Robot 6

Critiques, criticism, reviews and jokes: Why do you talk about comics?

Everyone's one

Last week we talked about credentials and whether or not that affects how we value criticism. And in the comments to that post, a lot of folks began to segue into what I want to talk about today: the reasons people participate in criticism. That’s great and actually, it started in the comments section to that first post. I maybe should’ve started this series of observations with today’s post, because it’s so fundamental to the discussion, but I guess I wanted to save the best for last. As some of those comments reveal, we don’t all have the same assumptions for why people talk about comics.

Tom Spurgeon wrote about it that “I used to participate in these frequent discussions on the role of a comics critic, but at some point I just started thinking that writing about comics is pretty much the same about any other writing. I would imagine that applies to writing about writing about comics, too.” I don’t want to put words in his mouth, so I’ll just say that what that suggests to me is that writing about comics (or anything else) is an art form all its own. I know there are those who disagree, but they’re wrong. It probably won’t be that hard to argue that criticism is a lesser art than creating a story, but there’s still art to it. It’s still a medium for expressing yourself. There are those who do it very well and those who do it very poorly and a great number of people somewhere in between who are continually trying to improve.

Since criticism is an art form, in defining good criticism it’s helpful to think about it in terms similar to the way we think about other art. Authorial intent, for instance. In order to judge whether or not a piece of criticism works, it’s not only useful, but vital to know why someone is talking about comics in the first place. I’ve thought of four reasons, but there could be others. And certainly, individuals not only bounce between these groups depending on their audience or mood; they may also have two or more of these motivations going at once. Knowing that is helpful too.

Everyone's one of these, too.

Sometimes, the goal is simply to entertain an audience, using comics as subject matter for what’s essentially a comedy routine. That’s perfectly valid, and there’s a steady increase in paid writing-about-comics that’s created for that purpose. I’m not suggesting that “serious” comics criticism shouldn’t also be entertaining; just that when entertainment is the primary motivation, the conversation has a different goal from discussing what makes a comic good.

But even those who seek to participate in the larger, cultural discussion about comics have different reasons for doing so. There seem to be three motivations for talking about whether or not a comic worked. The first is interested in informing consumers. These are the Reviewers and the primary statement they’re making is either “You should buy this” or “No, you really shouldn’t.”

Someone commented on that first post with the suggestion that the only group the critic owes anything to is her audience. I didn’t argue the point because I didn’t know exactly where the commenter was coming from and in one sense, that’s an absolutely true statement. Anyone who writes down thoughts for people to read – or opens his mouth to voice a judgment – owes his readers or listeners a thoughtful opinion. But that’s the only universal thing that people who talk about comics owe their audiences. Only the Reviewer feels she owes more than that: a recommendation.

Atomic Robo

There’s a second group that feels it’s serving creators by offering critiques on their work. There were quite a few comments supporting this idea, including one by Atomic Robo’s Scott Wegener who expressed an interest in reading thoughtful reviews of his work. It takes a thick skin to do that, but I know several creators who feel the same way and go looking for criticism that will help them improve their craft. Approaching a piece of criticism from that point of view is just as valid as offering a reading recommendation, but it’s a different purpose and identifying it as such will help focus the discussion as well as affect its tone. If I’m supposedly talking to the creator of a book, I should communicate much differently than if I’m telling someone whether or not he should buy it.

The last motivation for talking about comics has to do with curating what’s going into our cultural canon. In other words, what’s good enough to stand the test of time? What are we going to look back at in ten or more years and say, “Yes, that’s a great comic?” As much as I like sharing recommendations and talking to creators about craft, this is my favorite. It’s the one that I feel most elevates comics because it takes the personalities out of the equation and just looks at the comic itself.

I understand the possible concern that looking at it this way might lead to more brutal reviews. I agree that it’s unnecessary to be a dick about expressing criticism, but I’m going to argue that by removing personalities from the process, critics are less likely to get nasty; not more. After all, getting nasty in a review is just another way of saying, “making it personal,” and the point of good, work-focused criticism is to not do that. Reader recommendations and creator critiques make the creative process about either the reader or the creator. They make it personal by definition.

