UNDERSTANDING GENRES IN COMICS
Author: Nicolas Labarre
Publisher: Palgrave MacMillan
Publication Year: 2021
Topic: Genre theory and function
WHAT IS IT?
Understanding Genres in Comics uses concepts and models drawn from film studies to examine the formation and persistence of genre-based comic books in America.
Author Nicolas Labarre shows why genre exists and examines the ways in which it can be a valuable tool for comic creators, publishers, and readers.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
Understanding Genres in Comics begins by examining the concept of genre through a lens borrowed from film studies, and shows that although the term is amorphous, a genre can be understood to be a blueprint, a label, and even a contract with the reader. Labarre considers how genres are associated with (or sometimes even limited to) specific media and reflects on the difficult relationship between genre and medium in the world of comics.
The book is not overly concerned with examining specific types of comics genres, or with comparing one genre to another. Rather, Lebarre tackles the concept of genre itself. He does examine the structure and tropes of certain genres such as horror or funny animal comics, but does so in the service of understanding why genre came about, what its function is within the comics world, and how it may be evolving in an age ruled by keywords and metadata.
Labarre’s analysis of how genre can be media-specific is fascinating. He notes, for instance, that that the “musical” genre is effectively impossible to translate in comics. He also shows that even when genres do exist in multiple mediums, they often have to rely on different techniques or tropes. The “jump scare” is a key element of horror movies but is difficult to replicate in horror comics, as the reader controls the pace at which the story moves.
Understanding Genres in Comics is consciously grounded in the larger “comics world” even as it focuses on genre. This framework allows the book to explore genre more broadly and effectively than it otherwise could. Labarre notes that a genre is not defined by its most prominent works; it is represented best by the rank-and-file books that give us a broad selection to compare and contrast. More than that, genre is a construction that is bound up in interactions and expectations of multiple constituencies. I loved the choices Labarre made when choosing examples to talk about and to reproduce. The titles examined are, for the most part, fresh and interesting, and the accompanying images are entertaining and colorful.
The chapters are ingeniously and effectively constructed in a way that allows Labarre to spend a bit of time focusing on specific genres and how they work even as he uses them to illustrate his larger points on genre in general. Understanding Genres in Comics looks at horror in the context of how genres are broken and codified, funny animals in terms of genre signifiers, and uses Superman/Aliens to explain “genre curation.”
Labarre expertly shows how fundamental genre is to modern comics. It had never occurred to me before that nearly every comic announces genre constantly through signals grand and small. Genre signifiers are baked into almost every page of a comic, not just through story but through color, text, costuming, mood, scenery, setting and a host of other clues.
WHAT DOESN’T WORK?
The design and formatting of Understanding Genres in Comics is extremely formal. Each chapter starts with an Abstract and closes with pages of endnotes. The text is small and crisp. From a scholarly perspective, this is all very standard and convenient, but it does make the book feel colder and less “readable” than it might otherwise be. Yes, this is a work that is targeted at academics, but there is a lot of entertaining and thought-provoking content here. I wish it was designed to be a bit more inviting for non-academic readers.
WHY SHOULD YOU READ IT?
I love it when a book offers unexpected insights that go well beyond its stated mission. Understanding Genres in Comics is that kind of book for me. Labarre dutifully explains and explores the key elements of how genres work in the comic book medium, but he also raises interesting questions about how we compartmentalize our media, why we do so, and how that might be changing.
For those interested in where comics are going, Understanding Genres in Comics raises interesting and fundamental questions about how comics are produced and promoted in an increasingly digital marketplace.
HOW DO I BUY IT?
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
If you happen to read French: Labarre’s La bande dessinée contemporaine
For a more focused look at just one genre: Authorizing Superhero Comics: On the Evolution of a Popular Serial Genre by Daniel Stein
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nicolas Labarre teaches at the Université Bordeaux Montaigne, and has written extensively on American comics and culture. Much of Labarre’s work is only available in French language editions, but he has published several English articles and book chapters with topics ranging from Pac Man to Hellboy. He also has a novel coming out this month entitled Warhol Invaders. You can find Labarre on Twitter @LabarreN.
This book is ©2021 Nicolas Labarre. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED