Does X Mark the Spot?

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You may have noticed the name of this column, "TIME.comix," and wondered about the "misspelling." In fact, the use of the "x" has been somewhat controversial since it first appeared in the mid-1960s. If you want to argue over semantics, and I do, "comix" works better than "comics."

The etymology of the word relates to the origins of the medium. When humorous cartoon strips first appeared in magazines and newspapers in the late 1800s they were referred to, quite naturally and accurately, as "comics." The Oxford English Dictionary gives the first use in this context in 1889. In the 1910s some of the these strips' runs were collected together and printed as periodicals in their own right. The word naturally carried over to describe these literal comic books.

"Comix," as a word and concept, first appeared in the mid-1960s, and described a radical new subgenre of black-and-white, adult-oriented, "underground" comic books. The appearance of these books coincided with an entire cultural atmosphere of rebellion and self-declaration that encouraged such renaming. Even the choice of the "x" over "ks," for example, seems tied in with the radicalism of Malcolm X and resurgence of Karl Marx.

The new name also made artistic and pragmatic sense. The comic book medium of the time consisted entirely of superheroes and gag books. Furthermore, these books had positioned themselves (and we live with this legacy today) as a childish treat akin to toy cars and baby dolls. How then to fit in works that were similar-looking but contained copulating, dope-smoking hippies and motorcycle club beat-downs? The answer was, and remains: You don't. You call it something else. So "comix" was born, or more accurately, evolved, just as the medium had.

Some have argued that the continued use of "comix" is pretentious and useless. To begin with, the difference between comic book subgenres has long been smeared into a smooth gradient. As a result, people sense an elitism in the term, and resent it.

I prefer the word "comix" for reasons both practical and theoretical. Take this sentence: "I like comics." Even in the context of an article on comic books I can't abide the semantic confusion with comedians. More importantly, I would argue that significant differences still exist between the vast majority of titles in this art form and the few that I strive to cover in this column. But the difference no longer has to do with what the works depict. Violence and sexuality appear routinely in many books that I would not describe as "comix." The definition of the word has moved toward describing the intent of the work. Does a comic book involve self-expression or merely a business plan? This is the new demarcation of "comics" vs. "comix."

Use of "comix" also makes sense as a tool for advancement of public perception. It doesn't serve the medium to continue to associate itself so strongly with a childish, comedic history. When a casual reader encounters the word "comix" for the first time they are forced to spend a moment considering that the medium has evolved to the point where even the noun to describe it has changed.

Finally, if your teachers or your editors or your readers take you to task, drag out your American Heritage Dictionary, Third Edition (1992) and point them to the reference: "Com-ix... Comic books and comic strips, esp. of the underground press. [Alteration of comics, pl. of comic.]"

If there are any such creatures as "regular readers" for this column, please note that it will be on hiatus for two weeks while I take a vacation. The next installment will appear on April 27, 2001.