Best Online Comics Criticism 2010


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.

First, the winners, as listed by Suat here. (He also provided commentary on the panel as a whole and some of the runners up.)

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

See above.

3. “Tintinopolis”, by David Bordwell

See above.

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

See above.

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

“Adventures in Nomenclature: Literal, Liberal and Freestyle”, by R. Fiore

“War Comics: Reinforcing the Military’s Propaganda Machine?”, by Paul Gravett

“Does Abhay Rambling Incoherently about Webcomics Sound Fun? Oh. Oh Well. Whoops”, by Abhay Khosla

“‘Joannie, could you possibly set the bar any lower?'”, by Lance Mannion

“Everything That Happens Is For the Last and Most Significant Time”, by Pillock

“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.

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20 Responses to “Best Online Comics Criticism 2010”
  1. DerikB says:

    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.

    I had this problem. I ended up nominating almost nothing, because I kept forgetting to keep tabs on what I liked.

    • T. Hodler says:

      Yeah! And I was really interested in finding out about new things from you, too! I hope my post didn’t sound too negative and harsh — I had to write it rather quickly. It was an imperfect process on many levels, and I am sure I was personally responsible for at least some of the mistakes.

      • DerikB says:

        I plan to keep track (for personal/sharing reasons, not expecting to be a judge again) of my comics criticism favorites this year.

        I wonder if there would be a broader selection if the process were open to outside nominations. So it’s not dependent on the judges to find everything.

  2. Jeet Heer says:

    To clarify, I thought Boxer’s essay was great and only had a quibble with a few sentences therein. If I were doing up a top 10 list of this sort, it would be on my list as well.

  3. Bryan says:

    That is an awesome list. Some things I haven’t seen there and hours of fascinating reading ahead. I always forget to look for the latest Ken Parille pieces.

  4. patrick ford says:

    It would never occur to see to look at “The Eisner Awards” or “The Oscar Awards.”
    I suppose most people watch the Oscars because of the gowns, and supposed entertainment value? I’ve no idea why anyone would have the slightest interest in “The Eisners.”
    What’s the award for the best online criticism? A dip pen jabbed into the back of a poison dart frog?
    There is a sort of criticism which I see as “the worst” kind.
    This happens when a person doesn’t like something because the creator under “review” doesn’t think like the reader. It always boils down to, “I don’t like this because it doesn’t fit my personal template. The creator has picked a subject that isn’t my favorite breed, and is telling the story differently from the way I’d like to see it told.”
    Shouldn’t the creator at the bare minimum be appraised on his own terms?
    Does the creator have something to say, and does he express his ideas with an interesting personal style.

    • Robert Boyd says:

      “Shouldn’t the creator at the bare minimum be appraised on his own terms?”

      I don’t like it when critics try to get too far into am artist’s head. It usually comes across as facile mind-reading. On the other hand, if a reviewer is on I like and have followed fror a while, I can often tell quite a bit about the thing being reviewed simply by knowing whether this reviewer gave it a thumbs up or thumbs down.

      In short, I disagree that artists should be appraised on their own terms. It matters not at all to me if an artist has achieved her goals with a particular work. After all, a review shouldn’t reward “good effort.” For me, it has to be about something else–which might be “taste” or it might be an analysis of the piece as it relates to other pieces or as it relates to the world.

  5. Tom Spurgeon says:

    Wow, I had a pretty terrible year! I don’t mean that facetiously, either. I barely wrote anything and what I did, bleh! It’s nice to have that pointed out, though. Good piece!

    • brynocki C says:

      I followed Tim’s link to your Wildstorm piece and I agree, Top 10 was the best of the ABC line. It ruled, oh if only they had done twice as much. Your list made me realize that Wildstorm produced some of my favorite super hero comics of all time. I’ll type it again but it’s still hard to believe, “Wildstorm produced some of my favorite super hero comics of all time.”

      • T. Hodler says:

        I liked Top 10, Tom Strong, and various other titles, but I think Rick Veitch’s Greyshirt was the best (or at least my favorite) thing from ABC.

    • T. Hodler says:

      Tom, you are crazy. And thanks!

  6. Andrei says:

    Hi Tim–

    thanks for the pick, and I’d love to hear more about your disagreements with me, either here or on my posts at abstract comics. (So far I just know that you disagree… 🙂 )

  7. […] * Not unrelated: I think that when this piece first circulated, I only read the autobiographical section, and I think I even linked to it as a must-read without ever realizing it was just one-quarter of a longer essay. But anyway, here’s Dirk Deppey’s excellent essay “The Mirror of Male-Love Love,” which is about equally dedicated to the history of adult-male/adult-male homosexuality around the world, Dirk’s personal development and coming-out as a gay man, the physical and psychological mechanics of bottoming and male orgasms generally, and taking down an approach to boys-love manga that doesn’t leave a lot of room for actual gay men or the sex drives of the women who love reading about them. It’s really long, but you’re making a big mistake if you tl;dr it — it’s a wonderfully engrossing read on all four topics it tackles. (Via Tim Hodler.) […]

  8. peggy says:

    what is this? how many people vote, who gets to vote and how are they nominated?

    • T. Hodler says:

      Ng Suat Tong organized the competition, and it’s now in its second year. I don’t know how it was run last time around, but this time, Suat invited several judges to nominate and vote on possible entries. In the end there were seven. (One or two had to drop out during the year, I believe.) Basically, every three months, Suat asked us all to pool possible nominations for a long reading list, and at the end of the year, we were each supposed to nominate/vote for ten winning entries. Suat revealed the preliminary results to the judges, and we had one more chance to change our votes if we wanted. (For example, if different judges voted for different pieces by the same writer, as happened with Jason Thompson and Ken Parille, they could consolidate behind one piece to help its chance of winning.) I think that’s more or less it.

  9. KenParille says:


    Thanks; that’s very kind.

  10. plok says:

    Oh my gosh, thanks!

  11. […] invite me to be one of the judges for this year’s round-up. the other judges consisting of Tim Hodler, Johanna Draper Carlson, Melinda Beasi, Derik Badman, Shannon Garrity and Bill Randall. I’ll […]

  12. Heh. I know I’m a little late to the party here, but thanks for the nomination and the kind commentary! It’s all very much appreciated, especially since I’m still trying to build my bloggy confidence back up right now.

    I do find myself wondering about the “counter-intuitive” comment though. I know it’s meant in a positive way, but if anything I’d say that the Mindless Ones site is all about finding intuitive approaches to comics criticism. Then again, maybe what seems intuitive to the greater Mindless collective reads strangely to “outsiders”, eh? If that’s the case then hey, I’m glad people find our bizarro worldview entertaining!

    Thanks again though for placing me in such high company – those pieces by Plok, Abhay and Tucker Stone were three of my favourite bits of comics criticism of the year! I’m off to reread that Born Again Again essay now, because I remember liking it at the time but it’s been a while…

    Take care!


  13. […] internet for if not for taking every possible chance to pimp your wares, eh? –  but it’s a “counter-intuitive” point, so it probably bears […]

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