Folks Talkin’ Bout Comics: Genres

I present to you, dear readers, a look into the past. Below is a chat with my friend Seth Dellon that took place in January, in which we chat about my initial ideas for this blog, Comic Books as a Genre VS Comic Books as a Format, and some of our other thoughts on comic book publishing in general. Since we’re not talking about any specific comic, I’ve inserted panels from several comics that I’ll probably talk about in the future, but by including them here, I’ve gotten a jump on recommending them now!

“Conversation” by James Kochalka and Craig Thompson

Paul: So I want to start up a blog that’s comics focused, but that is geared towards educating people about how it’s not all superheroes.

Seth: So…is it going to be reviews of non-superhero comics or more than that too?

Paul: I guess it’ll include superheroes in some cases too, but it’ll mainly be about showing the whole spectrum of comics genres, as well as the different formats: single issues, trades, and digital formats.
As well as diving in more to trying to understand panel structure or other storytelling devices. So it’s partially for me as an exercise in understanding the medium better.

Seth: That sounds pretty cool.

Paul: Yeah, and if it caught on, i.e. if I got friends, or readers of the blog to read some of the reviews/recommendations, then I would post their reactions.

Seth: I like the idea of comics as lit (even comics that aren’t considered “lit” comics)…I always argue/discuss (mostly with my boss and librarians at the book fairs I go to) that comics aren’t a genre, they’re a format.

Paul: Would you like to be a part of this site?

Seth: I would love to…if I have something applicable to contribute. I think the last comic i read was Blankets.

Paul: That book, and Craig Thompson work in general is something I would highlight.

Seth: I think I’d like to write a post about how comics are categorized by book distributors.

Paul: Nice. That is something I have no knowledge of at all!

Seth: I actually just had to do a fairly large project at work for it….there’s a system of categories called BISAC, which book distributors use in the states, and then another system I can’t think of the name of that’s used in Europe and Asia, and the BISAC system has something like 30 separate graphic novel categories and the other system has zero, and that struck me as interesting.

Paul: Wow.

“American Vampire” by Stephen King, Scott Snyder, Rafael Albuquerque

Seth: Yeah. So my project was to find an applicable category from the system I can’t remember the name of for each of the 3600+ BISAC categories, and there are three major categories that BISAC covered that the other one didnt: cooking, antiques and comics. But the cool thing for me–and this was the argument I had with my boss–was that for comics there were several applicable categories for each one. For example, for “Comics & Graphic Novels/Contemporary Women” which is a BISAC category, I could put, Art, Literature and Sociology, instead of just “comics.” So i guess the article would be something like “does the categorization of graphic novels help or hurt the medium?”

Paul: That sounds like a good start, you would argue it helps, yes?

Seth: I dunno, I think I’d present both sides of the argument like…classifying comics as comics helps people find comics, but classifying comics as “sociology” or “literature” or whatever (where applicable) might help the format legitimize itself more as a format VS. a genre.

Paul: gotcha

Seth: Cause I honestly don’t know what I think about it. On one hand, I think it’s weird that this major categorization system doesn’t include comics, but on the other hand, maybe they don’t because they just see it as literature, not as a gimmick.

Paul: I wrote a really long rambly response to that…that basically amounted to hmmmm in the end.

Seth: Hahahahahaha. And on top of that, you deleted it…and then recapped it.

Paul: Yup, that’s how I do. But basically, the whole genre classification is a big part of why I want to do this thing, cause I feel like comics are written off entirely because of one genre, however, I still think you’d want to classify them separately from regular books as you wouldn’t put a book next to a movie on a shelf.

Seth: I suppose..but they’re still both books…unless you’d argue that they’re not really “books” which is also an interesting point of view.

“Grrl Scouts” by Jim Mahfood

Paul: I would start with a hypothetical book store. Either brick and mortar, or online, comic books are considered a genre of books currently, alongside Fiction, Nonfiction, etc. But then there’s no further breakdown because of the dominance of the superhero. Whereas in fiction ,you might drill down into Horror, Sci-Fi, Romance, or Hard Sci-Fi; graphic novels have one section that is generally unorganized. So there’s no recognition of the graphic novel or comic book as anything other than its delivery system. It’s a ‘comic’ therefore it belongs in said section. But movies and music (if they exist in said store) are branched off into their own sections, and have sub genre designations. I don’t know that I’m arguing a point yet, just that I’m laying out my understanding.

Seth: I see it the same way….the store is divided by “medium”….audio, video and print. Within each though, how is it broken down? If its by genre, then maybe the comics shouldn’t be their own section, but if its by format, then maybe they should. Or maybe the get the benefit of being in both….but usually they wouldn’t.

Which is my point…I have no idea, I just know what I know about formats, and a lot of people don’t know that, so I figured I could write it up.

Paul: I think format is the word…that’s where it really breaks out.

