Comics as Memes: An Exploration of the Potent Memeability of Comics

If there was some sort of way to magically track the most widely viewed comic moments from the past decade, the list would almost certainly be comprised of a motley crew of titles, and one that would at least initially confound the average comic fan. You’d browse the list and meet it with a quizzical face, as beats from Batman or Saga or My Hero Academia or Raina Telgemeier are absent. 3 Instead, you discover random Marvel comics like 2008’s The Incredible Hercules #122 and 2015’s Spider-Man and the X-Men #2, a relatively ancient DC title like World’s Finest #153, or webcomics like “On Fire” and Nancy comprising the bulk of it.

“What’s up with that?” your brain might wonder.

“Why are those so well known?”

The answer is simple: each of them contains a panel – or panels – that became a notable meme. Respectively, they were:

  • Fred Van Lente, Greg Pak and Clayton Henry’s Incredible Hercules #122 was home to the “Cool story, bro” thumbs up
  • Elliott Kalan and Marco Failla’s Spider-Man and the X-Men #2 houses the beat where Sauron tells Spider-Man he doesn’t want to cure cancer, he wants to make dinosaurs
  • Edmond Hamilton and Curt Swan’s World’s Finest #153 is where the “My parents are deaaad!” meme originated from
  • Olivia Jaimes’ Nancy strips gave rise to the glory of “Sluggo is lit
  • Lastly, is arguably the most famous comic meme of them all, as KC Green’s “On Fire” is where the “This is Fine” dog came from

While the average reader of this article likely has read, at most, one or two of these original comics, I’d wager every single one of you has seen the memes they spawned many, many times over. They’ve become inescapable at times, popping up when you least expect them. And that stems from the fact that memes are, for better or worse, one of the dominant forms of communication today. But what are they exactly? Blake Bowyer, the Digital Director of Integrated Accounts at Nike 4 shared that while the term originates from Richard Dawkins’ 1976 book The Selfish Gene – in which the term was defined as a “unit of culture,” which is still a strong fit today – he believes “the best way to think about memes is as a form of communication or a vehicle for a message – from everything to a joke to a political position.”

The standard meme format is a combination or juxtaposition of words and pictures. And what is a comic if not a form of communication comprised of words and pictures as well? Of course, that’s where it’s important to note something: not all memes are comics in a traditional sense, nor are all comics memes. While there is a ton of overlap, it’s a bit more nuanced than any one-for-one connection. As KC Green himself told me, “I think the language is definitely blurry for people outside of the comics circle. I don’t think they’re completely wrong, but it’s not 100% right either.” But there is undeniably a connection there, and the obvious parallels between the two – both methods of communication in a way, both built off words and pictures – make comics arguably one of the greatest sources to fulfill the internet’s undying thirst for memes.

“They’re short, making them easy to digest while just scrolling – people will be more likely to share (a comic) than a meme with a wall of text on it,” Kyle Stratis of Danqex – a meme valuation and trading platform – told me of the meme power of comics. “They also are easy to edit, allowing people to subvert the original comic or allow it to mutate without altering the art, which may give the now-template comic new life.

“It seems convoluted, but comics are actually uniquely positioned as a shareable piece of content because of their structure and editability.”

From World’s Finest #153, art by Curt Swan

Stratis makes an interesting point with the editability of the comic form. While some creators would (understandably) bristle about that, the malleability of comics is an important part of their relative meme friendliness. That happened with the aforementioned World’s Finest #153. You likely are familiar with the meme version of the above panel, but that’s not what the characters actually originally said. Its initial form was relatively milquetoast and odd, but once the internet got its mitts on it, this panel became something transcendent in its life as an oft modified meme structure. While the “My Parents are Deaaaaad!!!” flavor is the most well known variety, it’s regularly altered, shifting its meaning and impact each time. And while Stratis was speaking to the text of comics in particular, it can be the images instead at times, as Dan Walsh’s momentous and haunting comic strip variant Garfield Minus Garfield proved.

Elliott Kalan, who wrote the aforementioned Spider-Man and the X-Men #2, believes another reason comics make excellent memes is “there’s something really portable about individual panels.”

“They mean something specific in the progression of the story, but the right panel isolated from the larger story can have all kinds of other meanings and metaphors projected onto it,” Kalan said. “In an image-based culture like ours has become, where people respond to the emotional punch of an image much better than they respond to a block of text, a comic book panel is essentially a readymade meme that can be drafted into service to get across what feeling or idea you want to communicate.”

“And the irony inherent in knowing that it was created for a different purpose than you’re using it for adds a layer of humor that makes the whole thing more charming and attractive,” Kalan added. “So in this way, Sauron being selfishly honest about his goals becomes shorthand for any powerful person throwing resources at a dubious hobby instead of helping other people — and the humor of comparing a real person and a pterodactyl-man makes it go down easier than just saying, ‘Elon Musk is being selfish,’ or whatever.

“It’s like someone took Roy Lichtenstein’s method — to take someone else’s comic book work and separate it from its original context — and actually found a real use for it besides just making Roy Lichtenstein money.”

The rest of this article is for subscribers only.
Want to read it? A monthly SKTCHD subscription is just $4.99, or the price of one Marvel #1.
Or for the lower rate, you can sign up on our quarterly plan for just $3.99 a month, or the price of one regularly priced comic.
Already a member? Sign in to your account.

  1. Okay, you might find a few of those too.

  2. Also the former Group Director (EVP) of Digital Marketing Strategy & Planning at Golin, a Chicago based PR Agency.

  3. Okay, you might find a few of those too.

  4. Also the former Group Director (EVP) of Digital Marketing Strategy & Planning at Golin, a Chicago based PR Agency.