Peter Halley. Exploding Cell. 1994. Series of nine screenprints, composition and sheet (each): 36 1/2 × 47 1/8" (92 × 119.7 cm). Edition Schellmann, New York, Heinrici Silkscreen, New York, Edition: 32. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the artist. © 2021 Peter Halley

Welcome to the first article in our four-part series, How to Make Comics. It’s no secret that we at MoMA love comics—be sure to check out the series Drawn to MoMA, for example. For one, comics and graphic novels are an art form in their own right, presenting beautiful illustrations alongside stories that resonate with us all. But comics can offer so much more than entertainment—they’re also an amazing tool for learning.

Comics and graphic novels can help young people develop language skills and critical thinking, while nourishing their creativity and self-expression. It also allows students who may not be comfortable writing to express themselves in a different way—we have seen this happen with English Language Learners, for example. We hope this series will not only provide you with a deeper understanding of comics as a tool for visual storytelling, but will also impart ideas about how to incorporate them into your classroom and home teaching.

Each week, comics scholar and writer Chris Gavaler joins us to explore a new topic by digging into questions like, “What are the elements of a comic?” At the end of each article, we’ll also share creative prompts and resources that you can adapt for personal use or classroom activities.
—Larissa Raphael and Arlette Hernandez, Department of Education

Jacob Lawrence. The migrants arrived in great numbers. 1940–41

Jacob Lawrence. The migrants arrived in great numbers. 1940–41

Comics and the fine arts are not distant, walled-off fortresses. They can coexist in the same room—sometimes on the walls, sometimes on the coffee table—though which is which may surprise you.

So what exactly are comics?

There are two kinds of answers. The first is the most common: they are cartoons in the funnies sections of newspapers and the pages of comic books. They usually tell stories about superheroes or talking animals. The longer format, often called graphic novels, can be more serious and include personal memoirs—Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis are some of the best known. This kind of answer lets things like genre and style define the term, treating comics as a type of publication. Let’s call it “the comics medium.”

But that’s not where you’ll find most of the comics at MoMA—at least it won’t be if you look beyond medium to think about comics as a form. Whereas the comics medium focuses on the context surrounding a work when it’s published, the comics form describes the physical aspects of the work itself. This other definition of comics consists of just two words: juxtaposed images. Any work of art that divides into two or more side-by-side parts is formally a comic. So if an artist creates two images and places them next to each other, they’re working in the comics form.

The difference between these two definitions often goes unnoticed because most works that are in the comics medium are also in the comics form. That’s because, in addition to whatever other qualities they may possess, comics in newspapers and comic books are also juxtaposed images. The reverse is not true though: many works that are in the comics form are not in the comics medium.

And MoMA is filled with those kinds of comics.

Look at Andy Warhol’s Jacqueline Kennedy III. It consists of four images arranged in a 2 × 2 grid, a common layout in traditional comics. If that same arrangement appeared in a comic book, viewers would likely look at the images in a certain order: either as two rows or as two columns, starting with the top left image and ending in the bottom right. That’s the learned viewing path for reading words in English, which is why it’s common to say that we “read” comics even if the comic is wordless.

Warhol’s work is wordless too, so it doesn’t have many of the elements found in the comics medium. There are no speech balloons, no thought bubbles, no onomatopoeia sound effects. The four images also have practically no space between them, so there’s no gutter—the term for empty space between panels in a comic. These are conventions of the comics medium, but none are necessary parts of the comics form.

Andy Warhol. Jacqueline Kennedy III from 11 Pop Artists, Volume III. 1965, published 1966

Andy Warhol. Jacqueline Kennedy III from 11 Pop Artists, Volume III. 1965, published 1966

Any work of art that divides into two or more side-by-side images is formally a comic.... And MoMA is filled with those kinds of comics.

Roy Lichtenstein. Drowning Girl. 1963

Roy Lichtenstein. Drowning Girl. 1963

Ultimately, what distinguishes Jacqueline Kennedy III from the works we usually label as comics is just context. Juxtaposed images that hang in MoMA’s galleries are fine art, but when juxtaposed images are published in newspapers and comics books, they suddenly are labeled “comics.”

