The Definition of Comic is “Superhero Film”
As I write this, the top stories on Comics Alliance include a review of X-Men: Apocalypse and speculation about a possible Black Widow movie. The top stories on Comic Book Resources include an article about five problems with Captain America: Civil War, news about a possible television Superman show, Krypton, and a review of X-Men: Apocalypse. On Women Write About Comics, there are multiple stories about Captain America: Civil War.
The trend is clear: if a site has “comics” in its title, you can be pretty sure when you click on it that you will have a chance to read about movies.
The calculus here is straightforward. Black Panther #1, a hugely, staggeringly hyped comic sold around 300,000 copies – almost twice as much as the best selling book in March 2016, Batman #50, which sold close to 165,000 copies. In comparison, Captain America: Civil War opened at 4,200 theaters, just in the U.S; meaning if just 100 people see the film at each venue, that would be 420,000 tickets sold. And that’s not even counting DVD and streaming.
And when you’re talking to the world, you get more clicks.
Comics scholars have spent a lot of time and energy trying to define comics: are comics words and pictures? Sequential images? Do comics have to be illustrations, or can they be photographs under some circumstances? Do they have to be printed? Do they have to be reproducible?
Deep questions all — and all, pragmatically, irrelevant, when for most folks, most of the time, “comics” means Captain America and Iron Man hitting each other on the silver screen.
“Comics” are superheroes; superheroes are comics. For websites, media, and fans, that’s definition enough.
If you’re an old-school art comics pedant such as myself, it’s easy to see the equation “superheroes=comics” as a sign of civilizational decay and general ignorance. If you call yourself a comics site, you should cover things that are comics: R.Crumb, Maus, Fun Home, and, okay, xkcd too. And yes, you can cover Black Panther, the pamphlet, because it has drawings and word balloons. But don’t say you cover comics and then spend all your bandwidth breathlessly parsing film casting choices for Dr. Captain America Strange Man. Comics; they’re comics, not films. Damn it. Also, get off my lawn.
But, alas, the folks who think “comic” mean “superhero film” have a point. Television scholar Jason Mittell points out in his book Genre and Television that genres — and I think mediums as well — aren’t rigid, formally defined categories. They’re socially agreed upon groupings. And since society comprises everyone, that means it’s not just comics scholars who get to decide what comics are, but fans, websites, and even folks who really don’t pay attention to comics at all.
If everyone thinks “comics!” when they see Batman v. Superman, then culturally Batman v. Superman is a comic, no matter how loudly scholars gnash their monographs.
The linkage of comics with superheroes even makes sense historically.
In Japan and France, comics have a more diverse, and more successful history. Bande Dessinée and manga both are associated with multiple genres, lowbrow and highbrow, for adults and kids, men and women — from Asterix to Persepolis, Ranma 1/2 to the work of Yoshiharu Tsuge. But in the United States, comic books were most successful as a format during World War II, when superhero books sold hundreds of thousands of copies a month.
Marvel comics in the 1960s didn’t sell nearly that well, but they did introduce a bunch of iconic characters — Spider-Man, the Hulk, you know the rest — who were ripe for marketing exploitation later down the line.
Superheroes aren’t the only successful meme unleashed by comics on pop culture – there’s Mickey Mouse, Charlie Brown, Tintin, and Sailor Moon, to mention just a few examples – but at least in the U.S., superheroes have always been the pop culture thing that seems most obsessed with taking comics with it when it goes abroad to other venues. The MCU movies these days open with collages of comics imagery—so that people who go to comic book movies really are seeing movies of comic books, at least for a brief moment. The immensely popular Batman television show famously used “Bam! Pow!” written sound effects on screen, borrowing comics imagery to create it’s own distinctive television look.
The “Bam! Pow!”, in turn, became a shorthand for comics themselves – as in all those trend pieces about how (Bam! Pow!) comics aren’t just for kids anymore…
Many comics aren’t just for kids, though, and don’t feature superheroes — like Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, for example. Or Dan Clowes’ Ghost World. Increasingly these days, however, those comics are called “graphic novels.” Labels are slippery, and “comics” will always mean, for some people, sometimes, pictures with words and/or panels and/or in sequence on paper, or (more and more) on the web. But after more than seventy years, it also seems likely that comics in the U.S. are going to mean “superheroes, wherever you find them”, at least for the foreseeable future.
For people who love comics that aren’t filled with superheroes, this is a bit painful. The dominance of superheroes tends to erase other kinds of comics making, so that it can be difficult to see, say, Lilli Carré, or Mo Willems, or even Kate Beaton amidst all the capes and tights. But even for those who have become weary of the drumbeat of muscled goombahs destroying property in 3D, it’s hard not to be impressed with comics’ conquest of pop culture.
It’s been decades since people wanted to read comics in great numbers, and comics, scorned, could have decided to retreat into its own insular niche, like poetry, muttering to itself amidst the literary journals and utter lack of cash. Instead, the comic book decided to take off its glasses, discard its tie, and change into a form that everyone wanted to call their own.
Superhero comics, in whatever medium, are mostly formulaic and predictable. But there’s imaginative genius in the act of quietly turning a bunch of pamphlets no one cares about into a new secret identity, beloved by all.
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