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Review of The Best American Comics Criticism

By Eric L. Berlatsky

Schwartz, Ben, ed. The Best American Comics Criticism. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books, 2010. Print.

Ben Schwartz’s 2010 collection of The Best American Comics Criticism is one of the odder entries in the growing collection of book-length critical writings about comics. The title of the book is indicative of the fact that while many academics define their work as “criticism,” the word certainly is put to different use by other constituencies. It is hard to imagine a serious academic collection of essays that would be self-promoting enough to proclaim its collection to be “The Best,” despite the obvious marketing advantages of doing so. Neither Ben Schwartz, the editor of this collection, nor Fantagraphics, its publisher, has any such compunctions, however, and if the title of the book has any meaning at all, it seems to be as marketing.

Obviously, claiming something to be the “best” suggests to the reader that it functions as one-stop shopping. There is, after all, quite a lot of “comics criticism” these days, and it may be hard to know where to start, if one has an interest in doing so. The idea that what we have in this volume is the “best” of comics criticism (however that term is being defined) tells people that, without reservation, they can start here. The Best American label also not-so-subtly links the volume to the series of similarly titled books from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (The Best American Short StoriesThe Best American Travel WritingThe Best American Comics, etc.). For those devoted to that series’ year-end summary of “the year in x or y,” The Best American Comics Criticism seems to offer a similar way to keep up with the latest favorites. The Houghton Mifflin Harcourt volumes limit themselves to making claims about one year of material, however, and while it would be nearly impossible for the editors of those volumes to read all of the American short stories (for example) from a single year, it is a more manageable possibility than gathering together the best “comics criticism” ever written in the United States.

In the end, however, it seems that this was never the intent of the editor and that the name of the book is fairly meaningless from a descriptive point of view. If anything, it serves to attract a few more gullible readers, while annoying those who believe in truth-in-advertising. Schwartz gives a better description of the project as he envisions it in the introduction, although even that is confusing and somewhat misleading. He says that the focus of the book will be on what he calls literary comics (“lit comics” for short), which seems to mean book-length comics that take the form seriously and not merely as pop culture entertainment (10). Schwartz cites September 12th, 2000, as the moment that lit-comics begin their ascent to their “current status,” that date being that of publication of the completed Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid On Earth and David Boring, by Chris Ware and Daniel Clowes respectively. As such, the criticism collected begins in 2000 and ends in 2008. This more narrow articulation of the project seems like it could spawn an interesting and insightful book about the rise of “literary” comics in the Bush II era, if indeed Schwartz truly were interested in such a project. Again, however, the book is more nebulous than that. While some of the book is dedicated to “criticism” of lit-comics, much of it is not. Instead, the focus on lit-comics seems fairly loose, with the suggestion being that the rise of lit-comics (and lit-comics criticism) has spawned a new way of looking back at comics history, not only taking things that are “serious” seriously (i.e. lit-comics themselves), but also taking things that had previously been taken to be ephemeral (superheroes, newspaper comics) with a bit of weightiness-by-association. While there is some truth, perhaps, to this claim, it produces a book that is a conceptual mess. While claiming to take “lit-comics” as its lodestone, in the end, its allegiance to that form of comics (which, in fact, does predate 2000) is loose at best.

Of the first ten entries in the book (many not substantial enough to be called essays), not a single one can really be said to be focused criticism of lit-comics themselves. R. Fiore’s review essay of 9/11 comics discusses Art Spiegelman’s In The Shadow of No Towers, and so falls partially into Schwartz’s claimed area of focus. Likewise, Canadian cartoonist Seth is a lit-comics purveyor, and the excerpt of his graphic novel Wimbledon Green has some link to lit-comics (even though it is more practice than criticism). In fact, it is not really until Ken Parille’s essay on David Boring (which begins on page 182), that the book presents us with an honest-to-goodness critical essay on one of the lit-comics that Schwartz cites as the focus of the book.

Any book that requires 827 words (and counting) to decipher its title and/or its focus has its problems. All of these problems could be (and would be) forgiven if its individual entries were as strong as Parille’s, and despite all of the book’s problems, it does contain a few excellent essays and historical overviews. Parille’s piece, originally appearing in Comic Art, is a literary-critical explication, complete with footnotes, bibliography, and a truly enlightening close reading of Clowes’ graphic novel. Parille’s insightful focus on the ways in which Clowes’ book is intricately and formally “patterned” reveals the truth that Clowes clearly wants his readers to see patterns and to question their significance. Is Clowes suggesting that the universe itself is more an intricately organized “system” than we tend to acknowledge (wherein there are no coincidences, despite their constant appearance)? Or does Clowes want to explore the fundamental differences between art and life, with the former having formal unity and the latter being a mass of coincidences and accidents? And if the two are so diametrically opposed, can art tell us anything about life, as it is so often said to do? Parille reveals how Clowes poses these questions, and how David Boring, in particular, takes the question of the “meaning” of life and art simultaneously as a postmodern game and as a serious cause for concern. Despite my own ambivalence (and occasional distaste) towards Clowes’ work, Parille’s essay does what good criticism should do, and makes me look at David Boring in a new light, teaching me something new about the work of art by examining it closely.

