Best Online Comics Criticism 2010
by T. Hodler
Wednesday, January 19, 2011
About a year ago, Ng Suat Tong invited me to help judge his annual online comics criticism event. Not seeing a good reason against it at the time, I agreed. (As you may remember, Frank participated last time around.) It was definitely an imperfect exercise, but I knew that going in. More on that later.
1. “The Other Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name”, by Jason Thompson (6 votes)
I was apparently the only judge who didn’t vote for this article, which surprises me. Not because Thompson’s article is poor—in fact, I think it is a fine overview of an exotic (to Americans) cultural subject—but because it doesn’t seem to me to be criticism at all. The closest thing to a critical judgment that I can find in the essay comes in the summing-up statement: “In short, although a few artists like Moto Hagio write serious stories about the consequences of incest and child abuse, most manga and anime creators flirt with incest for kink, comedy and emotional effect.” Not exactly an electrifying insight.
Still and all, if this had been a competition designed simply to identify 2010′s best writing about comics on the internet, I may well have voted for this. But it wasn’t, and I didn’t.
2 (tie). “Ayako”, by Katherine Dacey (5 votes)
Dacey’s essay about Osamu Tezuka’s Ayako is a perfectly serviceable, competent, and intelligent consumer review [with an inventive hook], but not particularly noteworthy beyond that. I don’t have any strongly felt problems with this piece, but many other essays published this year struck me as more memorable, and more worth honoring.
2 (tie). “The Problem with American Vampires Is That They Just Don’t Think”, by Joe McCulloch (5 votes)
I love Joe’s writing in general, and this essay in particular. He is probably one of the two or three most consistently impressive active comics critics writing in North America. The only reason I didn’t vote for this essay is because, as everyone reading this should already know, he is a regular contributor to this very site. I am pleased that it won.
4. “Born Again Again”, by Craig Fischer (4 votes)
I voted for this one. As is typical with Fischer, this article, which draws thematic connections between David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp and his earlier work, particularly Daredevil: Born Again, is remarkably thorough, insightful, and compelling. To a certain extent, the structure is a little shaky, reflecting its original context as one part of a multi-authored online roundtable, but this is solid, solid stuff, and essential reading for anyone interested in Mazzucchelli.
5 (tie). “Tintinopolis”, by David Bordwell (3 votes)
I voted for this one, too. Bordwell is one of our greatest living film scholars, an original, no-nonsense critic with an eye for nuance, an ability to draw out surprising insights from remarkably close readings, and a knack for explicating subtle ideas. He displays all of these qualities again in his essay on Hergé, one of his too-rare forays into writing about comics.
5 (tie). “The Mirror of Male-Love Love”, by Dirk Deppey (3 votes)
This was a fine, entertaining, and clearly heartfelt memoir, and I have no desire to denigrate it. The critical portions of it, however, make up a relatively small part of the whole, and seemed to me fairly pedestrian in comparison to the autobiographical elements. In this case, though, Deppey’s personal recollections are so strong that I am not surprised [nor much dismayed] that three of my fellow judges decided to vote for it anyway.
5 (tie). “Casper, Formalism, and the ‘Great’ Search Party”, by Ken Parille (3 votes)
I voted for this one. Parille is another master of close reading, and more than one of his posts from last year made my long list of possible winners. I only allowed myself to vote for one entry per writer, though, and eventually this won out. It did so despite the modest and brief nature of the post (even though Parille wrote several more substantial pieces), because it lingered in my memory longer than nearly anything else I read online this year, and also because it demonstrates one of the virtues of online criticism by preserving a small but provocative insight that may have been lost in a longer piece of writing.
So those were the winners, and as you can see, I only voted for three of them. I felt as if the nomination and voting process involved in this competition could have been much more clear, and that my fellow judges didn’t all seem to make much of an effort to find and nominate writing from off their respective beaten paths. Except in cases where they happened to nominate pieces I was already planning to choose myself, I was frankly rarely impressed by any of their picks. Whether this comes down to a simple difference in tastes or a more significant problem I leave to others.
