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October 15, 2007


CR First Person: Sean T. Collins on the Criticism Panel at Small Press Expo

Ten Thoughts on the "State of Comics Criticism" Panel at SPX
By Sean T. Collins

image1) I was glad for the presence of Douglas Wolk. His experience with non-aficionado periodicals was useful in highlighting practical considerations regarding the dearth of considered long-form criticism in the mass media that Gary Groth, Dan Nadel and Tim Hodler, and Bill Kartalopoulos (the editors of The Comics Journal, Comics Comics, and Indy Magazine and Egon Labs respectively) never really have to deal with: three-month lead times, the current mania for "fewer words, more bullets, more lists, more entry points," tying reviews into the PR cycle for new releases to the exclusion of works that aren't new or upcoming, tight word counts, limited space for comics coverage, how hard it is for professional critics to make a living writing about comics, etc.

2) Also, at one point Doug threw things to me and the other Wizard staffers (them current, me not so much) in the audience so that we could defend ourselves if we wanted in light of a few minutes' worth of Wizard-mocking by the panel, centered on a Top 100 trade paperbacks of all time list that the magazine put together a few years before any of us started working there. I'm proud of the coverage of alternative comics that I managed to provide during my time at the magazine -- I regularly reviewed Cold Heat on the website and named Mome Best Indie Anthology of 2006, just to name a pair of examples pertinent to the publishers on the panel -- but of course I agree that any list with 99 superhero books and a curve breaker like Maus at the top is a pretty terrible one.

The point that Doug enabled me to make is that most comics and graphic-novel coverage in mainstream-media publications, as well as most alternative/indie-comics coverage in Wizard and other superhero-centric print and web publications, is written from an advocacy position. I've written about comics for a half-dozen or so general-interest magazines, and usually the way it works is an editor at, say, Stuff will ask you in September about what good comics are coming out in December. You send them a list and they pick one and say "great, write about that one." Even at the old iteration of Giant, where I had 2-4 review slots each issue to work with, it was still a matter of pre-selecting comics that were worth making room in the magazine for, which meant comics that were good. When you have an editor who is usually fighting to carve out a spot for these things because she feels that comics is an art form worth talking about, and you as a writer tend to feel the same way, they're not going to use that space to have you explain why Will Eisner's later work is overrated.

3) I only ever hear complaints that the web has diffused informed opinion and is therefore inferior to the supposed centralization of print publications from people who work for print publications. In this panel the loudest voice on this point was Gary's, who first said that it's even hard to find good film criticism online. At first he said that this is because there wasn't any, but then when called on it by Tim, he admitted that he just didn't have the time to find it. Not to be all roll-over-Beethoven about it, but I can't imagine it's really any more difficult or time-consuming for me to have found Matt Zoller Seitz's blog, or Joe McCulloch's for that matter, than it was in Gary's much-vaunted mid-century golden age of arts criticism for people to have first discovered Andrew Sarris or Pauline Kael, much less Cahiers du Cinema. What's more, most of the people with whom I discuss criticism (the availability of discussion being quite important to Gary and the other participants) are just as aware of these online sources as I am. In other words, I think the "problem" likely lies less with the medium than the user, but also really isn't a problem at all.

4) I obviously wasn't alive during the '50s-'60s-'70s era Gary champions, but I'm not 100% convinced that this Golden Age of Criticism really existed. I mean, it existed in the sense that there were great critics writing about various art forms, sure (though not comics, not really). But Gary seemed to be arguing that the likes of Pauline Kael were the Gene Shalits of their day. I think it's a safe bet that if the average reader of this blog asked her mom and dad who Pauline Kael was, they'd have no idea. As an audience member pointed out, criticism isn't consumed by large numbers of people because most art isn't consumed by large numbers of people in ways that would make them receptive to criticism. As she said, this is doubly true of comics, where large numbers of people aren't consuming that art form at all, so yearning for a more vibrant critical milieu for comics is in some ways a fool's errand. But while I could be wrong, I think it's unlikely that this mass audience for criticism ever existed even for more popular art forms. If we instead mean a large audience of well-educated, well-informed cognoscenti, we should say so.

image5) Doug advocated for the value of "bomb-throwing" -- divisive pieces intended to provoke debate. I'm not crazy about this at all. For every act of bomb-throwing into which went a considerable amount of thought, like the Journal's Top 100 Comics of the 20th Century list or Understanding Comics, there are probably three times as many straw-men massacres. Chris Ware sucks, most alternative comics are autobiographical and therefore boring, the only comics worth a damn are "New Mainstream" genre titles, no one tells stories anymore, the Internet is the future of comics, superhero stories are inherently worthless and no one in the real world likes them, manga is all the same, super-popular webcomics > pretentious art comics that nobody reads, etc. Yes, they frequently provoke intelligent responses, but more accurately way they necessitate intelligent responses lest the white noise they generate drown out actual argument and criticism.

6) "There are no schools of comics criticism." I think it was Doug who put it in this way, though maybe it was Dan who brought it up? And obviously this is true -- you don't really have all-encompassing, rigorously articulated points of view on comics a la, I dunno, [Sergei] Eisenstein or [Andre] Bazin. As I tried to point out, I think the emergence of Comics Comics as an antipode to The Comics Journal -- a voice seemingly less interested in combative "this is bullshit and this is emphatically not bullshit" throw-downs, seemingly more open to evaluating corporate genre work, seemingly more attuned to non-narrative sensibilities versus literary ones -- is important, but as that diverse collection of attributes would suggest, this isn't exactly a coherent philosophy. I tend to think coherent philosophies are wildly overrated at best and stultifying and poisonous at best, though, so maybe that's not such a bad thing.

image7) Tim pointed out that the Journal's combative posture is understandable given the climate in which it started, one in which Maus had to be defended versus The Death of Captain Marvel. That work has been done, so now publications like Comics Comics can publish lengthy examinations of Steve Gerber's oeuvre without worrying that this will be taken to mean the work is on the same level as Gary Panter's.

8) I wish it were pointed out more often that there's really no such thing as "the Journal." There's Gary, and there's whoever's the editor, and then there's a bunch of writers who submit reviews and essays with no editorial guidelines and no back-end content editing either. (At least in my experience.) I know what "the Journal" is supposed to mean, but in reality it means the opinions of R.C. Harvey, Noah Berlatsky, Joe McCulloch, Tim O'Neil, me, Chris Mautner, Michael Dean, Kristy Valenti, and a couple dozen more all at once.

9) I wish the phrase "the dumbing down of American culture" were removed from this discussion. A look at the top-grossing films and best-selling books during the so-called Golden Age of Criticism indicates that America has always been pretty dumb, a state of affairs not at all unique to America, hey by the way.

10) Tim Hodler looks like Walter Becker from Steely Dan.

Sean T. Collins writes about comics for his blog and for the general magazine market. He is a former employee of Wizard
 
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