Best American Comics Criticism Roundtable: Ah Critics, They’re All Just Frustrated Critics.

Posted by on August 23rd, 2010 at 1:43 AM

Opening contributions from Ng Suat Tong, Noah Berlatsky, Caroline Small, Jeet Heer, Brian Doherty and BACC editor Ben Schwartz; responses from Caroline Small, Ng Suat Tong, Jeet Heer, Noah Berlatsky and Ben Schwartz.

 


From Asterios Polyp, ©2009 David Mazzucchelli.

 

I certainly have mixed feelings about being a part of this. I had my say in the introduction to The Best American Comics Criticism. Then again, critics of BACC didn’t much pay attention to my introduction. So much for the high road. Friends told me, “Don’t do it! You’ll look thin-skinned and over-sensitive.”

But, I am thin-skinned and over-sensitive. I also realized that, whereas BACC is an anthology making clear what I like, this gives me a chance to talk about critical writing I don’t like.

First let me say, editing BACC wasn’t easy. I meant it when I said we’re in a golden age of critical writing about comics, from history and biography to blogs and reviews — all of which I tried to represent. I tried for a sampling of the most interesting points of view on comics, where I learned something. Some stories, like Fiore’s on 9/11, reflect events of the times. Others, like Jeet Heer’s groundbreaking piece on Frank King, show a journalist making news.

There is also a lot being said about my use of the term “lit comics,” which has offended some of the critics I discuss below. “Lit comics” means two things to me. As to form, it’s a much better term than “graphic novel,” because it applies to both fiction and nonfiction. It also isn’t married to the length of the book, the long form “novel” any more than the term literature means only novels. It applies to War and Peace as much as it does a “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”

That’s why I need to correct what I wrote on p. 12, where I conflate the term “lit comics” with the phrase “original graphic novel,” as used by Marvel’s Joe Quesada. Earlier, I offer a much more nuanced idea of “lit comics,” and it’s more expansive to me than just long-form fiction.

There’s more to be said about the term lit comics, but I’ll get to that in a minute. As to the critics who have written about the book, I concede a big point to Erin Polgreen at Attackerman, who brought up the book’s No. 1 failing. She writes:

But of all the essays in the book, only one is written by a woman. That’s a big let down. While Sarah Boxer’s piece about George Herriman’s Creole heritage — and how it played into his comics — is brilliant, it’s incredibly disappointing that it’s the only work of critical thinking by a lady in the entire book.

To that I can only say, I tried. I looked. I really did. I missed Nicole Rudick’s Believer interview with Adrian Tomine. Rudick got an insightful discussion going with Tomine, as she did recently there with Dan Clowes. Rudick caught Tomine’s unique perspective and professional position in this era of the “graphic novel,” and I wish I’d seen it. The other writer, Laurel Maury, has written a number of excellent reviews about comics for NPR, which you can check out here.

So, three women — that doesn’t make the situation much better. I found that most women who write about comics have the same bad taste as most guys who write about comics. As writing about comics continues to interest talented people, I’m sure this is already changing.

That said, I’ve had two reviews of the book that were pretty negative, one by Noah Berlatsky here on TCJ and one by Sean Howe in Bookforum. To those critics who liked it, like Vice‘s Nick Gazin and several blogs, I’m grateful. Especially for Nick’s opener, “You might guess that this book is a snoozer but if that’s the case you’re a presumptious loser.”

Today, however, it’s all about the power of negative thinking. Mine, anyway.

First, Berlatsky got quite bent out of shape about the title and why the specific dates 2000-2008, which the book covers, weren’t laid out in the title itself. Why not? I changed it several times. When it came time to finally title it, I liked it as simple as possible, and figured that the jacket copy and the free downloadable introduction from Fantagraphics would explain its context to everyone. And they do — at length.

