One of the things I struggle with the most when writing this blog is the purpose of criticism. It’s important that criticism doesn’t appear like the that of the 90’s cartoon (which I highly recommend). More developed media, like film, have been shaped in important and positive ways by critics (e.g. Pauline Kael, Jean-Luc Goddard). However, comics have not developed nearly as many theorists or critics as of yet. Besides video games, it may have the most underdeveloped set of theories amongst all popular media. So when I write comics criticism, I take it very seriously. Criticism has the ability to elevate art, increase discourse, and inform consumers. It is the basis for reaction to art, so it’s worthwhile to consider the unique challenges and common problems of comics criticism.
Every famous critic is associated with a specific medium and often a movement within said medium, whether it is Roger Ebert and films or Samuel Taylor Coleridge and English literature. Each medium is unique in how it is created and presented and thus requires a unique understanding, one learned from spending thousands of hours exploring it. A solid understanding of storytelling can allow someone to evaluate the principles of a story in any format, but good criticism ought to go further. A bad story can be told with innovative skill and that deserves to be recognized. Liking or disliking the story is at best a supplementary analysis of any piece. Although there are dozens of common challenges one could point to surrounding comics, there are a few that stand out:
Comics are published in a wide variety of formats, ranging from small daily strips (e.g. Dilbert by Scott Adams) to massive, completed tomes (e.g. Building Stories by Chris Ware). Although the monthly pamphlet (usually 22 pages in length) is the most common form of comics publication, it is far from a standard. James Robinson’s “Starman” is an excellent example of a high quality runs of comics. It is now composed of six collected editions, which are subsequently composed of several stories each, which are often composed of multiple issues and sometimes additional mini-series. It’s possible to evaluate these collections on any level, but important to consider the other levels at all times. Unlike films, plays, or novels comics are often published in a piece-meal format and that has to be taken into account when evaluating them.
In this regard, comics are more like television than other media. They are both extremely versatile in how they are published and collected.
2. Creative Mix
Comics, more often than not, are the product of a collaborative effort. Creators like Chris Ware and Art Spiegelman control every part of the stories they create, but most comics are generated by at least two individuals. There can be many more involved though, including letterers, inkers, and co-writers. Unlike the evaluation of other literature, comics must consider the input of more than one individual, in a process that is unique to each book. This means that it may often be best to consider a piece on its individual merits, before comparing it to the catalogue of the creators involved. Without in-depth knowledge of the creative process, it is difficult to criticize individual participants involved with the creation of the final product. This also makes scripts and break downs of page development incredibly valuable tools to critics. Many independent artists, like Fiona Staples, have begun to make examples of their step-by-step process available to the public.
In this regard, comics are more like films than other media. It requires a deep understanding of the process and roles involved to create a finished piece in order to evaluate the creators fairly.
3. Basis of Critiques
Unlike modern film or literary criticism, comics lack a strong historical basis or educational curriculum to use as a basis for evaluation. We’re lucky to have individuals like Scott McCloud (“Understanding Comics”) who have written some of the best theoretical work about the medium thus far. It should be required reading (and re-reading) for anyone who writes comics criticism or, for that matter, anyone who reads comics. There is still relatively little out there in regards to theoretical readings though. This is also why it’s so important for critics of comics, whether they be paid or self-published, to take their role in the creative process seriously. This medium is barely past its infancy and there are few authorities talking about it. For people seeking to learn more, any voice with a hint of seriousness may be taken as the truth.
In this regard, comics are more like video games than other media. They are both developing at an incredibly fast pace and there are very few starting points to learn about the medium itself, creating many self-taught experts who can help or hinder future efforts.
So with that in mind, it is worth addressing some of the most common problems in contemporary comics criticism. If you believe that criticism is important, as I do, then it’s important to be critical of not just those writing comics, but those writing about them.
There is nothing lazier than a review that summarizes the plot. For readers looking for a recommendation, it ruins the experience. For readers looking to engage, it provides nothing of substance. This is not to say that a plot should not be mentioned in criticizing a piece, but it should not be part of a recommendation or the focus of any piece of serious evaluation. This is why I have attempted to divide my reviews into two groups. The first is the Wednesday Checkup, in which I provide a brief recommendation on a wide variety of book. The latter is the Friday Follow Up, where I analyze a new piece on a wide variety of issues for people who have had a chance to read the work in question already.
Mentioning one’s own taste can help make clear potential prejudices and that makes for a more honest approach. I am a big fan of Brian Azzarello. He’s a really funny guy and someone who I enjoy talking to. I try to make that clear when talking about his writing and do my best to distance my personal opinion from any analysis. Proclaiming that you love a character or writer and then singing the praises of a book simply because they are involved is intellectually dishonest. It does not follow that since an idea is cool or anticipated, the story will be good. There needs to be a line drawn between personal enjoyment and critical analysis.
3. Understanding Comics
The most difficult part of comics criticism is understanding comics. Comics are told using a wide variety of unique tools. Without understanding these tools, it is impossible to provide a full evaluation of any piece of work. Even if you don’t reference word-picture dynamics, the artistic process, or closure, they are still incredibly important to understand when providing analysis. It’s the same concept as the reviewer of a poem understanding meter or alliteration.
As a relatively nubile medium, it is much easier for comics fans and critics to interact with creators than in other media like novels or film. This also leaves the potential benefits of pandering much greater. A very small collection of publishers (read: DC Comics and Marvel) control a large portion of creative talent and are more inclined to provide interviews to websites that provide more favorable reviews. Reviewers can state positive hyperbole about books in order to get re-tweeted or some kind words from a creator. It’s perfectly acceptable to praise work as good, but praise should be accompanied by examples and explanation. A critic does not exist to proclaim something as good or bad, but to help understand that something. Saying that the artwork and layout in Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s “WE3” is stunning is an empty compliment. However, if I include an example, you can see what I mean. Moreover, I can discuss Quitely’s collection of close up cels being pulled from a greater scene. The overlapping details help to show the action of the page better than a standard spread could have. He is able to emphasize the most important components of the moment to establish tone, while bunching them together creating a sense of propulsion as the page is read.
I don’t know all of the answers when it comes to comics. I know far, far less than I would like. The keys to learning are discourse and study. Those are both things encouraged by criticism. In order to be critical, one must consume a great deal of any subject matter. Criticism in return should not be a one-way street. That’s why I’m always thankful for the thoughtful responses provided by those of you reading this. You help me think and learn more than I could ever hope to on my own. It’s my sincere hope that I stimulate you in return (read: dirty joke inserted into a rather dry column). With relatively little critical analysis available (and even less with the shutdown of Comics Alliance, may it rest in peace), it’s as important as ever to engage and write about comics. There’s a lot to be learned and the best way to keep learning is to keep thinking and talking.