It probably goes without saying, but I am fairly certain that much of the best online critical writing on comics of 2010 has gone overlooked in this process. If I didn’t make a note of a piece I liked within a few hours after reading it, then I was extremely unlikely to remember it six or seven months later. On top of that, I am only one person (didja know?), and almost certainly never saw or read many pieces that deserved recognition. (And as just noted, I am not confident that my fellow judges caught many of the pieces that must have slipped through the cracks.)
But enough grousing. Here are the ten pieces I voted for, in order of preference:
1. “Harvey Kurtzman and Modern American Satire”, by M. Thomas Inge
One of the grand old men of comics scholarship returns with an excellent piece that manages to mine new insights out of well-explored terrain.
2. “Born Again Again”, by Craig Fischer
3. “Tintinopolis”, by David Bordwell
4. “More on Ditko and Abstraction” and “Abstract Form as Leitmotif: Frank Miller’s ‘Spider-Man’”, by Andrei Molotiu
This is another example of the kind of criticism that you can find online and nowhere else, and displays many of the faults that go along with that. It is also an example of how criticism that a reader disagrees with can sometimes be more valuable and thought-provoking than criticism that reinforces his own prejudices. In other words, I don’t agree with many of Andrei’s arguments here (and in the comments), but they enriched my understanding and sharpened my own thinking.
5. “Pim & Francie: The Golden Bear Days: Artifacts and Bone Fragments”, by Tim Kreider
Just a really strong review from a cartoonist who writes criticism too infrequently. Unlike the Dacey review above (which is just fine for what it is), this goes beyond simple consumer advocacy [and attempts a deeper analysis] . In consequence, it is more rewarding.
6. “Little Big Numbers”, by Illogical Volume
An essay that starts with Eddie Campbell and Big Numbers and goes places you’d never guess beforehand, this is the kind of multi-layered, rambling, counter-intuitive, and almost psychedelic essay you only get from the brain trust at Mindless Ones. Great hyperlinking,too.
7. “Casper, Formalism, and the ‘Great’ Search Party”, by Ken Parille
8. “America’s First Wordless Novelist”, by Sarah Boxer
Bill Randall’s (and Jeet Heer’s) reservations aside, this still impressed me more than most online criticism this year. Boxer managed to get some serious writing into a format not particularly conducive to same.
9. “Stunt Casting: Michel Fiffe on the Best Jaime Hernandez Comic of All Time”, by Tucker Stone and Michel Fiffe
I chose this not only for its quality, but for its demonstration of another kind of criticism that thrives online: the epistolary review.
10. “Word Made Inky Flesh”, by Matthias Wivel
See remarks about Craig Fischer above, change Mazzucchelli out for Crumb, transfer here.
Finally, and presented without comment, here is a list of posts that I think deserve honorable mention, the ten online pieces that rounded out my top twenty (this time listed alphabetically). If this contest had ended on a different day, when I was in a different mood, any of these might have earned my vote instead.
“Love and Rocktober”, by Sean T. Collins
“War Comics: Reinforcing the Military’s Propaganda Machine?”, by Paul Gravett
“‘Joannie, could you possibly set the bar any lower?’”, by Lance Mannion
“The Art of Cause and Effect in a Solitary Comic Panel”, by Ed Piskor
“Dick Sprang Comic Art”, by Matt Seneca
“Better Late Than Never, I Suppose: My Very Own Personal Wildstorm”, by Tom Spurgeon
“New Character Parade”, by Tucker Stone
(Oops, it looks like Stone got on there twice by accident. Well, too late to change things now. If you want, take that out, and consider this a top nineteen.)
Also, for the record, I neither nominated nor voted for any writer associated with Comics Comics. If I had done so, the resulting list would undoubtedly have been significantly different.
Labels: "comics elitists", Andrei Molotiu, clueless critics, Craig Fischer, David Bordwell, Illogical Volume, Jason Thompson, Jog aka Joe McCulloch, Katherine Dacey, Ken Parille, M. Thomas Inge, Michel Fiffe, Ng Suat Tong, Sarah Boxer, Tim Kreider, Tucker Stone