Comics are a medium not a genre

I thought this post was apt as Saturday 3rd May is Free Comic Book Day. A date where shops order a quantity of special comics which they then give away free. It generates a lot of business for them and it attracts a lot of people, some of whom will hopefully be new readers. So if you’ve not tried comics before, now is the time to try.  Also if you’re not convinced about comics, keep reading.

Comics are a medium not a genre. I’ve said it many times already and no doubt I will continue to say it many more times in the future. For those who don’t read comics, for those who’ve only become aware of them via other media, in particular films, it can seem like comics are just superheroes. But it’s worth repeating, comics are a medium, not a genre.

During the last fifteen years or so, comic book movies have gone from those that don’t appear to be based on comic books at all, such as Blade, Road to Perdition, A History of Violence, The Losers, RED, right up to billion dollar box office smash hits with larger than life characters in bright costumes, like The Avengers, Nolan’s Batman trilogy and the X-Men franchise. It’s a wonderful and amazing time to be a comic book fan as now we can enjoy seeing these characters all over the world, and watch as people discover them for the first time. The films might even attract a few new readers to the comic book medium, but sometimes there’s still that moment of surprise that comics are more than superheroes.

If you walk into a bookshop, a Waterstones in the UK, or Barnes and Noble in the USA, you wouldn’t expect every title on the shelf to just be crime, or history books, or biographies. It’s exactly the same with comics. For every single genre you can think of, and many you’ve probably never considered before as they mash-up different elements, there is a comic book. Superheroes dominate the US and UK comic book market, and I have a theory about why this is which I will come back to, but in other countries superheroes are seen as just one of many genres, not the main focus.

Comics are an important medium. There, I said it. Over the years I’ve heard many stories of how children first learned to read with comics and how it helped create a love of stories and reading in general. That has to be something that is cherished and encouraged. We all start out with picture books as very small children with only a few words, which then progresses to fiction and non-fiction for school work. But comics are not a poor man’s novel, it is a unique medium which I’ll address in a bit.

Comics can and have been used to tell some of the most important stories in modern history. Art Spiegelman chronicled the experiences of his father, a Polish Jew, during the Holocaust and his life at Auschwitz. It is one of the most moving stories I’ve ever read and in 1992 it was the first comic book to win a Pulitzer Prize. Yes, THE Pulitzer Prize for an outstanding work of journalism or literature. Only last year Top Shelf Comics published March, a graphic novel memoir about US Congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis who has been fighting for equality for over 50 years. March includes his memories of the Civil Rights Movement, including the 1963 March on Washington, and it is his first-hand account of the struggles over the years. It is an important piece of literature that just happens to be in comic book form.

Of course comics don’t have to be about heavy subjects. They can be light fun, entertaining, humorous, silly and entertaining. From coming of age stories, to romance, to horror, to westerns to crime to science fiction and fantasy. I grew up reading superhero comics, but now I read all sorts, such as Saga, an intergalactic space adventure, reminiscent in some ways of Star Wars, or Sixth Gun, a pulpy horror western, or Grandville, an anthropomorphic steampunk crime adventure series. I still read and enjoy superheroes, but like any other medium I don’t just stick to one genre. The possibilities with comics are endless.

Comics are also a unique medium. They’ve existed in one form or another for thousands of years and a creative team on a comic book (writer, penciller, inker, colourist, letterer) can create stories in such a way that it can’t be done in the same way in any other medium. Scott McLeod is a cartoonist and comic book theorist who has written several non-fiction graphic novels about this that detail different aspects of comics, from their ancient history to their rapid evolution. He breaks down and explains some of the elements that make comics unique and a remarkable medium. Understanding Comics is the first of his books and the best place to start if you’re interested, then he moved on to Reinventing Comics which looked at how much comics had changed since he first started writing Understanding Comics. The medium is also constantly evolving and being reimagined by creative people who even now do things on the page that I’ve never seen before.

Going back in time a little, and focusing on the American market, comic books in multiple genres used to be common. During the 1970s, Marvel published among other things horror, western, war, martial arts, and humour comics. These days both Marvel and DC, the two biggest publishers in the US market are synonymous with superhero comics. They do a little in other genres, but superheroes are their bread and butter. They feed into all of the other areas, from film and TV to computer games, merchandise, toys and even clothing. But it all comes back to those iconic heroes. So why are we still obsessed with them?

I have a theory, and it’s not an original one, so I’m not claiming I came up with it first, but of the many ideas I’ve heard it seems the most plausible to me. Superhero comic books are the equivalent of modern myths and legends. I grew up reading the likes of Hans Christian Anderson, the Brothers Grimm, Greek and Roman myths and legends, folk tales from all around the world in fact, and these parables and mythological stories are being replicated in comics. They are the ongoing adventures of larger than life characters. Some superhero characters are direct figures from mythology in modern day, such as Thor and Hercules, some are obvious analogues such as The Flash as Mercury, Aquaman as Poseidon. Some are not as clear cut and they represent ideals such as Hope, Justice and Equality, but these basic principles, wrapped up in an interesting character never go out of fashion. There are other reasons we love superheroes, but I believe this is a key element.

I realise that getting into comics can be difficult and intimidating. But this weekend is the perfect opportunity to try if you’ve not done so before. If you have a local comic shop go along and talk to the person behind the counter. Tell them the kind of genres that interest you, the type of stories you like, even the type of TV shows and books you read. They’ll be able to point you in the direction of a few different places to start. Getting into superhero comics can be difficult, with over 75 years of character history in some cases, but there again they can give you some good jumping on points. If you don’t have a local shop, then I’m happy to make suggestions myself. So tell me what kind of stories you enjoy, in any medium, and I’ll try to pair you up with some comics to suit your interests. There’s a lot going on in comics and if you’re reading them then you are missing out on some amazing stories.