Genre diversity in comics, if that makes any sense

25 Oct
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.

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5 Responses to “Genre diversity in comics, if that makes any sense”

  1. RM Rhodes October 25, 2011 at 7:22 am #

    When I was in France, I was astonished to discover that the French comics industry recognizes (and markets) 13 distinct genres: Heros (including superheroes), Adventure, Crime, Heroic Fantasy, Drama, Humor, Historical, Biography, Science Fiction, Reporting, Social Critique, Adaptation and Erotic.

    You do not walk up to someone and say “Hey, I see you like DVDs, you want to watch mine?” the way that comics people do to each other – the material is classified by genre, which is how fans know what to look for.

    • darrylayo October 26, 2011 at 12:32 pm #

      Are those words? So you must like words. Here, allow me to demonstrate my set of home encyclopedias…

  2. jimmifer October 25, 2011 at 1:28 pm #

    Hello, I don’t undersand the point of this post. Thanks.

  3. ross October 26, 2011 at 4:54 pm #

    i’ve been thinking genre diversity in comics for a while now, and i was JUST talking about it in an interview i did that went up today, AND the podcast episode i did last night, haha. i think there are two main things that keep comics from being more diverse, the first being that most people who go into comics were comics readers when they were younger and they often try to replicate the stuff they liked or yearn to work on corporate characters they liked, so the pulpy “feel” keeps perpetuating and kind of ends up as regurgitated superhero stuff or generic genre mash-ups; and second, that there’s a weird notion that comics should be “fun,” i see so many people going “comics should be fun!” but i really don’t know why or what that even means. nobody says “film/prose/poetry should be fun!” or something, so is it just because comics are often drawn in a cartoony or illustrative style and that stuff is inherently non-serious? i don’t know. fuck fun, man. anyway i think the obsession with fun keeps comics diversity down on some level. i’m also nowhere near well-read in comics, so take all this with a grain of salt and keep my very limited knowledge base in mind. ;)

    • RM Rhodes October 26, 2011 at 5:16 pm #

      To be fair, that pulpy material is like prime rib for the 18-35 year old male reader, so it makes sense to continue to perpetuate the cycle by writing for that demographic. Especially so if you consider that some solid percentage of superheroes readers fall into that age/gender box.

      Unfortunately, everyone else is targeting that demographic as well: video games, action movies, beer companies, etc. The average member of that target audience has a huge amount of choices and limited dollars to spend. If nothing else, genre diversification (indeed, diversity in all forms) opens comics up to other audiences.

      Some of the best comics these days don’t really care if they have the attention of the so-called “prime demographic” – in other words, they were made by people who have learned to think (and create) outside the box.

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