Stuck in Second Gear (Feel Free to Skip)


Monday, June 23, 2008

This past Friday, I was on a panel about comics criticism and journalism at the Heroes Con in North Carolina, and ever since, I’ve been thinking a lot about the ethics of this “business”. Early on in the panel, Tom Spurgeon, who was moderating, asked me how my approach to reading comics has changed since I started editing Comics Comics. Exhausted from an early flight and a lack of coffee, I basically bungled my answer, despite multiple attempts, but I haven’t stopped pondering the question.

Most of Heroes Con was a lot of fun, though. I had to split early, so I’ll leave it to Dan and/or Frank to do a full report if they’re so inclined. (Spurgeon himself has put together a pretty amazing write-up of the event in the meantime.) It was great to meet a lot of people I’ve known only on the internet or through their work, like Tom, Jim Rugg, Dustin Harbin, Craig Fischer, and Tom’s brother Whit (who deserves a television show pronto), as well as to catch up with people I basically only see at conventions and that kind of thing.

However, as enjoyable as these kinds of events can be, a part of me is always a little uncomfortable with them. If I’m going to be editing and writing comics criticism, it’s important to be able to separate personal friendships and acquaintances from my writing, and it’s already a lot more difficult to do than it was just two years ago. (Being married to a cartoonist, and not wanting to have her work unfairly linked to my opinions — we disagree on plenty, believe me — doesn’t really make it any easier.) It’s not really that difficult, but it’s an ethical distinction that I have to be vigilant about, and it’s also probably the largest single difference between how I currently approach comics and how I read and talked about them pre-CC, when I’d praise or trash comics with impunity. Now I try to make a point of not reviewing comics by people I know well, at least in print or on the blog, and I think that’s probably for the best, at least for now. The comics world is a small world, though, and that policy won’t work forever.

Wyatt Mason, one of the better literary critics around, just wrote an interesting post on his new blog about friends reviewing friends in the world of “real books”, and he comes to a different conclusion:

[Edmund] Wilson, whom every young critic in kneesocks and each old one in his dotage now holds up as the ur-critic of the century, could not only review Fitzgerald but legions of his friends’ work through the decades … It can be done honestly – that is to say with intellectual honesty; that is to say, in a fair and balanced (that sadly corrupted phrase) manner which can elevate our understanding of aesthetic enterprise.

I agree with this in theory, but I’m not sure I’m quite ready to put it into practice. Maybe the trick is to emulate someone like Gary Groth, to harden the heart and enjoy the fights. (That’s definitely a strategy to which it’s possible to overcommit. [EDIT: I no longer think the linked essay is a good example of Groth overdoing it; there probably is an appropriate example, but months later, I’m not inclined to dig around and find one.]) Of course, even Edmund Wilson wasn’t as pure about keeping his personal relationships from affecting his writing as Mason makes out. (Just see the Wilson/Nabokov letters for one prominent falling out and the resulting critical blind spot.) In any case, if I’m going to keep meeting cartoonists whose work I want to write about, I really need to figure this out.

More about the panel later, maybe, if I decide it’s a good idea to explain that photo … (I’ll say this much: I wasn’t cranky because I wasn’t getting enough attention; I was disheartened by what was being said. Read Craig Fischer’s re-cap for some of the flavor.)

Maybe I’ll just let the eventual audio file speak for itself.

UPDATE: More on the panel, and a link to the audio, here.

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22 Responses to “Stuck in Second Gear (Feel Free to Skip)”
  1. Josh Simmons says:

    Well said. This is something that has bothered at me a lot since getting to know a lot of people in comics. A while back one fellow and myself decided to critique each others’ work and we agreed to be as brutally honest with each other as possible. I emailed him a few thoughts, then didn’t hear back for a while. When I did, he sounded pretty wounded, and admitted he’d never had any sort of feedback like that. Then we didn’t talk for a long time.
    I’ve tried to keep my opinions to myself since.
    I must admit I like the Iron Fist Groth approach.

  2. Heidi M. says:

    I think the Iron Fist Groth approach has its weaknesses when dissecting shocked reactions to a woman in her 30s dropping dead. For comic books, it’s just fine.

  3. Dustin Harbin says:

    I have to say that posts like this one are precisely why I enjoy reading this blog so much. I have never EVER enjoyed reading criticism before, and until very recently was incredibly suspicious of any comics critic who was not a cartoonist. You guys and Spurgeon have really opened my eyes to the intellect in words as tool, rather than weapon. It’s fun to see comics elevated in an unselfconcious way, rather than defended, denigrated, or just plain whined about.

    AND it was super-fun to meet all you guys in person. Hopefully next time I see you I won’t be running a convention, and will have more time to enjoy conversation.

  4. Anonymous says:

    When I’m critiquing something, the attitude I always go in with is to engage the work on its own terms. When reviewing comics for children, these terms are different than for when I’m reviewing something by Kevin Huizenga (just to pull a name out of the blue).

    The resulting review is then my own resulting aesthetic experience, my grappling with the work. The evaluation of that experience is tempered by a few things; if it’s obvious that the artist is a relative rookie, I tend to evaluate the book on those terms, for example.

