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Comics Criticism: Seven Hot Takes for Summer 2016

She tweeted that “comics criticism is trash and must be destroyed.” Does “comics” agree? In this episode, Grid veers away from comics boosterism (and moves perilously close to parody) as we search for answers. That, and Frank Cho’s unmentionables.

1.  “Grow up!”

It was once the bane of the comics connoisseur: the “Comics Have Finally Grown Up” article. Enlightened readers know that for decades, if not centuries, cartoonists around the world have been creating sophisticated art for smart folks, young and old. Thankfully, that article, of which there were too many for too long, has fallen by the wayside. But an equally specious think-piece is emerging to fill the vacuum: the “Comics Can’t Grow Up Unless It Promotes the Kinds of Things I Like” essay. Of course, the writer never puts it quite that directly.

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In a popular subgenre of the “Comics Can’t Grow Up Unless…” piece, the writer argues that the “medium” cannot mature or progress unless it values and supports children’s and YA graphic novels. The majority of comics I read are for children and teenagers, but I don’t expect, or require, you to share my enthusiasm for Little Dot, Our Love Story, Bunny, Wonder Book of Rubber, Fast Willie Jackson, or Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen (I also teach Children’s Literature for a living). It’s weird to say that “comics” won’t be fully grown until “it” embraces books for people who are not fully grown. Would anyone say the novel can’t mature unless it embraces paranormal teen fiction (which I’ve also taught)? No. Why do (some) comics critics say such weird things about comics?

If you wanted to prove that online comics criticism is still in its figurative infancy (which I don’t), you might look to the many discussions about comics that obsess over the notion of “the role model.” While parents and teachers need to contemplate ‘appropriateness’ when selecting material for children, why is it so important to adult readers? (Maybe that’s the problem: “Comics really are for kids!”) Why would anyone look to, say, a corporate-owned super-being for inspiration about how to live? Or be sad and angry when they don’t get the appropriate uplift? Maybe growing up means accepting that Wondrous Lad and Powerful Lass can’t save us. If comics really were for adults, we wouldn’t freak out when we learn that Wondrous Lad was actually a KGB agent all along.

Perhaps online “comics criticism,” and even “mainstream comics” itself, are trapped, not in their infancy, but in their tween years. A dominant and celebrated mode of contemporary comics-making relies excessively on cutesy quippery, with a dumbed-down Gilmore Girls meets iCarly dialogue that reads as if written by the proverbial 35-year-old man living in mom’s paneled, shag-carpeted basement, and who, with his liberal use of “youth vernacular,” is desperate to be “down.” (It’s most often created by men, but a few women deserve blame, too.)

Like all trends, this too shall pass — maybe. Here’s a sign that will indicate “the growing up of mainstream comics”: we’ll see a lot of physically unattractive (and perhaps even OLD) people as non-villainous main characters. And as we mature and acknowledge the ugliness within each of us, we will allow ourselves to identify with ugliness on the page. I once read a comic in which the writer said its female characters represented the wide range of modern womanhood. Yet their ages “ranged” from around 16 to 21, and all were very attractive. It reminded me of the traditional European fairy tales that celebrate beautiful young women and vilify old women as evil stepmothers, witches, ogresses, hags, etc. Perhaps “comics” has not only failed to mature, but has even regressed. Or at least it sometimes seems that way.

A recent incident in the ongoing saga of comic books and women’s bodies is informative. The real moral of the “Frank Cho draws a little section of Wonder Woman’s undies” dustup is not that Cho is a jerk or that Greg Rucka is a control freak (artist Cho drew the panties and wanted them visible, writer Rucka wanted them censored, so censored they were). It’s that many (but not all) mainstream comics creators and producers seem trapped in a mindset that sees mainstream comic books as ‘product’ that must be child-friendly and adult-aspirational, like some kind of sanitized, de-sexualized fairy tale. Men are fighting over a fictional woman’s body in an effort to keep it safe for prudish adult readers and (non-existent) child readers, who I guess have never seen or heard of “panties.” Why should it matter that Cho wanted to show two square inches of Wonder Woman’s (w)underwear when her entire costume is pretty sexualized already? She has long been, and still is for many male and female readers, a sex/power fantasy. Perhaps Cho understands the nature of conventional mainstream American superhero comics (i.e., fetish fantasies masquerading as moral tales) better than his critics.

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2. “‘We love vague generalities!”

