Best American Comics Criticism Roundtable: Not Best, Mostly American, Comics Non-Criticism

Posted by on August 23rd, 2010 at 1:47 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 Goodbye and Other Stories, ©1987 Yoshihiro Tatsumi.

 

Ben Schwartz begins his introduction to Best American Comics Criticism with an anecdote: one day at a mall he heard two young girls arguing about what to call graphic novels. For Schwartz, this was a “definitive moment.” Comics used to be for nebbishy, perpetually pubescent, socially stunted man-boys — but that’s all over. Superheroes are dead, replaced by the teeming offspring of anthropomorphic Holocaust victims. Nowadays everybody from New York Times editors to real live tweens are enamored of the sequential lit. From a niche product for mouth-breathing microcephalics, comics have become our nation’s primary containment vessel for deep meaningfulness. Open them and feel your world expand.

But while comics may have generously embraced tween mall rats, the same cannot exactly be said for The Best American Comics Criticism. Schwartz’s keyboard lauds the heterogeneous appeal of comics, but his heart is still in some back alley, cheeto-smelling direct market basement, lost in a rapturous fugue of insular clusterfuckery. You’d think that if you were editing a tome focusing on comics criticism over the last 10 years, and if you further began your tome by genuflecting towards tween girls as icons of authenticity, you might possibly feel it incumbent upon you to include some passing mention of the 1,200 pound frilly panda in the room. Not Schwartz though; if he’s ever heard the word “shōjo,” he’s damned if he’s going to let on. The only manga-ka who defiles these pristine pages is alt-lit analog Yoshihiro Tatsumi — and he only makes the cut because he was interviewed by that validator of all things lit-comic, Gary Groth.

The almost complete omission of manga (and the complete omission of online comics) isn’t an accident. Schwartz deliberately set out to produce a work which would appeal only to his own tediously over-represented demographic which would focus on the triumph of lit comics over the years 2000-2008.

Now, you might think that it takes a certain amount of chutzpah to title your book Best American Comics Criticism and then, deliberately collect a sampling of essays related to one particular strand of comics that happens to interest you and your in-group. You might think that in these circumstances your title seems, not like a description of the contents, but rather like a transparent and rather craven marketing ploy. You might think that craven, and I would agree with you.

It’s only once you get over the fact that the book’s cover is a lie, though, that you can really start to appreciate the purity of the work’s cloistered lameness. Yes, only one female critic (Sarah Boxer) is included. Yes, Schwartz compulsively returns to the same writers again and again — three essays by Donald Phelps, two pieces by Dan Nadel, two by Jonathan Lethem, two by Dan Clowes. And yes there are not one, not two, but three interviews by Gary Groth, the book’s erstwhile publisher. But the most audacious moment of collegial nepotism is a pedestrian essay about Harold Gray by — Ben Schwartz himself! Even better, if you read the acknowledgements you learn that Schwartz wanted to include another of his own essays, but was prevented by rights conflicts. Really, it’s kind of a wonder he didn’t just put together a book of his own writings and slap that Best American title on it. After all, he’s the editor. If he thinks Ben Schwartz writes the best criticism in explored space, who’s to gainsay him? (It’s possible that Schwartz wanted to include the other essay instead of the piece he used… which means that he printed his second best as one of the top essays of the decade. If that hadn’t worked, would he have gone to his third best? His tenth? His grocery lists?)

To be fair, I’ve actually quite liked some of Schwartz’s writing over the years. A piece by him about Paris Hilton which ran in the Chicago Reader is one of my favorite things to ever run in that publication — I still remember its concluding paragraph clearly seven years later. And while using multiple essays by a handful of writers seems like a gratuitously ingrown way to structure a best-of book, if the results were provocative and enjoyable, I wouldn’t kick.

Unfortunately, the results here are… well, they’re really boring, mainly. Part of the problem is, again, the insular air of self-satisfaction. The worst in this regard is probably the Will Eisner/Frank Miller interview excerpt, in which the participants both pat themselves on the back so vigorously that they seem to be in some sort of contest to see whose arm will fracture first. In terms of abject sycophancy, though, the David Hajdu interview with Marjane Satrapi is close behind. “Like her work, Satrapi’s apartment is a mosaic of Middle Eastern and Western, high and low — a willful testament to cultural and aesthetic heterogeneity.” What is this, Marie Claire? Compared to such celebrity puff-piece drivel, the merely grating mutual admiration on display in the Jonathan Lethem/Dan Clowes interview seems positively tolerable. Sure, Lethem actually claims that what he and Clowes are doing is somehow “dangerous” while they’re both sitting on a podium in front of a herd of maddened, man-eating elephants — or are those rapturously respectful undergrads? Either way at least he doesn’t opine that Clowes’ bow tie is a sartorial sign of nostalgic doubling. You take what you can get.

 


From Pussey!, ©2006 Daniel Clowes.

 

When the book isn’t oozing complacency, though, it’s giving off an even worse miasma — anxiety. As any alt comics confession will tell you, the clubby smirks of the knowledgeable hobbyist hide a desperate desire to be accepted. The book is one long grovel, as if Schwartz hopes to win fame, fortune, and mainstream acceptance through sheer power of toadying. This is most visible in the egregious reliance on “name” authors. Ephemeral book introductions by John Updike, Dan Clowes and Jonathan Lethem all read like exactly what they are — celebrity endorsements. Alan Moore’s disjointed interview transcription about Steve Ditko is interesting but slight, while Seth’s essay on John Stanley seems padded out with an overdetermined breezy musing that is, I guess, supposed to be redolent of whimsical genius. “I’m sure when [Stanley] wrote these disposable comic books he could never have dreamed that, half a century later, grown adults would still be looking at them. It’s an odd world.” Or maybe it’s a clichéd world. So hard to tell the difference.

