In a 1980 essay titled Another Relentlessly Elitist Editorial, Kim Thompson made the argument, on behalf of the old Comics Journal in general, and curmudgeon Gary Groth in particular, that negative comics criticism is worthwhile and necessary.
And to those who, fists tightly clutched around the latest issue of Micronauts or Warlord, indignantly shriek, “Comics—love ’em or leave ’em!” we can only respond: We do love them. But we refuse to become apologists for the mediocre and the worthless in the process. To wallow in that which is artless and dishonest is an act not of love but of betrayal. The Comics Journal’s sights are pointed obstinately at the stars. Perhaps reading it is depressing at times; but I think the disappearance of the magazine, or of the basic philosophy that makes it what it is, would be more depressing by far. We haven’t given up hope for comics yet. We’re still waiting for the medium to flower.
Thompson’s response to the purveyors of anti-negativity negativity is, then, that only through (selected) negativity can you express true love. Folks who refuse to admit that Micronauts is a piece of crap denigrate the medium they claim to reverence. If you value comics, then you must have standards. If you promote any old piece of dreck, then you’re treating comics as any old piece of dreck. You are, as he puts it, a gluttinous gourmand, lacking respect for your pallet and yourself, rather than a discriminating gourmet.
The issue, therefore, is framed specifically, and competitively, in terms of love. Thompson is responding, he says, to a question that many people at the time asked of the Journal: “Why, if you have such contempt for the medium, do you publish a magazine about comics?” Kim’s response is a turnabout: it is not we who point out flaws who have contempt. It’s you, who refuse to hold comics to the highest standards, who are spitting on the medium. If Gary calls most mainstream comics “bland, useless garbage,” it’s because that bland, useless garbage is smearing filth upon the face that he reveres.
Kim’s points seem reasonable enough. I might question whether Roy Thomas or Steve Gerber have actually “achieved superior works in the medium,” or whether the O’Neil/Adams Green Lantern/Green Arrow proves the worth of comics rather than the opposite — but those are quibbles. Different folks have different canons, and in terms of worthwhile comics, there were even slimmer pickings in 1980 than there are today. The general point that respect for the good in art sometimes involves contempt for the bad stands, even if one doesn’t quite agree on the merits of a given work.
If I agree with Kim up to a point, though, I’m also a little leery of the way he frames the issue…and perhaps of the conversation in which it occurs. Reading Kim’s editorial, it’s hard not to be struck by the extent to which TCJ, and its editors, were embedded not just in the medium, but in the industry they were critiquing. Kim isn’t jousting with internet trolls; the folks who are telling him he’s too negative are editors and writers at DC and Marvel. One guy basically sounds like he’s threatening the Journal that he won’t help with news or cover reproductions if the reviews aren’t more positive.
Given those kinds of incentives (and/or that kind of frank thuggery) it’s a credit to Gary and Kim’s integrity that the Journal didn’t back down, and did continue to call out crap when confronted with steaming piles of it. At the same time, though, it seems like being embedded in that world would have to affect your worldview — or, to look at it another way, to have wanted to be in that world, and to have worked to be in that world, means that your worldview would have to sync up to some degree with that of the folks you’re criticizing. Kim may not agree about what it means to love comics — but he does agree that loving comics is a reasonable criterion by which to judge comics critics. And that love should, in this view, extend to comics as a whole — very definitely including super-hero comics. he takes care to show that he has the right and the standing to sneer at the most recent X-book, by declaring that he has no prejudice against the genre as a whole. Recognizing Steve Englehart as a glorious treasure is part and parcel of recognizing the lousiness of the Micronauts.
This is not really where I’m coming from. I would never say that I loved comics, nor would I necessarily say with Kim that it’s “a great and wonderful medium.” Certainly, there are some great comics — and then there are lots and lots and lots of terrible comics (some of which Kim signals out for praise.) Certainly, comics isn’t any greater a medium than music, or art, or literature, or film…or possibly video games, which I know almost nothing about. Comics perhaps can do some unique things — but doing unique things isn’t unique. Every medium has its own history and its own formal potential. Why praise one in particular? Why love one in particular? And why should loving one in particular be a condition for criticizing that one? Or to put it another way, why do I need to be a fan to point out that Green Lantern/Green Arrow is clumsy, overblown agitprop, in which the vivid, dramatic visuals mostly serve to emphasize the self-parody?
One reason to be a fan, perhaps, is that fandom — to some extent in 1980, and even more now — is the way that our cultural interests are organized. Kim’s love of comics (and TCJ’s love of comics) was an essential part of what the magazine was and how it became so important; that love was the reason it could be so connected, however ambivalently, to the institutions and communities that Kim is, in this essay, both defending himself from and insisting on his own place within. It was the love that powered his long, long list of achievements as publisher, translator, critic, advocate, and editor.
Criticism without a basis in a fan culture of love, on the other hand, isn’t likely to produce such achievements. The common community, the common audience, and the common institutions, which spring out of commitment to a particular medium are vital to organizing and perpetuating communities, audiences and institutions. Placing yourself outside of community puts you outside of community; you end up, by definition, not talking to a whole lot of people.
Still, I like to think that there’s some worth in comics criticism, or any criticism, even by folks like me who don’t necessarily have a special fondness for comics in particular. Different perspectives can, perhaps, pick out different gems, as well as different warts. And different loves, or different kinds of loves, can maybe create different communities, or different connections between existing ones. Kim and TCJ and Fantagraphics are a longstanding and impressive demonstration of what those committed to comics can do for comics, and for art. But I think too that one measure of comics’ worth is, or will be, that they can speak not just to fans, but even to those who don’t have a stake in loving them.
As most folks reading this probably know, Kim Thompson passed away last month. The last time I communicated with him was when he, graciously as always, declined an invitation to participate in our anniversary of hate.
…and I just went back through my too-few emails from Kim and found one where he was talking about how much he loved translating that just about made me cry.