The Rise of "Pamphlet" Comics

By | Monday, November 19, 2007 9 comments
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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Unknown said...

I don't know - "pamphlet" feels, to me, like something ephemeral and disposable, or what a Jehovah's Witness would hand out to convert people to their religion. Since none of that applies to how I think of comics, I don't feel "pamphlet" really fits.

The rest of the Wikipedia entry contains insight into some of the word's negative connotation:

In German or in French, the word pamphlet often has negative connotations of slanderous libel or extremist religious propaganda, and should not be literally translated to or from English. Correct translations include "Flugblatt" and "Wurfschrift" in German, and "Fascicule" in French. In Russian, the word "pamflet" is also normally used to denote a work of propaganda and/or satire and does not directly describe the form of publication at all, so it is best translated as "brochure".

Part of it that bothers me, too, is that the people I see using "pamphlet" to describe comics are often the ones who are making a show of moving past comics, mainstream comics are beneath them, etc. So by calling them "pamphlets" they're implicitly trivializing them, and it comes across (to me) as pretentious.

I don't get what's wrong with "comics" to refer to the art form, "comic books" for individual issues, and "graphic novels", "TPBs", or "trades" for the bound stuff.

Anonymous said...

For what it's worth, I think that "comic book" may just be too broad to be useful in describing a specific format in this context. I have no real interest in saying that this is right or wrong, but that's my guess: "comic book" just feels too synonymous with "comics." Thus the searching for a different term to describe the traditional format of comics/comic books.

(There's no question that the term "pamphlet" is sometimes used disdainfully, in comics discussions, but I don't personally see the deprecation as inherent in the term itself.)

FWIW, Ross, I actually began picking up the term "pamphlet" from Joe Quesada (of all people)!

As for people using the term who "are making a show of moving past comics" I think that's simply more indicative of the fact that those people need a term to differentiate the formats. Folks who are still primarily getting the mainstream superhero stuff really only deal with the pamphlet and TPB formats. The variety of formats they deal with is finite, and so "comic book" can be used without much confusion. If, however, you're picking up a variety of different types of books in a variety of formats, you need a larger number of terms to delineate those formats.

So the term is used more by non-mainstream folks out of necessity more than as an insult against superhero stories.

Unknown said...

I'm not sure Joe Quesada would condone your use of the word. I googled "Quesada pamphlets" and this is the first result I got:

"Quesada was asked if monthly comics - which the fan called 'pamphlets' - were still relevant in today's market. Quesada first said he hates the term 'pamphlet' for comic books as he feels it's condescending."

I'm as into non-mainstream stuff as anyone and I still don't see the need for redefining what most of the world knows as "comic books" as pamphlets. Is it so you can say, a-ha, the new issue of "Captain America" is a pamphlet, but this oversized issue of "Eightball" is something else, and this undersized issue of "Acme Novelty Library" is another thing, and this mini-comic is another, and this hardcover collection of strips is another, and this prose/comics anthology is another, and this digest-sized manga is another, and this online webcomic is another?

If that's truly the case, then fine, but let's find a way to describe individual issues with a word that doesn't imply disposability or condescension. I do think that individual issues as we know them have a declining lifespan, but that's no reason to stick a fork in them already, or to use a word implying they're inherently inferior.

It's possible that column was where I picked up Quesada's reference to "pamphlet" but I seem to recall his using the term much earlier than that. Or perhaps I'm mis-remembering entirely.

In any event, I certainly can't speak for everyone who uses the term "pamphlet" but I by no means am trying to imply anything beyond the physical characteristics as described in that Random House definition I noted in the original post. Indeed, most of the comic purchases I make are for pamphlet comics. I use the term precisely to distinguish it from manga and digest books and TPBs and whatever other formats I come across. "Pamphlet" is a term that refers, in my mind at least, strictly to the physical aspects of the book. Period.

As I said in my original post, there may well be "a better word that more accurately encapsulates what I refer to as pamphlet comics" but I don't know what that might be. And, personally, I'm comfortable enough with the word "pamphlet" that I really don't have a desire to put any effort into coming up with something else. Feel free to start making whatever suggestions you like; if you come up with something that's more descriptive or more accurate, I'll be the first one to start using it.

Pj Perez said...

Weird, I've never heard comic books referred to as "pamphlets." When I read the title of this posting, I thought I was going to read something about comic books made for the specific purpose of distribution as a lobbying or political tool or something.

Does the format really matter? Can't we just call a comic a comic?

Althalus said...

Comic book, pamphlet, floppy, single issue, periodical. IMHO (English not being my first language), none of them actually seems like a concise term to describe the type of comic which is stapled and has up to 80 pages. But all were and are being used for it.

Unfortunately English doesn't have any direct equivalent to the neutral/unbiased German "Heft"/"Comicheft", which simply focuses on the fact of the comic being stapled ("geheftet").

BTW: what about "comic booklet"? Google says it's practically never used. Anybody here know why?

Bob Buethe said...

I'm coming in on this discussion really late, but here's my two cents.

Back in prehistoric times when I started reading comics, DC and Marvel referred to their product as "comic magazines" or "comic mags." I like these terms, especially the former. Comic magazines may literally fit the Random House (Random House? What does a real authority, like the OED, have to say?) definition of "pamphlet," but the word has always had a connotation of something used for advertising or proselytizing. "Magazine" is just as descriptive a term, and carries less baggage.

So, is this a fan usage or an industry usage? I have not heard it in my comic shop ever and I have been going there 20ys.