Monday, January 02, 2006

Just The FAQs: What is a comic ?

Hey, I said I was starting from the ground-up.

Q: What's a comic?

A: Well, it depends on what you mean. The art form of comics is generally understood to be the fusion of words and static images to convey information. (Some definitions also require sequentialism, i.e., the presentation of more than one image-word combination, or panel, in a specific order.) Any presentation of such a kind, from the four-panel strip in your newspaper to a 200-page album, is a comic book, but that term is most commonly applied to the 22-page monthlies, which are also called "pamphlets" or "singles."

Q: So how are comics different from animated cartoons or movies, which also have words and pictures?

A: Lack of motion and sound. Comics must show motion statically, often through the use of "speed lines" and dynamic, exaggerated poses, and they present sound through words on the page. The digital era has produced some comics that have moving parts and audio effects, but debate is heavy as to whether these are comics at all, or primitive cartoons.

Q: What's the difference between a "comic" and a "graphic novel?"

A: Nothing; a graphic novel is simply a type of comic. Any long-form, original work over a certain amount of pages (there's no rule of thumb, but few works under 100 pages are considered "novels") is a graphic novel. Mainstream critical jargon favors "graphic novel" over "comic," but it's a purely semantic issue.

Q: What about this collection of old Superman comics? Is that a graphic novel?

A: No, that's a trade paperback, or "trade." Trades collect old monthlies, sometimes a particular story arc, sometimes a group of issues by a certain creator or around a certain theme. The line between trades and graphic novels does blur the further away you get from the superhero genre and the Big Two, though; the Bone One-Volume Edition or Don Rosa's The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck, could be considered novels in the same way Great Expectations (originally serialized) is.

Q: "The Big Two?"

A: Marvel and DC, the two largest comic publishers, both of which almost eclusively publish superhero material. Other major players include Image, Dark Horse, Idea and Design Works and Fantagraphics.

Q: What kinds of comics are there?

A: Most American comics are superhero adventure stories, but there are representatives genres as diverse as horror, autobiography, how-to, and slice-of-life comedy. Other countries especially offer a wider variety of comics.

Q: But comics are really just for kids, right?

A: Not anymore. Comics for children are still published, but even superheroes are written for a variety of age groups these days. And "dirty" comics are as old as the medium itself. Anyone can enjoy a good comic, but parents buying for kids should be just as careful as they are with anything else.

Q: How long have comics been made?

A: Most scholars agree that the first American comics as we know them appeared in newspapers in the late 19th century as a way to interest readers and boost circulation. The first comic books, which collected strips originally published in newspapers, appeared in the early 1930s, and comics with original material soon followed. The graphic novel is tougher to trace, but most people agree that either Jim Steranko or Will Eisner created the form in the 1960s.

Q: Were there comics before then?

A: Yes, but they weren't called that. Artists throughout history experimented with storytelling through words and pictures, and codices from the ancient Aztecs have been found that read much like modern comics.

Q: What are manga?

A: Manga are Japanese comics (in fact, "manga" is simply the Japanese word for "comics"). Modern manga developed in the post-WWII era after soldiers from the US introduced the medium. The stylistic and format differences stem from the basic cultural division between all Western and Eastern art, as does the greater genre diversification and lack of "kids' stuff" stereotyping. The two biggest importers of manga to the US are Viz and Tokyopop.

Q: Why do I see more manga in bookstores than other comics?

A: It sells better. Why it sells better is complex, and the debate over it is one of the hot-button issues in the American industry right now.

Q: What about one-panel newspaper cartoons? Are they comics?

A: It's a split; some people think they qualify because of the blend of words and images, others think they don't because they're not sequential. The debate rages on. As an aside, I won't talk too much about strips on this blog, but it's just as rich a field as comic books.

Q: I really liked (name of comic here) when I was a kid. Do they still make it?

A: Most superheroes published by Marvel and DC are still being published today, as are the Disney and Archie stable of characters. The Internet is a great resource for finding out whatever happened to your old favorites, and there are plenty of great people to share your love of the hobby with. The Grand Comic Database is a good start, as is the Comic Book Resources Classic Comics Forum.

Q: I just saw (movie based off of a comic), and I loved it! Where can I get some of the comics?

A: Your local comic shop (dial 1-888-COMIC-BOOK or visit find it) probably has some, or can order them for you. Chain bookstores like Barnes and Noble and Borders also stock collected editions of comics that have been turned into movies recently. Don't be afraid to ask the clerks for help.

Q: How many comics come out in a given month?

A: Far more than I can list here. Diamond Distributors offers a monthly catalog of comics, called Previews, which you can buy at your local comic store.

Q: There are no comic stores in my area!

A: That's not really a question, but I sympathize. Many stores sell comics online, and being two of the most popular. You can buy new comics as well as old issues. And then there's eBay.

Q: What comics do you read?

A: My current monthly list is: Amazing Spider-Man, Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man, Runaways, She-Hulk, Young Avengers, Marvel Team-Up, X-Factor, Exiles, and Fantastic Four from Marvel; Teen Titans, Legion of Super-Heroes and Action Comics from DC; Fallen Angel from IDW; Invincible from Image; and Rurouni Kenshin from Viz. I also buy trades regularly of Birds of Prey, Outsiders, Y: The Last Man and JSA, all from DC, Conan from Dark Horse, and Ranma 1/2, from Viz. And I'm always buying up other comics that catch my interest as well.

Q: How are comics made?

A: That's another entry entirely. I'll get to it eventually, I promise.

Q: Why do you like comics, as opposed to prose, or movies?

A: Well, I like all those things, too. But I like comics because it can do things and speak to me in ways those things can't. A book can't show you a scene the same way a well-drawn comic panel can, and a movie doesn't allow you to savor individual parts of the story at your leisure the way the printed page does. And there's a kind of beautiful elegance in the simplicity of words and pictures together. The best comics achieve a fusion of the two that's far greater than what they can accomplish alone.

Q: Are there any comic books out there that I'd like?

A: Yes. I don't care who you are, somewhere out there is a comic for you. Happy hunting.

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