Poplife: Issue #51

Thu, January 30th, 2003 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Matt Fraction, Columnist

CRIT

POPLIFE is a collection of excerpts from my work journal. There is no specific form or function the column serves other than to allow the reader to see what my experience in my first year as a comics-writer is like. Some weeks I get work done, so I talk about work. Some weeks I don't get any work done, so I ramble incoherently. POPLIFE's purpose is to provide a glimpse behind the curtain of my specific process.

Comics criticism is a lean, laughable little thing that reflects the lean, laughable little medium it criticizes. Rich, compelling books being thought and written about with as much richness and compulsion that went into their creation is a mutually, and shamefully, rare occurrence. Much of this is the nature of the beast, as when any artistic medium is saturated with a majority of similarly themed and executed material the critical result is critics with nothing to say-- because there's nothing to say anything about.

As it stands, comics criticism is riddled with superficial anti-examination, a massive lack of comprehension as to the medium's mechanics or history, and at its most sickeningly sad and silly, a fetid toadyism welcomed like a comfort.

Comics are a crap art, a pop medium designed for disposability and a constantly inventive one-upmanship-what the kids call fun, goddammit. Yet its failures to live up to that potential has borne a legion of critics incapable of perceiving anything but the reality of those failures. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss-or else. Comics creators, whether considered innovators or simply those working on even the most bland of trademarked properties and characters, can be met with a kind of impotent little rage and the work must battle preconceived notions and assumptions before it even has a chance to be seen and evaluated. Much like any system, comics criticism exists to perpetuate itself. Change is bad. Change is tough to adapt to. This seems the primary paradigm of comics' evaluation, a charmingly predictable intellectual xenophobia masquerading as anything other than resistance to the new. I tend to think this goes back to revulsion towards the creeping suspicion that maybe, just maybe, some of these comics are kinda dumb. Not that comics must be flippant, or must be a waste of time, or that they can't be done seriously and with profound intentions… but really, a lot of these things are just for kicks. Lest we confess to intellectual slumming, lest we challenge ourselves. Lest we forget the old boss with all this talking about a new boss. And critics beget critics who argue over meaningless, bland spectacle rather than any sort of art or potential within.

The lack of understanding and knowledge of the medium's history and traditions by many critics is staggering, especially coming from those that profess to have something to say about comics and where they're going. It's as though there were a bubble of short-term recall dooming everything outside of it to obscurity and irrelevance. How informed can a critic be, without understanding where the medium they criticize has come from? At best, a critic is aware of their lack-and I'd include myself here easily, as there are reams of things I've not read because I can't find them-and knows that no matter how well informed they may be, there are gaps and blind spots that can invalidate perspective. Not that there seems to be a cavalcade of comics historians out there clamoring to fill the gaps in their understanding of the aesthetic. And yet the fallacy of attempting criticism without understanding context-whatever context may be available for examination-doesn't seem to get in anyone's way. Comics are a medium embellished and enriched by its creators understanding history and often relying on the context that history provides to take their work further. And so often those who pollute critical space with their specious commentary don't know, don't care, or simply just don't get that. This lack of critical context bleeds into a lack of mechanical understanding as to how comics are conceived and produced. There is an utter and total absence of any frame of reference beyond the critic's own experience that negates whatever worthwhile commentary they may have to offer, because they don't know what the hell they're talking about. To use an easy metaphor: if you don't understand how an engine was built and why it was built that way, then any advice you give around the garage is suspect.

To hit on the fetid toadyism bit from above, briefly: politeness makes for crap criticism, and exhibits an awareness of one's audience. Critics aren't supposed to make friends with whomever they write about nor with whomever reads what they write. The minute you start wondering about what the people you're talking to may think of you-whether they'll like it, hate it, like you or hate you, want more or want different-you've failed. Audience awareness is fine; audience consideration is a fast short-circuit to uselessness. And that's on either side of the fence, creator or critic. Writing to start a conversation is one thing; writing to continue one is another entirely.

