Tuesday, October 7, 2008

I'm probably opening myself up to charges of elitism here, but let's face it: those charges were coming anyway

Just to clear up a few misconceptions about what I wrote yesterday:

-Anyone who took it to be another "buy what you like" rant greatly misunderstood me. I hate those rants, because they aim so, so low. I don't believe in reminding people not to waste money on comics they don't like. It's a problem, I'm sure, but who wants to try to reason with the people who suffer from it? It's just too depressing to contemplate.

-It was mostly aimed at people who write about comics, regardless of ambition or venue. Anyone who attempts to write a review of a comic amounting to more than a couple of lines complaining about continuity or giddily anticipating the return of a character (or a version of a character) previously thought to be rendered out-of-continuity. If you can't get past the idea that someone might not like your favorite superhero comics, this conversation isn't for you.

-Okay, I'll throw you folks a bone. Too many of you shut off part of your brain whenever you read anything which suggests that mediocrity/putridity dominates the comics industry. (And really, it's a little unseemly that so many of you immediately lapse into "but Mom, comics are serious!" mode whenever anyone questions the quality of popular comics.) This isn't "superhero hating snobs vs. regular folks." That's stupid. Anyone who reads Tucker's interview and comes away with that impression....

-But anyway, I was trying to aim a little higher than the Wednesday crowd, as Dirk Deppey calls them. Specifically, I meant the people who are aware of comics beyond the Image/Dark Horse/IDW level of ground-level indies, yet who continually reward mediocre comics with excessive praise. Which is not to say that these people aren't entitled to their own opinion--it's just that their opinion is, uh, questionable. And I think it's time we actually started questioning the value of these reviews.

-Look, it will all seem a lot clearer in a couple of months, when we start seeing best of 2008 lists with mediocrities sitting alongside genuinely worthwhile material. That's what really infuriates me--a list with Exit Wounds, Shortcomings, Aya, Y the Last Man, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. You're obviously exposed to the good stuff--why fill out the list with middling junk? (Part of this is an issue of mainstream press writers only including books they receive as comps; those lists drove me crazy.) I'm considering including a special sub-list only including trusted/legitimate critics, but I don't want to be the one who has to pick them out. Maybe I'll poll some of the critics I respect to get a sense of whose lists should be included on such a list. Please note: this won't replace the regular meta-list, which I would certainly still consider the definitive word on which comics were the best-reviewed in 2008.

-And I guess that's as good an opening as any to remind everyone that it's getting to be meta-list season. If you're one of those people who likes to make these lists way, way too early, please send me a link so that I can include it in the final tally.


Anonymous said...

"Specifically, I meant the people who are aware of comics beyond the Image/Dark Horse/IDW level of ground-level indies, yet who continually reward mediocre comics with excessive praise."

It might help if you name some examples, both of the mediocre comics that you think are getting too much praise and the critics who are praising them at the expense of material you deem praise worthy.

Dick Hyacinth said...

It might also help if you left a name. But for now, consider the meta-list for 2007 and my reactions to it here and here. There are specific bloggers I'm thinking about, but they're the types who start (and relish starting) BLOG WARS whenever criticized. I'll call them out the next time I see a really egregious example of what I'm talking about, although at least one of them seems to only discuss actual contemporary comics about twice a year.

Marc said...

Good, thought-provoking posts, Dick. As usual.

I think the bottom line is that superhero comics and alternative/indie comics have become fundamentally different in the last decade or so. They're not even comparable anymore.

I've been reading a ton of old Comics Journals lately and this was an argument that was popular in the 80s and 90s, as the alternative comics scene was just gaining momentum. There was always this tension for indie artists to distinguish themselves against what Marvel and DC were doing.

But now we've come a long way. There are enough indie comics that you don't even have to read superhero comics at all. Or you can do what most serious fans do, and just cherry-pick the best superhero books, while focusing on the indie stuff. Trust me, when a truly exceptional superhero comic breaks through, the word will spread quickly.

The bottom line is that there are good superhero comics and good indie comics, but what makes them good is entirely different. I mean, a good superhero book (like Grant Morrison's Animal Man, which I hope we can all agree is good) is still constrained by all kinds of editorial and continuity issues.

