What makes a comic great?

This post originally appeared at The Panelists on March 14, 2011.


A few weeks ago Charles asked “What makes a great comic?” He asked for other’s thoughts on his question, so I’m going to offer some.

What makes a comic great?

  1. Realistic art
  2. Three dimensional characters I can relate to
  3. A timely and relevant theme.

Ok, I’m just kidding. I don’t really care about any of those things.

I can’t start without parsing the term “great.” So, for the sake of this discussion, let me differentiate two forms. There is “great” as in historically important and/or influential. These are the works that over time have gained some measure of consensus on their greatness. There is also the “great” of the works I personally think are great regardless of any historical importance or larger consensus. These two categories are not mutually exclusive, a lot of works in the latter category are also in the former category (Peanuts, Krazy Kat, Locas, Phoenix, etc.) as I’m sure there are many that are not (but maybe if I advocate enough for them and enough time passes…). Similarly, there are works that are, in general, considered “great” by many people that I don’t like at all or of which I don’t have such a high opinion (I’ll not list any examples here to forestall any arguments). For what follows, I’m only discussing the latter, personal, version of “great” comics, as I don’t wish to get into arguments about canon formation (maybe some other time).

Which really does get me to Charles question from his second post on the topic: “What qualities do you tend to appreciate in the comics you like?”

1) The style works with the content. This can be a unity of style/content or it could be a divergence of style/content for ironic effect, but I want the style to work in conjunction with the content as a whole. In most of the comics I consider great, the style becomes part of the parcel, integral to the whole. Try to imagine Porcellino’s King-Cat or Jaime Hernandez’s Locas drawn in a photorealist style. Try to imagine Krazy Kat drawn… well any other way. Picture Tezuka’s Phoenix drawn in the stylized realism of Inoue’s Vagabond, or vice versa. Yet there are tons of mediocre comics whose visual style could be easily switched out with some other type of imagery.

2) Originality may be a myth, but I want the work to say something old in a new way. It’s all about how you say it, not what you say. This is particularly important for genre work, but no less necessary for the so called “literary” comics, nor in it’s own way for abstract or other experimental forms of comics (if I see another abstract comic with a transforming/moving blob shape, it better by damn interesting in the way that transforming blob looks or transforms or something).

3) Formal experimentation is important to me, though it doesn’t have to be ostentatious. While I appreciate ostentatious experimentation, there are many ways that artists can subtly play with the form of comics. I do think that most great comics in some way move the form forward, adding to the themes, styles, or tools of the trade.

4) Thoughtful use of the elements of the form, the sister to number 3. Comics have a lot of moving pieces, so to speak, and I want to read work that is paying attention to those pieces. A six panel grid is fine but don’t use it just because it’s the simplest thing to do. For instance, consider the many ways Hope Larson uses text in Gray Horses.

5) An engrossing narrative, interesting characters, or thematic relevance are not enough in themselves. I need more than a “good story,” because a good story can be told in any medium/form.

6) A really great work is not closed unto itself. It is expansive; it calls back to the past; it looks forward; it reaches out past the boundaries of the page.

7) Most subjective of all, perhaps, it inspires an aesthetic response. There are some artists whose work I can’t appreciate because I can’t get past a lasting distaste for their style. To really love a comic I have to appreciate the aesthetic values of the work.

This is what I look for as a total package of “great.” On a lesser level are those works I’d consider great in regards to certain aspects. For instance, I’m enamored of Jesse Marsh’s visual style, but the comics he draws (Tarzan, Gene Autry) are pretty average genre material when you actually try to read them.

Since the above is pretty abstract (I didn’t want to get into a lot of examples), I thought I’d include some works I think are “great” (in no particular order, other than how I thought or them or spied them on the shelves next to me desk (thus favoring books and series rather than short pieces), stopping at 7 since that was the number of my criteria):

1) King-Cat by John Porcellino
2) Locas by Jaime Hernandez
3) How to Be Everywhere by Warren Craghead
4) Phoenix by Osamu Tezuka
5) Peanuts by Charles Schulz
6) Conte Demoniaque by Aristophanes
7) Ganges by Kevin Huizenga


A few comments from the original post at The Panelists:

wcraghead:

“it inspires an aesthetic response.” That rings very true for me.

