Critiques, criticism, reviews and jokes: Why do you talk about comics?

Last week we talked about credentials and whether or not that affects how we value criticism. And in the comments to that post, a lot of folks began to segue into what I want to talk about today: the reasons people participate in criticism. That’s great and actually, it started in the comments section to that first post. I maybe should’ve started this series of observations with today's post, because it’s so fundamental to the discussion, but I guess I wanted to save the best for last. As some of those comments reveal, we don’t all have the same assumptions for why people talk about comics.

Tom Spurgeon wrote about it that “I used to participate in these frequent discussions on the role of a comics critic, but at some point I just started thinking that writing about comics is pretty much the same about any other writing. I would imagine that applies to writing about writing about comics, too.” I don’t want to put words in his mouth, so I’ll just say that what that suggests to me is that writing about comics (or anything else) is an art form all its own. I know there are those who disagree, but they’re wrong. It probably won’t be that hard to argue that criticism is a lesser art than creating a story, but there’s still art to it. It’s still a medium for expressing yourself. There are those who do it very well and those who do it very poorly and a great number of people somewhere in between who are continually trying to improve.

Since criticism is an art form, in defining good criticism it’s helpful to think about it in terms similar to the way we think about other art. Authorial intent, for instance. In order to judge whether or not a piece of criticism works, it’s not only useful, but vital to know why someone is talking about comics in the first place. I’ve thought of four reasons, but there could be others. And certainly, individuals not only bounce between these groups depending on their audience or mood; they may also have two or more of these motivations going at once. Knowing that is helpful too.

Sometimes, the goal is simply to entertain an audience, using comics as subject matter for what’s essentially a comedy routine. That’s perfectly valid, and there’s a steady increase in paid writing-about-comics that’s created for that purpose. I’m not suggesting that “serious” comics criticism shouldn’t also be entertaining; just that when entertainment is the primary motivation, the conversation has a different goal from discussing what makes a comic good.

But even those who seek to participate in the larger, cultural discussion about comics have different reasons for doing so. There seem to be three motivations for talking about whether or not a comic worked. The first is interested in informing consumers. These are the Reviewers and the primary statement they’re making is either “You should buy this” or “No, you really shouldn’t.”

Someone commented on that first post with the suggestion that the only group the critic owes anything to is her audience. I didn’t argue the point because I didn’t know exactly where the commenter was coming from and in one sense, that’s an absolutely true statement. Anyone who writes down thoughts for people to read – or opens his mouth to voice a judgment – owes his readers or listeners a thoughtful opinion. But that’s the only universal thing that people who talk about comics owe their audiences. Only the Reviewer feels she owes more than that: a recommendation.

There’s a second group that feels it’s serving creators by offering critiques on their work. There were quite a few comments supporting this idea, including one by Atomic Robo’s Scott Wegener who expressed an interest in reading thoughtful reviews of his work. It takes a thick skin to do that, but I know several creators who feel the same way and go looking for criticism that will help them improve their craft. Approaching a piece of criticism from that point of view is just as valid as offering a reading recommendation, but it’s a different purpose and identifying it as such will help focus the discussion as well as affect its tone. If I’m supposedly talking to the creator of a book, I should communicate much differently than if I’m telling someone whether or not he should buy it.

The last motivation for talking about comics has to do with curating what’s going into our cultural canon. In other words, what’s good enough to stand the test of time? What are we going to look back at in ten or more years and say, “Yes, that’s a great comic?” As much as I like sharing recommendations and talking to creators about craft, this is my favorite. It’s the one that I feel most elevates comics because it takes the personalities out of the equation and just looks at the comic itself.

I understand the possible concern that looking at it this way might lead to more brutal reviews. I agree that it’s unnecessary to be a dick about expressing criticism, but I’m going to argue that by removing personalities from the process, critics are less likely to get nasty; not more. After all, getting nasty in a review is just another way of saying, “making it personal,” and the point of good, work-focused criticism is to not do that. Reader recommendations and creator critiques make the creative process about either the reader or the creator. They make it personal by definition.

But saying that my own preference is for work-focused criticism isn’t to say that universally it’s the best approach. Entertainment, recommendations, and critiques are all valuable and necessary. My point is that knowing why you’re talking about comics (ie what you hope to get out of the conversation) will help focus your discussion and direct you to people with a similar interest. That’s good for everyone.

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