by David Hains

I had been planning to post a review of the Ben Schwartz edited Best American Comic Criticism (Fantagraphics) but hadn’t got around to it. I was going to structure it around what was excluded (Newgarden and Karasik, Scott McCloud) and focus on the Canadian entries (Seth, Chester Brown etc..) But given various reactions going around the Internet, it seems more appropriate to critique the reactions to the book.

Controversy first arose from the granddaddy of polarization, Joe Matt. In a panel about BACC involving R. Fiore, Sammy Harkham, Brian Doherty and Schwartz, Matt criticizes not the book at hand, but the role of criticism.

“I don’t need someone to tell me whether something is good or not”.

To be fair, this isn’t a direct indictment of criticism– he could just mean it’s not for him– but it’s clear Matt doesn’t hold its place in high regard.
On the Comics Comics website, critic and scholar Heer rightly challenges Matt on the role criticism plays in responding to literature. To Heer, criticism is not about giving a thumbs up or down, but engaging in a conversation about the work. I think most people would say this is reasonable, and Noah Berlatsky indicates he does on Hooded Utilitarian. However Berlatsky takes issue with Heer’s broad sense of what qualifies as criticism, which includes interviews. Berlatsky is responding to this Heer passage:

“If we define criticism narrowly as analytical essays on an art form or particular works of art, then it’s true that criticism is a minority interest. But if we define criticism more broadly as any discussion of art or works of art, including conversations and the response of artists themselves to earlier art, then criticism is as unavoidable and essential as art itself. To be more concrete, some of the best comics criticism has come in the form of interviews done by artists like Gil Kane, Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, etc. As Joe Matt mentions elsewhere in the discussion, he turns to interviews in The Comics Journal before anything else. Without these interviews, our entire sense of comics would be very different.” (Emphasis added by Berlatsky).

Goofiest Jeet Heer Picture Ever
Photo by Christopher Dew/National Post
Berlatsky sees the focus on interviews in comics criticism as part of the problem:

“Critical comicdom is obsessed with interviews not because there’s nothing else, but because, historically, critical comicdom comes out of the fanzines. The reliance on interviews as critical touchstones is the result of “fannish boosterism” — and it’s also a cause, as critics scuttle around gathering up pearls of wisdom from the horse’s mouth rather than kicking the horse in the teeth, prying off the skull, and making out of it a thing of horror or beauty or ridicule of their own.”

Berlatsky’s response, picked apart in must-read detail by Gary Groth in the comments, ignores the fact that Heer is connecting a broad definition of criticism, “any discussion of art”, to contrast Matt’s restrictive notion in order to demonstrate criticism is a necessary endeavour, although forms may vary (Heer points out Matt says in the podcast that he would look up Comics Journal interviews, thus connecting him to the critical tradition of responding to art.)
Berlatsky focuses the idea of criticism on its written form. This distance from the subject (as opposed to an interview) can lend more objectivity and the ability to reason and re-consider thoughts and opinions. Presumably, this leads to higher quality criticism and an ability to retain the “sufficient malice” Berlatsky believes is necessary for the best criticism. I find it hard to believe Heer doesn’t also strive for a critical comics tradition devoid of the clubby amity Berlatsky rightly derides. After all, this is the same Heer who defended literary critic John Metcalf just 5 days ago against criticism he is too harsh on Canadian authors.

Eisner/Miller cover, among the most famous interviews in comics.
Berlatsky’s interview jeremiad is a Neil Postman argument in a way: the written word should be privileged as it provides an emphasis on reason and builds a permanent intellectual foundation. But orality (and Berlatsky admits interviews have their place, if subservient to writing) does things writing cannot. It is an emotionally persuasive medium and provides a space for instinctual insights to emerge. This doesn’t discount the written word; it’s an absolutely vital part of the critical conversation. But criticism is the conversation of the aesthetic response to art. In one of Berlatsky’s comments (#8), he writes:

“Creators can have lots of interesting insights, whether in interviews or through other means (their own writing, anecdotes, etc.) But I don’t think that that can substitute for a critical tradition…Elevating interviews the way Jeet seems to want to do just seems to shut down a lot of possibilities of what criticism can be and what it can talk about.”

Aside from the fact that Heer does not elevate the interview format as a substitute for the critical tradition, he’s also opening up what criticism is by bringing in other possibilities, like interviews, rather than shutting them down as Berlatsky suggests. The critical tradition (if not formal criticism) belongs to everyone because we read art to respond to it, and this response takes many different (and complementary) forms.
At least in these multiple posts and 40+ comments, one thing is proven. By prompting this, Joe Matt is (unwillingly) participating in forming critical discussion whether he likes it or not.