An Invitation To Reason: Critic’s Canon

Oh, for Christ’s sake let’s not keep going on and on and ignorantly ON about it…!

You want a comics canon. Fine.

But to get one that’s worth its salt, you have to have a comics critics canon first. Otherwise who are you going to know who to trust?

Movies have a critics canon, born out of print media — newspapers, that is.

But they only built on the back of the literary critics canon.

So…why can’t comics go the same way?

Two reasons: one, we’re a disrespected literature as far as being a worldwide literature goes. We are worldwide…but not every continent in the world gives our medium its due.

Two: North America is one of those continents. Big market! Small effort. Honestly, all we ever had for real in this sense was The Comics Journal…and it’s not been the same for a few years, because we starved it out.

And now it’s the Internet. The “comics blogosphere”. That’s where the criticism gets done.

Uh…but HEY!

The Internet is worldwide, right? So, big market. But maybe we could get big effort too!

And therefore I propose making just such an effort. So HEAR YE, HEAR YE, all readers of this blog!!!

There are a lot of know-nothings out there. A lot of guys named Plok.

That you have to wade through, to get to the people who know what they’re talking about.

And the Internet is not set up for people to get to the good stuff right away. The Internet is set up to be a decentralized system, the Internet is set up to be a learning curve: the more you fuck around with it, the better are your chances of getting good information! But good information’s not guaranteed, even so. You could fuck around for a million years, and still miss it.

And oh, Bloggers…let’s fix that problem. I mean come on.

Let’s give back. Let’s give a helping hand, up into the saddle. I mean for God’s sake what does it cost us.

Forget a comics canon. Let’s make a CRITICAL canon of comics. Let’s let everybody know about THAT!!!

And so, my beloved readers (if you even exist, and aren’t just phantasmal voices my mind creates to keep me from going MAD MAD MAD), why don’t you take a moment, think it over, and weigh in. Let’s start the Critical Canon right here, and right now. Let’s tell everybody.

Here’s a provisional list I made up, of people who are worth listening to. You tell me if I’m right or wrong, who I’ve missed, what I’ve been too careful about, or what I haven’t been careful enough about.

But anyway, here are the people I think are on the ball, the people I not only trust about comics, but trust to open my eyes.

Gary Groth

Jog

Marc Singer

Abhay Khosla

Dave Fiore

R. Fiore

Jim Roeg

Derik Badman

Jeff Lester

Alex Cox (that is the name of Rocketship Alex the Green Lantern Lover, isn’t it?)

Mindless Ones

Adam Star

Tom Bondurant

Eddie Campbell

Scipio

Tim O’Neill

They are not all in order.

But neither does a list of these sharp-tongued people fully comprise a list of all the people who ought to be counted as GOOD COMICS CRITICS. For example if I had more time and could stay awake longer, I might mention Bully, Chris Sims, and the late lamented Dave Campbell — make no mistake, these fellows are comics critics too, and of no mean ability! But they don’t exactly fit in with Gary Groth, or even Abhay or Scipio.

I mean, I am not saying “exclude somebody” to you guys.

I am not saying “fun game” either.

I am saying…pass on what you know, eh?

I mean imagine the poor little kid who goes online and wants to find us…and all he can find is Yahoo. I mean we’ve all been this kid. So let’s give him a little more help than THAT, for Christ’s sake!

Every one of these people we name, I’m going to email and ask, “who’s YOUR guy, when it comes to criticism?”

I mean maybe I’m crazy. Maybe it’s a stupid idea.

Well, we’ll soon find out.

But if that new kid’s got an analytical bent, I’d like him to find decent analysis, not fucking bullshit. If he likes art — man, let’s point him to the really good stuff! Come on, you guys…I mean if the Internet speaks against it, it’ll all sink unloved into the sand anyway. If people don’t want it, it’ll evaporate. But let’s say we gave this kid a choice at some point, anyway. What about that Toth Black Canary comic? If the kid is an artist at sixteen, do we really want him to have to wait ’til he’s thirty-eight to see it?

Lots of people link. We could make a list of links, too.

