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….