Seth: I guess that’s generally why you have comic book stores as their own thing, instead of “fiction book stores” or “sociology book stores” (with some exceptions of course).

Paul: And then you have the newsstand for newspapers and magazines.

Seth: Also true.

Paul: This is a sidetrack of sorts, but do publishers base book sales on units sold to stores and it ends there, or it’s based on what the stores actually sell as well?

Seth: I’m not 100% sure…a lot do it based on Nieslon Book Scan which is only those sold to consumers. Books (and CDs) are “returnable” which means a bookstore can send unsold product back to the publisher (or for some things like Mass Market books, bookstores remove the covers to send back to the publisher and then throw out the actual book)…the returns eventually become what they call “remainders” and the remainders industry is a huge industry in and of itself. The Strand is a used bookstore, but probably 50% of their inventory is remainders I’d guess.

Other things can be remainders too….the display copies that we use at our book fairs would be remainders, and the remainders aren’t counted in the units sold.

So…to answer your question I have no idea. But I would guess it includes only those sold to consumers (which would include libraries and stuff…places that wouldn’t resell them).

Paul: Interesting…cause with comics, for the comics that are sold in comic stores, not everything is returnable, and they base their sales figures on what they sell to the comic stores. So they could report a comic as “sold out” while 30 copies sit on a shelf.

Seth: Yeah, comic book stores are considered “specialty stores” and specialty stores cant return stuff. That’s why publishers want their books in Urban Outfitters and stuff. So I guess those are also included in the books sold.
Paul: But specialty stores are non-returnable purely because it’s dictated by publishers, or is it law?

Seth: Hmm…I dunno.

Paul: Hmmm…and how do books get to book stores, are there middle men or do stores order directly from publishers?

Seth: Depends on the size of the publisher and the size of the store. For example, Barnes and Noble is big enough that Random House would consider them an account…likewise, Random House is big enough that Barnes and Noble would want to buy direct from them….whereas a small shop would probably do all of their ordering from a distributor like Ingram because it’s easier to do it all in one stop and because the publisher isn’t going to give them any handouts because they won’t be doing as much business.
As in..Random House probably has no idea that [name of small indie bookstore] exists, so they won’t really have an account person for them, but there are regional sales people that cover that territory, in which case its subjective for the store where they want to get stuff from, and most publishers are carried by several distributors.

Libraries almost never buy direct from the publisher, though most publishers have library marketing departments (at least that’s what I’ve been taught).

Paul: This is all very interesting, I don’t fully know how to process it yet. a lot of my thoughts are based on the big store model that’s attempting to offer all entertainment mediums. But specifically with comics, it falters, because they’re not able to offer as much diversity because they still wind up having to pander to the super hero fanbase.

Seth: What do you mean? Diversity in what?

Paul: Sorry, I’m bouncing back to genres now.

Seth: I dunno if that’s true..I think it’s like anything where there’s a popular version of it….good pop music exists, but most pop artists you hear about are Katy Perry and Beyonce.

Paul: I guess my point is that there’s not as much awareness of other comic genres so there’s not as much to help them break out in the format…So I guess you’re right there as there are those people that Music = Pop Music. They don’t venture outside whatever rock, rap, country that has been absorbed by pop radio, or rather pop media.

Seth: But I think that there are a lot of mainstream book outlets that treat comics the opposite way…that they see graphic novels as a medium ruined by superheroes. Which I guess is like any sort of snob. I dunno if he still does, but Stephen King had a standing stint at Entertainment Weekly and one of his essays was about the like…”snobification” of books, saying that calling something “high literature” will just hurt the sales and make it not marketable, and I think that it goes the same way for comics, but also that the same people that consider certain lit comics as high literature (for example, Craig Thompson’s Habibi) would scoff at the idea that superhero comics be considered good literature at all.

So I think it goes both ways. If that makes sense.

Paul: I guess going back to wondering about differences in format and such if they would be better served by being put alongside other genres…since they’re often placed near Sci-Fi and Fantasy. So crime comics might get more play if placed in the Mystery/Thriller section.

Seth: Exactly. Although, it probably helps them with press to be kept separately….they’d most likely never make a regular bestseller list, but having a graphic novels bestseller list is probably a huge coup for them, and Publishers Weekly (and probably others) dedicates part of their reviews to just graphic novels.

“Casanova: Avarita” by Matt Fraction and Gabriel Ba

Paul: I think I can sum up our conversation this afternoon with “Hmmmm.”

Seth: Yeah. We should just post the whole thing as a post on the blog.

Paul: Agreed.

Current Paul: Hey Past Paul and Past Seth, guess what?

Paul: What?

Seth: What in the name of Lars Frederiksen?

Current Paul: I just posted this as a blog. Mission accomplished.

(All three jump into the air, high fiving, then disintegrate, along with the rest of the universe, due to obscure time travel rules that were broken when the two Pauls met).

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