We could do lots of things.

We could make ourselves easier to find.

This doesn’t have to be a mangrove swamp.

Okay, I’ve tried to persuade long enough. For those I did persuade, give me your “smart people links”.

Next week, we’ll do “art people links”.

The week after that, we’ll do “link people links”.

And so on and so on, until we’ve covered the landscape.

“Smart people links” discussion ends not this Friday, but next Friday.

I hope you will all participate.

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27 responses to “An Invitation To Reason: Critic’s Canon

  1. Well, you should be in there too. Look at your dirty great Steve Gerber project, after all.

    I *want* to be in there. I grant you that I’m somewhat overspecialized, but within that narrow field, I’m trying.

    One problem is that a lot of people just aren’t doing much. When was the last time we heard from Adam Star? Harvey Jerkwater should be there. Tim Callahan. Looking at the blogroll on my sidebar… Ragnell and Kalinara have done some excellent stuff. In particular I miss the ‘Amateur Art Appreciation’ feature. Ami Angelwings has said some smart things at times, though it’s easy not to notice. Sean Kleefeld. Christopher Bird. Plus some of the ones you list. I find it’s really hard to isolate just what we’re talking about here when talking about the people I read regularly…

  2. I dream I think I have occasionally touched that light-filled sphere…

    But no…I shouldn’t be in there, Matthew. And neither should you. We’re just competent, highly-motivated journeymen. Adam Star yes, I would say: for the analyzing that nobody does but him. But Harvey? Brilliant fellow, to be sure, but his strength is making, not knowing.

    I guess I should just say it: we’re looking for the same thing we find in the best literary criticism or the best film criticism. Something not just informed, but art in itself: an invitation to look deeper, and find more.

    I just bombed out a bunch, here. BEER! But how about you just pick the three critics who make you THINK the most…whose criticism lingers in your ear, the way that a great painting lingers in your eye. Whatever you always come back to, that draws your attention gravitationally. Guarantee you it’s not Ragnell or Ami or Sean or me…

  3. You pay us an enormous compliment – apart from the two I don’t know (Badman, Star) I’d find it hard to quibble with all but one on your list; I don’t think Scipio is a critic in any meaningful sense – I don’t read the Absorbascon any longer, but it seemed largely to be a chronicler of basically the entirety of DC’s output when I did, with primary heed to interrelatedness, set-ups, goofs, etc. Hilarious anti-Hispanic sentiment just below the surface.

  4. I shouldn’t be in there, Matthew. And neither should you. We’re just competent, highly-motivated journeymen.

    Well, then. I must try harder.

    (But then again, maybe not. Because I have always held myself to be a superhero guy and not specifically a comics guy. Obviously there’s overlap. But my interest in non-superhero comics is quite casual, that one post about Atari Force that I’m exceedingly proud of notwithstanding. So maybe this is the wrong event for me to be competing in.)

    But:

    we’re looking for the same thing we find in the best literary criticism or the best film criticism. Something not just informed, but art in itself: an invitation to look deeper, and find more.

    […] But how about you just pick the three critics who make you THINK the most…whose criticism lingers in your ear, the way that a great painting lingers in your eye. Whatever you always come back to, that draws your attention gravitationally. Guarantee you it’s not Ragnell or Ami or Sean or me…

    No, then it is you, and I have a hard time coming up with a silver or bronze. That’s exactly what this site is like for me. I’ve come back here to reread stuff more often than all other comics blogs put together.

    Maybe this is one of these deals where the basic cognitive dissonance between the two of us shows up. I am a guy who has a kind of Occam’s-Razor subroutine in my head; if things start getting too elaborately abstract, or abstractly elaborate, I lose interest and think that a point is being missed somewhere, like there’s just no way to stay on topic that way. But I think you’re comfortable dealing with that kind of thing, and more conversant than I am with many ideas that can be described this way.

    So there are some times when I’m browsing around this site, and I feel kind of out of my depth in the discussion. Not that I’m not smart enough, because I never feel like I’m not smart enough, but because I have no proficiency for operating on this level. (And it’s intimidating. Do you know how long it took me to work up the nerve to post my second comment on your original site, after what happened with the first one?)

