Talking Comics Criticism


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Friday, October 22, 2010


Dwight Macdonald: one of Gary Groth's heroes

On the Inkstuds program earlier today, Gary Groth, Ben Schwartz and I talked about comics criticism with Robin McConnell. The pretext was Ben’s recent anthology of essays and interviews on comics. You can listen to the show here. The discussion ran all over the place. Among other topics discussed:

1. The transformative  role played by Gil Kane in getting people to talk about visual storytelling as well as literary narrative, and in general Kane as a spark for comics criticism and enthusiasm about comics.

2. The difference between art and entertainment.

3. The importance of destructive criticism (with discussions of the relative merits of Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken, and Dwight Macdonald). I wish I had remembered to mention John Metcalf, who belongs in this tradition.

4. The seductive dangers posed by Mencken’s style.  Again, I wish I had remembered Christopher Hitchens’s great sentence about the impact of Mencken on some of his dimmer imitators: “No wonder, then, that in his ill-tempered and misanthropic shape, [Mencken] has been adopted as a premature foe of ‘PC’ by the rancorous crowd of minor swells who put out the American Spectator. ”

5. Why Mark Beyer, David Collier and Kim Deitch need critical champions (although Gary mentioned that there is an essay by Gary Giddins on Deitch’s work. I had no idea that this essay existed and will now have to track it down).

6. The reputational status of Eisner and Spiegelman.

If you are interested in these and related topics, listen to the show.

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5 Responses to “Talking Comics Criticism”
  1. Jon Hastings says:

    Good discussion!

    I’m trying to start the Eisner-backlash-backlash: if anything, Ware’s comics should help us appreciate Eisner more, not less. Reading Eisner in the light of Jimmy Corrigan shows just how tuned in Eisner was to the way urban spaces shape urban relationships. Ware and Eisner are the tragic poets of the American city!

  2. T. Hodler says:

    I don’t know if this is the essay Gary Groth was referring to, but a Gary Giddins piece on Kim Deitch can be read on the JazzTimes website here.

  3. Thanks Jeet, Robin, e. al. for a stimulating discussion.

    I have one kind of subsidiary problem with it: the antipathy towards the Hooded Utilitarian, as expressed in the discussion, but also in general, seems to me a little silly. I mean, I understand why a lot of people have issues with some of the more aggressive and at times half-baked content there, but at the same time the very same people responsible for this content often present intelligent challenges to the rather alarmingly quickly formed received critical wisdom on comics in contemporary ‘literary’ or ‘artcomics’ circles. I personally think this is refreshing and at times helps me think about comics and art differently, but of course if all one hears is the blood and thunder, one is liable to miss that.

    Let me take an example: the recent TCJ roundtable on Ben Schwartz’ Best American Comics Criticism. Though initially promising, it quickly descended into a rather uncivil squabble that failed to address some of the to me very pertinent issues raised by the book, and indeed by the critics involved in the roundtable. And sadly, I think the anti-HU faction of the discussion came out of it looking rather humbled, not because their arguments or general stance are less tenable, but because they didn’t make the same effort to engage the criticism being levelled at the book by their counterparts. Maybe it’s just me, but I would like to see a more proficient engagement with the criticism advanced at HU.

    Of course I write this as a contributor there, which may make all of this seem rather disingenuous, but I can only say that there’s plenty of stuff posted at HU that I disagree with, while I appreciate a lot of the work done by some of its fiercest critics. Which is another problem: the tendency, expressed for example in this discussion, to regard HU as a monolithic, ideological structure, while actually there are strong differences of opinion expressed there on a weekly basis.

    Oh, another and completely (and then, maybe not) unrelated thing: I agree with Jon that the Eisner backlash is interesting, and due for revision: it is true that Eisner doesn’t hold up when measured by the criteria customarily applied by a lot of the current comics intelligentsia, but I would venture that this is precisely because, as Schwartz and Jeet note in the discussion, those criteria are founded in a tradition of literary criticism, rather than visual. One of the great things about ComicsComics is that it often pushes back against this tendency and recognizes the value of the visual aspects of comics too. I don’t think The Spirit is necessarily one of the greatest comics ever or anything, but to me it’s still a hugely compelling work of art in many ways, despite its failings as “literature”.

  4. Jeet Heer says:

    @Matthias Wivel. I think the anti-Eisner backlash is almost all focused on his graphic novels from A Contract With God onwards. Even Eisner’s harshest critics — say Gary Groth or in a more gentle vein Douglas Wolk — tend to praise the work Eisner (and his assistants) did on The Spirit.

    As for Hooded Utilitarian, very briefly, I’ll note that I have praised articles they’ve published which were intelligent and informative. It might be useful to invoke an idea from science and engineering: the signal-to-noise ratio. As per Wikipedia: “Signal-to-noise ratio … is a measure used in science and engineering to quantify how much a signal has been corrupted by noise. It is defined as the ratio of signal power to the noise power corrupting the signal. A ratio higher than 1:1 indicates more signal than noise.” In the Hooded Utilitarian, the signal-to-noise ratio is very, very low, which is why I rarely find it fruitful to engage in debates with the essays published on that site.

  5. Well, I guess it’s always easier to dismiss something out of hand, claiming it to be so much noise. I differ here — questions are often raised on HU that I don’t see raised anywhere else in comics criticism; pertinent issues of aesthetic, social and cultural implication that have real interest for students of comics. As I wrote, I think the BACC roundtable was a perfect example of an unwillingness to engage the perceived noisemakers.

    A more interesting problem, though, and what I often seen challenged at HU is the critical consensus built around contemporary art comics — a consensus that owes a lot to The Comics Journal in general and Gary Groth’s strong critical voice in particular. It’s rare to see people criticize the artists canonized in this discourse, your Crumbs, Wares, Clowes’, Barrys, Panters, Seths, and the values they represent, but several of the HU contributors do. Granted, not always equally successfully, but at times still in compelling ways that call for response rather than aloof dismissal.