I Spoke Too Soon


Monday, December 4, 2006

I was wrong, and in a good way. Ivan Brunetti‘s Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, & True Stories, is starting to get some well-deserved hype, this time a longish, overwhelmingly positive review in the New York Times Sunday Book Review. This is an unalloyed good thing, both for Brunetti and for the field as a whole. But…

Well, maybe it is just a little alloyed, but only because the reviewer was one lazy and condescending (at least in this instance) critic named David Hajdu, who is probably best known for his book about the ’60s folk scene in Greenwich Village, Positively 4th Street. I say lazy and condescending because it is quite clear from reading his review that he didn’t bother to do the relevant research, but still felt qualified to act as a generous mandarin, bestowing status on a “disreputable” art form that has finally earned his good graces.

Take for starters his description of the book’s editor:

Brunetti, a comics artist and writer himself, is best known for his comic-book series “Schizo,” a hodge-podge of spare, poetic vignettes heavily influenced by Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts.”

It seems likely to me from this that Hajdu only read the two pages of Brunetti comics included in the book under review, but let’s be generous and assume he skimmed Schizo‘s unusually gentle fourth issue. Hajdu clearly didn’t bother checking into the earlier issues, which might well be the most scarifying comics ever drawn. “Spare”, “poetic”, and “Peanuts” are not the words (well, “poetic” maybe, but not the way Hajdu means it).

Here’s a less important one:

[Brunetti] likes the funnies to be funny; we get few adventure stories — not even, among the historical selections, a panel of “Little Lulu” or Carl Barks’s “Donald Duck,” both of which were more dramatic than literally comic.

Hmm. Little Lulu always seemed pretty funny to me.

More from the maestro:

[Brunetti] is indifferent, even silently hostile, to superheroes, none of whom appear anywhere in the book … There is no question that the vast bulk of superhero comics are factory-made product, rather than works of individual expression; still, at least a few mainstream comics published in recent years — including a series of Batman stories drawn by David Mazzucchelli, who has other work in the anthology — are as artful and subtle as some stories in this book.

Mazzuchelli‘s work on Batman is greatly accomplished, but so many of his other, non-superhero comics are superior that it would be very strange to include it while skipping the rest.

More than that, considering the nature of this anthology, Hajdu’s argument is just silly. Only when discussing comics do people feel the constant need to glorify or excuse work on licensed properties in this way. You’d never find a critic reviewing an anthology of contemporary literature and bemoaning the lack of excerpts from Star Wars novels. (Who knows, maybe there’s a book about Yoda that’s just as good as the story about a novelist suffering writer’s block at Yaddo—it would still feel out-of-place in a book meant to showcase stories that are personal and intimate.) If Hajdu really feels like comics are now finally “suitable for adults”, maybe he could treat them with the respect (and expectations) accorded to other adult media.

Hajdu continues by calling for the deletion of Aline Kominsky-Crumb‘s “clumsy noodling” and praising Kim Deitch “for her [sic] cynical romance with the past and sheer kookiness of spirit.” I love Kominsky-Crumb’s work, but I guess I should give Hajdu a pass here, seeing as everyone’s entitled to their own taste. But would it be too much to ask that, if he’s going to say an artist may be “the literary voice of our time”, and do it in the New York Times, that he actually bother to conduct enough research to get the Possible Voice of Our Time’s gender right? [UPDATE: The Kim Deitch gender mix-up was apparently an editing error, in which case the writer should of course be excused.]

Here’s his final paragraph, a wonderful mixture of clichés, misconceptions, and patronization:

Now going under the name graphic fiction, no doubt temporarily, the comics are all grown up, and this anthology represents the most cogent proof since Will Eisner pioneered the graphic novel and Art Spiegelman brought long-form comics to early perfection. What other kinds of art or entertainment invented for young people ever transcended their provenance as kid stuff? Not coloring books, nor paper dolls, nor board games. There are no Etch a Sketch drawings in the Museum of Modern Art and no View-Master slides in the International Center for Photography. While it took more than a century for the medium to be accepted as suitable for adults, the fact that the comics made it here at all testifies to their resilience and adaptability.

Ugh. Well, I guess it’s good that comics are more of a legitimate art form than the old View-Master, but this seems like faint praise to me.

(By the way, this isn’t the first time Hajdu has written about “grown-up” comics for a prominent cultural publication, or the first time he’s proven himself not quite up to the job.)

I should stop whining. What does it matter really? It’s nice overall that the big cultural arbiters are recognizing comics, and these mistakes aren’t really that important. But it would be even nicer if the people deciding what art is serious and legitimate would take their own jobs just as seriously.