    Anyway, I’m starting to suspect that your idea of the best is exactly the stuff that I get left behind on, and I’ll let my original answer stand, for whatever it’s worth.

  5. And Sean T. Collins too. And whenever Curt Purcell of Groovy Age takes time to write about comics we all (except Abhay and Jog) should hang our heads in shame. Because he makes us all look very, very bad. And you of course. Don’t sell your drunk-typing ass short (also dude, how much text did you write in the past couple hours – I have five seperate huge chunks to read here, at my site, and in my email – you a beast).

  6. @MatthewE — Many thanks for your vote, but most of what I do isn’t really critique or criticism. Commentary? Yes. Informative? Sometimes, perhaps. But critiques? Not so much. The last critique of any sort that I did was November 1, and that wasn’t very substantive. I don’t think I do that good of a job a criticism, other than occasionally pointing out less-than-mainsteam works.

  7. David Golding’s work is almost too good, isn’t it? My own posts seems like such a grotesque waste of words compared to his — how does he do that?

    Plok, you’re a modest gentleman, but you really do belong on this list. Like Matthew E said, this blog is definitely “an invitation to look deeper, and find more.” It always makes my head swim, and I mean that in the best possible way.

    I’d second Sean’s choice of Curt Purcell (those Vampirella posts: wow!), and would single out amypoodle as being a particularly praise-worthy Mindless One. I know amyp’s previously stated that he deals in “anti-criticism”, but if so then it’s so fucking artful it deserves a place in this canon all the same.

    And hey, Sean nominated me — which… that’s just ridiculously awesome, thanks! I genuinely don’t think I deserve a spot here yet, but give me time and I think I could own it.

  8. Oh! I agree with everything Sean and David said except the bits I didn’t understand or know about – but also! The gutteral guy, Chris Randles? He does fuck all, but it’s really good when he does do.

  9. Sadly, as a nerd-geek comics dweeb, I don’t really dive into the “critique’s” corner of the web all that often.

    I read what I like, I digest it myself, and if I happen to come across someone who sheds new lights or insights upon it, then huzzah! I have bonus content to read and filter.

    The only blogs that I go to that i KNOW I will be met with insightful, and memorable reading, crique and thoughtful insight are yours, plok and “The Hurting” (Tim O’Neil’s shingle).

    Everything else I scurry across in my web-crawling is just my doing a search for something that may cross my fancy or my usual routine (the e-equivalent to Sunday morning “tea and the comics section” fare).
    Most of it, sadly falls under the “nerd.alt.obsessive” purview.
    But is that MY fault or the very failings of the web that you mention?

    I KNOW damned well that most of the stuff I read is blather.
    And rightly so, it goes in one eye and out the other, with hopefully a little nugget of goodness to stick in between them to get analyzed by my grey-matter.

    Even MY blog is wank-fare, feel-good, “lookee-what-I-got”, “hey-remember-this” stupidity (with a fluffy “pseudo-literary-faux-poetry” at times to impress the rubes), but I know full-well where I am linked on the chain.

    Even those whose sandals I am unfit to polish, such as NeilalieN aren’t really critique (he’s more news-blurb and info-catch-all).

    What does that say about me and my tastes?
    Sadly, not all that much, except that while I don’t hunt for the insightful critiques overmuch (I used to read all the print versions over 20 years back – long before the internet), I DO appreciate them when I DO find them.

    Perhaps, this canon you’re espousing would greatly AID me in diving in deeper again.

    Either way, you sell yourself short, and just for the impetus of suggesting such an undertaking, you present yourself to be a voice of profound reason.

    Certainly, someone whose words hold weight, and whose ideas… inspire.

    ~P~
    PTOR

  10. Well, originally, movies weren’t considered an “art form,” either.:-)

    Question, though, from a strictly editorial perspective —

    As you pointed out, movie critics honed their skills by following literary critics, etc., etc. ALL of these critics also had to write within the parameters established by their respective newspaper and magazine publishers. Those parameters included, ideally, keeping their writing accessible to the largest possible audience (including writing at the third grade level, per common journalistic standards, and eliminating offensive words and material), and writing to fit a specific column size.

