How to talk about comics

Let it be said that if there is one thing that journalists, especially literary critics, cannot talk about properly, it is comics.

Around this time every year, reportage on comics leaks from the pores of every big important newspaper, and every year, the same cliches, the same asinine opinions, the same outdated childish putdowns of comic readers spew forth as journalists attempt to understand why films like The Dark Knight can be so adult and clever when all they remember is Adam West and the word ‘Kapow’. Journalists love that word. They also love telling you that “comics aren’t just for kids anymore!” and that maybe, just maybe, if you find a proper graphic novel, you might be allowed to enjoy one without being laughed at.

The Guardian are usually the worst offenders in all of this, and their rather terrible series of comissioned comics from renowned authors which appeared on their website recently is another example of how little mainstream journalism understands the medium.

Two days ago, this piece by Tim Lott caught my eye. His comment:

Recently I sat down and read Alan Moore’s acclaimed Watchmen and couldn’t get past the third page. I realised it was over for me – I had finally grown out of comics.

Was just one of his many oddly phrased and misinformed views (his statement that kids comics nowadays are all tie-ins with free gifts overlooks the huge gamult of all-ages comics available in any comic shop you go in, and seems to ignore the vast amount of lollies that The Beano provided its readers back in the day).

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Even worse, at the far end of the scale of misinformed reportage, in the ‘just plain insulting’ corner, we have Giles Coren, with his magnificently horrible Spectator trolling from December 2012.

They are basically for -children, and for men (yes, men, really, men) who are a bit too thick to read proper books.

This view, reported so often that even The Onion has poked fun at it, is not even old-fashioned. Comics have long been the purview of older generations whilst still being able to inspire younger audiences. It’s telling that, when people discuss ‘graphic novels’ they are so unsure of what they are talking about – some refer to single collected works, others to comics published only in hard/paperback form, and some refer to storylines within individual runs. The term was in fact first used in reference to Will Eisner’s A Contract with God, which is in actuality a collection of short stories, making it all even more confusing.

There are, of course, plenty of mainstream and underground comics that adults read, that are intelligent and which deal with complex themes. Grant Morrison has long been a staple of planting strange and subversive ideas within big mainstream comics and his runs on Batman and All Star Superman are as smart and complex as most Booker Prize Winners. Watchmen likewise is a work of genius, although much more interesting is Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing.

That isn’t to say that comics have, in the past couple of decades, suddenly grown up, or becoming something other than ‘just for kids.’ They have always been this way.

I think the problem with most people who write and talk about comic books in the mainstream media is that they assume, quite wrongly, that they can talk about them in the same terms as literature. This is wholly incorrect. You wouldn’t talk about film using the same terms as books (we don’t sit around going, “I quite fancy going to the cinema to see a moving novel” now, do we?). Scott McCloud wrote the definitive tome on comics, Understanding Comics, which is an amazing guide about how we read comics, and why it is different from any other medium. His TED Talk is one of my favourites, spelling out how ‘sequential art’ (a term I’m quite happy using) guides the reader across the page. There is a language specific to comics, there is a way of talking about comics intelligently and without patronisation, without resorting to cliche.

The current state of affairs makes it easy for the general public to see comics as something embarrassing to be ‘into’, and the snotty coverage they get (which is minimal at best, especially when it comes to mainstream superhero titles) is almost always given with caveats like, ‘well, it’s good…for a comic‘.

With the upcoming release of Guardians of the Galaxy, X-Men: Days of Future Past and the upcoming Gotham and Flash TV shows, as well as the British Library’s current comics exhibition, there is bound to be a wealth of terrible journalism making the same points over and over again over the next six months.

Isn’t it time the conversation changed?

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One thought on “How to talk about comics

  1. Very good article. It never fails to astound and offend me when a critic rocks up and smirkingly puts down and entire artform. There was something similar this week about Video Games after a discussion on the Today programme: http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/may/12/video-games-art-and-noise-tired-stereotypes-dominate-today-programme-debate

    For people who are supposedly, effectively, ‘art critics’ it is incredible narrowmindedness. Roger Ebert the film critic was always very outspoken and determined that video games could never be art. But critics will be critics and will always feel compelled to defend their own little real estate of brain-space, suspicious of anything unusual that threatens their own established boundaries. And then quietly the rest of us will know better and just get on with enjoying the richness of life.

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