Why are we still talking about comics as a genre?

A few weeks back I happened across a typical lockdown/buzzfeed style article, wherein the author discusses a list of things that popular opinion dictactes you should check out. In this the author lists five Graphic Novels that they believe everyone should read (Watchmen, Maus, Ghost World, Jimmy Corrigan the Smartest Kid in the World, Fun Home, I’ve only read two of those five so it admitedly gave me more to add to my reading list). But it wasn’t the content of the article that got me thinking/wound up, it was the context.

The author, University of Reading’s Professor of Contemporary Literature David Brauner, uses the term “genre” to discuss comics/trade paper backs/graphic novels (its upto you which term you use, many use them as catch all terms but they’re also their own individual thing), he’s not the only one, many, many people do, book shops seperate them out into their own specific section like they do genre fiction too, but why? The method of using images, panels and text bubbles that we define as being comic books is a medium with different genre’s spread out within, just like other creative outlets that we use to tell stories such as videogames, books and movies, but a cursory glance of any study into these other subjects doesn’t use the same terminology to place a diverse and varied story telling method that has exploded in popularity over the past decade thanks to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

However, that explosion brings with it its own issues, some people just don’t understand comic books. They see “Comic Book Movies” or “Super Hero Movies” and associate the entire medium with the output of the movie arm of Marvel Studios, and so, the medium of Comic Books becomes the genre of Super Hero stories.

I took to the Discord channel that I set up for the folks that attend Book Club, no matter how regularly, and shared the link I posted above and asked the same question “Are graphic novels a medium or a genre?”, we unanimously agreed that the author had got it wrong, comics are a medium, graphic novels are a device within the medium for telling stories (because there’s obviously single issues, collected works, ominbuses, one shots, web comics, manga, I could go on). The group not only contains avid comics readers, but also staff from the Close Encounters comic book stores and Sztehlo, a published comic book artist, these guys know their stuff. Sztehlo studied literature at university and confirms that at his place of study lecturers would still refer to comics as a genre rather than a medium. It’s something thats deeply engrained, but why?

It can’t be a generational thing, comic books of varying styles have been around for as long as we’ve been using combinations of pictures and words to tell stories, a cursory Google takes the history of the medium back to the first half of the 1800’s, predating the medium of movie making by almost half a century, but we know which of those genre’s is taken far more seriously than the other, even with the Super Hero movie genre now offering up the vast majority of tentpole movies that bring in the big bucks.

You could argue that, like videogames, most people pick them up during their youth or adolescence, but isn’t that also the case for books and (again) movies? As I sit here writing this we have Moana on the TV, a film my two youngest daughters absolutely adore, a film thats heavily marketed at kids (or families) but is loved by multiple generations of people and seen as a valid form of entertainment for anyone of any age, but still, comic books, despite their massive range in stories, influences and world reach, are treated with the same stigma that gamers have been trying to battle for as long as I’ve been writing for, even longer in fact. They’re stories for kids, if you want to watch a Batman movie, thats great, thats deemed as being a viable thing for somebody over the age of 15 to do with their time. But to read Batman Year One and openly talk about it? There’s still a stigma attached to that (I’ve regularly tried to get an acquantance of mine who’s seen every super hero book going multiple times, even the bad ones like Elektra, to actually read the stuff that the license comes from but he shrugs them off), and until we can address that and move on, until maybe the generation of kids who have grown up with four or five new comic book movies a year and spending time in their local comics store have grown up and begun to have careers of their own, even lecturing on comic books maybe, we’ll continue to be in this confusing state where comic books/graphic novels/trade paper backs still don’t receive the respect they deserve.

In summary: Why are we talking about Graphic Novels as a genre rather than a medium? Because people are snobs.

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