Last year, Kim O’Connor and I teamed up to dig into some of the reasons why a lot of people in comics get so burned out on the medium. We called it a “discourse about discourse” and now here we are again, still feeling burned out and having yet another discourse about discourse, except this time it concerns something even closer to us: criticism. While this discussion is mostly us working through our feelings about the field and the way creators interact with it, we hope it will help spark some more productive conversation about the state of comics criticism, where it’s going and what it could achieve.
Nick Hanover: So, Kim, you just got back from vacation and I’m sure you were surprised to discover that in your absence the comics industry finally decided to have a blunt conversation about a very important subject. No, not sexual harassment. Nope, not fair pay and creators’ rights either. Definitely not unprofessional public behavior by comic pros. Yes, that’s right, it was about what critics are doing wrong.
To recap, since I believe you were doing normal human things instead of wading through the mess that is comics Twitter, this specific kerfuffle came about because of a thread Irene Koh started about comics critics’ issues discussing art as much as they discuss writing in comics. Koh and others suggested that this problem could possibly be resolved by comics critics and writers studying the technical aspects of comics more (i.e. “read some Scott McCloud & some basic self education on illustrating”), if only to better understand the difficulties involved in creating it.
Naturally, it didn’t take long for the discussion to spin off into other threads elsewhere about all the ways comics critics fail and what they must do to fix that. As usual, this conversation was mostly had between creators and so it centered on the things they want out of criticism, which is a perspective I am certainly interested in analyzing. But before we do that, I’d like to hear your perspective as a critic- what do you personally believe is the role of criticism? What are some of the obstacles you feel pros aren’t considering get in the way of comics critics in particular as they work in this medium?
Kim O’Connor: The last time I was out of town I missed Kurt Eichenwald’s hentai tweets by maybe less than half a day and swore a blood oath to never stray far from Twitter again. If I were someone else I would’ve taken that opportunity to reevaluate my life, but instead I was seriously like: my kingdom to have seen the Eichenwald hentai tweets in real time. Despite that I don’t feel very tapped into Twitter at all lately, vacation or otherwise…? I don’t know if it’s my own (bad) headspace or the real cultural climate, but Twitter is just post-apocalyptic Farmville to me right now. I think the only reason I’m still there is in case Kurt tweets about talking to his large sons about tentacle porn again. Anyway, yes, I did see some small piece of this wider conversation about comics crit, and it was annoying to me in complicated ways that I feel I’m about to explain poorly. I can’t wait to badmouth The Creators, though! I live for this!
Let me get this off my chest: while I don’t disagree that studying how to compose a page or what have you can be a useful exercise, I just can’t get past the sheer Jeet Heer-level audacity of telling a group of people how you think things should be done. Broadly, fuck that. That’s literally my least favorite thing as far as comics talk goes. More specifically, Irene Koh’s suggestions, her references and lack thereof, her tone—what I see there is a person who doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Which is very emblematic of a certain strain of creator who deigns to hand down their notes on what critics should be doing, is it not? On a radio somewhere poor old Alanis is trying to sing about irony.
To answer your first question, I think criticism can and should be different things to different people at different times. That’s the first mistake people make in these conversations: assuming that it should be one thing. Personally? I try to have a thought that feels like my own, that doesn’t feel like something you’re going to see somewhere else, that feels interesting (to me, like as a project), that feels considered in a way where I’m not wasting your time. Ideally, something with its own art to it, though that’s sort of special occasion criticism. I like to mess around, so sometimes I emphasize certain things, sometimes I fail. What I appreciate in other people’s writing is a point of view. Everyone has a perspective, sure…everyone gets a trophy for trying…but pov is what distinguishes the good from the competent. Those are the three categories: the good, the competent, and the incompetent, and my advice to everyone regarding the latter two categories is don’t read it and let ’em live. Art jargon is not a super meaningful differentiator when it comes to grading the quality of criticism, in my opinion. That said, I try to be responsible. By all means, if Koh wishes to write an explainer on the preferred nomenclature for faerie boobies, I’ll be all eyes.