Schwartz pulls out a host of other gimmicks too — a fascimile of the court decision giving Siegel and Schuster back their rights in Superman; an Amazon comments thread about Joe Matt; a meta-cartoon by Nate Gruenwald, comprised of annotations upon a fictitious old school cartoonists “classic” strips. The first seems needless, the second is blandly predictable; the last actually has a lovely expressionist/modernist feel, though I think it probably lost a good deal in being excerpted. All of them, though, seem to come from the same place of nervous desperation. “I know no one here really wants to read criticism,” Schwartz seems to be saying. “So, um… here! Look! Bunnies!”

Schwartz does seem to prefer bunnies to criticism — perhaps because he has only the vaguest idea of what criticism is, or of why anyone would be interested in it. Specifically, for a critic and a supposed connoisseur of criticism, he seems to have a marked aversion to anything that might be considered an idea. Most of the pieces in the book say little or less than little. John Hodgman’s essays, for example, tells us that Jack Kirby thought of his Fourth World series as a long completed work… and now folks like Brian K. Vaughn also think of their series as long completed work, and ain’t that something? Rick Moody says Epileptic shows “this relatively new form can be as graceful as its august literary forbearers.” R. C. Harvey assures us that Fun Home is “Serious literature for mature readers for whom sex is only part of adulthood;” Jeet Heer insists that “Whatever he might have drawn from his personal memories, the emotions that Frank King explored are universal;” Donald Phelps emits his usual fog of avuncular gush; Paul Gravett bounces up and down in the backseat while chattering on about how “lots of people, writers, artists, editors and readers, are in this for the long haul, for however long it takes for the graphic novel to achieve its possibilities.” This is knee-jerk boosterism, platitudinous bunk intended to sell me crap, not to make me think. For Schwartz, it seems, the best criticism is marketing copy. Maybe he should edit an anthology of beer commercials.

There are some enjoyable pieces. In his review of comics commemorating 9/11, R. Fiore sounds like the ignorant blowhard at the end of the bar (Terrorism doesn’t work, Robert? Really? The KKK will be surprised to hear that Jim Crow never happened then.) But at least he has some personality and something to say, no matter how asinine. Sarah Boxer’s essay about race in Krazy Kat has moments of interpretive élan. Ken Parille’s dissection of Dan Clowes’ David Boring is so passionate about its obsession that it’s fascinating reading even for someone who, like me, really hates David Boring. And Dan Nadel’s evisceration of the Masters of Comics art exhibit is perhaps the strongest piece in the volume, not least because it hits so painfully close to home. “So, if the curators really want comics to be examined as a serious medium, the first step is not to establish a bullshit canon, but rather to be serious — avoid silly stunt-casting, attempt to provide rudimentary information, and for heavens sake, try not to commission an exhibited artist’s wife to write about another exhibited artist. Y’know, act like real, grown-up curators! Good luck.” Schwartz, man — that had to have left a mark.

But a few pleasant oases don’t make it worthwhile to cross the wasteland. The irony is that, in the end, this book proves exactly the opposite of what Schwartz intended. Best American Comics Criticism doesn’t give us comics as an engaged, vibrant medium, connected to ideas and to the broader world. Instead, Schwartz’s comicdom is a cramped little shanty, from which, every so often, a tiny face sticks out to lick the nearest boot or shout in a quavering voice, “I am somebody!” before diving back into the hovel. If you believe this volume, comics between 2000 and 2008 went precisely nowhere. They’re still as boring, still as self-involved, and still as desperate for approval as they ever were. I don’t actually believe that Best American Comics Criticism is an accurate reflection of the best in comics or in writing about comics. But if it is, we all need to give the fuck up.

 

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28 Responses to “Best American Comics Criticism Roundtable: Not Best, Mostly American, Comics Non-Criticism”

  1. kenparille says:

    When I read “best” in any anthology title, I always make a simple translation: Best means “what the editor likes and wants to include (and was able to get the rights to).” This translation saves me a lot of anxiety and allows me to go into the book open to what it has to offer. It doesn’t mean that I will like it or agree with the choices, but it means that I will give the book a chance to convince me or interest me.

    When I see “criticism” in a title I translate that into “writing about” — and I like the diversity of critical approaches in this book. Even all of the history focused pieces were interesting. I learned stuff I didn’t know, and that material helps me to appreciate the cartoonists under discussion. We can talk about whether history is criticism and I’ll say “I recognize some differences in how those terms are often used, but there’s a lot of overlap — and I ultimately don’t care.” If the piece is good and makes sense in terms of the book’s goals, it’s fine with me.
    And despite what some have said, the back cover makes it clear what the contents are (substitute 2000 for 2001 . . .). It does what a subtitle would.

    “deliberately collect a sampling of essays related to one particular strand of comics that happens to interest you and your in-group.”

    This is what editors do: select work they like and think is of value or important — and they may have a specific audience and their interests in mind. They often exclude certain categories of material because that’s not what their book is about, recognizing that to create a focused book means leaving things out. I read about a book before I buy so I know what’s in it.