“Comics Can’t Grow Up Unless . . .” essays often play fast and loose with terminology, using different concepts as if they’re interchangeable: “comics,” “the comics industry,” “the comics medium,” “the comics community.” These terms typically refer to different things (and more often to nothing concrete), so when people use them so loosely, I can’t tell what the author is really talking about. It helps to be specific. Yet . . . if we rail against something vast like “comics,” this proves we must be better than everyone in comics, which is a lot of people to be better than! This position might make us feel good as long as the ‘likes’ keep coming in, but in the long run it won’t help anybody.

Saying that “comics” or the “comics medium” needs to “mature” or “grow up” is bizarre. It’s like scolding pen and paper (or digital stylus and tablet) for acting immaturely. It’s odd to turn your particular preference into a global imperative that a medium must embrace. Personification precedes Pontification: If a critic personifies “comics” in order to be the adult berating the figurative child (i.e., everybody else), this might say something about the critic, but little about comics. “Comics” is not one thing (duh), so why do so many online critics see it as a community whose members need to share a set of values and tastes? (Demographic studies have identified at least thirty-nine distinct comics communities and conclude that many “comics people” share no meaningful connection with other “comics people,” and that’s ok.)

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A brief anecdote: Several years back, I read a piece in which the author attacked “comics” as morally corrupt, citing four or five critics as evidence. After googling the web, searching twitter, etc., I found far more people who agreed with the author than with his/her opponents. So, while the author claimed that his/her position was the minority view, it looked to be the clear majority (it certainly appeared so on twitter). But was my “sample” and “method” exhaustive enough to be in any way valid? No. From a reliability point of view, my “study” was weak, just like the author’s assertions. When we over-invest in online/social media comics conversations, we sometimes grant the opposition a louder voice than it actually has.

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3. “Comics will never advance as an art form unless publishers and cartoonists learn to take harsh criticism!”

I read something like this recently and have seen the claim countless times over the years. But the logic seems off: It makes negative criticism (i.e., writing that attacks a comic) the condition from which good comics emerge. Advocates of this position believe that negative criticism fosters “the maturation of the art form” (there’s that bogus ‘growing’ metaphor again . . .). Yet, especially in the last few decades, we’ve seen the publication of many great comics that didn’t depend on critics. It may be that negative criticism was needed in the past century as a way to point out readers’ and critics’ low standards and tendency toward hyperbole: “The comic in which The Green Lighting’s boy-pal Wondrous Lad takes drugs is truly the Hamlet of our day!” But in this post-millennial moment, less so.

Critics and reviewers like to grant themselves a preeminent role in “the growth of art.” I accept my place as a second-class participant, a well-meaning parasite who leeches off of the work of my artistic and creative superiors. I could do worse.

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Criticism can be artful (or not) and can play an important role during an artist’s creative process, but afterwards? Less so. Occasionally, reviews can make a difference, especially when it comes to highlighting overlooked work and helping readers enjoy or appreciate interesting art. I’d like for written criticism to be more central to art and society and life, but it is what it is.

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4. “I’m not that relevant, and I’m kind of ok about it . . . ”

If you ask a comics critic who/what is the most important element in the world of “comics,” don’t be surprised if the answer is . . . The Comics Critic! But who really advances The Cause in meaningful ways? Here’s a list, loosely arranged from most important on down:

Good Cartoonists.
Publishers and Editors who identify and support good cartoonists.
Educators from kindergarten to college teachers who discuss comics in their classes.
Librarians who order, display, and recommend comics. (Like teachers, librarians help to create a new generation of comics readers.)
Editors of and Reviewers for important and widely-read publications.
Publishers’ Publicity People (who help good work find its audience).
Readers who seek out “the good stuff.”
Everybody else.

[Is it possible that bad writing about comics harms The Cause? I don’t think so, but maybe . . .]

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5. “Since your assessment contradicts mine, you are a $#@%^!”

Why isn’t there a single good place to talk about comics online, one that’s free from clowns and name calling? “That’s the internet,” you’ll say, and you’re right. Oh well.

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6. “Slow down, you’re reading too fast!”; or, same as it ever was.

