On Obligatory Critical Discourse

October 5th, 2009 by | Tags: , , , ,

When the topic of “feeling obligated to contribute to the critical discourse” came up during the SPX 2009 Critics’ Roundtable, I rolled my eyes a little. If you’re feeling obligated, you’re doing it wrong and you should probably chill out a little. However, discourse that occurs organically, out of respect for the work or the emotions it caused in you, is a great thing. It’s nothing you can force into being.

Two of my favorite bloggers are Tucker Stone and Matthew J Brady. Maybe it’s because we share sensibilities. Maybe it was that night we had to bury a body in Juarez. Whatever the reason, I tend to enjoy reading what these two guys come up with, even if I don’t agree.

Critical discourse is what happened when all three of us reviewed Pluto at different points in time, from different perspectives, and found different things to enjoy about it. Matthew recently posted a review that praises the emotional investment Urasawa instills in his readers by way of some well-executed facial expressions and pacing. Tucker juxtaposed it with the maturation of American comics, or rather the immaturatization, kind of like I did a while back. At the same time, I fell in love with the fact that one of the central conceits in the book, whether or not robots count as human, is a smokescreen, a purely surface level reading that is quickly proven to be a falsehood.

You can read Pluto’s first volume and get everything you need out of the series. It could be that robots can be people. It can be that Urasawa is a master artist. It can also be that Pluto approaches comics for adults in a way that American comics generally don’t. Compare the treatment of death in Blackest Night, DC’s All-Zombies All-Death All-the-time crossover and in Pluto 1-3. Look at which one treats death like it matters, and which treats death as overwrought melodrama. (Blackest Night is a bad crossover full of bad comics.)

All three of our takes are valid interpretations and all three are ripe for discussion. What’s nice is that I don’t think any of this came about because we felt like Someone Had To Discuss Pluto. We weren’t trying to prove that we’re real critics, or writers, or whatever, by contributing opinions because we felt like we had to. That’s a stupid and self-centered way to approach things. “I’m smart, smart people do this, so let me do this, too, to show that I am smart.”

Post-script: Tucker was right when he said that Pluto “is better than you heard it was.”

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11 comments to “On Obligatory Critical Discourse”

  1. Isn’t it a little unfair to compare the treatment of death in Pluto to Blackest Night and saying that this is the difference between how American comics treat death vs Japanese comics? Isn’t that like comparing “Watchmen” to “Bleach” and saying that American comics treat heroes more maturely?

  2. Sorry, I know that wasn’t the point of the article, but you know… just saying.

  3. @capntightpants: I’m comparing how Pluto has taken a children’s comic character and made it suitable for adults to the Comics For Grownups Output of Marvel and DC, not manga to American comics. That’d be a dumb comparison to make, since there’s a range in both areas.

  4. @david brothers: Ohhhhh. And it was probably a dumb assumption on my part, but I kept reading over trying to catch what you were saying and I didn’t get it. Thanks for clearing that up.

  5. Still, isn’t it a bit like comparing a popcorn action flick to an art house movie?

    My apologies for keeping the tangent going…

  6. Only if that popcorn action flick is trying to bill itself as an art house film.

    Bleach has a very specific audiance of 10-15 year old boys in Japan, and 14-20 year old boys and girls in the US. It doesn’t pretend to be anything but a fun series about guys swinging huge swords and screaming. That’s part of the appeal. And even then, the very few deaths that do happen are treated as something that should produce a tangible emotional reaction to the characters, and thus transfering that feeling to the reader. It’s not a terribly deep reaction, because the series isn’t that kind of series, but it’s also not JUST a plot point made to advance things. Ichigo’s mom is dead, and she’s not going to be back in a couple years because someone wants to write the character, for example. The character deals with this, and by extension, so does the reader.

    Blackest Night is trying too hard. Sure, people die, but it doesn’t matter. It’s a plot point. I feel no emotional connection or loss because of the death. Just having people die is not enough to make a comic mature and relevent. There has to be at least a little more there if it’s going to be good, especially for someone not being marketed to junior high students. A mountain of corpses does not an emotional reaction make.

  7. @Graham: Thanks Graham. That’s basically what I was getting at.

    I love One Piece, but it never pretends to be anything but a manga for young boys who want to see weird people punch each other, yell, and wear pirate hats. Pluto and Blackest Night are aimed at the same general age range.

  8. Same age range doesn’t necessarily equal same target audience, though. You could say that One Piece is aimed at the same age range as Mr. Wizard, but it wouldn’t make them apt for comparing.

    I could get if Final Crisis was used, because Grant was trying for something more than a huge crossover event. But, sink or swim, Blackest Night isn’t aspiring to be anything more than a big event. The thing is supposed to deal with the cavalier way DC kills and resurrects, so saying it doesn’t make the deaths meaningful is kinda asking it to contradict its own purpose for being.

    Not really defending Blackest Night, because I’ve been largely disappointed. Just an ill-fitting choice for such a comparison.

  9. @Kevin Huxford: We’ll have to agree to disagree, then, particularly since it’s not really the point of the post.

  10. Yeah. Sorry about carrying the tangent on for so long, sir. My faux pas.

  11. Aw, gee, thanks David! That’s a great point about critical discourse; the best examples of that come from people engaging with the work and expressing what they found in it, rather than some feeling that you have to try to join the conversation and get people to pay attention to you. That’s generally why I write about comics, because something I read moved me to articulate what I saw in it, good or bad, and I’m glad that comes through. That’s what I love to read in criticism as well, when people point out aspects of the work that I might have missed, or make a connection or criticism that’s worth saying, whether I agree with it or not. There might be some reactions or comments and discussion about the work, and that’s the best discourse that I see and participate in. God, I do love this comics internet.

    Actually, my current example of not saying anything just because I want to appear smart is Parker: The Hunter. I’ve read a bunch about the book, but I haven’t been able to form any critical thoughts about it that merit a full review, at least not yet. I certainly liked the book, and I’m sure I’ll talk about it whenever I make a best of 2009 list, but I don’t feel like I have enough to say to put together a full post. If I did, it would seem to me to be because it’s some obligation to join that discourse, which is just unnecessary. Eh, who knows, maybe something will trigger an outpouring of verbosity about it at some point. We’ll see.