    Yet, one thing that makes the volume so great is that Ben’s tastes are pretty wide: so the “one particular strand of comics” comment is odd, too. Ditko, King, Satrapi, to me, represent many diverse traditions – not a limited strand in any way. And if it were limited, so what? I expect anthologies of this type to be limited.

    “Schwartz pulls out a host of other gimmicks too — a fascimile of the court decision giving Siegel and Schuster back their rights in Superman; an Amazon comments thread about Joe Matt; a meta-cartoon by Nate Gruenwald, comprised of annotations upon a fictitious old school cartoonists “classic” strips. The first seems needless, the second is blandly predictable; the last actually has a lovely expressionist/modernist feel, though I think it probably lost a good deal in being excerpted. All of them, though, seem to come from the same place of nervous desperation. “I know no one here really wants to read criticism,” Schwartz seems to be saying. “So, um… here! Look! Bunnies!”

    I like those pieces and sense zero nervous desperation. In fact, I sense the opposite: an editor who is enthusiastic about the material and makes some unexpected choices.

    I’ve found that many discussions about comics (or other kinds of art) online are not about the comic, but about what a given word means, like “best” or “criticism.” And Noah seems, to me at least, to be operating with a private lexicon: “Specifically, for a critic and a supposed connoisseur of criticism, he seems to have a marked aversion to anything that might be considered an idea.” I recognize 1000s of ideas in the book. I think there are interesting ones in most pieces, even the essays I didn’t care for that much. Maybe” idea” means specific something to you, perhaps “ideas that I like and would include in my anthology.”

  2. Noah Berlatsky says:

    Hey Ken. Thanks for commenting.

    “Ben’s tastes are pretty wide”

    We’re just going to have to agree to disagree, I guess. An editor who is almost entirely uninterested in manga, entirely uninterested in online comics, uninterested in anything coming out of the academy, and who draws again and again from the same pool of writers and creators for subject matter and essayists just seems extremely limited to me.

    And, again, saying that you don’t expect any effort to find the best, or any effort to be inclusive, or for the title to be even remotely related to the content…that’s just lame. The Best Music Writing anthologies, for example, make a good faith effort to be juried and wide-ranging while still being clearly shaped by their individual editors interests and tastes. Just because you’re not going to be perfect is not an excuse to chuck it all and just be as insular as possible. (And an essay by the editor plus three by the publisher seems pretty darn insular to me.)

    ” I recognize 1000s of ideas in the book”

    What are they? I’m not (just) trying to be a jerk — I’d like to know. As I said, there seems hardly anything that really qualifies as a thesis. Most of the essays boil down to “this is really good” or “comics can be great” or some combination of those two statements. A lot of that is because Ben leans towards introductions and pieces that are trying to sell to a mainstream audience — but still, there’s not a ton to chew on overall. (As I said, your essay and Dan Nadel’s and a couple of others are notable exceptions.)

    I really don’t mean just “ideas I like.” I mean ideas I don’t like, or do like, or that really attempt to say something about how comics work or don’t work or what they should be. I would have loved an essay that I disagreed with which gave me something to argue with (like, for example, your responses to Suat on Crumb’s Genesis, or Tom Crippen’s essay from TCJ 300 about how Alan Moore is the apotheosis of geekdom, or Tucker Stone’s short essay about how the Abstract Comics anthology wasn’t very good…or tons of stuff.) An essay that is about how James Thurber is cool, and hey, here are some descriptions of his cartoons — I’m sorry, that doesn’t cut it for me, no matter how famous its author. Nor does an essay about Frank King that brings up his misogyny and then concludes that his strip is universal and human because…women aren’t human? Obviously my personal interests are my personal interests — but personal interests in art have wider meanings, and hook up to other debates. You seem to be saying that it’s just a matter of opinion. If that’s the case, why write criticism at all? Do you have something to say or don’t you? Do you care or not? This book’s answers to those questions are depressingly unclear — so depressingly unclear that even an excellent critic such as you seems unable to defend it without essentially abandoning all standards (even minimal truth-in-advertising!) as a bad job.

    “I’ve found that many discussions about comics (or other kinds of art) online are not about the comic, but about what a given word means, like “best” or “criticism.””

    Come on, Ken. I discuss many of the essays in the book and talk specifically about why I do or don’t like them. I even say I wouldn’t really care if the book was deceptive if it was interesting. I think it’s failure to live up to its title is telling, but it’s not the main focus of this essay. As I say, “It’s only once you get over the fact that the book’s cover is a lie, though, that you can really start to appreciate the purity of the work’s cloistered lameness.” If you want to talk about definitional matters, that’s because you want to talk about them. Don’t blame me.

    For example:

    “lots of people, writers, artists, editors and readers, are in this for the long haul, for however long it takes for the graphic novel to achieve its possibilities.”

    Why is this okay with you as a conclusion for an essay in a major anthology? Does this indicate thought and passion, or does it indicate blind boosterism and somewhat desperate huzzahs? Should criticism be in the business of patting everyone on the back with empty platitudes, or should we demand more from our art and more from our criticism?

  3. Obviously this entire anthology is invalidated by the absence of me. However, getting mad because a book called “The Best Comics Criticism” is actually “A Sample of Comics Criticism this Particular Editor Liked” is like getting mad because the Sea Monkeys won’t really play volleyball with you.

