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Breakdowns – Critical Juncture

There was a thread the other day on The Engine about the state of comics criticism, and bless Heidi McDonald for pointing out what a tired topic it is. The impetus for the thread was AiT/PlanetLar publisher Larry Young rousing his Loose Cannon column out of its baseball-and-football-season nap for a rough, photo-padded beast that tried to link Larry’s fascination with the space program, his hatred for Richard Nixon, and his hunger for a fresh round of message board “well said, sir!”s together like Scotch-taping sticks of margarine. It’s not hard to read his generalizations about online critics’ snark and worrying about impressing other critics as merely complaints that AiT books deserve some more love and that Larry continues to feel insecure about being in the No Man’s Land of non-superhero, non-artcomix that often require increasingly outlandish gimmicks to get attention (“it’s werewolves on the MOON!”).

But am I going to spend the column defending myself or any other Galaxy contributor as paragons of critical virtue? Not really. Maybe in a roundabout way. I mean, it’s true that snark only gets you so far (it got me through the first paragraph or two, but I don’t have any more margarine-related similes left). I should say first, though, that I’m not trying to take Larry down a peg or anything. His online persona is, to me, the least appealing side of him, but I know him enough to know there are other sides. Nor do I blame him for what is a purely natural viewpoint for a salesman to have. That’s what Larry is—a salesman, and I don’t mean that in a negative way, and obviously he has a creative side as well. But his background is retail, and his job as publisher is to get people to buy and talk about his comics, and he’ll do whatever he feels he needs to do achieve those ends. In the column and his blog, he’s creating a kind of cult of personality with his screeds about whoever or whatever gets the AiT Seal of Disapproval (The Comics Journal used to be good until there were AiT comics for them to ignore, Marvel/DC suck, etc.). And listen, anyone with a blog or column has some degree of that same drive to be heard and loved and even worshipped, I’m sure, so more power to him.

I might mention at this point that the relationship CBG has had with Larry and AiT goes back to our very beginnings, and has been, perhaps surprisingly, relatively smooth and friendly. When I started reviewing, Larry was happy to send me a big box of almost everything AiT had published to that point, and for our fifth anniversary, he made a similarly grand gesture for one of our lucky contest winners. I would call him a pretty generous guy, even recognizing that there is an agenda there, in that of course you give away books to reviewers because you want publicity, and the odds of getting favorable reviews increases when the reviewer factors in (consciously or not) his appreciation of the publisher’s largesse. It’s smart, and I would do the same thing if I was in Larry’s shoes.

As a critic, though, I think one has to step gingerly in these kinds of relationships. The stick in my ass isn’t quite so large that I would pass up having a beer with the guy, but I read something on a blog today that relates to both AiT and Comic Book Galaxy, so I’ll bring it up, though I’ll spare the guy’s name.

The guy, who is a talented but very young writer, wrote an apology of sorts to The Galaxy, for not being able to provide the level of quality, and to a lesser extent, quantity, that we wanted. And kudos to him for recognizing things to work on and having that drive to improve. But I found the rest of the post odd, in that apparently this guy had been talking to Larry about his situation, for advice or encouragement or something. Now, this is what I’m getting at as far as stepping gingerly. As that Engine thread ended up, predictably, citing Lester Bangs as a model for the kind of critical voice missing in comics (even more predictably, someone cited Sturgeon’s Law that “90% of everything is crap”), I started thinking about Bangs appearing as a character in the Cameron Crowe film Almost Famous; in fact, Bangs is a mentor to the young Crowe character, a rock journalist too young and naïve not to be manipulated and seduced by the rock band he’s covering, therefore compromising his critical faculties for the good times and the belonging to a scene. And no, I’m not assigning sinister, seductive motives to Larry. It’s his job. And I think any critic needs to respect that the work they do may have an affect on other people’s jobs. Not a large effect, admittedly, when it comes to comics critics, but certainly enough to keep in mind when one writes that review.

Moreso even than the publisher’s or creator’s livelihood, the critic should consider the spirit of that creator. Some have thrown in the towel after a really devastating review. Who wants to be that critic that made someone give up on their dream, give up on making art?

Okay. Now that we’ve done all this sensitive consideration of everyone’s feelings and wallets, here’s what the critic has to do next:

Forget about it.

You have to remember to be human and professional and as cruelty-free as the most conscientious tuna fisherman, but you know, every now and then, a dolphin is going to get caught in the net. The critic has his job to do, just like the creator and publisher, and while I would happily place the critic at the bottom on a scale of importance, that doesn’t mean the job is without value. If art is worth studying and analyzing, shouldn’t there be people to do it? It’s understandable that publishers and creators will often be unable to really see the value in criticism, or the purpose or even the necessary ethics of it, but that’s why the critic needs to, at times, tell that creator or publisher to politely fuck off and let you do your job the way you need to do it.

My boss at my day job is very good at what he does for a living, but he has always had a great passion for music, and even at around 40 is writing and recording it when he has a spare Saturday. He brought me down to the parking structure yesterday before he left, and pulled out his acoustic guitar and sang me a new song he’d written, “Wall of Shame,” I think it’s called. It really was very good, a kind of folk-inflected pop ballad lots of listeners would sing along to. And I told him very positive things about it, but…critic that I am…I said he should come up with a different line in the middle, so as to not overdo the “wall of shame” hook, maybe something that rhymed with “shame.” And he took the suggestion well, though I my guess is the line won’t actually get changed, and that’s fine. You can’t expect anyone to actually listen or change. It’s nice when it happens, but rare.

The point is, though, that you have to do it, and it’s important to do it. Art and artists don’t grow and evolve by having everyone tell them how awesome they are. As I said, it’s perfectly understandable for a Larry Young or Chris Staros or Joe Quesada or any other publisher or Editor-in-Chief or PR guy to try to win over a critic to their “cause,” but they don’t really have a cause in this regard. They’ve got a business to run. The critic has the cause, and that cause is to be as free of outside influence as possible, to be as unflinchingly honest in his scorn as he is in his praise. The opinions expressed must supersede any emotional attachments to creators or publishers; nostalgia; wishes for an industry or medium other than what truly exists at the time; worries about being quoted on the back of a trade paperback, or the continued chugga-chugga of the review comps gravy train. Those are all toxins to criticism, really, and the critic already has his work cut out for him making that imperfect, fleeting moment known as his opinion at the time into something of any kind of value, anyway. You have to realize that you’re going to make mistakes or let biases take over, no matter how hard you try. People forget that Bangs, and Pauline Kael, were often totally, gloriously wrong a good deal of the time, at least by other respected critics’ standards, but of course, the point is to not be concerned with what others think.

Next Week: More imperfection, at best.

-- Christopher Allen

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Christopher Allen
Comic Book Galaxy Reviews
3361 Calle Cancuna
Carlsbad, CA 92009

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The ADD Blog by Alan David Doane. Trouble with Comics Reviews of comics and graphic novels. Commentary about the artform and industry of comics. Get back to the main page.

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