Welcome to the 5th anniversary celebration of the Hooded Utilitarian. It was five years ago today that I put up my first post on this blog. It’s been a pretty amazing run since then, and I am incredibly grateful to all the friends, writers, colleagues, commenters, and readers who have kept the blog going for all this time. Thank you.
Okay, that’s enough with the love. Through much of this month, we’ll be running a roundtable titled Anniversary of Hate, in which contributors will write about what they believe is the worst comic ever — or the most overrated, or the one they personally hate the most, as the case may be.
Anniversaries are usually supposed to be a time of congratulations and good cheer. So why, you may wonder, have I chosen to poison a happy event with bitterness and contumely? Why be a divider and not a uniter? Why hate?
There are a bunch of reasons that I’ve chosen this celebration for this occasion. The first, and perhaps the most important, is that once it occurred to me, I had to go through with it. After all, what’s the point of having a blog if you censor your cranky, or (for that matter) your ill-advised ideas? Besides, lots of folks think of HU (rightly or wrongly) as a place of spiteful animadversion and mean-spirited contrarianism. It would be wrong to disappoint.
I can, however, also come up with some marginally less flip rationales. Indeed, I think the need for justification is a kind of justification in itself. No one, after all, would ask, “why love?” if I asked people to write about their favorite comics.
Criticism tends to be biased towards positivity. In the first place, people simply prefer to spend their time with comics they like. Certainly, for this project, several potential contributors begged off because they couldn’t face rereading a comic they loathed. Along the same lines, negative criticism can have unfortunate personal and career implications for folks who work in the comics field — again, I had a number of writers decide they couldn’t contribute because they didn’t want to offend friends or colleagues. And even where such practical considerations are not an issue, many writers simply prefer to avoid negativity, either because they find engaging in it personally depressing, or because it seem cruel, especially when the target lacks stature or has long since been buried in the slag heap of history.
I understand all those arguments against hate (and I certainly fault no one for turning down the invitation to participate in this particular orgy of animadversion.) But at the same time, I think it’s worth occasionally pushing back against the logic of praise. There is, after all, a lot of bad art in the world. Rushing to insist that the glass is ¼ full (or 1/12 full) can leave you ignoring the vast bulk of the nothing that’s there. And that, in turn, can give you a skewed view of the state of the good art, as well as of the bad.
Perhaps more importantly, a refusal to criticize is almost always a de facto endorsement of the status quo. Good and bad are relative terms — and that means that they are always relative to something. Canonical comics are canonical because they fulfill certain criteria — because, say, they are about important subjects like the Holocaust, or because they show a certain kind of mastery of a certain kind of technique, or because they are works of individual genius, or what have you. To question those criteria, to envision a new canon, or a critical landscape in which canons are less important, requires not just positive advocacy, but negative questioning. That’s why Domingos Isabelinho’s longstanding effort to bring attention to what he considers undervalued works has also required him to do a fair amount of sneering at what he considers overvalued ones. (Update:Though note Domingos’ caveat in comments below.) As Arlo Guthrie once said, you can’t have a light without a dark to stick it in — and you can’t imagine a better way if you refuse to see the flaws in the way you’ve got. Which is why the antipathy to negativity can itself, I think, be profoundly depressing. When you’re angry or unhappy, there’s nothing quite as dispiriting as people lining up to demand that you be of good cheer.
I also think that it’s worth giving folks a chance to write about what they hate simply because hate is as likely as love to provoke, or inspire, great criticism. Whether it’s James Baldwin’s epic deconstruction of The Exorcist, or Laura Mulvey’s brief, brutal takedown of Hollywood cinema, or Mark Twain’s hilarious backhand to James Fennimore Cooper, or Jane Austen’s vivisection of the gothic novel, many of the greatest, most insightful, most beautiful examples of critical writing we have are negative. That’s a tradition worth honoring.
Finally, I suppose I hoped that an Anniversary of Hate would prevent me from getting too comfortable on my laurels (to the extent that I have any.) Five years is a really long time in blog years — long enough to get old and fat and complacent, anyway. But if I’m going to be old and fat and complacent, by god, the least I can do is to be crotchety as well. As we hobble towards elder-blog status, I do hope that somewhere, somehow, we can still provoke some unsuspecting young surfer to mild irritation — and perhaps even, on rare occasions, to hate.
Hatefest illustration by my son. He was 3 when I started the blog; now he’s 8.
Click here for the Anniversary Index of Hate.