Judging comics fairly: Everyone’s a critic, so let’s be good ones

I’ve been thinking about comics criticism lately. That may sound a little inside baseball, but it’s not really. Not the way I’ve been thinking about it. As "real" critics are fond of pointing out, the threshold for criticism is extremely low. In fact, we all engage in criticism, even if we’re just talking with our friends about the movie we just saw or discussing our weekly comics stash on a message board. There are supposed to be some differences between someone writing a review for publication and people chatting on Facebook, but I’m not sure there always are.

Professional critics are supposed to adhere to some standards that in reality they sometimes disregard. In contrast, I’ve read some very insightful reviews and had some meaningful discussions about comics (and movies and TV) in the most informal of places. Good criticism isn’t about venue or credentials, it’s about gaining knowledge about a subject and being able to apply that knowledge thoughtfully to the things you read and watch. So when I talk about comics criticism, I’m not just talking about a particular kind, but simply the way we all talk about comics.

Whether they’re reading The New York Times or a comment on a blog post, readers decide whether or not to take criticism seriously based on how seriously the critic is taking his or her subject. And part of taking a comic seriously is thinking about things like authorial intent.

By “author” I don’t mean just the writer, but everyone involved in the creative process. In comics that might only be one person or it could be a huge team. The point is that the people who make the comics have something that they’re trying to accomplish and good criticism of the book should take that into account. It’s not fair for me to open Dan Clowes’ Death Ray expecting it to be like Fantastic Four. Conversely, it’s not fair to read Batwoman hoping it’s going to be like Fun Home. The creators of those comics have wildly different purposes for telling the stories they are.

Those are extreme examples, but the same concept applies even within specific genres, like superheroes. I hope I’m not misunderstood here, but I’m going to argue that it’s not fair to judge Judd Winick’s Catwoman for not being Brian Azzarello’s Wonder Woman. There’s plenty to judge Catwoman for; I’m not defending it. But to judge it correctly, critics need to focus on what it is they think that Winick and Company are trying to accomplish and whether or not it succeeds on that level.

There’s a whole other discussion to be had about whether or not Catwoman’s goals are worthy goals on a fundamental level, but that’s a separate issue and not one that’s undervalued by people talking about comics. I’ll even agree that it’s the more important issue right now in comics history, but I hope that in the appropriate fuss that’s being made about that we’re not losing sight of the relatively less important, but still valuable discussion around whether or not these comics are successful as the kinds of comics they are. There are and always have been other comics designed to titillate; how does a comic like Catwoman compare to Brandon Graham's work, for instance? Winick has described Catwoman as “part crime story, part mystery and part romance,” so how does it compare to other romantic crime stories like Loose Ends? I’m not trying to answer those questions, nor am I trying to pick solely on Catwoman. The same questions should be asked of any comic. When Tom Spurgeon suggests, “Maybe these are just bad comics,” authorial intent is one way of measuring whether or not he’s right.

The flipside of this is the theory that literary critic Roland Barthes called “Death of the Author.” I’m simplifying, but his argument was essentially that once a work of art exists, it no longer matters what the author intended for it. It’s now its own thing. I enthusiastically believe that to be true, but it really is just the other side of the same coin as authorial intent. It’s just that instead of asking what the author wanted from the work, we’re asking what the work itself wants to be.

What both of these approaches have in common is their opposition to judging a work based on what the audience wants it to be. It’s not always easy to separate my own expectations for a comic from what the comic actually is, but doing it is extremely rewarding. It’s fun to think about and it leads to discussions that are infinitely more satisfying than simply sharing initial, knee-jerk responses. That’s what I mean by taking comics seriously, and people who talk about comics should do that more, whether they’re getting paid for it or not.

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