“TRUTH ZONE”: to your second question, the biggest obstacle to my own criticism now, as ever, is indie pros acting like jerks, alongside the near total lack of professionalism I see across the board. From my limited point of view, no one is less professional than industry people (including critics) who make their living at this. Don’t get me wrong, etc. Some of them are lovely people. Most I think seem really kind. But there’s always a handful of jerks, you know, out there on their beats. That’s how Twitter feels to me sometimes. What’s interesting about that is every two weeks or so comics critics like to have a little convention about The Etiquette and how it’s so important not to @ creators or whatever, and I don’t know. I don’t agree with anyone about any of that, ever: the etiquette itself or the premise that it’s some huge problem, as though critics are the ones being rude…like they’re these little yip dogs who need to leave The Creators in peace. That’s just not what I see.
Nick, I need to know how hard you agree with my perfect opinions. Is there a way to characterize “good” criticism, broadly? How confused are creators about this on a scale of 1 to 10? And when should we launch our crowdfunding campaign to buy the next generation of critics their Scott McCloud primers, so everyone knows to use the word pencil instead of “pointy marking stick”?
Nick: We’re pretty much on the same page, and I think etiquette is a good way to phrase what these debates over the state of comics criticism eventually boil down to. I get frustrated because I love talking about craft but these arguments are almost always about what comic pros think comic critic manners should be rather than what is or isn’t good criticism and what it can and should bring to the medium.
Good criticism kind of falls into the same realm as obscenity in that it’s one of those things that you just know when you see. I don’t think there will ever be hard and fast rules for any medium in regards to what checkboxes there are to establish good criticism, but I think for me what is consistent in good criticism is that it conveys some kind of truth and establishes context. The critics I’m drawn to are writers who have clear taste (and this doesn’t mean good or bad taste, just easily discernible taste) and write to their tastes in an honest way. And by making it clear what their taste is, you get a sense of where they’re coming from when they react to a work and how they’re filtering it. Thus, I believe the idea of “unbiased” criticism is bullshit and what we should instead be asking from critics is a forthrightness about taste instead. Building on that, the only broader thing I expect from good critics is an ability to place work within a context, whether that’s the context of a subject’s ouevre, what’s currently happening in society, what has come before, how it fits in with other creators’ work, etc.
This is why I think this continual demand by creators that critics focus on technical aspects of a medium is foolish. There are critics who also make art within the communities they critique but I do not believe a critic has to have technical expertise to judge work within a medium and in many cases I think an overly technical approach actually worsens rather than improves criticism. Critics live in a strange middle ground between artist and consumer so I understand why their role in a medium is misunderstood by both corners but I think comic pros seem to particularly struggle to get what a critic’s role is. Creators seem to believe critics are either supposed to be boosters or technical theorists rather than writers who above all else seek to understand a work and their own reactions to it.
Or at least that’s the common thread I see in the best critics, a constant pursuit of understanding. When critics write a negative review, it’s generally in order to understand how and why a work failed and what can be learned from that failure, just as when critics write a positive review, it’s to understand what makes that work effective and meaningful and how it stands out from less successful peers. And it’s the same with critical essays that explore larger subjects in the industry, it’s all to come to some sort of understanding.
I also believe comics creators do themselves a disservice by incessantly harping on critics for talking too much about story versus visuals because in my mind, art and story are usually pretty intertwined in comics. I don’t necessarily disagree that some critics struggle to talk about visuals, but I don’t see how a critic exploring narrative is inherently too writer focused. If you’re a non-experimental comic artist, don’t you also feel that your job is to be a storyteller? Why must discussion of story, and elements of story like pacing, always be interpreted as talking exclusively about “writing” when artists are equally responsible for narrative flow and impact?
Coming from a music criticism background, this loop in comics looks childish and bizarre. It’s not like when you do an album review and speak about the music on the whole without pausing to insert compliments of each and every instrument the entire music industry hunts you down to yell at you on Twitter. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a musician spend an entire day screenshotting a review that didn’t explicitly mention the contributions of their band’s bassist the way you see at least once a month in comics circles regarding [insert non-writing comics profession here]. And that’s not because neither critics nor bands respect bassists, it’s because musicians seem to understand that criticism is about analyzing a work as a whole in a way that comics folk don’t.
