Sequential Art: Rows by any other name… by Michael D. Picone

23 Nov

Judging from my recollection, the most animated discussion (pun intended) at the Third International Comics Conference (“Comics Rock,” held at Bournemouth University, June 28-29, 2012) took place in the aftermath of the keynote address given by David Lloyd (Kickback, V for Vendetta) and Steve Marchant (The Cartoonist’s Workshop, The Computer Cartoon Kit). That their address was to be, at some level, reactive to a perceived challenge was a foregone conclusion based on the chosen title, “No Artistic Value that Anyone Can See.” There is a double-entendre in that provocative title. On the face of it, the title seems to allude to a dismissive comment made about the value – or, more precisely, the lack thereof – attributed to the entire genre. Yet simultaneously it is a camouflaged assertion, obtained by astutely rewording an opposing sentiment, namely “artistic value that none can see.” That is indeed the crux of the problem, especially for David Lloyd. The genre has an image problem. Ironically, in the same fashion that the Guy Fawkes mask popularized by David Lloyd immobilizes the physiognomy of the protagonist in V for Vendetta behind an incongruously comical smile, the merit of David Lloyd’s own serious artistic production is continually dissimulated, in large part, by virtue of the blanket use of the baggage-laden umbrella term comics to refer to the whole gamut of sequential art, everything from the Sunday funnies to graphic novels of notoriety such as V for Vendetta. It is certainly by design that the objectionable word is absent from the title of the keynote talk. Why continue to tacitly dignify a word, simply by virtue of using it, that one wishes to overthrow? Sequential art is the term David Lloyd would like to promote in its place.

I repeat here something I first mentioned in the discussion that immediately followed that keynote address: Historically speaking, sequential art is not alone in its disrespected misery. In order to thrive and evolve into something of substance, many art forms have gone through a necessary struggle and, in part, a revolt against their own roots before becoming something more than a diversion: fictional writing and film are examples. The process is not easy and the trajectories will not be the same, but sequential art is now pursuing a similar path in attempting to liberate itself from the constraints of its past, as perceived in the public eye. Of course the parameters of this problem are not the same in every country where sequential art has had prominence. For example, though usually not accorded the same standing as works of literary prose or poetry, there is nevertheless widespread acceptance of bande dessinée as a worthy art form in Francophone Europe.

But to take up David Lloyd’s lament, to what extent does nomenclature help or hinder the process of legitimization? It is certainly true that we can and do dignify an object of our attention by virtue of the nomenclature that we choose. We study film and cinematography; we do not study movies and talking pictures. But the latter died on its own, and movies is still well entrenched in informal usage. And let’s not forget motion pictures, which, though much less current, retains its dignity, even though it is transparently identical in origin to the term movies. So before jettisoning comics and jumping on the sequential art bandwagon, let’s consider some of the linguistic pros and the cons associated with the vocabulary used to designate the genre. To create a basis for comparison, let’s begin by looking at French.

The term “bande dessinée,” it has been asserted (Le Grand Robert de la langue française), was introduced in the early 1930s by the French-based editor Paul Winkler who was importing American comic strips for publication in France. The term is a loose translation retaining strip in the form of bande. Whether a conscious act or fortuitous, the elimination of comic in favor of the neutral term déssinée (‘drawn’ + fem.) has been, one could certainly argue, advantageous in avoiding the transferal of the baggage associated with the former. However, concision is often the mother of linguistic invention. Though semantically advantageous for the reason cited, bande dessinée needed a concise alternative. English had already arrived at one: comic paper (1883, Oxford English Dictionary) became comics (1889, OED), which continued in usage as the handy umbrella term for everything to follow, including comic strip (1920, OED) and comic book (1941, OED), leading to our present trouble. But for all its happy neutrality, bande dessinée did not similarly lend itself to reduction by virtue of the pluralization of one of its components and the suppression of the other. Instead, French users resorted, in the first instance, to using the initials BD (since 1966, Le Grand Robert). Economy of reference is surely one of the most important factors contributing to our stubborn retention of the word comics in the Anglophone world. For all its trouble, comics is a concise form that neatly sums up an entire genre. While graphic novel has gained some currency in general use, it cannot compete for economy of form or generality of reference, and it comes with semantic baggage of its own: graphic can connote explicitness in the portrayal of violence or sexuality. Though still lacking in economy of form, graphic narrative and graphic storytelling, and David Lloyd’s preferred sequential art, are less problematic alternatives on other counts.

However, along with concision, the need for derivation can also drive neological activity. By opting for a neological device that, though present, is less robust in English (let it be noted in passing, this is somewhat exceptional; by and large, English is less constrained than French when it comes to lexical creativity and word building), BD was converted into the homophonic transcription bédé (1974) in order to provide a suitable root for a range of affixationally derived terms: bédéiste (a useful general term referring to any type of BD author or artist), bédéthèque (BD store, BD library or large private collection), bédéphile (someone who is a fan of BD), bédéphage (someone who is an avid consumer of BD), etc. By way of comparison, comics does not lend itself well to affixational derivation. Nor do, for that matter, the series of compounded terms incorporating graphic. While graphic novelist and graphic writer are possible, graphic artist and graphic designer are already taken, leading to the confusion of semantic fields. On the other hand, sequential art, absent the art (a plus in terms of concision), can at least buy us sequentialist and sequentialism, which in fact are beginning to see some currency (though there can be semantic confusion here as well due to prior usage in the domains of musicology and philosophy). In abandoning comics, however, what little is gained in affixational possibilities, is lost when it comes to compounding. Comics lends itself with alacrity to the formation of a series of compounds: comic paper, comic strip, comic book, comic art, comics studies, comic-con, web comics, etc. The term graphic is also found in a series of compounds, but not devoid of semantic and structural infelicities, as already noted. The term sequential, however, appears to be the least combinable of all, becoming a kind of rhetorical tautology if united with the same components as graphic, components where sequence is already implicit: *sequential storytelling, *sequential novel, *sequential writer, etc. Sequential only works when juxtaposed to art or artist.

I understand and appreciate that David Lloyd has a strong personal stake in the proper dignification of the art form that underlies his life and livelihood. But no matter what nomenclature is chosen to designate the genre, the choice will not be baggage-free. There will be incongruities owing to the pragmatics of the term’s past use and past associations, and there will be inherent restraints based on the particular term’s combinatorial limitations. Ironically, given the referential trouble that accompanies comics in Anglophone regions, in some other countries, the borrowing comic is the very term being used to dignify the genre, since the native term carries with it child-oriented connotations (for this reason, in Spain, el tebeo alternates with el comíc). For the foreseeable future and until usage dictates otherwise, since no single term appears to be optimal, we will, no doubt, continue to juggle a number of different expressions, including but not limited to David Lloyd’s favorite, sequential art.

Michael D. Picone is Professor of French and Linguistics at the University of Alabama. During a nine-year residency in France, he earned his doctoral degree at the Sorbonne (Université de Paris IV). He is author of Anglicisms, Neologisms and Dynamic French (1996), a detailed study of borrowings and other types of lexical creativity in the French of France, is a co-author of the Dictionary of Louisiana French as Spoken in Cajun, Creole and American Indian Communities (2010), and is co-editor of Language Variety in the South: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives (forthcoming). He is also author of “Teaching Franco-Belgian Bande Dessinée” (in Teaching the Graphic Novel, ed. S.E. Tabachnick, 2009). For a more detailed summary of his background and program of research, please visit

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Posted by on 2012/11/23 in Guest Writers


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