Your “greats” is a good list but seriously, there’s no way my work should be on there with Tezuka, Hernandez and Schulz. That’s just crazy.

Derik Badman:

Well, it looks odd there because 1) it’s your own work, but also 2) it’s a different type of work.

Actually, my paragraph about genre and expectations got lost in the edit, but a big part of this type of evaluation for me is generic expectations, and you judge different types of work differently. I expect something very different from Hernandez than I do from your work. Or different from Tezuka than I do from Hernandez. Which is why generic listmaking is a weird thing, as I probably shouldn’t be lumping different types of comics together.

Derik Badman:

It also speaks to the two version of “great.” Hernandez, Schulz, and Tezuka are clearly both versions of “great.” You, Huizenga, and Porcellino are perhaps not in the former (yet?) (though Porcellino might be depending on who you ask).

wcraghead:

Good points, I’ll stop arguing with you thinking HTBE is great!

“it inspires an aesthetic response” – do you think that is informed by your work as an artist? Sometimes I think I’m lucky that when I really like something (or are moved by it, like the Egypt uprising) I can DO something with it, I can draw it. I see a lot of your work as being tuned into what’s around you as well and I think your (I’ll call it great) work as an artist really informs your criticism.

Derik Badman:

I don’t think my work and education as an artist could not affect how I look/read. And that may affect what I appreciate in different ways than other people, but I don’t think it’s anything especially unique.

I’m not sure how much my work making comics specifically affects this, though. I think it’s more about exposure to different types of artwork. If I only read comics, I suspect my tastes would be very different, but through exposure to experimental literature and painting/drawing of different sorts, I bring a non-comics perspective into play when I’m looking at work like yours or abstract comics or other less conventional comics.

Jared Gardner:

I agree completely that so-called literary or “serious” comics need to be as focused on the pressures of originality as you define it here (saying something old in a new way) as do genre comics. One of my growing pet-peeves in recent years has been the number of works that seem blissfully unaware that what they are saying is not in fact brilliantly new or original and therefore they might spend a bit more time attending to how they say it

patrick ford:

Funny Derik, those faux three definitions had me falling over backwards with my feet at the top of the panel.
For me above all other considerations is the story. I would agree there can be any number of different types of stories, and would add that even the confines of genre or reading level don’t truly effect my judgment of the final product.
For example while I prefer Tezuka’s “Ode to Kirihito” to “Astro Boy” it’s fascinating to see Tezuka able to lay down a template of his recurring thematic gestures in an early work intended for children. In a way it’s even more impressive to see an author able to communicate mature themes on a “G” rated level. Several years ago I read E.B. White’s “Stuart Little” to my children, never having read it myself, I was close to stunned by it’s lingering/haunting presence.
My children are now 9 and 11, and will reread Black Jack stories over and again. The urge to reread for pleasure is an excellent measure of any author’s work.
Your observation about Jesse Marsh is well taken, and could be applied to the vast majority of mainstream (really all) comics work.
I would say that having read many old comic books to my son several years back that at least the Dell/Goldkey stories provide a halfway decent platform from which to appreciate the graphic storytelling of artists like Marsh, or Toth. This isn’t to say I’d reread those things for pleasure myself, but at least they weren’t sleep inducing.

