Comics Theory and Comics Traditions

We can understand the world of comics better by identifying dominant traditions that have shaped it into what it is today. This can be done in many ways; for this essay, I've focused on three distinct traditions that have pushed comics in contradictory directions: the cartoon, the poster, and cinema.


The cartoon tradition is the closest to home, since the development of the cartoon image is parallel with the development of the newspaper comic strip. I'm defining the cartoon as a style which exaggerates and simplifes the appearance of the characters and often the background, where anthropomorphism and caracature are commonly used, and where it is an assumption that the normal laws of reality do not apply.

The most important figure in the cartoon tradition in comics is underground cartoonist Robert Crumb. Crumb took the childish cartoon style and used it for scathing satire and dark sexual fantasies.


The poster tradition is the one most foreign to the development of the comic strip, but by contrast, it has had the greatest influence on the comic book. In equating this tradition with the 'poster' I mean any kind of eye-catching display art, from movie posters to pulp magazine covers to circus billboards.

The essential difference here between the comic book and the comic strip is size. In the strips, only the Sunday pages of an earlier era had enough space to emulate poster design and layout. comic books, on the other hand, have always used the poster approach to attract reader attention.

The most important figure in the development of the poster tradition in comics is superhero artist Jack Kirby, whose hyperkinetic figure drawing and spectacular double-page spreads are widely imitated.


The cinema and the comic strip are physically similar; each is a series of pictures that combine to tell a story. In practice, though, the cinema is a more realistic and visually-sophisticated medium. Over the years, many cartoonists have been inspired to imitate the photographic realism of the cinema and the methods it uses to tell stories with pictures.

The most important figure in the development of the cinematic tradition in comics is Will Eisner. His ingenious layouts succeed in utilizing the montage techniques of film editing (in the montage technique, many pictures are used in combination to create an overall impression of a scene). Eisner's shadowy film-noir style is a constant reminder of his source of inspiration.


These three traditions have distinct and contrasting characteristics that affect the comic book form.

For example, in the area of story values, the cartoon tradition emphasizes characterization. The whole point of the exaggerations and caracature of the faces is to portray character. And when the stories do not take place within the context of a stable reality, the characters are the only consistent, tangible thing for the reader to focus on.

For poster-oriented comics, spectacle is the most important story value, since monsters, disasters, colorful costumes and death-defying stunts have the most potential for creating sensational splash pages. It's not surprising that the superhero genre reigns supreme, since it delivers all of these elements in abundance.

For cinematic comics, realism is the most important story value, since this approach is designed to emulate the involving realism of film. By 'realism' I mean that the setting is concrete, stable, and internally consistent; an SF or fantasy story can also have this sort of 'realism.' Story plot is also at the forefront in cinematic comics, since it is within the context of a stable, internally-consistent setting, a realistic or quasi-realistic setting, that a plot is most compelling.

Stylistically, the three traditions bring to the forefront different graphic techniques. For the cartoon, the contour line and character design are the most important stylistic tools. For the poster-oriented comic, the use of color and the overall page layout are the most important. For cinematic comics, the use of light and shade, and the breaking down of the scene into panels are the most important stylistic factors.

The three traditions bring with them distinct ways of portraying action. For comics in the cartoon tradition, the characters tend to be drawn at the same size in successive panels; their movements tend to be along a single plane, from left to right.

For poster-oriented comics, the action typically explodes outward from the page into the reader's face, with everything happening at once in a single panel.

For cinematic comics, the characters are displayed in closeups and long shots, from every angle. They move in a greater variety of directions, and action is often portrayed by montages of panels, each of which shows only a fragment of the completed action.

The three traditions differ in their use of text. For stories in cartoon tradition, text is for the most part dialog between the characters; oftentimes this dialog 'carries' the entire story.

For comics in the poster tradition, captions are used extensively to fill in the details and pull together the various illustrated spectacles into a coherent narrative.

Cinematic comics, on the other hand, often rely on the pictures alone to convey the story, with minimal dialog and few captions.


Each of the three approaches has inherent limitations and pitfalls.

For poster-oriented comics, it is the tendency of the depicted spectacular events to completely take over the story, eliminating characterization, plot, and logic. Poster comics are pretty to look at, but they usually leave you with a big empty feeling.

For comics in the cartoon tradition, the lack of realism is a drawback, because it reduces opportunities in the story for suspense and seriousness. Also, when characerization is tied to the exaggeration and caracture of facial features, it encourages the reader to judge the characters by their appearance instead of their actions, which is an immature mode of thinking.

The main drawback of cinematic comics is that they are often too complicated and difficult to follow-- comic book panels are too small, and there aren't enough of them to carry a story on their own, the way a motion picture can.

Of course, most comics are combinations of cartoon, poster, and cinematic traditions (including the works of Crumb, Kirby, and Eisner). But critics are often guilty of taking the values and assumptions that apply to one tradition, and using them to judge work being done in an entirely different tradition. It doesn't make sense to favor one rendering style over another, or one method of using text over another, without regard to the kind of comic you're talking about, and what cartooning tradition it's following.

(This essay was published in a substantially different form in THE GREEN SKULL).