Saturday, February 10, 2007

-In making the case against opening a new comics store, Guy LeCharles Gonzalez gives the following, somewhat strange reason: Steven Grant considers the 22 page comic to be dead. Now, this does sound like a problem for publishers; as Grant notes, alternative formats have been tried and rejected by readers. (Which is too bad, because I think the anthology format might be just right for the devoted fans of second- and third-tier Marvel and DC characters; it would give them the chance to read new stories featuring their beloved Manhunter, but doesn't force the character to carry a book on her own.) But how does this affect the retailer? Graphic novel sales continue to grow, and Grant himself says, "Retailers mostly seem fine with [the 22-page format], since it semi-guarantees a steady flow of product." Maybe Gonzalez doesn't want to live in a world where he can't sell anthologies and mini-series to the people of central Pennsylvania.

-I've seen a lot of entries on the new comics weblog update thing for a blog called Make Mine Marvel. Is this place just a repository for Marvel-related PR? Does the guy (I have to assume--I can't imagine a woman would adopt the identity of Uatu) get anything from Marvel in return?

-If you're going to review comics, learn to how to say something meaningful about the art. Or include a sample of the art. Don't let "the faces were too exaggerated" be the only concrete criticism of the art in your whole review.

Which brings me to a larger concern: why do so many reviews, particularly of mainstream books by people who only (or mostly) review mainstream books, fail to address art in anything more than a perfunctory manner? I get the idea that far too many reviewers perceive art as a binary: it's either adequate or inadequate. In this case, "inadequate" means "art that forces you to stop and think about it." Common complaints include poor anatomy (Liefeld), overly "cartoony" look (Ramos, Scott), over-reliance on photo reference (Land--although I must point out he has a shocking number of fans), and unappealing style of drawing (Yu). More advanced reviewers might include complaints of confusing or disorienting storytelling (Bachalo). None of the first four should stand on their own as a legitimate criticism of art. Any of these techniques have their place in comics. As for complaints about storytelling, I often wonder if the reviewer has put enough effort into trying to figure out what is actually happening on the page, or consider that disorientation might be intentional.

Strangely, though, many of these same reviewers tend to shake this bad habit once they move beyond DC and Marvel comics. This is not to say that reviews of non-mainstream comics (and I'm defining this broadly to include DC's various imprints) are much better at considering the role of art; I still get the sense that most seem to see art as playing a supporting role to story. Even still, a discussion of art is better than no discussion at all.

What do I make of all this? First, I think it's clear that most DC/Marvel reviews are written by unabashed continuity porn fiends or latent continuity porn fiends. (BTW, who invented that term? It's one of the best neologisms to come out of the blogosphere. It's a harsh term, but this age calls for harsh terms.) I think that's why so many Marvel/DC reviews do not address the actual quality of the issue, but instead express outrage at the treatment of beloved (or quasi-beloved) characters. The quality of art is irrelevant to such people, as are most writing techniques. (Discussion of pacing="nothing happened this issue;" discussion of dialogue="the characters won't shut up, and Captain America doesn't talk like that anyway;" there is no discernible discussion of symbolism or metaphor, except to complain about Civil War being ham-handed.) The only literary technique besides plotting I ever see discussed at length in these types of reviews is characterization, and that gets right back to continuity porn most of the time.

Second, it's just harder to talk about art than it is to talk about writing. It's much easier to write a review if you think of artists as people who are illustrating the writer's ideas, since that's a fairly easy category to judge. It's much harder to talk about the interplay of words and pictures, especially if they are not working in harmony. In this way comics reviews remind me of rock music reviews. Too many rock critics focus on lyrics because lyrics are easier to write about than music. Rock critics are a step ahead of mainstream comics critics, however, because they do usually talk about the music in some way--even if it's bland descriptions like "catchy," "heavy," or "dissonant." (Mainstream film criticism has its problems as well--the focus is on acting and writing, with maybe a few vague words about the visual aspects of the film. However, it's much harder to write intelligently about cinematography, lighting, staging, set design, etc., than it is to write about comics art, since the artist has much greater control over the visual appearance of a comic than the director has over the visual aspects of a movie.)

Third, I still think there is an Image backlash, even 10+ years after its heyday. Or maybe this backlash is confined to online comics fans, considering how well books drawn by Jim Lee or Michael Turner sell. Actually, I suspect that comics fans on the pre-www internet of the early 90s were also anti-Image--it's just that nobody cared. Somewhat like today, actually.

Is this a straw man argument I've set up? Does anyone else feel the same way about the vast majority of comics reviews? I try to avoid the really awful review sites (some of which are linked to above), but there are more than a few respected internet critics (some of whom are linked to above) who seem to fall into these habits.

