Parameters of Comics Criticism

There’s been talk lately about comics critics’ preoccupation with the writing in comics, and about whether their reviews ought to include more discussion of the art. It’s probably uncontroversial to say that art does get ignored in most comics reviews, and this oversight is unfortunate, since artwork makes up the majority of what we read on the page. Ignoring a comic’s art is like ignoring a prose novel’s descriptions of places, characters, and events, preferring to address only the dialogue and the plot. Much that makes comics unique and affecting is passed over. However, as many critics freely admit, comics critics often lack the interest or training to discuss art smartly. Their concern is usually whether Adrian Veidt was right, not whether he was drawn right. Must they toss in a few shallow, obligatory remarks about the art, regardless of their fitness to do so? Should they try to bone up on art by reading some books on the subject, to at least appear informed as they critique artists who have studied the subject for decades? Or should they admit defeat, and continue to ignore the visuals through which they receive most of the narrative they wish to review? Well, no, no, and no. I think between silence and babble we can find a workable middle ground.

One of the favorite comebacks of a critiqued artist, no matter the medium, is “I’d like to see you do better!” The assumption seems to be that only those who have mastered the professional’s craft are qualified to criticize his performance. This is silly. We may as well say that only a former President is qualified to vote against a presidential candidate. Back to monarchy! While it’s clear that not everyone is qualified to be a President (or an artist), it’s also clear that most of us are qualified to cry foul at bad leadership (or bad art). Like leadership, art is a public enterprise which depends for its effectiveness on understanding the public’s needs and sympathies. Who better to comment on its effectiveness than the public?

“But the public is an idiot,” some will argue. “The public liked Richard Nixon. The public liked Thomas Kinkade.” Enter critics. To the extent that an antidote to public idiocy can be hoped for, the critic is it. The ideal critic reads widely, thinks deeply about what he’s read, and can lead the public by the hand during the foggy or steep stretches of their readerly journey. The ideal critic is the ideal reader, but with a sharper knack for explaining his responses to a book. And there, I think, is where the critic finds firm ground from which to speak: in his thoughtful response to the work of art. Contrary to the complaints of the wounded artist, the ideal critic does not explain to artists how to draw, or even to authors how to write. He instead explains something about which he is indeed an authority: his own encounter with the work. How does this comic’s artwork affect an ideal reader? What are that reader’s feelings upon poring over this string of images? These are crucial questions which a good critic is supremely qualified to answer. Even moreso than comic creators themselves, who are usually too busy with creating or with questions of craft to immerse themselves as thoroughly and subjectively in a broad pool of comics.

Yes, subjectively. Typically, objectivity is held up as the critic’s honor code, and it is important for critics to be objective about whether, for instance, they hated a comic because of the comic or because of indigestion. But a critic’s objectivity should judge his subjective response to the comic, rather than the comic itself. This subjective, personal response to the comic is the “middle ground” I mentioned initially, and forms the boundary of the critic’s authority to criticize works he lacks the skill to create. An objective critique of a comic’s art might observe that the perspective was faked, or that the inking was rushed, but here a critic not trained in art would be venturing into foreign territory. (Too often I’ve seen ignorant critics condemn art as “rushed” or “phoned in,” when I knew from personal observation that it was neither. The trouble, if any, had other causes.) Instead, he should stick with what he knows: how did the art make him feel? Are the environments credible? Do they foster the desired mood? It’s enough for him to observe whether the pictures do their job; precise diagnoses of the hows and whys can be left to artists.

So, we return the critic to the activity which best suits him, and which first inspired him to pursue his role: enjoying thoughtful, deeply felt encounters with a breadth of material, and sharing the same with a curious public. In comics, artwork is part of that experience, but the critic doesn’t need to master how art is made; only how it makes him feel.

3 thoughts on “Parameters of Comics Criticism

  1. Yeah, same here. As an aspiring artist in high school, it galled me that we learned fairly high-level stuff in chemistry and math (not high-level to scientists, of course, but high-level in the sense that it would never be used or understood outside of a lab), while in art class we were only taught kindergarten stuff — “red and blue make purple,” etc. Presumably math and science have more practical applications than art for most students, but if practical knowledge were the priority, they should have taught us how to prepare food and tax returns, not work quadratic equations. So, kids learn about the stars and algebra and other rudiments of math and science, but where art is concerned, they’re still back in the Stone Age. (I recall surprising one young woman with the news that comic book art is still drawn by human beings, instead of being “made by computers.” Oy.)

    And, like you said, there’s a lot of prose-reading and book-reporting in HS and college that prepares future comics critics to engage with the literary aspects of comics, not so much reading or writing of art criticism or aesthetics.

    I’d also blame the 20th century’s (hopefully waning) aesthetic relativism for much of this. Students were told for so long that art is wholly subjective that they have no hope now of explaining or even affirming that Alex Toth drew better than Image Clone #342.

  2. Ah, the Burne Hogarth fan!

    If comics held no interest beyond selling or reading them, we wouldn’t be here discussing them.

  3. Yeah, art was the main point of interest when I read comics as a kid, but I found over the past ten or fifteen years that the focus has shifted to writing. I don’t think anyone even argues for this shift; it’s just an unexamined assumption, often made by people who came to comics from prose and are trying to grant comics the same respect by approaching them the same way.

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