Special Beat Investigation: Comics Critics Crisis!!!

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This is going to be one of those posts that some people hate where I link to things and comments on them and post on them. So sorry. It’s also meta as hell so it gets an official Hot Beverage Rating.

A few months ago there was a Kerfuffle over a comics which some indie comics enthusiasts thought was artistically exciting, while others couldn’t see that for all the racism in these comics. I wrote about it at the time, and wondered if indie comics—so lively and lovely—were actually being given a larger social context.

The most energizing thing about comics these days is you don’t have to be in any school. Each and every gem of a comic seems to exist in its own, infinite, contextless universe. This is also a product of the extreme hybridization of all forms as well. The “international style” of comics that is gaining ground in the actual mainstream (libraries and books) is one that draws equally from America, European and Manga influences, and the internet insists we mash everything up all at once all the time. Context seems to have less and less inherent value against this backdrop where immediate emotional resonance is the currency. Perhaps it’s this very quality that makes comics one of the most vibrant and relatable mediums of the day.


This prompted the gang over at The Hooded Utilitarian to unite last month for an Indie Comics vs. Context Death Match roundtable. Now, like many people, I have a complicated relationship with The Hooded Utilitarian, a loose confederation of comics commentators; many of the contributors are clearly smart people and good writers, but perhaps because it is a loose confederation much of the writing is highly self-indulgent. As I wrote in the comments on one post,
You guys remind me of a bunch of rich kids at a summer camp who decide one of the counselors is a killer and form a “Super Excellent Detective Club” and spend the summer livening things up by finding clues and snooping around. Except the counselor is the comics medium.
The results of the Death Match were perhaps not what might have been expected: Johnny Ryan is subversive, Hipster Hitler uses historic tropes for humor, Matt Groening used to be funnier, and you can use Google Trends to embarrass anyone. The work of cartoonist Jennifer Cruté was favorably analyzed under the rather inhospitable title “Race and the Risks of ‘Kiddie Garbage’ Cartooning.” A fellow named Owen A wrote about New Small Press Comics In Context which had some interesting artistic analysis, but also concluded of Roman Muradov that

The book has nothing at stake but its own circular insecurities.  Its most beautiful moments are expressions of the sheer emptiness of its content, but, tragically, they are undermined by its alternation between simpering self-consciousness and self-satisfied intellectualism.


which prompted Study Group founder Zack Soto to comment:

Jesus this article is some lazy garbage.


…which kind of sums up the “Indie Comics Establishment” view of THU in general.

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Now after all of this, I regrettably found myself adrift trying to grab hold of Where We Are and What It Means in this golden age of comics. While still trying to make sense of it all, along came the galvanizing Santoro-Collins dialog which seemed to echo the need for valuable criticism and more esthetic context like that once provided by The Comics Journal, Destroy All Comics or Comics Comics, in a world where even having a conversation is a chore (see below.) Santoro wrote:

So the people that do it hardcore – like Rob Clough – do it out of love for the medium. Which is awesome. However the small subculture of engaged comics reviewers is getting older, myself included. I really hope that members of the younger generation will start writing about each other. I’m seeing some hints of it here and there, but not many organized voices. So much of comics culture is death-dealing to makers in their early twenties. The “pap pap” demographic of comics is so insular – which is fine – but out on the circuit younger makers are telling me that they never read this site, or any websites related to comics at all. There’s really not much for them in most comics sites that reflects their tastes or their concerns.


Inherent in all of this is the chaotic explosion of comics all around us, at a higher level of artistic craft than we ever expected to see. Look through a pile of Ignatz nominees, or walk around a Comic Arts Brooklyn and there is a thrilling riot of color and style and format. But there’s also the deep down nagging insecurity that wonders “Is this really any good?” or is it just “beautiful moments [that] are expressions of the sheer emptiness of its content”?

There is definitely a lot of cool noodling for the sake of cool noodling these days. The cool noodling is validated by the idea that Gary Panter and Fort Thunder did it so it must be okay. It reminds me a lot of the early days of newspaper strips…a riot of amazingly beautiful pages that are almost impossible to read. But do you need to read any of it? I’m okay with beautiful pictures for the sake of beautiful pictures in any era. But are we raising a generation of punk Alex Toths?

The conversation got a little bit real with the matter of Michael DeForge, definitely one of the most lauded and admired cartoonists of the current generation. In the original THU conversation, DeForge got batted around a little because it turned out no one was really familiar with his work. In stepped bold and fearless Ng Suat Tong, with a piece called “Why Michael DeForge is the greatest cartoonist of his generation: The Critics Explain”. Ng is known as one of the most caustic comics critics out there — like Mikey, he hates just about everything, and in this case he quoted critic after critic calling DeForge’s work creepy while concluding that he didn’t find it that creepy. While many DeForge lovers leapt up in alarm over the review, in order to be the best at anything, you need to survive challenges. I thought Ng’s piece was a valuable look at DeForge’s work — even from a negative viewpoint, it enhanced the dialog and added to the framework.

As if we even need a framework. Also inherent in all this is an anxiety among those of us schooled in The Canon that these darned kids with their tumblrs don’t even care about Binky Brown, let alone Ghost World. I enjoy DeForge’s work as a creepy surreal visit to an unfettered imagination, but it doesn’t satisfy me as much as a complex narrative like “The Death of Speedy” or Black Hole, or even keenly felt and resonant memoirs like Today is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life or (hell, I’ll say it) Maus. That is my personal taste, but it’s also the general trend of history where more people read and enjoy Huckleberry Finn than The Sound and the Fury. Folks like a good yarn, that’s plain.

