Best American Comics Criticism Roundtable: In Defense of BACC

Posted by on August 26th, 2010 at 2:40 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.


This and below: From Krazy Kat by George Herriman.


My response to Noah Berlatsky? I refer readers to my reply to his original BACC blog post. He only offers more personal attacks on me (adding “craven” and “toadying”), more of his painfully limited definition of all things literary, and adds a piece-by-piece and insulting dismissal of the individual authors collected therein. Actually, in some ways, this response offers a little less than his first post. Several of Noah’s complaints from his first post have disappeared. He’s silent now on the claims that BACC ignored online writers and superheroes as a topic, maybe because he actually got around to reading it? Or at least the table of contents? He also doesn’t credit two other critics for ideas he uses: Sean Howe’s misguided quoting of Dan Nadel on the context-free feeling he got at the Masters show, and Erin Polgreen’s disappointment at seeing only one woman writer in the book — two observations Noah failed to make on his own, but now does. Only one woman writer, yes, but I do include pieces on Satrapi, Lynda Barry, Phoebe Gloeckner and Alison Bechdel. For whatever reasons, I found more interesting women cartoonists than female critics in the 2000-2008 period. But there’s so much Noah to discuss, let’s get to it.

Since Noah heaped all those insults onto the BACC‘s authors, I can only say I stand by every one of those writers, for the reasons laid out in my introduction. Nothing about Noah’s invective has changed my mind. His dismissal of John Hodgman’s piece is utterly misleading. Berlatsky writes: “John Hodgman’s essays, for example, tells us that Jack Kirby thought of his 4th 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?” Actually, Hodgman specifically discusses the genre of epic literature in comics, something Kirby introduced to comics, that has taken increasing importance in comics storytelling. Hodgman means epic in the literary sense (Homer, Milton, etc). I have come to realize anything literary is a stumbling block for Berlatsky, because he finds it “boring.” The literary-epic-as-comics is specifically why I included Hodgman’s piece, and Berlatsky completely missed the point.

Noah rattles off sentences he dislikes in many pieces. He finally writes, “This is knee-jerk boosterism, platitudinous bunk intended to sell me crap, not to make me think.” As I found in his first post, Noah and a close reading of anything is a slim possibility. I wrote in my introduction to BACC: “Indeed, while the reviews reprinted here were originally intended as consumer guides, I chose them for the insight their authors bring to the medium via specific books.” Duh. I mean, super-fucking-duh. At some point, Noah’s litany of complaints all turn to his personal taste v mine or arise from his inability to pay attention over the span of several paragraphs. I can’t win the former argument and am done with the second. For Noah, criticism is a pose and an attitude and nothing more. I often learn things from counter-intuitive writers, but the key half of the word is “intuitive.” He’s all counter and no insight.

However, since he had to back off on the superhero and online arguments, he’s left with one whip word for me (aside from his personal attacks) “manga.” For Noah, the test of a book called Best American Comics Criticism is its inclusion of writing about manga. And not just manga, but shōjo, a popular sub-genre marketed to an audience of young girls. Again, I refer readers to the last column of Noah’s I tried to read seriously, back in 2007, where he writes:

Which isn’t to say that comics are (like contemporary poetry) unredeemable or absolutely doomed. Fort Thunder, which looks to visual art rather than to literary fiction, is great. And there’s a whole generation of potential cartoonists growing up who see manga, not super-heroes, as the standard. In moments of hope, I think that in twenty years Chris Ware and Dan Clowes and the Comics Journal will all be seen as a quaint detour in the history of the medium, and comics will be a hugely popular, aesthetically vital medium mostly created by women in a manga style.

Three years later, Noah returns to shōjo as his, at this point, somewhat obsessive litmus test of not only great comics but a good book on comics criticism. Seriously, how is one supposed to argue with a fetish? Whatever Noah’s interest in shōjo, it’s clearly an example of his mistaking personal taste for a critical standard. One of my favorite comics ever is Drew Friedman’s “Attack of the 50-ft Stinky.” I have never based my appreciation of another comic on the inclusion or lack thereof, of a 50-ft tall Stinky. BACC has a decided editorial slant towards literary comics as the major aesthetic issue in comics of the last decade (which it has been), but hardly the only aesthetic issue of that time. I explained in the first round that to me, “lit” is a qualitative term, not a genre. I doubt this point will penetrate Noah’s anti-literary thinking, but I hope readers here will make the distinction. The choices I made were not about subject matter, but what the critics brought to the subject they chose. When I looked at different writing about manga or anything else, I mainly sought literary theory and conceptualizing, no matter the subject.

