Critic and one-time HU writer Bill Randall was one of the judges for this year’s Best Online Comics Criticism. He asked to run his essay about the selection process here — and we’re very pleased to have him back under the Hood, however briefly.
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by Bill Randall

How did he know?

Real critics are as pure as new snow, with eyes of a child yet minds learned like the eldest philosopher. They castrate their creativity to write from the place of total mental stillness. Able to see through all walls of personal agenda. They use their pen of young lamb to judge what’s best not for themselves, but for all humanity. Such is the powerful power, the terrible responsibility of the true critic.

I have fasted for three centuries, nailed myself upside down to the Tree of Woe, drained my body of every ounce of blood and replaced it with the freshest plastic-bottled spring water. …I am ready to speak of comics with the furiously unpoliticized gaze of the Real Critic.

Spot on, B.C., as I’ve spent a meditative month staring down Phyllis Hodgson’s 1944 critical text of Þe Clowde of Vnknowyng, in þe whiche a soule is onyd wiþ God, by the unknown author of the Cloud of Unknowing, good for inspiration and revelation as I selected my Best Comics Criticism 2010 votes. Prophetic, you prophet! as I like you and all true critics strive ascetic to write apophatic– kenotic– apocatastatic words, good for instruction and reflection, more sacred than the sacred texts of “Maggots,” “If’n Oof,” and “Þe Book of Priue Counseling.” Words of Groth in red, and remember the worst a comics critic can do is hurt some feelings. It’s not like we excommunicate, move product, make reputations, or stand at the kitchen gallery door with Hans Ulrich Obrist and his flaming sword. I can’t even resurrect the dead, may my essay on Kamimura Kazuo burn in hellfire for all eternity while A Drifting Life glows transfigured on your bookshelf.

Comics, Writing About~

~could replace reading them. I read but three in 2010: Mat Som by Lat, Asterios Polyp by Big Maz in the Country, and Young Lions by Blaise Larmee. Make it six, as Jason Overby sent a fine mini and Kate Beaton and The Fart Party trickle down online. Why so few? Writing on comics since 2000 and reading them in three languages, I’m bored! Now I only read 14th century Middle English mystical texts. And blogs.

On blogs I read thousands of words about comics this year, taking pleasure in, say, John Hilgart’s florid manifesto and the oft-nonsensical Comets Comets. Others I find less interesting, like the Mindless Ones’ Prism zine, but I’m glad they treat their work with care.

Still, long critical pieces will always struggle against other forms. TCJ favored interviews, while comment threads are conversations. Information architecture likes feuds and cliques, and readers like the short stuff:

Nurse Elise Bachmann, whose day off was yesterday, put on a public display of insanity.

It’s Teton who was the victim of the Montfermeil crime. Shorn of his wig he initially went unrecognized.

A dishwasher from Nancy, Vital Frérote, who had just come back from Lourdes cured forever of tuberculosis, died Sunday by mistake.

These Novels in Three Lines, by critic Felix Fénéon, appeared in a daily newspaper in 1906 and might suit Twitter. They’re six steps above the manipulations of Fox & HuffPo and artful besides, but the number of people out for carnage and starlet pics will always outstrip the number devoted to lengthy vivisections of their favorite artworks. Criticism’s a losing game. Just not yet.

So what is it? Who writes it? The Guardian‘s retiring TV writer offers this:

In my head, a “proper critic” is an intellectually rigorous individual with an encyclopaedic knowledge of their specialist subject and an admirably nerdy compulsion to dissect, compare and analyse each fresh offering in the field – not in a bid to mindlessly entertain the reader, but to further humankind’s collective understanding of the arts. True critics are witty rather than abusive, smart rather than smart-arsed, contemplative rather than extrovert. I, on the other hand, was chiefly interested in making the reader laugh. And the quickest way to do this was to pen insults. Oh, I tried to make the odd point here and there, but the bulk of it – the stuff people actually remember – consists of playground, yah-boo stuff.

Yah-boo. And: please let’s get over Kael, maybe read and look more widely, and write in the Queen’s finest, as on page 1 of Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, with its humble opening in an English hamlet, its clarity, its two whiplash reversals, the understatement of the last sentence. And its scope.

Mostly I just want a nice hunk of prose made of good, solid words, performing ideas over personality. I can even take a rollicking blog post as zuihitsu (see Jog, below). Online criticism’s mortal sin in 2010 is that too many posts seemed like quips, 33 words with a few scans from Tubby #23. Even Katherine Dacey’s two fine pieces under review, on Ayako and Sexy Voice & Robo, left me wanting more. If not more words, then more at stake?

Unbound by print, we can theoretically all crank out 144,000 words on the Master Works and thereby save our souls. Sarx it out, people.

So here’s my list of 2010’s finest.

With two caveats, my E&O insurance:

1. No HU

I left out all regular H(ooded) U(tilitarian) writers, since I was one. I hate that it seems best known for bruising opinions, though I dream of a wedding where an HU roundtable delivers the toast.

