Thursday, December 27, 2007

This Again

One of the most tired and unimaginative criticisms of ‘alt comics’ is the following: desperate for validation by the literary elite, cartoonists create boring stories about the uninteresting problems of average people so that The New Yorker and their ilk will reassure them that they are worthy. This argument presumes an intimate knowledge of the cartoonists’ psyches that the critic never has; and those who make this argument are rarely good readers of the comic that’s right in front of them, so how can we put much faith in their analysis of a human being? Most artists would like to be appreciated by smart readers, but to reduce the many motivations that drive them to a single, overwhelming need to be loved by the ‘tastemakers’ shows a real lack of depth or suggests that The Critic is posing (“He’s too smart to really believe that, right?”). Why is he upset that others create comics that he doesn’t like? I assume that artists are trying to make a comic that they believe is good, interesting, funny, moving, or truthful, etc, even when I think it stinks.

Then The Critic will direct his attention to the reader, psychoanalyzing him by making (surprise!) the same argument. This reader, the critic says, thinks that “if the elitists like the comics I like, then I can feel good about myself and the comics I read; respectability, long sought, will finally be mine.” (I have never met anyone like this . . .) So, if you make or like a comic the critic doesn’t like, it must be because you are deeply insecure: he can see no other reason and can’t imagine that other people think differently than he does or like different kinds of stories. Why, though, does this critic constantly return to the issue of validation?

Comics in general have not achieved the status of, say, the novel, but the debate about acceptance is really on its way to being over, a fact that makes these complaints a waste of time, and a bit foolish. Comics by ‘alt-cartoonists’ in particular are being reviewed and printed in mainstream periodicals; their books are being published by major publishing houses, being made into films, and being read in more and more high school and college courses . . .

A cartoonist whose work I sometimes like and whose political essays I usually agree with makes some of these complaints here. Not only does Rall rehash these arguments and offer confident claims about cartoonists’ and readers’ sex lives, but he shows himself to be a shaky reader by the unfounded assumptions and misrepresentations he makes; for example, he calls woman in Ware’s strip a “spinster,” an often derogatory term almost never applied to anyone as young as this main character. Here’s another one: “Daniel Clowes' "Mister Wonderful" treads standard art-comics territory: unattractive boy meets dowdy girl.” It matters a great deal that these main characters are not a boy and girl, but two middle-aged adults with decades of relationship trouble behind them, a history that two teenagers simply could never have. Clearly Rall is trying to be cute here, but he intentionally misrepresents the age of the characters in Clowes’s and Ware’s comics to make them appear to be something they aren’t. If after reading a review/essay, you come away with a completely mistaken impression of what the comic is about, you know the writer is not to be trusted . . . . Is he afraid that if he describes them accurately, they might actually sound appealing?

“I don't know why anyone cares about what other people read,” Rall asks. It’s a good question, one he should ask of himself . . .


Rick Rottman said...

I took “unattractive boy meets dowdy girl” to be a play on “boy meets girl”. As in “boy meets girl/boy loses girl/boy gets girl” kind of story. I didn’t infer from Ted Rall’s piece that the two characters were young, but instead that the story employed the same old romantic love relationship plot device, only with a geeky nerd feel.

Ken Parille said...


I think its Rall's MO to mischaracterize stories that he doesn't like; I suppose you can use "boy meets girl" to refer to adults - though that usage seems unususal to me. Why not say "man meets woman?" And the fact that he was shifty with the age of another character makes him seem disengenuos to me. And given that so much of what happens in Clowes's story does not happen in the typical "boy meets girl" story, why use that term . . .?

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