If you've made your way around the Interwebs at all over the past few days (or at least the comic-book derived portion of such) you may have noticed a couple of posts devoted to what's being called the "Best Online Comics Criticism of 2010." And, unless your memory is as faulty as mine, you may also recall similar lists being made around the same time last year, as this is an annual event created and overseen by the esteemed critic (and Hooded Utilitarian contributor) Ng Suat Tong.
Suat was kind enough back in January of '09 to invite me to be one of the judges for this year's round-up. the other judges consisting of Tim Hodler, Johanna Draper Carlson, Melinda Beasi, Derik Badman, Shannon Garrity and Bill Randall. I'll go through this year's winners, with my personal commentary in a minute, but if you're the impatient type, you can see the final results here and here.
First, some brief observances ...
When I was first invited to attend this shindig I was rather excited -- one might even say giddy -- at the prospect. First of all there's the honor of being asked to contribute, but I also hoped there would be a good deal of animated conversations -- that I and my fellow judges would heatedly defend or deride the choices being offered and a healthy, robust debate would ensue. I even made the suggestion to Suat that he set up a Google group to facilitate said discussion.
Needless to say it never occurred. We merely sent our choices to Suat every so often, made our final votes, consolidated them slightly when necessary and that was that. I can't honestly say I'm terribly surprised. Enthusiasm wanes even in the best of times and it was hard enough to remember to make a decent enough list of links to send to Suat and company every couple of months, let alone write a treatise on why so-and-so's essay was the bee's knees. This honestly isn't meant as a complaint so much as it is an observation -- it's not like I did anything to encourage discussion.
While I did try to branch out to sites and critics I wasn't as familiar with, for the most part I stayed within my circle of familiarity, as I suspect a number of the judges did. My criteria for what got my attention and what didn't wasn't very stringent. I was simply looking for work that was very well written and had something insightful to say about the work (or works) it was discussing.
So without further ado, here are my thoughts on this year's winners and who I voted for:
1. “The Other Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name”, by Jason Thompson (6 votes) -- I voted for this one, although I also considered voting for Thompson's essay on morality in action manga instead. In the end though, I think I was simply impressed with how Thompson was able to address an uncomfortable and taboo subject (the popularity of incest manga) and provide more than just a Readers Digest-style overview of the genre, adding insight and some sharp analysis.
2 (tie). “Ayako”, by Katherine Dacey (5 votes). My original vote was for Dacey's piece on Sexy Voice and Robot with Harriet the Spy, which I think is a brilliant comparison and the sort of left-field thinking that makes me appreciate her writing as much as I do. Her review of Ayako was the clear front-runner among the judges though, and in the end I was willing to alter my vote because, while I prefer the other essay, the latter remains a strong review that
2 (tie). “The Problem with American Vampires Is That They Just Don’t Think”, by Joe McCulloch (5 votes). I voted for this one. Obviously I'm horribly biased as I consider Joe a friend, but I do honestly think it's a fine piece of criticism that goes beyond the usual liked it/didn't like it reviews that typically appear online.
4. “Born Again Again”, by Craig Fischer (4 votes). Voted for this one too. Good criticism should see connections and provide new ways of thinking about an artist's oeuvre. Fischer's piece on David Mazzuchelli did that for me in spades. He's one of the few critics that really understands how to write about the visual aspects of comics, which for some reason always seems to be a tricky proposition.
5 (tie). “Tintinopolis”, by David Bordwell (3 votes). Didn't vote for this one, though it's an excellent essay and certainly deserves to be on the final list.
5 (tie). “The Mirror of Male-Love Love”, by Dirk Deppey (3 votes). Didn't vote for this one either, though it was on my short list. I'm not sure why it didn't make the final cut.
5 (tie). “Casper, Formalism, and the ‘Great’ Search Party”, by Ken Parille (3 votes). Voted for this. I'm a formalist at heart and I love essays that break down and closely examine the distinct parts of a particular comic, as Parille's essay does rather well.
And, not that you asked for it, but here are the other pieces I voted for:
Brian Chippendale on the Avengers. I love reviews that can bring the snark without sacrificing any insight for the sake of a cheap shot. I'm also always interested in reading what creators have to say about other comics. Particularly when they're as funny and sharp as Chippendale is.
Jog and Matt Seneca talk Kirby and Steranko. OK, this was total cheating on my part, as I had already voted for Jog once before, but I really enjoyed the hell out of this dialogue. Seneca came out of nowhere to become one of the most noteworthy critics around, and reading him and Joe go back and forth about two important artists was (Aside note: what's amazing to me is the number of Seneca's posts that were nominated during the year and yet he still didn't manage to make the final round.)
The Twitter review round-up of the Ax anthology. On retrospect, I probably should have switched my vote here for Andrei Molotiu's excellent piece on Steve Ditko, which I had completely forgotten about for reasons I can't possibly fathom. At the time though, I was quite enamoured with this unique manner of roundtable discussion and that, despite the 140 character limit, managed to provide a good overview of the anthology and its strengths and weaknesses. Moreover, 2010 seemed to me to be a year where the critical discourse was as much reflected by online discussions and conversations as much as it was by the one-person, one-perspective essay, and I wanted to reflect that in my final vote somehow.
Abhay Khosla rambling about webcomics. Abhay will get my vote just about any year. I am always impressed at how he can seemingly let segue follow seque and yet still tie it up into a cohesive, discerning read, in this case on the plethora of webcomics out there and how that sheer amount of material can leave you, well, overstimulated and anxious. Plus, the dude's really funny.
Michel Fiffe and Tucker Stone on Love and Rockets #3. See my comments on the Twitter/Ax thing. Plus, it's one of the best pieces of writing on one of the best comics of the year.
In the end, there were a lot of good essays to pick from this year, so that narrowing it down to a specially chosen few was difficult. Hopefully, that suggests that good comics criticism is alive and well on the Internet. Or maybe I just have trouble making tough decisions. Or both.