The Maturation of Comics Criticism

What makes a comic “good”?

It’s a touchy question, isn’t it? Just recently it came up on the messageboards of The Webcomic List, where a gentleman wanted advice on examples of “good webcomics” for a school essay he was preparing. The responses ranged from jokes (such as the obligatory “it’s good cuz I made it”) to borderline abuse at the originator even daring to bring it up, before shortly careening entirely off-topic.

Me? I made the mistake of actually trying to be constructive. Not so much in saying this or that makes a webcomic good (because yes, that’s a very touchy question), but because I started thinking about something I felt would have made a much more interesting topic: where are our benchmarks for making judgements?

In other words, it’s not enough to dismiss the question as unanswerable or not worthy of serious consideration, at least not if you’re willing to consider comics as a serious art form. As the years go by and generations who read and cherished the likes of Maus and Watchmen have their own children, more and more people are willing to make that commitment and think of comics as a unique and worthwhile medium of expression; but even though the sequential art format has been around a long time, it’s still only comparatively recently that we’ve started any in-depth discussions in regards to it. I mean, discussions beyond “Who would win: Superman or The Hulk?”

And there are discussions to be had. You can’t just wave them off as “people just like what they like” without dismissing the whole idea of creative arts criticism. Fine art, books, movies… all of these art forms have entire formal study programs to pursue at acclaimed institutions of higher learning, where review and discussion of “the classics” (and perhaps some of the not-so-classic) is an integral part of the curriculum. You’re not getting out of there without immersion into at least a generally accepted set of principles on what are considered good and bad techniques. More than that, each of these art forms also has a group of people who, as professional reviewers, are paid very, very well to give their opinions on whether a given offering is worthy of your time. You may not agree with Roger Ebert, but his views on a movie will most likely be more influential than yours (unless you also happen to be an internationally famous film critic, of course).

It doesn’t seem like we’ve quite gotten to this point with webcomics yet, or even comics in general. Maybe the medium itself just hasn’t reached the critical mass necessary (pardon the pun)? Maybe there hasn’t been enough time for things to percolate? Will Eisner certainly stands as an early champion of making comics a matter of serious study, but his seminal Comics & Sequential Art wasn’t first published until 1985. Scott McCloud has likewise done a wonderful job of deconstructing what makes comics tick and promoting the potential of the medium, but Understanding Comics debuted in 1993, probably well within the lifetime of most of you reading this. These (as far as I know) represent the first mass-marketed treatises on how comics could be approached and analyzed from a formal standpoint, and are the ones often requisitioned to college and university bookstores for comics-related courses. Yes, those courses do seem to be creeping in, and in some cases are even starting to be treated as more than just jokes to pander to the unwashed masses and pad out a unit count.

Hey, I took “Math as a Liberal Art” when I was in college, so I know all about being an unwashed mass. Padding is nothing new. But for example, since 1993, the (quite accredited) Savannah College of Art & Design has been offering an actual Bachelor’s and even Master’s program in Sequential Art. It’s a rarity though, and I don’t think such things exist yet outside of art colleges. USC has no plans I know of to open a Sequential Art school tomorrow, or even in the next decade. But a lot can change in a decade.

Or can it? Are we seeing the growing pains as comics continues to mature as an art form, or is this actually going anywhere? The main thing that hit me this week is that I couldn’t really think of any “star critics” of comicdom, people being paid lots of money to do nothing except write reviews of comics, who could sway the masses with a single good or bad review. I know there are some people out there (like Scott McCloud, or Brian Cronin of CBR) whose word is good enough for me personally to have a look at what they’re supporting, and there’s folk like Blair Butler on G4 who have TV segments devoted to comic reviews, but could I honestly put them on a par with how Pauline Kael was looked to for film?

“Comics are big right now” — that’s what we keep hearing. But let’s be honest, they’re big right now because Hollywood is making them so. San Diego Comic Con has become the beast it is largely due to Hollywood. Do you know what the Eisner Awards are? Did you know that they’re held annually at SDCC, on Friday evening, and admission is free with your Comic-Con badge? I have a confession to make, which is that despite knowing this, I have never attended a ceremony. I think for 2011 I’ll change that, because I want to see how they’re going. They are, after all, considered the Oscars of Sequential Art, and yet they’re not at all the centerpiece of SDCC. Apparently this year if you attended, you got a free Will Eisner graphic novel as a gift… was that just the organizers being generous, or did they feel like they needed to provide incentive to get any crowd in beyond the immediate industry professionals being honored? Since 2009 they’ve moved it out of the Convention Center over to the neighboring Hilton Bayfront, and I’m not sure what to make of that, either. Good? Bad? Ugly?

