Jason Arnold, the manager at my local comic book shop Strange Adventures, is likely one of the only people I’ve met more passionate about comic books as a medium than I am. An artist himself, Jason wears his love of the medium on his sleeve, always praising the work of Darwyn Cooke and especially Chris Ware. The latter, Jason once told me, was the reason he got back into comics.
Nearly every time I go into the store, Jason (or “Jay,” as he prefers) converses with a customer who is perhaps buying something for someone else. He’ll suggest comics that they might like – usually non-superhero books, like Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical work. Sometimes, the response is positive, such as an open-minded teacher who realizes she says similar things to her students about reading books instead of watching movies. Other times, he’ll get an almost condescending response, as if they want to pat him on the head and say, “That’s nice, dear.”
Regardless, his spiel tends not to change. His paraphrased spiel goes something like this:
Comics aren’t just about superheroes. Comics aren’t just for young boys. Like all other entertainment mediums, there are comics for everyone. If someone says, “I don’t read comics,” they’ll say how, perhaps, their boyfriend convinced them to read a Batman comic once.
But would you judge all movies by just seeing one? Would you see the latest Transformers movie and assume all movies are big, dumb action flicks? Would you read 50 Shades of Grey and assume all books are like that? Would you watch an episode of Breaking Bad and assume all television shows are like it? Would you go to a Shakespearean play and assume all theatre is like that? No, of course you wouldn’t. You wouldn’t give up on the entire movie medium just because you watched and disliked one movie. So why is that argument applied to comics? It could be the public stigma that they’re a genre, not a medium when it’s the other way around.
Comics aren’t a genre, they’re a medium. They’re just as much a medium for storytelling as literature, stage plays, movies, television shows, radio shows, poems, music, and video games. And yet, comics are constantly lumped into the idea of a “genre” rather than a “medium.” The general public looks at comics and immediately think of Superman, Batman, Spider-Man. Colourful, daring heroes in spandex smashing their fists into the faces of bad guys with a bombastic “POW!”
Yet, not even the superhero comics are all the same. You have street level heroes like Daredevil whose comic has had a very lasting, dark pulp noir theme to it (at least up until recent years with writer Mark Waid’s amazing and more lighthearted run). There are magic-themed superhero comics, sci-fi superhero themed, even horror themed superheroes like Swamp Thing. Even within the genre of superheroes, there are scores of sub-genres. The industry is certainly dominated by the superhero genre and its sub-genres. I still enjoy them, myself, but my bookshelves today are populated with much more diversity.
Outside of superhero books, though, comics are littered with every genre under the sun. My favourite genre in the last few years has been crime or noir comics, like Darwyn Cooke’s Parker series or Criminal by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. Horror has a strong footing in comics with Robert Kirkman’s Walking Dead, Joe Hill’s Lock & Key, and the recently completed Hack/Slash by Tim Seeley. Science fiction comics include Brian K. Vaughan’s Saga or Richard Starkings’ Elephantmen. There are even espionage books like Greg Rucka’s Queen & Country.
For people who don’t want genres like that, however, there are some that are both fiction and non-fiction. I mentioned Alison Bechdel, whose work includes Fun Home and Are You My Mother? Harvey Pekar’s American Splendour was just ordinary stories from his life, which ranged from funny to serious to incredibly introspective. For those more politically minded, there’s the astounding series Brian Wood’s DMZ, an alternate history book where a modern American civil war turns Manhattan into a demilitarized zone. If you want some really great stories about love and romance, there’s Craig Thompson’s Blankets and also Habibi. The latter, in fact, is a fantastic piece of literature on Middle Eastern or Muslim culture, as well. Like documentaries? How about Richard Poplak’s Kenk, about Toronto’s infamous bicycle thief. War comics? Anything by Joe Kubert. Kids? Bone, Amulet, Mouse Guard, and Owly to name four.
On another point, the general public believes that all comic book readers are the same: essentially, what’s portrayed on either Big Bang Theory or Comic Book Men. Readers are generalized as brash, antisocial shut-ins who argue over minutiae. Are there people like that out there? Absolutely. I myself might even typify some of those traits. But would you watch Sex & the City and assume all women are like that? No. Are all sports fanatics loud, obnoxious, drunken lunatics? Wellllll…heh, no. No, of course not. Unlike what Big Bang Theory tells you, women read comics, too. From what I’ve gathered, their favourites include (but aren’t exclusive to) Fables, Y: The Last Man, and Saga. Hell, I’ve run into some incredibly knowledgeable women when it comes to comics, but popular culture or the general media certainly wouldn’t think they exist. But I’m getting off-topic.
At some point, I want to write a list of comic book recommendations. One of those “if you like this movie, book, or show, you should check this comic book out.” I’ve seen something similar done in a 2003 Free Comic Book Day comic called Christa Shermots 100% Guaranteed How-To Manual for Getting Anyone to Read Comic Books. The end of the comic has a great list that I’ll use for my inspiration for my own, updated and modern list. That will take some time and I welcome suggestions for the list.
In the meantime, I must agree with Jay. Comics shouldn’t be shoehorned all together as one genre. It’s a medium with a vast amount of choices, just like any other entertainment or art medium would include. Jay even gave his spiel to my mother once, convincing her to buy a copy of Bechdel’s Fun Home, which she enjoyed greatly. Recently, she’s enjoyed thriller and mystery novels, including my favourite author Greg Rucka (whose work she gorged on in a matter of weeks when I lent her the books). As a result, she’s also borrowed some of my growing collection of noir or crime books.
Jay’s ideal fantasy is picturing a dinner party. Someone at the table has just picked up Habibi. A conversation breaks out discussing the Middle East. One of them then says, “You know, I just read this graphic novel about the Middle East…” which then may lead to two or three other people interested in reading it. I imagine the process of convincing the general public that comics aren’t just about Captain Spandex, Big Bosomed Babe, Teen Attitude, or Doctor World Destroyer will be instantaneous. It’ll take time. Maybe your reading this will get you thinking that comics could be for anyone and everyone, just like all other forms of art and entertainment.