  4. Noah Berlatsky says:

    Shaenon, the title is actively deceptive in terms of the content (writing rather than criticism) and the time period covered (not a best of ever, but a best of the last ten years.) I think it’s reasonable to want an editor to tell us what he’s trying to do, even though, of course, personal tastes will differ and there is no objective “best”.

    But, really, the main point is that BACC was presented a stultifying and insular picture of what criticism is and should be. The Sea Monkeys don’t have to play volleyball, but if they crawl out of the tank and shit on my bed, I kind of want my money back.

    Have you read the anthology, Shaenon? I find it hard to believe that you wouldn’t have serious problems with it — though if you liked it I’d certainly be interested to hear why.

  5. kenparille says:

    “Where are your Standards?” Here Noah invokes a particular form of white, male, and Western voodoo that has long been used to marginalize the productions of those living at the edges of the cultural and political hegemony. I refuse to participate in the rhetoric of standards because to do so would make me complicit with a centuries old discursive practice of elitism/linguistic colonialism that masquerades as neutral aesthetic judgments about what constitutes “the literary” or “value.” Women and people of color have been repeatedly excluded from the “canon” precisely on the grounds that their cultural productions do not meet such androcentric and phallogocentrist values. The very notion of “standards” manifests a fractured and wounded male ego, a “besieged patriarchy of one” that attempts to assert its dominance, to take its power by enacting the exclusion of the other.

    But I’m joking above. I don’t really believe that this is the case with your use of standards, Noah, but I could have riffed on it to try to score a moral point . . .

    Ben’s collection is great, with some of the best writing on comics I have read. And Ben’s High Standards produced something that’s a lot of fun to read. Had I been the editor, I would have done things differently; but his collection is better than mine would have been. (I’m an academic, but I’m fine with the fact that there is no academic writing, which is written for other academics, and that’s not the primary audience for the book. I might have included some excerpts from academic pieces, though.)

    I think an effective response to Ben’s book would be to provide a table of contents for your “Best Of” 2000-2008 anthology. Then we can really understand your “vision.”

    “so depressingly unclear that even an excellent critic such as you seems unable to defend it without essentially abandoning all standards (even minimal truth-in-advertising!) as a bad job.”

    Thank you. But I happily abandoned all hope of grand “Standards” long before I wrote that post. Here are my standards for criticism: say something interesting or funny or informative and don’t be a jerk, unless you are smart or funny while being a jerk. And write well, or if you don’t write so well, at least be interesting or funny or informative. Then proofread.

    Most of the essays in the book meet these standards. And I read the advertisement on the back cover, so I’m fine with the contents.

    And are they standards? I really don’t know. I think Jimmy Corrigan is better than The Death of Captain Marvel – so I do have standards, I think.

    “the title is actively deceptive in terms of the content (writing rather than criticism)”

    Again, you are using a personal definition. I see nearly everything in the collection as criticism:
    1. the act of passing judgment as to the merits of anything.
    3. the act or art of analyzing and evaluating or judging the quality of a literary or artistic work, musical performance, art exhibit, dramatic production, etc.
    4. a critical comment, article, or essay; critique.

    I recognize that there often are differences between, say, kinds of criticism and reviews, but to say that what’s in the book is writing and not criticism is to leave standard usage behind.

    As far ideas, take the Moore piece, which is short, but makes lots of interesting speculations about Ditko’s investment in Dr. Strange and how his bio and the character’s are intertwined. It is full of interpretative claims, but maybe these ideas are not big enough for you.

  6. Caro says:

    Hi Ken: I very much enjoyed your piece in the collection. It’s a very skillful deep-dive and I recommend it to anybody (myself included) who wants to improve their comics-reading chops or just experience the aesthetic pleasure of elegant close reading.

    I actually think that “leaving standard usage behind” is something that critics ought to do with some frequency: at least in the sense of expanding the standard usage, pushing against it, challenging it, exploring its limitations and the places where standard usage is inadequate as a framing device. Standard usage should be a starting point, destined to be “left behind” in the tumult of ideas. That’s why I started my piece with Rosalind Krauss’ not-even-a-little-bit-standard definition. Sam Delany prefers the term “functional description” to “definition” because it allows for meanings to flex and stretch in ways that allow us to be more descriptive, more imaginative and more equipped to reach for those bigger ideas. I’m all for bigger ideas!

  7. kenparille says:

    Caro,
    Thanks – I’m glad you liked it. I haven’t read your part of the roundtable yet, but will do so soon. I agree in general with what you say about standard usage. But in this case I simply don’t understand what Noah means. Most of the pieces are criticism: if you don’t like them you can say that they are weak criticism, poorly written criticism, insufficiently analytical, etc. Noah seems to want to deny them any kind of legitimacy by classifying them out of existence. If someone writes a poem I don’t like, I still acknowledge it as poetry . . . I tend to prefer shared meanings and try to use standard ones, not out of any loyalty to lexical authority, but because I think it helps us avoid confusion and keeps the conversation on the work and the ideas.

  8. Caro says:

    I don’t want to represent Noah’s position, Ken, but for me the limitations weren’t so much with any specific piece of criticism as with the overall picture of “comics criticism” that it painted to put them together in aggregate. It’s the anthology’s guiding “idea” that isn’t big enough for me, not the ideas in any single article. Obviously there are some that appeal to my imagination more than others, as for any reader, but overall the range of “criticisms” that are represented in the volume seems fairly narrow when compared with the range of all possible approaches to criticism, because the majority of the essays take comics’ own history as the critical touchstone rather than all the history of all the arts and human thinking about the arts.

    More importantly, to me, the volume as a whole makes the argument that this narrow slice is the most appropriate and compelling type of criticism for comics. For breadth, Schwartz didn’t reach to that wide range of imaginative critical writing — he reached to a kind of literary theater — the court case, etc. — that while “imaginative,” is really at heart very consistent with the analytical pieces he selected and this comics-centric perspective.

    While the selections certainly fit the strict definition of criticism as you say, it doesn’t strike me as fitting my experience of arts criticism in general, and I read a lot of arts criticism! Museum catalogues, websites, magazines, old magazines, documentary films, books about visual art and literature as well as journals and academic theory — the spectrum of critical writing in the things I read as an avid reader of criticism encompasses a much broader variety of ways to think about art. So when Noah says that the stuff in this volume “isn’t criticism” but writing, I took it that way: this is just such a tiny sliver of the possible approaches to criticism that it hardly feels like an anthology of “criticism” at all; it just feels like the guiding category is something else.

  9. Noah Berlatsky says:

    Interviews aren’t criticism as usually defined; the interviews here weren’t in general especially critically engaged. Many of these pieces were historical surveys, not critical essays. Pieces like the Siegel and Schuster court case aren’t criticism.

    I could see a anthology that tried hard to expand the meaning of criticism by including pieces like the above. The problem is that there’s really not baseline pieces of criticism; there aren’t any pieces that really take a firm critical stand and argue it (rather than sort of drifting through insights of varying interest like the Moore piece, or generally saying something really non-controversial like, “comics…they’re great!) So you don’t get a sense of someone trying to expand the critical possibilities so much as you get a sense of someone who doesn’t care much about criticism and is throwing together a bunch of gimmicks.

  10. Noah Berlatsky says:

    Just quickly; you’re first paragraph on standards is really funny, Ken. But…just using ad hoc standards as you suggest (things that are interesting or funny to me, etc.) leaves you with not a whole lot to talk about…except perhaps for the kind of close readings you do so well. I like those…but I also think that there’s a virtue in trying to argue with art on the basis of ideas big and small. Art isn’t entirely subjective…if it were, there couldn’t be communication at all, and art would disappear. If art is in part a group experience, you should be able to evaluate it on the basis of ideas which (while not objective) make sense to more than just one person. Working out what standards you are using and why is it seems to me one of the purposes of criticism. When you chuck that project, you end up just accepting standards without thinking them through…standards such as, let’s not include any manga because it isn’t lit comics but we’ll include lots of superhero genre work because we happen to like them.

    Oh, and it doesn’t really bother me that much that many of these things in the book aren’t criticism. A book of “Best American Comics Writing” would be fine with me.

  11. Gary Groth says:

    I had an anus-clenching moment when I read Ken’s parodic “Where are your standards?” paragraph without knowing it was parody and thought, “My God, they’re both idiots!” You can imagine my relief when Ken revealed that it was a joke! I thought I’d created some sort of critical purgatory that I would wander around in forever in an intellectual torpor, and the only way out would be to extinguish the site. My only solace was that I might bump into Harold Bloom and we’d sit down and commiserate.

  12. Noah Berlatsky says:

    It’s fun to think of Gary as the Harold Bloom of comics. Maybe he can write an essay about how Wallace Stevens is no good because the blackbirds aren’t sexy enough. Then Ben will anthologize it.

    “I think an effective response to Ben’s book would be to provide a table of contents for your “Best Of” 2000-2008 anthology. Then we can really understand your “vision.””

    I mean, one thing I’d do probably is to try to consult people who aren’t me and don’t agree with me about much. For instance, I don’t know enough about manga or online comics to get good pieces. So I’d ask somebody like Shaenon to co-edit. Or have a panel of several people, as Suat has done for his yearly best of criticism.

    And, you know, I wouldn’t include pieces by myself.

    If you want to know what my vision is (in quotes or out), you can also look at HU. I can talk at length about what I’m trying to do there and why I think it’s worthwhile. It’s not especially clear to me that you’re all that interested though, so I’ll refrain.

    “As far ideas, take the Moore piece, which is short, but makes lots of interesting speculations about Ditko’s investment in Dr. Strange and how his bio and the character’s are intertwined. It is full of interpretative claims, but maybe these ideas are not big enough for you.”

    Alan Moore is obviously a smart guy. For the most part, though, that piece is really entry level stuff — Spider-Man wasn’t as good after Ditko left; Ditko’s personal black/white philosophy is kind of crazy; Ditko invested Dr. Strange with his personal mythology; Ditko’s characters have expressive hands. Yeah, those aren’t big ideas. They’re hardly small ideas. They’re offhand insights by a clever man who is basically just chatting. Which is fine…but given its lack of ambition and its pedestrian conclusions, why is it here? Except that it’s Alan Moore? Is the point of the “best” criticism to show us what random shit creators have to say about each other? Or should the “best” criticism have some kind of thesis that takes us somewhere other than — “Ditko: nobody appreciates him enough.”

    For a much, much more ambitious, more eloquent, and generally better all around take on similar material, I’d recommend Craig Fischer’s essay about Ditko. Among other things, it looks at specific Ditko comics, and relates his iconic obsession with hands to his biography in much more specific ways. Craig’s piece analyzes, synthesizes, and reaches exciting conclusions. Moore’s piece does none of those things. And, in fact, most of the pieces in the book don’t do those things. I think that’s a failure.

  13. kenparille says:

    Just after I hit submit on that dumb joke post, I thought, “what if somebody only reads the first part and thinks that’s my real position . . .” I’m glad Gary read further —

    “If you want to know what my vision is (in quotes or out), you can also look at HU. I can talk at length about what I’m trying to do there and why I think it’s worthwhile. It’s not especially clear to me that you’re all that interested though, so I’ll refrain.”

    I feel as if I have been talking you seriously and expressing interest, responding to your post and comments . . . I think that looking at HU as a whole doesn’t tell me anything specific about what you would include. What pieces from there, if any, would you include in a best of 2000-2008 collection? I still think a list of contents would be helpful.

    If I were to play “Noah against Noah” I might say that “Some of the pieces and writers on HU undermine my claim to high standards, and thus we should not take anything I say about standards seriously. Even though there are plenty of excellent pieces on HU, many choices eviscerate my claim to any kind of elevated curatorial values.” I don’t believe this at all, but this mirrors your approach to Ben’s anthology; it’s as ‘valid’ against you as an editor as against him. But this kind of stuff doesn’t advance the dialogue . . .

    “just using ad hoc standards as you suggest (things that are interesting or funny to me, etc.) leaves you with not a whole lot to talk about…except perhaps for the kind of close readings you do so well.”

    You often grant words a mystical and almost physical power that I don’t. Just because I say something about standards on a blog, you think it magically constrains me. It doesn’t work this way. Not to sound defensive and/or self- promoting, but as “proof,” I’ll send you a PDF of my recent book on boyhood and pedagogy in 19th-century America. My standards did not magically stop me from writing about “big ideas” and making “big claims” and “sweeping revisions” (I hope) of masculinity studies, received wisdom about male and women writers, the literary canon and literary criticism, childhood gender and pedagogy, theories of domesticity, ideas about corporal punishment and gender difference; sympathy, affect, and sentimentality, etc. Almost no formalist close readings to be found . . .

    It seems that, for you, each word/decision you disagree with in Ben’s anthology has a fist attached that rises from the page and hits you in the face. So naturally, you punch back. Everyone has standards. I don’t care what they are (the minute you express them in prose, they became subject to an all-too-easy deconstruction); just write some interesting, forceful stuff. I think you have plenty of valid criticisms to make, but your tone is so hostile at times that it makes it hard for me to focus on your ideas, which is what I would prefer to do. I hope you don’t take that personally – it’s about how I read, and I think there may be others who feel this way.

    Caroline is right that criticism is marginalized in our culture. And if we are concerned about this fact, we need to ask, “What kind of writing and actions (and in what venues) will help to change this?” I think Ben’s collection is a strong critical answer.

  14. Noah Berlatsky says:

    “You often grant words a mystical and almost physical power that I don’t. Just because I say something about standards on a blog, you think it magically constrains me.”

    No, I don’t think this at all. I do think that if you say something, it’s fair game to ask you to defend it and/or abandon it. I think if you say you like something, it’s fair to ask you to explain why. Where are you coming from that you think this book is good? If you are willing to use big ideas in other contexts, why not in comics criticism? Or do you believe that Ben’s book does have big ideas that I’m not seeing, and, if so, what are they? Or alternately, does the fact that Ben’s book does not have big ideas connect to the fact that you think it helps to demarginalize criticism — that is, do big ideas marginalize criticism, and do you therefore eschew them in certain situations? What words or decisions do you *disagree* with in Ben’s anthology, and why don’t they invalidate the project for you? (I talked about some decisions I liked and why I don’t think they save the thing — it seems like turnabout should be fair play. Unless you just like everything equally, which would be odd but possible, I guess.)

    I agree that everyone has standards. I think that if you don’t think through what they are, you end up going with some unfortunate choices — like no manga criticism for essentially no reason.

    “I still think a list of contents would be helpful.”

    Well, you can look at this if you like. If I were actually going to do a project like BACC, I would do a ton of research, so I’m really reluctant to just pull a list out of my ass. And I’m sort of constitutionally opposed to the notion that criticism has to be constructive; just because BACC is bad doesn’t mean I have to fix it.

    Also…I’d be really reluctant to single out things from my blog to put in a general best of anthology (if that’s what you’re asking me to do.) You run into conflict-of-interest issues really fast that way.

    Perhaps this is an unfair request but…it would still be helpful to me if you would actually make a case for even one of the pieces in the book. You’ve mentioned that there are ideas you like, that you think that Ben’s anthology has worthwhile pieces…but what is worthwhile about them? I talked in some detail about why specifically I think the Alan Moore essay you mentioned (without really discussing) is not effective critically. Do you have a response? Do you think the Craig Fisher essay is better or worse than Moore’s essay? If it’s better, is the Alan Moore good enough, and what does that mean? If it’s worse, on what grounds do you think so?

    I think your critique of HU is certainly reasonable. It is a blog, not a best of, so I’m not necessarily making a claim to uniform standards — in fact, I’m kind of committed to occasionally publishing things that aren’t from my viewpoint, and which I therefore may not like all that much for any number of reasons. Sort of along those lines as well, having cobloggers means I’m not approving everything, and so the blog is (intentionally) a product of other people’s visions, not just my own.