And what is Hajdu up to next? He’s working on a new book, a history of the comics. As he graciously acknowledged in a 2003 interview, it’s something he “knew virtually nothing about before”, but he’s found that doing the research “is the fun part”. I hope that the new year finds Hajdu having lots of fun.


Oh, and one more thing, related only in general theme: When you’re putting together a large-scale, scholarly exhibit of the Masters of the American Comics, ostensibly in order to demonstrate the artistic significance of the form and its practitioners, and you display one of the most famous and iconic comic book covers of all time, go ahead and make the effort to find out who drew it. Don’t just credit Harvey Kurtzman on a guess. Especially when Basil Wolverton‘s signature is clearly legible, right at the bottom of the page.

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9 Responses to “I Spoke Too Soon”
  1. Lenny Riggio says:

    Hey, you were linked to by Journalista, and I responded at length there. But since I criticize you (with love!), I felt I should post my criticisms here and let you have the opportunity to respond–it’s only fair. Because I’m just cutting and pasting, I refer to you in the third person. One final note–I don’t know David Hajdu, but I think he’s a pretty good writer. His book on Dylan and the early folk scene was a great read. Personally I’d love to see him do something like that for comics–pick a fertile period and write a narrative history of the scene.

    Anway, here’s what I wrote at Journalista:

    Wow, do I disagree with you and T. Hodler. Hodler seems to think that because David Hajdu isn’t an expert on comics, his opinions are not valuable. Get used to it–reviewers aren’t experts, typically. Especially reviewers in large national general-interest publications like the New York Times. They’re generalists, and that’s who you want to review books for the average reader. Hajdu’s review was very positive, and it made a great point–that many earlier anothologies were marred by their need to be historical or inclusive or encyclopedic. Indeed, I think he brings up the idea of inclusion of super hero comics mainly to dismiss it. He suggests instead that by creating an anthology of work that Brunetti finds personally important, he has created an anthology that speaks better to the artistic potential of the medium than others have in the past.

    I fully agree with that. Sure there have been other great anthologies, but in a very real sense they have generally been before their time. They were speaking mainly to cognoscenti. There is nothing wrong with that at all–I treasure books like Read Yourself Raw, for example. But now we have anthologies that are designed to speak beyond those who already know how great comics can be–McSweeney’s, the Best American Comics anthology, and Graphic Fiction.

    Hajdu’s thesis is that Brunetti’s anthology is a little like the “From Spirituals to Swing” concert in Carnegie Hall (1938) in that they both use a high-culture establishment venue (Carnegie Hall/Yale University Press) to show off what had hitherto been seen as a largely low culture art form (jazz/comics). Obviously there were those who knew that jazz was art before that concert, just as there have been many to embrace comics as art prior to Graphic Fiction. Each event is a step towards greater understanding of their respective artforms, albeit important steps. Still it’s a good analogy, and more important, one that New York Times readers will understand and relate to.

    I remember reading an interview with the great translator Gregory Rabassa. He is famous for his translations of modern Latin American literature, especially Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s books. He complained how they would assign reviews of these books to local Spanish professors who would write reviews full of niggling complaints about the translation, while ignoring the questions of whether the book was good or not.

    That’s what Hodler is doing, and it’s so freaking typical. His fanboy niggling objections (Hajdu hasn’t read every issue of Schizo! Kim Dietch is called “her”!) utterly lose sight of this almost completely positive review. His accusations of condescension by Hajdu come off as paranoid. Hajdu could hardly have praised the book more, and if he approaches it as an outsider (which I guess to insiders my seem condescending), well, that’s good–because most of his readers know nothing about comics. They won’t benefit from reading a review by a harcore fanboy. Hajdu is writing a review for New York Times readers, not Comics Journal readers.

    Sorry to whale on Holder. I’m sure he’s a good guy, and his tastes seem spot on. It’s just that that blog entry remnded of so many hermetic, fanboyish, insiderish statements I’ve seen in the past. As comics, particularly art comics, interact with the outside world, they will be read and reviewed by non-experts, non-fanboys. We comics fans need to accept that. It’s actually good when that happens.

  2. Dave Lartigue says:

    “What other kinds of art or entertainment invented for young people ever transcended their provenance as kid stuff? Not coloring books, nor paper dolls, nor board games.”

    The many, many adults at http://www.boardgamegeek.com as well as the creators and publishers of board games for adults in America and Europe would greatly disagree with that statement.

  3. T Hodler says:

    Hey Lenny —

    Thanks for commenting.