    Some critics rose to these (often unfair) challenges and honed their skills to become skilled and respected essayists (think Roger Ebert). Other critics dismissed the demands of their publishers and, as a result, produced copious amounts of undisciplined (and often purple) prose that has become cast aside as bad writing (think Alexander Woollcott).

    Obviously, because they’re unregulated, blogs are not held to any restrictions as to how much text should appear in articles, or what quality the text should be. That’s the greatest advantage of blogging, and also its greatest curse. While some would-be critics are concerned about honing their writing skills and supplying audiences with easily-accessible reviews, others dismiss the need for any such discipline and, quite frankly, end up suffering from “diarrhea of the keyboard.”

    However, the very environment of the Internet demands that, eventually, the truly GOOD bloggers will earn an audience, and word-of-mouth will help them build that audience, whereas the bad bloggers will eventually fade away. However, that process takes a LOT of time.

    Which leads me, finally, to my question: In the interest of creating a truly accessible and useful comic book critic community, should there be standards established for writing critiques, or should we just damn the torpedoes and hope that, eventually, the good writers will prevail and a high-quality comics critic canon will evolve?

  11. You’re too modest, plok. You’ve definitely opened my mind to concepts behind a lot of my favorite comics that I had never considered before. Chris Sims, Jog,Abhay Khosla,Jim Roeg and Tom Bondurant also belong on the list. I would add Johnny Bacardi as well …

    I was never a contender in this race myself, but I’ve found some self-satisfaction from delving into a historical mode the past few months. I’ve always believed you can’t really understand the present or future without appreciating the past … even in comic books!

    Anyway, it does more for my blood pressure than constantly venting about Quesada and DiDio. (And Batman RIP could have given me a stroke if I looked ar it more closely …)

  12. Dick Hyacinth, of dickhatesyourblog. I wish I had enough time and money to track down half of what he reviews and recommends. He gets at the essence of why certain comics deserve your time or not.

  13. …Oh, hi there sense of judgement, and sober second thought…so what happened to you guys last night, I thought we were supposed to go to that party together

    Yes, I believe I’ve already met your friend hangover…

    Whoosh. Sorry about that, Bloggers, I may not have made as much sense as I would’ve preferred t…

    Oh my God I posted multiple times!!!

    Hmm, well I guess life is full of surprises. Allow me a moment to review…ah. Yes, indeed.

    No, I’m just joking, I remember…it’s just that I usually prefer to try and post stuff that’s in pretty good shape, where I can. So, this wasn’t in particularly good shape — when I’ve been drinking I have a tendency to, ah, let’s say exhort — but I’m still rather fond of the idea, which is a nice thing to discover. Yes, a comics criticism canon! Why shouldn’t we have one?

    These suggestions are all excellent, and (hooray!) there are some here I haven’t read, so that means more fun browsing for me…but I should be sure to say what probably needs no saying, which is of course that you can’t have good criticism without good readers too. Nor can you have it without many many voices actively out there discussing both it, and all the other stuff that forms its backdrop, supplying its capacity to be well-ordered. So, we all deserve credit here. I don’t usually think of myself as a “critic” per se, but I guess it’s a better fit than “reporter” or “archivist”.

    Note the change I mentioned earlier in TCJ — more of an art mag now than it ever was before, but of course that was always a function it could’ve used to advantage anyway…so they are doing it, and we also do it. They report news and we report news, they analyze, interview, unearth, critique…and so do we. So I’m assuming you all know I don’t mean to denigrate the fact that we’re a diverse and lively bunch — if we were only critics, we probably wouldn’t have any very good ones in our midst at all — they’d be doing their thing somewhere else.

    So…caveat complete.