But then, here’s where Berlatsky took it:

Of course, I understand how these things happen. Schwartz and/or Fanta wanted to create a book focusing on the lit comics revolution they care about, without having to think about manga or on-line comics or random comics criticism written 50 years ago by god knows who and lord knows who holds the rights. But they figured that a book called “Literary Comics, Literary Criticism, 2000-2008″ would sound like it was created by a bunch of boring, insular stuffed shirts who rarely peer over the towering castle walls of the luxurious Fanta compound. So they figured, “you know, if we call this Best American Comics,” it’ll sound like all those other “Best American” books, and people will buy it because they like Best American things — and, what the hell, literary comics are the best anyway, and only the best people write about them, so it isn’t like we’re lying really.”

I mean, I don’t begrudge Schwartz and Fantagraphics trying to sell books. Capitalism is capitalism…

I take full responsibility for the title. Fanta went with all the various titles I “decided” on, even announcing a few. Or as Joe McCulloch put it on his ComicsComics blog, “third time’s the charm?” Maybe it’s all that Canadian socialist healthcare I’ve read so much about, but McCullogh wasn’t fooled one second by my Yankee trickery.

Still, this is why Noah Berlatsky is so difficult to take seriously. He pushes things in a viscerally personal way, then dresses it up as an ethics lesson — all for a book he denounces while blithely admitting he hasn’t even read it. The publisher’s jacket copy, downloadable PDF of the introduction, and the table of contents, are available to anyone, anytime, for free. Free — so much for the cynical capitalists at Fantagraphics.

Yet Berlatsky still accuses me of deception. That’s a pretty desperate reach to get to his point, his longstanding dislike of literary comics (well, his definition of them) and a book he presumes is only about those he dislikes. He takes the title of BACC with such literal constipation that I’m not surprised he couldn’t be bothered to even read the table of contents.

As Berlatsky writes, “The best piece of criticism ever may have been about manga, or on-line comics, or mainstream comics, or may have been written, for that matter, in 1968 — but none of those pieces are eligible to go in this book, because this book focuses on criticism about literary comics between 2000-2008.”

BACC isn’t all reviews, nor is it all about Berlatsky’s narrow definition of lit comics — mostly defined, if I recall past Berlatsky — by his two bêtes noires, Mr. Clowes and Mr. Ware. A perusal of the table of contents makes clear my definition of comics’ literary cartooning figures is nowhere near as limited.

While lit comics are the single biggest story in comics in the last 10 years (with the exception of movies co-opting comics as the home of the superhero) it’s not the only story, many of which are covered (Fiore on 9/11, Herriman’s race, the History section). Finally, I’d argue that Brian Doherty’s and John Hodgman’s and Gerard Jones’ are possibly the best pieces on superheroes done in 2000-2008, and I didn’t miss them.

However, this is a classic Berlatsky deflection — arguing work down by proposing something better that doesn’t even exist. In 2007, I wrote him off for this opinion from his blog:

And there’s a whole generation of potential cartoonists growing up who see manga, not super-heroes, as the standard. In moments of hope, I think that in twenty years Chris Ware and Dan Clowes and The Comics Journal will all be seen as a quaint detour in the history of the medium, and comics will be a hugely popular, aesthetically vital medium mostly created by women in a manga style.

True, you never can tell where people will stand critically and commercially over the years (please, see BACC‘s Appraisals section for several such discussions). It’s even harder when one is as ignorant about Clowes and Ware’s backgrounds as artists. However, unlike Berlatsky, I have to deal with comics and writing that exists. I can’t offer imaginary comics or critics of the future to prove a point.

Berlatsky then pulls the same thing with me, imagining a perfect manga review that I must have missed due to his pet hate of lit comics which proves my book a disaster. How am I supposed to argue with that kind of hypothetical?

Manga needs a Manny Farber, a Pauline Kael, a Lester Bangs more than it does another great artist — some one to extol it with passion, wit, and knowledge. I don’t see that advocate out there. If Berlatsky did, maybe he would have pointed one out to me. I was refused one great piece by an author who felt that, on reflection, it didn’t hold up. I hoped to pair it up with Gary Groth’s Tatsumi interview — where Tatsumi explains manga versus gekiga in detail. Disagree with him? Debate that, but don’t tell me it’s not there. I personally learned more about Japanese comics from Tatsumi’s comparisons than most reviews I read extolling one over the other. Simply put, Berlatsky would be hard-pressed to make the argument that the pieces involving Elder (2), Ditko (3), Frank Miller (4), or the David Hajdu and Gerard Jones excerpts, only cover the lit comics he personally despises.

