In a response to my post the other day, someone questioned the increased usage of the term "pamphlet" to describe the comic format we've spent the past several decades simply calling "comic book." So, today I'm going to explain why it's an appropriate word to use and is not necessarily intended to be derogatory.
For many years, the term "comic book" was sufficient to describe the format in which people typically saw sequential art. The only venue besides the pamphlet for seeing it was in the funny pages of a newspaper. Comics were considered too "low" to warrant publication in anything resembling a premium format. Your options were comic books or comic pages in the newspaper. Even when stories started getting reprinted in small paperbacks back in the 1960s and 70s, they were still only reprint collections of what people were still simply calling "comic books" so that term was still used.
Eventually, though, people started coming up with longer form stories. (Feel free to argue about whether it was Will Eisner or Jim Steranko who got the ball rolling with this.) They, understandably, wanted to differentiate their longer works from simple collections of shorter, deadline-driven stories and the industry soon settled on the term "graphic novel" to identify these pieces. "Novel" to suggest the longer format, and "graphic" to convey the visual elements not inherent in a "regular" novel.
And here's where things start to get muddy. Because with the birth of the "graphic novel" people began to really see the storytelling options available to them, and that stories could be told in formats other than the traditional pamphlet format. So we start seeing "Treasury Editions" and "Prestige Formats" and "Mini-Comics" and who-knows-what-else. It's still all sequential art -- comics -- but they look decidedly different from one another. Not even a comic newbie is going to mistake Superman vs. Muhammad Ali with Arkham Asylum with Cynicalman with Amazing Spider-Man #167. They're just all physically very different in their production.
And so the term "comic book" essentially took on too many meanings to use in differentiating different formats. It worked well enough (and still works well, for that matter) when you're just talking about sequential art generally, but you have to start using other terms if you want to specify that you're only discussing one particular format. Since most of the newer formats were generating a new taxonomy for themselves already, we were only left with the old pamphlet comics using a phrase that was now doing double-duty.
Enter "periodical." Periodical was a good word for the pamphlet comics at the time. They came out regularly on a (generally) monthly schedule and were largely the only format who followed that. Graphic novels were one-offs, mini-comics were all over the map schedule-wise depending on the creator... with only a couple exceptions, the pamphlet comics were the only form of "comic book" that came out on a regular schedule.
Ah, but here comes the 21st century! There have been two significant changes in the comic book market that make "periodical" an imprecise term. First we have the rise of manga. These books are of a decidedly different format than pamphlets but still come out on a fairly regular (i.e. periodic) basis. Then we have a change in attitude from the major publishers towards how they approach their stories. Once upon a time, the goal was to put out a new issue of each title every month, regardless of content. It's easy to find examples in older books where ongoing storylines are completely interrupted with inventory material or reprints that are dropped in place to make a monthly deadline. These days, though, publishers tend to skew towards the continuity of the story over the deadline and it can actually be difficult these days to find a pamphlet comic that has maintained a rigorous monthly schedule. So "periodic" is hardly an apt word when your publishing schedule becomes so erratic.
Which brings us to "pamphlet." Like much of the rest of this, I can't track down it's first usage, but it seemed to start filtering out with regard to comic books around the turn of the century. I think people feel it might be considered derogatory because they associate the word with a single sheet of a paper folded a few times. However, the definition of "pamphlet" according to the Random House dictionary is: a complete publication of generally less than 80 pages stitched or stapled together and usually having a paper cover. This pretty clearly includes what would historically have been called a "comic book." It doesn't mention a publication schedule, and it's page count prevents most manga (and digest) books from making the cut.
Wikipedia notes some of the word's etymology as well: The word pamphlet... came into Middle English ca 1387 as pamphilet or panflet, generalized from a twelfth-century amatory comic poem with a satiric flavor, Pamphilus, seu de Amore... Pamphilus's name was derived from Greek, meaning "loved by all".
So is there a better word that more accurately encapsulates what I refer to as pamphlet comics? Possibly. But that's come to be a fairly understood term these days. And, yeah, maybe "loved by all" is overly optimistic when it comes to discussing the pamphlet format of comics, but it certainly doesn't strike me as derogatory by any means.
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