I also dream of a Jersey Shore-style reality show where all the HU writers live in one big house. They’ll leave, say, a grocery list tacked to the fridge with 800 pages of comments, mostly about Bruno Latour. When the milk sours and no one throws it out, some wit sticks a copy of Les Microbes: guerre et paix in the carton. It ends up in Matthias Wivel’s coffee, but he drinks it with a shrug.

Still dreaming, you’d read Noah Berlatsky’s piece on Ariel Schrag. Surely it’s one of the pieces he was put on earth to write. Likewise, Caro’s piece on Cocteau and Ware, just yes, especially with her characteristically modified Sully Lede quoting 275 words of Jean Cocteau.  So too Tom Crippen, who wrote at HU when I did. I loved his piece on a political cartoon, with the knot at the end. I wish he would write more long pieces. I’ve only rarely read whatever Tom’s examining, yet always profit from his insight and wit.

1A. No Garry Wills

Out and perhaps a mistake, as I have enjoyed his works on Catholicism in clearheaded prose. I sought something on papal sin and got his piece on Doonesbury, thanks to the Algorithm, after the votes were tallied. Do read it. It opens with an anecdote of Bush v. Gore on the gridiron by proxy. Then it drowns recounting 40 years of strips.  Wills does history more than criticism, and this line does him no favors: “Trudeau was now facing the supreme test for a comic strip artist. How do you laugh and cry at the same time?”  Oh, dear. But his books are quite good.

1C. No Nadel

Dan Nadel’s masterful piece on Wally Wood deserves your attention and exposes my prejudices. First, it’s on Wally Wood.  I’ve tried. Second, it’s biographical criticism. Nadel, like Bob Levin, excels at this form, which satisfies curiosity and story as well as aesthetics. But I trust stories less and less, especially life stories.

2. Some people should not read further:

Fleschely janglers, opyn preisers and blamers of hem-self or of any oþer, tiþing tellers, rouners and tutilers of tales, and alle maner of pinchers, kept I never þat þei sawe þis blog. For myn entent was never to write soche þing unto hem. & þerfore I wolde þat þei medel not þer-wiþ, neiþer þei ne any of þees corious lettred or lewed men.

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My list:

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JOG on “THE PROBLEM WITH AMERICAN VAMPIRES IS THAT THEY JUST DON’T THINK”

Jog’s writing breaks my frameworks. It’s dominated by lists of product. If kidnapped and offered bribes, I still couldn’t name the essay he was born to write. Nonetheless, his gifts as a critic stand out, from his titles hinting Fruit Chan to quips (“Garfield—surely one of the form’s most prolific thinkers”) to concise insights. He’s read and thought widely enough to start with Stephen King and end with Death Note while taking apart a maligned formal tic. It’s playful. Calvino calls it lightness, but I think it’s zuihitsu. These lists are Jog’s Pillow Book, and someday Alexandra Stewart will read his lists of things that are arriving next Wednesday over 16mm footage of an Icelandic volcano. I think he will know what I mean and take it as a compliment.

TIM KREIDER on AL COLUMBIA

Columbia’s legend, inversely proprotional to his output, I never bought because I never saw enough of his actual work. Fortunately, Kreider turns in a case study on how to write an essay that renders the original work almost irrelevant even as it explains how the legend, and the work, work. “Curdled friendliness” indeed.

NICOLE RUDICK on MOTO HAGIO

This essay– note, really– gets so far in so few words. Too much writing on manga hems and haws while the critics let their preconceptions short-circuit their responses. Rudick lets Hagio’s short stories do what they do and charts her own reaction. I want to read this critic more in 2011, and at length, economics be damned.

JASON THOMPSON on “THE OTHER LOVE THAT DARE NOT SPEAK ITS NAME”

Would Twilight be more popular if the hot vampire guy was the hot Mormon girl’s brother? Would wondering that in public get me on the sex offender registry in Georgia? Or banned in Tokyo? Jason Thompson does not answer these questions, or ask them, but he does provide a tour of a bizarre, strangely mainstream facet of Japanese romantic comedy.

Thompson has the complete skill set for writing about manga well. He knows the culture and the comics, but he doesn’t write as a slavish fan. He has insider knowledge, having edited a number of series’ English versions, without getting smug and lazy.  He knows the craft of comics, having drawn some fine ones. Best of all, he manages to explain, even make accessible, the nuances of works from a culture as modern as any and not at all Western. It’s strange to think that writing about manga, so much of it dumb pop, demands certain skills. But I’ve read enough people fumbling with it to know it’s kind of true.

