Best American Comics Criticism Roundtable: A Lost Opportunity

Posted by on August 23rd, 2010 at 1:50 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.

“When this book was first pitched to [Gary Groth], he asked me if I really thought I could fill a whole book with good writing on comics (and sent me a copy of his own essay, “The Death of Criticism”). Hopefully I’ve convinced him… if not, I’m sure I’ll read about it.”

– Ben Schwartz, in his introduction
to The Best American Comics Criticism

The announcement of Ben Schwartz’s anthology of comics criticism was greeted with a modicum of excitement and expectation which was swiftly followed by a certain incredulity that such a book could be put together at all. Few would dispute the need for such a collection and any disagreements will inevitably boil down to questions of editorial philosophy as well as the individual choices. The retrospective nature of The Best American Comics Criticism (BACC) would suggest that the quality of the final compilation (or lack thereof) can be laid largely at the feet of the editor.

First, the good news. BACC offers a selection of writings from a who’s who of American comics criticism. Many of comics criticism’s most prominent voices are represented within these pages: R. Fiore, Paul Gravett, R. C. Harvey, Jeet Heer, Donald Phelps, Chris Ware and Douglas Wolk among others. Whether these writers are well represented by the chosen pieces or, more importantly, if their prominence relates to some undeniable quality is something which the reader must decide for himself.

The book is laid out with some care and discernment. An interview where Will Eisner and Frank Miller discuss rain (among other things) is followed by an article from Douglas Wolk’s Reading Comics concerning the same. The lightness of Seth’s piece from Wimbledon Green is a welcome addition following an unexciting history lesson taken from David Hajdu’s The Ten Cent Plague (the fault here lies with the well worn topic not the writer). Further, most of the pieces presented here are of above-average competency — that is, they are written with technical proficiency and offer up reasonably sensible views on comics.

The opening piece of the anthology, Brian Doherty’s “Comics Tragedy” is the introduction which Schwartz should have written — a broad explanation of the nature of the medium, its fan culture and the new literary comics explosion. It is an essay directed at a general audience rather than a readership which is deeply interested in comics. Much of it is a rote retread of the modern historical developments in comic books, as is to be expected of an article which first appeared in Reason Magazine. This is a limitation born of its publication venue and not its writer. This proclivity is notable as a number of pieces in this book suffer from the same constraint.

Doherty’s most interesting (and disputable) idea comes towards the end of the piece where he offers up the suggestion that superhero comics were not so much a historical accident but a necessity (though the former idea does not automatically exclude the latter) and a goodly one at that:

Far from choking off the vitality of the comic book, superheroes may be precisely that which has kept the form alive, albeit on a smaller scale than decades ago… Though McCloud tries to deny it, the serialized superhero comic provides something unique, something that other art forms can’t quite match, even when they try to… As one of the publishers in Kavalier & Clay puts it while looking at Kavalier’s crazily eye-catching art, “Half bad is maybe better than beauteeful.” Such an inexacting but heartfelt standard may be key to superhero comics’ unique value and long-lasting appeal: They are attractive and inspire passion because they provide a structurally different kind of aesthetic/storytelling experience than other, more respected storytelling forms.

This is useful because it accurately reflects the renewed reverence for the superhero form even among the comics “literati” in this new era where the possibilities of the comics form have been acknowledged. This disposition has also led to the warm embrace of much period genre work (most of which stress craftsmanship and individuality over mature content), an attitude which at one point seemed inconsistent with the values of literary comics. It also fits in neatly with Schwartz’s inclusion of a number of essays relating to the superhero genre.

The contextual piece that follows (an article by Paul Gravett called “Graphic Novels: Can You Hear The Trucks?”) does not represent Gravett’s best work of the past decade. It is stylistically sound but offers no new insights into the period in question and is very clearly aimed at readers with absolutely no knowledge of the boom and bust years of late ’80s and early ’90s.

While it is easy to understand why Schwartz opens his anthology with these two pieces, the points raised therein should have been kept within the borders of his introduction while offering up more intellectually pleasing articles from the hands of Doherty and Gravett within the body of the collection itself. The decision to do otherwise is symptomatic of the fact that BACC does not consist of the “best” comics criticism of the new millennium but a selection of writings that fit a certain agenda which only has marginal concerns with aesthetics and quality.