2.0:

I’ve been thinking about this idea a lot for the past few months. the importance of a good aesthetic IS truly important (maybe even the most important) and while some may find those that believe this to be pretentious, I think the threshold of acceptability for people maintaining that judgment might just be very low (fans of tom cruise or contemporary super hero comics ???). This low threshold is something that comics is suffering for. So many new artists, both in the big 2 or 5 depending how you’re counting and from this new wave of undergrounds are just terrible artists. they might have some good stories but the art they provide is nothing but a hindrance, a perfunctory (and i think the use of that word might be kind for a lot of work i see) sketch that helps the work being put out be called a comic (i’m sorry, “graphic novel” because the artists just picked up their first no more than 8 years ago). I’m not arguing for technical beauty, Johnny Ryan and even Mike Diana don’t show off technical greatness in their books but it fits in the comical and transgressive tonality –you don’t have to use Jon J. Muth’s ability to make what they do. but Porcellino???????

Derik Badman:

If you don’t see the beauty in Porcellino’s art, I can’t do anything for you.

Charles Hatfield:

Porcellino is a very interesting artist whose work is often quite lovely. As we’ve shown here, what he achieves is not so easy to achieve. That it looks easy is one of its confounding virtues. :)

I can’t tell whether you dig Muth or not. I like some of his work fine, but not his photoreferenced comics stuff. He’s found his artistic home in picture books now, I think.

patrick ford:

Like Derik, I won’t name names, but the artwork I’ve seen by some of the current darlings of mainstream super suit comic books is as ugly as anything I’ve ever seen, just as pure imagery, and is nearly incomprehensible as storytelling.
The images are loaded with detail, and computer generated special effects. When faced with them my reaction is to imagine Charles Schulz, Roy Crane, or Alex Toth recoiling in horror, or possibly bursting into laughter.

2.0:

That’s another thing, this computer generated fad. It is really getting my goat! I am disgusted by it. Even the way that Clowes (a cartoonist I enjoy more than most active ones) has been using it in a way that over-saturates the work with an airbrushed, penny arcade feel in his post 8-ball work. I have yet to see a formal style that properly appropriates these crystal clear Photoshop colors; does anyone think they’ve seen one that works it well? (sorry about making this what-makes-a-comic-great convo into what-makes-a-comic-not-great, but as has been alluded to previously, to answer the question well in a way that doesn’t guide by personal taste is difficult almost rendering it to the governmental response about porn: “I know it when I see it”)

Derik Badman:

Aww, now you’re dissing computer generated art… That’s all I do… It doesn’t have to be garish and filled with gradients.

patrick ford:

That’s true, a computer is a tool.
What doesn’t work for me combining obviously digital effects with a hand-drawn look.
Another thing I wonder about with digital work is the ability to make changes in colour easily. Certainly there are instances where this is of great production value, but I wonder if there aren’t times when something is “rubbed out” on a whim which might have stood up if it were hand coloured. And who knows, maybe what at first glance didn’t look right, on reflection would have grown on the artist?
It’s also unfortunate that computer colour became the norm just around the same time most colour comics began to be printed with full process colour.
There is a real charm and beauty in hand coloured jobs. The way the materials interact creates pleasing textures. The colour bleeding into the paper, the pigment picking up the texture of a rough surface paper. There is the loss of on one hand of seeing the obvious masterful control of the artist in the way he handles his materials, and the loss of the happy accident where an error can result in a pleasing effect where two colours merge.
With modern printing we could be seeing colour work being done with a variety of materials, but it’s almost all computer colour.

Charles Hatfield:

There is the loss of on one hand of seeing the obvious masterful control of the artist in the way he handles his materials…

Given that mainstream comic books relied for decades on hand-cut rubylith/acetate color separations that were done in the most anonymous, outsourced, and assembly line-like ways, and that computer coloring now has the potential to put more control back in the hands of the line artist, I don’t lament this loss very much.

It’s true that there’s an aesthetic peculiar to old comic book coloring that can be very interesting, and that economic shortcuts sometimes produced charming artistic effects (e.g., when crowd scenes in old Marvel comics would be colored in one uniform, dark color, say a red or olive green). But, generally, the rubylith-cutting process, combined with the usual cost-cutting measures of mainstream comic book publishers, militated against good coloring in those comics. What’s gone is gone, and in some ways—notwithstanding all the crappy computer-colored comics from the early nineties to now—for the better.