    To address what Sea said, I don’t know if we can produce a set of standards for excellent criticism that can be spelled out very well. Though maybe it’s just my thing, I always feel the standard of specificity should be applied to produce a minumum standard — many near-great critics, I think we’d all agree, stall out because at a certain point they fall back on generalities, even untruths, to serve their own aesthetic better: they cheat, in other words. But this can be hard to quantify too, simply having a manifesto doesn’t guarantee bankrupt criticism…!

    Hmm. I was actually just reading something about this, the shortcomings of overly-schematic, overly theoretical criticism — though it may be brilliant, if it’s only about the literature it examines it’ll always miss some point or other…maybe even the point an author set out to address in the first place! Literature, to any plain old everyday reader, is obviously embedded in the larger culture, history, psychology, politics, world…and criticism that blinds itself to this reality ends up using genius as a crutch. It’s a big problem with comics, I figure: some comics don’t talk about the world, even sometimes when they seem to be trying to they actually are not, but in our little corner of the electronic universe there are many who’d say this doesn’t matter anyway, and they’d defend some stupid comic by attempting to level all distinctions — Stan Lee as good as Proust, or somesuch thing. Heck, Alan Moore as good as Proust, that’s every bit as crazy. I mean who asked for these comparisons to be made, you know?

    (Oh man, I’ve done it to myself again…clearly I published these three posts together because they were all linked-up to the same stuff…hindsight’s a wonderful thing, but how much more wonderful would it be to have it in advance…!)

    Anyway. I know attention to specificity, and the consciousness of a larger world out there somewhere past the page, are standards I usually find myself applying to the criticism I read. Most of the folks mentioned here (that I’ve read) I like because this is just what they do…to borrow Balzac from Harlan Ellison, they come to their work with clean hands and composure. They don’t want to talk to the marketplace, but to the reader…and they want to say something to him. A very few of the people mentioned here I’d quibble with including in my own personal canon, because I don’t think that’s really their objective…which is okay, not every critic must be found top-flight in my little evaluations. But I guess I’m saying I always go with the person more interested in reality than in ideas, if that makes any sense…probably why I don’t make my own cut, most of the time. Then again it’d be a pretty poor typist who was their own idol…”you know who I really like? ME, that’s who…” Yikes, can you imagine?

    So I guess I’m saying…well, in my exhorting mode I always think “what a good idea it would be to have THIS, what a good idea it would be to have THAT…” It isn’t always that good an idea to have it, though, as much as it’s a good idea to think about it. I think I did staple in some remark about how trying to impose order on the Internet is a mug’s game, and how this seemingly big project is just a little passing ripple on the surface of something that works its own way…I plugged this in because I know that’s my weakness, the “gee whiz, all we need is a hammer and some nails!” approach. But I think I may’ve overstated the case…I was thinking about how Ragnell used to organize her blogroll, and…you know, mine’s just a mess, right? But if I found a way of organizing it better to show who I think are really the people to be listening to…maybe by making special sections in it, or just putting in scroll-over comments…or maybe both…or something…well, speaking personally I’d rather do that than pass out Internet awards for top criticism. Or I’d rather have a blogaround on our really top-notch critics, someone does a lengthy examination of one, passes off somehow to somebody else…there’s a lot of structure that could be embedded in a game like that, although it might be distastefully eulogistic…you could ask your subject to supply a name for the next blogger to write about…

    Still pretty “gee whiz” of me, I guess.

    Then again, look at what the Mindless Ones are doing with their blogger interviews, I think that’s a really fascinating kind of project, and no doubt the question’s always bound to come up: “so who do you read online?”

    Baby steps are better than gee-whizzery, probably. But I suppose my point is, there are a lot of ways we could raise the…the what, not the popularity or the profile, the regularity of reference perhaps, to the people we really think are A-number-1. If we decided to. Of course nothing says we have to, and it may be bigheaded of me even to suggest we’re not doing it already…but y’know, hey it’s a blog.

  14. Hey, and I should really say: Tucker, I only left you out so as to tweak somebody else into saying you belong on the list! You get Scipio’s spot.

    Would hate Tucker to think I left him out.

  15. What would be really cool is not a list of names, or even a list of websites, but a linked list of individual posts. Sure, Scipio has written a bunch of insightful pieces, but they’re dispersed throughout the whole of the Absorbascon.