    Because I either pick and choose what I review, or the people who send me books tend to know the sort of material I will review, I rarely get anything in that I find to be completely repugnant. (I don’t review mainstream superhero comics or horror comics; though I like many of these just fine, i don’t have anything to say about them.)

    As a result, most of my reviews tend to have a certain amount of balance. Books I have severe problems with still discuss things that I liked about the work; books I tend to like still talk about problems I might have had.

    All that said, I have never had any interest in writing poison-pen, scorched-earth reviews. It’s just not worth my time and while those reviews can be entertaining up to a point, I’m not sure how useful they are. They generate heat, not light.

    Groth is kind of the exception for me; I’ve always loved his righteous fury, partly because I know he loves the medium so much and that he can turn around and write something that really digs into something he finds inspiring, like the upcoming piece in TCJ on Ralph Steadman.

    Tim, I wish I had known you were at the con; I was only there on Friday and I didn’t see you at the Picturebox table.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Whoops, forgot to sign that last post:

    Rob Clough

  6. Josh Simmons says:

    Yes, I agree with Rob that Groth is sort of the exception, he (generally) has the wit and insight to pull off the scorched earth method– I’m not so much into hate critiques just for the sake of hate critiques. I’ll take, as Tim says, thoughtful and insightful writin’s first off……Even Nadel’s pretty brutal dressing downs of Heavy Liquid and Shooting War were well thought out and executed, I thought, and not necessarily mean-spirited……Not sure what Heidi M. is talking about with 30’s lady dropping dead reactions? But that doesn’t sound very nice of Groth.

  7. Knut says:

    I’d say the best way to avoid landing yourself in hot water is to not prescribe ulterior motives as they relate to the polemics of the medium itself.

    Even though it’s fun.

  8. Anonymous says:


    Heidi is referring to this piece:

    it’s about a Marvel exec named Carol Kalish, who was much beloved by many people in comics. Her death at a young age provoked a stream of articles in the comics press that, in Groth’s view, went beyond remembrance and went into hagiography. I’m not going to get into further details, but it’s comparable to the round-the-clock attention Tim Russert gets on cable news right now, and Groth’s argument is very much along art vs commerce lines.

    –Rob C.

  9. Covey says:

    Un/Related Note: Frank Santoro is tough as nails in both being enthusiastically opinionated about comics AND taking criticism. At SD2007 I casually (and coldly) told him I didn’t really care for his Cold Heat comic. Unflinching, he said that’s cool and gave me a copy of one of his other comics to see if it clicked with me.

    His confidence really impressed me. I would have regretted my candor with most cartoonists. It seems Frank just knew that not everyone likes everything. Go figure.

  10. T Hodler says:

    Thanks for your comments, everyone.

    Josh — I agree with everything you write.

    Heidi — I agree with you, too, but I have to say that it’s pretty easy for me in comparison to Groth and yourself, as Comics Comics is just a critical organ, and doesn’t deal with news as such. Actual journalism sources (such as The Beat and The Comics Journal) have to deal with news items with the same degree of integrity that they bring to criticism, a responsibility I don’t envy. I don’t really know anything about the Carol Kalish situation other than what I’ve read on the internet, and in retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have linked to that without knowing the whole story. I see and agree with your overall point, though.

    Rob — You’re totally right about how to write fair reviews, and so far, at least, I don’t think I’ve ever crossed any lines in that regard. At least not consciously. But I was thinking more of just the inevitable web of relationships with cartoonists and publishers that forms with critics in the very small comics world, and how difficult it is to escape — or, better, transcend. Everyone involved in the comics world deals with this, of course, including you — I’m just the one whining about it. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’ve been avoiding dealing with this problem by declining to write critically about the work of people I know on a first-name basis, and that’s eventually going to become untenable. I have to figure out how to follow the path Wyatt Mason is promoting. Your advice is solid, and I should really just stop being a baby and follow it. I just needed to vent a bit, I guess.

    Knut — I suspect you may be right, if I understand you correctly.

    Covey — I’m glad to see you back in the comments, man!

  11. T Hodler says:

    Oh, and Dustin — Thanks, man! You left like the nicest comment of all, which of course explains why I didn’t see it.

  12. Anonymous says:


    Well, it’s definitely a difficult thing to deal with, and it’s easier said than done to say “Don’t think about the relationship, just grapple with the work.” Tom Spurgeon wrote something recently about how it’s the responsibility of the critic to be honest, and it’s as much about being honest to yourself as anything.

    I guess there’s a difference between not writing something nasty about the work of someone you know and deliberately altering your opinion/analysis of a work just because you’re friends with the author. But to me, it’s possible to issue a critique that is not flattering without being nasty, because sometimes when you engage a work on its own terms it comes up lacking. At the same time, you can’t worry about giving a laudatory review to a piece just because it’s written by a friend. (Although you are probably wise not to review the work of your wife, as good as it is!)
    My hope is that even a friend will be able to deal with a critical review that isn’t nasty, and won’t expect a total logrolling job.

