What exactly is a ‘comic’, anyways?

The funny thing about comics is that they’ve never been taken super seriously as a literary medium in critical conversation. The more ironic thing is that right now, the comic book as a medium is responsible for much of popular culture discourse — adaptations of comic books are leading Hollywood’s TV shows and movie spheres, from the likes of the DC TV shows on the CW to Marvel’s cinematic universe blockbusters.
Comic books, usually when brought up evoke a very specific image as the Keywords for Comic Studies essay on the topic discusses. In the Jared Gardner essay, he goes over the various forms of publications that have been referred to as comic books throughout history. First were “autho-litographies” and other visual prints that were developed starting in the 1860s, and cartoons were regularly published in periodicals in that period. Newspaper comic reprints eventually took over as the dominant form of comics, with compilations later becoming the ‘comic book’. Eventually in the 1940s, after the Great Depression, superhero comics led the medium with the rise of Marvel and DC.
Modern comics have now evolved a little, with superhero comics still leading the pack, other forms have become popular. Graphic novels are on the rise now, gaining in popularity outside of the Marvel/DC dominated landscape. A recent Washington Post article examines this popularity boom, noting that among young readers literary graphic novels were selling well (MacPherson). MacPherson also points out another interesting debate at the heart of comic books as a critical medium:

“Before we go any further, though, here’s another question at the heart of the matter: Should we call these books “comics” or “graphic novels”? Over the years, “comics” has become something of a pejorative, meaning a less-than-literary book played for laughs. “Graphic novel” sounds more highbrow, but it’s not always correct, given that many of these books now are memoirs and other kinds of nonfiction. In addition, some people still get tripped up by the multiple meanings of the word “graphic” (MacPherson).

The debate about taking comics seriously critically also comes into the terminology of what is a comic book, and if calling a comic a graphic novel makes it more acceptable as a literary work. Interestingly, American comics are also losing popularity. Eastern comic books, particularly Japanese manga are now regularly outselling American superhero comics for many reasons, as Stratos notes in a report that compiled reactions to this statement.

I personally find it a very interesting medium, and I think it deserves more critical and scholarly attention. Graphic novels, comics, manga etc. are now all rising in popularity for distinct reasons, dominating the cultural landscape somehow in conversation. Dismissing it would be a disservice and a failure on the literature academia world’s part to understand how this medium is thriving today. The debate about what constitutes a comic is an examinable one as well, and maybe part of the conversation about why critical conversation is lagging in discussing the medium.

Works Cited

Gardner, Jared, and Jared Gardner. “Comic Book.” Keywords, 1 Jan. 2021, keywords.nyupress.org/comics-studies/essay/comic-book/.

MacPherson, Karen. “Perspective | Don’t Be Afraid to Let Children Read Graphic Novels. They’re Real Books.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 28 Feb. 2020, www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/dont-be-afraid-to-let-children-read-graphic-novels-theyre-real-books/2020/02/27/ed374b92-4dd7-11ea-9b5c-eac5b16dafaa_story.html.
Stratos. “Worldwide, Manga Is Outselling American Comics.” UltraMunch, 28 May 2021, ultramunch.com/worldwide-manga-is-outselling-american-comics/.

2 thoughts on “What exactly is a ‘comic’, anyways?”

  1. Solongandthanksforallthefish, this was a super interesting read! As a huge consumer of this type of media, I have never thought of it in the context of literary studies. It is certainly worthy of critical consideration. I think that it would be really interesting to examine public reception of this genre throughout its existence. This avenue might provide some type of explanation as to why comics aren’t taken seriously. I wonder if there’s some unspoken affiliation to children’s books, illustrations, or something of that nature. I also think that there is so much at play that is worthy of analyzing. I am specifically thinking of Marvel and the gender and other power dynamics at play… I can’t wait to see where this takes you as you continue to dive in!

  2. Solongandthanksforallthefish,

    This was very interesting. I would have loved to hear about why you think manga and anime are more popular than superheroes at the moment. Also, I am always intrigued about what it is exactly about superheroes that people marvel over. The overarching motif seems to be the good guys over evil specimens, or something like the goods struggle against the evil. Why is it that we as a society are so intrigued by this general motif?

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