2.0:

I don’t mean to come off as dissing comp gen art as a whole. I use photoshop myself in various projects, but not comics. Maybe I’m just an analogue man. But when I see comic art that was done on a computer I wonder if it would have been better suited to be viewed on a computer screen and never printed at all. I think a good example/comparison is Bechdel’s Fun Home and Kyle Baker’s Plastic Man: On the Lam (and not just because they’re shelfmates). Bechdel uses the computer to create a tonal mood in a way that is passive and complementary where Baker’s Colors come off very aggressive and rob the book. But this computer color brings up a more interesting idea I mentioned and one that dovetails what Patrick says about the charm of hand colored work: the delivery. Look at Plastic Man: the pallet works well on the plastic cover, better than on the old fashioned non-gloss paper. This just brings me to the biggest qualm I have with the big 2 (bigger than the shit staff) that funky new paper they’ve been using since around 2000 that can’t be read unless it’s not facing a light source. And now a question: is it cheaper? I might actually buy some of the Kirby reprints if it was printed on the same paper it was released on. Issuing older works on this new paper is tantamount to remastering in theory, but in praxis is actually molestation of a classic.

patrick ford:

Charles, What I’m talking about isn’t the old four colour process. That process does have mechanical charms created as part of the printing process, and showcased at the four-color blog.
No what I’m saying is modern printing allows an artist to use any coloring medium.
You could be seeing water colour, oil, coloured pencils, oil pastels, mixed-media, and so on, and you can find some of that, but what you mostly see is digital colour.

Charles Hatfield:

True. An economic matter, I imagine. Digital streamlining on both the creative and delivery end. Convenience will out in commercial publishing, after all.

Jones, one of the Jones boys:

Frazer Irving and Kyle Baker make extensive use of computer colouring, to good effect IMO.

Charles Hatfield:

One needn’t imagine Toth recoiling in horror; he shared his horror and distaste for contemporary comics vocally again and again. It’s too bad that he didn’t make any meaningful comics late in his career to provide an alternative.

To me the central mystery of Toth remains, all that ability, that graphic and formal brilliance, but so very little worth rereading—why?

patrick ford:

Toth worked in the factory system of mainstream comics where there was often resistance to allowing artists to write their own stories.
Toth is really no different from the vast majority of mainstream comic book artists. In fact in my opinion he got better scripts than most because he worked for Dell, and Warren fairly often.
People will tell you the Dell scripts aren’t exciting,which I wouldn’t argue with, but I’d strongly dispute the idea Spider-Man or The Atom were any more exciting.
Toth also worked a lot with Archie Goodwin who’s scripts were above the industry standard.
In addition the things Toth did write were all, if not great, at least good.
You had the Bravo stories which are well crafted adventure strips in the 1930′s style of Caniff’s early Terry.
Toth also contributed a few things to Warren which had more to say, while still fitting a “weird/mystery” genre style.
His story for Warren “Unreal” is interesting on a number of levels.
Bottom line is it’s reasonable to say Toth illustrated scripts which aren’t of any substantial interest to most of us today, even if we enjoyed them as kids, but most of what he illustrated is a step above the industry standard.
If Toth had been allowed to write more often he would likely have produced stories along the lines of Crane, Caniff, Robbins, etc..
I think it’s clear that even in genre material the individual personality of the artist will almost inevitably begin to inform the work, if not consciously then on a subconscious level.
Given a bit of time on a strip or a large enough body of work of every writer artist emerges as coded (conscious or not) autobiographical.
Can a critic reasonably dismiss every artist who creates genre material, which is foremost entertainment, unless they examine their own habits and declare they appreciate nothing, but high art.

