Comics Scholars Survey Results, November 1995

compiled by Peter M. Coogan

F. Genre/Formula
F.1. How can genre/formula theory be applied to comics?
F.2. What impact have comics had on genre/formula in other media? and what impact has genre/formula in other media had on comics?
Many scholars noted that comics is a medium that contains many genres and/or formulas. David Lippert brought up the important consideration that "there is a tendency to overlook the super-hero as a genre." Hal Blythe and Charlie Sweet wrote on the elements of the superhero formula in "Superhero: The Six Step Progression" (The Hero in Transition, Bowling Green: Popular Press, 1983), which may have appeared in the Journal of Popular Culture and was published in the Comics Journal (#73 July 1982, 82-88). Luca Somigli asked about the definitions of comics genres, "For instance, is the distinction between comic book and comic strip a genre question or are they different media" and where do cartoons fit in? He also pointed out the virtual non-existence of the superhero genre in other countries.

Guillaume de Syon mentioned the use of "photo-novel" (very like he means fumetti) and comics-inspired characters--fake ones, a la Liechtenstein--as an alternative to paying rights for famous comics heroes.

Barb Rausch commented that since the inception of visual mass media in the U.S., starting with newspaper comic strips, there has been a lot of crossover; comic books and strips have always had a heavy emphasis on melodrama, especially when it generates intense images, which most often arise out of action and violence, and more recently, sexuality and sexually provocative images. Melodrama lends itself to formula, and gives rise to genre themes. Comic books have inherited the melodrama of the newspaper continuity strips and intensified it.

Gene Phillips found that genre/formula theory is best applied to comics in terms of the concepts of "conventions" and "inventions:" the "one serving to convey to the reader something of the rules of the game and the other serving to vary the theme enough to provide pleasurable surprise." As an example, he referred to the importance of kee ping the "boy's adventure" genre in mind when looking at Barks' Disney work, rather than simply lumping it in with other series about anthropomorphic animals. He also pointed to the way that awareness of the existence of common conventions in the works of great artists helps to modify the "great man" theory of creativity, "by showing that even great artists do adapt into their repertoire ideas originally promulgated by lesser talents."

Gene mentioned that the last ten years have seen comics having a definite impact on the generic conventions of film and television; prior to that, most of the generic influence went strictly from the more popular media to the lesser. He noted the conceptual differences between the first Superman and the first Batman movie. In the Superman film, "the motifs of the comic book stories are basically inflated into a typical Hollywood-style epic, while in the Batman film the motifs of the comics are given center-stage; there is no attempt to transcend or subsume them in generic conventions foreign to the original comics." He continued that the occasional success of films adapted from comics, like The Crow or The Mask, has done much to promote the idea that comics have some identity of their own.

F.3. How does genre/formula work in comics? and which ones work better or worse?

Barb Rausch said that any genre or formula can achieve the level of art in the hands of talented creators, but like most popular culture media, comics seem to thrive on repeating, with slight variations, anything that sells big the first time around. Therefore "works better," defined solely by the profit motive, means the comics with the most intense action/violence/ sexually provocative imagery, i.e. superheroes.

F.4. Are the differences between comic books, comic strips, and the various kinds of cartoons generic differences or differences of media? What terms can be used to discuss these differences?

Barb Rausch believes that a one-panel cartoon, or 3- 4 panel gag strip that is not part of the "story arc" format that seems to have replaced plot in most newspaper strip continuities, does differ generically from what Will Eisner defined as "sequential narrative," which is essentially cinematic story telling applied to the comics page. Comic books continually attempt to push the envelope of that principle--whether it be superheroes "blasting off the page," or the Disneyesque "cinematography" of Jeff Smith's Bone.

She continued that in a comic book series--as opposed to a graphic novel with a since self-contained plot--another element operates, an element most clearly illustrated by the fan response to the original Star Trek TV series, which motivated extensive creative involvement by fans who expanded upon the television show with their own fiction and art. The same fan response affects fans of Wendy Pini's Elfquest , Donna Barr's Desert Peach, and other comics. One does not see that response with newspaper strips like The Far Side, Garfield, or Doonesbury.

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