Some other entries in Best American do the same, though none are quite as good as Parille’s. Sarah Boxer’s discussion of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat explores how Herriman’s blurry and indeterminate racial heritage evinces itself both in the “plots” and the formal choices of his strip and makes us look at Kat anew both from a formal angle and from a sociopolitical one. Dan Nadel’s review of the Masters of American Comics show is also useful, questioning not only the specifics of the exhibit (particularly the weakness of its contextual essays), but also its premise (the notion of a limited canon of great American comics practitioners, all of whom happen to be male). His call for a wider and more capacious understanding of comics “greatness” is both passionate and well taken, productively interrogating a number of the medium’s sacred cows. Somewhat antithetically, Brian Doherty’s account of the importance of the superhero to the history of American comics is nevertheless compelling, focusing on Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan and Michael Chabon’s prose novel (with a comics focus), The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Doherty discusses how these “more literary” texts nevertheless rely on the superhero comics that have been the engine for the medium in the U.S. since the early 1960s (and also during some earlier periods) and that there might well not be comics as we now know them without the niche-market created by superhero fare.

Other than these four entries, however, the book’s lack of focus is telling, and the attribution of “best” seems hopeful, rather than descriptive. Many of the entries are not really “criticism” at all, in that they are histories of particular developments in the medium, or particular creators, with a limited or absent evaluative function. Many others are simply reviews that seem geared to introduce you to a creator or a text. While these are clearly evaluative, they rarely dig below the surface of a text to tell you something you wouldn’t know (and know better) by reading the object under consideration.

Among the entries in the “history” category, there is an excerpt of Gerard Jones’ book Men of Tomorrow, an excerpt of David Hadju’s The Ten-Cent Plague, and Jeet Heer’s essay on Frank King and Gasoline Alley. I read Jones’ book avidly some years ago, and the excerpt provided here is a suitable representative of what is a page-turning exploration of the development of U. S. comics’ golden age. Hadju’s account of the mid-fifties comics persecution and paranoia is far from the first book to cover that terrain, but it too is a compelling read, particularly, in this excerpt, in its close attention to more peripheral participants in the conflict. Likewise, the biographical details Heer provides about Frank King, along with some information on the circumstances of Gasoline Alley‘s development, are interesting to those not familiar with the strip, providing some useful context for its critical consumption. Heer’s essay was written as an introduction to a volume of Gasoline Alley strips, however, and, not surprisingly, it functions more as an introduction than as criticism or scholarship that provides the already initiated reader with new insight and new ways of looking at the strip.

It is this problem which plagues the collection more generally. Most of the entries are brief overviews of an artist or of a particular item in their oeuvre. Jonathan Franzen’s introduction to one of The Complete Peanuts volumes is somewhat better, in its inversion of the traditional ways of reading Charlie Brown’s misery. Franzen argues that Schulz’s comics come out of strength, compassion, and happiness, and not out of the existential angst that characterizes Charlie Brown. Franzen insists that Schulz’s “true alter ego” is Snoopy, not Charlie Brown, and that it is the transfiguration of unhappiness into art that separates Schulz from most of us, since nearly everyone has unhappy childhood experiences, but very few can lay claim to a creation as great as Schulz’s (177). In this, Franzen makes a compelling argument for discarding the stereotype of the spurned and isolated Schulz, whose defining feature is his unhappiness. Instead, he makes a strong critical argument for reevaluating Peanuts from a biographical point of view.

Most of the “appraisals” in Best American do not have such a strong critical voice, unfortunately, and while there are occasional insights to be found, too many entries read principally as descriptions of their object of study, with appreciation thrown in for good measure. Seth describes and appreciates some of John Stanley’s lesser-known comics. John Updike describes and appreciates James Thurber’s cartoons, Daniel Clowes appreciates Will Elder’s MAD work; Donald Phelps describes and appreciates the work of Steve Ditko, Lynda Barry, and Phoebe Gloeckner; Alan Moore also describes and appreciates Steve Ditko; and Will Eisner and Frank Miller describe and appreciate each other. For a change, Peter Bagge describes and does not appreciate Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s Spider-Man, but the change is not substantial enough to alter the pattern. Occasionally the descriptions yield something resembling insight into an artist’s work, but not frequently enough, and the formula itself becomes tiresome.

