Though I can appreciate that a lot of reviewers don’t have the artistic vocabulary to really review art, they always have lots to say about the story. An analysis of the storytelling would be interesting. – Marvel artist Declan Shalvey, on […]
This article by Michael May set off a conversation on my twitter today, and I wanted to bring it over here and expand on it, because it’s a conversation that comes up a lot in the industry.
The last time I was involved in a conversation around this issue, it was because CB’s own David Fairbanks wrote about it in response to a previous piece by David Brothers. And it’s not like Brothers was the first to bring attention to it, either, as before him, Douglas Wolk called out the field in Reading Comics and before him there were who knows how many others saying the same thing. Point being, it has always been an issue in comics criticism, and it intersects with the ongoing problem we have where comics as an artform lacks the history of important, defining criticism that film, pop music, literature and every other art form have. To an extent, I agree that this is one of the largest issues with the critical community in comics, but there’s another conversation that needs to happen here and that one is centered around supporting the people who are getting criticism right.
There’s no denying that the most visible comics-devoted publications are often full of the worst possible type of criticism, the form of criticism May, Fairbanks, Brothers and everyone else have called out. But Newsarama, IGN and CBR are not the only places publishing comics criticism, nor are they the entities that should be used to judge the entire field of comics criticism. I’m not implying that this is what any of these critics meant when they wrote essays on the subjects, but it’s very clear that the pros who constantly ask the type of question that prompted May’s essay are using the biggest, most visible entities to judge the field on the whole. And as these creators demand that we pay more attention to entire creative teams and all their contributions, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to demand that they likewise pay more attention to critics and outlets that get it right.
After all, it’s not entirely coincidental that publishers— and by extent, fans— pay more attention to these outlets, because recap reviews with quick, hyperbolic lines easily separated for pull quotes are far easier to digest and process than deeper writing. These outlets usually ruffle less feathers, too, and are more receptive to press release news bites and similar content. If readers just want to know whether Damian Wayne is really dead or if it’s some kind of twist, or if Rob Liefeld’s art is as awkward as usual, then there’s not a lot of incentive for these outlets to go deeper with their reviews. And why should they? There’s room in the medium for Variety and Creem, the New Yorker and Entertainment Weekly. Some publications are meant to entertain and fuel the hyper machine, others are meant to provoke conversations and examinations. Rather than try to get highly profitable entities to change their stripes and drive away an audience they have, find the outlets that work for you and speak to your voice and let others know about them.
Because there’s similarly no denying that as much as we’re living in a golden age of comics creation, we’re also living in the closest thing to a golden age of comics criticism we’ve ever had. There are far more critics, and far more good critics, operating in the field than ever, and it’s not that hard to find them. Some of the best aren’t even getting published in comics outlets, but in places like the AV Club, or Paste Magazine, or maybe even your local weekly. Personally, I’m more convinced than ever that comics publications are no longer a sustainable enterprise if you want smart writing.
I know that sounds cynical, but time and time again, my experiences with fandom and the industry at large have shown me that profound writing is only desirable if you write for an outlet that can bring in new readers. A place like the New York Times gets a lot more leverage with reviews and reporting because publishers are more desperate than ever to get “mainstream recognition,” while places like CBR and Newsarama basically have to bend over backwards to continue to receive attention from the Big Two. Bad reviews or unwelcome questions can get you blacklisted if you’re at a comics outlet, but any coverage in a traditional publication is welcome because, hey, at least it’s coverage. Is it frustrating? Certainly. Is there anything we can do about it at this point? No, especially since consumers themselves are far less interested in what I call cultural compartmentalization. In prior eras, we had fewer methods for consuming pop culture, so people focused on specific genres or subcultures— you were a comics nerd, or you were a punk, or you were a b-boy, but never all three. Now, anyone who is anywhere near a decent internet connection can consume all the art they want, with relatively few restrictions and a near infinite amount of tools at their disposal. What does this mean for this particular conversation? It means critics should be more important than ever, because they function as navigators who can help point us in the direction of good art and worthwhile entertainment. So let’s start treating them that way.