Back to the other stuff:

-Here's a philosophical question: Do you really need to make a post on your own blog to defend yourself against a comment someone left in response to a post on a different blog, especially after making two posts in reply to said comment which said basically the same thing as you're saying on your own blog?

-If you see anything which you think I should see, or if you want to say something which you'd prefer other people not to see, email me at the address on the sidebar.


Joe said...

In regards to the absorbascon thingee, I can imagine that you do that because you want your loyals "fans" to tell you how right you are and how wrong the other guy is.

Joe said...

PS, hope the new review is an improvement.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure why Gonzales has such a hard-on against people opening comic shops. I think a lot of "critics" like to think that they are harbingers of industry insight, rather than just some douche with an opinion and a modem, so they wax philosophic about retail and marketing, as if they have a clue. It would appear he falls in this camp.

meanwhile, the world waits with baited breath for the "evidence" he kept squawking about last year, in the Taki Soma nonsense. Bring it on, Buzzscope! The internerd, appears to have forgotten these claims, but I still recall Guy telling everyone that vindication was near at hand... ha!)

This is my new favorite blog, by the way.

-Donna Troy

Dick Hyacinth said...

Joe, you've been a remarkably good sport. I'll save most of my thoughts for the comments section of CSBG, but I just wanted to speak for a minute about your latest column in light of this post. You're doing exactly what I hope more people will start doing--you're discussing art as an integral part of the reading experience. It's a simple thing, but it adds a ton of credibility. Good work.

And thanks Donna T., glad you're enjoying this. I have to admit, I'd kind of forgotten about Gonzalez' role in the Mid Ohio Con debacle. He seems like an outspoken sort of fellow, so maybe he'll see your comments and address them.

Jones, one of the Jones boys said...

Tim O'Neill had some thoughts recently about the art/no-art divide in criticism. His view suggests that, as we get more non-comics readers reading comics, there'll actually be *more* critics who overlook the art, because they're coming from a background of lit-crit, not art-crit.

That's one reason critics don't talk about art. You identify some others: backlash against the early 90s; reviews-as-plot-synopses; it's plain hard to do.

But you've missed an obvious one: most of the most popular comics in the direct market have mediocre and derivative art. In particular, the art in most super-hero comics from the "Big Two". The very best that can be said for it is that it gets the job done, in a way the reader is familiar with.

Like Joe, I'd be curious to see what you think of my reviews. Not, uh, to pimp my site, or anything.

Guy LeCharles Gonzalez said...

Cool idea for a blog; saw it via The Beat last week, added it to my Reader and now I see I'm on your radar. Sweet! If Rice can take some constructive criticism, then I'm certainly game. ;-)

My reason for adding Grant's comment to my off-the-cuff list was simply because if creators are questioning the format that's the lifeblood of the direct market, it's a red flag for anyone considering opening a comic shop. It's like opening a video store in 1998 and deciding whether to focus on VHS or DVD.

As for Donna's comment, I fall into the camp of someone who's been watching the industry closely for a few years now because of a specific interest in opening a bookstore one day, ideally one with an emphasis on comics. I even mentioned that at the end of the post, but clearly she's not big on reading comprehension.

And the Taki Soma situation, unfortunately, is something I have no control over and am in no position to comment any further on beyond my statement last year that my investigation of the allegations led us to standing by Soma and her story. I find it both sad and telling that, despite the fact the Brownstein acknowledged crossing the line, some would still refer to the situation as "nonsense".

Of course, any idiot with an opinion and modem, right?

Dick Hyacinth said...

Wait, wait wait...when was I mentioned on The Beat? Things are moving too fast...head spinning...ADD appearance--inevitable?

Jones, I agree that most mainstream artists are derivative--but so are the writers! There are just as many Claremont, Thomas, and Moore clones out there as Kirby, Lee (Jim, not Stan), and Miller wannabes. (Though I have to admit, the Alan Moore cloning process is tricky and often leads to unholy abominations.) I'm more inclined to agree with the Tim O'Neil criticism (which I have to admit, I've never read--do you have a link?). I don't know that an approach grounded in art criticism would really be a much better solution, since that would essentially replicate the current problem. Tom Spurgeon covered similar ground a few weeks ago, in response to Paul Gravett's criticism that comics readers' love of good art is "holding back" the medium. (The actual article is about Wally Wood.) I would think the best model would be serious film criticism but (a) most movie reviews suffer from the same problems as mainstream comics reviews, (b) most of us don't read serious film criticism. I don't, but that's partly because film ranks a distant fifth among my interests. (I'd rather not reveal the full top five.) On the other hand, I do think comics criticism has the advantage of not requiring as much technical expertise. Maybe I'm wrong there.