Tumblr is the antithesis of a yarn, unless it’s twenty different colors tangled together into one giant ball of yarn. The other weak point in all of the current era’s excitement is that it’s mostly all praise. Most people (myself included) just go around “liking” and “sharing” things, the very activities that social media most encourage. Ng touched on this again, in a response to Santoro/Collins:Comics Criticism: Even comics critics don’t care about it

Some questions should spring to mind immediately upon reading this. Why is it of special concern, for example, that younger makers of comics are not reading TCJ.com or any website related to comics at all? Are they representative of the alternative comics readership as a whole? Or are they simply the kind of people Santoro would prefer read TCJ.com and comics criticism? Comics has a long history of cartoonists not engaging with criticism and critics at all; they for obvious reasons preferring the company and conversation of their “own kind.” No doubt long time comic aficionados will begin pointing to the classic comic histories or the critical works of Seth, Chris Ware, Scott McCloud, Art Spiegelman et al. It should be pointed out, however, that the very idea of a negative critique is anathema to this school of criticism (unless it is directed at blind intransigent critics). It is adulation and evangelism which is required. Such is the rarity of this engagement that one might say that the arrival of a celebrated cartoonist into the unhallowed halls of comics criticism is, more often than not, greeted with a joyousness befitting the arrival of the Queen of Sheba (the royal metaphor here being no accident of choice).


This led Caroline Small to call for more actual cartoonists to practice criticism:

Having spent a great deal of time lately thinking about critical theory and art practice in the company of some marvelous, critically minded practitioners (and not thinking at all about comics), I second Suat’s suggestion that at least one reason comics criticism is in this condition is because so few cartoonists practice criticism. And by “practice”, I mean read and write not journalism, not the “theory of craft” (as Frank Santoro does so brilliantly and charmingly), but classical “criticism” – argumentative/philosophical/descriptive essays, about art in general, both inside and outside their area of specialization. In fields where there is a strong critical culture, there is typically also a significant population of working artists who consider critical conversations about art, with other artists and critics, in their own and other fields, to be an essential part of their creative practice. Something they do for themselves, because it makes their art richer and better.


BTW, if you are a total masochist or are stuck in an airport with a wifi connections, there are tons of comments on just about every post I just linked to. The Hooded Utilitarian has its own boosterish clique of commenters that tends to drown out useful dialog, but most of the usual suspects are heard from everywhere.

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So here we are, in a golden age of comics without any Brahmins to tell us who we should invite to dinner and who we need to shun. And yet, despite the dispiriting lack of context AND useful criticism, people do slip through. Earlier this year Sam Alden got elevated to “Comics It Boy” just because people kept reading his stuff and liking it. (I believe my own piece was one of the first longer examinations of his work, she said patting herself on the back.) Simon Hanselmann is another example of someone who has built up a following via a long, complex narrative that resonates on many levels using simple cartooning tools that go back to Maggie and Jiggs. (The Beat’s own Jessica Lee has been a huge supporter of his work, she said handing out another back pat.) I’ve yet to really jump into his work but its promise is immediately evident. In the liking and sharing world, having many people like and share your work is the ultimate praise.

This democratic process leaves many would-be arbiters of taste on the sidelines, though. And a little bit of dialog would be welcome to sniff out the next Alden or Hanselmann before everyone else figures it out.

And that brings us up to the present day. End of the year best of lists are peeping through the pixels, and yet again it’s that darned Michael DeForge kicking things off with “an off the top of my head “best of 2013”

I’m sure I’m forgetting things and I haven’t read Infomaniacs yet. In no particular order

Julio’s Day by Gilbert Hernandez
Beta Testing the Apocalypse by Tom Kaczynski
Eye of the Majestic Creature vol 2 by Leslie Stein
The Library by Chihoi
New Jobs by Dash Shaw
Paranoid Apartment by Lala Albert
Real Rap by Ben Urkowitz
Sakura Maku’s comic in Chromazoid #2
Mighty Star by Alex Degen
Household, Man that Dances in the Meadow by Sam Alden
misc Simon Hanselmann (hard to pick one thing)
World Map Room by Yuichi Yokoyama
The Teacup Tree by Angie Wang
New Comics #1, 2, by Patrick Kyle
+ I guess Attack on Titan before it drops off a bit
edit: forgot Hand Drying in America by Ben Katchor


There’s a pretty strong esthetic in that list, although it would take me a long time to parse it. And then, poor Michael DeForge tweeted about THU’s Noah Berlatsky’s takedown of Art Spiegelman yesterday. It was called In the Shadow of Mediocre Page Design, which, come on, really? If there’s one thing Spiegelman is ace at it’s composition and storyetelling. And that kicked off the mess you can read below, in which all of us “comics pundits” waded in, trying to have a serious conversation about all the simmering issues in bursts of 15 words or less. I mostly did this to learn how to use Twitter’s new custom timelines, and the first thing I learned is that you STILL can’t put the most recent stuff at the top (that’s what $1.8 billion buys you these days.) So if you want to follow it, read UP. But I don’t think you want to follow it.

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Along the way I floated my outrageous notion that tumblrs like SPX and Comics ARE The Comics Journal of the day, an idea that heightened the alarm for Sean T. Collins, and Jeet Heer; the latter argued nobly for a tumblr that might be the RAW or Kramer’s Ergot of its day—or just the MOME or Weirdo—and for the concision, strong esthetic and high quality that firm, wise editorial control can bring. (Berlatsky +1’d this idea.) I also invited everyone in the thread over here to the comments—I’ll even throw in tea and a cheese plate—to hash everything out but Sarah Horrocks will only comment on FB, Tom Spurgeon dislikes all comment threads, and people would rather flail publicly in a disposable 140-character format than take the time to write longer thoughts that they’ll be publicly mocked for. (This is not a trait that the THU folks share.)

In other words, the reason there is no critical dialog about critical dialogs is that it is impossible to have a critical dialog at all!



In conclusion, there is no way to conclude this. I will throw out my own sure to be derided ideas for what I would like to see in terms of putting today’s comics offerings in a more critical and social context. These are all ideas that have crossed my mind as topics I would like to investigate at one time or another but because comics criticism pays even less than comics blogging (the main reason for all of this, I suppose) I doubt I’ll ever get to any of them. Consider these a giveaway table:

§ What’s the dillio with this Tumblr thing I’ve been hearing about?