    What’s interesting is that there are also certain artists who don’t read any of their reviews, but that’s another subject…


  13. Frank Santoro says:

    Iron Fist Groth. I remember that mini-series.

    I’m trying to write about the panel I was on with Jaime Hernandez and Jim Rugg.

    Craig Fischer wrote about it here:

    The “criticism panel” that Tim was on was awful. That guy from Newsarama just went on and on about being the first to get a story out, about launches and breaking stories. not once did he ever mention “criticism”

  14. Dustin Harbin says:

    It’s late and I’m a little drunk, but it occurs to me that the grey area is ALL in the social aspect, which doesn’t seem to have much to do with criticism. I know I asked Tom Spurgeon once to never EVER review a comic I worked on after reading a really cutting review of a book, and now that I’ve done a [short] comic that’s ripe for excoriation, I hope he honors my request.

    On the other hand, while Tom and I aren’t friends in a normal, non-internet-based sense, and so maybe some of these ideas of perceived offense wouldn’t apply, I can’t imagine a review I’d rather hear than Tom’s, or your own, or Frank’s [not Dan’s, never Dan’s]. Like Josh and Jacob said, it’s the honesty that provides all the usefulness of the criticism; otherwise it’s just a bunch of jerking off, isn’t it? I suspect that your honesty will solve the problem of who to review and who not to review.

    While I would be terrified to ever be reviewed by you guys or Tom, literally terrified, it’s hard to think of criticism that would be more educational for me, someone starting out and making a lot of mistakes; in many cases highly time-consuming mistakes. I’m sure it would hurt, but that’s okay, I think. I’m a man and everything, for sure.

  15. Frank Santoro says:

    jerking off, you’re a man, a little drunk… what? I’m reading between the lines too much maybe

  16. Dustin Harbin says:

    Hey, I’m a man. A little jerking off between the lines is no big deal, especially if you’re a little drunk. As long as there’s no hurting involved.

  17. Marc Arsenault says:

    I’m definitely drunk… so anyway… changing the topic. A completely different panel dominated by the Comics Comics guys. Called the Comics Comics Smackdown (or something like that) There were 2 points I wanted to get in there at the time, but seemed fairly pointless, given the competition from the girl that couldn’t drive yet… I was somewhat surprised to see that in one of John Byrne’s Superman efforts, that he was not just homagifiying Kirby but was dealing up some lovely bits of whatever you call it, when he sucked Mister Miracle into it and actually did some stuff that was visually kinda cool and good. Check for that joint.

    On a vaguely more interesting note. There was a moment in that same panel when Tim was being fed the, ‘so, given your greater knowledge, please school us’ lead, which really led to not much of nothing… relevant to the Omac part of the Smackdown… and Tim refused to go there (hey, I have this action-or lack thereof-on tape) and, well, given the audience, I don’t blame you, but I think it needs to be seriously talked about and dragged around that the Omac Eye in the Sky and Philip K. Dick’s Valis (which apparently came a little later in print) were staking out the same sort of territory. Your thoughts, Tim?

  18. T Hodler says:

    Hey Frank

    “That guy from Newsarama just went on and on about being the first to get a story out, about launches and breaking stories. not once did he ever mention ‘criticism'”

    To be fair, the panel wasn’t supposed to be just about criticism — it was about journalism, too.

    I can’t wait to read your write-up of the Jaime panel. I was sorry to miss it.

  19. Knut says:

    As far as idealism goes, or searching for some ethic to cling to, I think it’s important to keep in mind (for the reviewer and reviewee alike) that the comics medium itself is bigger than anyone who may be involved with it. It was there before we got here and it will be there when we are gone.

    The purpose of critique and analysis should be to explore why and how works contribute to the further development and diversification of the medium itself. In this way it is always an absolute honor to have one’s work considered within this context, and likewise an honor to speak upon such a wonderful thing.

    So good or bad, you should feel justified with your involvement in this process. In other words, people should check their egos at the door, and as a reviewer you should have every right to expect your subjects too, even if they are your friends.

    It may be an appeal to the gods, but who knows, maybe one day people will buy into it.

  20. Inkstuds says:

    Sometimes when I do interviews, I find myself holding back on certain questions, because I know it can upset the guest, and the last think I want to do is lose guests because I get the reputation of being that douchey interview guy.

    Its hard to balance the criticism with friends and maintain the honesty integrity. I know that sometimes I am dealing with some fragile ego’s of folks that haven’t any interviews yet.

    The other part to that, is if I ask a tough question that requires some introspection – it can lead to the dreaded, DEAD AIR.

  21. T Hodler says:

    Hey Marc —

    I didn’t mean to ignore your comment — sorry about that. I don’t know about this OMAC/VALIS comparison. I guess there are a few parallels, but they seem pretty different to me — and the idea of being controlled by something in outer space was a pretty hoary concept even at that time. But maybe I’m missing the connection you mean?

  22. whit spurgeon says:

    Thanks for the compliment, Tim. If I ever do get a television show, you’ve got a writing job! (Whoops, there goes that conflict of interest thing…. um, I hope you can critique it honestly and brutally if for whatever reason you’re called upon to do so!) Seriously, it was nice meeting you. — whit

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