Suat pointed me to the Comics Reporter, where Tom Spurgeon interviews Ben Schwartz about his new book Best American Comics Criticism.
I’m hoping to do a review of the book itself at some point in the medium term, so I don’t want to shoot my mouth off too much. But I did want to highlight this interesting exchange:
SPURGEON: You touch on Europe’s concurrent literary comics movement through a few piece, but the pieces that engage manga are limited to I think a single interview with Yoshihiro Tatsumi and I didn’t see anything that dealt with an on-line comic. Do you think that’s a weakness of the book? Was that about the kind of work or about the writing you encountered? How would you describe their omission to someone who really values those kinds of work and thinks they’re as much a part of the modern comics movement as anything? Is there something qualitatively different about the writing done on those works?
SCHWARTZ: It’s not an omission. It’s just not the book they want to read. Tatsumi is not there to represent manga, but gekiga, the Japanese version of lit comics. His choice to break with manga is as big as Eisner’s in splitting with the superheroes, so that’s why he’s in it. I’m going by his definition there. As for on-line comics, I never came across a piece or interview about them that stood out like that. Do you feel, between 2000-2008, that a great piece of writing was done on on-line lit comics that I missed? Lit comics and it’s post 2000 arrival in the mainstream lit world is what the book covers. I just didn’t find anything on them that relates to the book — or 2000-2008 Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, etc. So, it’s not a weakness of the book. It’s the point of the book. I’m a huge BPRD fan, but that’s not in here. Except for Pete Bagge on Ditko’s Spider-Man and John Hodgman on Kirby or Gerard Jones on Siegel and Shuster and the first wave of fans — not much.
Schwartz is clear about this in his introduction too — his book is focused specifically on the rise of literary comics between 2000-2008. That’s his topic. He has a strong narrative, focusing on the emergence of literary comics, and he chose pieces based on how well they fit into that narrative. The best piece of criticism ever may have been about manga, or on-line comics, or mainstream comics, or may have been written, for that matter, in 1968 — but none of those pieces are eligible to go in this book, because this book focuses on criticism about literary comics between 2000-2008.
Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m not a fan of the literary end of comics, as regular readers will know, but I have no objection to someone who is a fan putting together a book to cover the phenomena. It’s obviously a big deal over the last decade. I don’t think it’s unworthy of attention.
My one objection, though, is…well the title of the book. Here’s the cover.
If you’ll look closely, you’ll see it’s not called, “Literary Comics, Literary Criticism, 2000-2008.” Hell, it’s not even called, “Best American Comics Criticism, 2000-2008.” It’s called, and I quote, “Best American Comics Criticism.” Period. No dates. No caveats. Just “Best American Comics Criticism.”
Now, if you title a book “Best American Comics Criticism,” I think your readers are entitled to assume that it is a book comprising the best comics criticism written in america. Not the best comics criticism written about the comics you happen to think are important. Not the best comics criticism written between 2000-2008. Just the best american comics criticism. Because that’s what it says on the title, you know?
Of course, I understand how these things happen. Schwartz and/or Fanta wanted to create a book focusing on the lit comics revolution they care about, without having to think about manga or on-line comics or random comics criticism written 50 years ago by god knows who and lord knows who holds the rights. But they figured that a book called “Literary Comics, Literary Criticism, 2000-2008” would sound like it was created by a bunch of boring, insular stuffed shirts who rarely peer over the towering castle walls of the luxurious Fanta compound. So they figured, “you know, if we call this Best American Comics,” it’ll sound like all those other “Best American” books, and people will buy it because they like Best American things — and, what the hell, literary comics are the best anyway, and only the best people write about them, so it isn’t like we’re lying really.”
I mean, I don’t begrudge Schwartz and Fantagraphics trying to sell books. Capitalism is capitalism, and you do what you have to. But given Gary’s longstanding insistence that commercial crap is evil because it is commercial, and his further longstanding belief that literary comics are the antidote to said commercial crap, the fact that this valedictory love letter to all things Grothian is making its way into the world festooned with the most cynical brand of marketing doubletalk is pretty amusing. If one were as uncharitable as Gary can be about such things, you might even call it contemptible.
Update: Speaking of marketing, Fanta apparently has a big 30-50% off sale on TCJ back issues. So check it out and maybe support the company that supports us (even if they occasionally regret it.)