Berlatsky has other issues I’ll go into as they dovetail with Sean Howe’s piece on BACC in Bookforum. Howe writes most frequently on comics for Entertainment Weekly, whose editorial slant he apparently brings with him wherever he goes.

As I write this, EW‘s Green Lantern cover is burning up the Internet because die-hard Lantern fans don’t like the costume. (Nor do I. What’s with the big mask?) Harvey Pekar’s death is given a single paragraph on p. 31. Of course, Howe isn’t responsible for the covers or editing EW (the most comics-friendly general-interest magazine there is) but after reading his review of BACC, I can’t imagine him quitting in protest. He writes:

The road to respectability has been a long one for comic books; in fact, it’s felt like the home stretch for ages now. Despite all the progress, there’s been nothing like a canon of comics criticism. A few criteria for inclusion would then be expected from a book titled The Best American Comics Criticism, but editor Ben Schwartz tosses these aside ([…] but there’s no explanation for including court-case documents, Q&As, and comic-book excerpts under the banner of criticism).

I tossed aside any criteria for inclusion in the book? The introduction, on p.13-14 argues that we are in a golden age of writing about comics and each section — Context, History, Appraisals, Reviews, Interviews — and most every individual piece, is introduced. Of course no single criterion exists for so many formats. It’s not a book of only reviews or monographs. Why would Howe assume a reader wants that?

Well, because he’s used to writing for Entertainment Weekly. What Howe seems to want is the kind of handy capsule-writing at which EW excels. He reviewed Asterios Polyp and gave Mazzucelli an “A.” He reviewed Clowes’ Wilson, which he found “exhausting,” and gave it a “B.” I assume his dislike of BACC earns me the same damning “B.” And judging by the comments section of the Mazzucelli review, EW readers appear just as irritated with Howe’s casual reading style as I am.

He obviously skimmed my introduction, or he would not write:

And if this is indeed meant as a “primer” to the golden years so painstakingly defined, why then do nearly half the entries concern comics that first appeared more than forty years ago.

I specifically point out that BACC is not a Top 10 Comics Graphic Novels You Need to Read list. It’s about the writers. Comics history and redefining the canon is a large part of current critical writing, some of its best, which make them topical despite their subject’s age. Dispute that if you like, but the explanation is there. Howe:

An exaltation of Steve Ditko’s difficult and divisive Mr. A (1967–1978) follows a takedown of Ditko’s beloved work on Spider-Man (1962–1966), which has all the logic of presenting a celebration of Godard’s loathed Tout va bien (1972) alongside a dismissal of his adored Contempt (1963) as an introduction to the past decade’s cinema.

Again, Howe cherry-picks in his reading. Alan Moore’s lengthy discussion of Ditko revels in Ditko’s 1960s Spider-Man work. Still, this is where Howe’s thumbs up/thumbs down sensibility hits overload. The Ditko pieces appear in the Appraisals section to reflect changing and diverse views of Ditko: his politics, strengths, limitations — and then Bagge and Moore take opposite ends of the argument regarding Stan Lee’s contribution to Ditko’s work. This is followed by Donald Phelps’ brilliant dissection of Mr. A.

 


Spider-Man Writer: Stan Lee, Penciler/Inker: Steve Ditko; ©1962-1965 and 2001 Marvel Characters, Inc.

 

Ditko is complex. Dumbing him down is a disservice. Howe took the title of his own anthology, Give Our Regards to the Atom Smashers!, from a cherished bit of Ditko-era Spider-Man dialogue. Small wonder a view not within his fannish tastes frustrates him so. And Howe is a passionate fan, as his enraptured review of Roy Thomas and Peter Sanderson’s coffee-table book of Marvel memorabilia, The Marvel Vault, makes clear.

