Why does “Comic Book” Default to “Superhero Comic?”

By Carter Glace, Staff Writer

As I sat down trying to think of what to write for the latest column, and found most of my options centered around superheroes. The usual Marvel and DC fare. And finally, I was forced to confront an unfortunate truth, when the term “comic book” is brought up in today’s world, it is most often referring to “superhero” comics.

This is a thought that has come to my mind previously, as I’ve taken stock of how many of my columns have been on the latest superhero film or the latest news regarding costumed characters. I’ve dedicated myself to making a “Comics Column” and yet most of my work focuses on a small corner of that world. And this certainly isn’t a problem exclusive to me. When the term comic book comes up at all in America pop culture, the first images created tend to be the likes of Spider-man, Batman or Wolverine. But why?

It’s not as if superhero comics are the origin of comic books, single page comics and news paper comics preceding super heroes by decades. And the concept of putting comics in a book to tell a long form story began with pulp adventures, mysteries, and characters like Tin-Tin and Little Orphan Annie.

They don’t make up the majority of comics. While they tend to get front row representation in most comic shops, there’s no shortage of non-hero comic books, and some of the medium’s best work is coming from non-super hero sources. Between the likes of “Paper Girls,” “Lumberjanes,” and “Flinstones,” there is no shortage of spectacular series to enjoy. And that’s before we get to the vast number of manga and anime series.

And superheroes don’t even make up the majority of film and TV adaptations. The “Superhero Bloat” is always discussed when it comes to comics coming to film, but countless comic adaptations have gone under the radar to the point where most people didn’t recognize them as based off comics. Did you know “Lucy” was based off a comic? Or “Men in Black?” Or even that Brett Ratner’s “Hercules?” Just as many comic book adaptations are cape-less and power-less, but they come from the same panels. And that’s before we get to the sheer number of manga and anime adaptations.

It’s stopping and thinking of these anime and manga examples where I finally think I’ve found the answer as to why non-superhero works are always left out of the narrative.  Superheroes are an incredibly American concept. Since Superman appeared on pages in 1938, the US has shaped the very concept of a “superhero” from the very beginning, to the point where the very idea wouldn’t exist otherwise. Why this is the case is another thousand-word essay analyzing American Exceptionalism, our vision as the protectors of the world, and so on. But  of course superheroes take the front stage in the narrative, because they are the one comic concept that is ours.

But at the same time, superheroes are undeniably global. Broad tales about epic figures dealing with melodramatic struggles and battles; these characters’ stories are some of the most accessible on the planet, capturing universal and human emotion beyond borders and cultures. Tin-Tin is engaging while extremely European. Little Orphan Annie was initially built on the politics of the Depression Era. Superheroes can be picked up by anyone of any age, gender, race or nationality and largely be understood and empathized with. And that may be the key to why “comic books” is often shorthand for “superheroes.” Because while superheroes didn’t create the comic book, they are the best example of how to make it universal.

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