Sometimes the conventions of the comics medium are so culturally pervasive, a work of art can be called a comic just by evoking them. Roy Lichtenstein’s Drowning Girl is probably the best-known example. Lichtenstein cropped and copied the image from the opening splash page of the DC romance comic book Secret Hearts issue #83, drawn by illustrator Tony Abruzzo. Both the original and Lichtenstein’s appropriation include a thought balloon, but the style of the figure would likely evoke the comics medium by itself. It is simplified and idealized in a manner common to comics published in the preceding decade or two.

Lichtenstein called Abruzzo’s art, and that of others working in the same style, “cartoon images.” The term has a long history. Beginning in the 1600s, “cartoon” referred to the cardboard-like material artists used for preliminary sketches. After the British magazine Punch published a set of mock architectural sketches for a planned parliamentary building in 1843, “cartoon” came to mean any satirical illustration drawn in the simplified and exaggerated style of caricature. And because the majority of art published in the comics medium has been drawn in related styles, “cartoons” and “comics” are sometimes used interchangeably.

Some cartoon characters, Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse, for example, are so well-designed that their silhouette is all we need to recognize them. Silhouettes are among the most simplified images possible because they reduce a figure to a single contour line with no interior details. Using a repeatable shape to represent the same character usually involves some exaggeration too, because it highlights and emphasizes certain areas that become defining features.

Kara Walker. Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart. 1994

Kara Walker. Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart. 1994

Look at Kara Walker’s Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart. Though the title character is never named or explicitly identified, the repetition of a female figure with distinctively shaped hair in profile creates the impression of a single individual shown multiple times in multiple situations. Most of us will probably try to “read” these images from left to right, while making the assumption that they appear in chronological order. This sequence also suggests a story, another convention of the comics medium.

Gone, then, is not only juxtaposed images—and therefore in the comics form—but also happens to be a narrative told in the primary cartoon style of the comics medium. And yet, if we maintain the assumption that all “comics” must be published by a traditional comics publisher, Gone isn’t a comic.

Jacob Lawrence’s 1941 Migration Series offers another example of an unexpected comic in the MoMA collection. Unlike Walker, who places her images side-by-side on a single surface, Lawrence’s 60 paintings are juxtaposed in the manner of film images—one after the other. Lawrence tells a more straightforward story, a nonfiction chronicle of Black workers leaving the South to travel north during World War II. Like traditional comics, the Migration Series incorporates words, usually a one-sentence caption for each “panel”—a term used for images in comics. Hal Foster’s syndicated comics series Prince Valiant follows a similar format and appeared in newspapers the same year that Lawrence was painting his sequence.

Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series in the MoMA collection gallery In and Around Harlem

Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series in the MoMA collection gallery In and Around Harlem

Lawrence’s expressionistic figures are also simplified and exaggerated, the two defining qualities of cartoons. He tends to apply color in mostly undifferentiated blocks defined by the exterior edges of objects rather than by an object’s internal shades and depths. His style is coincidentally similar to comic books of the same period—though comic book colors were produced by four-tone printers. Despite all of its overlapping features, few viewers would think of the Migration Series as a comic, but that’s only because the word is associated more with the medium than the form.

Understanding that comics have more than one definition places them in relation to a much larger world of visual art—one they were always a part of despite attitudes about the relative value of different publishing contexts. Just as importantly, recognizing a formal definition of comics brings new modes of analysis and appreciation to works that have never before been seen through a comics lens.

Art that hangs in MoMA’s galleries—like Warhol’s Jacqueline Kennedy III, Walker’s Gone, and Lawrence’s Migration Series—shares the same form as the popular graphic novels on bookstore shelves. Recognizing that fact opens new possibilities for each.

Chris Gavaler is co-author of Creating Comics: A Writer’s and Artist’s Guide and Anthology and author of the forthcoming The Comics Form: The Art of Sequenced Images.

Try This!

Each week, we’ll share some creative prompts inspired by Chris Gavaler’s articles. Whether you’re a teacher, parent, or artist, you can use these prompts as creative inspiration for your own art making, or as activities to engage children and teenagers.

This week, we’re focusing on the word juxtaposition, which describes the practice of placing two things side-by-side, either for comparison or, in this case, to create an interesting effect.

We invite you to explore the MoMA Collection Online and select two to five images that appeal to you. Once you have chosen your images, play with their arrangement to see what types of stories or meanings they reveal. If you’re adapting this activity for the classroom, feel free to print out several images for your students, instructing them to create a story by pairing two to five images. You can even encourage your students to add speech bubbles or narration boxes to each image to make the story even more apparent!