Xs and I-C-Ss: Comics and Comix

The Chix Comix Logo

There’s something about “comix” that signals “I’m not going to like it”. I know it’s partly the kind of person who recommends “comix” but it’s also the kinds of works that label themselves “comix” in the 21st century. However, this gut reaction made me step back and think, what even are comix and why do they inspire my ire?

“Comix” reminds me of my least favorite comic book shop memories. The time when I was 12, interviewing a comics shop employee about manga and they answered my questions dismissively. Or the time, as an adult, a shop employee passive aggressively asked me something like “if I was going to buy anything”. I finished my survey of their wall of new issues then proceeded to the counter to ask for the comics from my pull list. My long, expensive, pull list.

Neither of these have anything to do with comix. I was not looking for comix nor being recommended comix. But they do have something to do with gatekeeping, elitism, and the historically-self-proclaimed guardians of the medium.

As addressed elsewhere, I did not start reading American comics until my late teens and as a comics collecting adult, comix with an “x” make me pause. Why? Because even though I know my comics that “x” reminds me of the white, cis, maleness that decides to speak for so many “alternative” movements. The sort of alternatives that are “edgy” to signal elitism more than quality. They feel like a sector of the comics community still actively trying to close the gates on people like me.

While writing about this started in 2019 with me tweeting about how “I tend to get very wary when someone recommends me something that has comix in the title,” I dislike dismissing things when I haven’t done the reading. So I didn’t want to write about this before I had done some. Just because they gave me that feeling didn’t mean I was right. Maybe I hadn’t found the right comix.

And a friend quickly pointed out that something I enjoyed used that term. Back in the day, TokyoPop used the imprint “Chix Comix” for some of their Shojo titles. I even have a copy of Card Captor Sakura from that imprint. So they can’t all be bad.

Black Comix 1 published, an example of comix created by marginalized creators

And they aren’t. ABO Comix Collective, Black Comix Returns, and The Wimmen’s Comix movement all use the term for work that highlights stories of marginalized creators and people. The term, since its coinage in the late 1960s, hilghts a wide variety of stories and creators.

Then why did I still have this feeling in the 21st century? With examples that contrasted my preconceptions I began to wonder, what are comix? Between discussions on the WWAC slack and google searching, I found that there are multiple definitions.

There are recurring themes of ‘difference’ and ‘not mainstream’ affiliated with its modern use. These began with the underground comix movement, which opposed the rules established by the Comics Code Authority in the late 1960s. The movement created works that the authority would have heavily censored or banned. However, this was one movement and the term continues in use to describe works created outside that collective.

The word has generalized to “adult” or “not mainstream” but these are also vague. Probably because the thing that the movement previously opposed no longer exists. And that is where my discomfort with the word springs again. In the 21st century, comix and similar movements, like punk, that used to be anti-establishment, have aged into elitism.

They’re terms that to me read as whiny-person-with-power who is upset that they don’t have as much power as another person just like them. Then, due to this, they have the right to move into or own a space where people who actually don’t have power already occupy. However, there are plenty of comix that are outside the actual mainstream. They’re just not the ones that have been recommended to me. And I think that is where this feeling comes from.

Words have meaning based on use. Who uses them and in what context matters just as much as what external sources say the word means. While works by marginalized creators do use the term “comix” they don’t have to. The fact that marginalized peoples created them signals their outsider status.

However, for those that are not marginalized comix can signal difference even when none might exist by being “not superheroes” or “not for kids,”. You can label a slice of life comic about a white man comix but it’s not outside the mainstream.

All in all, I’m going to stick with my comics. C-O-M-I-C-S. I’m in my thirties and write about sequential art. Just because I am not familiar with what you recommend does not mean I don’t know comics. Or that I actually need to read what you’ve suggested. In the future, I might dabble in a few “x”’s here and there but to pretend that there’s anything inherently different between a “ics” and an “x” seems to reflect more on the recommender than the work.

Paulina Przystupa

Paulina Przystupa

Paulina (aka @punuckish) is a Filipine-Polish archaeologist and anthropology graduate student who grew up in the Pacific Northwest and loves comics and pop culture. Her academic work focuses on how buildings and landscapes aid or impede the learning of culture by children. In general, she is an over-educated fan of things; primarily comics, comics-related properties, cartoons, science-fiction, and fantasy. This means she takes what she knows and uses it to critique what she loves. Recently, she has brought such discussions to the public by organizing and moderating panels at comic cons centered on anthropology/culture related topics.