Best American Comics Criticism Roundtable: Unsullied Praise and Happiness Doth Not a Critic Make

Posted by on August 25th, 2010 at 12:10 AM

by Caroline Small

Opening contributions from Ng Suat Tong, Noah Berlatsky, Caroline Small, Jeet Heer, Brian Doherty and BACC editor Ben Schwartz; responses from Caroline Small, Ng Suat Tong, Jeet Heer, Noah Berlatsky and Ben Schwartz.


From Amazing Spider-Man #3, “Spider-Man Versus Doctor Octopus,” written by Stan Lee, drawn by Steve Ditko; ©1962 Marvel Comics, Inc.


Substantive, passionate, outrageous polemic — this is a virtue in criticism. The sheer rollicking intellectual high of fantastic ideas about art expressed with great energy compels critics to write and readers to read — without that conviction and intensity the motivations elude me. Yet with only a few exceptions, art-comics critics are consistently resistant to polemic. The world of art comics actively decries polemics within its ranks, and promotes some combination of geekery, enthusiasm, and courtesy. Even armed with this awareness, I was taken aback by the near complete absence of polemic about criticism from the first-round responses by Heer, Doherty and Schwartz. I can only hope the second round shows more fervor for our topic!

I don’t know whether I want to outright disagree with Jeet Heer that the book represents the “best critical voices writing at their peak powers” or point out that if this really is the best there is, we need to pay more attention to Gary Groth when he rattles off those lists of Great Critics from Times Past. I feel like Ben Schwartz is the target reader for this response, though, as it is essentially kind flattery offered to a professional friend, so I will leave it at that.

With my fellow H.Utilitarians, not surprisingly on this issue, I am in agreement. I concur with Noah Berlatsky about the book’s “insular air of self-satisfaction.” After six months of comics blogging, I’m losing my outsider status quickly, but I’m still enough of a newbie that the book’s “miasma of anxiety” is palpable to me and highly off-putting. It does not vibrate with confidence, passion and enthusiam; it reeks of nostalgia and having something to prove. I believe that criticism should provoke the future, and this book cares only for the past. Noah’s review catches many places where that nostalgia is particularly problematic.

Likewise, Ng Suat Tong nicely encapsulates what I agree is the most significant limitation of the volume:

It is, however, choked with historical and biographical detail… this being the primary form that the most celebrated comics criticism of our time has taken, somewhat to the art’s detriment (my emphasis) 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 needs those kinds of critics, the ones who vibrate with confidence, passion, and enthusiasm, the ones whose insights enhance our understanding of art in general, not just comics. I think this cannot be said too often or too loudly, and Suat’s response says it well.

I am broadly and constitutionally opposed to fisking, but I have to rescue an innocent victim from the vitriolic pap of Ben Schwartz’s pen: dismissing BookForum‘s choice of Sean Howe to review Best American Comics Criticism by pointing to Howe’s (probably mercenary) position as the comics writer for Entertainment Weekly is either sour grapes or just patently uninformed. A former editor at the Criterion Collection, Howe also edited the much higher-quality collection of literary essays on comics Give Our Regards to the Atom Smashers, which Schwartz dismisses by sniping at the title’s Ditko reference and Howe’s “fannish tastes.” But Howe’s book is not superhero pap; it simply treats comics as comics, without the mainstream/art distinction so fetishized here. It contains a few essays, such as Myla Goldberg’s truly beautiful piece on Renée French and Chris Ware, which fit easily into Schwartz’s framework for BACC. The introduction to Howe’s book not only deploys lively prose but also sets out his editorial motives and rationale in a very thorough and compelling manner. Consider this passage explaining the collection’s purpose:

There have been numerous scholarly essays on the topic [comic books] — over the years, esteemed intellectuals from George Orwell to Robert Warshow to Leslie Fiedler have waxed philosophical on the comic book — but there’s been a dearth of personal writing about this most personal of art forms. Truth is, comic book fans have been tight-lipped about their forbidden love, and their ruminations about comics have incubated. For some writers, these thoughts have evolved, been colored and silently revised by the intervening years, waiting for a release. For others, they’ve remained frozen as a time capsule of adolescence. What sort of dialogue, then, would be created if all these suppressed musings were to rise to the surface, if everything that had been quietly cherished could suddenly be disclosed?

Howe’s book is nostalgic in its own way, but unlike Best American Comics Criticism, it turns that nostalgia to a creative, productive purpose. Would that BACC had a mission statement — a vision statement — like that, rather than the dry and dull canonization of pedestrian journalism targeting the art comics fan niche!


From Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #136, “The Saga of the D.N.Aliens,” written and penciled by Jack Kirby and inked by Vince Colletta; ©1971 DC Comics.


Although I disagree with Brian Doherty about the value of subsuming such disparate genres of critical writing under the rubric “criticism,” his essay at least recognizes the distinctions among “short-form history, journalism, and criticism.” As with Jeet’s, there’s a sense that his writing is motivated by kindness to a colleague, but a more obviously analytical foundation peeks out from underneath. I have little doubt that Doherty’s description has nailed dead on what the book was intending to do and the likely reception of it within the subculture. But the question remains unasked whether that sentimental perspective really should be called “criticism” and more importantly, whether it’s a kind of criticism likely to push comics forward toward greater achievements in the future.

Doherty’s essay concludes by acknowledging the ambivalence that, for me, dooms this volume: the fact that comics will, of necessity, become more diverse, and that, although this is ultimately good for the art form, it is also a loss for the current cognoscenti:

it seems obvious that the 21st century’s approach to comics, how they are judged, who is considered of canonical interest, what part of the business and art history is continued important, are going to shift in a far more balkanized, less all-encompassing, direction. This is all the better for the normalizing and expansion of what comics can and will do as a storytelling form.

In that sense, Doherty confirms Suat’s insight that the limitations of comics criticism actively work against the art form. I hope Doherty is right that comics will leave behind the perspective documented in this book, but that recognition and hope does not salvage the indulgences of this volume or bode well for its standing over time. But it is comforting to think that in 100 years it will be an odd anomaly, representing a far away and inconceivable past. Suat’s essay offers a summation that I hope will represent the view from that future state: “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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