Essays

How Not To Write Comics Criticism

A couple of years ago my good friend, the writer Sara Ryan, did the world a favor when she put together a blog post series called “How NOT to Write Comics.” (Post one, post two, post three.) It’s a useful collection of tips and anecdotes to help aspiring comic book writers, with most of the information drawn (haha) directly from comics artists who have suffered at the hands of inexperienced or incompetent writer-collaborators.

These posts were needed in part because comic books are still not a very dominant medium in the English-speaking world. Travel to France or Japan  and you’ll witness a very different culture, where plenty of cartoonists rank in the creative elite, producing work that is both widely read and taken seriously by critics and scholars.

Yet many people in my part of the world still don’t really know how to read comics, much less create them. Sara’s posts provided a useful sort of “Goofus and Gallant” appendix to the ever-growing body literature on how to create compelling and readable graphic narratives.

However, one group wasn’t served by “How Not To Write Comics,”  because this group is not interested in writing comics per se. They are interested in writing about comics – or their editors are forcing them to try. Because now that comics have infiltrated the mainstream book trade (and the reading lists of grownups) in the form of graphic novels, memoirs, and trade collections, an increasing number of critics are faced with the task of reviewing the damn things.

The results are, shall we say, mixed.

For every column inch of well-considered and well-informed discussion, there are fifteen yards of lazy, confused, condescending, clueless, unhelpful, and sometimes even frankly hostile copy.

Some of these critics are just jerks who resent that their editor has torn the galley copy of the latest Houellebecq novel out of their hands and replaced it with some stupid book with pictures in it. Pictures. Only Umberto Eco gets to use pictures!

I can’t help those people. I just feel bad for them, because they’re going to miss out on a lot of wonderful and important books.

This leaves all the critics who are just beginning their journey into comics reading, or who have yet to be entirely won over to the medium but want to keep an open mind (perhaps due to peer pressure: I remember a literati cocktail party where somebody near me anxiously muttered “I guess we’re all supposed to read graphic novels now.”) These brave souls are willing to give it a try, but they tend to make a lot of mistakes when they first start out.

Certain errors needlessly recur in comics criticism. Encountering one of them in a critical review or essay is an instant signal to an informed comics reader that the writer doesn’t know what they’re talking about. There might still be some excellent insights on display, but those insights are diminished by sharing the page with outright errors.

Don’t get me wrong: there is plenty of room for interesting-but-still-arguable observations from outsiders, and even room for points best described as obviously-not-true-if-you-know-your-stuff-but-shows-genuine-effort. I don’t want to discourage original thought. But the sorts of mistakes I’m after in this post are not near-misses born from attempts to take on something new. They’re just unprofessional blunders.

Luckily, these mistakes are easily avoided with a little attention. This post is intended to help you, the critic, identify those mistakes in advance so they never hit the page. So, without further ado…I present to you my own personal….

 

TOP TEN COMICS CRITICISM MISTAKES

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On Comics in the Classroom.

The New York Times has sent a reporter – the media and entertainment journalist (and grizzled author of many a puff-piece) Michael Cieply down to Comic-Con International this year. I’m skipping out on the convention this time around, so I succumbed to vicarious tourism and read his most recent posting, blearily titled “Even at a Comics Event, You Can’t Defy Gravitas.”

It starts with the inevitable descriptions of those hilarious losers who dare to have fun by showing up in costume and the usual bit about people speaking Klingon (he proves his too-cool-to-care-about-this-stuffness by calling it Klingonese; the language is properly called Klingon, unless you’re so hardcore as to draw reference entirely from the original Star Trek series, where I believe it is referred to as “Klingonese” solely in the classic episode “The Trouble With Tribbles.” Hi there! I have zero shame about the fact that I know this!)

At any rate, in a momentary breather from making fun of the 30,000+ people in attendance, Cieply takes the time to quote a moment from a panel on comics in educational settings.

