Thursday, November 14, 2013

Thoughts on the Lack of Comics Critic-Practitioners

Over on The Hooded Utilitarian, Ng Suat Tong (whose work I rather enjoy if not always agree with) had a post about the state of comics criticism, and Caroline Small had a fascinating follow-up questioning the lack of critic-practitioners in comics. My own thoughts (on what is a very, very interesting issue in the comics art form) are copied below.
The lack of comic criticism from comic professionals is something that struck me when I read Jonathan Lethem’s review of Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge in The New York Times a couple of months ago. I read reviews of well-known authors by well-known authors all the time, but it was the first time I seriously considered an equivalent concept for comics. (Perhaps that lack of consideration is a failure of imagination on my part, or maybe Lethem’s own association with comics tickled that nerve just enough for me to notice it.)

I think the biggest problem in establishing such a culture of criticism in mainstream comics of mainstream comics professionals by mainstream comics professionals, is that mainstream comics in the larger Anglosphere is very much a closed shop (or at least a small town where everyone knows, or at least knows of, everyone else). To make your way to the big boys, you have to play ball, and part of that game seems to include general congeniality amongst mainstream creators. Aside from the usual barbs thrown across publishers’ bows and the occasional twitter tiff, creators don’t want to rock the boat because there are only so many boats. But then again, I don’t think there is an expectation of practitioner-criticism in other mainstream arts, either. It’s not like Aaron Sorkin is writing about Vince Gilligan and vice versa. It’s more likely we’ll see current comics pros dissecting some classic work before we see them bringing a detailed critical eye to some current work.

But this being [Hooded Utilitarian], I reckon the mainstream isn’t even in consideration for this discussion, which is fine. (Though, establishing a culture of critic-practitioners in the mainstream can’t hurt its chances elsewhere.) But another major limiting factor that equally effects non-mainstream work and mainstream work alike is the availability of viable venues for comic critic-practitioners. It’s one thing when The New York Times calls Lethem to review Pynchon, because they can pay him for the effort, and well, too. (And he gets to plug his own new book in the process.) But to expect (or hope) for a rise in critic-practitioners in comics may be a stretch because, outside a handful, most comic creators and associated professionals are bloody broke. And most current venues of comic criticism simply cannot afford to pay.

To create a culture of critic-practitioners in comics, we need more coverage of comics in mainstream publications that cover other arts. Of course that coverage has been increasing exponentially year by year, but (to be consistent in my example) The New York Times seems to cover, say, opera more than comics. And by any measure – mainstream cultural penetration, variety and accessibility of contemporary works, sheer number of people consuming it – comics far outrank the so-called fine arts that mainstream cultural publications like to get off on. When outlets like The Times (New York or Washington or London) or Slate or The New Yorker start having daily, comprehensive, meaningful and intelligent coverage of our art and medium is when the rise in critic-practitioners in comics will come.

Our other hope in establishing a culture of critic-practitioners may lie, for the time being, in the small handful of comic news media that now exist that actually can pay for content, like CBR or Comics Alliance. Organizations like those, which already have connections to so much of the industry must start pushing for such content. (Yes, there is a frustrating lack of non-mainstream coverage in such places, but we have to start somewhere.) That isn’t to discount the outlets that exist now for comic criticism. Venues like HU or The Comics Grid are doing astounding things for moving the cultures of comics forward. But until Noah can afford to hire Spiegelman to write about Urasawa or Ware to write about Hickman or all four to write about Moebius (for random disparate examples), we have to wait for mainstream outlets to do it.

And I have frankly discounted The Comics Journal in all of this, because it is so easy to.

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