Welcome to TCJ.com and Oh, By the Way, A Brief History of Comics Criticism While I’m At It

Posted by on December 14th, 2009 at 1:42 AM

Forgive me for thinking so, but there is something moving about this. It is full of optimism, naïveté, supplication, yearning, seriousness, and defiance. It’s as if the entire youngish staff of Graphic Story World were trying to collectively will comics into a universally appreciated, bona fide art form — in the face of complete . Remember, circa 1973: Will Eisner hadn’t been a working cartoonist for almost 20 years. Underground comix’s head-shop distribution network was headed for extinction. Collections of classic newspaper strip were unsaleable. The size of contemporary newspaper strips were shrinking. Marvel and DC were struggling to survive, their own distribution system dissolving. The comic book direct sales market didn’t exist. And yet…

Comics criticism and scholarship was beginning to gain steam. Mike Barrier, who became a first-rate historian of animation, wrote keenly observant essays about comics and cartoonists in Funnyworld, a “fanzine” devoted to animation that he began publishing in 1970. Bill Blackbeard started The San Francisco Academy of Comic Art in 1968 and compiled the most extensive collection of comic strip tear sheets in the country; in 1977, he edited the influential Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics.  Rick Marschall provided research assistance to the Smithsonian Collection, amassed an impressive collection of cartoons and newspaper strips, then proceeded to edit his own comics collections, and edited and wrote for Nemo: The Classic Comics Library from 1983 to 1991.

I’m skipping over a number of worthy writers who devoted themselves to criticism and scholarship in the ’60s and ’70s (and ’80s); I have to emphasize that this is a cursory survey of how critical thought toward comics evolved over the years; time (and “space”) forces me to severely truncate this, for which I apologize.

In 1976 I began co-publishing with Mike Catron (and shortly thereafter, Kim Thompson) The Comics Journal. We were aiming for less respectability than Graphic Story Magazine and Graphic Story World; we eschewed their genteel editorial demeanor and quickly positioned ourselves in an adversarial relationship to the comics establishment (such as it was), running muckraking journalism and combative criticism — lambasting work that we considered stale and fraudulent hackery and championing work of anomalous merit. We practiced a scorched-earth high-mindedness, and felt the need to drag comics, kicking and screaming, into the realm of high art (or whatever approximated it at the time). What differentiated us from previous fanzines with a similar goal was our willingness —OK, eagerness— to mount full-scale frontal assaults on the standards and practices of the business, and of the complacencies and pieties of an infantile professionalism that dominated the attitudes of artists and writers, and continued to retard the medium. If the fanzines that preceded us saw artistically fulfilling comics as a cause, we saw it as a crusade. We pursued his editorial mandate consistently throughout the Journal’s 33-year history in various degrees of intensity and coherence, but the Journal has evolved and changed throughout that period, too, by necessity accommodating the changing times. The biggest change has been the creation of the Internet, which no one could have predicted in 1976 (Scott McCloud was not in the prophecy business at the time).

From the ’50s through the ’60s, writing about comics was relegated almost exclusively to fanzines; the occasional essay by a Leslie Fiedler or an Umberto Eco was either an aberrant tokenism or a freakish nod. The ’70s saw the beginning of an intellectual movement, and in the ’80s and ’90s this movement, if we can call it that, was dominated by the Journal and the work of a handful of the magazine’s best writers (foremost among them, I think, Carter Scholz, Dale Luciano, and R. Fiore —with, again, apologies to many others I could name) and an ambitious agenda of interviews with most of the greatest living cartoonists. The Journal’s centrality evaporated in the face of the Internet’s ability to provide information, news, opinions, gossip, reviews, and, yes, even criticism — all free at the click of a mouse. There is now more writing (and talking) about comics than at any moment in the medium’s history — in the form of bloggers and reviewers and commentators on the Internet — not to mention all the reviews, profiles, interviews, and squibs one sees with increasing frequency in print periodicals, from daily newspapers to literary journals to mass market magazines.

It would stand to reason that we’re living in a Golden Age of criticism. But, we aren’t. Very little writing on the Web is of any real critical worth — or even pretends to be— and there is no journalism to speak of. I have never assiduously followed comics blogging, but so much of what I’ve read feels dashed off — amateurish, shallow, frivolous. Most “reviews” on the Internet seemed written to order on behalf of the marketing departments of publishers — more blurbism than criticism. And although “graphic novels” are now taken seriously by the old guard print media, seriousness isn’t what it used to be, so that comics, in the guise of graphic novels, has the dubious distinction of finally coming of age in an age whose imprimatur is largely meaningless as a barometer of intellectual or aesthetic eminence.

