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Sorry about the new logo, but it’s Dan Clowes’ fault.
I was just going to do a normal review of Ice Haven. Nothing fancy, just a straightforward piece about how great it is, encouraging everyone to check it out, etc. Having read Eightball #22 when it was new, I already knew how outstanding a work this was, so all I had to do was read the new collected version, get a sense of what changed and write it up.
But then things got complicated.
Last Wednesday, Dan Clowes made a rare appearance promoting his new book at a Barnes and Noble in New York City. The night before, eager to prepare several intelligent-sounding questions about his seminal work, I stayed up until 1:00 a.m. re-reading it. I’ve been unable to write a single review ever since.
It had something to do with panels like this one:
The defensive guy in the yellow shirt is Harry Naybors Comic Book Critic, a character so familiar, it struck a nerve like few others in my nearly three decades of reading comics. Clowes uses Harry Naybors to postulate several questions about the very nature of what I do here at Comic Book Galaxy and it got me thinking, or perhaps obsessing is a better word, about the art of reviewing. What are my responsibilities and limitations as a writer analyzing the works of others? Am I just an overly enthusiastic fan, who wants to share his love of comics with other, like-minded fans, or am I truly a critic?
Question 1: Who Am I?
Look at the illustration carefully.
Clowes visually reinforces the classic stereotype of the comic book geek -- the skinny white male, socially awkward despite his intellectual posturing about the validity of an artform that most people assume is juvenile escapism.
But is that really what I’m like?
Well, I am skinny, but I like to think I’m not as defensive as Harry. Some of us “critics” may be, though. I don’t know who Clowes had in mind when he created Harry, but I suspect he’s an amalgamation of several critics’ worst qualities. Still, most of us who feel compelled to write about comics are normal guys, with families and jobs and mortgages. We understand that our obsession with this one particular facet of pop culture borders on fetish, but we don’t care. We’re content to indulge ourselves, without overanalyzing why.
We’re also, in my limited experience, all pretty smart people. We may not be schooled in the history of the artform, or the aesthetic qualities of fine art, but we read a lot of comics, and we generally know when something works and when it doesn’t. We’re also, for the most part, decent writers. Some are better than others, but that’s true of everything, including comics. But regardless of talent, we all tend to write passionately, particularly when we discover a new creator whose work we feel deserves wider recognition.
Many of us are also aspiring creators. Writers mostly, though I am sure many illustrators have blogs as well. By “giving serious consideration to the popular pictographic language known…as comics” we are, in many ways, teaching ourselves how to create them. By reviewing, for example, how Clowes controls pacing in Ice Haven by constantly shifting narrators, we are, perhaps on a subconscious level, taking notes on how to improve our own efforts. In fact, Ice Haven holds tremendous lessons for new creators on how to structure a story, create characters, and break down a page into panels of action.
Similarly, we learn from the mistakes of others. When I read something that just doesn’t work, like Bete Noire for example, writing about it forces me to identify exactly why it didn’t work.
Question 2: “A Swarm of Horseflies”?
Surely that’s a harsh depiction of what is relatively harmless discussion, right?
Critics are a necessary and inevitable part of all art forms. Why would an artist create, if not for others to see their work? And once an artist creates something, and releases it into the world, people are going to have reactions to it that are positive and negative, based on the artwork itself, but also on their own personal biases, tastes and opinions.
But Clowes has an interesting point here. How do I describe an artist’s style in words? If someone asked me to describe the difference in styles between, say, Will Eisner and Joe Kubert, could I? Sure, on a macro level, I could make some vague descriptive comments about each artist’s technique, use of colors, graytones, crosshatching, etc, or offer up comparisons to other artists with similar visual styles, or even discuss how the artwork contributes to the overall pacing or mood of particular stories. I can even discuss certain panels, how certain characters look, or how settings and background contribute to the overall sense of place. But to really capture in words the exact shape of a smile, the wrinkles on a jacket or the coloring of a tree – these are all subtle artistic decisions, each important in creating the overall experience, that do indeed lie “beyond the range of words.”
But does that inability devalue criticism in general?
I’m not so sure. I don’t believe a critic needs to describe, in exacting detail, the subtleties of the artist’s line-work in order to be effective. To me, the critic’s role should be helping the prospective reader identify works of superior quality, craftsmanship, innovation or entertainment in a market overwhelmed with far too many books. Of course, the challenge here is that this determination of “superior quality” is highly subjective and varies from critic to critic. A good critic must be able to earn their reader’s trust by articulating convincingly WHY they believe a particular book is worth reading (or not). Thus, in my opinion, the best critics: 1) are extremely good writers themselves, able to clearly state their opinions in an entertaining way, and 2) have a vast knowledge of the artform and its diverse history.
As Tom Spurgeon put it, “I would say the one thing that applies to every critique is it should be as good a piece of writing as you can manage, above and beyond any other aims.”
Question 3: What is Criticism?
This was the sequence, right at the end of the book, which really left a lasting impression on me.
Are these Crack Shots and reviews I write really about the comics themselves, or are they just my attempts to build a reputation for myself as a writer?
I guess, to be honest, the answer is both.
It’s no secret that I’m an aspiring creator. I’ve written several graphic novels and short stories, and one of my aims at writing these reviews is to connect with like-minded artists, editors and publishers who enjoy the same kind of independent comics I do, and might be interested in collaborating. Hasn’t happened yet, but hope springs eternal.
But I probably would write reviews regardless. The fact is that I love comics. I have ever since I first discovered them as a young boy. And over the years, I’ve read so many that I think I’ve developed a perspective on the artform that, while perhaps not as studied as my colleagues, at least gives me confidence that I can express an educated opinion about the works I review.
But to Clowes’ question, are these reviews truly independent analyses of the comics themselves, or “expressions of self definition?” Well, I like to think they’re both. There’s unquestionably an element of self expression in them. I’m writing them. That alone makes them self expression.
But I do honestly try to analyze and critique the books I review fairly. How successful I am is hard to tell. Am I biased? Sure. I can hardly claim to have read everything that’s out there, and there are certain things that I like better than others. When I decide what to review, I try to focus on what I know well. That’s why, for example, I never review manga, because I’m not comfortable enough with that particular sub-genre to judge the quality of a particular work.
Writing a review, for me, begins with an analysis of my own emotional reaction to the work. I almost always read a book twice before reviewing it, and the first time through, I try not to form preconceptions. For example, I try not to judge a superhero book negatively without reading and really thinking about it first. I can’t say I’m not, somewhere in the back of my mind, looking for what works and what doesn’t, but I really try to just detach from my inner critic and enjoy the work.
Above all, I seek honesty in my reviews, if for no other reason than I think the creators deserve that. As a creator myself, I’d rather hear why a book didn’t work for a particular reader, even if that feedback is painful, so that I can learn from it. I look at it as constructive criticism and try to be more helpful than just writing a harsh, scathing review that trashes a book without any real justification.
I guess at the end of the day, Roger Ebert said it best. “Criticism is all opinion, and your review is your opinion.”
-- Marc Sobel
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