But saying that my own preference is for work-focused criticism isn’t to say that universally it’s the best approach. Entertainment, recommendations, and critiques are all valuable and necessary. My point is that knowing why you’re talking about comics (ie what you hope to get out of the conversation) will help focus your discussion and direct you to people with a similar interest. That’s good for everyone.

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Comments

28 Comments

Critics an art form?
That is laughable. Actually it is the opposite.

A good review can be witty, stylish and helpful as far as lighting the way to works of interest.
But it will always be a comment on ‘art’ (I dont like the term, but oh well) and thus stands detrimental to the process of creation and creativity.

Writting reviews is vocalizing your opinion after you’re done consuming. That’s it.

Criticism can be an art form. I think we can consider Henry Fielding’s ‘Shamela’ a piece of criticism about ‘Pamela’ through parody. Criticism is not just about art either, its basically just an opinion on anything based on intellectual thought hence why Orwell’s critique of poverty or Swift’s ‘A Modest Proposal’ is considered art. ‘Criticism’ does not just take one form about one subject.

In comics we get a lot of varied types of criticism. Not just written. Also, from a lot of different types of audience. Casstoons for example is a webcomic that critiques modern developments in DC comics humourously. Would that be different from Swift?

If writing about comics is a art then the bar to get into that art school is incredibly low.

“Casstoons for example is a webcomic that critiques modern developments in DC comics humourously. Would that be different from Swift?”

Yes, because Swift is good, intelligent, and talks about stuff that actually matters. Casstoons is sequential fanwank. I guess that counts as criticism, but not the sort that matters.

Me, I think criticism is more of a genre than an art form in and of itself; not a means of expression so much as a thing to be expressed. Art forms are things like prose, poetry, music, and film: what the art is made of. Genres are what the art is about.

An art form needs it’s critics almost as much as its art. Your medium is only as good as your worst mainstream critics I think. Because those are the people who are driving the perception of the medium and shaping the discussion.

I wrote an article after your first piece, though I focused more on the false divide between art and entertainment and why we need criticism. http://nerdiest-kids.com/art-you-not-entertained/

Looking at your new article, I figure that people need art and entertainment reviewed due to the massive amount of media we are asked to consume. It is a good thing we have people that want to inform others what is subjectively good and bad.

But there is no excuse for vitriol, and that is not a personality (though many have used it successfully as such) and there should be a decorum on criterion . We cannot have critics that bash things for the hits to their sites, no praise what the crowd praises for the same reason. We need an objective critic who can view things through his subjective lens and try and create an objective piece infused with flavor (that is the personality many refer to).

…criticism is more of a genre than an art form…Art forms are things like prose, poetry, music, and film: what the art is made of. Genres are what the art is about..

I totally buy this. Thanks for making that distinction.

reviews aren’t criticism you guys

Well, Matt, I’d contend that reviews are a subset of criticism. Like the bedroom is a subset of the house. They’re certainly not synonymns.

I’m really enjoying these articles, Michael. I do a bit of comics blogging and as you asked, I produce reviews because it’s fun to write about something that entertains me; I enjoy the exercise of organising my thoughts. It extends the entertainment of the comic, makes them better value. I don’t claim to be an Upper Case Critic, I’m simply an ordinary fan offering hit-and-run thoughts.

Certainly, if I feel something is especially bad, judged on its own terms, I’ll try to lay out why that is rather than simply condemn. I don’t fool myself that creators are waiting for my wisdom but if any are reading, perhaps they’ll at least have a wee ponder as to whether I have a point. Conversely, if I think something is great and deserves a bigger audience, I’ll try to persuade people to give it a try.

And I feel privileged that folk pop by for a read. The icing on the cake is getting comments back from other readers, hearing what they think, laughing and learning from them. As an old fella raised on fanzines and lettercols, I love the back and forth.

This begs another head-scratcher of a question:

Who critiques the critics????

@Michael P:
“…criticism is more of a genre than an art form…Art forms are things like prose, poetry, music, and film: what the art is made of. Genres are what the art is about..”
Criticism IS prose.
prose   [prohz] Show IPA noun, adjective, verb, prosed, pros·ing.
noun
1.
the ordinary form of spoken or written language, without metrical structure, as distinguished from poetry or verse.
2.
matter-of-fact, commonplace, or dull expression, quality, discourse, etc.
Prose can be a short story, a novel, a journal entry, a text message, a blog post, a news article, and even a piece of literary criticism.