There’s a few other complaints that just furrow Noah’s already over-furrowed brow — “gimmicks,” he and Caroline and Ng call them (see below) — that is, anything that flies outside a narrow view of what critical thinking is. That complaint I’ll deal with below, but you can also read Jeet Heer’s opening essay on it for this roundtable. Still, for Noah to accuse me of elitist snobbery toward genre in his first blog posting on BACC and to do now do a complete turnaround that I’m pandering to a low brow perception of readers just reveals how bereft Noah’s thinking on this subject is.

As to BACC, in my opinion, Noah Berlatsky’s responses come off so far as a low-grade contrarianism with an impressive gift for invective. I’m not sure what kind of idiot savant that makes him, but as a critic, that’s what he is. Since he has called me craven, toadying and contemptible, I offer the following. For all Noah’s braying about online critics, he comes off as the perfect Internet cliché: ill-informed, personally vicious, and intolerant of any idea he can’t understand or that doesn’t flatter his world view (which is a boatload, apparently). The only thing he’s missing is a glib Nazi analogy of some sort to hit for the Internet Hack’s cycle. At Comic-Con, I looked through Andrei Molotiu’s Abstract Comics. Noah has a few pages in there, as good as anything in the book. It’s clear his interests in sequential comics lie outside the literary. What isn’t clear is why he writes about work that doesn’t reflect his specifc tastes as if the work failed.

Finally, at one point, Noah actually accuses me of using this book and comics criticism to advance my career as a writer. Well, that’s the difference between us, Noah. For me, that’s an option.

The ad hominem attack is always a sign of the attacker’s weak position.


As to Ng’s piece, he takes a bold leap into territory of which I now believe Noah incapable. Ng actually has a point of view on criticism other than his personal tastes. To that I can only say, sorry our views on this are so different. A lot of attention has been paid to four words on the cover — “Best American Comics Criticism.” Not enough has been paid to, “Edited By Ben Schwartz.” Meaning, it’s subjective. The odd thing is that Ng and Noah both look at the word “best” and take it as an objective possibility at all. Seriously, I never thought that I’d need to explain that it’s subjective, especially with my credit on the cover. You know, think of all the times you see the word “best” used — Best Picture Oscars, Best in Show dog awards, Best American Short Fiction, Best Buy. The idea that the title is called a “lie” because the concept is subjective and not objective is, uh… well, like I said, who thought I’d spend time talking about that?

Ng brings up a good point of what kind of reader I sought. The book is aimed at a general reader with an avid interest in comics, a primer on this ongoing era of writing about comics. It’s perhaps one reason that Ng didn’t care for it. Joe McCulloch pointed out to his readers that they would have come across more than a few of the pieces in it. Yes, for the well-read comics aficionado, I can see the “been there, done that” effect would pose a problem . I worked hard to beat that, but not in Ng’s case, I guess.

Ng also understands that what you see in the book is what I was able to get. I was turned down by a few people who are planning books of their own and in some cases because of money needed for rights.

Ng brought up a single-page devoted to Judge Larsen, which also baffled Sean Howe at Bookforum and of course, the permanently baffled Noah. You really don’t get it? It’s in the section marked “History.” It directly follows Gerard Jones’ chapter on the creation of Superman. It’s the Judge’s decision in the landmark Siegel copyright case, a seven-decades-later postscript to one of the great historical moments in comics, one that helped determined the work-for-hire model for generations. You went all the way down the road with me that critical thinking can be found in history and biography, but you can’t see how the judge’s decision might have something to do with Jones’ narrative? I found that single-page entry a dynamic twist to one of the givens of 20th-Century comics history: The Publisher Always Wins.



Since Ng and Noah cling so hard to a Comics Reporter quote from me as the damning obiter dicta of BACC , I’ll go to the interview too, for my view on the forms criticism can take. Otherwise known as the “gimmicks” and “bunnies”:

I e-mailed friends for thoughts on non-traditional sources for writing — ‘zines, panel discussions, on-line list threads, anything where the ideas were of value. That brought me to Pete Bagge‘s Ditko essay, Darell Epp’s on-line interview with Chester Brown, the videotaped panel with Daniel Clowes and Jonathan Lethem, and the Pacho Clokey mini-comic I bought at Meltdown years ago. The Moore interview was up on Youtube for months and then they took it down. It’s the only case of Internet copyright infringement waste-of-time bullying of which I heartily approve — because now the BACC has it! I went to some obvious places — the New York Times, Bookforum — and the Updike piece was a barely on the radar intro he did for a Thurber reprint.

