested in hearing suggestions about other sites or indices that seek to be roughly comprehensive descriptors of comic book culture. We did consider The Standard Catalog of Comic Books, but as it has not been updated since 2005 we ruled it out.

So, essentially, we will be making a master list of everything that appears in at least two of these three sources. Relative to our previous posts, this would exclude Ballyhoo (only found in GCD) but would include the Spirit Supplements (found in all three). So that argument is concluded for now.

A few other notes on our initial assumptions:

On reprints. We will be including reprints as separate items. This was contentious, and the question became: Are we studying what was created in the industry at various moments in time, or what was made available to readers? Take Watchmen, for example. We could count Watchmen #1 as a 1986 release and then exclude all of its many reprintings. That would allow us to focus on what was created and when. Yet it seems very important that Watchmen #1 has been reprinted as a trade paperback, a hardcover, an Absolute Edition, as a DC Comics Essentials, particularly as that helps us track the shape of “the comics world” in terms of reprint strategies. Watchmen will just keep turning up. That said, we are only using new editions rather than immediate reprintings to satisfy demand on under-ordered titles.

On translations. We will be including these, where they appear in two of three sources. To exclude them seemed as if it would misrepresent the shape of the field (particularly with the rise of manga). Coding them as a distinct category will allow us to do some interesting things.

On “American”. One of the oddities, given where our funding comes from, is the fact that we are excluding Cerebus and comics published by Drawn and Quarterly. We are not going to include work from Canadian publishers so as to make the our data set coherent. One thing that we all agreed: we hope that we will be able to recruit a graduate student who will use our tools to run a comparative study focusing on Canadian comics. It would be fascinating to see the results.

So, we are beginning with a working definition of our first question, above. We are defining a “comic book” as something that is included in at least two of the three most commonly used databases that define “comic books”.

We are particularly interested in thoughts on this because if we have this step fundamentally wrong it would be better for us to know that before we move on to step two rather than after.

Our next stop to actually compile a master list, from which we will derive our randomized two per cent sample set. That will be a lot of manual labor on the part of our research assistants!