Time for another roundtable! For this edition, I thought we’d examine an issue somewhat related to the last discussion: Why don’t comics critics talk about the art?
That seems to be one of the consistent complaints regarding comics critics these days. That, whether due to lack of the proper vocabulary or art background, laziness, or just plain ignorance, most comic reviews seem to focus exclusively on a book’s dialogue, plot or general written elements, and avoid mentioning the art work as much as possible.
I’m not 100 percent sure that’s true. I can think of a number of critics, online and off, that intelligently and effectively discuss the art work when reviewing a particular comic or artist’s ouevre.
On the other hand, if I’m being be honest, it’s not like I myself am some paragon of reviewing virtue. I have easily and on more than occasion struggled to come up with words in an attempt to articulate a particular artist’s style or method. And certainly, when space is tight (as it frequently can be when you’re writing for print), I will more often focus on what the book is about rather than how it goes about its business.
If this notion is true, as a great number of people seem to think it is, then it’s a serious problem for serious, thoughtful comics criticism, since the visual element of a comic is its most important aspect. I decided to put the question to a number of well-known online bloggers and critics. Here’s what they had to say:
I have a theory related to this subject which will probably never be proven. Image obviously appealed to a type of comics fan who valued art over writing. When it imploded in the mid 90s (with many/most of the founders no longer drawing comics on a regular basis), an entire generation of art-leaning superhero readers were left with nowhere to go. I think they left the market and never returned, leaving behind a population of fans who greatly valued writing over art. (And continuity over any literary techniques, but that’s another subject entirely.) In fact, these fans are somewhat suspicious of art; they associate it with the 90s, which can’t be good. To them, the greatest achievement for an artist is to send in his/her work on time, so that the book doesn’t ship late. And they don’t like anything that smacks of cartooning–just ask Tom Fowler or Damion Scott. But ultra-realism is good, just so long as the artist meets his/her deadlines.
I think that’s why online reviewers can often get by without discussing art, but it doesn’t explain why so many choose to do so. I think the main reason is that writing is so much easier to criticize than art. Anyone can pick out bad dialogue or ludicrous plots. Then again, anyone can just as easily pick out bad perspective or ludicrous anatomy; but most everyone realizes that some artists willfully ignore these conventions for legitimate reasons.* Art isn’t always about the straightforward communication of ideas, and that induces doubt about one’s ability to critique it. There are other factors to consider as well, the greatest of which is an unfamiliarity with the techniques and jargon associated with art and art criticism. Ultimately, the problem is that critics are afraid that their lack of knowledge will undermine their reviews. Anyone who’s scared of people disagreeing with their review probably shouldn’t be putting it out there for people to read in the first place, so why not at least say something about how the art affected you, the person reviewing the comic? That’s a start.
*Of course, some writers also make stylistic choices which may get chalked up to “bad writing,” but, once again, that’s a different subject.
I think it’s generally true that most reviewers focus more on story and character than on art. I know it’s true of me, for a couple of reasons. One is that I’m more drawn to those narrative elements, and the other is that I don’t really have the vocabulary to discuss of illustrations beyond their general effectiveness and emotional quality. I can only speak for myself as a consumer of reviews, but I don’t see this as a problem. It’s more useful to me to get a general sense of what the art is like – sexy, detailed, kinetic, playful, ugly, et cetera – than to read an examination of the art’s more theoretical elements. It’s great when someone can cover all of those bases, exploring the mechanics of illustration along with a sense of their cumulative effect. I don’t think the review is fatally flawed if the critic can’t do that, though.
It seems to me that most comics critics manage to make at least a token nod to the art in their reviews, though I’d agree that it isn’t always a much more valuable observation than “beautiful drawings” or “innovative layouts”. Should critics make more of an effort to discuss art in their comics reviews? Of course. Would a broader knowledge of art history help? It couldn’t hurt.
I think a far bigger problem, though, is the tendency to want to separate the writing from the art in the first place. In comics, the art is the writing, and vice versa. Panel layout, pacing and visual rhythm, color, the expressiveness of line: these are all inseparable from comics storytelling, in the same way that you can’t separate Nabokov’s prose style and character descriptions from his writing, or the mise en scène and editing from the “writing” of a movie. Compare, for example, the Dr. Strange comics Stan Lee created with Steve Ditko, or the Fantastic Four comics he created with Jack Kirby, to the Iron Man stories he created with Don Heck. Most people would agree that the Dr. Strange and Fantastic Four comics were better than the Iron Mans, but does this mean that Lee’s writing was significantly better on the first two than the second? Without getting into the thorny area of who has received proper credit for their contributions, I would argue that Ditko and Kirby were simply stronger collaborators, or “co-writers”, through their breakdowns and layouts and other artistic choices, and that those comics were consequently better “written.”
