Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Role of Genre in Comic Criticism

The first question one needs to deal with when writing about comics (especially for this long a venture) is that of genre. What, exactly, am I writing about?

Immediately, the mind wants to run to comic book, graphic novel, comic, comix, sequential narrative or visual story-telling. This is a difficult question to answer, mostly because the terms above are so heavily weighted. Graphic novel, for instance, suggests a certain gravitas about the work. One critic suggested that graphic novels are books written for adults by adults with adult themes that make use of the more expensive publishing resources available than the comic book counter part. This is problematic as many traditionally understood graphic novels were at one point comic books. The prime example being Watchmen. Now, go into almost any book store and there will be a stack of glossy covered Watchmen graphic novels, printed in explosive color (as explosive as a reproduction of 1987 comic color can be) and on expensive paper. The book has a lasting weight to it, one that belies that publication past of Watchmen, when Alan Moore released the story line in twelve separate comic books over the span of a year. The same can be said of Batman: the Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, Berlin books 1 and 2 by Jason Lutes, La Perdida by Jessica Abel, Dogs and Water by Andres Nilsen or Jimmy Corrigan: the Smartest Kid on Earth (all deemed important graphic novels). But these are really collections of comic books. So, then, is the graphic novel just a collection of comic books? A novel in graphic stories?

Plus, terms like graphic novel (sequential narration or visual storytelling likewise fall into this problem) of making the work seem like more than it is. As if to say, "this is no mere comic; this is sequential narration." It would seem to me, as has been found before, that serious work can come from baser forms. One just needs to look at the scatological poems of Swift, highly anthologized but talking about fecal matter, nonetheless. Or Sir Philip Sidney's The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia. Here, a genre bending work, mixing prose romance, poetry and other forms, features cross-dressing and a plot straight out of Three's Company. Gothic novels were once considered trash literature, the Nora Roberts of post-Restoration England, and now are considered great works of literature (see: Caleb Williams by William Godwin or The Mysteries of Udolpho by Anne Radcliffe). To change the name to suggest a more serious tone would be disingenuous for the form that, at it's heart, may want to be comic.

Plus, the other terms deny the tradition that comes before the work. Comic books were just that: books of the comics (which, back in the day before newspapers trimmed out the fat to save a dollar, were given a lot more attention than they are relegated now). Graphic novels suggests that this form developed independently of the newspaper strip.

So, it would seem to me, the only authentic way to talk about this form is comic book (or, for brevity, comics). I tend to disregard the alternative spelling, comix because this stems from a desire to separate one variety from another. Again, this sort of distancing, while important in its time, is just not necessary. As I will argue later, regardless of content, the comic book creates a specific narratological condition; that is, whether it features men in capes and masks or crudely drawn characters dealing with their feelings, a comic book creates a certain reading environment that is unique to it's form, and which can be manipulated for interesting results.

But wait, the next question begs to be answered: is there a difference between 'alternative comics' and 'superhero comics'? Initially I believed so, but after reading Alastair Fowler's Kinds of Literature: an Introduction to the Theory of Genres and Modes it would seem to me that any further distinction is going to raise more problems than it solves.

The main question there is how does one define alternative comics? By it's name alone, it suggests that this comic is alternative to something. What is that something? Superhero comics? This would then give us two strangely disprortionate groups: those that deal with masked heroes and villans; and those that don't. This second group would contain such vastly different comics as Torso by Brian Michael Bendis and Blankets by Craig Thompson. Neither deals with superheroes, but one deals with a true crime narrative while the other is an autobiography of the author/writer's life. One is extremely violent with jaring images and tons of blank, empty space on the page. The other is sparsely shaded with gentle curving lines and a deep exploration of feelings. If we are going to split comics, then does grouping these together make any more sense?

By breaking down the genre further, it begs the question about those alternative comics that do feature superheroes (Wonder Wart-Hog for instances) or those superhero comics that look at things in a more 'alternative' light (Miller's run on Daredevil shares more in common with crime comics than it does with later Daredevil story lines). Where do these fall in? Is it only the visual images that we consider to make this break? Is it the style that the artist uses as well? There are a vast number of styles used in superhero comics from Tim Sale's strangely bright and oddly disprortionate work on Spider-Man: Blue to the dark, shadowy, and sketchy art of David Aja for The Immortal Iron-Fist to Adrian Alphona's very cartoony work on Brian K. Vaughan's Runaways (which, itself, pushes the limit of the genre). Plus, some comics that are considered 'alternative' are highly stylistic. And then what do you do with Lynda Barry?

Under examination, it would seem that, at least narratologically, this is an unnecessary dichotomy. These two seemingly disparate forms construct their narrative in familiar ways and rely on series of semiotic codes that are not that dissimilar.

So, in short: I think I'll call them comic books and leave it at that.

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