Notes from S.M.A.S.H.

This is laughably late. Back in November last year there was another S.M.A.S.H. event at the Barbican, a three-hour, three-panel discussion on comics, with excellent guests and topics. I wrote up some notes for the one in March, so I thought I'd do the same for November. I've only just now got my act together and managed to complete them. This is all unedited jottings, with lots of potential confusions and contradictions. But S.M.A.S.H. does work by filling your head up with ideas, and the below is hopefully an accurate reflection of that. The event was recorded, and I've added the links to the audio below.


My main memory of this is Simon Spurrier's discomfort with having comics reduced to one or two word explanations, and therefore his ambivalence about genre. He described genre as a list of ingredients rather than a recipe, in that most stories combine ingredients from many different genres into one unique mix.

I'm not sure that's the best way to think about genre, however. Another panelist mentioned that genres set up expectations. And expectations are about what happens next, i.e. they are a combination of elements rather than a disparate selection of elements. I think genres are recipes, in that they have rules you should follow. Creators use the expectations inherent in them to achieve their effects. Some comics are straightforward genre exercises. The ones I tend to be interested in are those that break the rules in interesting ways. But you have to know the rules in order to break them.

And actually, I think there may be a bias towards genre in comics, because contrary to what you might think, the form is actually less liberating than prose. Visual storytelling is more immediate, but it's harder to use images to convey complex information. I speak from (limited) experience – whenever I create an infographic at work, I find I'm always simplifying what has been written in prose. It's pretty clear to me that you can convey more raw information in a page of a novel than you can do with a page of comics.

Comics therefore inherently have to compress information. And genre is often a good way to do so. The audience already know the rules, and can lean on a set of expectations when being introduced to a story. A creator can therefore leave a lot of the background world-building to one side, in order to have time to get the narrative going. Given that most comics are periodical, I wonder whether there is something structural about the use of genre – creators tending to lean on genre at the beginning before spinning away from it. I think The Girl from H.O.P.P.E.R.S might be a good example of this.

The panel went on to discuss the creation of genre classifications – and I started thinking about who gets to do this, and the fact that genres in comics tend to be quite fixed. This is in sharp contrast to genres in music, where terms are coined far more rapidly, particularly within a genre (think of all the subdivisions of metal or dance music, for example). If you had left that to labels and shops, you'd be stuck with the overarching definitions – functional labels to guide the consumer to what they want to hear.

The multiplication of genres in music is mostly the work of fans and critics, who often compete to be the first to define a new genre (see for example the various terms floating around before chillwave and grime were consolidated into genres). It feels like that multiplicity of genres is what some on the panel were hoping for. But you can only generate that kind of discourse when a fan or critical community achieves a certain size, and comics are (for good or ill) still a minority interest.

And that might not be a bad thing. A lot of shops and libraries classify genres by publisher (thankfully separating the Vertigo stuff from the DC stuff). That essentially segregates everything that isn't a superhero comic in one place, and within those shelves of Vertigo / Image / Dark Horse / Avatar comics all kinds of genres jostle together, awaiting the open-minded browser. That's not a bad state of affairs to be in, and it's not too far removed from the ideal comic book shop the panellists started to fantasise about at the end of the discussion.


The most difficult topic to say anything about, and the discussion ended up looking at the position of comics within culture, whether it will grow or remain a 'black sheep'. I think most in attendance were attached to the idea of comics as an insurgent, underground or inherently anarchic medium. But actually that contradicts the adage that you can and should do everything with comics – including drab narratives about middle class people having affairs. Also, given the incredible complexity involved with breaking a story into panels and 22 pages, you could argue that comics need a good deal of discipline to make properly. I for one would be curious about what would happen if comics became a mass market phenomenon, like they are in Japan. I suspect the amount of dross would grow exponentially – but you will also get more experimentation rather than less (the number of strange manga niches is quite something).

There were worries also about piracy, and how creators can be compensated for their labour. That's a question that applies to all creative endeavours, and although I love the idea (put forth by Rob Davis) of libraries as the solution, I suspect something like a Spotify for comics may be the best outcome for everyone (streaming services may be on the cusp of reversing the massive loss of revenue music labels have seen over the last 20 years). That said, eReaders need to figure out a way to display images in colour before I start going digital.

Another tidbit was the recognition that the production of comics is extremely inefficient relative to their consumption – Rob Davis was particularly rueful about spending months making a book that takes a couple of hours to get through.


The panellists dived into the knotty problem of how you can compare tastes if taste is subjective and a product of your subjectivity. Are all tastes as good as each other, or are some better than others? If everyone is equal, what's the point of comparing opinions? I remember Mazin tried to resolve this by suggesting readings of the formal qualities of a work can be compared (and ranked). But once you stop talking about the work as a work, and start talking about how it resonates with your own experience, you've stopped talking about the work itself.

That's a recipe for rather dry critique, I suspect. And while some creators are interested in craft exercises, that's not the starting point for everyone – most are trying to communicate something as well. Criticism for me is a bit like a conversation where you try the best you can to understand what the creator is saying first, and then reflect on the resonances that has to your own experience. Interpretations of what an author meant to do with a work can also therefore be ranked. Whether your tastes align with those of the author you are reading may help you gain insight into what they are trying to say, but it's not essential. The versatility or range of a critic's tastes may determine whether they are specialists or generalists.

But this is taking us away from what for me is the more interesting issue around taste, which is how it's basically a proxy for your identity. And as such is often public and demonstrative. Dave McKean mentioned top 10 lists – which is a good example of this. Creating a list of your favourite comics artists is a statement about who are (or want to be) as a person. It is bundled up with all kinds of claims about the things you think are important.

Thinking about taste in terms of identity helps to answer the question of why people find it difficult to change their minds on things. If your taste defines who you are, it's difficult to renounce favourite works, even if you don't turn back to them now, or even think they are that good any more. Julia Scheele was quite eloquent on this when describing the discomfort of starting to have misgivings about Transmetropolitan, given how big an impact the book had on her in the past.

Taste as identity also sheds light on the dynamics of group-creation, and how groups tend to consolidate in opposition to other groups. You like something partly because those people over there don't like it. And that makes bridging the taste divide quite difficult. This works in comics all the time – 2000AD fans can be pretty disdainful of any comic that gets reviewed in the Guardian, for example. The danger is that your taste becomes ossified by refusing to countenance the stuff that doesn't fit within it, not least because sticking within the narrow bounds of what you know can burn you out. I've been feeling this way with anglophone comics as a whole for a while now, to be honest. The best tonic for that is to dive into alternative views and new experiences, as Dave McKean suggested. But that means being less tribal – and if taste is wrapped up with your identity, that's always going to be a tough thing to do.

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