Charles Hatfield:

For me it’s not a question of dismissing genre material. It’s a question of Toth’s Caniff-era heroic ideal yielding nothing interesting in terms of emotional content. Barks, Carlson, Kirby, Kurtzman, Stanley… all did genre material. And they had something to say. But Toth, as a writer? Nothing, other than the valorization of a kind of Douglas Fairbanks-era school of swashbuckling heroism. Charming, yes, but totally backward-looking. So I’m afraid to say that I don’t buy the idea of Toth as a writer. I don’t dismiss his collaborations with Goodwin, or the many other good things that he did, I’m just saying that as a writer-artist I don’t find anything appealing in the work that I know.

patrick ford:

Charles, A few thoughts on the particulars of emotional content, and Toth.
First, as you point out, Toth didn’t have the opportunity to write any long form stories serialized or stand alone.
There are the few Bravo stories, and Jon Fury which I haven’t seen the whole of yet, but even there you’re talking about what would amount to a relative handful of pages.
It takes time to develop a nuanced character, and it’s only after we “get to know” characters that, like people, we begin to understand them. It’s hardly possible to read a character properly in small measure.
For example Segar created the amazingly detailed portrait known as J. Wellington Wimpy. It’s very easy for me to imagine someone reading a few months of Thimble Theater and wondering,
“‘You bring the ducks’ what ??? Okay, yeah. I’m not seeing it.”
It’s only after you know Wimpy’s character that:
“I’ll have pickles, onion, and lettuce, both, on my hamburger”
can be understood, not as poor usage, but as part of Wimpy’s calculated strategy. The things he says aren’t funny like a joke anyone could tell, they are funny because we know Wimpy’s motivation. Segar in Wimpy achieved on the page the kind of character that Jack Benny created on stage.
The audience knew Benny so well a wordless gesture or a single word like “well…” could elicit roars of laughter.
My thought is if a person went and read the first thirty Terry and the Pirates strips, and had never seen Caniff’s work or Terry before they would find about the same emotional content as is found in Bravo. There just isn’t enough there for us to be able to judge if Toth’s voice would have emerged.
There are clues though in Toth’s work that while he was far from emotionally vacuous he may well have been the sort of person who didn’t want to confront his emotions, he had a hard enough time keeping them in check, and his taste in art was towards escapism, things which took his mind off the troubled dark nature of man. There was no open avenue for Toth around that bend, it was a dead end.
I see a possible indication of this in one of the very few things I don’t like about Toth’s art. Toth was a “bad actor.” The faces of his characters showed a limited, stock emotional range. If Toth as a graphic storyteller/director was John Ford, as an actor Toth was John Wayne.
Toth at least wasn’t a scenery chewer like Neal Adams who’s ham fisted characterizations border on the grotesque.

Charles Hatfield:

There was no open avenue for Toth around that bend, it was a dead end.

Yes! That’s exactly it, I think. Toth’s work doesn’t confront and expose emotions in the way I would like. I get more from Schulz’s highly stylized round-headed strip characters than I do from Toth’s more realistically rendered people. Your comment helps me understand why.

I like escapism as much as anyone, but Toth had a way of elevating escapism to a kind of moral purity that, to use another word from your comment, I do find emotionally vacuous.

The bottom line for me is, if Toth had wanted to be a writer, he would have become one. Instead he spent an inordinate amount of time lamenting the fact that comics were no longer as he remembered them, and preferred them.

Excellent point about Wimpy, one of the greatest strip characters ever IMO.

Jesse Hamm:

Charles says,”The bottom line for me is, if Toth had wanted to be a writer, he would have become one. Instead he spent an inordinate amount of time lamenting the fact that comics were no longer as he remembered them, and preferred them.”

“Instead…inordinate” suggests that he chose the wrong path. Frankly, I’m glad Toth didn’t write much fiction; it wasn’t his gift. Complaining that Toth failed to write good stories is like complaining that John Alton failed to write good movies.

Few are gifted enough to excel at the whole package. It should be enough to excel at one thing, and complain that the other folks (e.g., mid-Century comics writers) aren’t doing their jobs well.