    First off, I should say that I don’t think we disagree nearly as much as you claim. I mean, reread the first paragraph, or the penultimate one:

    “It’s nice overall that the big cultural institutions are recognizing comics, and these mistakes aren’t really that important. But it would be even nicer if the people deciding what art is serious and legitimate took their own jobs seriously, too.”

    I suppose I take your point about the Rabassa anecdote, and it would probably be relevant if this post had been a review of a book. It wasn’t though, I was reviewing Hajdu’s essay — and I thought it was poorly done.

    I do think Hajdu has written good pieces before; in fact, I read something by him just a few weeks ago that I thought was particularly smart, and I wish I could remember what it was. That makes it all the more disappointing in that I genuinely don’t believe he put in his best effort here.

    But in re to your overall point, I don’t think it’s “fanboyish” or “niggling” to hold reviewers to a standard of factual accuracy. If a review of a book about history was filled with errors and misconceptions, then I’d expect those who caught them to write letters to the editor. I’d be surprised if you wouldn’t expect the same thing.

    David —

    Let’s just hope the paper doll community doesn’t hear about it.

  4. Lenny Riggio says:


    Thanks for replying. You’re correct of course–you did acknowledge his praise of the book, and the way I wrote my response implied (by not mentioning it) that you hadn’t. My excuse is that your criticisms of Hajdu’s review were so voluminous compared to your points of agreement that the latter was (in my mind) drowned out by the former.

    And my analogy with the Spanish professors was wrong, but not in the way you say. Rabassa’a complaint was that these guys, who knew Spanish and had the original versions of the book, would nitpick over details that simply would not matter to the average newspaper reader.

    In a sense that’s what I accused you of doing. But that was wrong because I wasn’t considering your readership. I presume that most readers of Comics Comics know a lot about comics. So unlike the hypothetical Spanish professors, you are addressing a specialist readership who do care whether Kim Deitch is a he or a she.

    That said, my reaction to the errors in Hajdu’s review is, “so what?” They seem typical of what one would find in a daily newspaper. It would be surprising if Hajdu had read every issue of Schizo. The Kim Deitch error reads like the work of a harried copy-editor. Do I want such errors in the paper? No, of course not. But I do have different expectations about something published in the daily bird cage liner than with, say, something published in The New York Review of Books. Maybe I’m too easy-going in that regard. But the errors made by Hajdu (or the copy editor) strike me as incidental to the main idea of the review that he was getting out to readers.

    On the other hand, keeping hacks honest is a noble and ancient calling, and a letter to the editor wouldn’t be out of place, nor is a blog entry on a site like yours. Sorry for the over-reaction (especially the use of the word “fanboy”–a word I use with affection and self-recognition, just as I use the word “hack” with affection for those who toil in the world of newspaper writing).

  5. T Hodler says:

    Hey Lenny —

    Understood, and no apology necessary.

    Your point about Rabassa is more or less what I’d intended my reply to indicate, though I may have botched the job.

    And as far as having “different expectations about … something published in The New York Review of Books”, check out the link near the end of the original post where I mention that Hajdu has made mistakes like this before …

    Thanks again!

  6. Lenny Riggio says:

    Let’s hope Hajdu becomes aware of sites like yours and consults some well-informed comics cognoscenti before commiting his words to print…

    I’d like to have a writer that skilled take on some aspect of comics (although that can be a washout, as in Wrong Agout Japan by Peter Carey–but he’s a novelist rather than a non-fiction writer).

  7. Martin Wisse says:

    Ugh. That attitude, that it doesn’t matter that a reporter gets their facts wrong lead to the War on Iraq.

    More to the point, acting as if just mentioning comics in the New York Times is good enough well guarantee that it will always be treated as an suspect artform.

    Hodler’s complaints are not fanboy niggling, they’re quite serious complaints; thinking Kim Deitch is female is akin to thinking Dylan comes from a Muslim background.

    These are not errors that would be tolerated in any review of a serious artform.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Thanks much for the serious discussion of my piece on the Brunetti anthology. I stand by the piece (apart from the wrong pronoun, an editing error, which the Times acknowledged in a Correction). But you’ve given me some meaty food for thought. D. Hajdu

  9. T Hodler says:

    Thanks for responding so politely, Mr. Hajdu, assuming that this is really you. I’ve made a note in regard to the Kim Deitch pronoun issue above.

    I haven’t been writing on the Internet for very long, and I’m still taken aback whenever the subject of a post actually reads what I’ve written — and though I stand by the post’s substance, I probably need to learn to moderate my tone a little. It’s far too easy to become strident. I apologize if the criticisms were too personal.

    In any case, thanks again for your courteous response.

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