Howe also disputes my argument that lit comics went, or became, the mainstream of comics, in the past decade. He writes:

What about pre-Y2K successes like Clowes’s Ghost World and Chester Brown’s I Never Liked You? Were Harvey Pekar’s Late Night appearances and the 1982 movie adaptation of Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie not “mainstream”?

Now, this is where Howe actually has a disagreement with something in BACC, a definite improvement. But Annie? Pekar? Why stop there? Comics were born mainstream, as entertainments in the biggest New York newspapers 100 years ago. They weren’t treated as literature, though.

I argue that the acceptance of comics as literature, as a medium, is what made the decade unique. Howe refutes this with Annie and Pekar trotted out onto Late Night as comics’ Oscar the Grouch. Pekar — the same writer EW‘s Ken Tucker cites this week as a “cult-favorite’ in his obit? That Pekar took comics mainstream? This is Howe the EW writer at work, confusing celebrity with the validation of a medium. Perhaps it’s why in the photo run of Pekar, he’s seen with Paul Giamatti, the actor who played him in the movie — to make his importance by association, in EW‘s point of view.

There have always been artistic exceptions — Herriman, Arno, Feiffer, Capp, Trudeau, Spiegelman — they all caught the eye of the intelligentsia of their day. Today, publications from EW to Paris Review and daily newspapers cover the release of comics as they do books and theater, from cartoonists far less celebrated than Pekar. It’s because comics themselves broke through, not just an individual commercial success.

 

Finally, I want to address points Berlatsky and Howe both dwell on quite a bit. First, there’s my apparent dismissal of online critics for print critics. BACC includes print, comics, blog, documentary transcript, Amazon customer reviews, comic convention panel discussions, and a single-page legal opinion from the Federal decision on the Siegel copyright case. In light of what’s actually in BACC, print v. online is a moot point.

Berlatsky and Howe also perceive a lack of respect for genre comics in BACC. It’s their mistake to see “genre” and “lit” as separate, competing subsets of comics. Great artists transcend genre to create art or literature. The Western is a genre, yet it gives us art like Blood Meridian, The Searchers and Unforgiven.

For me, literature is a qualitative description, not a genre. It’s why I spend so much time explaining that term’s flexibility in the book and how it applies to so many kinds of comics. Berlatsky and Howe will have to ask themselves why they don’t consider Ditko, Kirby, Elder, Miller or Chaykin (all in BACC) as literary figures in comics, because I include them in my lit-centric book, don’t I?

At this point, I can’t help but noticing that the two writers who liked the book least knew the least about it. They didn’t pay attention to what I wrote, and spent lots of time huffing about… the title, the one “section” they did read.

Here’s something else they both have in common. For both Berlatsky and Howe, BACC hit a nerve. Howe writes of “…BACC‘s reverence for the label ‘lit comics’ as opposed to (one supposes) ‘genre fiction.’ The elitism goes beyond the subject matter…” Berlatsky has this to say in his creepy imaginings of the dialogue inside my head, writing: ” … and, what the hell, literary comics are the best anyway, and only the best people write about them, so it isn’t like we’re lying really.”

Elitism? Snide references to the “best people”? Perceived snobberies, rage at imagined conspiracies to defraud the good, simple folk — if Glenn Beck talked comics, he’d talk like this.

 

I edited a book called Best American Comics Criticism. Of course it’s elitist. Something about that very act just riles these two, that an elitist stance alone is the real problem with the book. With that, I could not disagree more. There’s good writing and there’s bad writing. I made clear what I think is good. And now, what I don’t.

 

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2 Responses to “Best American Comics Criticism Roundtable: Ah Critics, They’re All Just Frustrated Critics.”

  1. Caro says:

    Hi Ben: Just in case people forget to follow up on your mention of it, I thought I’d link to the downloadable copy of your Introduction on Fanta’s site.

  2. […] it a few weeks ago. So far, the entries (six at this point), are oddly divided into contributors (Ben Schwartz, Jeet Heer, and Brian Doherty), who are mostly positive about the book, and non-contributors (Noah […]