When left with nothing but that which appeals to the lowest common denominator, comics and their creators are left to pander. The product of this pandering certainly has facets worthy of exam, study, and speculation-Ray Mescallado's Fanboi Politik column, formerly of The Comics Journal, excelled at that. The successes of many of those columns were, I felt, in Mescallado's upfront acknowledgement and awareness of precisely what he was talking about, in what terms, and the almost-ludicrousness of the entire situation. He wrote very smart and well-informed pieces about a kind of goofy kid's stuff that, when shook just right, were capable of so much more. Mescallado was, at least back then, an exception to the rule. The status quo rejects any type of self-awareness, especially the kind that starts off with "This is gonna sound dumb, but…"

And if we're looking at criticism beyond the mainstream of comics, the Journal is one of a few examples that regularly provide critical analysis of the medium from a context beyond the self-referential (the danger, however, is in examining works so obscure as to be obtuse). There are other examples; Comic Book Artist has had its moments-but largely these were just moments, just exceptions.

One of the best examples of an actual vehicle for criticism has come from the Journal over the last year or so in the form of their magnificent Special Editions. There've been three that I've seen, one focusing solely on the career of Jack Kirby, and two other themed issues (Cartoonists on Cartooning and Music in Comics). The format of these books is large and square, about the size of an LP sleeve, printed on a bright, slick paper and running in the neighborhood of one hundred and fifty pages. A third volume will be released soon, as will another artist-focused book focusing on Frank Miller. I assume the mainstream appeal of these two creators was a deliberate consideration, as I can't imagine these mammoth books are very profitable to publish, sadly. I hope (as I'm sure many at Fantagraphics do as well) that these are successful enough to allow for future volumes that look at creators a little more off the beaten path.

A higher-ticket item than the regularly-published Journal, the Specials are freed from the magazine's monthly format and structure to allow for tangential explorations and supporting pieces to better buttress and illuminate the themes at hand. And, most brilliantly, these contain actual comics reflective of each issue's thematic focus. I hope this could lead to a critical publication including a CD-ROM glued onto the back cover, digitally reprinting samples or sequences from comics work long lost and hard to find-as brilliantly written as criticism may be, if your audience can't examine the work, why bother? There's a whole generation that's never even seen Alex Raymond or Milt Caniff, don't know Frank Robbins or Alex Toth. To say nothing of Johnny Craig, Wallace Wood, or Bernie Krigstein. In fact, I'd read about Krigstein's masterpiece short "Master Race" for years but had never been able to see it until the Fantagraphics coffee table book on Krigstien was released last year. This point is well belabored by others smarter and more eloquent than me, but some of comics' most essential history is simply not preserved, and this is absurd. Somehow, these Specials just reinforce the fact.

These bulky, serious fuckers are, pretty much without any doubt in my mind, the most profound and important advancement in comics criticism in years. They seem so… adult, so baroque, so excessively ornate compared to what we've come to expect. They seem French. I've written about wishing there was a Cahiers Du Cinema-type publication for comics before: a prestigious and thorough journal of criticism written not only by sharp, perceptive critics that know their craft as well as their art, but by creators themselves and this is precisely what Fantagraphics have theoretically achieved. Perhaps another good filmic reference (or at least one that's in English) would be the Projections series of film journals. Annual sort-of, Projections is a thick little book of essays, interviews, and studies of films revolving around one particular theme each issue written by filmmakers from all stripes. While often times a mixed bag and hardly ever solid all the way through (based on the Projections I've read), Projections, like Cahier before it, nevertheless presents some of film's more interesting thinkers and some of the more interesting doers within its covers, thinking out loud and scratching out their ideas in a critical space.

I hope this leads to a critical vessel filled with commentary and analysis, interview and exploration of comics by those that make them. Something not mired down in surface, shallowness, or smarmy glad-handing, but something serious, broad, and provocative in the questions it raises and perspectives it presents. There are stunningly few examples of this sort of thing, and I feel the field of criticism is worse off for it. Comics need a forum to allow their mechanics to dismantle some engines, figure out how they work, and how to build them better.

Wanna hear something sucky? I'm gonna get mail and read snarky internet bitchslaps from folks-they of the ever-so-helpful No Shit, Sherlock brigade-who will have read the above and will holler up and down that they've been saying similar for years. And you know what? They have been. And I'm saying it again because either they didn't say it right, didn't say it loud enough, or just plain said it somewhere and sometime other than right here and right now. The new boss is the same as the old boss, and it's the oldest story going. That's right, kids-- Comics have always been this fucked.

Toss ideas around about all this here, if you care to. I already got the "No Shit, Sherlock" part down, though.

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