When we decided just a few short months ago to effectively split the Journal between its print incarnation and its digital one by reducing the frequency of the one and beefing up the other, one of our goals was to bring the Journal’s editorial strengths to its website — perspicuous, analytical, passionate, and fearless criticism and commentary about comics. Over the past few years, I noticed a handful of  truly discriminating critics emerging on the web (Robert Martin, Dan Nadel, Bill Randall, Charles Hatfield come to mind), but I never quite knew when they would appear or where — a neurotic remnant, no doubt, of the days when one could eagerly pick up a magazine and look forward to reading a cohesive roster of favorite writers; so, in the event, why not bring as many of them together on a single site as we could? A wide array of distinctive criticism, history, commentary, interviews — on a single site. Raising the bar of intelligent discourse about cartooning was one of our goals and to that end we’ve tried to lure as many of the best writers and bloggers over here as we could, as well as cajoling several old dinosaurs (such as myself) who wrote exclusively for the print magazine (I’m tickled that Rich Kreiner and R. Fiore and Bob Levin and Ken Smith and Don Phelps are writing for the wesbite.) If you’ll glance over the list of names under Bloggers, Essayists, and Reviewers, you’ll notice that we are indeed continuing the Journal’s mission here and that this is a forum for writers — and readers.

It behooves us to acknowledge our critical patrimony, the Quixotic efforts of those who’ve preceded us, and to honor those efforts by continuing the tradition they pioneered in circumstances far less propitious and hopeful than ours — not slavishly but in our own time and in our own voices, but with the same sense of urgency and intelligence and taste, but toward the same Quixotic goal.

Oh, and by the way, welcome to tcj.com.

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10 Responses to “Welcome to TCJ.com and Oh, By the Way, A Brief History of Comics Criticism While I’m At It”

  1. Bhob says:

    A good summary, but a few points:

    The correct title of my 1953 publication was THE EC FAN BULLETIN. Gaines saw the promotional possibilities and added a word, so his promo newsletter was titled THE EC FAN-ADDICT BULLETIN. He invited me to be a “contributing editor” but never used the article I sent him while I was a junior in high school.

    I wouldn’t say that Dick Lupoff “dabbled in comics”. When I met him he was dressed as Captain Marvel! Woody Gelman, in 1961 or 1962, asked him to write something about Fawcett. XERO was designed like an Ace double with two covers; one was sf, with the comics cover on the other side leading into the major comics article. Dick also was involved in several meetings that led to the creation of the first comic book convention.

    You left out Larry Stark, an unfortunate oversight. THE EC FAN BULLETIN’s emphasis was on news rather than criticism. I knew that Larry, who had just graduated from Rutgers, wrote these long letters of criticism to Bill Gaines, and I thought he should reach a wider audience, so in 1954 I created POTRZEBIE (mimeod by Ted White) with the concept that it was not a fanzine but a literary magazine which would mainly feature Larry’s critical insights. As the flip side of Wertham, Larry was the first true comics critic.

    Bhob @ Potrzebie: http://potrzebie.blogspot.com

  2. […] Fantagraphics/TCJ honcho Gary Groth steps onto the balcony of his stronghold to to address the throng and gives a very cogent history of comics criticism while he’s at it: You know why you’re […]

  3. DerikB says:

    “…I noticed a handful of truly discriminating critics emerging on the web (Robert Martin, Dan Nadel, Bill Randall, Charles Hatfield come to mind), but I never quite knew when they would appear or where…”

    I don’t know about Martin, but Randall, Hatfield, and Nadel all have blogs where they post content or links to their content. You subscribe to their blogs (RSS or email) and then you don’t have to go looking.

    One reason it’d be nice if this site made a little more use of the potential for RSS feeds. WordPress makes it super easy.

  4. Gary Groth says:

    I knew there was someone I’d forgotten among those early EC readers and, yes, it was Larry Stark, who was indeed a significant critical catalyst of the time. Thanks to Bhob for pointing that out.

  5. Noah Berlatsky says:

    Robert Martin has a lovely blog.

  6. Domingos says:

    I’m sorry, but I don’t agree with the title. Shouldn’t it be “Welcome to TCJ.com and Oh, By the Way, A Brief History of Comics Fandom While I’m At It?”

  7. […] way of introducing the New Comic Journal website, Gary Groth offers a brief history of comics […]

  8. WLLilly says:

    So , Gary…I assume the Zhu Zhu Pets Hamsters are all sold out in Seattle then ?

  9. Russ Maheras says:

    Nice essay.

  10. R.C. Harvey says:

    “Seriousness isn’t what it used to be” (if it ever was). I admire the phrase (which is actually a clause, for those grammarians still reading). And I also admire the thought it introduces. But it seems to me that your admittedly cursory review of the history of comics criticism has left aside a vital ingredient–namely, the fragments of comics’ past upon which so much discerning criticism must, in one way or another, rest. I’m surprised, for instance, that you left Jules Feiffer out; his superhero book of the early 1960s was a trail-blazer. Ditto the reprint volumes Woody Gelman produced at about the same time. Without the latter, would we ever have unearthed Alex Raymond in sufficient quantity to truly appreciate his achievement? Without the former, would Plastic Man and Jack Cole remain forever buried in the past? Probably not (for both) but Feiffer and Gelman gave us a good head start.
    On another tack, I’ve usually thought of criticism as a way of enhancing appreciation–not as a cause or a crusade. Still, I enjoyed the ramble.