As the more assiduous comics internauts will already have noticed, I took part in the recent selection of the year’s best comics criticism hosted at The Hooded Utilitarian. Run by Ng Suat Tong, it was put together by a panel that also included head utilitarian Noah Berlatsky, cartoonist and commentator Frank Santoro, and the critic Tucker Stone (as well as a sixth judge who unfortunately had to withdraw). For more on the process itself, see Suat’s explanation in the posting of the final results.
Although conceived as a list of ten, we could only agree on seven pieces in the time allotted. They are as follows:
Pieces that received four votes:
And with three votes each:
As judges, we decided it would be a good idea to post our own lists as well, to display the wider and more eclectic variety of articles and essays that came up for consideration. My final list included all of the above, as well as the following:
Noah has already written an insightful post about most of these — one of his best pieces in a while — and I largely agree with his comments. And Tucker has also weighed in smartly on a number of them, so I will refrain from adding to the verbiage and merely encourage you to seek out and read any or all of these pieces.
That being said, let me add a few words on those not on Noah’s list: Jeet Heer’s review of Crumb’s Genesis is emblematic of his style and approach. Invariably genial, Heer is best when he’s genuinely interested in his subject, less so when he doesn’t like it. What sets him apart, however, is the impressive literary and comics erudition, as well as the careful research he brings to the table. His analysis of Crumb, while shorter and never quite plumbing the depths reached by Robert Alter in his great critique, he manages to situate the work in its historical context; to analyse Crumb’s interpretative strategy, as well as a number of his specific choices; and to suggest a thematic undercurrent entirely consistent with the cartoonist’s oeuvre as a whole. All in lucid, precise language. A model review and perhaps his best in the past year.
I pushed especially for Rilestone’s analysis of Watchmen, which almost didn’t make the cut. Long and somewhat involved, it may seem daunting to the internet reader, but it fully rewards attention. It tackles head-on the cosmology at the heart of all Alan Moore’s work, crystallised with lucidity in Watchmen, and exposes its fault lines. It’s as precise and sympathetic a reading as any I’ve read of the book, carefully building a systemic critique of Moore’s methodology — more occupied, at times, with making the clock tick than with the truth of the moment.
If I understand correctly, it provided an important source of inspiration for Tom Crippen’s excellent Comics Journal essay, “Age of Geeks”, in which he smartly, but ultimately inaccurately, interprets this obsession with structure as a manifestation of ‘geekism’, which he — in a bravura turn — weaves into the fabric of postmodernity. This is a rather problematic hypothesis, claiming for the present age a greater preoccupation with simulacra than any previous time, but it’s presented with such verve and with so many smart observations that one feels compelled to engage and, as Noah writes, address one’s disagreement with it.
But enough of that. My main regret about the list is that it lacks works by two of my favourite critics. One is Bill Randall, whose “Bring the Noise” (on the arrival of manga on American shores and the enduring appeal of Japanese popular culture, and also written for TCJ #300) was nominated. I refrained from voting for it because I found it somewhat disappointing. Its crackling prose, evoking the author’s first experiences with manga, seemed to me to promise more than ultimately it delivered. It seems to peter out, failing to provide the strong analysis of the current state of manga in the West that at least I was expecting having followed Randall’s must-read column in the Journal since it debuted some years back. We could only nominate writing available online; if print work were allowed I would have nominated his essay on Dousei Jidai in TCJ #295, which I think was probably his standout comics essay of the year. However, I regret now not doing my part to get “Bring the Noise” in there, despite my reservations — it’s still pretty damn good. Read it.
The other missing critic is quickly becoming my favourite regular writer about comics: Shaenon Garrity. Smart, incisive, concise and very funny, she’s pretty much the full package. However, when it came down to the vote, I couldn’t find anything by her that seemed substantial enough. Her Chris Ware piece only went online on January 4th, which was too late, but it would surely make this year’s list. It’s among the best critiques of Ware I’ve read, in that it really nails the difficulty of sustaining the sense of alienation that Ware has honed over the years, without descending into rote myopia. For all its assets, I agree this is the problem of the Rusty Brown storyline, and the fact that Ware seems to be distancing himself from it somewhat in his other ongoing work, Building Stories — which seems the more emotionally complex work of the two — is heartening.
So, yeah, Johanna Draper Carlson is right that the list lacks manga and female perspectives — it could have included them and almost did. But still, I think it’s a pretty great list. It is encouraging that there’s actually that much good comics criticism out there these days, even if we still have a long way to go before we can compare ourselves with other media. I guess the appearance of worthwhile critical voices is natural, given the remarkable development of the medium over the last decade and a half or so — they may lag behind, but the critics eventually get there!
And the past year has seen positive developments. The changes at the Comics Journal were kind of bittersweet but, I think, ultimately the right direction to go, and despite the website still looking like something devised at the beginning, not the end, of the decade, it is certainly delivering its share of quality criticism (my worry is what the hell has happened to the magazine’s once strong journalistic coverage of comics/industry news, but that’s another discussion).
At the same time we’ve seen consolidations of both the Comics Comics and The Hooded Utilitarian blogs, with new writers added to their rosters making them essential reading for anyone interested in good writing about comics. And Tom Spurgeon, Joe McCulloch, Sean Collins, Dirk Deppey, Brigid Alverson, Rob Clough, Douglas Wolk, Domingos Isabelinho, Tucker Stone, Craig Fischer, Eddie Campbell, and the folks at Same Hat!, as well others I’m now forgetting, continue to deliver interesting work, while new interesting blogs such as Co-mix are popping up. And this is without taking into consideration non-English-language writing (which we couldn’t include on the list), especially the excellent du9.org, which continues to be one of the best resources for comics criticism anywhere on the web, and Pepo Pérez’ fine Es muy de cÃ³mic. Of course, that’s just the blogosphere — mainstream coverage is still far from great, although good work pops up here and there, as our list demonstrates.
Er, I better stop here.
(Oh, if you’re interested, check out the Bunker’s comics criticism year-in-review for 2007). Image from R. Crumb’s Genesis.