• There is a large body of comics work, mostly by females, that is set in “an enchanted forest” (Julia Gfrörer, Anna Bongiavanni, Lilli Carré) COMPARE AND CONTRAST

• There is a large body of comics work, mostly by males, that deals with the sea and exploration (Nick Bertozzi, Kevin Cannon, Drew Weing, Cristolphe Blain) WHO WORE IT BEST?

• There is a pretty strong connection between a group of west coast Asian-American cartoonists including Derek Kirk Kim, Gene Luen Yang, Thien Pham, Jason Shiga and Lark Pien. What common themes do they share?

• The much-criticized vein of self-indulgent autobiographical comics inspired by Canadian cartoonists of the 90s has mostly faded away into a far more diverse mix of narrative and more focused non-fiction stories. Why? Are current cartoonists actually less self indulgent than we think?

• The Fort Thunder school of comics has a recurring focus on monsters and body horror; is this just because monsters are fun to draw or is there a deeper meaning?

• Adventure Time has served as both an inspiration and a means of financial support for a lot of the best indie cartooners. How does working for a hit TV show affect their more personal work?

• Many young cartoonists such as Emily Carroll and Blaise Larmee are using “animated comics” in new and pioneering ways. Will they really save us from motion comics?

• There are lots of cartooning schools now—CCS, SVA, MCAD, SCAD, etc etc. How do these schools differ in what their students produce? Is there a shared esthetic among people who graduate from each of them? (Actually, Rob Clough is doing this. Rob Clough tends to do a lot of things I want to see.)

• Many young indie cartoonists have both blogs and tumblrs. How do they use each medium? Does the presentation affect their work?

• Does anyone ever expect to make a living at this without working on Adventure Time? How?

…I’m sure there are many many more interesting questions than these to be raised. I invite you to share your own.

I fear this post is far more messy and badly thought out than the very worst post I’ve linked to above, but it’s 5 am and I have to figure out how to get 400 miles through a storm named after the god of the North Wind so I can eat turkey and meet kittens. It was now or never. I still think the kids are alright, I’d like to see way more context for current comics, more informed criticism, more time to write it, and more money to make it worth while. I suspect we’ll see all those things eventually but in new and delightfully surprising ways that we’ll never even see coming.

Comments

  1. I’ve read most of the lengthy post above, and I can certainly appreciate the spirit in which it was written. Bravo at looking at criticism and whether is is valid. Maus panels indeed.
    I have a hard time reading many mini comics and small independent comics, because A. they dwell on dark and negative topics such as deer ticks and tapeworms etc. B. As it is inferred above, there seems to be a celebration of nothing happening in the comic panels, and it is a point of pride that thereis no narrative. C It is not entertaining, and the auteur does not seem committed to bringing me something compelling. (an account of their most boring day, minute by minute, until they go to sleep)

    Having said that, I am always looking to consider the next new cool thing , as long as it avoids the traps of A, B, C

    Hey, maybe I’m a comic critic too!!

  2. I’ve been following this conversation with a lot of interest. I think it boils down to a set of Gen X alt-comics progenitors asking, “why isn’t this Millennial cartooning generation practicing criticism?” I’d personally love to see the young John Ruskin of alt/art comics criticism rise up, or even a set of new John Updikes who practice and write about the art form with equal skill. I think the reasons we AREN’T are manifold.
    For one, I think there’s a fear of audience attrition. You’re right that entry into the current alternative comics scene is largely dependent on the liking, sharing, and championing of a budding cartoonist’s work. Let’s take it for granted that a large portion of any alt-cartoonist’s audience is probably made up of other alt-comics makers and aspirants (Darryl Ayo and Frank Santoro have both written at some length about this). The danger of being a cartoonist who begins to practice public criticism — especially when reputation, staying power, etc. are dependent upon the goodwill and celebration of an audience that shares in practice of your craft — is that any critical assertions on your part that dismiss a work or determine it as flawed might cut down your potential readership. Hate on Raw Power in a set of tumblr posts, and your table just might be passed by at SPX next year. Get a reputation as the gal or guy who hates Fort Thunder, and you’ll possibly lose readership. Whether or not this actually comes to pass is a test the current alt-comics scene hasn’t really been put to yet, but until we see someone new really put themselves at risk, the fear lingers.
    (By contrast, I think those with an already-established readership from criticism like Matt Seneca or Darryl Ayo have a little bit of an edge on this. Maybe the key is to establish yourself as a critic first, then a maker second?)
    Also, I think more comics criticism is happening than we realize– it’s just subterranean, and more in terms of critique. There’s a workshop culture even outside of the CCS/SCAD/school sector where new makers are passing work back and forth and getting the necessary feedback to keep the indulgent and hollow stuff down to a minimum. The only data I can point to here is my personal experience, but I’ve benefited from a network of other young cartoonists that I can pass my work in front of and get a good beatdown from.
    Here’s the final key, and this is what gives guys like the Hooded Utilitarian crew a bad taste in some mouths. Good criticism comes from an authoritative perspective. It’s dependent on “This is how it should be,” where I think the new generation of makers is less prone to absolutist perspectives. If a good portion of the new generation of comics makers is Millennial, then they’re going to want to celebrate a plurality of varying opinions as valid. We’re great at subjectivity, but not at objectivity.
    I think a good deal of this goes away with maturity, but is accelerated with permission. Your joke about “big boss daddy/mamma (needing to) tell us where to go” probably applies to the new generation of makers too. We’re hearing that it’s beneficial and good to start navigating the waters of vetting good art. And the call to action is starting to be answered: Since the Santoro/Collins TCJ piece, I’ve already seen Andrew White (who’s I think another new “it” cartoonist) begin writing critical pieces about various minis he’s been reading.

    I’d bet that six months from now, we’ll be surprised at the growing amount of criticism out there. The next question is: who’s going to establish themselves as (and not just dabble in trying to be) that authoritative voice?