Early in 2015, I wrote about a subtlety-averse, highly ideological comics critic I labeled “the millennial literalist.” Though I didn’t read any comments on the piece (a feat that, in the Age of Internet Narcissism, I’m proud of), I heard some grumbling and grousing second-hand and recently received a message that sparked a conversation with someone I’ll call X. With X’s permission, I reprint a few excerpts of our exchange. For me, X’s comments represent a still popular mode of comics crit, a “smash and grab” approach that sees what it wants and needs to see, rather than slowing down to carefully observe what’s there. And X would no doubt say the same of my “style,” such as it is.

X: your attack on millennials was completely inappropriate. we are not a monolithic group you know

Me: I agree, and the piece was not about any demographic, which I say many, many times, such as at the end of the second paragraph: “This practice really isn’t the province of any ‘demographic’ . . . . anyone can be an instant literalist.” I make it clear that people have been doing this for millennia: “The Millennial Literalist, of course, isn’t an idiosyncratic expression of this new century’s technological fetishes and addictions. Time-travel back two millennia to 380 B.C. and we’ll find the ML’s father-figure and kindred spirit in Plato’s Socrates.”

X:  but you repeatedly call people you don’t like millennials

Me: Not really. I was attacking a mean-spirited, knee-jerk way of misreading that’s enabled — and even encouraged — by post-millennial social media platforms. I’ll say it again: People of all ages are like this. The literalist, whether 18 or 80, takes things literally and is tone-deaf to the arty qualities of art.

X: then why use the word millennial? you must have known it would piss people off. everyone knows what a millennial is

Me: For some people, “millennial” refers only to an age-based demographic. Not for me, not for the dictionary, etc. I purposefully use the word in different ways throughout the essay, and I especially like the religious sound and connotation of the phrase “millennial literalist,” which connects it to “biblical literalism,” a way of reading that’s also kooky. We live in a culture in which buzzwords often do our thinking for us. I’m saying we should resist this. My guess was that buzz-word-obsessed readers would instantly fixate on this term (almost every question you asked was about it) and ignore what I actually said. If it was a trap, some folks charged right into it, kind of proving my point. Perhaps that makes me a bad person.

X: it might

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7. “Post-Relevancy Criticism!”

2017 will see the birth of a bold new school of comics criticism, which I name here, for the first time, “Post-Relevancy Comics Criticism.” Frightened and exhausted by the “new-abnormal” in The Era of President Trump, a small but intrepid cadre of critics will proclaim that the only true way to rebel is to reject what seemingly every online critic yearns for: relevancy. Members of this new breed, who style themselves (somewhat pretentiously) as “Hermeneutic Escapists,” will leave behind our world’s dreary and ceaseless flow of “hot topics” and “hot takes.” No more desperate Craptain America stink-pieces with penetrating, never-before-heard insights: “Superheroes are Role Models!” — “Superheroes are Fascists!” No more bizarre claims like “If The Wolverine were a better man, then male comic-book readers would become better men.” No more being conned by corporations into thinking that the newest version of yet another 1960s male “super-champion” always represents a genuine triumph for diversity, when it could be just more product marketing, more media hype. As a scholarly type might say, “this ostensibly new character iteration is merely a chimera; under the cloak of progressivity, it reinscribes the white male as the narrative engine that drives the project of disseminating patriarchal ideology through entertainment.” That, and it’s really boring; create something new instead.

Relevancy criticism often plays an ironic joke on its writer. We’re convinced that we matter when calling out the man and his corrupt ideology, but perhaps our truth-to-power musings and mumblings only advance the corporate agenda: “Everybody’s talking about the scandalous new issue of Wondrous Lad! So I bought a copy and tore it apart on my blog!” We excitedly create free buzz for mega-corporations and they move more units. Who’s the chump now?

Not the post-relevancy comics critic. She refuses to be co-opted, to be an unsuspecting shill for shit. An aesthetic adventurer with a sublime sensitivity to image, form, and detail, she seeks out comics that the mainstream ignores — yes, even fears! She heroically undertakes the sub-minimum-wage, time-consuming, socially-unrewarding, and emotionally-alienating journey of reading and writing about comics with deliberate care. She returns from her solitary excursions with something revelatory — and irrelevant — to offer us. She’s my role model.

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Ken Parille is editor of The Daniel Clowes Reader: A Critical Edition of Ghost World and Other Stories. He teaches at East Carolina University and his writing has appeared in The Best American Comics CriticismThe Believer, Nathaniel Hawthorne ReviewTulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, Children’s LiteratureComic ArtBoston Review, and elsewhere.

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