On Saturday 26th of November the fourth S.M.A.S.H. happened on the 4th floor of the Barbican. Three panels. Twelve guests. Lots of interesting chat.
For each panel we sent the guests a list of questions and asked them to write down their thoughts which they then read out at the start to get us going. With their very kind permission we now present their words below.
First up – Genre.
Which genres work best in comics and which work worst? Why?
Is genre a useful way to think about comics or are they just a crutch for bad storytellers and bad audiences?
Are the best comics those which exist beyond genre?
Is genre only interesting when it’s being deconstructed?
What would it mean for a comic to be beyond genre? Is realism just another genre?
Is there any more deconstructing of genre left to do?
The only thing I think genre is good for is as a sales tool.
The biggest problem we face in comics in the UK right now is the lack of readers. We have no shortage of creators making increasingly outstanding work, but the readership seems to have plateaued and my fear is that this current comics wonderland will live or die according to our ability to reach new audiences.
A substantial obstacle in connecting with potential readers is persuading them that the term ‘comics’ encompasses many themes are subjects that will be interesting to them, not just stories about magical people who can punch really hard.
Despite genre being a frustrating restriction as a creator it is a useful tool in making comics approachable to newcomers, although it’s obvious that the genre descriptions already in place are not suitable for a medium which doesn’t rely on the same tropes and formulas as prose. Simply putting your comic on the correct Waterstones shelf will probably not have a great impact.
However, there are successful genres that are unique to comics which have had a huge amount of success independent of booksellers:
Graphic Medicine started out as a website curated by British doctor Ian Williams and American nurse MK Czerwiec and has since become a genre in its own right. The blanket term includes comics, zines and graphic novels, largely non-fiction but not always, as well as academic publications, covering a multitude of medical conditions and situations, from the point of view of patients, practitioners, carers and observers. They hold a huge international conference each year, as well as satellite events at other arts and medical conferences, symposiums and festivals, and create their own publications and podcasts.
Their readership is uniquely academic-heavy, but they also attract attention through patient groups and other interested parties. New comics and books which appear under the umbrella of Graphic Medicine are very visible to the current readership, and each new title brings in fresh readers who are drawn in by its specific subject matter.
What if genre was not just the shelf you put your comic on, but the tribe (or tribes) that you actively belonged to which helped you to reach new groups of readers who share the same interests?
Thoughts on Comics and Genre…
The question of genre is one that comes up again and again in the narrative arts – what is genre? How do we use genre to categories works? Does it affect the way we engage with those works? Who gets to choose? There seems to be no end of debate in the realm of text literature and film as to how we should go about dealing with this sticky subject but I feel like comics gets left out.
Part of the issue, of course, is that comics is still labelled as a ‘genre of literature’ by some, and not regarded as a form in its own right. I doubt the comics sections (always next to Sci-fi) in bookshops helps. Lumping Spiegelman’s Maus, Morrison’s All-Star Superman and Hergé’s Tintin series together in one section is surely absurd but so it is also to suggest that Maus belongs in history or biography and Tintin should be classified as detective fiction.
The thing I am driving at here is most beautifully expressed by Geoffrey Bowker and Susan Leigh Star when they write, ‘The only good classification is a living classification’ (Bowker and Star, 2000: 326). Genre is a system of classification that allows a reader or viewer to make a series of assumptions about the text quickly and with no further information on it to then be able to make decisions regarding their engagement with it. That’s fine – we all judge texts before we read them. It’s human. The issue comes when the systems of classification – the labelling by genre and the rigidity of the associated criteria – cannot bend to accommodate new readings and new interpretations. Moreover, in labelling comics the form as a genre, a wide-ranging and disparate selection of texts is being tarred with the same brush and the finer nuances of the narratives are being white-washed over.
