Monday, October 6, 2008

Hruska Du

The single thing I found the most compelling in Tom Spurgeon's list of things he would change about comics if he could, from item #16:

We criticize and receive criticism without reactionary defensiveness and accept others' ability to do the same with respect for their doing so rather than as an opportunity to press our agenda that much further.

Actually, I think the last half of the statement could use some clarification in the form of a concrete statement; I think I know what he means, but I'm not sure. But the first half is crucial, and a sentiment that seems to be building among those of us frustrated with the relationship between critics and cartoonists. I've seen too many creators freaking out in public over honest (if not always thoughtful) criticism. I don't know if it's a mentality endemic to comics or to a culture overlapping with comics. Kevin Smith's frequently callow relationship with his critics suggests the latter. (BTW, how funny is it that Smith's Wikipedia page cites the MTV Movie Award for "Dirtiest Mouth" (sponsored by Orbit gum!) among the awards won by Clerks II? Surely this is a joke, right? Or would Wikipedia's gestapo editors purge such levity?)

Even more cutting is this bit from Tucker and Nina Stone's interview with Chris Mautner (this being Tucker speaking):

Watchmen, Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes, Criminal, Carl Barks, Darwyn Cooke, David B, Lynda Barry, Charles Burns, Krazy Kat—those comics, those creators get real serious writing because they earned it, because they did something that’s worth talking about, that’s worth taking seriously. If you’re not getting really brilliant reviews, really incisive, intelligent response—it’s because you don’t deserve it. It’s because you’re a waste of time to the people who might write those reviews. Not because “it’s comics.” It’s because that thing you did was just middle of the road, and you can’t say anything smart about middle of the road. Because you didn’t earn it, and no sour apples begging will get it for you.

Comics readers seem to love the mediocre. I don't think the problem with comics criticism (in a broad, broad, very inclusive sense) isn't that it rewards terrible, bottom-of-the-barrell work; it's that it rewards second-rate work. Any stab at respectability, no matter how modest, is too-often greeted with hosannas. I've seen people laud Kingdom Come because it used foreshadowing--which I'm sure we all remember is an actual, honest-to-god literary technique! I guess that's a step up from those who think crying superheroes holding the charred remains of less-famous superheroes connotes respectability.

Look, there are certainly people out there who don't care about anything other than Wolverine slicing people up (or the 2008 equivalent, shocking events which will change everything you thought you knew about She-Hulk). But this isn't a Manichean struggle between those people and those who actually want some shred of readability or craft in their comics; I'm not lining up with people who think Starman is the greatest comic of all time in a struggle against those who pay exorbitant amounts to see Batman strangle the Joker with his own intestines, provided that it's in continuity. I want to read legitimately good comics; I want to be an advocate for legitimately good comics and nothing else. It's not enough that a comic doesn't cater to a narrow, dying audience. I want comics which are good, which aspire to something grander than "at least it's not as bad as Wolverine: Origins."

In film reviews, a middling review is often worse than a abysmal review. In comics, works desrving of a middling review win major industry awards. Joss Whedon may not insult your intelligence as egregiously as, say, Jeph Loeb, but he doesn't belong in the same company as Harvey Kurtzman. Many people are well aware of this, but it's always good to remind those who don't quite believe you. Especially in an environment where anti-intellectualism isn't just prevalent but normative. Don't believe me? Consider this comment from the Blogorama interview:

He [Tucker Stone] tried to show he was “down” with comics by saying he liked an issue of the Detroit Justice League that found by accident. But he immediately started espousing the glories of Chris Ware and the “Arty” comics that he can find in NYC.

See? What kind of fucked up culture are we in that familiarity with a terrible, terrible superhero comic confers expertise, while modest praise for a book regarded as instrumental in establishing a bridge to the literary world is evidence that one is out of touch and unqualified to judge the value of an issue of Nightwing? Christ, this idiot seems to imply that Acme Novelty Library isn't even a REAL comic! This is an absolutely outrageous statement, but it's sadly not unique.

We can't say or do enough to eliminate comics' love affair with the mediocre. It's so obvious. Don't make me allude to a certain national political figure here.


Hugh Stewart said...

Oh man, I couldn't agree more. I'm a pulsing mess of agreement right now.

That comment on the Tucker & Nina Stone interview just drove me crazy, but I didn't really feel like getting into an interfight with some guy and his KFC Famous Bowl.

Alan David Doane said...

Great post, Dick. Thanks for actually thinking about this stuff.

Alicia said...

People losing their shit over reviews is not unique to comics criticism, in my experience. I've had PR types try to have my job over video game reviews that amounted to "This is a fine concept but it is poorly executed."

