Understand Genre Through Comics

Creative people walk a tightrope in their careers. On one side, the creative person is unique in what they do. But, on the other side, the work needs to be recognizable. To gain an audience, one must balance these. Much of the romantic notions of the creative person lean dangerously too much on creative expression. Yet professional artists know how to use that recognizable part to bring the audience home. We call that recognizable part genre.

But what makes a genre? Why don’t we know more about it if it is so important? Much of Genre is unspoken and learned by experience. There is no rule book for a Genre, so it remains the critical bit invisible part of our creative practice. However, we can learn more about Genre by exploring works of the same Genre.

I’ll define A genre as a collection of assumptions, patterns, habits, and limitations that define a set of creative works. They are not rules to write down. Genre transmits from one generation of artists to another. Most often orally and in the actions of the older generation. Audiences recognize a genre but would have difficulty generally describing it.

I’ve seen people try to explain Genre by using Jazz. As a listener, you can tell it is Jazz, but one has to be a sophisticated musician to explain what makes Jazz a musical Genre, so it works poorly as an example.
I want to take something much easier to understand the fundamentals of, something I can compare one Genre to another.

I’ll start with these three boxes:

A circle is in a different place in each of the three boxes. With a bit of imagination, we can see them as frames where a round object such as a ball moves horizontally. But which direction? Most likely, you are seeing the balls move from left to right. This belief is a convention based on an assumption everyone reads left to right.

Conventions give us a common basis for understanding what is happening. For example, I can add three lines after each circle like this:

You know from the conventions you’ve learned that the ball moves to the right and at high speed.

Another convention learned from the natural world experience is shadows telling us where the light source is.

However, those assumptions are not accurate for other genres of comics. Japanese Manga, unlike Western Comics, is read right to left. The cartoon would look like this in Manga.

Manga might be comics, but it is a different genre of comics. It comes with different assumptions and conventions about how to compose a comic page.

Here’s the ball moving, comparing Western comics and Manga

The western comic has color and narration. Western comics are very wordy compared to their Manga counterparts. Manga are less verbose while using panels to narrate visually, adding camera angles and a sense of depth.

If you were to go to a bookstore, you could easily see the difference sitting on the shelf. Manga tend to be thicker volumes, using multiple panels to visually illustrate compared to a single wordy panel of a western comic.

To produce that many pages cost-effectively, a single ink color is best for Manga, though the shorter western comic can have basic 4-color printing and has since its early days.
Without reading, you know which of these is a Western Comic(Savage She-Hulk) and which is Manga(Ghost in the Shell: Arise)

Although there are words in English and Japanese to tip you off, you don’t have to read to tell the difference. Instantly, all the elements you see point to the Genre, including some we did not discuss, like the detailed line work and the cinematic camera angles in Manga or the multiple word balloons in western comics.

Manga and western comics are both Comics and share some attributes of the genre or using panels and word balloons. But within the comics genre are these subgenres that make more assumptions and adopt conventions that identify them as a genre.

This is true of many genres, but this visual example can give you some idea of how genres work. It is a set of attributes from many different sources — some culture, some technological, and some traditions handed down through generations of artists — that builds a recognizable genre for the audience and the artist.

Leave a Reply