Monday, December 05, 2005

An Open Letter To Larry Young

Larry,

As you mentioned in comments here, we exchanged some emails after my post on Friday. I had emailed you a heads-up about it, and you responded with more detail and explanation of your thinking. Re-reading "I BLAME NIXON" with a calmer mind, a weekend of thought, and the "backmatter" of our email exchange, I think I see what you were getting at: a call for a bolder critic.

Where is comics' Jan Kott? Its Robert Brustein? Its Greil Marcus?

Where is our Lester Bangs?

It is my sincere belief that critics matter. I think it now, and I can remember thinking it at 18 when I first read Kott's Shakespeare Our Contemporary. In my theatre days, I greedily devoured book after book of criticism: Brecht, Grotowski, Artaud, Bentley. I think that a good critical essay is art in and of itself - it is simply non-fiction writing, and can rise much higher than the simple level of a consumer review. I don't know if you've read Lester Bangs, but he's the shining example of a critic whose passion and insight transcends the art he writes about. It won't usually help you when you head to Tower Records, but it will energize you and make you realize all that rock music could aspire to be. Good criticism can inform and shape the debate not only about where we are, but where we're going. A good critic is a friend of the artform, and a collaborator in it. A good critic is not throwing darts from the cheap seats, but is an artist who takes their craft seriously. Outside of purely academic peer-review work, comics has precious little good criticism that could stand with Kott and Bangs: McCloud, Eisner .... and I draw a blank on a third.

What I think you're driving at in "I BLAME NIXON" is that this good criticism requires a boldness that's too often lacking: a willingness to be wrong and to fall on your face doing so. Great criticism requires the same freedom as any other great art: the freedom to look like a complete idiot. You can't be safe, you can't protect yourself against attack. Snark and sarcasm can act as a buffer, as can the "dissembling" you mention, as can the lockstep of the indy/capes/manga divide. I think this point got lost in the railing about negativity and and lack of passion. I still stand by my post that accusing the blogosphere of negativity and apathy is bullshit ... but your message about boldness is an important one.

It's not easy to be bold daily. Or even semi-weekly. I know that I often am writing just to write, to get the words out as I think about it myself. I look at my sidebar where I list my best posts, and realize most of them came in the first few months of the site. The fact is, no one was reading what I wrote. Though every writer wants an audience, there's a freedom in writing to an empty room. You can't be a fool if no-one's watching. The trick is to keep writing like that when your words are being read by comics fans, fellow critics, and creators whom you respect.

I told you that "I BLAME NIXON" charged me up more than anything I've read on the WeboComicsBlogoNet recently. Of course, telling me the sphere I work in is utter crap is a lot more provocative than an opinion on All Star Superman. Subject matter helps, after all. An equal part, though, is that you were bold, pulled no punches, and didn't worry about looking like a fool. I am taking it as a challenge: if the publishers can have a stronger critical "voice" than the critics, there isn't much point to criticism, is there?

I hope that when comics finally gets its Lester Bangs, s/he will come from the blogosphere. In the meantime, we need to be kept on our toes, and pushed to do better. Someone has to watch the watchmen.

Sincerely,
Mark Fossen

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13 comments:

Anonymous said...

"I think I see what you were getting at: a call for a bolder critic."

Yes! Sir!

Lar

Guy LeCharles Gonzalez said...

While broad generalizations are rarely worth debating, at the risk of splitting the comics internet in half, I have to say that, for the most part, I agree with Larry. But I think he misses a very important reason why most comics commentary lacks passion, enthusiasm and the willingness to call a spade a spade.

Most comics critics, online and in print, are wannabe creators themselves, if not already professionals on some level. Few creators want to bite the hands that feed them, or the hands that have the food they really want to eat, so they take cheap shots at the easy targets, heap praise on the safe choices, and secretly offer up their real opinions offline and off the record.

Overall, I think there's a much higher level of sincere passion and enthusiasm on comics blogs than on the established comics web sites, at least partly due to concerns around pissing off advertisers and vindictive publishers. It's a catch-22, though, as doing this stuff for free takes a definite toll after awhile, something I'm sure any comics creator can relate to.