Every medium's majority audience has a love affair with the mediocre. That's basically normative. The problem with comics (as I see it) is that the reading community is so small, there's really no way for a serious critical community to entirely separate itself from the less-demanding mainstream community that demands little more than basic coherence.

Film and novels, as more saturated media, have fewer problems with this sort of thing. Nobody expects the same sort of people to recommend Harry Potter and Umberto Eco, but the comics equivalent of this happens frequently enough to be jarring to me.

Matthew J. Brady said...

I dunno, I would say that the love affair with mediocrity extends across all mediums. Dean Koontz and Tom Clancy are pretty popular, and Date Movie or whatever romantic movie starring Richard Gere always end up at the top of the box office. Maybe it just seems more noticeable in comics, since the community is small enough and vocal in online circles. You kind of have to make an effort to avoid it if you want to stick to the more serious discussion. Of course, I'm not saying you should stop calling out the obnoxious members of the mediocrity-trumpeters, but I don't think it's anything that's going to change anytime soon. Myself, I try to write about what I like, and be as objectively critical as possible. So maybe that's something, but trying to convince people that the stuff they like actually sucks will probably only piss them off.

Or maybe I agree with Laura Hudson and Greg Burgas; I've outgrown the damn superhero comics, and those losers can have them. I've got plenty to keep my interest outside of that ever-dwindling genre.

Matthew J. Brady said...

Jeez, I've been kind of a dick (no relation) lately, haven't I? For other examples, see this comments thread, in which I called people who like All Star Batman 'babymen'. That'll win me friends!

Todd C. Murry said...

As always, I agree with what you are saying top to bottom, but I got distracted thinking about the following:

“Look, there are certainly people out there who don't care about anything other than Wolverine slicing people up (or the 2008 equivalent, shocking events which will change everything you thought you knew about She-Hulk)… I want to read legitimately good comics; I want to be an advocate for legitimately good comics and nothing else. It's not enough that a comic doesn't cater to a narrow, dying audience. I want comics which are good, which aspire to something grander than "at least it's not as bad as Wolverine: Origins."”

Which, great, but I’m interested in the way there has been very little analysis in what’s going on in those “shocking events which will change everything” comics beyond either Newsarama commenter types saying xyz was the most awesome thing ever or our crowd dismissing them out of hand. I am still, on some level, able to see, if not fully feel, the way Marvel has been able to use the big events to tell oddly hypertextual narratives (DC is maybe trying the same thing, but is failing) that are simply different in kind than the more conventional narrative stuff we are deriving our value criteria from.

I think Marvel is also handling these EARTH SHATTERING EVENTS in a way that invites a kind of pseudo-interactive excitement. The books themselves are not so much story as little Lego blocks of main ideas that have been well executed conceptually (even though, as story, many of the blocks are poorly executed). It’s like D&D when I was eight… you’d buy a module because of all the cool stuff in it and to imagine playing it, and talking with your friends about how exciting this or that design or trap was, more than actually playing it, which often we never got around to. In fact, I think you could enjoy Secret Invasion quite a bit without reading any of it (maybe more than if you did).

What I’m hypothesizing here is a kind of narrative that lives at the messageboard level, which is a great idea in the current product-living-through-its-marketing environment. Its like you stand the very idea of viral marketing on its head… they meant for the Blair Witch Project movie to be enhanced by it’s website popularizing the idea of the “reality,” but in the case of these Marvel projects, the product, as much as they’d like it to stand on its own, is often inferior to (or made an afterthought by) the discourse that they’ve encouraged around it. This is editorial as performance art. I’m just saying maybe this isn’t wrong, but deserves to be judged by another standard that takes these context related values into account.

So, the measure of the “quality” of these “events” may be how much the target audience members pee themselves upon getting a little whiff of info that they won’t remember next May. I can understand and appreciate this, though, and I think it is quite an accomplishment for Marvel to be able to push the audience’s buttons in such an active way. The only thing I don’t like is that these things, since they don’t provide a ready creative outlet for the audience other than the comment sections of blog posts, might acclimate numbers of reasonably intelligent kids to satisfy mental itches in a passive/non-productive, consumer stimulus way. Wait, I forgot… thanks to computers in general, and the internet in specific, that ship has sailed.

Note: I'm to old and fixed in conventional narrative values to think this way. It would take some intelligent youngster, weened completely on the compu-tit to posit such a new-value system.

Dick Hyacinth said...

Those books don't sell well enough for me to worry too much about ruining an entire generation's ability to appreciate anything other than itch-scratching.

