Kleefeld On Webcomics #55: Taxonomy

By Sean Kleefeld

From time to time, I’ve seen a debate pop up online that we should kill the term “webcomics.” That no one except those folks in the business actually runs Google searches on “webcomics” so we should just call them simply “comics.” Since webcomics are becoming the dominant form of the medium that people regularly encounter, the “web” portion of the term is effectively redundant. So let’s take some time to talk about terminology.

“Cartoon” is the earliest of terms that we’ll look at. Originally, it referred to a heavy paper or pasteboard on which the original sketches for a painting or tapestry were made. It has the same root as the word “carton” also referring to the heavy, but cheap, material. The magazine Punch used the term in some of their comics (though not called “comics” at the time!) in the 1840s when parodying the “high art” being used in British Parliament at the time. The illustrations became popularly known as “Mr. Punch’s Cartoons” which was eventually simplified to “cartoons” and then broadened in meaning to any comedic single panel illustration.

The word “comics” comes to us from the Greek “komikos” which means “of or pertaining to comedy.” Many of the earliest examples of what we would readily classify as comics were comedic in nature. They were funny, or comic, so newspapers and magazines referred to the pages devoted to them as funny pages or comic pages. The practice continued even after more serious strips were added. We continue to use the abbreviated form of the words to this day, calling them funnies or comics.

Originally, there was no real need for anything more elaborate. All the funnies (regardless of actual humor content) appeared in only one place, so “comics” was a sufficient description. With the publication of Famous Funnies in the early 1930s, however, there was a need to quickly differentiate between those comics printed in the newspaper versus those that were stand-alone publications. It’s here we begin to see the rise of the terms “comic strip” and “comic book.”

That proved adequate for decades, as there were no real alternatives to those formats. It wasn’t until longer form comics -- ones that were genuinely book length -- began appearing with regularity in the 1970s that another term was deemed necessary. Since “comic book” had, by then, been long associated with the pamphlet style format, the term “graphic novel” was introduced for these longer works, although other terms like “picto novel” and “comics novel” had unsuccessfully been floated previously.

“Webcomics” then comes to us as yet another form of comics requiring some differentiation. Again, the term is used primarily to highlight the difference in the delivery mechanism, although one could easily argue that this is the first instance of the delivery mechanism specifically being referred to in the choice of terms. The term “e-comics” was also tried by some, but I suspect it came late enough that people were already tiring of the “e-” prefix being appended to everything to do with computers.

Throughout this entire time, “comics” was still used to refer to any or all of the above. And, looking at some of the strongest arguments for dropping “webcomics”, that holds true online as well. When I turn my computer on in the morning, one of the first thing I check are the day’s comics -- some of which are webcomics, some of which are newspaper strips that are published online. But they all remain comics.

The term, though, is overbroad for wide use and specificity at the same time. In casual conversation with a co-worker, saying “I read this comic where...” can conjure up a variety of different mental images depending on the listener’s background. Unless and until some of the other forms of comics fall into broad disuse (say, if both the newspaper and comic publishing industries entirely went away) “comics” could well come to mean “webcomics” for most people. But until such time, I think “webcomics” will continue (rightfully so) to be needed to differentiate among the different types of comics that are still widely available.

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Kleefeld On Webcomics #54: Just Like Me

Kleefeld On Webcomics #53: Just Don't

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