  3. Emily Thomas says:

    As a young, female, first-time comics critic (as of yesterday). I’d like to say a little bit about how and why I chose to publish on HU and not my own blog or another site, because it’s not by chance. It’s not because I agree with every piece on HU or because I want to form part of some HU ideological commitment (other than a commitment to criticism). It’s because at HU I found a supportive and interesting forum where my ideas were taken seriously, I was encouraged to speak out, and I was able to criticize and be criticized without offending others or getting offended myself. You can call this “boosterism” if you want, but for me, it was essential to my ability to write on the internet (about a very personal topic) for the first time ever.

    Flame wars, disagreement, and provocation happen, but honestly, HU is the one place on the Internet where I ever feel like reading the comments, and it’s a place that gives me hope for the future of comics criticism and discussion. As a young critic, I’d like to say that for me, HU is the place where my concerns and my voice are being reflected, especially as a woman, and the only place where I currently feel comfortable speaking out. HU may not be for everyone, but it’s frustrating when I see so much dismissal of it given that it is a place where diversity really thrives and I was given the support and encouragement that I (and others like me) needed by Noah and other members of the community. I know it’s not a site that speaks to everyone, but I would like to ask everyone, and especially young comics critics, to give it a fair chance and remember that it’s not a monolithic entity, a cult, or a place for haters. If you read carefully and honestly, you might be surprised.

    Also, for what it’s worth, I think all those critical questions sound interesting and I hope that they are discussed in detail. I have a slightly different approach but I think that all of these critical approaches are complementary, not opposed.

    The article, for anyone interested: http://www.hoodedutilitarian.com/2013/11/one-out-of-ten-taking-issue-with-glyn-dillons-the-nao-of-brown/

  4. Calvin Reid says:

    Well, I know a lot more about these new crazy experimentalist kids, comics criticism, Tumblr, Hooded Utilitarian and the fate of the medium than I knew before I read it. Bravo Heidi!

  5. Heidi MacDonald says:

    Emily, thanks for writing and your explanation. In case anyone missed it, Emily’s piece was a review of The NAo Of Brown, about a young woman with POCD, written from the persective of a young woman with OCD. I haven’t had time to read the entire piece but certainly a very valid direction to come at a much lauded work.

    I’m really glad that HU provides a supportive environment for different voices to be heard.

    Here at the Beat I am absolutely open to voices of any creed or gender, and I think I’ve done a good job on the diversity front. While I disagree that my comments are “the worst on the internet” as one comics erson I respect told me, they are open to a variety of voices as well.

    Al, you’ve spoken for the people who don’t like indie comics at all. I will remove these kind of posts from this thread if any more are posted.

    Ben, many thanks for the thoughtful response. I think there is a LOT of truth to it, esp the one where criticism can shrink your audience!

  6. I don’t know if I’m going to change any minds, but since you seem very fixated on the nature of HU, I’d like to talk about why I write for it. (You can see my articles for HU here, if you’re interested: http://www.hoodedutilitarian.com/tag/jacob-canfield/ )

    I’m a young comics-creator (23 years old), and I love criticism. When I was in undergrad I had a close group of like-minded friends, and we ran a small comics magazine together. We would talk comics incessantly – I’d say a quality I share with my peers is an eagerness, a real blood-pumping excitement, when I get into a good discussion about art, and especially about comics art.

    I’d been reading HU for a little while before I started writing for it, but I have to admit that I came in clean of any preconceptions. I understand now that back about a million years ago several primary contributors to HU once wrote for TCJ, and there was an ugly falling-out and a lot of hard feelings. I know that Noah (the guy who runs HU, for those not in the know) is popularly considered to be either a troll or an ultra-pretentious blowhard. Popular comics opinion casts HU as a group of lonely, bitter, angry people who have nothing better to do than write ill-considered articles about things they really don’t understand. I’ve talked to several young comics people recently, and been told overwhelmingly that HU is a bad website (when asked why the general answer seems to be, “IT JUST IS,” which doesn’t really help anything.)

    I learned about the lore surrounding HU after I started writing for HU. As someone who is deeply invested in the idea of making comics, and being a part of a comics community, you might ask me why I continue to write for HU when it automatically casts anything I write in a bad light. The answer is pretty straightforward: despite statements like, “The Hooded Utilitarian has its own boosterish clique of commenters that tends to drown out useful dialog,” I have found HU’s cast of regular commenters to be both interesting and friendly. And I’m ABSOLUTELY not writing articles they all agree with; my second article for the site was about the problems with certain criticisms of Marra and Ryan, for example. Noah was the first commenter on that article, and, although he disagreed with me, we had what I consider an excellent discussion.

    HU often posts articles I don’t like, too. Charles Reece wrote one about Fukitor (I think you link to it above) that got me pretty angry, but I am glad HU published it. It’s important to be able to have conversations with people you don’t agree with, and it’s important to give a voice to a host of different critical opinions. I disagree with much (maybe most?) of the criticism I see on Tumblr, but I read it and consider it carefully – and horrible things are on Tumblr, but I’d never tell someone not to read it or use it.

    Other reasons I really like HU: there aren’t banner ads everywhere, there aren’t idiotic fluff pieces about the mashup-du-jour, and nobody is writing for money (that third thing pretty much explains the first two things). Pretty much anyone can write for HU (which maybe you consider bad) and, in my mind, that’s one of its biggest strengths. Yes, sometimes you get (really) bad articles. Yes, sometimes you get really stupid comments. That’s a given on almost any site on the internet (including this one).

    At its core, I like HU because it’s a community where I’m able to have the same kind of conversations about comics that I’d want to have with close friends. And, just like with close friends, sometimes people will start talking about things I don’t care about (I couldn’t care less about Noah’s ongoing anti-Maus sentiments, for example, although I did quite like “In the Shadow of No Talent”). It does frustrate me when people are so willing to throw away the whole site, and actively recommend against reading it, because they disagree with a few of the writers. If you hate something that Owen writes, or Suat writes, or that I write, or that anyone writes, don’t assume that all of HU have had these secret, underground meetings where we all high-five and agree with the author before lightly kissing a framed picture of Noah (surrounded by Christmas lights shaped like little middle fingers).