“It’s frightening,” said Lisa Vizcarra, a science teacher at Carquinez Middle School in Crockett, Calif. Ms. Vizcarra, who seemed to set the day’s tone, was speaking to a Comic-Con audience about a looming pedagogical crisis: Students, distracted by video, are no longer responding to comics as an educational tool, even as schools increasingly use them in their curriculums.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do, and that’s why we’re here today,” she told a room packed with teachers and other listeners, one of whom had a raised rubber hand on the top of her beanie.

Okay, first off – shut up about the beanie, dude. Seriously.  We get it. What a bunch of weirdos!

But really, Mr. Cieply’s observations are pretty standard fare for mainstream reporters sent(enced) to cover something they don’t much care for. (He reserves praise for the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie preview upstairs, because unlike those gloomy Guses who care about the state of a medium and an industry, it was “fun.”)

What bugged me about this was the sort-of-quote from the educator.

A brief disclaimer: I’m not a licensed teacher. I’ve taught workshops for adults, but I have no certified classroom experience for primary or secondary education. I don’t know what “works” for kids “these days” or how the nine million and three near-insurmountable challenges facing public educators today happen to intersect with the use of comic books in their classroom. I don’t know how much Ms. Vizcarra knows or cares about comics in general.

But I think she’s wrong, or more likely the way Cieply summarized her comments (and those of her fellow panelists) is wrong.

I completely believe that Ms. Viscarra has objectively observed an increasing difficulty in engaging her students with educational comics. But I don’t think the problem is that the students are “distracted” by video. (Is there a movie playing next to their head while they’re reading? Are they confused as to why the pictures on the page aren’t moving?)

Furthermore…video? Whuh? There’s been regular use of video in the classroom since the VCR became a common thing, and it’s always been a treat for the students because video is often less engaging than other classroom activities. You can safely zone out. Video is what happens when there’s a substitute teacher, or you’ve finished the chapter but have a day of class left before winter break, or your teacher honestly needs twenty minutes off so here, let this PBS special explain covalent bonds to you. I saw Donald Duck in Mathemagic Land more times than I can count over the course of my education.

No, I think kids are “distracted” by text messaging/social networking and games, which are basically new forms of two activities most mammals are inescapably drawn to: chatting and playing. Those aren’t going anywhere.

Something else is going on to make kids distinterested in the comic books that a teacher hands them.

I think the problem that Ms. Viscarra is encountering is likely connected to the fact that kids are reading more comics than ever. I’ve met a lot of kids, and the ones who have any natural inclination towards enjoying words and pictures and stories (any two of the three will do) are also naturally drawn to comics. Right now, the comics most readily available to them, and the ones that are most focused on being enjoyable before anything else, are manga. But experience tells me that kids will read just about anything in comic book form, SO LONG AS IT’S GOOD.

There’s the catch.

At a certain age and after a certain amount of exposure, kids are sophisticated enough to recognize lameness. They are sophisticated enough to recognize when they’re not being taken seriously, and when the people preparing material for them are doing so by rote, or under the assumption that kids will like anything that has bright colors. Or that the publishers are taking advantage of the fact the teachers who select materials for students won’t be able to distinguish “genuinely engaging” from “suited to the latest trends.”

As a kid in the late eighties and nineties, I read every comic book I came across. Good, bad, didn’t matter. There were so few of them (compared to prose books) that I functionally loved them all until I got old enough to gain access to and read all the “grownup” comic books and take a proper sounding of the depths. If I were a child now, I think I’d be a lot pickier, because I’d have so much more to choose from. The more there is to encounter, the quicker a kid will form their own taste, and learn to tell the real thing from the ersatz.

Thus the kids who read comic books are more likely to perceive the difference between a book made with love and skill and enthusiasm by dedicated creators, and a book commissioned by an indifferent and underpaid editor with a set of publishing guidelines designed to exclude the possibility of any genuine interest or fun (lest a parent complain), subsequently foisted upon even more desperately underpaid artists and writers toiling under extremely unfavorable terms and hating every moment of the rotten gig.

