By Caroline Small
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.
Rodolphe Töpffer: The Complete Comic Strips, âHistoire de monsieur Jabotâ translated by David Kunzle; ©2007 University Press of Mississippi.
In 1980, the ground-breaking art critic Rosalind Krauss was invited by the Partisan Review to respond to a panel called “The Effects of Critical Theories on Practical Criticism, Cultural Journalism, and Reviewing.” In her response, Krauss posited that criticism is a species of the paraliterary, a species described as a “space of debate, quotation, partisanship, betrayal, reconciliation, but not the space of unity, coherence, or resolution that we think of as constituting the work of literature.”
Over the 30 years since Krauss made that remark, art and literature themselves, along with criticism, fully embraced these paraliterary values and the ways in which creative work borrows from, reframes, ruptures, challenges, engages and generally speaks back to culture. The current standards for works of literature and art now themselves look much more like Krauss’s values, and “unity, coherence, and resolution” no longer dominate critical approaches to literature. This only makes her attributes more relevant for critical practice today.
Ben Schwartz’s edited collection The Best American Comics Criticism purports on its back cover and in its introduction to respond to a revolution in “literary” comics: a field which he describes as “cartoon fiction, graphic non-fiction, picto-novellas, tone poetry funnies, autobiographical comics, or doodles with words.” The opening paragraphs of Rick Moody’s included essay also acclaim these “lit comics,” locating all this in the space between the prose world’s polarized preoccupations with story and abstraction. Yet Schwartz’s Comics Reporter interview makes it clear that cultural journalism from music and film influenced his conception of this collection far more than literary and art journalism, let alone anything that Krauss would qualify as literary or art criticism. (His sole literary example is a compilation of witty pieces by Nabokov and there’s not an art collection in the bunch.)
The result is that, despite this ostensible “literariness,” this volume contains very little to inspire debate, quotation, partisanship, betrayal, or reconciliation. By Krauss’ definition, there really aren’t any works of criticism at all here; there are only works of cultural journalism and reviews. Schwartz claims to value accessibility, and his models are indeed highly accessible and entertaining works of journalism. One of the dangers of accessibility, though, is that it can lead one to value well-conveyed ideas over well-thought ideas, lively prose at the expense of the compelling and imaginative concepts that provoke debate and quotation. Original, intelligent ideas and readability don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but they often are, especially when aiming for a wide audience that expects to be entertained. Yet, as Moody points out, the values of “abstraction and cerebral firepower” are what dazzle the literati. So in a book about the era when comics started to dazzle, Schwartz took the approach that the best criticism shouldn’t be cerebral at all. I feel like I’m missing something.
I’m afraid what I’m missing is the belief that criticism supports literature, rather than conversing with it. Perhaps only a critic would insist upon the semantic distinction to hold cultural journalism apart from criticism — but they are different professions, with different readerships, expectations, backgrounds and modes of analysis, so this is a difference that makes a difference in the style and scope of ideas proper to each. Even my picks for the best essays in the collection — the ones by Ware and Parille — don’t meet Krauss’ criteria for criticism in regard to advancing controversial theses, framing debates, or posing significant intellectual challenges. Ware’s concluding thesis that “Töpffer invented the modern cartoonist” satisfies, but is hardly difficult to understand or painful to accept, and Parille’s purpose is pedagogical, helping readers wade through the intellectual challenge Clowes presents in David Boring. Parille does provide evidence for the claim that David Boring is a “literary” comic, explaining that it’s “a detective story in which the solution to every mystery lies in the artifice of the book and the conspiracy between author and re-reader.” Metafictional artifice as one layer of narrative technique is characteristic of 20th century prose beginning in the ’60s, and it is a commonly accepted criteria for a “work of literature”. But pointing this out is hardly “partisanship, betrayal and reconciliation.” Although there are brief instances of critical thinking throughout the volume, this essay is the closest thing to a sustained piece of criticism in the book — and it is certainly not “paraliterature.”