Charles Hatfield:

Granted, not every ace cartoonist can be, or need be, an interesting writer. So, okay, Toth need not have become a writer.

What I was trying to get at was that (a) Toth’s idea of good writing was very narrow, and emotionally vacant; (b) he was so narrow that he could not recognize new kinds of effective comic writing, and indeed was often offended by new trends; and (c) he boxed himself in as a result. It’s odd that his work could be so emotionally charged, in the sense of crafty delivery, and yet he shied away from any meaningfully exploratory content.

I’ve got an issue of Atlas/Seaboard’s wretched Thrilling Adventure Stories (no, not the Ware!) that features a Toth-drawn story about a tough cop and some scuzzy hippy drug dealer types in a near-future dystopian why-oh-why-is-the-world-going-to-hell-in-a-handbasket scenario. I like to use this comic as a demonstration of the inadequacy of mere formalism as a critical criterion; it’s an ingeniously put-together Toth workout and a terrible, lameass story at the same time.

Charles Hatfield:

PS. The story is “A Job Well Done,” scripted by Ric Meyer, drawn solely by Toth, and it’s in TAS #2 (Aug. 1975), as described here @ GCD:

http://www.comics.org/issue/28923/

This same issue features the inventive Goodwin/Simonson collaboration, “The Temple of the Spider,” a sword-and-sorcery outing with plenty of cool formal gimmicks.

Derik Badman:

Charles Hatfield:

Excellent, Derik, thanks!

Let’s do a roundtable on this puppy!

Jesse Hamm:

Toth did enjoy escapist fluff, and hated nihilism and copious gore, but he didn’t tout the former as the epitome of literature, and the latter presumably aren’t the new trends you have in mind. If a preference for drawing “family friendly fare” is wrong, we can condemn nearly every great cartoonist of Toth’s era.

“he shied away from any meaningfully exploratory content.”

How so? If you mean he turned down chances to illustrate the profound comics stories of his day, I’m not sure there were any.

“I like to use this comic as a demonstration of the inadequacy of mere formalism as a critical criterion”

I don’t see how the existence of a badly-written, well-drawn comic (A Job Well-Done) disproves the worth of badly-written, well-drawn comics (mere formalism). Seems question-begging.

Charles Hatfield:

When I say that Toth shied away from meaningful emotional content, I’m not saying that he failed to hit some imagined mark of literary profundity. I’m saying that his comics typically weren’t about anything interesting other than their own formal mastery and graphic punch and glossy surfaces. These are great qualities, of course—gifts—and I would not go so far as to deny that Toth’s comics have worth. I’m simply saying that I like to read comics stories by, for example, Barks, Kirby, and Kurtzman, and I like them because they are stories with something to say, whether profound or satirical or just eccentrically gutsy; by contrast, very few Toth comics appeal to me on the level of story at all. And this isn’t just the result of Toth not being able to find able scriptwriters to work with; it’s also the result of him thinking that doing Caniff again and again was the quintessence of good comics writing. That just doesn’t appeal to me.

Toth may have hated nihilism, but “A Job Well Done,” in its xenophobia, its ageism, its embrace of a hateful macho creed, and its obvious distaste for other cultural values, comes perilously close. That Toth ending up working on stuff like that rather than taking his artistic graces elsewhere shows how boxed in the field was, and he was.

BTW, I don’t mean to say that “A Job Well Done” has no worth or artistic interest. After all, it has Toth, and that’s not small potatoes. If the comic held no interest, there’d be no point in me holding it up as a notable example. I grant though that I did that in a rather snarky way.

Anyway, I don’t mean to dump excessively on Toth. This whole thread began with my attempt to figure out why I just don’t care about his work much despite being impressed very often by its graphic inventiveness.

Derik Badman:

Charles: We can do a roundtable if you like. Maybe Jesse would want to join in?

Jesse Hamm:

Sure, I’d be up for a roundtable.

Charles Hatfield:

Derik, thanks for this thoughtful follow-up post.