I’m not suggesting we don’t use genre classification and that it’s a bad thing – not at all – I’m suggesting we need to be awake to the issues and possibilities of classifying texts and prepared at every turn to challenge the generic status quo. I’m all for Maus as biography, Arkham Asylum (Grant Morrison) as horror, Monsters (Ken Dahl) as health… and the comics section? Gone.
⦁ The arrangement of comics in bookshops needs to be improved because at the moment they AREN’T arranged by genre and that would be a good start. It makes it difficult for new fans getting into the medium, as they are confronted with a selection of everything and no way of identifying what MIGHT appeal to them out of it all. Also, it makes it uncomfortable at times when recommending comics to kids, or conservative readers – with all the safe for work mixed in with the explicit, it can be dangerous territory for young readers just trying to explore the medium as well as embarrassing!
⦁ Furthermore, separating comics, graphic novels, and manga as if they are separate “genres” is silly. It often separates the fans, creating elitism, as if graphic novels are somehow more “respectable” and comics are “for kids” and manga is for fans of “big eyes and even bigger boobs”.
⦁ I agree that pitching comics and defining them using general genre terms is detrimental to reaching the right audience. When a website for my webcomic or publisher of my print comics asks me to define the genre, I feel too boxed in. I often choose “romance” because relationships form a big part of my narratives, but even so I feel weird choosing that genre because my comics are so much broader than that. I really like the Japanese trend of being really specific – for example with food manga and sports or martial arts manga, you know almost exactly what you’re getting. General terms of action or sci fi or fantasy are far to wide to really define each unique story. So I think if you’re going to give your comic a genre, it should be specific to your comic.
⦁ Most of the time I don’t choose new series to read based on genre – I choose by creator. Almost as if each creator’s unique narrative voice and visual style creates a genre all their own, that I know will appeal to me each time.
My position here is slightly agnostic and extremely pedantic which – if you know me – is actually a pretty good tl;dr for my life.
It’s pedantic because there’s a clearly a major problem with the sort of terminology we use to define genre. To give a quick example, let’s say – WESTERN, COMEDY, PERIOD, CRIME – that’s one location, one audience response, one fuzzily-defined time-bracket and one inciting element. These words don’t even describe the same sorts of things, let alone telling us anything useful about the species within the genus we’re defining – ie: the story. So there’s something big here – and pedantic – about the importance of words.
I’m agnostic about it because I can see there’s potential for both good and bad bundled up in genre discourse. For me story taxonomies become a lot more useful when seen as lists of ingredients rather than recipes. Describing Star Wars as a “sci-fi” tells you nothing useful. Listing the major food groups it contains – spaceships, aliens, wizards, incestuous kissing – gives you a better idea. Some of the genre terms we already use ARE basically just ingredients, it’s simply that we mistake them for categories. In American comics that’s especially true of the term “super hero” – a descriptor that tells you nothing about the nature, tone or intent of a story, but at least reassures you there’s definitely someone wearing gimpsuit in it somewhere.
The problem is that you can’t taxonomise narratives according to their constituents rather than their sum, without running into the bad side of this whole equation – which amounts to impatience for any label which isn’t recognisable and brief. At their worst, definitions of genre lead to the sort of reductive thinking which is already ubiquitous in movies. You know how a Tyrannosaurs can’t see you unless you move? A film producer literally cannot perceive a new idea unless it can be described in two or fewer of the stupid genre terms we’re already stuck with.
Comics aren’t there yet. Comics remain a field of frothing dizzying invention and genre defiance, and there’s a host of reasons for that I hope we’ll get to later. But I can see the fingertips of the same problem. We’re dealing with distribution models that force retailers to rely on precedent – everything has to be described in terms of something that already exists. Likewise there’s a new synonymity between a hit comic and the inevitable movie adaptation.
I guess the short version is that I worry that we’re sliding towards a world where genre is a reductive analytical tool benefiting nobody but administrators, rather than a palette of colors and clays to be blended, mutated and when necessary ignored by creators and consumers.