    But I do have an idea of what I’m trying to do, at least generally. I would say that I want HU to open up the conversation about comics in various ways. Sometimes that means putting comics in the context of other art and criticism. Sometimes is means getting people in the manga communities and the art comics communities to talk to each other. Sometimes it means having people with different canons and different viewpoints talk about the same work. Sometimes it means getting people who haven’t written much criticism to talk to people who are professional critics. Sort of by accident, it’s also ended up meaning having a fairly broad spectrum of international writers appearing on the blog on a regular basis.

    I don’t think I’m the only one doing any of these things, nor that I succeed all the time. But those are some of the goals.

    I could talk more about why I think what I’m doing is worthwhile, or what some of my other goals are, or even where I think I’ve failed if you’d like, I guess. Again, I’m just not sure how much everyone wants me to natter on….

  15. Caro says:

    Can I just second this question?

    Do you believe that Ben’s book does have big ideas that I’m not seeing, and, if so, what are they? Or alternately, does the fact that Ben’s book does not have big ideas connect to the fact that you think it helps to demarginalize criticism — that is, do big ideas marginalize criticism, and do you therefore eschew them in certain situations?

    Not necessarily just to Ken, but to anybody who wants to answer? I think it gets at the heart of what we were talking about over on Jeet’s post this morning, plus it’s kind of an ongoing theme: at what point does “intellectual” writing become so “academic” that it not only can’t be part of a mainstream conversation anymore but actually works to perpetuate the marginalization? I’m sure I do draw that line much closer to academia than a lot of people, but I also think a lot of it has to do with prose style and jargon rather than the actual substance of the ideas. I mean, why can’t an “academic” idea, as long as it is expressed in engaging prose without recourse to obscurantist jargon, be acceptable to at least some subset of the non-academic mainstream?

    • Caro says:

      I should also say that Noah doesn’t really act like an editor at HU in the “standards applying” sense. He doesn’t edit our posts or tell us what we should write on. So if something I posted doesn’t fit in with his standards it’s really not an inconsistency on his part…

      You can see his hand if you go meta, though, in the vigor of the conversation and the breadth of the dialogue. HU’s more a coffeehouse than a coffeetable book: especially since we frequently throw empty wine bottles at each other’s heads.

  16. Noah Berlatsky says:

    Oh, I’m sorry Ken —

    ” I’ll send you a PDF of my recent book on boyhood and pedagogy in 19th-century America.”

    Yes, please. That sounds great.

  17. […] had an anus-clenching moment when I read Ken [Parille]’s parodic ‘Where are your standards?’ paragraph without knowing it was parody and thought, ‘My God, [Parille and Comics Journal contributor […]

  18. kenparille says:

    Noah,
    My comments have been directed to the collection as a whole and why I like it: Innovative generic mix of material, an expansive notion of “criticism” (why doesn’t Ben get praised for “moving beyond standard usage” of a term?), interesting pairings of pieces that take different approaches to the same subject, lots of relevant historical essays, plenty of great writing in which the writers selected exhibit very different “tones” – angry, funny, respectful . The volume is well put together on many levels.

    It’s fair to ask for an in-depth discussion of one piece; why I like it and think it worthy of inclusion. But school just started back. . . Quickly, though — Dan Nadel’s piece is great: full of polemical ideas about the canon, museum shows and how they should be staged and the art documented; gender, the need for reaserch/context etc . . . Page 216-17 features a series of questions that should be printed up and distributed to curators. I disagree with a few points he makes, but his essay is just the thing for a collection like this.

  19. Noah Berlatsky says:

    Dan’s piece is my favorite too! It just seems so different than the rest of the book though, in part because it is polemical and filled with ideas (about the canon, the need for research/context, and all the other points you make.) As I said in my piece, some of his points actually seem to skewer the collection itself (about the problems of nepotistic curation and the stunt casting especially.)

    “why doesn’t Ben get praised for “moving beyond standard usage” of a term?”

    I wanted to, honestly. I was hoping for great things from the Amazon comment thread, and using comics as comics criticism appeals to me as well. But those choices ended up seeming just random; the Amazon thread was bland; the comics weren’t especially revelatory. The interviews could have been chosen for specifically critical engagement too…but they didn’t really seem to be as far as I could tell. Instead they were mostly historical or gossipy.

    In the end, there were so few ambitious ideas like those in Dan’s piece that the gimmicky pieces felt like gimmicks; like an effort to fill up page space with novelties because there wasn’t really a belief in or enthusiasm for ideas or for critical engagement. I wanted the book to make a strong case for the vitality of criticism in even paracriticism. Instead, it makes the case that the best of comics criticism is no better than a thrown off comments thread. I find the book depressing not because I hate Ben (whose writing as I’ve said I’ve liked in the past) or because I wanted to hate it. I find it depressing because I hoped it would be good.

  20. Caro says:

    Nadel’s piece was completely professional, but for me it just really made comics culture seem really backwards. It’s not really even Nadel’s fault, but if you’re still at the point where a) exhibitions are bad in such incredibly outdated and out-of-touch ways, and b) exhibitions that bad get that much critical attention, you’re just in a vortex of small-time insularity that no amount of critical anthologizing can get you out of…I found that piece easily the creepiest one in the book, because it was so good on the surface and yet so, well, almost displaced in time.