Mark Fossen said...

Most comics critics, online and in print, are wannabe creators themselves, if not already professionals on some level.
Yeah - I think that's a great point.

I think we have our Brecht or Peter Brook or Artaud. We have plenty of creator/critics who theorize while they practice: Eismer, McCloud, Ellis, etc.
Lester Bangs never picked up a guitar.

Anonymous said...

"Overall, I think there's a much higher level of sincere passion and enthusiasm on comics blogs than on the established comics web sites, at least partly due to concerns around pissing off advertisers and vindictive publishers."

I'm sure publishers are willing to work with folks who earnestly get the word out, much like the offer I've repeatedly made to you, Guy.

"It's a catch-22, though, as doing this stuff for free takes a definite toll after awhile, something I'm sure any comics creator can relate to."

Most serious comics creators get *paid,* you know. :)

Ed Cunard said...

Interesting things all around, gents.

Guy:

Most comics critics, online and in print, are wannabe creators themselves, if not already professionals on some level. Few creators want to bite the hands that feed them, or the hands that have the food they really want to eat, so they take cheap shots at the easy targets, heap praise on the safe choices, and secretly offer up their real opinions offline and off the record.

God, I hate that. You're right, Guy--there's entirely too much ass-kissing and starfuckery across the comics internet. The low bar for admission thing really does play a part in that, I think, as does the nature of the fandom itself--as the medium becomes the thing of the die-hard fan, it makes sense that most of them aspire to making comics of their own.

It kind of dovetails into the "how we should act" conversation John and I have been having over at our place, and at Crisis/Boring Change, and The Comic Asylum, and the longer running "negativity is bad" idea, so I may want to play with this some more later if I get the time, but one of the things that surprises me is that "calling a spade a spade," when it happens, is so looked down upon. When people come down on publishers like CrossGen and Alias for empty promises, spin-filled press releases, possible lack of payment and other issues, invariably someone will speak up with the "why do you have to be so mean and hateful" line of dialogue, which misses the point--often, the people who get all up-in-arms about these things are the ones that care about the medium. I mean, it's not me--I'm just a jerk. But some! Some do it because they care.

The same thing, I think, applies to negative reviews--they've got a place, certainly. But are reviews really criticism? Some can be, sure, but the whole point of a review tends to be "you should/shouldn't buy this," and that's well and good too.

Sidenote: Fossen, did you ever read Geoffrey Klock's HOW TO READ SUPERHERO COMICS AND WHY? You might enjoy it. It's not a particularly strong book, but it's an interesting read.

Guy LeCharles Gonzalez said...

I'm sure publishers are willing to work with folks who earnestly get the word out, much like the offer I've repeatedly made to you, Guy.

Just to clarify, that wasn't a specific reference to me or Buzzscope. The vast majority of what I review, I buy myself, and I have no qualms about screaming, "This comic was the most awesome thing I've ever read!" (see Bumperboy) or, "The people who made this comic should be forced to plant trees to make up for the ones they killed to make this crap!" (As you well know.)

Also, whom I choose to interview is driven purely by my own interests. And, for the most part, that's the case for almost all of our non-creator, volunteer contributors. Outside of the Big Two's major event-related stuff, most of which is filtered directly to Wizard and NEWSarama anyway, and creators/publishers I've given negative coverage in some way, I've rarely had any difficulty getting an interview or an Industry Buzz comment from someone I was interested in. It's too small an industry for anyone other than Marvel and DC to ignore any chance at some press coverage.

That's why you don't see nearly as much "news" on Buzzscope as you do on other sites, though, because I don't believe we're in the PR business, and I think a site risks its credibility when that becomes the perception.

Most serious comics creators get *paid,* you know.

True, at some point. Usually. But just as many, if not more, "serious" creators never see a significant dime from many of their projects, especially in the early part of their careers, and most of them have to supplement their income with a job outside of comics. And depending on how you're defining serious, I'm sure there's been several not-very-"serious" creators who've gotten *paid*, too.