That second kind of comic book is always going to be terrible. Benignly mediocre, at best. I know this because I’ve drawn some of those crummy edu-comics. At various times, I’ve simply needed the money – the incredibly tiny amount of money – and doing some bad work under circumstances that made me cry but that still involved drawing was better than doing some bad work under circumstances that made me cry and could have been performed by a trained rat.

I love kids, and I love educating people through stories, and I love drawing, and I love writing. Educational comics work should be gravy for me, a really enjoyable way to earn a living while making a positive difference in kids’ lives and doing some of the activities I most love. I’ve had a few truly good gigs facilitated by people who genuinely cared and fought for me in the face of limited resources, and I’m proud of the work I did with them. But in the shadow of those successes there are some truly underwhelming, indifferently managed projects that you won’t ever see on my portfolio or resume.

You’ll only find them in a classroom. The standards are lower there.

So educators can no longer rely upon the sheer novelty of the medium to trick children into ingesting educational material. And educational publishers can no longer rely on the trendiness of the novelty to sell books to teachers desperate for a quick ‘n easy way to fool those “reluctant readers” into sitting through class. The fact is that your average school kid is more likely than their teacher to be qualified to distinguish between a genuinely good educational comic book and a bad textbook in hastily applied comic book drag. And that’s a real stumper for the average educator who’s trying, with severely limited amounts of time, money, and knowledge, to figure out what to order for their classroom this year that will keep the children from murdering each other.

It’s unfortunately up to teachers to try reading some comic books themselves so that they can develop their own smell-detectors when it comes to quality. I fear that many will simply dump comics because they didn’t turn out to be a silver bullet, and thus miss out on a medium that, at its best, is absolutely wonderful for education. (Believe me: I’m voluntarily reading and enjoying an educational comic book about economics right now. Economics, for god’s sake.)

But most publishers can do better, too, and by putting in a modicum of effort could do themselves and their customers a lot of good.

If you want a comic book that is likely to succeed in the classroom, it had better be:

  • written by an author with demonstrated experience in comics writing, in consultation with an experienced educator and/or subject matter expert acting as advisor;
  • beautifully drawn and colored, in an engaging style (though not necessarily a familiar one; kids’ animated TV shows with unique styles succeed on a regular basis, not because they look like That Other Show, but because they’re good. If a book is unreadable, it doesn’t matter if it looks like Naruto);
  • edited by somebody with a strong understanding of the writing and drawing of effective comic books and an independent interest in the medium, preferably one with social contacts to comics creators;
  • created in accordance with a set of editorial guidelines that allow for the depiction of meaningful conflict, risky or thrilling behavior, and points of purely visual interest (ie, where the text shuts up and lets the students decipher what’s going on);
  • assigned a budget large enough and a publication deadline generous enough to actually enable the creation of quality writing and art.

I’m not silly. I know that these conditions don’t exist in 98% of all publishing circumstances, especially such limited-market endeavors as comic books and educational materials. Time, money, talent, and giving-a-damn-ness are all highly limited resources. That will never change. But when an industry is so bizarrely undereducated about their own audience and product, as publishers largely are about comics in education, I think that everybody loses, and loses for no real reason.

These are our wonderful kids. And this is a potentially wonderful medium. They both deserve our best effort.

Portland Opera: Candide

Last night I had the pleasure of attending the Portland Opera “Drink and Draw and Tweet” event – where a bunch of cartoonists and bloggers are invited to attend the dress rehearsal of the latest production and record their impressions. This time we all got to see Leonard Bernstein’s operetta Candide. A big treat for me, since I’ve read Voltaire’s book multiple times over the course of my education.

It’s a wickedly black comedy and a great show. I had a blast and filled almost a quarter of a sketchbook with doodles! Below, for your perusal. (Or see it as a set on Flickr.)