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.]


Pig State Recon said...

I do hope this is all leading up to Blog Flume's astutely analytical re-examination of Tippy Teen. Gidget ain't got nothing on that wild gal!

Charles Hatfield said...

Great post, most thoughtful! I hope to respond at length ASAP.

Anonymous said...

"...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."

absolutely agree.
this also applies to what happens in Europe, not only in American comics

great post (and the previous post on the analysis of the "first-person autobiographical authors")

PD: I love the line (criticism) of this blog!
and I love the Tim's line!

Anonymous said...

This is brilliant. I followed the links from Comics Reporter and I have to say that I agree strongly with your suggestions for analytical criticism.

I love the idea of interviews being work-based and less biographical. The "dreaded questions" (influences, what were your childhood works like) should be the tipping off points toward the real meaty questions and conversations.

There's more good stuff in this article, but I'll leave it there. Excellent post!

Anonymous said...

Preach it. And recent history's had fruitful pairings of critics & artists: Greenberg/Abstract Expressionists, Godard/Sontag, maybe you could count Groth/Los Bros. I might add Raebel/Ware, if I'd ever tracked the thing down.

Which is another way of calling for better platforms for criticism, divorced from the review/PR cycle and outside academic ghettoes.

Comics needs fewer opinions, better reasoning and better prose.

Joe Willy said...

Here, here! I for one am sick of the "I liked it" or "I didn't like it" type of comics criticism. My jaw drops when I run across film reviewers, like on NPR's Fresh Air for example, that truly dig into the story and pull out what's below the surface. Now, I know not enough comics actually have anything below the surface but maybe if more people bothered to look that would be pointed out and more creators would have to step up their game.

Ken Parille said...


Thanks for the positive comments.

For a long time literary criticism was dominated by various strategies of close reading and explication that focused on the text as a “world of its own.” Then came an emphasis on different kinds of historically-based readings in which critics used the text as a way into larger cultural concerns. I sometimes wish that comics criticism (especially in academic journals) could have a period in which aesthetic and formal analysis of comics/graphical novels were emphasized – I’m not against criticism that engages history (all of my writing on children’s literature is rooted in histories of gender and education), it’s just that, for example, there aren’t that many lengthy close readings of a single text that could serve as models for readers of approaches they could take.

Frank Santoro said...

Great post.
But why suggest that the Journal add features or change? Why not fill that void yourself, in your own way, online or in print, and by your example encourage others to do the same? Asking for the Journal to augment their approach is too much, even if it's just a suggestion. They set the bar high 20 years ago. If they aren't what they used to be, so what? It's up to us to take the baton now. They did their job.

Ken Parille said...


I think that in some ways Blog Flume -- and you, Todd, and Dan at ComicsComics, Charles and Craig at Thought Balloonists, Bill and DerikB and others -- are filling this void. And I published a lengthy analytical essay on a single comic - David Boring - in Comic Art 7 that follows suggestion #1. And these suggestions could, of course, be taken up by anyone.

Frank Santoro said...


I think I read too much into what you were asking of the Journal, I'd like them to change too, but alas...

and I enjoyed that article on David Boring very much.

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