That’s for the print comic industry, too. As far as webcomics go, the Eisners recently (as of 2005) added a category for “Best Digital Comic” but parallels could be drawn between that and the controversy with having a “Best Animated Feature” category for the Oscars. Webcomics are still having a rough time of it, with Wikipedia making a habit of deleting not only articles concerning the comics themselves, but concerning any awards ceremonies people have attempted to put together to celebrate them, because of “non-notability” (a fancy way of saying “no one cares about you”). Webcomic critics tend to be gentlemen and ladies with blogs or podcasts, sometimes hiding behind fictional identities, often working for free, and tending to burn out after a few years. 2007 in particular seemed to be a year that a lot of sites like The Webcomicker stopped updating, and Websnark seems to have recently gone bye-bye as well. Webcomics are even faster to flare up and flare out: it’s so easy to start one, but keeping it going? That’s the trick. We have, as they say in the job market, a high turnover rate, making it all but impossible to keep track of everything that’s debuting, going strong, or abandoned, much less give an insightful report on them all. Especially if no one’s throwing money at you to do so as a full-time occupation. But for comics of all kinds to continue maturing as an art form, we definitely need those voices, those people who even if they lay into your work with a scathing scalpel still have that underlying sense that they love the idea and potential of the medium. Love it to the point of obsession, to where they’ll stick with it year in and year out, providing an ever more refined viewpoint based on a solid grounding of fundamentals. And we need several of those voices, because it’s the creative arts and personal bias will always play a part in their reactions. Have they already emerged? Let me know and I’ll confess happily to my ignorance, but I feel like to truly qualify they’d have to be names even a schlub like me who doesn’t have his finger on the pulse of the industry has heard of.

But then, everyone has to start somewhere, so maybe it’s not so much a matter of emerged as emerging, and we just need another handful of years to see who not only rises to the top but sticks around, becoming a vibrant and anchoring voice for the art. In my youth I used to hate the idea of these critics who sat around judging other peoples’ creative work while producing none (or comparatively little) of their own, but art is nothing without someone to experience and react to it, and the quality of such has no doubt been debated amongst human beings since before history began. As new media for communicating between artists and audiences emerge, the study and discussion of how those media are best utilized to make the connections also emerges, and gives us that grounding to go beyond simply “I like what I like” and root out the complexities of what makes a quality work.

Good critics are critical to the understanding of an art form, so as things roll along, I hope to see more and more of them becoming movers and shakers in the comics, and dare I say webcomics field. Maybe the medium will never be mainstream enough on its own to support that critical mass, but this man can dream.

About Clint

Clint Wolf is an opinionated nerd, who writes a comic (Zombie Ranch) about cowboys who wrangle zombies. We didn't claim he made sense.
This entry was posted in Armchair Philosophy, Four Color and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Maturation of Comics Criticism

  1. Andrew says:

    I somehow missed Math as a Liberal Art, but I did take Physics for Poets. I wonder if the lack of gatekeepers on the internet keeps web-based artisitic content from being taken as seriously as content that has had to go through the vetting process of the publishing industry.

  2. Clint says:

    Which works as a hypothesis up until you start considering the amount of absolute trash that has made it through that vetting process, i.e. Twilight. I think the main problem is not the low bar meaning low quality, but simply that there’s too many offerings to really sort through, a lot of which don’t have any attached marketing department to push them… and when they do, there’s still some confusion on where to push. Like I said, it’s not just that a lot of webcomics can dry up overnight, but that the people critiquing them also disappear. So you could submit your “next big thing” for review to a popular blog site and that site then fails to update for a few weeks, or maybe just stops entirely. Will it stabilize? Not sure. It’s the nature of the ‘Net.

    Other than that, there’s a prejudice out there against self-publishing, but the world is changing. People can now find their audiences directly, and there’s companies like Dark Horse and others where a major part of their business model these days is looking for self-published comics (including webcomics) that already have an audience and offering print deals. Some very highly acclaimed comics like The Goon started out as creator projects, with no publisher attached.

    It probably helps that until relatively recently no one was taking comics “seriously” anyhow, so self-publishing there doesn’t have the same level of stigma it does in the prose fiction world. But we’ll see how things look in a few years.

  3. Pingback: I Came, I Saw, I Blew an SDCC Friday Night | The Satellite Show

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