Sean Collins wrote about an SPX panel on the state of comics criticism here The panel included Dan Nadel, Tim Hodler, Gary Groth, and Douglas Wolk.

Anyway, Collins said some things I thought I’d comment on, since that’s what comics critics do. Also, I just figured out how to use blockquotes, and I’m kind of excited about it.

he point that Doug enabled me to make is that most comics and graphic-novel coverage in mainstream-media publications, as well as most alternative/indie-comics coverage in Wizard and other superhero-centric print and web publications, is written from an advocacy position…. When you have an editor who is usually fighting to carve out a spot for these things because she feels that comics is an art form worth talking about, and you as a writer tend to feel the same way, they’re not going to use that space to have you explain why Will Eisner’s later work is overrated.

I certainly understand the desire to use your space to talk about things you want to promote. This is, incidentally, hardly a mindset restricted to comics; I write music reviews for Bitch, and while it’s nothing like an absolute policy, they clearly, in general, prefer to run positive critiques. Still, for myself, I think that its often worthwhile to talk about things that aren’t so great. Its helpful to the reader in that it gives a better idea of where the publication comes from, and can also warn them off something that isn’t very good. Besides, aesthetic discussions are boring if everybody’s blowing sunshine up each others ass. Which brings me to the last point; mainly, a good negative review, like a good positive review, can be entertaining and enlightening. It seems to me like it might be really worthwhile to point out that Will Eisner’s latest work is overrated — and a lot more respectful to comics as an art form than to engage in relentless boosterism.

I obviously wasn’t alive during the ’50s-’60s-’70s era Gary champions, but I’m not 100% convinced that this Golden Age of Criticism really existed. I mean, it existed in the sense that there were great critics writing about various art forms, sure (though not comics, not really). But Gary seemed to be arguing that the likes of Pauline Kael were the Gene Shalits of their day. I think it’s a safe bet that if the average reader of this blog asked her mom and dad who Pauline Kael was, they’d have no idea. As an audience member pointed out, criticism isn’t consumed by large numbers of people because most art isn’t consumed by large numbers of people in ways that would make them receptive to criticism. As she said, this is doubly true of comics, where large numbers of people aren’t consuming that art form at all, so yearning for a more vibrant critical milieu for comics is in some ways a fool’s errand. But while I could be wrong, I think it’s unlikely that this mass audience for criticism ever existed even for more popular art forms.

The best movie criticism I’ve ever read is James Baldwin’s long, amazing essay “The Devil Finds Work.” The best literary criticism is probably Henry Fielding’s “Joseph Andrews”. The best comics criticism was probably Johnny Ryan’s team-up of Art Spiegleman and the Red Skull, or else a short piece by Charles Schulz in an anthology listing all the foodstuffs that caused Little Nemo bad dreams. The Pauline Kael I’ve looked at seems all right, but certainly not up to that standard. Not sure that I exactly have a point,except that the phrase “vibrant critical milieu” inevitably makes me pray for a massive, universal plague of laryngitis and/or keyboard failure.

Doug advocated for the value of “bomb-throwing” — divisive pieces intended to provoke debate. I’m not crazy about this at all. For every act of bomb-throwing into which went a considerable amount of thought, like the Journal’s Top 100 Comics of the 20th Century list or Understanding Comics, there are probably three times as many straw-men massacres. Chris Ware sucks, most alternative comics are autobiographical and therefore boring, the only comics worth a damn are “New Mainstream” genre titles, no one tells stories anymore, the Internet is the future of comics, superhero stories are inherently worthless and no one in the real world likes them, manga is all the same, super-popular webcomics > pretentious art comics that nobody reads, etc. Yes, they frequently provoke intelligent responses, but more accurately way they necessitate intelligent responses lest the white noise they generate drown out actual argument and criticism.

I think this is deeply confused. Collins is arguing that the problem with bomb throwing is that it drowns out “actual argument and criticism.” But I think you’d be just as right saying that mealy-mouthed space-filler is in danger of drowning out people with actual opinions. Collins more or less says this himself in the bit above where he talks about the fact that many publications only want to run positive (and presumably safely positive) reviews. I don’t know; personally, I like to read critics who shake me up a little. In any case, I don’t see why trimming moderates like Hillary Clinton should be ipso facto presumed to be more thoughtful and/or right than nutters like Ron Paul.

I wish it were pointed out more often that there’s really no such thing as “the Journal.” There’s Gary, and there’s whoever’s the editor, and then there’s a bunch of writers who submit reviews and essays with no editorial guidelines and no back-end content editing either. (At least in my experience.) I know what “the Journal” is supposed to mean, but in reality it means the opinions of R.C. Harvey, Noah Berlatsky, Joe McCulloch, Tim O’Neil, me, Chris Mautner, Michael Dean, Kristy Valenti, and a couple dozen more all at once.

It’s certainly true that Gary doesn’t have anything like the monolithic control that, say, Dave Sim seems to think. (Except for one very brief message board exchange, I’ve never actually even spoken to Gary myself.) On the other hand, I think the Journal does have a pretty strong editorial identity. It’s highbrow and combative because that’s what Gary’s like, and it is still very much his magazine. At the same time, the Journal is very committed to letting its writers say whatever they want — which is a pretty rare thing in publishing. The point is that the variations in opinion at the Journal aren’t a sign that “The Journal” doesn’t exist in some coherent form; rather it’s in many ways the most identifiable thing about the magazine.

I wish the phrase “the dumbing down of American culture” were removed from this discussion.

Amen.

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