My point, though, was in reference to the passion and enthusiasm of unpaid commentators generally having a direct relationship to the balance, or lack thereof, of the expense:income ratio. Like anything, the more you put into something, the better it will likely be, but there's a limit to what anyone can do for free. There's only a handful of paying outlets for comic book-related writing, and most of those are nepotistic cliques with little variety in their coverage.

How many respected bloggers have faded away just in the past year?

As much as your mission is making comics better, how many titles would you be publishing if you weren't making a profit somewhere along the line?

PS: I've been distracted several times while writing this, so if it's incoherent at points, my apologies. I'll check back in tonight.

Guy LeCharles Gonzalez said...

Damn! Ed slipped in while I was typing my not-as-incoherent-as-I-thought response.

But are reviews really criticism? Some can be, sure, but the whole point of a review tends to be "you should/shouldn't buy this," and that's well and good too.

I tend to lean towards the "should/shouldn't" end of the spectrum myself, largely because the average comic book, especially in floppy form, doesn't merit the level of criticism that, say, The Comics Journal tends to offer. There's also a much smaller audience for that type of criticism, as TCJ's circulation figures would attest.

Which, I guess, brings their recent survey of comics news sites into the equation, too.

More tonight...

Mark Fossen said...

Thanks for the recommendation, Ed. It's been added to my Amazon Wish List.

It kind of dovetails into the "how we should act" conversation John and I have been having over at our place, and at Crisis/Boring Change, and The Comic Asylum

I've chimed in a bit on James' post ... but haven't said more because I need to clarify my own opinion. I know that the post James pointed to is useless bullshit and is as similar to what I do as Jack Chick is to Alan Moore. However, I believe that true criticism is incompatible with a Team Comix mentality.


The same thing, I think, applies to negative reviews--they've got a place, certainly. But are reviews really criticism?

This question plagues me. I believe there's a distinction between the two. I think I've written some criticism here - like the piece on Desolation Jones #2. Pieces that examine more than judge.

That kind criticism is why I started FT. I had been doing reviews of gaming for a while, and found that limited "buy/don't" pretty boring. In trying to produce constantly - instead of waiting on the muse - I think I slip more into reviews.

Ian said...

I agree with Tom Spurgeon in The Engine thread, Abhay Kosla is out Lester Bangs.

As for the "critics wanting to be creators" I can give you my personal take on it: I want to live off of my writing. I make money from TCJ and Publishers Weekly but I certainly don't want to stop there. I would like to write (and edit) comics but not instead of writing about them. I would like to write comics and write about them. If I can't do both at the at the same time then at least I don't want to be in the position where I have to count one or the other out. I would also like to do a lot of writing that has little or nothing to do with comics. Basically, I don't want to do everything and not count anything out.

I also don't want to compromise myself too much in my writing, which you do see in the critics who want to be comic writers. I love working with people and understand the compromise there but I certainly don't want to give up any integrity I have.

Mark Fossen said...

I agree with Tom Spurgeon in The Engine thread, Abhay Kosla is out Lester Bangs.
I probably need to read more of his stuff, but going through the Title Bout archives, I'm not seeing it.

... Of course, the problem with comparisions is that the Lester Bangs I think of is not necessarily the Lester Bangs you think of.

Ian said...

What's the Lester Bangs you think of? I've read the DeRogatis biography and Greil MArcus's compialtion. I'm thinking of those crazy, rambling and great essays on The Stooges and the one where he's watching TV late at night. Of course, Bangs is was more than jsut that.

Mark Fossen said...

What's the Lester Bangs you think of?
I suppose I think of the rambling Gonzo as just trappings. When I think Lester Bangs, I think operatic passion for the artform. I think of stretches of prose that are poetry. I think of an artist who has as much, if not more passion than the artists he critiqued. I think of deep emotion, not slash-n-burn.

Dan Coyle said...

Abhay can't be Comics' Lester Bangs because Abhay has shown himself capable of actually enjoying something.