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Best American Comics Criticism?

After a rather than long period of minimal content on this blog, it seems indecent that I write a piece about a book of comics criticism. But, part of the silence was a renewed effort in making comics, and part of it is an indecision about my writing about comics: what are my goals, how can I improve, does anyone care, do I care… But, I always find it easier (and perhaps better) to write about a work that gives me a strong feeling. I work that I have an almost immediate reaction to. And it seems inevitable, that part of criticism is thinking and writing about criticism. This meta-criticism has been prevalent online lately, if you’re following certain blogs and their comments. This book has attracted some of that commentary.

A book like The Best American Comics Criticism invites argument. If you put “best” in your title, argument will follow. I’ve got arguments, but I wanted to start by praising both the editor, Ben Schwartz, and the publisher, Fantagraphics, for making the effort. I firmly believe there is a lot of good comics criticism (or just, writing about comics) out there, writing that spans the past few decades, multiple languages/countries/traditions (okay, I’m guess on those languages which I lack the literacy to engage with (ie anything not English or French)), format of publication, and topic. Unfortunately, I’m not sure this book makes the case.

You can engage a book like this on two levels: as a collection or as individual pieces. They are necessarily intertwined, so I will address both in a mishmash fashion. This ended up losing my interest the more I wrote about it. There’s a point where the trouble of refining the writing and argument seems not worth the trouble, and where engaging individual pieces to point out why I think they aren’t successful feels pointless.

Some blood has already been spilled about the title of the book itself. I’m in agreement with Noah, that the title is a misrepresentation of the contents. In his introduction Schwartz actually apologies for the misrepresentation of the title… because not all the authors are “American.” It’s almost funny…

Schwartz’s purported theme for the book is the rise of the “lit comics”, the tipping point of which he marks as the publication of Jimmy Corrigan and David Boring (David Boring? Really? I don’t remember that having quite the same impact as Jimmy Corrigan). Setting aside the title issues, there is so much in here that seems unrelated or at least only tangentially related to that topic. How do three pieces related to Ditko relate to the rise of lit comics? Maybe I’m missing the connection if there is one. The argument in the introduction seems to be that: the rise of lit comics lead to a re-appraisal of older comics such as Ditko, Herriman, King, and Stanley. But how does that work? Is this merely popular lit comic artists infecting others with their enthusiasm enough that reprints are done? This seems to be the case for the Gasoline Alley reprint project. How do these old comic strips work in relation to contemporary lit comics? The context of both is quite different (or is it? Ware has been (is he still?) serializing his stories in alt weeklies for years). I’d have liked to see some evocation of this storyline, since it is so important to the overall editorial narrative.

A number of the included pieces feel like stunt casting to me, rather than a case of being chosen as “best” or even “good” criticism. Having recognizable comic artist/writer names in a book is surely good from a marketing standpoint, and the literary names add some cache for the lit comics narrative, but… Did we need the boring piece by Alan Moore (one of those non-Americans)? Did we need Peter Bagge writing on Spider-man? John Updike is known for his early love of comics, but his included piece on Thurber is little more than descriptions of images and quoted captions. Franzen’s Peanuts piece, originally an introduction to one of the Complete volumes, reads like one introduction among many, not saying anything particularly notable about Peanuts or Schulz. Are these really included because the criticism is worthwhile? engaging? well-written? insightful?

Many of the other inclusions raise the question of what is actually meant by “criticism.” The first part of the book has a number of historical pieces that seem lacking in what I would consider a critical attention. I don’t see history necessarily as criticism. One can use history for critical purposes. One can include criticism in historical narrative and analysis, but they are not identical. Excerpts from comics history by Gerard Jones and David Hadju both felt light on criticism (having not read either book, I can’t say if that holds true for the books as a whole, but certainly for the included chapters). Jeet Heer’s piece on Gasoline Alley is almost wholey history and biography containing only brief glimpses of critical engagement with the strip. He hints at gender issues and misogyny on the strip but does not elaborate: a missed opportunity. It probably wouldn’t fit in with the almost hagiographic writing that serves as introductions to the collected strips, anyway.

While I can see the potential for interviews as criticism (some good conversation in re that here) the pieces selected here are, for the most part, biography and history (and not very interesting at that). An interview with Howard Chaykin about Eisner is so gossipy. The interviews with Satrapi, Tatsumi, and Elder are primarily biography with history thrown in for Tatsumi and Elder. The two more conversational pieces, Lethem and Clowes, and Nadel and Harkham, reach closer to criticism, particularly the former which is bolstered by Lethem’s insightful commentary (a case where the inclusion of a literary author does pay off). The latter serves as a fitting bookend for Schwartz’s “lit comics” narrative, taking on, as it does, the lit comics/art comics divide. Nadel makes a number of interesting points that would have served well from an expansion. As is too often the case where interviews tends towards criticism, comments are thrown out in conversation that almost demand elaboration and deeper engagement.

I’d suggest that this collection might have more aptly been titled “Writing About Comics” rather than “Comics Criticism.”

As for the more less-arguable pieces of criticism, I totally agree with the inclusion of a piece from Wolk’s Reading Comics (despite my arguments with that book as a whole), but his rather lackluster piece on Eisner and Miller seems included there to fit in with the other Eisner/Miller pieces rather than for its relation to lit comics. Surely his piece on Jaime is more “lit comics” and, in my opinion, a more interesting piece of criticism.

The three pieces about (or sort of about) Ditko are also a strange inclusion not only in their relation to lit comics, but because they are all so dull. Donald Phelps, for instance, who is represented by three separate essays, is much better served by his piece on Lynda Barry than the one on Ditko. Fiore’s piece on 9/11 comics seems to be about comics only as an excuse to write about politics. It engages very little with the comics themselves in any specific way, more cultural criticism than comics criticism. Schwartz’s piece on Harold Gray and Little Orphan Annie is mostly biography and plot summaries, which confirmed my skepticism at a “best” volume including a piece by the editor himself.

There are a number of pieces that are the type of criticism which gets me interested and excited about the works under discussion. Ken Parille’s piece on David Boring had me rereading that work, which I didn’t have enthusiastic memories of. Seth’s piece on John Stanley got me interested in those comics, though, having read some of the Stanley pieces Seth discusses in an issue of The Comics Journal, I’m not sure the interest was repaid. Sarah Boxer on Krazy Kat and Herriman, Chris Ware on Topffer, R.C. Harvey on Fun Home, all choice pieces in the collection. And Dan Nadel’s piece on the Masters of American Comics show still stands there asking for engagement (though I don’t think there has been much). But, in the end, there weren’t enough pieces that got me excited about the artists or works under discussion. I want that from criticism. I want to see the work in a new light, to understand it better, or differently. I didn’t get enough of that here.

In the introduction, Schwartz notes that publisher Gary Groth was not sure it would be possible to fill a book such as this. My feeling is that Schwartz didn’t do a great job of proving him wrong, but it’s not because there isn’t enough great comics criticism to fill a book.

Addendum: I shouldn’t be surprised that the collection is rather The Comics Journal centric, but it does have an odd incestual feel to it. Fantagraphics should do a greatest hits from The Comics Journal book that isn’t interviews (the only thing they ever seem to reprint from the magazine).

Nitpick: No captions under the images! That’s ridiculously annoying, the book designer dropped the ball on that one.

Edit 8/9/10: After posting this I remembered another issue I wanted to address: how few of the pieces really engage with the art, the images. So much of the criticism revolves around history, biography, story, and theme, that there often is little direct analysis of the images themselves. There are exceptions (like most of the aforementioned pieces that I thought were the best of the book.