Monday, July 14, 2008 here to read the rest of this post...

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Need-Based Criticism

When the issues of “what comics needs” and “what kinds of criticism will help the art” surface online, I often want to respond; yet I find something a little odd about the way the questions are posed. I don’t really want to make pronouncements on behalf of an art form. And the “what comics needs” way of thinking often implies that criticism is the answer, and it gives critics more power/influence than they really have to diagnose the situation and bring about real change. But here goes anyway:

Much has been made recently of the need for a 'negative criticism' that takes certain comics to task for their failures. Advocates of this position argue that comics can’t grow unless more of this type of criticism is written. But the causal logic (and historical realities) here seems a little off; it makes negative criticism prior to good comics. Advocates of this position believe that negative criticism currently does not exist in a sufficient amount, and yet, I believe, Americans are living in a time of a great growth in quality comics that didn’t require critics in any direct way. Certainly, in a general sense, a more robust critical climate might have a positive effect by elevating standards, but the current standards for cartooning -- the work of Clowes, Ware, Brunetti, Tomine, Kevin H., and others -- are already incredibly high. {Editors could help a lot with standards by employing a constructive criticism that happens before publication: see my short piece here. I’d like to see more critics hold editors accountable for the lack of actual editing . . .}

And while I read a lot about negative criticism, I read less about the need for analytical criticism -- an approach to reading in which the critic focuses on explanation over judgment. I think that if more of any type of criticism is needed it’s this. What matters to me is: does the critic help me to understand something about the comic I likely couldn’t/didn’t figure out myself? does the critic’s reading help me to pay attention to other comics in a new/different way? does the critic challenge conventional wisdom about reading/interpretation that goes beyond praise or condemnation and into thoughtful analysis? Often, if I come away from critical writing with one new concept or way of thinking, that’s enough. And a greater presence of writing that helps and encourages people to read comics carefully would, I hope, lead to something like the higher standards that the NC proponents want. It’s important to note that reviews and negative criticism can be analytical -- but in practice they often aren’t, or at least not to the degree I think would be helpful. (Though it’s certainly always fun to read a well-written takedown of some lame comic. . .)

Currently, the most exciting place for this kind of analytical criticism is online -- but it would be nice to see more in print. I think The Comics Journal especially could do some positive thing in this regard -- some suggestions:

1. a recurring feature in which different writers analyze at length an influential comic of, say, the last 10 years. It should be heavily illustrated with examples, something I’d like to see much more of in writing about comics in general -- people digging deep into images . . .

2. a feature in which writers and cartoonists focus on an aspect of comics theory that is presented in a way suited to a non-scholarly but well-informed readership -- it should be free from the tics of academic writing yet engage issues important to both academics and general readers.

3. a feature in which cartoonists talk in detail about a small portion of their work; for example, a discussion of all the choices and decisions that went into a single panel or page.

4. analytical interviews: interviews that avoid that typical biographical approach and ask probing questions about the work.

Irrelevant images from Tippy Teen #12 (Tower Comics - 1967) [I love that the money has $ signs emanating from it -- and that the exclamation points in the balloons are so stylized.] here to read the rest of this post...

Mod Gag

This is the inside front cover to The Modniks #1 (1967). I can come up with a few guesses about the gag, but I am not sure I get it. Is he offering to set their hair since they are not interested in getting it cut - what exactly would that entail? Do you have any explanations? The art looks like Lee Holley . . . here to read the rest of this post...

Saturday, July 5, 2008

POV and Autobiography

David Chelsea, a cartoonist who doesn’t get the kind of attention he deserves in art comics circles, has released a strong new minicomic from Top Shelf that includes two stories done in 2005 and 2007 as part of the 24-hour comic “movement.” The first story in 24x2 is particularly interesting to me because of claims that Chelsea makes about truth, autobiography, and cartooning strategies of representation.

He argues that well-known autobiographical comic creators like Crumb, Pekar, Paley, and Spiegelman “get it wrong.” They falsify experience by employing what could be called an “objective camera” point of view instead of a “subjective camera,” which would truthfully represent experience by showing only what the artist saw when he/she lived the events of the story. Objective camera implies, for Chelsea, that an observer other than the cartoonist is doing the recording; and so, for example, the cartoonist/protagonist can be seen from behind, when the cartoonist should only show what appeared in front of him. I doubt Chelsea thinks that these artists are really wrong (perhaps he does, though; he uses the word “wrong” nine times on the first page.) Perhaps he just wants to make us aware of a strategy employed in conventional auto-bio that he thinks needs to be examined.

I think, however, that there are a number of ways in which his analysis could be complicated and taken further. Chelsea wants to draw our attention to an important choice that many cartoonists make, but there are a number of other choices he doesn’t discuss that I think are equally relevant -- and maybe even more important than POV -- to his argument.

The minute you put your experiences into comics, and certainly into the form in which Chelsea and many other cartoonists do, you are “falsifying” or modifying reality. There seems to me to be no reason to assume that a representational approach like “subjective camera” has any more claim on truth than any other. A cartoonist can easily re-imagine a personal experience from a more expansive point of view. And the rightness or wrongness, for readers at least (if not the cartoonist), will come from a hard to define aspect of the comic, often the way it relates to their experiences of the world; i.e., does it have 'the ring of truth?” -- whatever that is . . .

Chelsea relies heavily on rectangular panels and borders, yet we look at the world through a vision that gets fuzzier and less precise towards the margins of the field of view. So perhaps a more “truthful” -- which is to say a literately accurate method in Chelsea’s way of thinking -- would not use rectangular panels or borders at all, but would feature images that fade at the outer limits or blend into the margins of the page. Maybe something like one of Anders Nilsen’s page layouts would begin to get at this “truth”:

As its name implies, subjective camera is inherently limited, yet Chelsea often limits his panel choices even further to shots in which the implied viewer position is often only a few feet away from the objects he sees/draws.

I think it would be more accurate call his approach in 24x2 something like “subjective camera/close-ups.” It offers restricted notions of “subjective camera” and of human vision -- we can see with far greater variety in "shots," from intense close-ups to extreme long shots (see Dan Clowes's The Stroll below). But “subjective camera/close-ups” is a very effective strategy in creating the kind of claustrophobic anxiety and drama that Chelsea exploits in his second comic, Sleepless.

Also: Chelsea’s comic is black and white and most of us experience the world in a vast collection of colors -- in Chelsea’s own terms then, black and white should also be “wrong.” The same can be said about the many panels in which the background disappears, focusing the reader on the character in the foreground -- this, too doesn’t quite happen in real life; though peripheral details can be out of focus, they still are visible. Another potential problem for “authenticity” is that subjective camera comics often feature a character who looks at the cartoonist and therefore appears to be looking directly at the reader:

This can create a jarring sensation (though an interesting one in many cases), like when an actor accidentally looks into the camera. So a strategy that avoids this situation might appear to be realistic/truthful to most readers, even though it rejects the primacy of the cartoonist’s perspective. In this way, readers might think that Crumb, for example, gets it right by not generally relying on this POV.

Of course, I'm not saying that there’s anything wrong with subjective camera, only with claims about its relationship to truth. Dan Clowes plays with the idea of objectivity in “Daniel G. Clowes in ‘Just Another Day,’” a story about autobiographical comics:

And Clowes has one of the great 1st person-cartoonist POV stories, The Stroll, which is not explicitly identified as autobiography, but appears to be so:

Despite my differences with Chelsea, I like the fact that he creates a strip about approaches to narration, something under-discussed in comics. I hope people will checkout 24x2. here to read the rest of this post...