    Given the topic, Nadel did a quite nice job articulating against the limitations of the exhibition: but the mere fact that he’s railing, still, against “canons of great men” makes the whole exercise seem pointless. I see where you guys are coming from, but I don’t think elementary correctives to palpable and entirely avoidable idiocy constitute particularly “big ideas” about the canon or diversity etc. I guess comics are a small enough pond that they’re big ideas, and Nadel’s heart is mostly in the right place, but…and then on top of that, honestly, the ideas for how to reach across the divide to non-fans are things like telling us what Seger has in common with Frank King? Or how to “reckon with one-dimensional portrayals of women”? Seriously? Kurtzman>Crumb>Panter doesn’t really honestly seem that astoundingly unbelievable a trajectory considering everything else that happened in the same time period in the rest of the world…it’s just that same old insular comics-centric guy-in-the-basement nonsense. And yes, the basement is gilded now with the sheen of commercial and mass-critical approval, but a gilded basement is still pretty much a ghetto.

    I thought the essay was completely consistent with the worldview of the BACC collection overall — although perfectly well-written and intelligent. But basically it depressed the ever-loving hell out of me because it made me completely convinced that spending any time at all in the naval-gazing universe of comics is a complete bloody waste of time.

    Of course, then I thought about SPX and took a deep breath and reminded myself that I actually do not have any obligation to care about any of the cartoonists or issues that Nadel mentions because I am not vying for entry into the comics club, and Irigaray is just as useful a context for really digging Feuchtenberger.

    The only big idea to me is the passing observation in the last paragraph that being meant to be read is different from being meant to be viewed on a wall, which he doesn’t do anything with and which isn’t particular rocket science. One of the comets comets guys (I think it was Jason Overby but I can’t find it) has a much much much more interesting articulation of that same idea when he talks about originals and how the printed volume is the “object.” I’ll try to track that down. It was an original articulation of something that feels to me like a pretty big idea.

  21. Noah Berlatsky says:

    Ouch.

    I feel somewhat routed…but I guess I’d say that I think the argument about canonicity is worthwhile even if it is obviously well-trod. It’s still current in literature too, for example (Harold Bloom keeps not dying, damn it.) Similarly, arguments about women’s representation have been much gone over, but remain flashpoints in various contexts (Camille Paglia’s still arguing about it.) The argument about whether comics should be hung on a wall in the last paragraph which you mention seems like a genuine curatorial issue…and the point about the importance of working with institutions seems like a thoughtful tactical insight. Overall, I don’t think the issues he’s addressing are as irrelevant or absolutely insular as you’re making them out to be. It may be another case where the essay loses something in context?

    I think it’s the one piece in the book that does seem like it’s coming from the same place as Pauline Kael, at least to some degree, in terms of its pugnaciousness and its determination to drag its chosen art form kicking and screaming in the direction he wants it to go. He’s not as witty as Kael is, but he does write well (and without some of her more annoying ticks), and gets off a number of zingers. I see where you’re coming from, and my enthusiasm for the essay is somewhat battered, but I still think it’s a worthwhile and admirable piece.

  22. Ng Suat Tong says:

    Sidenote concerning the “object” vs “original” debate: There’s also Andrei Molotiu’s article in IJOCA which takes the opposing viewpoint (to that professed by John Porcellino at Comets Comets for example; “This is exactly part of why I make comics. And why I don’t sell my original art pages from King-Cat. To me, the pamphlet comic IS the artwork. The pages are like the pencils: tools that I use to make the finished piece.”) and discusses a number of approaches to viewing comics original art. It’s in an academic journal but can be easily read by a layman.

  23. Caro says:

    I entirely agree with your last paragraph, Noah. It’s objectively a good essay. But it did in fact completely and totally give me the creeps. Like, I had to put the book down and go find sunshine and puppy dogs.

    You’re also right that the issues aren’t as dead as they ought to be although I might have them slightly more moribund than you. But still…they’re important enough to be the “best” and biggest ideas comics criticism’s got to offer? I still really like Ken’s piece and the Ware a lot better. Not counting the interviews and the gimmick bits, they’re about the only ones where I didn’t have to actively overcome something about the topic or the way the topic was framed/approached before I could figure out whether or not the writing and ideas were good.

    And Suat, you are brilliant: that has to be the quote I’m thinking of. I couldn’t find it but it sounds right. I’m very interested in Andrei’s take on it. I have no idea where I stand on the issue, but I’d say that is definitely a big idea!

  24. Noah Berlatsky says:

    I’m pretty firmly on Dan’s side of that, I think. Not that Porcellino shouldn’t do whatever he wishes with his art, and I understand the desire to control creative output. But at the same time I generally feel that art can and even should be used in different contexts by different audiences. If visual art folks can see original art pages of comics in a way that makes sense of them, I just don’t see that that takes away from the experience of the original. On the contrary, I think comics benefit from interacting with other art forms. I wish they did more of it.

  25. Caro says:

    I don’t think it was about control for Porcellino: here’s the full quote (click to read in context at Comets Comets – it’s in a comment to a fun Jason Overby post on a related topic):

    This is exactly part of why I make comics. And why I don’t sell my original art pages from King-Cat. To me, the pamphlet comic IS the artwork. The pages are like the pencils: tools that I use to make the finished piece. I like that the finished artwork costs $3, and that there is a (conceivably) limitless supply.

    When I was a painter, my focus was on demolishing ideas about art and art’s elitist value. Comics were the very best way for me to accomplish that.

  26. DerikB says:

    Porcellino doesn’t sell original art, but he does make recreations of pages and sell them by commission (I’ve got one on my wall).

  27. […] 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 […]