KAREN GREEN on PUSHWAGNER’S SOFT CITY

I kind of hate its chatty opening, but scroll up and I’ll shut up. Still, Green’s look at this artist’s strange book reminds me that I began reading and writing about comics to see new things. She quickly encapsulates how it feels to read this outsider’s work before bringing in other works for context, reinventing the city symphony on the page. After all, she knows The Crowd (1928).  She knew I knew the Chaplin-Clair genealogy, and that I’d get snooty about The Crowd. So she got there first and sent me off to find the thing, which thankfully seems harder to get than three clicks and a credit card.

BRIAN BOYD “On THE ORIGIN OF COMICS”

Looking back to me at 19, I wish that knucklehead had chosen to study biology and read lit on the side rather than the other way around. Literature professor Brian Boyd reminds me why. Our era values quantification, especially our demotic and careerist universities, so hard-to-quantify fields suffer an ongoing insecurity. On its own merits, literature is fine. In science’s view, it needs some lab work.

Boyd looks to freshen up literary studies by grafting on some evolutionary biology. His prose labors. E. O. Wilson is invoked. Paul Dirac is not, though he once said:

The aim of science is to make difficult things understandable in a simpler way; the aim of poetry is to state simple things in an incomprehensible way. The two are incompatible.

He’s wrong on the specific aims, but right that poetry (and all literature) tells stories science finds incomprehensible. Of all the techniques for seeing the world, science grasps it, splits it, grinds it into bloody sawdust. Literature coughs up fog around it, especially the mysteries, and loves the fog besides. I recall the Feynman epigraph to David Lasky and Jim Ottaviani’s “Arline” in Two-Fisted Science:

I have a friend who’s an artist, and sometimes he’ll take a view which I don’t agree with. He’ll hold up a flower and say, “Look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. But then he’ll say, “I, as an artist, can see how beautiful a flower is. But you, as a scientist, take it all apart and it becomes dull.” … [But] I see much more of the flower than he sees. I can imagine the cells inside, which also have a beauty. … It only adds, I don’t understand how it subtracts.

Seeing the cells inside doesn’t subtract, but it does switch. That is to say, the process that introduced us to the cells inside, as a scientific process, ground the leaf into bloody sawdust, put some on a slide, and categorized the results. Feynman’s process of imagining and enjoying the cells inside comes later, and it’s aesthetic. Feynman, as the aesthete-prince of scientists, doesn’t realize he’s switching. Back to the fog, criticism pokes and prods but can’t contain it, doesn’t even want to. Criticism-grafted-to-evolutionary-biology can’t either, but it can pretend it’s a backscatter scanner and mock literature’s genitals.

That said, I do value interdiscplinary mixing. I’m fond of the Edunia, and of neuroscientist/artist Warren Nedich’s writings. I liked Jonah Lehrer’s first book even though it’s more about recent findings in science than Proust et al. Yet the determinist wing, when they trade glib science for a false authority (see David Brooks, not a scientist, stumping for his upcoming book in the New Yorker), just yuck. Evolutionary biology often strikes me as lazy thinking when applied popularly; likewise evolutionary econ, psych, etc. They represent a glib determinism that belittles science and says little about human beings. Boyd’s essay is not that bad, but when it makes claims like, “Storytelling maximizes social cognition in a flexibly ultra-social species through a kind of play-training: compulsive, pleasurable, high-intensity, often-repeated, like all play, and therefore cumulatively highly effective as tuition in social understanding,” it hides the obvious in technical jargon, an academic’s venial sin.

So why pick his essay? One reason: since our era favors quantification, and since at 19 I unwittingly volunteered for irrelevancy by dropping Calc III for Neoclassical Lit, I like to score my points when I can– bitterly aware that pointscoring is quantification! A better reason: his essay values its ideas. This is Future of Literature stuff to him. I argued with it. So it has stayed with me more than what else I read. Best of all, I know that I could just be wrong about Boyd being wrong. David Bordwell blurbed his book, after all. And a castle built on sand is still a castle until it gets knocked down.

DAVID BORDWELL on HERGÉ

He writes, “we ought to be interested in how images shape our experience, and we can learn from any craftsmanship as precise and engaging as Hergé’s.” And David Bordwell’s, whose books on Ozu and Dreyer are the finest film criticism I know.  Unlike Wills on comics (see papal sin, above), Bordwell’s precise breakdown of several sequences from Tintin disappoints not at all. It offers a primer on how to write on comics’ form, even though it has no larger thesis. After books on auteurs, classic Hollywood, and film style, Bordwell surprised in 2000 with a book on Hong Kong cinema, still the best in English. Perhaps another, on the ninth art?

DIRK DEPPEY’s ESSAY “THE MIRROR OF MALE LOVE”

I don’t have categories for this remarkable personal essay. It breathes; it feels alive.

It is far and away the best thing I read about comics in 2010, and it’s about much more than comics.

(Not safe for work, mind)

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Writing teachers, monsters all, often say you have to “kill your babies”. So I did:

“I’ll take Mystery and Manners, or The Habit of Being, but not the peacocks in the yard.”

I had to cut that line. It awaits resurrection.

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