Obviously a lot of that has to do with imbalances in the comics industry itself but I wish that’s where these discussions would go instead of dogpiling on critics. It sucks that no one in comics gets paid fairly and publishers treat creators as interchangeable cogs, everyone agrees on that. That said, there are a number of better ways to deal with that than to pit creators against each other and critics, and it’s not really the responsibility of the critics to “help” by sacrificing flow and readability to do a roll call for every single person involved in comic production in every single piece of writing. God, can you just imagine if the film industry expected something like that with reviewers? Am I wrong here? How much of this issue do you feel comes down to creators projecting inequity issues on us?
Kim: Remember the old Art Spiegelman complaint about how critics never attended to the art in Maus? There’s this myth about comics illiteracy that I think persists amongst creators, and the current running through it is plain old elitism. Sometimes that elitism is just people being self-aggrandizing, but sometimes it’s in service of something worse. Tons of comics types, Spiegelman chief among them, were arguing the comics illiteracy angle hard with regard to Charlie Hebdo in 2015. It was this absurd situation in which Spiegelman was accusing writers like Junot Díaz, the most comics-literate novelist this side of Michael Chabon, of not “having the sophistication to grapple with” comics, and an industry more or less nodding along. Here again the irony is in who in fact lacks sophistication; in this case, plainly it was Spiegelman. Actually, Art Spiegelman, little children can read a fucking comic. That doesn’t mean the form is simplistic—far from it—but most comics are easy to read, conveying this huge degree of complexity with economy and immediacy. Isn’t that the “magic of comics” we keep hearing about?
Meanwhile, of course, we have plenty of comics criticism that’s over-attending to the art, but I never see anyone moaning about that. Look at Michel Fiffe’s Copra, a comic where most critics (rightfully) salivate over the art and then make the mistake of putting down the writing as either bad or an afterthought. Fiffe is a hell of a writer. There’s a certain value attached to being a visual artist that people can’t see so easily when it comes to writing. For whatever reason, they don’t see writing as a craft, whether we’re talking about comics that aren’t overtly literary, comics criticism, or really anything. (It’s maybe worse with criticism because it’s perceived as parasitic, and better with a form like novels that people are raised to respect.) People see Fiffe’s drawings and immediately recognize his ability; they know they couldn’t draw like that with a gun to their head. They see his words and imagine they could write something better in their sleep. A whole host of critics have totally failed to recognize how the restraint of Fiffe’s writing complements the exuberance of his art—how in less capable hands it would be way too much, how quickly it would start to feel overwritten.
We’re getting into tricky territory. It’s the thing your working title [Top 10 Reasons Our Opinions Are Just Better Than Yours] alludes to, the difference between having an opinion and being correct. I’m not elitist, but I’m confident in my ability. There’s a difference, but it’s sort of subtle…maybe part of it has to do with recognizing your own limitations. In any case I know craft when I see it, even if I don’t care for it personally. I can usually recognize something special even when it doesn’t align with my own interests or taste. (I think my favorite form of criticism to write and read is about specialness more than skill or craft.) You talk about recognizing good comics criticism as a sort of sixth sense, and I agree with you in that’s how I experience it. Someone’s got it or they don’t; it’s really that simple. But the ability to discern that…it’s a skill that transcends taste.
I think you’re right that there’s a lack of respect and common courtesy for comics critics that I just don’t routinely see in other media. I’ve yet to see a filmmaker say that Matt Zoller Seitz is too stupid to watch a movie. Some of our best critics are creators–if I had to name just one I think I’d say Darryl Ayo–but, you know, contrariwise, there are some creators who are shit at criticism. I think most of the time creator-critics are automatically granted a level of respect that isn’t always earned. Frank Santoro can dissect the way a page works with real facility, but he can’t write his way out of a paper bag.
Some of what I respond to relates to what you were saying about the pursuit of understanding. I like writers who are working something out. That TCJ explainer mode—Jeet Heer, Ken Parille, Frank Santoro, whoever else…hard pass. Read Joe McCulloch assholes.
