“When the critic has no delicacy, he judges without any distinction, and is only affected by the grosser and more palpable qualities of the object: The finer touches pass unnoticed and disregarded. Where he is not aided by practice, his verdict is attended with confusion and hesitation. Where no comparison has been employed, the most frivolous beauties, such as rather merit the name of defects, are the object of his admiration. Where he lies under the influence of prejudice, all his natural sentiments are perverted…Strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice, can alone entitle critics to this valuable character; and the joint verdict of such, wherever they are to be found, is the true standard of taste and beauty.”

“Of the Standard of Taste”, David Hume

 

Over the past few weeks, several eyes will have been directed to a much praised article by Gary Panter on the ineffable skills of Jack Kirby. It will, undoubtedly, be in the running for one of the best pieces of comic criticism written this year.

It is a short piece with a specific intent,  namely to highlight the nuts and bolts of Kirby’s (and Mike Royer’s) craft: his use of lighting; the quality of his forms; the application of the inker’s brush. A common enough critical approach in artist monographs, but one strangely lacking in the discussion of comics. It is, perhaps, a gentle effort to investigate the essence — that distinctness, that aura — of Kirby’s art.

Panter is, of course, an artist, and Alex Buchet offered the following observation in relation to such encounters :

“There’s a well-known saying about the military: ‘Amateurs talk strategy. Professionals talk logistics.’ By analogy, in art I’d say: ‘Amateurs talk art, professionals talk craft’. The painter/sculptor/installer Soto told me that art consisted of solving problems. Artists are all deeply involved in detail.”

But comics are more than mere pictures. One might equally ask why writers so often neglect (perhaps purposefully) to address the basics of the writer’s craft.  Why don’t critics (writers by trade) address the grammar of comics writing, or the structure and flow of sentences with any degree of frequency? Why don’t critics discuss the vocabulary of the writer with any semblance of depth or persistence?

This may have something to do with the realization that artistic worth cannot be adequately described or conveyed by this cleaving to craft and engineering, fascinating as these cogs and wheels may be. In writing his famous biography of J.S. Bach, the organist and music scholar, Albert Schweitzer, was similarly concerned with the qualities of the composer’s craft: the structure of his preludes and fugues; the nature of his counterpoint and ornamentation. Yet his central thesis — addressed right from the outset — is somewhat divorced from these proceedings (and to this he keeps returning):

“Some artists are subject, some objective. The art of the former has its source in their personality; their work is almost independent of the epoch in which they live. A law unto themselves, they place themselves in opposition to their epoch and originate new forms for expression of their ideas. Of this type was Richard Wagner. Bach belongs to the order of objective artists. These are wholly of their own time, and work only with the forms and the ideas that their time proffers them. They exercise no criticism upon the media of artistic expression that they find lying ready to their hand, and feel no inner compulsion to open out new paths.”

Now many scholars and critics will be of the opinion that Kirby fits the mold of the “subjective” artist, but to my mind, Kirby is of the latter class. He did not originate the action-adventure form in comics (an honor which might be accorded to Hal Foster or some other) and was happy to mete out his days in the tried and true formulas of the superhero genre. His stories could never be considered innovative in form by the measure of all narrative art, and his myths were cribbed from the popular legends and detritus of the times. As with Bach, this classification does not automatically denote a lesser artistic achievement on his part.

Schweitzer addresses Bach’s greatness from within these boundaries; here in his description of Bach’s cantatas and Passions:

“Out of the motet, under the influence of Italian and French instrumental music, came the cantata. from Schutz onwards, for a whole century, the sacred concert struggles for its free and independent place in the church…It forces itself further and further out of the frame and service, aiming at becoming an independent religious drama, and aspiring towards a form like that of opera. The oratorio is being prepared. At this juncture Bach appears, and creates cantatas that endure… As regards their form, his cantatas do not differ from the hundreds upon hundreds of others written at that time, and now forgotten.  They have the same external defects; they live, however, by their spirit.”

“At the end of the seventeenth century the musical Passion-drama demands admission into the church. The contest rages, for and against. Bach puts an end to it by writing two Passions which, on their poetical and formal sides, derive wholly from the typical works of that time, but are transfigured and made immortal by the spirit that breathes through them.”

This “spirit” is indefinable. It may in fact be supported by prejudice (as later writers have accused Schweitzer of in relation to his somewhat lower opinion of Telemann). It has little or nothing to do with trills, mordents and cadences. And despite reams of erudition discussing the play of word and tone in Bach, and the musical language of his chorales and cantatas, Schweitzer professes a loss for words when faced with The Art of Fugue:

“The contrapuntal art that it reveals is so perfect that no description can give any idea of it.”

The same may be said of the art of Kirby; his art not reducible to lines and lighting nor any kind of esoteric phrasing or lack thereof. Panter’s article is an act of detection which starts at the point of first impression, and yet never departs from it; not an exercise in futility but one with a more practical intent than a judicial one, for the latter can never be accounted by this approach.

 


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