If there is a substantial difference between the section entitled “Appraisals” and that entitled “Reviews,” it is not always immediately obvious. The above descriptions come from the Appraisals section, but similar approaches are taken in Reviews. Chris Ware describes and appreciates the work of Rodolphe Töpffer, Rick Moody describes and appreciates David B’s Epileptic, Robert Harvey describes and appreciates Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, and John Hodgman describes and appreciates Jack Kirby’s Fourth World and two recent descendants.

The final section of the book is devoted to interviews, mostly by Gary Groth, from Fantagraphics’ The Comics Journal, but also from other interviewers and from other sources. Groth interviews Mad stalwart Will Elder and alternative comics veteran Kim Deitch, along with the lone manga inclusion in the volume, Yoshihiro Tatsumi. Other interview subjects in the section are Marjane Satrapi, Chester Brown, Daniel Clowes, Sammy Harkham and Dan Nadel. This section is probably the most consistent, as the creators do tend to give some insight into their work beyond the formula of “describe and appreciate” that dominates the book. Descriptions, however, do abound, and there is more information than insight even here. As a rule, however, the section is somewhat less frustrating. Particularly good is Darrell Epp’s interview with Chester Brown, originally available on The Two-Handed Man website, and focusing on the Louis Riel graphic novel. Unfortunately, while Groth is also usually an excellent interviewer, the inclusions here are far from his best work. The interview with Tatsumi, in particular, reveals a lack of knowledge about the creator and manga in general that is somewhat embarrassing. Groth is certainly forthcoming about his comparative ignorance, and his innocence of the subject matter is actually somewhat productive for others (like me) who are also unfamiliar with Tatsumi on anything more than a cursory level. At the same time, one can’t help but wonder why this interview is chosen as the only representative of writing about manga in the book. There are manga experts, after all, and there are probably many interviews conducted by such experts. Likewise, Tatsumi is not normally considered an absolutely central figure in the development of manga, whether mainstream, “underground,” or “literary.” While the interview itself has some interesting moments, the choice for its inclusion is one in a series of questionable editorial choices. The reader reviews provided for Joe Matt’s Spent represent the apex of these missteps.

If there is a problem with the “Interviews” section, it is one that exists in the rest of the book as well, which is that of “stunt-casting.” It seems clear that the Daniel Clowes interview that is included is chosen because it is a conversation with the “big literary name” of Jonathan Lethem. Likewise, while David Hadju is not a near-celebrity in the same way, there is the appearance of marketing synchronicity in including both an excerpt of his Ten-Cent Plague and his interview with Marjane Satrapi. Elsewhere in the book, Seth’s status as a cartoonist seems to automatically make his brief observations about fandom in Wimbledon Green some of the “best criticism” available. Likewise, the inclusion of Alan Moore among the list of contributors seems to trump the question of whether or not he has anything particularly revelatory to say about Steve Ditko (he does not). Similarly, it seems impossible that Updike’s introduction to Thurber would have been included had it been written by someone without a recognizable name. Peter Bagge’s depreciation of Spider-Man is merely an opportunity to vent, but because Bagge is an important figure in the alternative comics firmament, it apparently merits inclusion. This hardly seems like the way the “best” criticism should be judged. For example, while it is true that Frank Miller is a bigger name than Robert Harvey, Harvey’s chapter on Will Eisner in his The Art of the Comic Book has more insight than the excerpt from Eisner/Miller included here.

In my own canon of “best criticism,” I, no doubt, am biased toward the academic. I prefer in-depth treatments of comics, with close readings of both text and context that attempt to reveal something new about the texts under consideration. It is true that academic writing has its faults, of course. Occasionally arcane and full of jargon, it can alienate the common fan, or simply the regular reader of comics. The Best American Comics Criticism, however, is indicative of the problems of much non-academic writing about comics. Such writing often begins from the position of “fan,” and so is geared toward description, history, and praise. These are the default modes of The Best American Comics Criticism, to its detriment. Given the sheer volume of material in Best American, one would think that some of it would be in-depth study of contexts, authors, texts, and their meaning. The vast majority of the volume, however, is devoted to description, praise, and (usually heavily excerpted) history. The remainder would be a good beginning for a volume worthy of the name.

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