Over at 'The Panellists”, Charles Hatfield recently posed the question “What makes a great comic”? My gut reaction, and probably that of most people, is that the there is no answer. Greatness is subjective. After some thought I agree with my gut, but its worth explaining exactly WHY there is no answer.
In his attempts to answer his question, Hatfield realises that we must talk about the form of comics as opposed to their contents. To do anything else is to judge a comics' value as art, rather than as a comic. The only sensible answer then, can come from a formalist approach. But as Hatfield points out, by doing so, comics become reduced to a mechanical system of tick boxes. To simply define greatness by form requires conceiving of an 'ideal' form, a Platonic 'comic form' to which all others can be judged. This, of course removes much of the majesty and brilliance of comics, and generally seems pretty unsatisfactory.
For me, the main reason this seems incorrect is because the ideal form of a comic is predicated upon its contents. You cannot lay down the desirable aspects of comics, the aspects of form which equate to greatness, without considering what the form contains. In a great comic, the form must match and enhance the contents, any other judgement of form neglects its very purpose. The form is the medium, the method of expression, its Platonic ideal cannot be expressed without considering what it will be expressing.
This works both ways of course, if form can only be judged by its relation to content, then equally content is shaped by form. We can take a novel or short story, and however carefully we translate it into comics form, it is no longer the same piece of work. The changes that that translation works of course, can be inadvertent, but more often are conscious choices of the artist. The form of a comic and its contents are in constant tension, each exerting pressure upon the other, and 'greatness', even in a formalistic sense, can only be found in the conflict between the two.
In short then, it is not simply enough to say that 'greatness' is subjective to a reader, or even to a context: 'greatness' in a comic is subjective to the individual comic itself. Which is a long, and overly complicated way of saying; we can only judge greatness on a case by case basis.