We’re being innundated with assorted top-10, “best of year” lists right now — and that’s fine with me. I like them. As long as you don’t take these things too seriously (or personally for that matter) year-end lists can be a great way to a) take the pulse of the culture — what they value, what they don’t; and b) force you to reasess your own tastes. What did you like and why? Why exactly do you disagree with Joe Blogger’s preferences?
So I thought for this, the first column of January, I’d turn the tables a bit and ask the tastemakers what they thought was the best piece of comics criticism, either online or off, that they read in 2007. Here’s what they had to say:
I feel a little weird and conflict-of-interest-y about nominating other stuff that appeared on the Savage Critic, and will therefore just use that workaround to mention in passing Abhay Khosla on “Doctor 13″ and Joe McCulloch on Tezuka and McCay. So — in yet another dodge, I think this piece actually went up at the end of 2006 but I didn’t read it until 2007 — I loved Christopher Bird’s détournement of “Ultimate Power” #2. It’s not traditional “criticism,” but it does what criticism does: it makes a bullseye of a point about Greg Land’s favorite artistic crutch. And it also manages to turn a bad comic into a good, weird, funny, engaging one.
I feel like I’ve got a memory like a goldfish these days, and the only few bits of comics criticism coming to mind as particularly incisive, elegant, or well-written, all went down in the last month or so. I’m sure after reading the article I’m participating I’ll remember a number of other excellent pieces that I’m forgetting at the moment, but for now, here’s what stands out.
First and foremost, I think Tom Spurgeon should be commended for his end-of-year interviews at ComicsReporter.com. I think that between the choices of subject and the questions themselves, he’s painted a far-clearer picture of the industry then even the most impassioned polemic. Tom had been ramping up his industry and comics coverage through interviews and opinion pieces for the last half of ’07, but those interviews ended the year with a bang. Great stuff.
I’ve always liked “Who’s watching The Watchmen?” type-pieces and so I enjoyed Chris Mautner’s interview with blogger Joe McCulloch (a.k.a. “Jog”). I think a dissection and consideration of how one of the better bloggers in comicsdom engages the medium is both interesting in valuable, and I even took away a few lessons to apply to how I engage the industry.
Perhaps most importantly though, the Jog interview led me over to Jog’s column on Tony “Jademan” Wong at Savage Critics. I woke up that morning with no interest in the subject and ended the day excited about a magical world of comics where toddlers are punching people through the chest and wacky HK businessmen are posing shirtless on their cars. I do think that the mark of good criticism is that it’s informative, incisive, and entertaining, and that one was definitely all three, and my favourite piece of the year. Go and check it out!
I’m going to be wishy washy and name three favorites from 2007. I’ll try to come up with some half-assed categories to justify it.
My favorite piece of criticism from a printed source was Dan Nadel’s article on the Masters of American Comics show (“What Went Wrong With the Masters Show,” Comics Comics #3). I was aware that Nadel objected to the show, but I had no idea why — I thought it was a pretty good group of cartoonists, good enough to show off the medium’s strengths to museum patrons. Nadel convinced me otherwise, pointing out things I should have considered (canons are kind of a relic of the past, and are best left there), things I probably wouldn’t have considered (the monotonicity of the works chosen, especially in light of the lack of diversity among those cartoonists considered), and things I kind of knew already (the essays in the exhibit catalog are quite bad). As comics and cartoonists struggle for respectability, this is a timely and valuable piece.
My favorite online criticism is one that lots of people are probably citing in their responses — Abhay Khosla’s “Don’t Tase Me, Bro” essay. I saw a lot of conversations cascade out of that one review (of Architecture and Mortality), and I think they were conversations worth having. It’s one of those times where you could tell people were just dying to talk about the comics version of the Village Green Preservation Society (the ideas in the song/album, not the song/album itself), but didn’t realize it. Plus I just really like the way Khosla writes.
The cleverest piece of criticism I read this year was Steve Flanagan’s review of Alice in Sunderland, where he copied the book’s format and tone. I found it much less exhausting than reading Talbot’s book, and it was a sound review. Nothing else so reminded me that online criticism can also take advantage of the “infinite canvas.”
My pick probably falls under the rubric of “obvious conflict of interest” since I translated one of the author’s other books, but that’s just the way it goes. Besides having an unbelievably clever title, Thierry Groensteen’s Objet Culturel Non-Identifiée (Unidentified Cultural Object) is one of the most fascinating essays published on comics in years. Groensteen asks the fundamental question: why aren’t comics considered an art form?, and then goes on to provide a very nuanced answer. Ranging through a whole history of (primarily) French cultural policy, economics, and aesthetic theory, Groensteen approaches the question from a variety of angles, and his conclusions are often surprising and critical. Who else might argue that the CNBDI in Angoulême has been harmful to the critical reception of comics? And who else would place so much of the blame for the poor state of the art on the publishers themselves? While not all of his observations convinced me, his questions are the ones that need to be asked. A very refreshing book.
You know, I thought this might be a difficult call–should it be the stuff on TCJ.com where Dirk Deppey ripped some assholes about the Mary Jane statue? Or any of the articles about how Achewood was funnier than everything ever printed? Or something about that cartoon where the nerd video game producer had sex with nerds, and more nerds got mad and had a nerd war? Or Tony Bedard, and how his hands are made of blow-jobs?
And then I remembered that there was only one piece of comics journalism that every single one of my friends who either hates comics or just doesn’t read them at all had sent me via email. The one piece of comics journalism that stood head and shoulders above everything ever printed, ever, the thing that makes Achewood and Perry Bible Fellowship look as funny as Marv Wolfman’s nervous breakdown.
And that thing was the Top 40 Worst Liefeld Drawings.
