Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Funny Book

"Etymology" is a new occasional segment on this blog where I will investigate word and phrase origins. Somewhat art over science, or rather opinion over fact but hopefully if you want to be you will be educated. Occasional as in this might be the only one but I have a few ideas for more... Have to get this one written before my mind moves on, though.

Comic book has its origins in comic strips or rather the two share a common ancestor. In America, according to Wikipedia, the first comic book came in the form of Famous Funnies, itself the end result of a few new ideas. The first comic books were in effect the Sunday comic strips cut out and given new life on their own. Hence "comic" for humor and "book" for paper existing on its own rather than a part of a newspaper.

Or one might state all this as true. It occurs to me that these could be simply circumstantial history, not cause and effect. Consider "manga" which Wiki has as deriving from "whimsical drawings" in a more denotative translation. Perhaps "comic" or "humor" is something we feel when first considering the sequential images of an art narrative. When does it become a comic though? Individual rules can be made but must inevitably be broken. One could say panels make it a comic, but then you can't divide comic strips from comic books, although giving those two different names I've divided them quite well. A single panel Family Circus isn't all that much different from a circular painting or drawing... Must there be panels? The cover of Anti-Story appears almost to have a narrative to it, with different images seeming to have an order, one we cannot quite understand. Warhol's soup cans could be said to have panels, as could some of the work of Milan Bozic, so we can't blame the term "comic book" on the tennis turning of the eyes that a sequence panel narrative does (picking up speed in comparison to the ocular twisting that must be done with an actual book).

I have begun to consider the turning point of the phrase to be captioning, speech balloons, or thought bubbles. But even this differential has its flaws. Comics are written without words, often on purpose. Marvel had a run of I think they were "Shut Up!" comics, the kind of crossover that actually works, being simply thematic. So, say, Grant Morrison's New X-Men issue that was a part of this ploy would not be a comic, while Neil Gaiman children's books where characters occasionally speak in bubbles wouldn't? Gaiman is an interesting case, where a comic like Mr. Punch while more mature perhaps, reads very similarly to his children's books, giving off the feeling that it truly is a part of the same genre.

So one wonders how you end up getting called a "comic book." And why would this matter? Because "comic book" is a pejorative. Because of its humor basis? Surprisingly not. In America, the comics powerhouse for the English-speaking world (case in point being the British Invasion of the late eighties and early nineties, where several writers from the UK made the leap into American comics), comic book became code word for superhero story. And vice versa--superhero means comic book. Tied up in this is the idea of "comic" as funny, and the sort of negative connotation around a word like "cartoon." Stick the two together and you get that comics are children's stories about superheros. You wonder at times about the American view of violence and its accepted ubiquitousness in our entertainment and this pops up. Violence, here, good guys beating up bad guys, is considered reading for a child. Functioning on multiple levels, it also becomes propaganda as there are "good guys" and "bad guys," concepts that one truly has to question the existence of in the real world.

So we have a growing idea of "comic book" that is almost purely connotative. Comic books are neither particularly comic nor are they books, rather short stories. Even short stories is inaccurate, as the closest thing you get to the comic is the television show, both being serials. Often both also lack a creator's name in any place of prominence (and perhaps the same could be said for movies, although we talk about movie directors all the time and don't mention television show directors). Looking through old issues of comics really tells us the problems of the past--a medium that doesn't think it needs to showcase its own creators is a bastard medium. Television shows are at least marketing actors, comics were only marketing characters. There's a disconnect here. A comic that has it's author/penciller/inker team written out on the cover along with the logo is trying to make a statement. Less so now and more so twenty years ago, but I'm sure there's still plenty of character-selling comics to be found these days.

Yet this isn't a solution. Creating a divide in the industry, a divide in the definitions of the word "comic book" is very much what led to the forking of the genre, the creation of such stuck-up terms as "graphic novel." Why is it a graphic novel? The term actually does have an accurate and true definition: namely a single release story more than the length of one issue. It becomes, however, in the hands of people who are accepting of the bastardization of "comic book" into kid's story of superhero violence, an escape. So you have people reading Watchmen, the graphic novel, although it is Watchmen, the comic book, which was collected as a trade paperback. The idea of a "graphic novel" can only be truly understood as a question of length. Here "book" is discounted by the actual size of a comic, about 30 pages give or take 10 (or more if you want to get into experimental stuff like Fell, and "novel" is given as being longer. If comics are television shows, then graphic novels are like films, in the sense that there is some crossover, sequels do happen, but there aren't many overlapping stories taken from narrative to narrative.

As I've said before (in the previous post, I could link you but it's buried in there and you don't want to have to read the whole post to find it, unless you want to read the whole post which means you could just hit the back button and do a small scroll down), comics are more than the pages that might eventually get collected. They are the waiting between issues, the letters to the editor, the covers (which might or might not get into the trade), and the advertisements. Graphic novels have none of this. Watchmen has all of this. It's a comic.

And for anyone who wonders who I am to bitch about this, I share my point of view with most of the creators who supposedly write "graphic novels," as you can see here, as well as comics readers themselves (ourselves...)...Only the most ashamed of us read only "graphic novels." This is a graphic novel. This is a comic. The only difference between the two is the initial length, the method of release, and because of this some storytelling procedures. Compare The Green Mile, originally released serially, and Insomnia.

Not much of an etymology, failing at my original goal, just how I like it.

TECHNICAL: Etymology will be a new tab, replacing the previous "language" which only had one post in it anyway.

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