    Anyway, as I said, I don’t mean to change anyone’s mind, but I wanted to give a different perspective. Thanks for writing the article, Heidi – I admire your dedication to playing Virgil to a very specific section of Comics Critic Hell.

  7. The lament wondering why more cartoonists aren’t involved in comics criticism reminded me of Orson Welles’s response to his critics: “I’m the bird; you’re the ornithologists.” Why would a bird want to swap jobs?

  8. Just for the historical record, such as it is; there wasn’t really any falling out with tcj, I don’t think. HU left the site when the Comics Comics crew came on not because of any animosity, but because Dan and Tim didn’t want sub-blogs (they got rid of the Panelists and Dirk Deppey’s Journalista at the same time.)

  9. The problem is there are too many cartoonists. Conventions need to be less like SXSW and more like the Hunger Games.

  10. Great article, Heidi. For obvious reasons, I come at a lot of this stuff as a creator rather than a writer, but in both cases one thing that doesn’t get talked about as much as I think it should is the effect that the medium has on creative output. Anything that’s posted online is capable of generating incentives and disincentives–in the form of RTs, “likes”, reblogs, etc–basically instantaneously. This has two fairly profound effects: First, it reduces the time for consideration and evaluation of a work (whether that work is writing or comics) to basically zero. Second, it “rewards” certain types of output based not necessarily on their quality, but on how well-suited they are to the social media platform at hand.

    To take the most obvious example, look at the kind if things that gain a lot of traction on Tumblr. They tend to be short, usually humorous–are at least trafficking in irony, self-contained. That’s not a bad thing. There’s a ton of great stuff that’s bubbled to the surface of Tumblr that most of us would probably not have been aware of otherwise. But, it’s just as important to note that a lot of the works you cite as liking in this article (L&R, Ghost World) are things that just because of format–not because of quality–wouldn’t have thrived in such an environment. I think the same thing holds true of criticism. Tumblr, Twitter, etc. shape the nature of criticism on those platforms. The idea that long-form critical writing (or long-form narrative comics) are “antiquated” because there’s this other type of creative output that’s around now is just silly. It’s like claiming that people will stop painting murals because we have post-it notes now.

    Also–and others have articulated this far better than I can–there’s a big difference between critical writing/discourse and curating. The SPX tumblr is an amazing way to get introduced to new work, and in that sense it’s serving some of the functions that the old TCJ print mag used to. But, that’s not the same thing as criticism.

    -B.

  11. I love Brian’s comment, and Sam’s too. Some wolves escaped from a zoo in England this very evening, and they shot them. What a waste. I think it would be nice if they had been re-homed in a convention space where they could breed and be ready for the next comics-bash. We need more animation and danger in our lives.

    I studied criticism and philosophical aesthetics and frankly, I’d rather be drawing, or scrapping with wolves.

  12. I think there’s some other routes critics could go besides starting a blog or writing for an existing one (not that there’s anything wrong with that but there may be other venues for longform pieces).

    I’d like to see a group of critics try the digital publishing route and put out a monthly or biweekly critical magazine with, say, 2-3 longform pieces in each issue. Maybe sell them on Tumblr via Gumroad or even Comixology. A good example to follow is what Glenn Fleishman and Marco Arment did with The Magazine (http://the-magazine.org/) – a revolving list of contributors, simple, under-designed text-based articles and some sort of subscription mechanism (The Magazine has an app which is part of the iOS Newstand I think but they also have web-based subscriptions). Sell them for somewhere between .99 and 1.99 an issue and there’s the possibility of a small bit of revenue for writers, especially if they can work out the subscription model.

  13. It probably came across yesterday, but I guess I’ll sort of restate it–but a lot of the concerns, tastes, and canons that make up the predominant discussion on these issues–is just really alien to me.

    1) My background comes from a mash of manga and superhero comics, I skipped straight from that to Heavy Metal, Vampirella/Warren comics. The stuff I’m into and want to read about, I rarely see written about on sites like TCJ, Hooded U, or the more mainstream sites flogging DC and Marvel stuff. So just in terms of taste, I don’t feel much resonance with a lot of what is going on at these places. I get a lot more out of reading Brandon Graham’s old livejournal and blog posts–which were sort of proto-tumblr, and influenced a lot of my own approach to comics through tumblr. So I mean, I don’t really have a sense of sacredness for these places that people are telling me are so important.

    I have learned a lot more about the comics I’m interested in, and read better criticism on those comics, by talking about them on tumblr or on my blog and then engaging people directly on twitter. I actually like that twitter forces people to speak more directly. A lot of comments sections just become window dressing for slight points.

    2) Speed, informalism, and direct real time growth of canon and context that comes through tumblr or twitter is both wildly more satisfying for me as a critic, and as a reader. And the thing of it is, when people bemoan the lack of criticism going on right now–a lot of it is happening, it’s just not centralized. It’s wedged between people’s posts about their cats. It’s people who morph between tweets into these really lucid critics and minds. It’s also these places that artists are having the important conversations that are shaping large swaths of comics right now. That’s where it is. I mean it just is. People like Daryl Ayo and Sloane Leong are writing brilliant comics criticism and thoughts in 140 charactered bursts. And I know the reaction to that is that it’s too fast, it’s too hard to find, it’s impossible to keep up with–but it’s not if you are there. And I kind of really wonder about the importance of long form criticism on the internet. The internet is forever, but the moment that everything exists in is completely impermanent. Your audience lasts for as many hours as the links flash around people’s feeds.

    I’d actually like to see more like REALLY long form works in criticism. Like go into books or even ebooks, and hit off on criticism that actually takes the time to really get to know a work. The 1500 to 3000 word article seems like an anachronism that only continues to exist because that’s the way it’s been for a minute. I don’t think that’s really what the audience wants. It’s too short to say much, and it’s too long to spur conversation–beyond the dedicated who like to type long winded responses to things–holdouts from message boards that no longer exist.