    A future post on “Trout in the Milk” that would be super-groovy would be a two-parter: a linked list of the best critical blogs, and then another list of particular articles of interest. That list should be no more than thirty, and ruthlessly culled from the cream of the comic blogosphere. Maybe even split them so you have no more than, say, ten individual issue reviews, or five “grand theory” pieces, or whatever.

    That way, a newcomer to the comic blogosphere could be pointed to the best of the best and come away with something more than “them bloggin’ types sure is weird and get het up ’bout the silliest things.” (They can get that impression later.)

  16. Thanks for the compliment.

    This requires more thought than I’ve just given it, but I’d add Bill Randall (he writes the column on untranslated mange (mostly) for TCJ).

    This seems to be the type of list that is partially genre dependent. For instance, there might be some really great manga critics I am unaware of, similarly superhero critics (besides those like Jog who cover a wide swath of the genres).

    There would also be non-English critics to add (like some of the du9 writers).

  17. You’re welcome, Derik!

    Harvey, you may be on to something there…

    Oh, and how could I forget Eddie Campbell?

    Hm, well, same way I forgot a bunch of others, I guess…

  18. I forgot Tom Spurgeon, too.

    So you see, whoever you are, if I forgot you…then you’re in some pretty good company.

    But I would hate to think that spurted-out list of mine is being taken as “authoritative”…if only authoritatively me. So I think I’ll have to do a follow-up in the style that Harvey suggests. And carefully mulling these very good suggestions of yours, while I’m at it.

  19. Man, I feel like a dick for having never read this when a couple of people I really dig on–Plok and Sean–said nice shit about me. Seriously though, i’m really content with just being exactly what the blog/comixology has out there, I think it’s kind of silly and a little ego stroking to pretend that what a lot of the blog world produces is in the same lines with a guy like Abhay or Jog, or a serious reporter type like Mautner–Jog has savagecritic access, and he was describing to Nina and I a little of the process that goes into what Abhay does–like, you know how shittalkers like to claim it’s some kind of freewriting stuff, it’s some kind of off-the-cuff nonsense? The way Jog described it, not the case at all–it’s this really defined process of building and shaping, where he plays with language and experiments with structure and word choice until shit is just right. Now, I kind of felt that way myself–I think you can’t get the kind of jokes Abhay creates without playing with the tempo, the way it sounds, not just reads without repetition and study–but it was also one of those things I wish was made more obvious to people. I mean, I don’t have to tell you, or anybody, but blogging isn’t as strictly defined the way serious criticism is–it’s got a real tangential, free roaming aspect to it, so much of it is made clear by what is being done around it whether that’s incorporated or not–but guys like Jog and Abhay manipulate that system in service of criticism. A lot of the review type guys, the joke type guys–which is what I pretty much define as what I do–it’s often in service of that system, the blog defines the writing.

    I’m sorry that I feel so comfortable to just bullshit nonsense I haven’t really vocalized in your comment section. Hope that makes sense. Having a tough day, my mom just got raped.

    Or drunk. Maybe just mad.

  20. I’d second Harvey’s suggestion of links to posts as well as sites.

    I think most everyone who should be mentioned has been, although I would add in work Andrew Hickey has done here and here, myself.

    Also, in terms of a comics delivery medium that is sometimes overlooked now, but will likely be very important from this point onwards, I’d nominate Eric “Websnark” Burns as one of the first people to get to grips with webcomics, though he doesn’t post as much as he used to these days.

    And a bonus link of off-topic geek-interest, nothing to do with comics but perhaps my favourite bit of web criticism: Michael Berube on Kubrick and Clarke’s 2001.

  21. Always happy to hear from you, Tucker.

    Jason, I just recently re-read “How To…”, and probably liked it even more this time around. But at least lately, I think Geoff’s online presence is a lot less about criticism and a lot more about, well, blogging…about experimenting with online community. That’s how it seems to me, anyway. But then again I probably shouldn’t be so quick to say that: it’s been a long time since I reviewed those New X-Men posts…

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