Best American Comics Criticism Roundtable: As Much Time as They Deserve

Posted by on August 25th, 2010 at 12:18 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 Clyde Fans, ©2004 Seth.


I intend to give the first round of essays by Brian Doherty, Jeet Heer and Ben Schwartz as much time as they deserve, which is to say next to none at all.

The uncritical boosterism characterized by Heer’s and Doherty’s contributions are representative of a kind of critical vomitus which I’ve long since given up hope of ever mopping away.

Heer is so caught up with the idea that criticism can exist in any form (a tremendously banal insight I should add) that he completely forgoes any remarks on the actual quality of the pieces contained in the collection. “Editorial bravado” is taken as an excuse to flatter Schwartz and castrate reason and evaluation. This kind of smarminess was widely derided in The Comics Journal of old and deserves to be smacked down like a dirty mole on this occasion as well.

If Heer finds the reader reviews or any other essays remarkable for their insights then he needs to tell us why that we may weigh his assessments. If he finds the inclusion of other pieces surprising for their mediocrity then these need to be highlighted as well. But a seasoned critic like Heer hardly needs to be taught the basics of his own craft. Rather, what I sense is a certain hesitancy on his part being, as he is, an editor of at least two volumes of comics criticism. If Heer cannot bring himself to objectively remark on the pieces contained in the anthology under review, then he should have excused himself from this engagement. If he intends to be nurturing and paternalistic then we need to be apprised of this as well, that we may ignore his evaluations.

Doherty‘s article is rife with nostalgia and gushing approbation, the fanboy mannerisms once linked to superheroes now transplanted to the adulation of classic and alternative comics:

I love (good) comics, with a fervor that is more specialized and hungry than the way I “love good books” in general. While I am undoubtedly God’s own special snowflake in many ways, I think the very existence of a book like this, and an audience ready to engage it, indicates that this mentality is not that rare…. Now a generation of talented smartypants, both readers and creators, are arising, utterly uninfected by any happy memories of childhood affection for X-Men, Daredevil, Batman, The Spirit, Spider-Man, or whoever. The kind of mind that could be expected to understand and care about Kim Deitch, Steve Ditko, Dan Clowes, Will Elder, Joe Matt, Will Eisner, Sammy Harkham… For an account of those (to this reader) happy days when that unified scene of publications and minds were deeply concerned with, and widely loved, whatever people managed to do with the uniquely exhilarating mixture of words and pictures to tell stories… this book does a signal service. Those days are undoubtedly going away. I’ll miss them, but BACC will help us remember them.

This isn’t criticism, it’s advertising copy and idolatry. To comment any further would be superfluous but as such is the requirement of this debate I will say this: that it is all too obvious that the soft comics criticism practised by most mainstream outlets has misled Doherty as regards to what was required of him at this venue. I can only hope that he will bring more discernment and some critical standards to the second round of essays now that his perceptions have been challenged.

In his essay, Schwartz writes that Berlatsky “takes the title of BACC with such literal constipation that I’m not surprised he couldn’t be bothered to even read the table of contents.” I would like to inform Mr. Schwartz that readers take the titles of such collections as statements of intent. A failure to consider such expectations suggests a defect in those much valued traits of honesty and accuracy in description. If even these basic requirements have not been met, how are we to approach such a volume with anything but trepidation. Is the person in charge of this collection an editor or a used-car salesman?

In the spirit of self-praise, Schwartz states that “Brian Doherty’s and John Hodgman’s and Gerard Jones’ are possibly the best pieces on superheroes done in 2000-2008, and I didn’t miss them.”


From Pussey!, ©2006 Daniel G. Clowes.


I have previously stated that Hodgman’s article (on Kirby’s Fourth World, Eric Shanower’s Age of Bronze and Y: The Last Man) was a workmanlike piece of writing and undeserving of the label “best.” The article begins with dry, basic description before proceeding to biography and hyperbole. It is virtually bereft of unique insights into the work at hand: Kirby’s Fourth World was a “personal epic”; Kirby was “the King”; his characters are “always in motion; leaping and punching at impossible angles, straining at the panels that try to contain them”; Kirby was prolific and his concepts were “beguiling.” Hodgman’s article is an introduction to Kirby’s Fourth World for the masses and of secondary interest to anyone with a knowledge of the work that has been done on Kirby. This is hardly Hodgman’s fault since that was probably his brief from the New York Times — one directing advocacy and honest aggrandizing. Rather, the deficiency lies with Schwartz and his enervated senses. One must conclude that Schwartz’s experience with comics criticism is minimal and his taste thoroughly compromised; a self-professed and quite untrustworthy gourmand who has only dined at McDonald’s.

Equally telling is the following statement which was written in response to queries concerning the absence of manga criticism:

Manga needs a Manny Farber, a Pauline Kael, a Lester Bangs more than it does another great artist — someone to extol it with passion, wit, and knowledge. [Emphasis mine.]

Schwartz does not ask for honest evaluation, interpretation or analysis but rather for praise and unbridled championing. This suggests a passion for hagiography which has nothing to do with the best critical values. Such is Schwartz’s delusion that he later states quite blithely that the writings in BACC redefine the canon:

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

If the editor thinks that pieces containing hallelujahs and exaltations of Ditko (yes, I’m quite aware of the uninspired humor piece by Peter Bagge), Eisner, Elder, Herriman, King, Kirby, Schulz and Thurber constitute a redefining of the canon, I would advise a visit to the neurologist.

Schwartz’s essay merely confirms my feelings upon reading his anthology. The Best American Comics Criticism is a book built on scanty standards and a predisposition to eulogizing. For this and other reasons stated in my original review, I find it undeserving of the support of its esteemed publisher.


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