And then:

I didn’t want the reader to get bored, basically. Most “Best” anthologies offer a uniform set of essays/stories with various points of view. I wanted a lot of formats and points of view on the general topic of lit comics. A model I emulate is Strong Opinions, a collection of hilarious introductions, interviews, essays, letters to editors, and arch rebuttals to other writers by Nabakov. I love that book. My favorite collections of criticism mostly come from the music and film world, like The Nick Tosches Reader, Greil Marcus’ Ranters, Ravers, and Crowd Pleasers, Lester Bangs’ sketchy collections, or Manny Farber’s collections. They’re more accessible, less plodding. They have that same mix of reviews, interviews, essays, etc. I just read (for research on a story) The Bruce Springsteen Reader. That book is a pretty dazzling example of what I hope the BACC will be — and I’m not even that into Springsteen.

As to the last part of your question, it says two things. One, that a lot of smart people are thinking about comics in a lot of different ways and places.

So Ng, the point is, I wanted to challenge the reader on both what they think comics and criticism is. There’s a lot of creative critical thinking out there, not just in the plodding style you prefer and practice. Again, I very much appreciated Jeet Heer’s reaction to that particular formally expansive aspect of the book.

As to manga: Please check out what I said above. I was looking for pieces done 2000-2008 that offered literary discussion. That’s why Tatsumi is in the book, because that’s what he and Groth discuss. If I missed someone, I missed someone. Please post some authors for me to read, if you have people in mind.

There is also the question of my use of TCJ authors, or authors used more than once. Journalism 101 says the very inclusion of my publisher and other TCJ/Fanta writers looks like bias. But, it’s also done up front, fully disclosed. It’s an easy enough complaint to make, but harder to back up intellectually. So, now do some actual thinking: explain why those pieces don’t belong in the book. Why should Fiore and Groth and Phelps be excised? The Comics Journal has shown shown up day in and day out for over 30 years. It tends to publish great stuff as well as filler (present company most definitely included). Fanta never gave me a space limitation. Not one of those pieces sits there in place of something else. So tell me, why don’t they belong?


As to Caroline Small’s response, well, she goes to some length to separate the words “critic” from “journalist.” While I understand the difference in the purpose of the two forms, I see insight and critical readings in everything from history to academia to comics themselves (i.e, fiction). Please see my answer to Noah on why journalism is included past its relevant life as a consumer guide.

In her essay, Caroline relies quite a lot, actually totally, on Rosalind Krauss’ definition of criticism as a “paraliterature.” I see absolutely no reason to model this anthology on Rosalind Krauss’ criteria. No one should, unless they are Rosalind Krauss.

Caroline also has some complaints with my choices, which she notes, “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.” Yes. History and biography and assessments of a body of work often require time to see work in perspective. The critic Robert Boyd blogged about the BACC recently, and summed up the my attitude pretty well. Writes Boyd:

What I think is most interesting about the book is that in his choices of pieces, Schwartz is laying out a theory of lit comics. It’s a theory that rings very true to me. Part of this theory goes that as literary comics grew, they made necessary a reevaluation and relearning of certain classic comics. For example, Little Orphan Annie and Gasoline Alley. Several of the pieces here are about classic rediscovered strips which seem to prefigure current tendencies in comics. (As Borges wrote, “Each writer creates his precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.”)

What I think is this: Much of the most interesting criticism has come in the reevaluations of past work that was once taken for granted or dismissed. Getting perspective on artists, reevaluating them, sometimes takes decades. Yes, what’s gone on with King, Herriman and Schulz fascinates me, if not Small. That Small demonstrates no interest in the historical context of this, or at least awareness of it, means she doesn’t understand how exciting, imaginative and historic in its own right this era of criticism is.

Caroline then conflates my choices into another section of the introduction. She writes:

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 André Bazin…”

Caroline, seriously? A theoretician founded the magazine, yes, but it was always a journal that covered pop culture in a pop culture mode. As far as the New Wave goes, Small is perhaps best to stay away from Cahiers du Cinema, a magazine that specialized in reviews, interviews, and monographs — i.e, journalism — much like BACC. Truffaut and Godard’s writing alone undermines most of your definition of criticism. Its discussion might very well veer to the intellectual — as the Chester Brown and Tatsumi interviews I reprint do — but you seem to have read about Cahiers more than read it. Here, for example, are Jean Luc-Godard’s “Top 10” lists from 1956-1964. Top 10 lists? Wouldn’t those fall under the heading of “gimmicks” and “bunnies”?