I’m really sorry, I don’t have a question, and my jokes are becoming worse and more obscure. I think I agree with everything you said. The roll call thing, oh my god…I’m tired of people complaining about honoring the letterer or erasing the colorist. Listen, I don’t give a fuck.
Nick: I suppose I’m closer to the “good cop” in this little back and forth and yet I can’t really argue against your bluntness there. To me, though, it boils down to the creators’ desire for criticism to follow certain rules and regulations all wrapped around emphasizing the individuals involved in a work rather than the work as a whole, whereas I would argue most critics- even when they are talking about an individual involved with a work- are always dissecting the work or the medium itself and so individual contributions are a secondary concern. So even when I’m spending, say, thousands of words analyzing Pete Toms’ visual obsession with facial mutilation, I wouldn’t be doing that at all if there wasn’t a body of work showing that obsession. Pete Toms the individual isn’t as important to me from a writing perspective as his material and I wish this was what we were really talking about whenever the inevitable “you must separate the art from the artist” conversation reemerges in comics.
To back up, though, I’m glad you mentioned Michael Chabon because I’d argue he’s one of the best examples of how a non-comics immersed person understands greater truths about the medium than these technical elitists. Both of us love Kavalier & Clay but I reckon neither of us would hold it up as an example of technique-centric comics criticism. Nonetheless, I’d argue Kavalier & Clay is one of the great works of comics criticism, even though it’s not reviewing real life comics and doesn’t “talk about the art” in the way or to the extent that comic pros always demand critics do.
Instead, Chabon approaches comics the medium as a character, worthy of lofty literary exploration, its drama and injustice as ripe for narrative plundering as any Victorian lineage battle. I don’t believe I’ve seen this argument presented before but I feel that Kavalier & Clay, and Jonathan Lethem’s contemporary work Fortress of Solitude, offered a path to legitimacy for both comics and comics criticism that the industry largely rejected, other than to offer both authors indulgent miniseries. I like to imagine a world where the sad sack dudes who preceded us in what you once called the “message board wars” stopped what they were doing and looked at those novels as templates to work into their writing rather than the snarky recaps, masturbatory interviews and hyper detailed lists and annotations that now define that era.
What stands out to me about Kavalier & Clay and Fortress of Solitude is that they’re extremely emotional works that attempt to reckon with the pure love both authors have for the medium of comics while knowing what a colossal shitshow the industry has always been. They explore the history of comics in deeply personal but no less accurate ways and scrutinize the unique aspects of the medium that enable it to be so effective, getting into some of what you mentioned about comics’ ability to communicate enormously complex concepts in ways that are so simple children not only understand them but can never forget after.
And though it’s not at all about comics, another example that comes to mind is the “12 Great Rock and Roll Pauses” section of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, where one of the characters creates a slideshow quoting her brother’s analysis of perfect moments of silence in songs. It’s such a genuine, innocent perspective but it does a better job of getting across what works about rock- the excitement, the tension, the need– than anything Rolling Stone has published in thirty years. The whole book is more or less about taking down the belief that to “get” music you must be almost monk-ish in your consumption of it, but no other moment communicates this as effortlessly or beautifully as this chapter.
To maneuver this around in a potentially more hopeful direction, are there other works that come to mind to you as unexpectedly worthwhile critical texts? Since pros seem to mostly lack the capacity or patience to give burgeoning critics an idea of what they could be doing right, where would you point them? And am I right to suggest that maybe the best hope for good comics criticism isn’t to incubate better “studied” comics critics but to open up the field to writers who maybe aren’t as invested or immersed in this medium?