I think it's kind of interesting to think about the different approaches Marvel and DC have had to this summer's events, and the reflection in the type of criticism we've seen. Final Crisis has attracted traditional, serious-minded reviews from people like Jog, Sean Collins, and Douglas Wolk. The most prominent critic of Secret Invasion has been Abhay Khosla, who approaches the comic in a serious, yet highly idiosyncratic way. I think this is the only successful way to write about the story, for the reasons you mentioned. Have you ever tried to read an issue? I have no idea how one would write a traditional review of that comic. It's like trying to review a mail order catalogue for gas mask fetishists. I mean, the only way to approach it is to review the culture surrounding it, like Abhay did in that review mentioning the San Diego panel.

But yeah, sales figures might support the idea that people want something other than a reading experience from a comic. Final Crisis isn't an entry-level comic, but it at least resembles a traditional narrative. Secret Invasion isn't, and it's outselling its counterpart by about 50%.

Anonymous said...

At the risk of committing the greatest sin one can say in art: The reason comics, and other mediums, reward the mediocre is because the audience are largely mediocre themselves.

Matthew J. Brady said...

Time for more dickishness (dicketry?): so the primary benefit of superhero comics these days is in the Pavlovian sense of salivating when a new issue comes out? Push the button, get a tiny reward? I say: FUCK THAT NOISE. Sure, maybe it's interesting as a sociological phenomenon, but I certainly have lost any interest in being a participant. That's for the babymen (apparently I've come to love using that term). Give me something of substance, or at least something I can enjoy beyond the level of arguing online about whether its okay to kill green aliens.

Todd C. Murry said...

I'm not really saying that, Matt, although my reference to peeing oneself as an objective standard may have implied it. I'm simply positing that the "story" of these events isn't really going on in the books, which only exist in the process as anchor points or brick like building units (story nodes), but in the minds of people "playing" the event (more like a game than a conventional narrative).

I'm a Lost fan, and I've got to tell you that much of the fun of it is participating in a large scale discourse about the thing. There are two differences between this and superhero events, though: 1.) Lost is designed to work as a primary work of art in itself apart from the "happening" (something that Marvel and DC aren't doing to well at)and 2.) the fans talking about it (as well as the subject matter) are, by and large, smarter and better educated (note this doesn't imply comic fans are dumber than TV fans, but simply fans interested in talking about Lost are smarter than those interested in how shocking events will shake up the New Warriors status quo - smart comic fans are mostly occupied elsewhere).

The D&D module is the key example... as a primary narrative, the modules suck. They read like outlines of how to navigate the "story" and imply the narrative. Secret Invasion is really "written" at the editing conference level, and the parts are executed (to varying degrees of success - Black Panther and Hercules have been pretty good, many parts have sucked), but the point is not reading them, but being involved in an evolving process as data arises about what has "happened," which doesn't require reading any of the books at all.

This is made possible by the fanbase who are 1.) well versed enough in the characters, institutions and settings to understand the implication of specific events or information; and 2.) are used to the Lost-like illusion of participation in the narrative (comic fans probably invented this- well maybe Stan Lee did it for them).

My point is that the end product (the books) are sort of beside the point, and the success or failure of the endeavor should probably be judged in more conceptual terms which would likely require more the language of gaming criticism than comics criticism. If you don't want anything to do with this shit, join the club. I've stated this stuff is not aimed at my audience, but I'm pushing 40, and I think I would have responded to elements of this really well at age 11.

This also indicates a real command on Marvel's part of its universe as a global storytelling setting (maybe the first time this has ever happened in a comic universe). It's just that the "command" and ingenuity exists in those editorial retreats, and the results are hard to measure in our conventional value terms. This isn't cartooning or sequential art and those of us who are interested in that stuff maybe need to look elsewhere.

Dick Hyacinth said...

You should write all this up on your blog, Todd. More people should hear these ideas.

MarkAndrew said...

Yeah. Jesus, Todd, that was pretty brilliant.

Matthew J. Brady said...

That's definitely an interesting point, Todd, so don't let my obnoxiousness dissuade you from elaborating. It makes me think of how I got into the X-Files (or X-Men comics, for that matter) when I was in high school; I would obsess over the various details of the mythology, and while I didn't really join an online discussion, I did talk about it with friends. But eventually, I lost interest, and it seemed for good reason, since the show kind of fizzled out lamely (X-Men comics will probably never stop fizzling though). It seems like RPGs, or maybe video games, would be a better use for that sort of shared experience, since the users actually get to have some hand in the development of the narrative, rather than the illusion thereof before some guy in a boardroom fucks it all up.

Gene Phillips said...

I've posted some responses to this thread here: