Best American Comics Criticism Roundtable: Won’t the Real Lit-Comics Critics Please Stand Up?

Posted by on August 24th, 2010 at 12:27 AM

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, “Histoire de monsieur Jabot” 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
  • Miller/Eisner
  • Miller/Eisner
  • Chaykin/Eisner
  • Ditko
  • Ditko
  • Ditko
  • 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
  • Epileptic
  • Fun Home
  • Kirby

(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.


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32 Responses to “Best American Comics Criticism Roundtable: Won’t the Real Lit-Comics Critics Please Stand Up?”

  1. Rob Clough says:


    I’ve always thought your essays were frequently quite meta, in that even critiques of specific works really wound up being both critiques of comics criticism in general and a spirited defense of criticism in its own right. To a large degree, I’ve sometimes found that latter defense a bit…defensive? –especially when responding to particular artists’ attacks on critics or criticism. In essence, part of your project seems to be wanting others to accept the value of criticism.

    This essay was the first time I understood a bit more about exactly what you’re getting at, as boiled down to criticism as a “paraliterary” entity. It’s an interesting idea, because it allows criticism to exist without a specific purpose (like mediating between consumer and artist). Criticism, in my view, still cannot exist without art to react to. In that sense, it is parasitic. The relationship between the two can be symbiotic (there are many instances, as you’ve noted, of fruitful relationships between artist and critic. I’ve experienced a few myself.), but there’s no obligation on the part of the artist to do so–or even a guaranteed benefit.

    That said, if criticism is by its very nature reflective of the original work, one could say that art is reflective of its own environment in an irreducible way. At its best, criticism is a highly specific reflection of a particular set of phenomena, a reflection that should be informed by any number of other sources. At its very best, reading criticism should not only be enlightening, but capable of producing an aesthetic reaction of its own (I’m thinking of certain essays by Tom Spurgeon and Daniel Raeburn in this regard.)

    The one problem I have with your project is the way you at times loudly deride critics for not being in touch with the history of literary criticism in general or looking to the academy for instruction or inspiration. It’s an approach that’s not exactly going to win over many converts. That may be neither here nor there for you (and many in the take-no-prisoners rhetorical style of HU), but better, in my view, to illustrate and enlighten why your approach has value (like in this essay) than to simply dismiss what’s out there en masse.

    Every critic/writer/journalist has a different approach (mine is not from a literary tradition, but rather a phenomenological one) and demonstrating the virtues of your background while educating those who aren’t from the academy could only serve to enrich comics criticism as a whole. It seems like you waste too much energy being angry that people aren’t looking to modern criticism instead of finding ways to encourage them to do so. You’re certainly not obligated to do so, of course, but I’d love to read those essays if you did.

  2. Caro says:

    Hi Rob — I’ve got a couple of essays in the works that I hope will be interesting! It takes a little while to get ahold of the ideas for these things, let alone get them well-expressed.

    But I also want to say that I don’t think I will be the person to fill this particular gap in comics criticism: I can clarify the position I speak from, and I can share readings that reflect that position and are hopefully suggestive , but the kind of criticism that’s missing from this volume — and largely from comics in general — is the kind that inhabits that vast middle ground between academia and journalism. Doing that kind of writing well really does take the kind of affinity for the artform that’s cultivated from years and years and years of engaging with it. When Gary Groth rattles off one of his lists of great critics — all of whom write at least some criticism that fits Krauss’ definition — the people he names are usually professional writers — not journalists, but novelists and essayists — and professional readers who have spent thousands of hours diving deeply into the art form they write about. That kind of sustained engagement is very hard work and it takes tremendous commitment, especially in the world today where there are so few rewards for it. There are few critics — and even fewer young critics — writing that way in any artform other than film.

    So it’s not so much anger as polemic: I don’t think it would be possible for me to cajole anyone out of complacency about this state of affairs. “Partisanship, betrayal, reconciliation,” remember! The kind of fire that it takes to write like Pauline Kael or John Simon or Frank Kermode or even Lester Bangs (much as I dislike him) comes from an affinity for criticism and critical conversation that’s very very similar to the affinity for the art form itself. Most comics critics have a strong affinity and passion for comics and a weaker connection to criticism; I’m the opposite. But I strongly believe the writers who will eventually produce the kind of criticism I think comics deserves to have will be the people who have an affinity and a passion for both.

    I want to correct one maybe slight misapprehension: I don’t think the academy is some kind of singular source for this. On the contrary, although academia is the most likely source of writers capable of producing this kind of criticism due to the requirement for sustained original critical thought, academic professional demands stifle this kind of writing from the other direction in ways very similar to the way it’s stifled by journalistic tendencies here. The conversation on the limits of academic writing on comics could be even more scathing, I’m sure. But since this book doesn’t contain any…

    An anthology of academic writing about comics would surely have a significant set of limitations from the vantage point I took in this essay, although the specific limitations would be different. One of the things that’s so very disappointing about this volume is that it was such a good chance to bring those two discourses together, something which could have helped us imagine what that “vast middle” would look like. Instead it just reproduced the pop writing/booster historical-inflected journalism perspective of non-academic comics criticism rather than taking a more synthetic, imaginative approach. Suat really nails that in the penultimate paragraph of his piece: “a lost opportunity” indeed.

    Thanks for taking the time to write such a thoughtful response, Rob!

  3. Caro says:

    Oh Rob, I didn’t mention this, which is probably the most generally interesting thing you said: “Criticism, in my view, still cannot exist without art to react to.” I don’t think this makes it any more parasitic on art than art is on, well, consciousness or humanity or existence or perception or any of those other things that art reacts to. That’s probably the difference between criticism that hits that “paraliterary” benchmark and criticism that doesn’t: paraliterary criticism is in the same relationship to art that art is to the world and human subjectivity. (I ought to be able to do something elegant here with the “paras” and the difference between being “literary” and being “seated” but well, this is just a comment…)

    I think of it more this way: academic writing and journalistic writing are genres of writing that have professions associated with them: academia and the press/media/publishing. Professional pressures have negatively influenced both journalistic and academic writing, but those two forms of writing have retained their professional ties. They’re creative professions but they’re still professions and subject to those pressures.

    Criticism, like literary writing, is a genre of writing that does not have a profession associated with it. Being a critic is being an author, just like being a novelist or an essayist. Novelists “feed” off existing things in a wide variety of ways — they can be entirely reactive and write, say, Harlequin romances or they can take the synthetic imaginative approach we recognize as the mark of the literary writer. Likewise so can a critic. And like the author, the degree to which a critic feeds off art is a measure of that critic’s ambition versus his pragmatism, of imagination versus…I guess, maybe responsibility (which I think is an admirable journalistic virtue). There’s nothing wrong with pragmatism and responsibility, and criticism that’s attentive to art that arises out of those motivations and is thus closer to journalism (or scholarship) is valuable and should continue to be written in great quantities. But it probably won’t be paraliterature. And it’s important to have that too, for the same reasons it’s important to have literature in the first place.

    Your comment is really packed with good stuff. I hope some other people will comment back to you too.

  4. Jeff Albertson says:

    Hi, Caro,

    I think there’s a strong distortion in your caracterisation of the ‘Nouvelle Vague’ cinema and criticism. The ‘Cahiers’ group were, in so many ways, writing against aesthetic and “intellectual” theory; they were bad boys championig an Ulmer against a Bresson.

    They had no link whatsoever I can discern with the life-ruining charlatan Lacan.

  5. Caro says:

    I disagree, Jeff! They were not part of the French academy, which certainly matters, but they were highly intellectual.

    There was variety within the movement but Godard’s films are quite Lacanian and they at least had mutual friends if they were not personally acquainted. The wonderful film “Henri Langlois: Phantom of the Cinematheque” includes an anecdote about Lacan and Langlois, whom Godard credited with “producing a way of seeing films” that was highly influential on his work: after the disasterous premiere of El at Cannes, when Buñuel came to Paris in despair, he stayed with Langlois, and Langlois screened the film for a small group of friends. When it was over, at something like 2am, he called over and woke Lacan up to make him come see the film. At 3am. Lacan proceeded to spend the next two weeks of the Seminar teaching Bunuel’s work. And Lacan’s take on Bunuel, formed in conversation at the Cinematheque, was in turn influential on Godard and the other filmmakers at the Cinematheque. I don’t even think it would be possible to track the trajectory of influence with a line.

    The New Wave was a community of intellectuals, with some — like in all communities — more interested in philosophical abstraction than others. There were actual ties to the academy, most notably in the influence of the Nouveau Roman — Doniol-Valcroze was a friend and supporter of Alain Robbe-Grillet, who was seated in the Academie Francaise. It is true that they were intellectual more in the sense of Diana and Lionel Trilling than Stanley Fish or Slavoj Zizek, but that’s still intellectual. A particularly fine kind of intellectual if you ask me.

    I think downplaying the intellectual aspects of the New Wave leads to mischaracterizing their pop cultural bent, at least when taken as a whole. Truffaut fits your description quite well, but Eric Rohmer (despite working as both a teacher and a journalist at various points) does not…

  6. siegfriedsasso says:

    The ‘Cahiers’ group were, in so many ways, writing against aesthetic and “intellectual” theory; they were bad boys championig an Ulmer against a Bresson.
    If they were so anti-intellectual, then how do you explain Pascal’s crucial influence on Rohmer? And when were they ever against Bresson? Bresson was one of their heroes, and rightly so.

  7. siegfriedsasso says:

    Besides Truffaut, your idea might also be applicable to Claude Chabrol. But that’s about it. And you can bet Rivette was more influenced by Bresson than by Ulmer.

  8. siegfriedsasso says:

    And one more thing about Bresson. <a href= is what a quick google search brings up. I think that pretty much speaks for itself.

  9. siegfriedsasso says:

    And one more thing about Bresson. This is what a quick google search brings up. I think that pretty much speaks for itself.

  10. Caroline—

    This is an excellent essay, and probably the most valuable one I’ve read relating to comics in some time. Schwartz’s book, as you more or less say, is a synecdoche for the state of comics criticism generally. The field sees the acceptance and respect that select contemporary works have received from the larger culture, and perceives it as a license to celebrate older works that aren’t really of much interest beyond the comics subculture. This attitude is what one sees in the book and in the majority of critical voices writing about the field (including myself, although I’m increasingly unhappy about it.) The connection you draw between literary comics and progressive rock was quite an eye-opener—it highlights that if we don’t shape up, we deserve to be taken as seriously as the rock press, which is not at all.

    The fascination Schwartz and several other comics critics have for the auteur theory is what they perceive as its impact. They don’t understand that it was an aesthetic, one that (as you note) was rooted in existentialist philosophy, and to a large degree, one that functioned as an argument against the most prominent preceding school of film theory, namely the montage aesthetic of Eisenstein and Pudovkin. (And no, it was not an intellectual justification for the notion that the director is always the “author” of the film. If anything, that’s the opposite of what auteur critics were writing.) We’re not discussing comics, individually or collectively, with anything like the intellectual foundation of a Bazin (or an Eliot or a Greenberg or a Kael or a Krauss.) Even the writers with a strong academic background, such as R.C. Harvey or Kenneth Smith, generally revert to fannish attitudes when discussing individual works.

    If we want to be taken seriously, I wholeheartedly agree that we need to see ourselves as the brethren of literary, art, and film critics working outside the mass-market media. That means we have a lot to learn and have a lot of catching up to do. Gary Groth did a great deal to elevate the field when he brought the standards and thought of the best journalistic film reviewing of the ‘60s and ‘70s to comics. The burden is now on us to get comics criticism (and comics) the rest of the way up the mountain.

    I assume your opening reference to Krauss and her response to the Partisan Review panel was intended to be more suggestive than literal, at least in terms of articulating a standard. I haven’t read that particular piece by her, but given her other work of the time and some of the language used, it seems like she’s arguing in favor of poststructuralist approaches, and against New Critical and other types of formalism. As I think you’ve written elsewhere, we could use a good deal of the latter at this point in time. It might go a good way towards developing the foundation we need.

  11. Caroline–

    That parenthetical remark about the auteur theory isn’t directed at you. It’s for readers who’ve picked up mistaken notions of the theory from other places (a commonplace problem, sadly).

  12. Noah Berlatsky says:

    “The field sees the acceptance and respect that select contemporary works have received from the larger culture, and perceives it as a license to celebrate older works that aren’t really of much interest beyond the comics subculture. ”

    See…I just don’t want to accept that. I think that there are certainly creators or issues in comics history that would or could be interesting to folks generally interested in art or ideas.

    Maybe the point is “the license to celebrate” rather than the “aren’t really of much interest.” While the works might be of interest beyond the subculture, the celebration probably isn’t so much.

  13. I think that there are certainly creators or issues in comics history that would or could be interesting to folks generally interested in art or ideas.

    I’m not in disagreement with you there. I certainly think its possible–hypothetically–that we may see some comics or cartoonists whose reputations are elevated in the way that the auteurists managed with Howard Hawks and John Ford. However, I don’t see–as I much as I may enjoy the work–that being EC, or Jack Cole, or Alex Toth, or Segar’s Popeye, or even Kirby or Ditko. I certainly don’t see that happening without the benefit of a philosophically grounded aesthetic criterion like mise-en-scène evaluation.

  14. Caro says:

    Thanks everybody for these great comments! Robert, I agree with you entirely and I think it’s exactly the point that Jeet misses so blatantly in his response to me this morning. The Cahiers Group is such a great example: non-academic but highly intellectual, they produced a group of ideas that were not only sophisticated and challenging but also so clearly framed that they could motivate and compel people across interests and backgrounds and disciplines. As irritating as it is that the auteur theory has been so misconstrued, it’s a testament to its power that people can glam onto it enough to misconstrue it! (Nobody misconstrues the Lacanian Real, for example…)

    Siegfried, thanks for the links and the backup. That’s a really great book you linked to on Bresson.

  15. Hey, Robert,

    I thinking you’re conflating auteurism with Bazin’s arguments for the realism of the long-take. The latter was an argument against montage (at least in its militant form). I don’t see Bazin or any of the Cahiers guys arguing that the Russians weren’t auteurs. Auteurism was an argument against dismissing collaborative and largely commercial filmmaking as nothing but assembly-line product. French auteurism was a sort of boosterism, but one that served an ideological good. Someone like Kael — as Noah points out elsewhere — liked to argue counter-intuitively, so she dismissed the need for an auteur (despite being a auteurist in practice) and celebrated the art coming from the assembly line (although she would sometimes do it by flagrantly misrepresenting the facts, cf. her notorious Welles essay). I think auteurism has a parallel in the role The Comics Journal played for many years. Having won that battle, many of the problems Caro’s pointing out with current comics criticism is that there’s no Big Villain left to rail against, but few critics were and are prepared to talk about anything else. Anyway, I agree that comics needs a Bazin, but it’s not like many in film criticism are his equal, either.

  16. kenparille says:


    “my picks for the best essays in the collection — the ones by Ware and Parille”

    Thanks again for spending time with my essay and putting me in such company as Ware. I think that in some instances my writing does help people to enjoy and understand the works I write about. I can live with the fact that it would disappoint Krauss.

    “Parille does provide evidence for the claim that David Boring is a “literary” comic.”

    That’s fine, but I’m not really interested in proving anything like that in that essay. If that’s what my essay is really about, then I have completely deceived myself . . .

    “But pointing this out is hardly “partisanship, betrayal and reconciliation.”

    I fully agree, but yikes, does everything have to be this? Must I frame an essay as a partisan attack for it to be valid? Must I feel betrayed by those who have not taken comics seriously and enact my rage against an establishment that has hurt me. . . I’m not interested. My goals are a little more modest.

    I am partisan in this way: I think David Boring is great and I argue why. I know, not partisan enough . . .

  17. Caro says:

    Hi Charles — excellent points, and I agree with your summation about the Big Villain. I think your point about TCJ serving a function similar to auteur theory relates to a point that Truffaut made, that the auteur theory was “a polemical weapon for a given time and place” (to quote Andrew Sarris.

    But I think Robert’s also right that there is much in New Wave theorizing, including elements from the auteur theory, that stick around. I had interpreted Robert’s point about the tension between auteurism and montage to refer to statements like Godard’s about how Visconti had evolved from a metteur en scene to an auteur while Rosselini had gone the other way. Since montage manipulates “scene,” deploying it falls into that “metteur” category. Montage is a style, and the auteur is a “next step” with greater theoretical ambitions, although the French are careful not to load those steps with teleology (as Sarris makes plain in the middle paragraph of page 563 in the above). I see your point too though: I think it’s a testament to how bit the idea of the auteur is that it can spark so many different tentacles.

    That link unfortunately doesn’t have the starting point where Sarris also talks about the difference between recognizing the “director’s” hand in a work of art and succumbing to a “politics of the director”, which I think also corresponds to your point about the Big Villain and also the bit Noah keeps coming back to regarding “uncritical boosterism.” Sarris quotes Ian Cameron in 1962 saying that the politique des auteurs makes it “difficult to think of a bad director making a good film and almost impossible to think” the opposite, and I think that we’ve gotten to the point where there is a “politics of art cartoonists” that has much the same effect.

    …for that reason we’re all basically in agreement about the need for a Bazin and why, I think.

    I’m curious to know more about Kael’s arguments with Andrew Sarris on this subject, because as you say, she’s not without resonance with the theory, and I can certainly see her being concerned about it being used too bluntly as boosterism. But obviously that’s not the only issue she had with it.

    I meant to respond to Robert’s question to me about Krauss and forgot: Robert, you are correct that I view it as suggestive rather than literal. Krauss was responding to art and literary and cultural criticism that was pretty entrenched with the need to embrace the debates of the time, and although our debates are different in substance, I think the value of polemic there is the same value here. Unfortunately, I also think Krauss’ approach was inadequate to overcome the corporate and cultural pressures that stratified journalism and the academy from each other and from criticism, but I cling (somewhat desperately) to the notion that we can move beyond that…

  18. Caro says:

    Hi Ken — it wasn’t you that I wanted to be partisan; it was Ben! I liked your essay just like it was! The first observation, about it providing evidence for DB as a lit comic — that’s in light of Ben’s thesis, the selections of the essays as they relate to this notion of literariness. It’s absolutely not what your essay is about; just an effect of reading your essay in this context: read the introduction, then read your piece, and it’s easy to say “ok yeah, that’s definitely lit comics material.” My point in that paragraph was just that even the essays I think are the best “criticism” (as opposed to journalism) in the book still aren’t quite what I was looking for based on Krauss’ definition. It’s meant to be a point about the range of the selection: 2 pieces of “analytic criticism” in the book, and neither of them is what Krauss described. (Not, I rush to say, “neither of them is legitimate.”)

    You are absolutely correct that not every essay, in the anthology or in general, should do that. I push that notion, here in response to the collection and in general, not because it’s the only possible way to do criticism but because it’s the least represented one. There’s not enough of it, and other approaches are not enough on their own. I think I said something similar to that in my comment to Jeet: I’m not trying to argue that Pauline Kael’s writing is somehow not criticism; I’m trying to point out that there are whole big chunks of approaches to criticism, ways of defining criticism and approaching art and understanding the world, that comics critics are not bringing to bear.

    An anthology is a really good place to examine and work out notions like that about the range of approaches being brought to bear, which is why Krauss’ more “meta” definition is useful. An essay on a single work, like your piece, isn’t the right place for that, because ideally at that level the critic picks an approach and executes it well. Your essay did that just fine. If anybody skipped it they should go read it now!

  19. Hi, Charles.

    It’s my understanding that auteurism developed out of Bazin’s advocacy of the long take. The sophistication of the mise-en-scène–i.e. the shot design and staging–was the principal criterion of value auteurists used to assess directors. It was the basis for their aesthetic. You can see it in their writings decades after the ’40s, such as with Sarris’s regard for Fassbinder and Woody Allen, and the naming of Brian De Palma’s Carlito’s Way–well-known for its bravura use of long takes–as the best film of the ’90s by Cahiers contributors.

    The auteurists’ dispute with the Russians wasn’t that Eisenstein, et al. weren’t worthy of being called auteurs, it’s that they didn’t regard montage as the be-all, end-all of cinematic art. It didn’t allow for the greatness of Renoir’s The Rules of the Game or De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, for instance. The emphasis on mise-en-scène was absolutely opposed to the Russian theory’s emphasis on montage

    Incidentally, I’ve often wondered if the mise-en-scène vs. montage conflict was at the heart of Sarris’s antipathy for Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick was certainly the “author” of his films–probably the first post-WWII American director making commercial features of whom this can be categorically said–and, as a former photographer, he placed enormous emphasis on shot design and staging. (His biggest influence was Max Ophuls, who has always been an auteurist favorite.) However, Kubrick was also public about his agreement with the Russians that montage was where the art of cinema lay. I can’t help but think that Sarris saw him as an ideological enemy.

    Kael wasn’t an auteurist. She was a pluralist who occasionally made use of auteurist aesthetic ideas, such as the valuing of accomplished long-take work. (An example is her favorable comparison of Coppola’s style in The Godfather to John Schlesinger’s in Sunday Bloody Sunday. Kael did want to see strong pop entertainment given a greater value, but it was largely because she thought it was truer reflection of American culture than prizing films that followed European models. It wasn’t the same thing Sarris was up to with his lionizing of Hawks and Raoul Walsh.

    I agree that film criticism didn’t have many writers at Bazin’s level, but not many literary critics are on the level of Eliot, Lionel Trilling, or Harold Bloom, or many art critics on the level of Greenberg and Krauss. But if we don’t try to aim for those heights, we’ll never get there. We certainly need to stop wasting time waxing rhapsodic over Steve Ditko’s layouts for ROM Spaceknight or arguing over whether Chris Marker’s La Jetée deserves to be considered a comic instead of a film.

    Caroline, Kael’s anti-Sarris essay is “Circles and Squares: Joys and Sarris,” and it’s featured in her I Lost It at the Movies collection, which you should be able to find at the local library. It’s a brilliantly sustained (and absolutely savage) polemic. Beyond the thrashing of Sarris, it’s a clear declaration of her preference for a pluralistic approach. I should note that she ultimately regretted writing the essay. It was written and published in magazine and book form before she became part of the NYC magazine world and had personal contact with Sarris. It forever stood in the way of their becoming friends, which she was very upset about. She didn’t have any control over her publisher granting permissions requests to reprint it (which is why you see it–or excerpts from it–in many film-criticism anthologies), but she made a point of excluding it from the career-spanning compendium she published in the mid-1990s. I’m not sure he ever realized that she left it out out of deference to him.

  20. siegfriedsasso says:

    Actually, [i]I Lost it at the Movies[/i] is still in print, one of a handful of Kael’s books still available at cover price.

  21. Caro says:

    Robert — that first couple of paragraphs, did you come to that understanding through study and synthesis of a bunch of sources, or is there a good book or two I can read? I can’t measure up to the level of conversation you and Charles are having but I’m good with a library card. ;)

  22. Hi Caroline.

    I’m afraid it’s the former. I did a massive amount of reading in film criticism and theory from my late teens to my mid-twenties. Looking at those paragraphs, I also see things borne of conversations with other knowledgeable people.

    A decent book that surveys film criticism and theory from its beginnings through the 1970s is my UG professor Robert Eberwein’s A Viewer’s Guide to Film Theory and Criticism. However, I don’t think you’re going to find a copy outside of an academic library. I’m sure there are others, but I haven’t kept up with this stuff over the last 15 years, and nothing comes to mind.

  23. Of course, there are always the original sources. Off the top of my head:

    –Sergei Eisenstein, Film Sense and Film Form: Essays in Film Theory

    –V.I. Pudovkin, Film Technique and Film Acting

    –Andre? Bazin, What Is Cinema?, Volumes 1 & 2

    –Franc?ois Truffaut, The Films in My Life

    –Andrew Sarris, Confessions of a Cultist, The American Cinema, The Primal Screen, Politics and Cinema, and You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet

    –Jim Hillier, ed., <Cahiers du cine?ma: The 1950s and 1960-1968

    –Nick Browne, ed., Cahiers du cine?ma : 1969-1972

    –The National Society of Film Critics review anthology annuals, 1967-1973 (beyond the included reviews, these also have the members’ voting records for the organization’s annual awards–a good guide to their preferences in the absence of specific essays)

  24. Caro,

    If it’s just the topic of auteurism that you want, you can’t do much better than John Caughie’s collection _Theories of Authorship_ (which is O.O.P., but probably readily available from a library). It covers (through critical introductory essays and excerpts) the rise of the policy/theory/whatever you want to call it to its demise with the influence of the post-structuralists. Otherwise, Robert’s list is great. In Bazin’s book (volume 1), the “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema” is probably the most relevant for what we’re discussing here.


    Just to clarify, I don’t see anything inherently connected in Bazin’s critique of ideological montage (he didn’t dismiss it in toto, of course) and auteurism. As a subject of deep reading of directors, the long-take certainly was a way of getting at the personality of a film’s author, but I’ll have to hold to my position that montage could serve that purpose, too. From a 1957 excerpt of Bazin’s in Caughie’s book:

    The politique des auteurs consists, in short, of choosing the personal factor in artistic creation as a standard of reference, and then of assuming that it continues and even progresses from one film to the next.

    Not that that’s conclusive in any way. In possible support of your position, I found this from the essay I recommended to Caro:

    This is why depth of field is not just a stock in trade of the cameraman like the use of a series of filters or of such-and-such a style of lighting, it is a capital gain in the field of direction — a dialectical step forward in the history of film language.

    I say “possible support,” because he goes on to defend this step forward on grounds of its relation to conveying reality and its effects on the psychology of the viewers (it requires more attention/activity on their part), not necessarily that it conveys a more personal style of the filmmaker. Anyway, it’s open for debate, I guess. And Bazin wasn’t really the ideological auteurist many others were. Truffaut’s essay that politicized the approach (“A Certain Tendency …”) treated the way writers of adaptations were being celebrated over directors as the primary cause.

    And I’m not sure I’d call Kael any more of a pluralist than Bazin. For example, she tended to dislike Bergman and Kubrick and like any crap from DePalma because of their personal styles, which I’d suggest is just as auteurist in practice as what went on at Cahiers in the 50s. In fact, I’d probably side with Bazin as being less dogmatic in his approach.

  25. I probably should’ve been clearer on distinguishing ‘depth of field’ (keeping all that background in focus, cf. Rules of the Game) from ‘long-take’ (an extended scene without cutting), but they both tend to go together in realism.

  26. Domingos says:

    Comics had a Bazin already. His name: Bruno Lecigne.

  27. Domingos says:

    The comics milieu being the comics milieu, the legendary realm of insularity and anti-intellectualism, no one noticed, of course.
    To be fair, Thierry Gröensteen noticed, but being caught with his pants seriously down he preferred to go all defensive and all… I can’t say that I blame him…

  28. Caro says:

    Domingos, you can’t stop there!! What happened?

    I didn’t forget this thread: just too many to juggle. Reading everything now…

  29. Domingos says:

    Part of the story is here:

    (Hey! I used the expression “comics specificity” in March 14, 2009 already!)

    I really should reread Bruno Lecigne’s _Controverse_ and Menu’s _L’éprouvette_ to give you more details, but from what I remember the story goes more or less like this:
    In 1969 Jacques Glénat (aged 15) published the fanzine _Schtroumpf_. From 1984 to 1988 Thierry Gröensteen was the managing editor and the fanzine’s title changed to _Cahiers de la bande dessinée_ (it will be the mag’s title until the end in 1990: from 1988 to 1990 the mag will be a true hymn to anti-intellectualism).
    The 84 – 88 is an interesting period and Bruno Lecigne was one of the Cahiers’ critics. The problem is that, unlike Gary Groth, Jacques Glénat was a mainstream publisher and Gröensteen’s position was never confortable. Besides being part of the mainstream he must have felt lots of pressure from the old anti-intellectuals (saying things like: the Cahiers are ruining comics) pressuring himself a step below in the chain of command: Gröensteen.
    What Lecigne did in _Controverse_ was to question the Cahiers’ editorial policy (in a nutshell: the Cahiers had too broad a definition for the word “author”). I’m sure that Glénat was responsible, but the consequence was that the counterpart could never match the real Cahiers. In consequence Gröensteen decided to defend himself using the concept of ultracriticism (which is, as I understand it, a negative metacriticism, or something…).
    Besides all this controversy I can’t recommend Lecigne’s books about comics enough: _Avanies et mascarade_, _Fac-similé_ (with Jean-Pierre Tamine).

  30. Caro says:

    Robert and Charles, you guys bankrupted my book fund for the month. Thanks! Maybe we can pick this topic back up when I have more of a clue…

    My God, Domingos, why haven’t you mentioned this before!? ;) I’m kidding…I’m especially interested in the bit quoted below (and perhaps we should move this over to the HU thread on the roundtable), although I’m interested in your opinion on whether I’m overstating the intellectualism of cinema’s Cahiers: it’s namesake certainly seems sufficiently intellectual.

    “De la misère”(on misery) by Barthélémy Schwartz was published in Bruno Lecigne’s Controverse # 3 (January, 1986: 15 – 19) and it was reprinted in L’éprouvette # 2. In this short text the author, not exactly a critic, but an author who questioned comics (and, unavoidable fact: flew the milieu and its putrid waters after a few years), attacked the market and wrote things like “saying that a certain comic is commercial and another one is an author’s creation means nothing today” (L’éprouvette # 2: 328; my translation). In other words: 1) it’s too easy to be an author in the amalgamated comics milieu; and 2) Kaplan and Schwartz refused to apply the aforementioned epithet “author” to those who practiced what they called “the storyboard” (i. e.: those who did narrative comics: they were true avant-garde modernists who wanted to produce formalist comics, devoid of narration; the narrative was wrongly seen by them, methinks, as belonging to the realm of literature and film).

  31. […] joking. There’s been an extended debate about what constitutes good comics criticism here, here, and here hosted by The Comics Journal on the occasion of the publication of The Best American […]