Best Online Comics Criticism of 2010

Posted by on January 20th, 2011 at 2:29 PM

Okay, this happened because last year some dudes did a list of the best online comics criticism, and a bunch of nitpickers whined that it didn’t include anything about manga or anything by women.  So for 2010 they came up with a more rigorous selection process and invited some manga fans and women (lotta overlap in that Venn diagram) to vote on the essays, and I was one of the new people with boobs and manga they invited.  And since I had also been one of the whiny nitpickers, I had no choice but to participate.

Which I totally loved doing, of course, because there is nothing I enjoy more than bossing people around with my opinions.  I’m also a Gallup pollster.

The process involved a lot of reading.  I mean, a lot of reading.  Especially in the first quarter of 2010, when the panelists turned in tons of nominations to prove we were on top of things.  By the fourth quarter, we were all slacking off except for the two or three people who actually do read all the comics criticism on the Internet, so there were considerably fewer nominations.  But the final list was still crazy long.  And yes, I did read all the nominees, even the ones that went on for, like, pages.

So.  The final list, with my bossy opinions.

SIX VOTES

(1) Jason Thompson: The Other Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name (and other articles)

A no-brainer.  Thompson’s writing on manga got six out of seven possible votes, more than any other critic received. Jason Thompson is simply the best English-language writer on manga, and one of the best writers on comics, period. To begin with, he knows every damn thing about manga; he has about fifteen years of experience as a manga editor and rewriter, he was the first editor of Shonen Jump magazine, he read every manga available in English translation for his book Manga: The Complete Guide, he used to sleep in a bed made from his manga collection, I could go on but it would start getting scary.

But beyond his expertise, Thompson brings a humanity to his writing that takes it beyond dry criticism and into a thoughtful, wryly amused exploration of why he and so many other people choose to immerse themselves in this stuff.  In his regular column “House of 1,000 Manga,” a discussion of Maison Ikkoku becomes a story about growing up and discovering love.  A column on Video Girl Ai becomes a meditation on teenage lust as an experience simultaneously sublime and mundane.  A column on Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure…okay, that’s mostly just about how awesome Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure is, but it’s a really awesome manga.

This win is technically for “The Other Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name,” on the squicky and seldom-explored theme of incest in manga, but just about everybody on the nominating committee had a favorite Jason Thompson piece.  My initial nomination was for his column on the mad Yuu Watase gender-studies-thesis-masquerading-as-a-shojo-manga Ceres: Celestial Legend, but hell, they’re all good.

FIVE VOTES

(1)  Katherine Dacey: Ayako

Dacey is probably the best regular manga reviewer online, and she can always be counted on to provide an original take on the material.  Some of her best work is on the more offbeat/literary titles, a breath of fresh air in the manga blogosphere, which too often overlooks innovative or classic work in favor of the current big thing.  Her comparison of Ayako, a typically insane Tezuka graphic novel, to Russian realist novels is the kind of unique, interesting approach typical to her pieces.  I initially voted for her comparison of Sexy Voice and Robo to Harriet the Spy, which has the kind of light humor and whimsy lacking from a lot of the nominees (we tend to get all serious when we’re assembling a best-of), but her Ayako review is excellent too.

(2)  Joe McCulloch: The Problem with American Vampires Is That They Just Don’t Think

Speaking of whimsy, Jog of course got massive bonus points just for the title of his essay on the demise of the thought balloon.  There were some good essays on comics formalism among the nominees; I also really liked Ed Piskor’s The Art of Cause and Effect in a Solitary Comic Panel.  Jog provides a nice overview and analysis of a question often asked by comics outsiders (including, in this piece, Stephen King): “Why don’t characters use thought balloons anymore?”

FOUR VOTES

(1)  Craig Fischer: Born Again Again

The adaptation of Paul Auster’s City of Glass done by Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli is one of my all-time favorite comics, and I’ve long been curious about Mazzucchelli’s weird and varied career.  Fischer’s in-depth comparison of two wildly different Mazzucchelli comics, his recent graphic novel Asterios Polyp and his run on Daredevil: Born Again, may be the only meaty criticism I’ve ever read of Mazzucchelli, which is one of those things that’s just wrong about comics.

THREE VOTES

(1)  David Bordwell: Tintinopolis

Just a solid essay on what makes Herge a great cartoonist, and also how crazy popular he is in Belgium, with photo evidence.  Sometimes these things aren’t too complicated; you just explain stuff about how Tintin works.

(2)  Dirk Deppey: The Mirror of Male-Love Love

This one, on the other hand, goes beyond description.  Deppey and I were both on a tcj.com roundtable on yaoi, specifically reviewing a book of academic papers on yaoi and shonen ai.  Deppey put in his two cents, and then, out of the blue, he turned in a “sidebar” several times the length of his main essay, a piece that starts out by delving into the historical precedents for male-male romance literature, in Japan and elsewhere, and then becomes an intensely personal discussion of what this all means in the life of one particular gay man who grew up in late-20th-century America.  As Deppey continues, his trademark snarkiness falls away, layer after layer, revealing pain and joy and, in the end, some level of contentment.

It’s the best thing he’s ever written, and he’s written some damn good stuff in his day (except when he’s dissing on me, in which case he’s totally wrong).  And, I cannot stress enough, it came out of nowhere.  This list would have no meaning if Deppey’s piece weren’t on it somewhere.

(3)  Ken Parille: Casper, Formalism, and the “Great” Search Party

To be honest, I feel this piece is a little slight.  It feels like the beginning of a much more thorough discussion of the core building blocks of visual storytelling, using old children’s comics as ideal stripped-down examples.  (Ditko Spider-Mans would be good for this.)  But Parille is on-target with his analysis of how and why a particular page of Casper the Friendly Ghost works at telling a story, plus I love the banal insanity of old Harvey comics, so I hells of voted for it.

Some Other Nominees I Really Liked:

1) Brian Chippendale: Secret Avengers 1

Mean-spirited and constantly veering off in bizarre directions: that’s how I like my reviews of superhero comics.

2) Sarah Boxer: America’s First Wordless Novelist

To see how far comics criticism has come, compare Art Spiegelman’s recent essay on Lynd Ward, the type of uncritical, stubbornly defensive push for comics-as-art that was common—nay, necessary—twenty years ago, with Boxer’s much more nuanced piece, which approaches Ward as an important artist and seriously analyzes what does and doesn’t work in his comics.  I really wanted this one to make the final list.

3) Peter Sattler: Crumb’s Limited Literalism

For similar reasons, I really enjoyed watching Sattler knock Crumb off his pedestal and point out that, as brilliant a draftsman as he is, there are things he doesn’t do well—like, say, anything requiring subtlety—and that his much-praised adaptation of Genesis brings out some of his worst artistic habits.

4) Chris Sims: “Life With Archie: The Married Life” #1 Is the Most Fascinating Archie Comic of All Time

Okay, this one’s just hilarious.  All the more so because Sims is simply describing what actually happens in the “Archie gets married” series, in case you weren’t following it.

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One Response to “Best Online Comics Criticism of 2010”

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