Friday, August 01, 2014

On the use of the word "creator" in talking about comics

This post that I saw linked to on The Comics Journal blog the other day, in which the authors question some PR usage of derivations of the term "creator," including "creator owned" and "creator-driven," really got me thinking about the way I use the word "creator."

In general, I use it as shorthand for the people who make the comic book--the writer, the pencil artist, the inker, even the colorist and letterer, both of whom I tend to ignore unless they do something amazing or something terrible--that is, the individual components of a "creative team." I'm not sure where I picked this habit up, probably when I first started reading about comics on Newsrama in the late '90s or maybe the DC Comics message boards. Maybe even letter columns?

It's a useful shorthand, because there are certain comics-makers who write and draw; sometimes they write and draw the comics, sometimes they just write them, sometimes they just draw them. Sometimes you want to refer to, say, Matt Fraction and David Aja with a single word, and it's easier to say "Hawkeye's current creators Fraction and Aja" than it is to say "Hawkeye's current writer and artist, Fraction and Aja," you know?

The word "creator" does imply the act of creation though, doesn't it? And while it fits its popular usage in a lot of ways--to use the example in that post I linked to, Mark Waid and Chris Samnee might not have created the character or the comic book Daredevil, but they are creating the current scripts and art in that book--the connotations of the world "creator" are rather different than the definition of the term as we-people-who-talk-about-comics generally intend.

Now, comics has always had some problems with terminology, including the word "comics." I've struggled with what to call the damn things for as long as I've written about 'em, generally just going with "comics" whenever I can. "Graphic novel" is an extremely imperfect term, but it seems to be the one that's stuck. To picks some recent books I've read, for example, Bryan Lee O'Malley's Seconds is definitely a graphic novel, a novel told in comics form, whereas Guardians of The Galaxy Vol. 2: Angela is a collection of a serially-published comic, and Noah Van Sciver's Youth Is Wasted is a collection of various short works, ranging from one-page strips to "graphic short stories" or "graphic novellas." Similarly, we sometimes use the word "trade" or "trade collection" to refer to bound comics, but that really only refers to a format (trade paperback), so when I say "I waited for the trade of that," sometimes I just mean I waited for the hardcover collection.

So "graphic novel" is not a great word. I don't like "sequential art" either, at least without any kind of modifiers, as I think its too broad, and it excuses single-panel works. And while there are certainly differences between, say, The Family Circus and Hi and Lois, I don't know that they are so great that the people who make them should be said to be working in entirely different media, you know?

Hell, "comic books" doesn't work so great either, as it's actually somewhat rare that they're comical...

Anyway, that piece just got me thinking about the term "creator," and how maybe it's not that great a one to use to talk about people who make comics in general, particularly since so often we use that term to refer to the people creating content, not, characters or IP, which I think is how the word would be more likely to be used legally.

I try to be careful with the terminology of comics and formats--comics, comic books, trades, graphic novels, collections, et cetera--and I suppose it would be better to be more careful of the terms I use to discuss the people who make them.

Of course, being more careful with word choice, and considering connotations as well as definitions, is probably a good thing for any writer to keep in mind, no matter what the subject.


Philippe Leblanc said...

Caleb, I completely understand the dilemma. The terminology has never been set in stone and may never will be. The most accurate terms seems to be coming from literature(shorts stories, novels) and the arts.
The fact that is an ever changing composite form of the two doesn't seem to be helping clarifying the language around it. I started writing about comics recently and found myself baffled by the lack of specificity surrounding comic arts nomenclature. A very interesting topic indeed.

BK said...

yeah, the modern trend to label every hack fill-in illustrators or computer lettering technician a "creator" demeans the act of creation and devalues the work of cartoonists, writers, and artists who actually create new works and characters whole cloth. A poor shorthand that short-shrifts those who truly bring something new into our lives. Jack Kirby and Stan Lee created Groot. Brian Michael Bendis wrote some stories about the same character, updating or totally changing many aspects. Can he be called a creator in that instance, instead of more generally? I think it's confusing to do so, but benefits Marvel/Disney at the expense of freelancers.