To no small extent, raising this point is a version of Noah Berlatsky’s complaint that the title is wrong. An equivalent to da Capo’s Best Music Writing would have been more appropriate for describing essays like these, perhaps, and would more clearly indicate to readers who read a lot of criticism that this book is different, that our familiar intellectual criteria and relevance to current critical trends were not used to select the included works. But I think more is at stake here than a misleading title.
Schwartz has argued in response to Noah that the back-cover blurb clarifies any potential confusion about content, yet there are still serious problems with the expectations set by the blurb and in Schwartz’s introduction. The blurb’s first paragraph echoes the Introduction’s argument that comics “arrived as serious reading” in the years between 2000-2008. Yet exactly five of the 26 essays (boldface below) deal primarily with comics published in that timeframe (and Epileptic only counts if you count the just the English translation):
- Comics in general
- Comics in general
- 9/11 comics
- Jewish male writers/artists
- The Comics Scare
- Harold Gray
- Gasoline Alley
- George Herriman
- James Thurber
- John Stanley
- Charles Schulz
- Will Elder
- David Boring
- Lynda Barry
- Phoebe Gloeckner
- The American “Masters”
- Rodolphe Töpffer
- Fun Home
(This list omits the interviews and the gimmicky pieces like the court decision, the two comics, and the Amazon reviews. Including them gets the stats up a bit.)
From City of Tomorrow, ©2006 Howard Chaykin.
Schwartz appears to have made a considered philosophical choice to present this historical review as the “best” achievement of comics criticism in the last decade: the back-cover blurb goes on to make explicit the book’s focus on the critical re-evaluation of the “previous century’s forgotten masterpieces.” But because of this choice, the book suggests that very little of the decade’s best criticism was written about the decade’s best comics.
A kinder interpretation would be that Schwartz is trying to draw a connection between comics as “serious reading” and this critical re-evaluation of comics history, but the Introduction remains vague about what exactly this connection is. Two paragraphs (p. 13) beginning “after September 12, 2000, the greater publishing industry took notice” and “histories and biographies and critical writings of comics found a golden age of their own” suggest a simple market-driven correlation: Lit comics accrued a larger and more prestigious audience, that audience attracted publishers, the audience and publishers wanted related publications like biographies and histories, so the revolution in lit cartooning predicated a parallel explosion in comics history.
Buried in this chronology, though, is an assertion that the historical cartoons are themselves examples of lit cartooning — “reinvented,” along with Schulz the philosopher, ” transformed from mass-market pop icon to [a] status as post-war intellectual,” and given at last their rightful place in the literary and cultural pantheon. The precedent for this transformative correlation between “serious reading” and serious history, according to the Introduction, is film’s New Wave: “Since 2000, comics recall the cinema of the 1960s and ’70s. New and vital works appear with surprising regularity, accompanied by a rediscovery of the medium’s history and classic works.”
The problem is that Schwartz’s take on the New Wave elides how much this “rediscovery” was driven not by accessible mainstream journalism, but by crossover journals like Cahiers du Cinema, which documented a highly intellectual critical conversation among directors and critics steeped in the traditions of literature, art and philosophy in addition to film — and in fact, marked a break from film traditions. Cahiers was founded by the theoretician Andre Bazin, who through his own writing contributed (alongside Sartre and Lacan) to the philosophical re-imagining of realism that was the major project of French mid-century philosophy and the Rive Gauche filmmakers were significantly influenced by and influential on the French Nouveau Roman. The impact of the New Wave was due in no small part to this pervasive reach, stretching throughout the artistic culture. It re-evaluated Art, so every art had to deal with it. A similar critical re-evaluation happened in the United States in science fiction around the same time, but, like film, it too was accompanied by a far more widespread and engaged embrace of intellectualism than is currently the case in comics. If we’re to accept that this book is a document of a similar critical “revolution” in comics, Schwartz’s choice to exclude essays that engage academic, philosophical, multidisciplinary and multi-artistic perspectives entirely undermines the comparison with these previous critical cataclysms.