    Also on a completely separate front, I don’t get why TCJ and HU are some kind of warring clans. It’s all the same kind of thing. I feel like there are all of these weird agendas going on in criticism that inform too much both how things are being written, and how they are being read. Forgetting even about all of the entrenched relationships going on between critics and artists, or artist-critics and other artists. I think there’s too much of a focus on “is this good or is this bad?”–and often times those debates are taking away from real discussions of just what the hell is going on. I mean you can write meaningful criticism on anything. Evaluating whether something is good or bad, is maybe the problem area. It’s not a contest, and when you get into whether something is good or bad–you’re kind of just writing about yourself. What’s more important is whether this work has something of interest for you to write about. And that point of interest can’t just always be how shitty things are. Evangelical criticism and sour patch kid criticism are both the same kind of worthless. I also don’t get why people are worried about feelings. Is it that hard to not be an asshole? Just say what you feel needs said, and if you do it right, then what’s the deal?

    Like I said. Alien.

  14. Somebody’s working on a Vampirella piece for us even as we speak! fwiw. And folks write about heavy metal on Moebius on our site (and on tcj, for that matter.)

    I don’t think HU and TCJ are warring clans, as I said. Lots of folks write for both. There are some differences of emphasis and interest, but I don’t think that has to be that big a deal.

    I don’t really worry that much about what folks want or don’t. Mine isn’t a paid site, so I’m not driven by clicks really. Some small number of people seem to read HU with some regularity. That’s good enough for me.

    In terms of everything-is-changing…I’m sure that’s true to some extent. People have been saying it for a long time, anyway.

  15. Well I don’t have much to say on the state of comics criticism, but thanks to this article, I have a whole lot of cartoonists that I’ve never heard of that I probably need to go check out. OK, going back to being old now…

  16. This whole thing reminds me of the feminist book store parody on Portlandia…only this store is “Comics and Comics First”.

    I think there aren’t many comics critics because the current comics criticism is pretty hyperbolic and tone-deaf. That’s not to say it’s never right or accurate. It’s just that most buyers aren’t listening. That’s how you can have super-selling Nu52 garbage and struggling works with real meaning to them. It’s not like movies where you can’t avoid hearing at least SOME criticism about a piece because it’s actually tied to sales to some extent. I could be in love with the worst cheesecake woman-fridging race war comics and never hear bad about them unless I actively went looking for critical articles online. A lot of comics criticism seems to be for certain people to hear their own voices as they read into things that aren’t always there and for others to argue about it in the comments.

    Maybe a Rotten Tomatoes-esque comics review aggragator site with a Twitter feed and a Friendster page would work. :P

  17. @XOTOA says:

    One thing you can expect when an article on HU is singled out for opprobrium is Noah listing all the other HU articles being ignored that presumably aren’t as terrible, and a chorus of HU contributors giving their biographies and rationales for contributing.

    It’s almost like hyping yourself is the default action for any eventuality, like how farmers will plant more grain if the prices go up or if the prices crash.

  18. It seems odd to take it amiss when people who are called out want to respond. I don’t think Heidi’s really singling us out for animadversion anyway, is she? She seems mostly mixed.

    And I don’t think I provided any links here? Maybe I did it while I wasn’t looking I guess.

  19. This conversation was better on twitter.

  20. Heidi MacDonald says:

    Sarah, the conversations took on a different character. The medium is the message.

  21. Heidi MacDonald says:

    Oh and PS, thanks to everyone for the very intelligent and insightful comments expressed here. The discussion has significantly enlarged my viewpoint, so I guess it was worth staying up all night to write.

    Happy Turkey Day to all.

  22. A lot of amazing thoughts, anaylsis and comments. A big thank you Heidi and the HU/CB crew for writing some thought provoking viewpoints.

    As a recent “writer” for comics, the biggest problem is not the message (that is a problem no doubt) but who is reading the message and how it can be seen. While TCJ, CB, Factual, and HU have and continue to put out some great criticism, they’re mostly being viewed by the people who know about it. Instead of reaching to a bigger crowd in the States, the big two crowd, the message is mostly being spoken to the choir. And that choir is somewhat small compared to the mainstream comic crowd. And it’s that crowd that criticism should be aiming to get their attention. So it can A. expand their horizon B. Introduce new great works from other countries and from here C. To make them think differently when reading comic and apply that to their superhero comics and maybe in the process enhance the superhero genre.

    Another problem is a surface view of snob attitude within comics criticism. “Well, I think your Spider-Man comic shit and pick up a real comic.” Now, I know this not to be true–to an extent–but it’s view that I’ve read and heard from board posters to con goers to comic customers.

    So no only is the message not being heard loudly but there’s also an image problem. I think if we can get past these humps, I think the comic scene/criticisms (mainstream) in the States can be a littler bit richer than before.

    That’s just my two cents.

  23. Look at this clown “XO” complaining that Hooded Utilitarian contributors refuse to just roll over and accept whatever nonsense label that is attached to us. And like everyone else, you get upset when your Black/White argument disintegrates in the face of actual evidence. You’re a clown, kid.

    Read Hooded Utilitarian before you try to perpetuate a bunch of trash about us.

  24. It seems I’m late to the party on this, but I wanted to drop a comment about the intersection with comics studies as an academic discipline, and a couple of other things. I’m currently writing my thesis on comics and I write for Graphixia (http://graphixia.cssgn.org/), which is a semi-academic blog on comics, and The Comics Grid (http://www.comicsgrid.com), which is an open access academic journal of comics scholarship. Both provide informed and nuanced comics criticism which I think is not so academic as to be off-putting to any potential readers. As such I think both are important places for comics criticism that perhaps aren’t read by the readers of TCJ, HU, CB etc, most likely because they aren’t as prominent on the comics criticism scene and haven’t been around that long. There are also some longer pieces on The Comics Grid which do go into the detail that some commenters think is missing from the generally short criticism which is encouraged by contemporary digital culture.