Or take Alan Moore and Rob Liefeld’s Judgment Day. I haven’t read Moore’s original script for the project, but based on his other work, I think you could safely venture that it was probably at the very least competent. And yet the resulting comics can only be described as poorly written, as Liefeld, apparently incapable or unwilling to break out of a rather limited array of character poses and panel compositions, manages to turn the storytelling into a clumsy mess. When you reach the segments of that comic drawn by the far more proficient Gil Kane, the “writing” suddenly improves dramatically.
Another example can be found in the work of Alex Toth, who is often dismissed as an extremely gifted artist who worked almost exclusively on “poorly written” comics. But if you look at his Zorro stories, with their tremendous sense of movement, expressive action, and extraordinarily smooth storytelling, they seem to me to be as well written as nearly any comic I can think of, and easily the equal in grace and economy of the Errol Flynn movies Toth loved and wanted to emulate in another medium. Admittedly, these stories aren’t very deep, but movie fans seem to have no problem admitting the greatness of films like The Adventures of Robin Hood on their own terms, and I think a healthy comics readership should be able to do the same thing.
I apologize if this answer seems to have gone too far afield from the original question, but it seems to me that this initial false separation of art and writing is where more of the problems comics critics face actually arise.
I’d love to see more writing about comics that deals directly with their visual dimension–the people who are best at writing about that stuff generally tend to be other artists, like Dave Sim and Eddie Campbell. I don’t think it’s a matter of having a background in art history, although having some sense of how a drawing is made doesn’t hurt, and I don’t think most comics critics are _incapable_ of talking about artwork. I suspect it’s just that it’s natural to think about a narrative medium in terms of what happens, rather than how it’s shown to happen or what it looks like. I always have to remind myself that what I’m writing about is not just a story that happens to have drawings attached to it. (The same thing happens with film and TV critics, and there’s a similar problem with pop music critics dealing primarily with lyrics and treating sound merely as a manifestation of genre–if you’re working in words, you tend to think in terms of words.)
I think saying they’re “incapable” is an insult most often put forward by people who have a vested interest in writing off the critic for some reason. Like someone trying to convince people to talk more about an artist they have a personal relationship with. Or an artist who feels like they deserve more press, or who’s insecure about how much they contributed to a corporate comic, or who wants to ignore a bad review.
Now that we’ve tossed psychological put-downs back and forth, I do think that many online readers are more interested in plot and characters than in art, so that’s what they talk about, and that’s what critics who come from that kind of background are used to focusing on. But it’s most often a choice… either because they aren’t as interested in discussing art, or because they’ve already moved on to the next book.
It’s also easier to talk about what happened or what was said… there still isn’t much of a shared language to describe art and its effects in depth.
Personally, I read comics because they blend art and text, but my concern with the art is more along the lines of “is it competent? does it achieve the needed effects?”, while my concern with the text is “what is it saying? does it speak to me? how meaningful is it?” In other words, I think the art is and should be secondary to the text. Which may not be a popular opinion, but if I only wanted to look at pretty pictures, I’d go to a museum.
I don’t think it’s true that critic avoid talking about art, but maybe I just tend to read the ones that do. But it does seem that people tend to focus a bit more on the writing, and that may be due to the reasons you stated. We’ve all taken English classes, and we’re choosing to write ourselves, so we might feel more equipped to discuss that subject. We’re probably more familiar with writing terminology ( i.e. plot, characterization, themes, etc.) than with artistic terms. And it’s kind of difficult to describe art using text (or to do it well, at least, in a way that makes the reader visualize the art without actually seeing it).
As for how to fix the “problem”, I’m not sure, other than encouraging discussion of the art. The “Warren Ellis” quote you used in the previous roundtable could apply here in a modified version: if you don’t at least mention the art, you might as well not bother. Art makes up at least half the contents of a comics story, so it should definitely be discussed. If it’s not a subject you feel knowledgeable about, talk about it within your realm of knowledge; tell us what you do or don’t like about it, or how you think it compares to other artists. Just like the writing, once you start discussing it, you’ll find it hard to stop.
Ok, that’s their opinion. What do you think?