Like Entertainment Weekly‘s Sean Howe, whom Caroline most resembles in her list of complaints, Caroline dissects my analogy of comics in the 2000-2008 period as paralleling that of other subculture movements that reached a “tipping point” toward mainstream audiences and critical acceptance. She writes: “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.” Sean Howe provided a similar misreading/conflation re: Bonnie and Clyde‘s eventual acceptance by mainstream audiences and mainstream critics (which I disagree with all on its own). I actually compared the mainstreaming of lit comics to a long list of such pop-culture moments, not simply the New Wave and the ’67 release of Bonnie and Clyde. I wrote:

September 12, 2000 reminds one of several pop-culture pivots. In 1967, Bonnie and Clyde validated a decade of subculture and New Wave filmmaking from the U.S. and Europe to a mass audience. In 1953, Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March arrived, mainstreaming a generation of heated postwar New York intellectualism and Partisan Review café debate into one of the great novels of the 20th Century (according to James Atlas’ Bellow: A Biography). Jackson Pollock’s 1940s abstracts, the 1914 Armory Show, 1986 hip-hop crossover hits like the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill and Run-DMC’s Raising Hell — aesthetically, they have little, no, nothing in common. Commercially, critically, they rewrote the public perception of what was, until that time, subculture. In the case of Ware and Clowes, 25 years of lit comics — from American Splendor and Love and Rockets — went mainstream “overnight,”as well as the work of 1920s American lit-comics pioneers Frank King and Harold Gray.

Of course the circumstances leading up to these moments are quite different. It’s the subculture to mainstream transition alone where I drew the parallel.

For everyone who muddled through all this, I thank you.


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6 Responses to “Best American Comics Criticism Roundtable: In Defense of BACC

  1. Noah Berlatsky says:

    “Sean Howe’s misguided quoting of Dan Nadel on the context-free feeling he got at the Masters show, and Erin Polgreen’s disappointment at seeing only one woman writer in the book — two observations Noah failed to make on his own, but now does.”

    Um…I wrote both of those things before I read either of the writers you mention. They’re actually fairly obvious critiques, Ben, especially the second.

  2. Caro says:

    Ben, the points you make about Cahiers could also be made about The Nation during the period when Diana Trilling was writing for them. But intellectual conversation lay behind her writing there in much the same way that it did behind the writing in Cahiers/i>, and it made the ideas — although indeed expressed in a journalistic style in both places — as original as the kind of you find mostly in academic contexts today. To claim it was “pop culture” and ignore the ways in which it was ambitious and intellectual misses the point, although it’s more true for Truffaut than Godard. There are some interesting and informative comments on that aspect of the New Wave over on my original essay in the roundtable.

    You’re picking up on the same rhetorical weakness in my essay that Jeet and Ken P. did, and I appreciate the editorial insight that helps me hone the argument! I’m obviously struggling with getting across the idea that there are valuable critical ways to engage with art that are not historical or archival. Comics doesn’t need another defender of the historical/archival models. There are lots of those. What comics needs is a synthetic imagination (like Rosalind Krauss’), an philosophical imagination (like Andre Bazin’s), an intellectual imagination (like Lionel Trilling’s). When you say things like this —

    “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.” Yes. History and biography and assessments of a body of work often require time to see work in perspective.

    — you’re correct, but in that same limited, narrow sense that my starting with the Krauss quote was intended to challenge: not all critical conversations require time to see work in perspective. This is where a closer look at the New Wave analogy would be especially instructive: yes, they looked back at old films (although if you read my essay on Langlois from a few weeks ago there was a meaningful difference in their approach to history). But they — and the SF movement in the US I also mention and the New York intellectuals and pretty much all significant critical movements — also interacted with each other in the present tense: turning those intense critical and creative gazes on the work of their day. That’s what’s missing here, and I still believe it’s a gap worth pointing out.

  3. patford says:

    Ben: “Seriously, I never thought that I’d need to explain that it’s subjective,”

    Sometimes it is necessary to state the obvious.

  4. Jeff Albertson says:

    Alex Buchet here.

    Caro, I’m afraid a conversation is no longer possible on this. The well has been deeply poisoned.

  5. kenparille says:

    Fear of comics.

  6. Caro says:

    If you remove all the names from the last three comments, it’s a postmodern poem.

    Alex, the real comments thread about the New Wave is over on my first post: Charles and Robert talking about auteurism.