From my POV, you’ve removed some of the needless controversy surrounding my original question by going straight for the personal and putting aside grand historical and canonical claims. That’s for the best, I think. I believe you’re right that each of us has his own personal likes, which may or may not intersect with larger canons.

For instance, I understand that Al Capp’s work was quite important and that he is a major artist in the usual canonical sense, but I’ve never warmed to his work, despite trying. Part of that has to do, I suppose, with ideological distaste for his later reputation, and part of it with lack of interest in his type of satire, which, from my POV, relied predictably on the confrontation between cornpone innocence (with L’il Abner being a sort of hayseed Candide who never gets wise) and dastardly worldliness. I just don’t find it clever or interesting. But surely Capp was a major comic strip artist and a figure about whom anyone trying to speak authoritatively on mid-20th c. American strips should know something.

Then there are those artists I’ve learned to like despite distaste for their ideological pronouncements, for example Harold Gray.

I agree with all of your criteria, though I’d add back in an engrossing narrative or argument—that is, some enunciable thematic content that interests me on rereading.

Charles Hatfield:

As a PS, let me guiltily confess (and this relates back to my reply to Pat, above) that Toth is not one of my personal greats—and this despite the fact that I’ve read several comics by Toth in my adult life that stunned me with their graphic elegance and intelligence. I don’t connect with Toth because when I was younger I either wasn’t interested in or wasn’t much exposed to the kind of mainstream comic books he did back then, and because I do not associate him with a great property, such as an enduring, vital character or powerful, thematically compelling storyline. To me he had stunning craft skills that were put to very barren and uninteresting purposes most of the time.

Had I been exposed to some of Toth’s best work when I was younger, I think I may have developed a taste for other genres, other kinds of story, but by the time I got around to digging Toth for his craft I was older and the stories in most mainstream comics—both those I happily devoured as a kid and others—had ceased to be of interest to me.

So I tend to approach any Toth comic as a potential toolbox of examples of technique, shorn of thematic interest. Perhaps that’s the result of prejudice on my part. From a canonical POV, Toth is clearly one of the great, as in influential, comic book artists, and from a graphic design standpoint his best work is beautiful, but he is not a favorite of mine.

I note that Toth well fulfills your criteria of originality in technique (It’s all about how you say it, not what you say) and thoughtful application of the form. That I don’t have a passion for his work says something about the primacy of story, for me.

2.0:

I like this assessment of Toth. It cements what I mean when talking about how to analyze art. I think another great example is the beatles’ Sgt. Pepper. It exposed the music world to a different take on how to use the studio as an instrument in the way Phil Spector did, but in a way that overshadowed the actual content/product.

Charles Hatfield:

I disagree about Sgt. Pepper. It does have some duff songs, e.g., “She’s Leaving Home,” but in most cases the songs are an inextricable union of sound/style/songwriting. Rolling Stone called it “playful yet contrived,” but since when is that a sin?

david t:

derik, it seems to me that your list could be applied to any kind of fictional work. in fact, i find myself more in agreement with your list of standards when it comes to written literature than with comics, maybe just because there is a part of me that is nostalgic for the “good old comics” i’ve read as a kid (whereas i was never into novels back then, as i am now). anyhow.

Derik Badman:

I didn’t take out the engrossing narrative/argument, I just said it’s not enough in itself. Depending on the genre I do expect a quality narrative, but it’s not enough.

Similarly, really great art, is not enough on its own, if the my generic expectations are looking for a narrative (which is the issue with Toth, I think).

I pretty much agree with all your Toth comments. Formally interesting, stylistically interesting, but narrative failure. Having read some of the stuff he wrote, I get the feeling he just really didn’t have anything to say, and that his “writing” was more about just having control of the story (as opposed to the rest of his work), than any particularly interesting thing to say.

True, I guess they could be applied across the board. Perhaps I should have left in some of my comments about genre/form and expectations. How I have different expectations when I approach different genres or forms (I expect something different from a great tv series than I do from a great comic).