The critical and cultural moment in the 1960s, during which the paraliterary met high art, high art met low commodity, and everybody’s boundaries became osmotic, was dramatically different from the present situation. Today’s market pressures and professional fragmentation make it much harder for any single cultural project to have widespread, lasting impact. It would be just as easy to describe the “revolution” in cerebral comics as a cousin of Progressive Rock, with its goal of proving that the “low” rock idiom could deploy and utilize the techniques of classical composition, as it is to draw parallels with the New Wave. And because of the predominance of journalism and the limited formal exchange of ideas among critics, academics, and artists, this comics “revolution” indeed mimes music’s history more closely than film’s. The collection leaves unasked whether the status of comics as literature (or fine art) will be affected long-term by the weak availability of and appetite for the systematic intellectual engagement that characterized successful previous artistic “revolutions.” Writers about comics can’t avoid that question if it actually matters to them whether ambitious comics end up the butt of jokes like Yes and Rush or succeed in transforming the art form overall.
How much of this “critical re-evaluation,” then, represents the beginnings of actual critical revisionism, capable of making an impact outside of comics circles, and how much of it is wish fulfillment, nothing more than the commercial empowerment of a niche? The topics listed in the columns above are utterly iconic to classic comics fandom. If the primary critical response to the game-changing “lit comics” really was to hash again through the stories of the legendary figures of comics history, then it looks like the critical game wasn’t really changed at all. These comics critics appear primarily empowered by present successes to glue their eyes and minds to the past, both artistically and philosophically, still writing about Ditko and Eisner and their disenfranchisement while Clowes is mapping Saussure and Coover onto the space between an image and its referent and Gloeckner is transforming the “Illustrated book” into a work of static performance art.
And that’s the most significant conceptual error in the choice to orient this volume so strongly toward the current fandom and away from the literati it claims to “dazzle”: the reassertion of that provincial notion that comics history alone does and should comprise the “origin story” of lit comics. Why is this a particularly egregious error? Because it is a provincialism that is not characteristic of these lit comics themselves. Cartoonists read widely and look broadly. They read fiction and philosophy, watch movies, view photographs. By giving pride of place to classic comics history, rather than bringing together comics perspectives with non-comics conversations, this volume fails to represent, let alone analyze and evaluate, the framework that informs and enlivens the very “lit comics” it claims to celebrate. It is as if comics criticism wants their unique historical narrative to be “separate but equal,” valued, validated, but apart from the stories and histories of the other arts.
I want to be clear that I’m not making an argument against medium specificity, or even against historical specificity, but instead against the narrow comics-centric view of the historical and aesthetic specificity that is relevant for understanding lit and art comics and the conflation of weakly intellectual journalism with proper criticism. The essays in this book were written for people who care about these topics in that way that fans care about them. They were written by people who grew up reading comics and for people who grew up reading comics (although superficially intended to seduce new readers). More crucially, they were written for people whose interest in other forms of expression will never surpass their interest in comics. Insofar as there is fodder for “debate” here, it feeds internecine conflicts within comics fandom, debates which speak only minimally if at all to the conversations happening in other areas of the arts. This experience of exclusion is far less significant when the essays in this volume are read individually in their original contexts. But when aggregated together here, this criticism is not voicing the “best” of lit comics culture — it’s voicing the most insular, the most exclusionary, the most self-validating, the most disengaged and, to those of us who are not steeped in the subculture’s assumptions, the most boring.
No wonder so many people in comics claim that criticism is parasitic: the word is used to refer to writing that takes as its primary purposes education, explication, marketing, appreciation and entertainment. Such criticism is a mediator between creator and consumer, a means of translating complex and sophisticated ideas into a more easily digested format, or simply of conveying familiar ideas in an entertaining way. But the most important point in Krauss’s assertion that criticism is paraliterature is that criticism does not have to be provincial, or parasitic, or even entertaining and accessible: It can be just as ambitious as art, and it can and should reflect and enrich the vibrancy of the field it surveys.
This is the great failure of this book: no matter how good any individual piece of writing in it is, overall it does not represent the vibrant perspectives of either contemporary comics or contemporary criticism. A more recent quote from Rosalind Krauss about the responsibilities of the critic here comes to mind: “A critic constantly revises not only his conception of the direction and most important currents of contemporary art, but also his convictions about the most significant work within them.” If, as Schwartz suggested, there are to be subsequent editions of this book, I hope her words stand as a challenge for the next attempt.