A moderation in expectations will be required if the reader is to enjoy this book. It should be understood that its title, “Best American Comics Criticism” is a misnomer is more ways than one. Firstly, the time scale is restricted to 2000-2008, a fact suggested in Schwartz’s introduction but not otherwise noted on the cover. This is particularly limiting in a form where an entire year can pass without a single truly great piece of criticism being written. For instance, the period under coverage prevents the best pieces in R. Fiore’s oeuvre from being included. Fiore is best appreciated when he is able to employ his extensive knowledge of comics history; his two articles on 9/11 comics, however, focus on political opinion where he is less assured. Similarly, instead of the best writing on Will Eisner we get Douglas Wolk’s essay on Will Eisner and Frank Miller from Reading Comics which is essentially Eisner 101 (i.e. an Eisner piece for those who have never read Eisner) and certainly not the best piece of writing Wolk has done this decade.

Secondly, there are a number of articles here which have little to do with the word “Best”, having negligible aesthetic or intellectual appeal. For example, the article titled “Excerpt from the Decision of U.S. District Judge Stephen G. Larson in Case No. CV-04-8400-SGL” which I take for a humorous interlude (thankfully limited to a single page). Far worse is the addition of a number of brief introductions which degenerate into unbridled hagiography. The inclusion of some bland reviews concerning Joe Matt (a favorite of the editor’s) is further proof that the title of Schwartz’s anthology was beholden to marketing. The alternative of an editor with terrible standards and taste should only be entertained failing this.

A less egregious choice is Rick Moody’s defense of the modern graphic novel by way of a review of David B.’s Epileptic; a review which offers precious few insights with respect to the comic. One suspects that the inclusion of this piece relates to Moody’s fame as a novelist, a practice which is prevalent, understandable and pathetic. Similarly, John Hodgman’s review from the New York Times (on Kirby’s Fourth World and Y: The Last Man) is workmanlike but has no place in any “Best of” collection. The less charitable would suggest that his prominence as a personality as well as the article’s publication venue prompted this addition.

Thirdly, as plainly stated by Schwartz in his introduction, a number of the contributors are not in fact American, something which I would have encouraged the editor to take even greater liberties with, thus dispensing with the title “American” altogether. One can only dream of more translated works of European comics criticism.

Fourthly, the fact that Schwartz chose to include one of this own essays in a book compiling the “best” pieces of comics criticism in the last decade suggests to me that the entire volume cannot be taken seriously at all. All criticism possesses an element of vanity but this inclusion indicates the absence of even a shred of humility or insight.

From Wimbledon Green, ©2005 Seth.

The title “Best American Comics Criticism” is therefore somewhat misleading but quite understandable if only for the purposes of commerce. I am ambivalent about this act of imprecise nomenclature since I did not spend money on the book and have come to expect such indiscretions as part of the fabric of all publishing. “Comics Criticism: An Anthology”, “Comics Criticism: A Beginner’s Guide” or “Comics Criticism in the New Millennium” would all have been more accurate but somewhat less satisfying for the sales department. As hinted at by these suggested titles, this is a book targeted at individuals who do not read comics criticism in general. For those who have taken on a regular diet of the premier magazines of the form (The Comics Journal, Comic Art and Comics Comics) or who have bought a number of the headline comics-related tomes of the last 10 years (the Walt and Skeezix collections, the Complete Peanuts collections, Wimbledon Green, the Hajdu and Wolk books), this anthology will have very little to offer.

One might also ask why Schwartz’ book contains so little in the way of criticism relating to manga, a question first posed by Tom Spurgeon at The Comics Reporter :

Tom Spurgeon: …the pieces that engage manga are limited to I think a single interview with Yoshihiro Tatsumi.

Ben Schwartz: It’s not an omission. It’s just not the book they want to read. Tatsumi is not there to represent manga, but gekiga, the Japanese version of lit comics. His choice to break with manga is as big as Eisner’s in splitting with the superheroes, so that’s why he’s in it.