The danger, which I think you're talking about, is when certain critics compare an average indie comic and write an excessively positive review based on the idea that it's better than most superhero comics. This is a false dichotomy. The real question is was it a successwork work or not on its own merits. Or, if comparisons are necessary, then it should be compared to the best indie comics - i.e. Chris Ware's or Dan Clowes' or Osamu Tezuka's or the Hernandez Brothers'.

I also think the blogosphere's self-proclaimed critics, at least the ones who want to be taken seriously, should make efforts to educate themselves in the history of the medium. Personally, I'd recommend getting your hands on a copy of The Comics Journal #210, which ranks the editors' concensus picks for the Top 100 Comics of the Century, in a similar fashion to your own meta-list. If you haven't read at least a quarter of these works, you're really not a true critic. You're just someone with an opinion and a blog. It's word of mouth criticism, like the guy next door who goes to see a movie and tells you his opinion. You take it for what it's worth, which is very little, when compared to, say, Roger Ebert's opinion.

Derik Badman, who I think is among the best comics critics on the web, recently had a great WH Auden quote on the function of critics on his blog, which I try to keep in mind:

"What is the function of a critic?

So far as I am concerned, he can do me one or more of the following services:

1. Introduce me to authors or works of which I was hitherto unaware.

2. Convince me that I have undervalued an author or a work because I had not read them carefully enough.

3. Show me relations between works of different ages and cultures which I could never have seen for myself because I do not know enough and never shall.

4. Give a “reading” of a work which increases my understanding of it.

5. Throw light upon the process of artistic “making.”

6. Throw light upon the relation of art to life, to science, economics, ethics, religion, etc."

Sorry to ramble on, but obviously I take my role as a critic seriously, or at least I try to.

Tucker Stone said...

It bugs me that the Comics Journal list is so easily accessible--both on Wikipedia and on their site--but that the issue itself, which I think is far more illuminating then the raw list itself, remains a "go and find it" object. Out of everything Fantagraphics is willing to reprint, why can't they do the same for one of their own?

Dick Hyacinth said...

These are excellent points, Marc. I totally believe that critics should try to expose themselves to as wide a range of highly-regarded material as possible. The TCJ list is a good start, but it only includes English-language work, plus it's about a decade outdated. There's enough translated manga alone to warrant some kind of update. That might be an interesting project for 2009: a poll of different critics to see what books/strips/whatever they consider essential reading.

I should also point out that there's nothing wrong with enjoying work that isn't the very, very best work. I like what Sean Collins said a few weeks ago about the relative value of comics. I enjoy Daredevil quite a bit, but I'm not about to confuse it with Disappearance Diary.

The Fortress Keeper said...

Anti-Buffy elitist.

Actually, I liked what Greg Hatcher said about super-hero comics: they're the literary equivalent of comfort food. Doesn't mean they're not enjoyable, sometimes transcendently so, but it all boils down to somebody punching somebody else in the face.

Matthew J. Brady said...

Oh, snap, a critics' list of critics' lists! Now we're getting meta! I would be afraid to participate in that one, since I feel like I have a little group of writers that I follow, but I'm sure I miss out on a lot of good criticism, and I wouldn't want to exclude anybody. Also, there are some people who I think are good writers who do tend to stick to the mainstream superhero stuff; should they be discounted because they might not be aware of the more indie works? I guess that's something to think about in case Dick ever asks me.

That's assuming he actually respects me enough to ask my opinion, which is a long shot anyway.

That wasn't me fishing for compliments, by the way, that was just self-deprecation.

Damn, I sound more pathetic with each sentence, don't I?

kenny said...

I think you hit on a great point in your comment, Dick. It's ok to enjoy mediocre work if there's something about it that speaks to whatever turns you on. Like, I enjoy Mark Millar comics. I think I'd sound like a fool if I were to compare Kick Ass to , I dunno, Watchmen, but it doesn't mean I can't enjoy both. A lot of people just get upset because they can't keep straight that just because you enjoy something doesn't mean it has merit.

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