    I’d encourage the readers of TCJ, CB and HU and all those in this thread to check out Graphixia and The Comics Grid and I’d be really interested to know their thoughts on them and whether they provide the kind of criticism that is desired. I’m often surprised that there isn’t a greater intersection between academic and non-academic comics criticism (though those lines are blurred) and I think growth in this area would be beneficial to comics criticism as a whole, though this is happening with Pencil Panel Page joining up with HU so I think we will see more of this and those lines will continue to blur.

    The concern about cartoonists not practising criticism is a fair one too, and I think this is different in the landscape of Twitter, Tumblr etc compared to the previous landscape of print journals and magazines. As a cartoonist myself I would be very wary of practicing harsh criticism of my peers as it’s likely I’d then become an outcast in the community and this would then extend to Twitter, conventions and to my own work’s reception. I think all cartoonists share this concern. What they need to realise, perhaps, is that it is possible to produce informed, nuanced criticism of your peers without being negative about their work in such a way as to be disagreeable to them. But this is easier said than done. Being a cartoonist is damn hard work, and I’d venture to say that most cartoonists would rather put their feet up and enjoy some chat with their cartoonist buddies on Twitter after a day’s work on comics than engage in serious, long-form criticism that, from this discussion, seems necessary. But many cartoonists are interested in criticism if their Twitter feeds are anything to go by, and perhaps we will find our Ruskin at some point in the near future. I agree with Sarah Horrocks that Twitter and Tumblr are providing satisfying criticism, it’s just that it’s in shorter form and wedged between cat gifs.

    For the record I think there is great criticism on TCJ, HU, CB and elsewhere, but I would like to see more of it, with more long-form pieces, accessible to broader audiences.

  25. I’ve been keeping an eye on the various discussions around this, but like Sarah the various concerns are pretty alien to me. I’d guess that I’m one of the young comic critics about though most of my work is in print rather than online, I’m a journalist rather than anything else, and because I write for the mainstream audience I tend to focus my writing on the comics that I am very positive about. Which I then get a lot of shit for from the world of critics but thankfully I don’t really care about that these days.

    I think one thing I am very aware of is how strong and far-reaching the reputations of some of the main websites really are. I’m also active in comics academia, and the opinion on the critic websites from that angle are perhaps very different from what people might expect. It is also quite tiring to see the constant almost “site wars” in various comment sections – it feels like comics criticism is a place of great hostility, not towards the medium so much as towards fellow critics. There’s a very competitive aspect to it that shifts the focus from the comics and creators themselves on to the actual critics, which I find very off-putting and having chatted to a few younger people getting started in comics reviewing/reporting/criticism it seems that is true of others too.

    Sarah Horrocks: I feel like there are all of these weird agendas going on in criticism that inform too much both how things are being written, and how they are being read. Forgetting even about all of the entrenched relationships going on between critics and artists, or artist-critics and other artists…

    Sarah pretty much summed up my thoughts!

  26. Re: agendas, and I guess to @xotoa, I have a piece about HU”s editorial philosophy, such as it is:

    http://www.hoodedutilitarian.com/2013/11/a-pundit-in-every-panopticon/

    Paddy, I think the divided between academics and blogs can be overstated? TCJ has a good number of academics writing for them (Craig Fischer, for example). And HU does as well (and the Beat does too, I believe.)

    Larry, I don’t really see HU’s mission as trying to get people to stop reading mainstream comics, or to tell them those comics are bad. We just had a long appreciation of Dan Slott’s run on She-Hulk, actually.

  27. I’ve been drawing comix and illustration since 1985 … thanks to my work on Adventure Time, I am getting more work from … Adventure Time.
    Frankly, I don’t understand 99% of comix criticism … I just look at the pictures. Bad pictures usually means bad comix for me. Critics will denigrate bad musical instrument playing, bad novel writing, bad acting, but bad drawing gets a pass most of the time. I blame society.

  28. Noah, I’m glad to hear you think the divide between academics and blogs is overstated, as this means we’re all (hopefully) working together towards good comics criticism. I probably overstated it myself, and as you say there are good academics writing for TCJ, HU and CB.

  29. @XOTOA says:

    Noah, if you re-read, I didn’t describe responding per se, but responding by bringing up other, more presumably more-defensible articles, which is a tic that you have. That and the general HU-boosterism instead of engaging in good faith.

    Daryl, believe me I’ve read enough HU. I don’t need to get into the rest of you dismissals. -Trevor

  30. @XOTOA says:

    *your dismisssal* sorry-TOA

  31. Noah- That’s not what I’m trying to say and I’m sorry if that’s how I worded. I know that’s not what you’re trying to do.

    What I’m saying is that criticism is be used to expand a readers horizon and to make them read comics from a more critical light. Also, to introduce them to newer work they might not know about. You can do all this and still keep the reader on their superhero comics. And maybe in the process, the reader now has a better understanding on how comics work and the big 2 can up their game and put out great comics.

    But there is an image problem with criticism. That’s it’s a gentlemen’s club, an self-jerk circle between indie creators, an elitism, no big two allowed.That’s why fans from those companies do delve deeply more into criticism. I know that’s not really true but it’s an image that been plastered on. So criticism has to get over that hurdle to connect to a bigger audience.

    Is that better?

  32. Larry Vossler said:

    “As a recent “writer” for comics, the biggest problem is not the message (that is a problem no doubt) but who is reading the message and how it can be seen. While TCJ, CB, Factual, and HU have and continue to put out some great criticism, they’re mostly being viewed by the people who know about it. Instead of reaching to a bigger crowd in the States, the big two crowd, the message is mostly being spoken to the choir. And that choir is somewhat small compared to the mainstream comic crowd. And it’s that crowd that criticism should be aiming to get their attention. So it can A. expand their horizon B. Introduce new great works from other countries and from here C. To make them think differently when reading comic and apply that to their superhero comics and maybe in the process enhance the superhero genre.”