One could put this decision down to a lack of interest or unmitigated ignorance but I am inclined to give Schwartz the benefit of the doubt here. It is far more likely that he did not find any manga-related criticism worthy of inclusion in his book (a question of taste and one with which I would disagree) and felt it polite not to say so directly in his interview with Spurgeon.

Certainly, their exclusion cannot be put down to a lack of quality reviews of “literary” manga (they certainly do exist) or even the preponderance of criticism related to genre manga, for Schwartz reserves a considerable amount of space for material unrelated to the literary comics movement. The exclusion of manga-related pieces is symptomatic of the limitations of the book under consideration and any potential customers should act accordingly.

The wisdom on offer in Schwartz’s book is conventional and predictable, rather like a comics anthology offering up random selections by Chester Brown, Dan Clowes, Seth and Chris Ware. The resultant product communicates little by way of exciting viewpoints and stands even less chance of elevating an informed reader’s understanding or ideas about comics . For the most part, this is not a book which challenges received tastes (an exception might be Dan Nadel on “What Went Wrong with the Masters Show”) but confirms them. It is, however, choked with historical and biographical detail (Jeet Heer’s informative essay on Frank King and Gasoline Alley, the Hajdu excerpt and the piece from Gerard Jones’ Men of Tomorrow being a few examples), this being the primary form that the most celebrated comics criticism of our time has taken, somewhat to the art’s detriment I should add. What you won’t find here is anything akin to Vladimir Nabokov on literature, Julian Barnes on Gericault, James Baldwin on film, Susan Sontag on photography or Walter Benjamin on everything. Comics criticism as a form is as stunted as the art it purports to write about, which is not to say that it is a form of writing without promise.

A contributor to Schwartz’s book, Ken Parille, once wrote the following concerning criticism as it pertains to comics:

For a long time literary criticism was dominated by various strategies of close reading and explication that focused on the text as a “world of its own.” Then came an emphasis on different kinds of historically-based readings in which critics used the text as a way into larger cultural concerns. I sometimes wish that comics criticism (especially in academic journals) could have a period in which aesthetic and formal analysis of comics/graphical novels were emphasized — I’m not against criticism that engages history (all of my writing on children’s literature is rooted in histories of gender and education), it’s just that, for example, there aren’t that many lengthy close readings of a single text that could serve as models for readers of approaches they could take.

As applied to the book at hand, few of the pieces contained in BACC take on the task of “close reading” or “explication” (Parille’s article on David Boring being the notable exception) and the large swathes of history we do find are infrequently placed in the arena of “larger cultural concerns” (and when they do, rarely with superior skill or wisdom). Sara Boxer’s essay on Krazy Kat (“George Herriman: The Cat in the Hat,” written for the New York Review of Books) might be seen as one such piece though it gets bogged down at the start with appeals to authority and commonsensical explanations of the strip aimed at her skeptical general readership (something quite typical of the anthology as a whole).

Generally speaking, Schwartz’s book is representative of one side of a divide which I’ve seen form in the comics critical community over the last few years. For the most part, the aspect of the comics critical field presented in BACC addresses comics discretely (the comic as a “world of its own”) or from a very provincial cultural and historical perspective. This is a position characterized by The Comics Journal of old and online sites like Comics Comics. It is, in fact, the manner in which I frequently write about comics myself. This form of criticism rarely positions comics within the greater narrative of Western art or the associated developments in critical theory. It is a stance which I find unacceptable for an anthology of this ilk where a breath of styles and approaches is to be expected.

Much of this is a consequence of the battle which once dominated serious comics criticism — that concerning the aesthetic possibilities of comics. Those primal feelings of inferiority led naturally to defensiveness and insularity. That war now won, the critical community has become almost bloated with self-approbation and navel-gazing, accepting the primary works of those early days (mere decades old and hardly established by the greatest judge of all, time) as canonical and unimpeachable. In many ways, Schwartz’s book is a history of this hegemony, the creation of a hermetic empire of unsullied truth, praise and happiness.

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