/ Comics Criticism

Comic-splaining

More and more I wonder, are we just Rap Genius for good comics that don't need our help?

Here's an excerpt from an A.V. Club essay about the lovely Michael Fiffe's Zegas.

Emily throws an ice cube at her brother and it bounces off a cabinet, flying out of the panel and into the next, which doesn’t have a border up top so it appears to be behind the first panel. (The lettering of the first panel also overlaps with the second, reinforcing that overlap.) Those three planes—the house, Boston, and Emily, the ice cube—add depth to the entire page, subtly telling the reader to start considering the layouts in three-dimension rather than two.

A disclaimer before I dive in to why this excerpt bugs me so much. Because I do this. I probably did this in the last goddamn review that I wrote on this site!

But I feel like I should stop and reevaluate.

Here's the page to which the excerpt refers.

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Now, I don't want to go too far into my feelings or interpretation of the page because I don't want it to seem like this is a contest; however, I don't gather a front-to-back depth of field from this page, at least not as a prominent feature thereof. More importantly, there's this parenthetical, which, despite being parenthetical, is nonetheless indicative of Sava's approach to how he talks about Zegas throughout the essay:

The lettering of the first panel also overlaps with the second, reinforcing that overlap.

The habit I want to break--the thing I see in this line in particular that is indicative of the rest of the essay, and is widely taking hold in comic circles right now--is of pointing at something that's happening on a page, regurgitating it uncritically in plain english, and packaging it in a tone and format that makes it seem critical or illuminating.

This Fiffe page feels like an island to me. I feel like I would get a lot more out of it in context given how funky its initial conceit is, and the depth of field and overlapping speech bubbles feel decidedly beside the point.

The rest of the essay suffers from the same kind of declarative content. Here's Sava talking about the lightning bolt in the bottom corner there.

Fiffe could have depicted this sequence in a single shot, but breaking it into three panels and having the lightning bolt travel through them creates a strong sense of motion, not just from left to right, but from front to back.

I am genuinely uninterested in what an artist could have done. I once wrote a Tumblr post fawning over David Aja's work on Hawkeye (a title he deserves 100% of the credit for but don't get me started), where I kept droning on and on about how he could have drawn Clint looking over the side of a building different, or some shit.

That post got like 3000 notes! (From people who undoubtedly had already made up their mind about Hawkeye. And we should ask, if this is our audience for writing like this, we're both bad critics and bad evangelists. So what the fuck are we doing?)

Notice how this kind of language frames things. My discussion of Aja's work in that instance was heavily reliant on building out the "others" in comics as these inept straw-men. Sava helps himself to this kind of hyperbolic language several times, like when he says Fiffe's work is "still very refined compared to the vast majority of comics out there." First of all, what does this actually say about Zegas? Second of all,

So?

Still, there's plenty of truth to a lot of what Sava is unpacking in this Zegas essay. The question is, what's the value in pointing some things out?

Connect the Dots

panelxpanel

I clipped the above image from one of Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou's (of "Strip Panel Naked" and PanelxPanel) tweets awhile back. Just by looking at these lines, can you tell what he was expressing by drawing them out?

I cannot.

Yet I've seen examples of this kind of thing that were factually accurate. Things like "here is how they arranged things along a vanishing point" or, quite commonly, "here is how your eye flows across the page." Those things are factually accurate, but when a food critic mentions that a particular restaurant sous vides their filets, it's more of an interesting factoid and less of a main means of explaining what was successful, unique, or even interesting about that dish.

Yes, your eyeline went along such-and-such an axis: how did that make you feel? Is it a mere fact or did that evince something particular for you? Was it part-and-parcel with your experience of the work or a fun tidbit plucked from a post-mortem you did while studying to make money as a letterer? Even if the latter is the case, it's not automatically a bad take; but, what makes that interesting?

And what the fuck do any of those lines mean in that picture above?? I still don't know.

When I first started writing about comics, the dead horse that I decided to beat was that every single artistic decision had an impact on the narrative because of the holistic nature of meaning in comics. But it's not like I need to ~stand by that~ or something: it's just a fact about the medium! Hell, if you believe Neil Cohn, how we understand comics holistically is a fact about human fucking psychology.

Look, I'm not begrudging anybody for talking about this stuff in specific instances, but it's become really clear to me that this angle of engaging with work has become a major lens through which the medium is viewed, and I think it's significant in the impact that it has on the culture. The folks at the extreme end of the "make comics if you want to review comics" spectrum all mean a specific type of comic when they talk about making comics. Not all comics have clear eye-flows that you should follow.

But of course, a lot of these folks have a vested interest in entrenching a certain way of viewing comics and engaging with them, since their paychecks depend on it. There's not much in it for them if we engage with art qua art when art comics are hand-lettered by their creator (hence no letterers to pay). It is, however, stunningly short-sighted of a handful of creators to only engage with comic criticism when

  1. They're disparaging it without actually reading much of it.
  2. It's just someone plugging their book.
  3. It's a bunch of fellows dryly explaining their thought process back to them.

Our voices (myself included) have been colored by positive feedback from 2 and 3, but it keeps leading to comic-splaining, and we need to all step back and ask, quite seriously, whether our means of engaging with the medium is enriching the culture of comics or contributing to an insular critical fetishism that entrenches discussions as if everybody reading wants to be in Comic Trade School.