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.
Monday, December 05, 2005