@Acer:
Other critics. More than half of the critical analysis I read during my time as an English Major were in response to other critics’ pieces.

Criticism begins when one text communicates with another. And the term “text” in that statement does not strictly refer to prose, but also includes speech, film, comics and other forms an argument can take.

Nabokov’s PALE FIRE is criticism. Kaufman’s ADAPTATION is critcism. WATCHMEN, for that matter, is criticism. They’re more than criticism and they’re other, different forms of criticism than film reviews or round-table discussions or monographs, etc., certainly, but they’re criticism nonetheless.

We’re living in a world of texts. As soon as those texts enter a dialogue, you get criticism.

@Marc-Oliver Frisch
And this all goes back to the very source of criticism:

As evidenced in the caveman sequence of History of the World Part One, when the first artist came about, so too did the first critic emerge–http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W_v_ubcYsTI.

Indeed. Unfortunately, criticism has rarely displayed this sense of poignancy and focus on its subject since.

Something to aspire to.

Watchmen is fiction. Not criticism.

Watchmen is fiction. Not criticism.

It’s both. All great art is criticism. Criticism of life, of culture, of other art, but they’re still criticism.

Watchmen is a deconstruction of superhero comics. Deconstruction is a school of criticism. Therefore Watchmen is a criticism of superhero comics.

*sigh*

my thoughtful review/critique of Atomic Robo – ” *ahem* I love Atomic Robo because it’s fantastic”. Thankyew.

Heh. No. I think reviews and critiques do serve a vital need for both the consumer AND the creator. I’ve been writing music reviews now for a few years and i think of it more as a service than anything else – I’m explaining to the consumer what to expect from a product, giving them a ballpark comparison and basically advising them on whether or not they ought to be spending their hard-earned cash on the thing in question, and for the creator, I’m giving them a consumers-eye-view of their product and an outside perspective.

The important thing to remember about a review is that it should service the CONSUMER above all else, as they’re the one ponying up the dough, right kids?

mckraken’s initial response summed up anything I was gonna write… so, yeah, I’ll just second that.

This is an important discussion. Moreover, I’d add that criticism (in all of these forms) is particularly important if we’re going to keep comics going at all. If a comic is published and nobody writes or talks about it, does it make a sound?

Good criticism skips over the question of, “Is this good or is this bad?” and goes straight to, “What are the qualities that make this work worthwhile, how do those qualities function in the medium of the work, and how do those qualities in that medium fit into the context of art, civilization, humanity, and the history of all things that led up to its creation and everything that came after?”

If all a critic is asking is if it’s good or bad, worth buying or not, then they’re playing in the shallow end of the pool.

i totally agree with the first comment of “mckraken”:

“Critics an art form?
That is laughable.
[..]
Writting reviews is vocalizing your opinion after you’re done consuming. That’s it.”

Also, from the article itself:

“..writing about comics (or anything else) is an art form all its own. I know there are those who disagree, but they’re wrong..”

well, i don’t want to sound like some internet troll, but

!!EPIC FAIL!!

this is just the author’s opinion. and just saying something doesn’t make it true. i mean, i’m sure that criticism has it’s positive sides, but calling it a type of art is just.. ridiculous.

Here’s what I know: if criticism didn’t matter, or wasn’t taken seriously as an art form, then I wouldn’t be reading critical essays on movies from twenty-five years ago printed in the booklet that came with my Videodrome blu ray from Criterion. I’d be reading an intro by the director, or general information about the movie.

McKracken, stop being so small minded, thanks!

I mean, what I was trying to say is that your antipathy toward the very idea of criticism betrays a mentality that can only be described as “fear.” Fear of what? Any number of things, but mostly of having your worldview challened. You’ll be alright, critical thought isn’t going to harm your world view, it will either strengthen it, or open you to one that you may not have known you’d prefer!

Thinking is fun.

Betrayed, indeed.

I wrote reviews for five years. (not comics)
And no, I didn’t turn into an ‘arteest’.

Then maybe you were doing it wrong.

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