(I'll stop by your blog and leave some feedback, Jones.)

Guy, it's good to see you're taking Joe's approach to this blog. I'm still waiting for someone to bring the vitriol, actually. I still disagree, though. It seems to me that ordering pamphlet-style comics is inherently risky because of their inherently short shelf life. Graphic novels, however, are more likely to hold on to their value; some even appreciate in value if they go out of print (which is increasingly common, as I understand it). One risk in ordering GNs which no one seems to mention is the possibility of being stuck with collections of runs which nobody wants to buy. My LCS has a bunch of late 90s TPBs collecting the post-Loeb Pacheco FF run, various X-Men comics, and the like. I bought a few drastically reduced Dreadstar trades when I was at home this summer. But again, that's going to be a problem irrespective of format wars.

Dick Hyacinth said...

This blog is really exposing my love of parenthetical asides.

Greg said...

I don't go into art too much because I don't know enough about it. Simple as that. You can say I know nothing about writing, either, but that's a whole different thing! Yes, it's a failing, but I'm not going to go into what someone's doing with the art when I can't speak intelligently about it. I can speak about the way the plot works and the way the metaphors do and such, so I do.

That's why I include scans of the art when I review something longer than just a regular weekly purchase. I figure I'll let people see the art and make up their own minds, because I certainly can't do it justice.

And I don't do vitriol, even when Joe is attacking me directly. Life's too short, you know?

Joe said...

(No it isn't.)

Joe said...

(Exposing your love of parenthetical asides, that is . . .I don't mean to say life is not too short . . .because it is . . .usually . . .but some moments take too long . . .like this one . . .crap.)

Jones, one of the Jones boys said...

Here's the O'Neil link.

You're right that "mainstream" writing is just as bad and unoriginal as the art.

Guy LeCharles Gonzalez said...

Your easy-to-miss shout out on The Beat that initially led me here.

As for periodicals vs. GNs, it's really a short-term vs. long-term thing, and the direct market is decidedly anti-long-term. If I did ever open a bookstore, I'd focus on GNs over periodicals, working with distributors who accept returns more than with Diamond, but as an independent bookstore as opposed to a specialty comics retailer so that my bottom line wasn't so dependent on Marvel/DC's Diamond exclusive, non-returnable output.

PS: No worries on the criticism, past or future. I came out of the poetry slam world and I work in sales & marketing; I've got pretty thick skin and take it as well as I dish it out. ;-)

Dick Hyacinth said...

I'm shocked I was on Heidi M.'s radar that early. That's also why I hadn't updated--I wasn't sure if anyone was paying attention yet. I'm making a point to update more frequently now that I know people are actually reading this. And I think that description probably needs to change, since this blog has been much less antisocial than I expected.

Back to things of interest to people other than me: From what I understand, you really have to rely on distributors other than Diamond if you want to keep backlist indie trades and GNs in stock. My LCS frequently has to order direct from Fantagraphics, if I understand the proprietor correctly. Didn't Hibbs write somehting about 6 months ago saying that book distrubtors offer numerous advantages over Diamond?

Dick Hyacinth said...

Thanks for the link, Jones--that was a very erudite piece. I still haven't read Fun Home, actually--I'm hoping to pick up a copy soon, but I just haven't gotten around to it yet.

It reminds me of something Dave Eggers wrote about Chris Ware--maybe in the anthology produced to accompany the Masters of American Comics show? Anyway, Eggers claims that Ware's comics would work as prose if all the pictures were removed. Which made me think that Eggers really doesn't understand comics.

I'm still planning on getting over to your blog, BTW. I'll do it now.

Joe said...

I'm not sure if this ground has been covered, but I'd say a lot of bloggers focus on the writing because they're frustrated writers themselves. Take a shot anytime you see someone say, "Now if I were writing this . . ." or "If COMPANY would just let me write CHARACTER," and you'll be on your way to sweet, painless oblivion soon.

Guy LeCharles Gonzalez said...

Diamond's sole "advantage" is the exclusive contracts it holds with several publishers, both for their periodicals and their TPBs, and the deeper discounts they can offer because of non-returnability. If you're primarily a comics shop and aren't in an area that can support an indie-centric model (like, say, Central Pennsylvania), then you're at the mercy of Diamond for the bulk of your inventory. Dealing with other distributors or direct with certain publishers for such a small percentage of your inventory can often be more paperwork than the average small shop owner can handle. If they also sell gaming products, or any other ancillary / complementary products, that's another couple of distributors and publishers to juggle.

That's why if I ever do open a store, it will be some kind of hybrid model to diversify the inherent risk of such specialized retail ventures.

Dick Hyacinth said...

Ooh, good point Joe. This is especially bad on the bottom-rung review sites.

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