Kim: Michael Chabon forever and ever, amen. (Not as much a fan of Lethem. I don’t recall having strong feelings about that book either way.) One thing I see in both Kavalier & Clay and Fortress of Solitude is a robust interrogation of machismo. Machismo is something that even some of our best critics struggle with. That whole Tim Kreider thing where you’re, like, semi-aware of how sad it is to constantly talk about your sexual prowess. With Chabon it’s interesting, because he’s a guy who could go toe-to-toe with anyone in terms of sheer comics knowledge. He could beat the final boss in the message board wars without even trying. But what Chabon chooses to write about is comics’ specialness. He writes about his love of the thing, and you’re exactly right, he also writes about himself. His work is hugely personal, whether he’s flirting with autobiography or writing something closer to pure fiction. The degree to which I respond to that, some of it is a matter of taste. I like writing that foregrounds these things. But some of these condescending comics archives guys who sit down to Do Criticism and think they can (or should) remove themselves from the equation—it’s not just that I don’t find that compelling. To some degree, they’re simply doing it wrong. It’s foundational, recognizing your own subjectivity. Read Joe Sacco assholes.
It’s funny, Jennifer Egan is a favorite, but I don’t remember that part of Goon Squad! I have a terrible memory; it disturbs me sometimes, how little I can remember about the stuff I read. Wait, was that the PowerPoint section? I think that felt like a gimmick to me. I think I hated it, so now I’m going to have to go back with what you said in mind. Other critical texts…I’m not the best person to ask, because of the memory thing and because I just don’t read widely enough. That said, first I’d point to creator-critics who aren’t necessarily writing essays. Roman Muradov has a very sharp critical mind, and attends to art and text with equal fervor. He has so much heart and is great with ambiguity. Ronald Wimberly is so thoughtful, so eloquent. (He actually weighed in on the Twitter debate we were talking about at the top of the post.) Lynda Barry for her sheer enthusiasm, her welcoming attitude, and her willingness to foreground struggle and self-doubt.
I also think it can be really instructive to look at comics-adjacent artists who aren’t doing comics, and therefore don’t bring the baggage of Comics into their work. I’ve had a post in my drafts forever about this Norwegian “illustrator”—this doesn’t feel like the right word, I think what some of these people are doing is much closer to comics—that I found in the children’s section of a bookstore last year after some guy in the comics section was rude to me. In European illustration I perceive a seriousness in the way artists talk to children that’s so much more interesting and profound than that TOON books thing where you’re checking off standard 1.45.611b. (I love Ivan Brunetti, but look at his book on compound words next to that stuff and there’s no comparison.) I’d point to Maira Kalman, her own stuff and her collaborations with Daniel Handler. I think her work is about the specialness of things. Outsider art—every time I look at it I think harder about comics. This is maybe too far afield, but I keep thinking about the elliptical and passionate and winsome way that David Lynch talks about his work. The way he talks about creativity and what he does is just so perfect I could cry. All these people are masters of their craft who’re just emphatically not gross about it, and seeking out that sensibility might be especially worthwhile for people who are getting started. Look for people who like to talk about what’s incredible about their medium without being assholes about it. Sniff out humility.
I couldn’t agree more that the last thing new comics critics need is tutelage. The Correspondence Course Critics would have you believe that fresh eyes are a huge weakness, but in fact they are also a strength. Don’t sweat it. The lack of investment you’re talking about…that’s huge, but it’s only half of the equation. Paradoxically, you also have to also be invested. You have to care. But you have to do it in a way that’s not proprietary. My favorite comics critics, no matter how deep in it they are, always lean a little towards the outside.
Nick: It’s almost like comics on the whole would benefit from including more of the people it perpetually keeps on the perimeter…Sass aside, I quite like “sniff out humility” as advice, but with the caveat that I think it’s more important than ever before for critics in general to be confident and fearless. Finding that balance between humility and generosity on one end and confidence and bravery on the other is key and I do believe we’re seeing that with some of the critics I perceive as the best of the new wave, like J.A Micheline, Emma Houxbois, Claire Napier, Ardo Omer and James Leask and so on.
I don’t want to go too deep with a discussion about critics as canaries in the coal mine for comics, but there’s a reason why I have been relentlessly harping on the comics industry’s complete unwillingness to do anything about cleaning up the toxic environment they’ve created in regards to comics discourse. You and I spoke about it last year and we were concerned about what would happen if the industry continued to let pros behave erratically online with no real repercussions and this year we’ve seen that escalate in major ways.
