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Kim Thompson on David Apatoff’s Critique of Chris Ware
posted March 3, 2006

David Apatoff's critique of Chris Ware, and indeed his general approach to comics, has the virtue of being so completely wrong that it actually clarifies things. It's a bracing, revelatory wrongness that's far more useful than the timid and obvious rightness one sees in so many reviews these days.

If you believe that comics are a series of illustrations it's tempting to fall into the trap of judging these illustrations by the standards of illustrations. But comics aren't a series of illustrations, they're a series of narrative pictograms whose beauty, impact, and narrative effectiveness has little or nothing to do with the inherent quality of each illustration as an illustration, and everything to do with what they, individually and in concert with each other, evoke in the viewer.

Apatoff argues, a trifle peevishly, that he has to consider the illustrations and the text separately --compartmentalize them, to use Tom Spurgeon's term-- because Ware boosters pull an irritating shell game on him whereby they defend the allegedly mediocre art by pointing to the text and vice versa. But the point is that in all the best comics, the text --or to be more precise, the narrative component-- and graphics share the burden, and in fact, a comic strip in which the text was so fully formed that the illustrations were superfluous would be pointless, as would the reverse.

For all the criticism of Spiegelman's art on MAUS (Apatoff testily prints a panel on his blog to hammer home Spiegelman's inadequacies as a draftsman), I think it's pretty self-evident that any version of MAUS in which the illustrative qualities had been "better" (by Apatoff's standards) would have not been as good, as a comic, as the MAUS we have.

This doesn't mean Ware and Spiegelman are above criticism, but it means Apatoff's specific criticism is entirely beside the point. Travel down that path and you end up holding up Leonard Starr as one of the all-time greats. And accusing all of Ware's supporters of being dishonest, ignorant, fawning, pretentious, and inherently insulting to comics.