Saturday, February 5, 2011

"It's not a genre, it's a medium": A Formalist Argument About Comics

I was reading a column called "She Has No Head!" on a comics website, Comic Book Resources. The writer, Kelly Thompson, has been engaged in an interesting experiment called The Ladies Comics Project. The idea is to identify women who are not already comics readers, give them a comic book, and have them report back. You can see how this would be interesting. Comics is, broadly speaking, a "male" form of expression. Are there tropes and conventions that comics readers (male and female) find completely normal--even invisible--that would jump out to non-comics-reading women? Would they find the work sympathetic and pleasurable? Would they find it difficult to comprehend? Sexist? This is a nice sociological experiment in comics criticism. It pleases me to think about because it suggests that Thompson might think that comics do not have universal qualities--that "comics" means something different to different people. But she indicates in this piece that she is actually coming at it from a different starting point.
One of my biggest revelations about women who don’t read comics and comics themselves came not long after Ladies Comics Project, Phase I via my mother.  I had posted a column reviewing Sarah Glidden’s How To Understand Israel In 60 Days Or Less, and my mother had read the column and in an email to me mentioned that she liked the column and thought the book looked interesting but that she didn’t understand how it was a comic.  She admitted that she had seen the pictures, so knew it must be, but still didn’t understand how it was a comic.  She also mentioned she planned on buying it (which kind of blew my mind).  I didn’t really respond to her email because quite frankly, I didn’t understand the question – if she could see the pages how could she not understand that it was in fact a comic?  When we spoke on the phone she asked me why I hadn’t answered her email and I explained my confusion.  Through the course of our conversation it became clear that she was conflating genre with medium.  In fairness to my mother, though she has been exposed to more of the comics world via me than a lot of people, most of the time she was actively around comics (i.e. when I was a teenager and living at home) I was reading superhero comics almost exclusively.  However, it surprised me that she, even with her exposure to comics, didn’t understand the difference between genre (in this case superheroes) and medium (in this case comics) and the idea that comics can (and do) tackle any subject imaginable. (Kelly Thompson, "She Has No Head! – Ladies Comics Project: Phase II, Part One", Comic Book Resources, January 31, 2010)
This idea, that comics is not a "genre" but is instead a "medium" is a commonplace view in comics. For example, a few days after seeing this paragraph, I saw this tweet:

Alex Bowler (@alex_is_editing)
2/4/11 3:44 AM
Bookseller article again categorising graphic novels as a 'genre'. WE ARE BANGING OUR HEADS AGAINST A BRICK WALL.

Bowler is an editor for Jonathan Cape, and one would expect an editor at a literary publisher would have a little more sophisticated view of the word "genre," but I guess not. The problem is that when a comics critic writes that comics are not a genre but a medium, what they mean is that comics are not limited to a particularly genre like "superhero comics" but can be potentially about any subject, just film or painting can. Fair enough. So for them, "genre" means what we say when we say "genre fiction"--stories that have specific subject matters and specific conventions. Mystery novels are a genre. Romance novels, science fiction novels, and so on are genres. And the problem with comics is that comic books (the small, magazine-format things sold in comic stores) have been dominated by a particuly ridiculous genre, superheroes. As comics writer Warren Ellis has frequently commented, it's as if most novels were "nurse novels" (to pick a weird, narrow genre). But genre is a broader word than that. It can refer to formal qualities as well. For example, I wouldn't have any problem with calling the "comic book" as described above as a genre. It has, for example, a conventional format, which is one of the defining qualities of genre.

But this isn't my main objection to Thompson's paragraph above. This is just a disagreement about the definition of "genre." What really struck me about Thompson's paragraph is her own puzzlement at her mother's reaction. She attributed it to an error on her mother's part. But I think that's not a very useful way to think about it. In fact, that her mother didn't consider How to Understand Israel in 60 Days Or Less to be a comic to me shows the fluidity of the definition of comics, and the pointlessness of trying to define comics by some set of formal characteristics. The more expansive idea of what comics are, which I share with Thompson, is accurate only among "initiates." The reason for two (or more) conflicting conceptions of what a comic is can be generational--for people of her mother's age, comics mean a certain thing different than what they mean for people of Thompson's age. We see this all the time in all kinds of arts, especially as arts that are affected by technology mutate. People not comfortable with the new technology might have a hard time recognizing some new art. That's not what is happening here, but it's similar. Comics have evolved since Thompson's mother had the idea of comics fixed in her mind.

Another reason for the disconnect between Thompson and her mother may have been because they belong to different "taste cultures." A taste culture is the term Herbert Gans created to describe groups, which are often determined by class, education and other background characteristics, who value particular elements of culture. (Gans came up with this theory as an answer to Frankfurt School, who saw all popular culture as a part of the program of capitalism to psyche out the working class by giving them debased versions of high culture that they would consume uncritically.) People like Thompson's mother are well outside Thompson's own taste culture, who could be identified as "comics fans". For Thompson's mother, the "definition" of comics is simply "belonging to the category of things like the comics I've seen before." In this case, she had mostly seen Thompson's own superhero comics. I happen to think this is a very reasonable definition of comics--it's certainly the most useful definition.

People like me (and Thompson, presumably) have lots of experience with comics of all different sorts. The group of things "belonging to the category of things like the comics I've seen before" is, for us, vast--far vaster than it would be for Thompson's mother or anyone else not in our taste culture. Furthermore, we will sometimes look at things on the edge of our own experience of comics and interrogate their "comic--ness." We might look at their formal qualities to try to figure it out, or we might look at how the object in question functions for its users. But people like Thompson's mother, who have little interest in comics in the first place, would never apply that much consideration to the question of whether this thing or that thing is a comic. They would use the simple heuristic mentioned above--does this thing resemble other things called comics?--to make their decision. Of course, it's when that heuristic breaks down, as it did in this case, that things get interesting. Here was Thompson calling something a comic that was obviously not a comic to her mother. So to resolve this contradiction, I assume that Thompson's mother had to expand her definition of comics.

But at the same time, I think Thompson should be aware that her own personal definition of comics, a "medium" that has certain inherent qualities, is inadequate because it is not universal. (The problem with formalist or other essentialist definitions of "comics" is not that they aren't universal--it's that they pretend that they are.) A "definition" of comics has to include their use in society, how they exist in the world.

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