I also thought it was awesome that 2007 was the year all the critics woke up and called Alex Ross a boring sack of trash.
Comics criticism seems to me to have received an almost unprecedented attention over the last few years. To me, it seems evident that this is because the medium is in a state evolutionary flux, resulting in a battle of redefinition amongst artists and pundits. To me, the two major critical works of 2007 are emblematic, but also sovereign manifestations of this development. One is Jean-Christophe Menu and L’Assocation’s third Éprouvette volume, the other is Bart Beaty’s authoritative overview of the new European comics of the 1990s, Unpopular Culture — Transforming the European Comics Book in the 1990s.
Éprouvette 3 is the last and largest installment in an effort to revitalize comics criticism; to bring it up to speed with the remarkable artistic developments the medium has experienced over the last 10-15 years, and to suggest new directions for the discourse on comics. Central to its efforts is the positioning of the new comics as a kind of latter-day modernist avant-garde — an experiment I think ultimately fails, but along the way expands the field of comics criticism considerably. It identifies comics within the greater cultural context in ways that are immensely stimulating.
All the while, Beaty’s book provides an erudite analysis of the changes in comics that form the basis of the critical stances adopted by the critics of Éprouvette. While focusing on European — primarily Francophone — comics, much of what is said in the book can be applied to developments in other Western countries, not the least North America. While I may not agree with some of Beaty’s central assumptions, I still regard the book as an important work of comics criticism that will surely remain a standard work. Essential reading.
I have a few favorite pieces of comics criticism from the past year (I’ve posted the runners-up list to my blog), but I have to single out Stephen Saperstein Frug’s “Covering Cerebus” (an eight part series from his “Attempts” blog), which starts as a general discussion of Cerebus but quickly moves into a long and fascinating essay on the covers of the serialized issues. Here, Frug fulfills one of the main effects I want from good criticism: he looks at something in a new light and makes me want to go back to the work. For about a dozen years, I would see those Cerebus covers every month (I started following the series in the second half). They were always a bit mysterious, often so similar from one month to the next (particularly in those later years), but I never gave them too much attention and never as any sort of series or progress. Frug makes me wish I’d saved all the pamphlets instead of replacing them with the collected volumes. This attention to covers also showcases an element of comics that we are seeing less and less. As attention shifts to “graphic novels”, the serialization of art/indie comics in particular becomes rarer and thus the covers become fewer.
I could easily just name Jog’s website and leave it at that, since he continues to make most of the rest of us look like one-handed monkeys with broken typewriters.
But the best piece of criticism I read this year came from the equally reliable Marc Singer, a review of MOME that appeared way back at the start of the year.
Marc’s review, and the comments, basically foreshadowed the whole “artcomix are stupid and boring!”/”no they’re not!” dialectic that played out interminably through the rest of the year and will, no doubt, continue to flare up from time to time for the next few years (at least). What’s different is that no one there, pro or con, was arguing in bad faith or excessively overgeneralizing–and, of course, that Marc can actually construct a reasonable argument rather than just an incoherent diatribe. It’s the best expression I’ve seen of why some readers are concerned with the limited emotional and thematic range of certain kinds of “art comics” today.
Yeah, that was the best thing I read this year. That, or Tucker Stone’s “review” of Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals ().
Steve Flanagan’s review of Alice in Sunderland in a similar mixed media style does the best job possible of engaging the work on its own terms as well as giving readers an accurate idea of the strengths and weaknesses of the text.
Jog blew everybody away with his review of Jack Cole’s Betsy and Me.
As I said at the time, “I can’t remember the last time, as a writer, that I was as jealous of someone else’s gift as I was when I read Jog’s observation that ‘I think there’s a risk with a book like this, an admirable and informative book, to let the sadness behind this material permeate everything, so strongly is it broadcast by the collection’s contours.’ (Emphasis mine). Anyone worried that we don’t have enough language to criticize comics as a distinct artform needs to read more of Jog’s reviews, especially this one.”
Runner-up would be Tom Spurgeon’s interview with Frank Santoro.
Santoro’s Incanto, Cold Heat and Storeyville should be on everyone’s must-read list … as should Spurgeon’s always-fascinating interviews.
I really enjoyed reading Tom Spurgeon’s two reviewing rampage marathon deals. In one day (on two separate occasions) he tackled dozens and dozens of different comics of wildly varying origin, intent, format, and quality, explaining what worked and didn’t work about them succinctly and in a calm tone of voice. It was probably the best display of his approach to criticism, which is less focused on what the comics are about than on the effect that their constituent parts have on the reader and the reading experience.
I’m going to cheat and mention two. The first is PopCultureShock Manga Editor Katherine Dacey-Tsuei’s great critique of Fumiyo Kouno’s brilliant Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms (Last Gasp). I always find Kate’s reviews thoughtful, persuasive and entertaining, but this one really embodies all of the qualities of her writing that I love (and envy). I’m glad I posted my review of the book before I read hers, or I would have been too intimidated to muster much more than an “Um, what she said.”
The second is a turn of phrase from John Jakala’s review of Kanako Inuki’s Presents (CMX). He describes the book as “comeuppance theater,” which is just the perfect tag for a whole genre of horror and suspense stories. It’s incredibly clever and useful, to boot.
I absolutely love Erin Finnegan’s cartoon of herself reading the last volume
of Kare Kano, especially the part where she slaps the author around for
having such lame freetalk sections.
I also want to give a big shout-out to Erica Friedman, who reviews yuri
manga at Okazu. I don’t read much yuri, but I always enjoy Erica’s reviews because she approaches them with a sense of humor (she has a Loser FanBoy rating for each book) but she also has a good eye for the bigger issues, such as women-identified women (in her review of Life) and lesbian self-identity. Plus when she’s taking down a really lame manga she makes me laugh out