By Darryl Ayo
When people in comics talk about genre diversity, I don’t think that they think about what that entails. For instance, when I log into iTunes or my new favorite toy, Netflix, they have a variety of different things on display as well as a clear list of major genres. Rather extensive list for both services. When I log in to the comic book shop, I don’t really see that so much. My regular shop does a good job racking the collected books in genre-based shelves. But even then I wonder if there isn’t enough diversity. Or at least the feeling that enough bases are being covered. But on the other hand…
I like how theatre markets itself as having only two genres. It’s the symbol of theatre, the comedy/drama masks. I actually have that feeling about comics too, since comics are a direct descendant of theatre. What’s that? Sure they are. There are three branches of literature: poetry, drama and prose. Poems came first, then drama (ie, scripted things, theatre, comics, movies, television) and prose was a relatively modern invention, by comparison. What? They didn’t teach you this in school? Get a refund. But personally, I’m only ever in the mood for two kinds of comics: 1) funny and 2) “deep, yo.” As a matter of fact, I basically line up everything along those parameters. The easiest three dollars you’ll ever make at a comic convention is convincing me that your “–and they become roommates!” comic concept will make me laugh.
On comedy and drama:
It should thus be no surprise at all that the most popular comics are the ones that are comedies and philosophical debates at the same time. These are Peanuts, Calvin and Hobbes and…Krazy Kat, but that was never actually “popular.” It’s popular among cartoonists. Those comics, and others like them, hit both key notes simultaneously and hence their runaway success. Excluding Krazy Kat. However, most comic-makers are cautioned by me that they are not in fact Charles Schulz, Bill Watterson or George Herriman. When I open the newspaper, I see a lot of people who think that they are. They think they are delivering deeply-resonating pearls of wisdom but generally, I see pithy sarcasm, banal observation and pseudo-intellectualism masquerading as aloofness, resulting in condescending ignorance. I also see bad drawings but that is so far from the point that it can’t even see the point from its porch. No Palin.
I think that a big part of why genre diversity becomes important in comics is that my big overarching genre conventions (comedy, drama) don’t really hold up on their own. For North American comic books, it doesn’t appear that the mainstream (with the exception of Archie) has ever escaped from its beginnings in pulp fiction. I like pulp fiction a lot, but perhaps there are other idioms worth exploration. In North American comic strips, we find that the form has been strangled to death by the influence of Peanuts in particular and an intellectual inability to follow in its footsteps, but an ignorant determination to attempt to do so anyway. What I’m getting at is that when Ed Brubaker is writing Captain America and Criminal or when Matt Fraction is writing Invincible Iron Man and Casanova, they are not actually writing different genres. They are like the Monkey King leaping from the palm of the Buddha; they never actually left the hand, they only thought that they did. These are all pulp fiction comics. And that’s okay. But that’s not everything. And in the newspaper strips, the convergence of the philosophical and the humorous isn’t the be-all either.
What does all of this cataloging and classification get us? The same thing that it gives us to classify all the species of butterfly: a clearer understanding of the world. It also gets us closer to the oft-stated goal of promoting comics for everyone. Truly, for everyone.