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.