“Alternative” was the word for a while, but that fell out of use. There was (and suddenly there is again) a publisher named “Alternative Comics,” so it always sounded like you were talking about their catalog, for one thing. Besides that, everything is an alternative to something else – Spawn, Archer & Armstrong, and Judge Dredd are clearly alternatives to Batman and Spider-Man, but they do not represent the comics we want to talk about.
“Art-comics” or “artcomics” took hold for a while, but calling a comic an “art comic” always seemed a). snooty, and b). repetitious, like calling a particular glass of water “wet water,” or a particular movie “filmic,” which people do, but people do all kind of silly things. Comics are an art form, so every comic is an “art comic.”
“Literary” was my personal favorite for a little bit, and while it’s a term that definitely describes a large and important subset of the kinds of comics we want to talk about (Fun Home is decidedly literary, for example), it does not begin to be usable for most of them (the stories in Johnny Ryan’s Angry Youth Comix, for example, are as literary as the Ramones were, which is to say not at all, but kinda, but definitely not).
Most of the “graphic novels” that people talk about a lot aren’t “novels” — book-length works of fiction — at all. Maus and Persepolis and Fun Home are nonfictional, for example. Sandman books and Love & Rockets collections are episodes in an ongoing serial, more akin to DVD collections of great television shows like The Sopranos or I Love Lucy than to novels. And so on and so on and so on. Which is fine. Many of the comics we want to talk about are not in any way novelistic, easy enough to understand — so why force that expectation upon them?
“Comix” with an “x” has been promoted as a term by no less a figure than Art Spiegelman, but that word, when spoken aloud, is indistinguishable from “comics” with a “cs,” so we are only able to talk about the comics we want to talk about when we are writing. That eliminates this solution. In spoken conversation, it would be annoying to have to keep saying, “with an x” every time, you know? Though I do like to annoy, so maybe I’ll try that.
Elsewhere on the web:
I think Darryl Ayo might be trolling the fanboys a little bit with his thoughts on the nomenclature of non-mainstream comics:
I look at a lot of the so-called “alternative comics,” and–I don’t expect that I’m blowing anyone’s mind here–find that they are perfectly normal. They should be called “normal comics” and marketed as such. They should be called “normal comics,” and people can say “oh, are you into Spider-Man?” and you’d respond “nah, I only read normal comics.” Read more …
In the course of his obituary for the great Spain Rodriguez, Robert Boyd tries to make a case for the term “art comics” by using it to define works that are not created with commercial intention, which seems like a slippery slope to me (he immediately has to account for works that clearly were created for commercial gain but which are considered masterpieces of the form, like Krazy Kat and Little Nemo in Slumberland). Still, his distinction is close to what I am trying to get at when I talk about “comics that are not mainstream,” so if he’s guilty of oversimplifying his case, I’m as guilty as he is.