Worst Comics Criticism of the 21st Century


Friday, April 23, 2010

Lately there has been an attempt to flesh out what constitutes good comics criticism. There was a Hooded Utilitarian roundtable on the topic and Ben Schwartz has edited a soon-to-be-released book titled Best American Comics Criticism. But it is worth remembering that there is a lot of bad criticism out there, which is also worth describing and demarcating. For me, one of the worst pieces of comics criticism I’ve ever read was Harold Bloom’s review of Crumb’s Genesis in the December 3, 2009 issue of The New York Review of Books.

Perhaps wisely, the New York Review hasn’t made more than a snippet of this idiotic review available. But some early sentences are telling:  “Staring at the women and men of Crumb’s Genesis, I dimly recall someone showing me an issue of Mad magazine. To my untutored view the work of Crumb recalls that publication yet somehow also is touched with what I remember as the doughty proletarian style of Ben Shahn.” As this makes clear, Bloom doesn’t have the background or equipment to say anything useful about Crumb as a visual artist. For most of the rest of the review he talks not about Crumb but about other things that spring to his mind like Thomas Mann’s Joseph books. For a more thorough examination of Bloom’s review, with some choice quotes, see here.

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9 Responses to “Worst Comics Criticism of the 21st Century”
  1. Lane Milburn says:

    Eesh, yeah that was bizarre and awful. But part of me wants to let Bloom off the hook – Crumb-olator though I am – because I can hardly see how it could’ve been otherwise. Bloom is a man so steeped in texts, and so wary of most visual and popular culture that I’m surprised he even agreed to review the comic: a “straight illustration job” as Crumb put it in his intro.

    It gets into the question of expertise, of vocation, showing how a brilliant literary scholar can miss so broadly when taking on another art form. He can write a great 600 page work on Shakespeare: Shakespeare And The Invention Of The Human, but he totally flubs on a short article about Crumb’s Genesis. If you just think he’s a goof though, that’s okay too.

    For more of the worst comics criticism of the 21st century, visit cometscomets.blogspot.com

  2. patrick ford says:

    Bloom’s comment: “I dimly recall someone showing me an issue of Mad magazine,” is priceless.
    Clearly he wants everyone to know he would never have seen a copy of Mad unless one were pushed under his nose, and even then he’s not sure it ever happened.

  3. And what would Harold Bloom have to say about Spiegelman´s Maus?

  4. patrick ford says:

    Miguel: “And what would Harold Bloom have to say about Spiegelman´s Maus?”

    Maybe? “Staring at the cats and mice of Spiegelman´s Maus, I dimly recall Gilbert Seldes’ essay on Krazy Kat.”

  5. Patrick: thank you! You made me laugh!…

  6. […] Jeet Heer gives his candidate for worst comics criticism of the 21st century. It's short so go, read, […]

  7. Alan Choate says:

    It’s pretty normal for an NYRB reviewer to expound on the subject of the book for most of the essay and grudgingly acknowledge the existence of the book itself somewhere near the end.

    Bloom isn’t wrong to say Crumb’s style reminds him of of Mad magazine, in fact, he’s right on the money. Bill Elder, boom, there you go. Not bad for a non-comics-critic.

    I say this as someone who finds it quite obvious that Crumb’s Genesis is the greatest graphic novel ever made.

  8. ben schwartz says:

    Yes, Bloom’s review was pretty bad. He did an interview on humor for the PARIS REVIEW years ago that, if I recall correctly, basically argues that Western humor ends with Cervantes. Bloom’s GENESIS review is a great example of mainstream critics struggling to talk about comics. They don’t have a sense of history, an aesthetic of visual composition or style, knowledge of an artist. It surprised me that Bloom could relate Crumb to MAD magazine — he must have seen a 1950s MAD and linked Elder to Crumb! So, the old boy has a good eye and shows promise, if nothing else.

    A few years ago, Michiko Kakutani reviewed a Zadie Smith anthology that included Clowes and Ware, and Kakutani completely ignored their contributions – even tho they both appeared in her newspaper, the NY TIMES. I didn’t get a snobbery feeling there, just a baffled writer. What would she say? Among the many reasons we should miss John Updike’s contributions are that he was a rare critic who knew comics. Of his generation, we have Phelps writing – any one else?

    Jeet’s right about Bloom not having much to say about Crumb. I’m going to be interviewing an old friend soon for TCJ, a huge comics fan and a specialist in Near Eastern Studies on the subject of comics and religious mysticism. One thing he pointed out to me about Crumb’s GENESIS is that the actual Hebrew Bible does not give much in the way of character reaction, physical description, setting detail, or visual cues. That is, Crumb may be as straightforward as he can be in presenting the story, but he — or anyone depicting the BIBLE visually, from Da Vinci to Mel Gibson — is forced to make a unique visual interpretation. How do you draw any of the characters? Put aside the classic depictions of Jesus and or Moses … how about all the dozens of lesser characters you never think about?

    Bloom appears to have issues with a cartooning depiction at all … so, wrong guy for that book. Anyway, I’m reading Bloom’s THE INVENTION OF THE HUMAN right now, and he’s no slouch on his own territory.


  9. […] il buon Jeet Heer, uno dei migliori critici e studiosi di fumetto nordamericani, si può parlare di buon grado della […]

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