If in comics the gutters between panels enlist the reader's imagination to create closure, in picture books it is the turning of the page that prompts the act of closure. If comics rely on juxtapositions between "pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence" (to quote Scott McCloud ), picture books more commonly rely on juxtapositions between text and image. If comics ordinarily depict movement in time within a single page, in picture books time tends to unfold over many pages.
These three "generic differences" apply broadly to comics and picture books, yet so many exceptions permeate the two genres that any boundary between them has to be highly porous. Picture books and comics are kin: adjacent branches of the same literary-artistic family tree, cousins with slightly different expectations of their readers. They are not fundamentally different genres. To put this in terms of the biological taxonomy we learned back in grade school (kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species), the distinctions between the two rank down at the end of smallest differentiation—the "species" end. Comics and picture books differ in degree, rather than in kind. As this essay will show, the accepted "truths" about differences between picture books and comics mark little more than different emphases, or tendencies, not absolute divisions. The kinship between them calls into question the fitness of the term "genre." At the least, it requires that we consciously reflect on what we mean by this term—the full significance of which may go beyond form to embrace context, readership, and even material modes of production.
The notion that comics have panels, and that picture books usually lack them, reveals not a sharp distinction between the two, but rather that different terms [End Page 445] convey similar visual experiences. Besides the fact that many picture books do in fact use panels within a given page, opening a "typical" picture book always yields two pages: two large, rectangular boxes that, were they smaller, would be called "panels." In Dr. Seuss's Horton Hatches the Egg, the text in the middle of the white left-hand page asks, "Did he run? / He did not! / HORTON STAYED ON THAT NEST! / He held his head high"; the right page shows three hunters aiming their guns at Horton, who sits proudly atop the propped-up tree, his arms folded, eyes closed, and trunk curled in defiance. Looked at this way, an open picture book displays one of two possibilities: either it shows two borderless panels, in those cases where, as in this example from Horton, each page is spatially distinct from the other; or, in cases of a spatially contiguous two-page spread, it offers a single borderless panel, such as when, in Seuss's Horton Hears a Who!, the Mayor of Whoville, seeking "someone to help him make more noise," rushes through town, up a red path that extends from the left page to the right page. In two-page spreads of the former type, each page functions as a panel—albeit one that extends to the edge of the page—and the gutter divides the two. In a "typical" comic, by contrast, that gutter, or rather those gutters, appear both on a single page (in between panels) and between pages. In a "typical" picture book, the gutter is the gutter in a book: that is, the line where the right side of the left page meets the left side of the right page.
I placed the word "typical" in inverted commas for the preceding paragraph because many picture books have gutters that are not the places where the pages join. Panels, both with and without borders, have long been a feature of the picture book. From Hardie Gramatky's Little Toot and H. A. Rey's Curious George, to Kevin Henkes's Owen and Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean's The Wolves in the Walls, panels have formed part of the visual grammar of picture book narrative. When we think of picture-books-with-panels, we may think of Maurice Sendak's In the Night Kitchen because it offers an explicit homage to Winsor McCay's Little Nemo comic strip and because it...