    I would agree but IMO the only way one can do so is with a synoptic approach; one that sincerely sees positive things in the superhero genre that are not “different in kind” from the positive things in the indie corpus of works. In other words, it would have to be an attitude 180 degrees from the one expressed by Gary Groth when he recently explained that Fantagraphics did not publish its X-MEN COMPANION book because the publishers had a deep abiding love for the X-Men. This bottom-line insincerity– “we’ll bring ‘em in with appeals to the mainstream in order to introduce them to the good stuff”– has had at best a checkered record, and not only with Fantagraphics.

    How might az synoptic approach be synthesized? Well, first it would help to know something about a few of academic criticism’s efforts in that respect. Of course I can quote Frye and Fiedler all the livelong day and it won’t mean anything: critics have to make their own discoveries to form their own syntheses. But the WILL to make such connections has to be there.

    Noah said in response to Larry:

    “Larry, I don’t really see HU’s mission as trying to get people to stop reading mainstream comics, or to tell them those comics are bad. We just had a long appreciation of Dan Slott’s run on She-Hulk, actually.”

    I can see how this would seem an adequate answer to the problem Larry raises but it really is not sufficient, any more than when TCJ’s editors used to answer accusations of anti-mainstream sentiments by citing lots of positive mainstream reviews. As long as the dominant attitude is one of elitism and exceptionalism– that a given reviewer pays attention only to SHE-HULK or WONDER WOMAN when they reach some exceptional heights– then that reviewer and his cronies will continue to project the aura of the aforementioned “self-jerk circle.”

    My argument should not interpreted as some sort of anti-exceptionalism: an apologia for bad work. There is however a middle ground for which critics like Fiedler might be instructive– and I’ll leave it at that, as the vision of Tumblr afficianados trying to pore over LOVE AND DEATH IN THE AMERICAN NOVEL seems improbable even to me. That sentiment about covers my pessimism about the possibility of the current indie creators– or the mainstream ones, for that matter– mustering enough chutzpah to write organized criticism.

  33. Gene, I wholly agree with you and it’s something as a new writer I’m trying to do and learn.

    Now, I’m guilty for not have a synoptic approach with my (well, my friends and I) blog but I’m trying to change to that. I fucking love superhero comics and I’m a huge comic board poster and I post a lot in DC and Marvel and am trying to keep with current comic trends. So as I keep writing I hope to have a more encompassing view/writing on comics. That includes works from Europe, Latin America, Manga, Big two, the big indie companies, webcomic and so on.

    As of right now, I’ve mainly focused on European comics and webcomics. I want to write about the Argentine comic scene (60s-70s) because they’ve influenced a lot of superhero writers/artists. But I’ve plan to write about the DC, Marvel, Image, Dark Horse soon. And I hopeI can get people from those camps to check out wider works and see how maybe those wider works has an influence on the creators of the comics they’re reading.

  34. All this mainstream vs. “indie elitism ” talk seems so strange to me, if only because, until my recent interest in online criticism most of my critical reading on the topic of comics was in a variety of academic journals, surveys and anthologies, which seem to be just as likely to talk about The Falcon as Fun Home as Superman as Maus as Scrooge McDuck – though that is anecdotal experience and not based on any kind of rigorous examination of what’s been printed and the attitudes expressed.

    Also, well – most of the comic fans I know read both kinds of things (but then again, I will admit I don’t know many comics fans personally)

  35. Osvaldo That’s some of the attitudes I’ve picked up from the many online boards and comics I’ve gone to.

    Actually, with the Eisners this year and lasts, one of the main complaints (now this is just from the CBR DC and Marvel Boards) it was too indie friendly and elitists against superhero comics.

    Now I don’t agree at all but that is an attitude big two fans (NOT ALL) have.

  36. Larry, what I meant to say and may not have been as clear as I could be, is that I found this divisiveness online to be a surprise b/c in my other forms of learning about comics I don’t see it very often (if at all), and I always imagined it was some holdover from the early days of the print version of TCJ that no one really believed anymore – goes to show what I know.

    Also, don’t know why I should be surprised by divisiveness online, since that seems to be what the internet is best at (second only to pictures of really cute aminals).

  37. Osvaldo – ah, thank you for the clear up.

  38. Osvaldo said:
    “All this mainstream vs. “indie elitism ” talk seems so strange to me, if only because, until my recent interest in online criticism most of my critical reading on the topic of comics was in a variety of academic journals, surveys and anthologies, which seem to be just as likely to talk about The Falcon as Fun Home as Superman as Maus as Scrooge McDuck – though that is anecdotal experience and not based on any kind of rigorous examination of what’s been printed and the attitudes expressed.”

    Correct, Osvaldo. It’s not that there are no elitists in academia, but the line between the popular and the literary/would-be-literary is not as firm as it used to be. It’s amazing to me that so many comics-critics have chosen to act as if they lived back in the 1930s, and ignore all the meritorious work that’s been done analyzing pop culture, from Robert Warshow to Gaylyn Studlar.

  39. Hi, I also wrote a comic about the ocean, it’s twice as long as my comic that takes place in a forest.

    http://www.fantagraphics.com/browse-shop/black-is-the-color-pre-order.html

  40. Heidi MacDonald says:

    Julia: See my theorem has already been expanded beyond simplistic gender barriers.

    There are a LOT of “magic forest” comics though, by women but also men.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Special Beat Investigation: Comics Critics Crisis!!! […]

  2. […] Criticism | Where are all the comics critics? Heidi MacDonald pens a lengthy article, with plenty of links, summing up several recent conversations about the dearth of comics critics, why creators aren’t doing criticism, and whether it’s all happening but just out there on Tumblr, Twitter, etc. Set aside some time if you’re going to go to the next level and follow the links, but it’s a good read on its own and even better if you include the comments from critics and creators, including Brian Fies, Ben Towle, Sarah Horrocks, and no fewer than three contributors to the Hooded Utilitarian. [The Beat] […]

  3. […] Association paper on ecocriticism and Joe Sacco’s comics. I also wonder if Heidi MacDonald’s call earlier this week for a closer analysis of the idea of place in the work of artists including Julia […]

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