It’s not just about pros yelling at critics while demanding no one @ them with negative criticism, either, but about pros routinely encouraging their aggressive fans to go after critics they feel have “wronged” them by pointing out bad behavior. And now we’re seeing an influx of fascist comics fans who are emboldened by both the current political climate and the tendency of certain creators to go in on “SJW” critics, all while pros wonder why this could possibly be happening.
Pros are all too happy to stand up for white men and women comics creators targeted by these groups yet they refuse to do anything about it when disenfranchised critics and fans are the targets and they especially refuse to do anything when their own peers are involved in the harassment. I think more than anything else, this is a major barrier to sustaining any legitimate critical environment.
So to wrap this up, since you said the last thing new comics critics need is tutelage, what else would you argue they need that the industry could feasibly provide (outside of obvious things like, y’know, money)? Assuming any professionals are a) reading this b) not rushing to yell at us on Twitter and c) interested in establishing a fair give and take with upcoming critics, of course.
Kim: One of the first comics pieces I wrote was about the anxiety of coming correct, which I see as a balance of interrogating yourself and the trying to muster the confidence you’re talking about. Confidence is seen as an asset in white men in comics crit; in the rest of us, it’s framed as irrational or aggressive, so coming correct can be harder to calibrate. The spirit of real criticism requires doubt more than conviction or certainty. And I guess there’s a vulnerability to that project that Comics as we know it not only fails to inspire, but also actively seeks to destroy. I don’t get around to as much of the pure comics crit (as opposed to toxic culture stuff) as I’d like because I feel like my role is to stand up to that in my own small way, writing about the people who are pissing in the talent pool. You’re on a wholly different path, nurturing new talent. People see those strategies as, like, spiritually opposed…but we’re both working toward the same thing. Not that I’m holding myself up as some paragon of do-gooding in The Community (lol); I’m just leveraging my bad personality to fight fire with fire. Work with what you got.
But that has an expiration date, I think. I’m tired (and I don’t even do that much). You’re tired. Most of the people I’d consider our contemporaries seem tired. People quit and other people never start. I think what I would ask of anyone who wishes to see a more robust critical community is to consider ways they could help cultivate a more appealing milieu. Or, barring that, at least one that’s less off-putting. I don’t know, what do you think?
Nick: The exhaustion is real. I don’t think pros can or should be tasked with fixing that, because it’s clear creators are equally exhausted, but I think it would be less stifling if for every three of these “comics critics are idiots!” discussions that make the rounds, there was one large scale conversation focusing on criticism of value or at least a more constructive conversation about criticism that invited the input of critics. What seems to always happen instead is the industry shits all over criticism in unproductive ways, some of us pop up to try to engage with it and then in the critic circles we get together and fall prey to ripping apart our scene as well.
While we were writing this, you shared an old Hooded Utilitarian piece by Ng Suat Tong that perfectly encapsulates that phenomena by picking apart a self-defeating inside baseball comics crit conversation at The Comics Journal. One of the things that particularly stood out to me in that was Tong’s refutation of the idea of comics criticism as basically marketing, because that seems to be what pros and a number of other critics want this field to be. Tong mostly focused on that in a more literal sense, as in a number of critics and creators always want reviews to stick to essentially serving as positive promotional coverage, but I think there’s also something to be said about how that translates to treating critics like perpetually underperforming publicists. But the truth of how good critics operate is closer to monkish discipline than pros and better paid mainstream critics acknowledge. As Tong puts it:
“If one desires quality criticism of the alternatives in the field then an altogether different attitude (and critic) is required. This is the kind of critic who primarily writes for herself or at least because of some deep inner need (pompously metaphysical as this may sound). It is a simple equation. You write criticism because you have something to say, because you feel compelled to write about it, and because you want to do the best job you can (as would any artisan).”
What I want pros, and more visible critics, to provide more often is an awareness that this is how most of us who take criticism seriously go about our business. I want the industry to come together in acknowledging that no one who is creating important comics and criticism is doing it for money or fame or the lolz, we are doing it because we can’t not do it. I believe the closer we get to a shared acknowledgment of that– that we’re essentially working towards the same goal, with similar obstacles and an identical lack of resources– the closer we will get to comics criticism being something both critics and creators can be proud of and push towards evolution together.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover