On Criticism and Art

August 11th, 2008 Posted by david brothers

I saw an interesting conversation on the blogohedron last week. It was about criticism and its place in art. It started here, with Johanna’s review of How to Make Webcomics, which was written by Brad Guigar (Evil Inc.), Dave Kellett (Sheldon), Scott Kurtz (PvP) , and Kris Straub (Starslip Crisis). It’s an overall positive review, though she dings it for proofreading errors (which is totally fair and most likely warranted), but the controversy (or whatever you want to call it) arose from this paragraph:

Oddly, the promotion chapter doesn’t mention either press releases or getting reviews, both sources of free coverage; instead, dealing with critics is covered in the audience chapter. The author of this section, Dave Kellett, breaks them into four categories and says, “each one can be diffused or made impotent by kindness and politeness.” So the goal here is not to listen, but to deflect. And that’s reflected in his categories; not one covers someone pointing out a legitimate flaw or place for improvement in the work. In other words, he doesn’t think critics are ever right. (The categories are the person who’s mean without meaning to be and really loves the comic; nitpickers correcting “useless details”; the hater; and the troll. This section, by the way, was the first piece of the book I read — it’s where the copy I was browsing fell open when I first picked it up. Fate!)

Scott Kurtz talked about the review here, and says this:

I’m not sure how I ended up in so many tug-of-war competitions with bloggers, where the outcome of our match determines the superior position: creator or critic. But it seems to be cropping up again. There is a strange sense of entitlement, an eerie assumption of an unspoken working relationship that I am happy to inform does not exist. Why we insulate ourselves from the notion that the external critic can EVER be right, is because their critique is moot in regards to the progression of our work.

Click through for the rest of the post. I’ll have some excerpts here, but not the full text.

I’ve got kind of a huge problem with this statement. The biggest problem I guess is that no one has ever said this in the history of ever. If anyone has actually said it, they were probably a pretty terrible critic.

I don’t think that any critic believes that he or she is a part of the direct creative process. Indirect? Yes. Direct? No. Critics do not exist to tell you how your work should go as you’re making it. They exist to tell you how you work has gone after you’ve finished. My mental image of a critic is still that first bit from History of the World Part I. The caveman paints on the cave wall, his friends and family praise it, they cheer, and then the critic walks in. And the critic pees on the drawing.

It’s probably a bad example, because the critic pees on the work and I can’t think of anything that’s really worth all that trouble, but it fits my view of a critic. Critics come along after the work is done and judge it. Whether they’re judging the literary worth of the work or just whether or not it made them laugh, they’re there to judge the finished work in whatever form it may take. Whether they pee on it or praise it is up to them.

Kurtz goes on to say–

Think about Star Trek and the Prime Directive. Sometimes, civilizations take a left turn in their natural progression and things go tits up. Sometimes there is a dictatorship or a famine or a plague that is going to steer this civilization into trouble, but the crew of the Enterprise CAN NOT ACT. They can NOT interfere. To interfere with those hardships would be to damage the natural progression of that civilization.

I feel like this is a labored metaphor, but maybe that’s just because I’ve never been a trek fan and had to actually ask someone about the Prime Directive. Anyway, his point here, boiled down and hopefully not misrepresented, is that you can’t interfere at all in the creation of art because that will kill the creativity inherent in it.

Again, I can’t agree. I think he has half a point, here, but feedback is important in the creation of anything. The best teacher I ever had was my senior year IB English teacher who wouldn’t hesitate to hand you a paper back with “rewrite this entire terrible thing” scrawled across the top. Critics exist to point out what you have done that didn’t work. It can give you pointers on what’s succeeding and what’s failing with your audience.

No critic is going to, or deserves to, stand over your shoulder while you’re at the drawing board or your typewriter and go, “Hey hey, hold up! You should change this word here and that line is way too heavy. Lighten that up and try this specific brush. Also make his cape blue.” That’s not why critics exist.

It might just be the critics I read, but I don’t get a sense of entitlement from any of them. It’s more about reading a book and giving your opinion on it. These opinions come in a lot of different forms, be it free association, measured responses, retailer-oriented, rambly new journalism, fairly highbrow, irreverent, worthless fanboy/fangirl screaming at the heavens (too many examples to count), or whatever. It’s up to the artist to read these and decide which ones are valid and which are not. Some of them may valid, all of them may be valid, or none of them may be valid.

The trick is being discerning. Not everyone’s opinion is going to make sense. Discounting the idea that any critic can ever be right seems kind of silly. No one is perfect yet, which Kurtz seems to agree with, but how exactly do you figure out what you did right and wrong? I’ve had things that I think work that turn out to be opaque and terrible. I’ve read interviews with creators who have had things pointed out to them that they never would’ve realized otherwise. Alternate points of view are important.

It’s not that we don’t realize we’re making mistakes. It’s not that we’re oblivious to the fact that our work is imperfect. But if we play it safe and never risk those imperfections, then we’ll never grow as artists. Ultimately, we can’t chart our course based on what our readership or critics thinks is working. We have to go with our gut.

Kurtz seems to be thinking that critics exist to encourage (or force) artists to work inside little boxes and never grow. “Nine panel grids or death! That person better be five heads tall! Why isn’t this three act structure?” There are critics who do that, yeah, but they aren’t the end-all, be-all. Honestly, I don’t even think those critics are any good.

This is kind of how I approach reviewing. I’m not there to try and diminish it, so much as to try and spot what went right and what went wrong. Sometimes comics outstay their welcome. Sometimes clunky dialogue kills an otherwise fun story. Sometimes someone writes a story where two adults with superpowers don’t realize that they’re upside down until eighteen pages in. Sometimes you get a sublime mix of words and art like JLA: Classified 1-3.

If anything, the critic should be a help to the creator. It is something the creator can go to, check out, and judge himself. Maybe they have a valid point. Maybe something wasn’t as clear as he thought it was. Maybe he’ll find something to take away from it, maybe he won’t. That’s the luck of the draw, I guess.

Recently, I called Mike Krahulik to compliment him on a new coloring technique he had used on a recent Penny-Arcade strip. I opened my phone conversation with the following statement: “Mike, Ignore all emails about the new coloring. It’s awesome. Pursue it.” But it was too late. He had already read all the mail and had been sufficiently discouraged enough to just drop the matter. “That’s what I get for trying to innovate.” he said to me.

He was joking, but there was some truth to his statement.

And that’s why there is no chapter in our book on when to accept that, sometimes, the critic is right.

This is kind of a terrible anecdote, though. Kurtz liked something that Krahulik did, other people didn’t, and Krahulik already decided to quit it, deciding that it wasn’t worth the hassle. I’m not sure exactly why that is why there is no chapter on when to accept that, sometimes, the critic is right, but okay?

It did illuminate one thing for me, though. It made me realize that Kurtz holds fans and critics to different standards. Critics exist to give negative feedback and fans exist to give positive feedback. It’s a thoroughly false dichotomy, and kind of an intellectually dishonest one, as well. What Kurtz told Krahulik is just as much criticism as what JDC displayed in her review of the book. It’s offering a critical opinion of a work. The idea that positive feedback is valid while negative feedback shouldn’t be paid any attention is a terrible one. Feedback is feedback, whether positive or negative, and both can help to grow a work.

I’ve got a friend who just screened his movie, Yeah Sure Okay. It’s something new and innovative, both for him and possibly for movies in general. I know that he co-created it with that idea in mind. After the screening, he went around soliciting feedback. What worked, what didn’t, what was hokey, what was awesome, and so on. He did it because he needs to know if he succeeded at his goal, and if he didn’t succeed, what parts weren’t hitting with the audience. He didn’t decide that he should never listen to critics because critics will alter the natural course of his creativity. He decided that it’s important to get feedback so that you can be sure that you’re on point.

That’s what the critic is for.

Post to Twitter Post to Facebook Post to Reddit Post to StumbleUpon



November 24th, 2007 Posted by david brothers

Johanna Draper Carlson nails one of my problems with Alan Moore’s latest works.

I also, and I cringe at the potential response to this but I’m going to say it anyway, outgrew this kind of fanfiction years ago. When I was a kid, my impulse was to match up the casts of favorite TV shows (because I was a child of the 80s). It’s not that much more clever when Mr. Moore does it with literary figures, except in his case, you need a scorecard to recognize some of the more obscure ones. It’s also not very creative to think that simply having character A from book series B meet character C from TV series D makes for sufficient story. It doesn’t.

I haven’t read Black Dossier yet, nor Lost Girls, and you know what? I kind of don’t want to. I’ve gone into why I can’t get into Alan Moore, and LoEG seems to just be more of the same.

LoEG is continuity porn for literature geeks.

I’m tired of continuity porn and I’m tired of pastiche.

Stop being so clever, Mr. Moore, and write stories with real plots with your own characters.

Amen to that.

Post to Twitter Post to Facebook Post to Reddit Post to StumbleUpon


One Year of 4l! or Weapons of Mass Destruction + 112

November 29th, 2006 Posted by david brothers


Today marks the one year anniversary of 4thletter! Technically, we had a Blogger blog before then, but 4l! is what it is now, not what it was then. 365 days, 112 posts and 31,476 visitors later (as of this moment!) and we’re still here. We’ll be here for some time to come, if all goes well!

One year. It’s crazy, huh? One full year of completely questionable taste in comics, Gavok-style lists, brief appearances by the Spotted Wanderer, and hopefully bellies full of laughter. I was going to call 4l! Year Two “Questionable Taste In Comics Harder!” but focus groups decided that that was too clunky. Maybe “Where’s My Money, Honey?” U DECIDE.

Just FYI, 4l! Year One was “Is it time… or hypertime?” I don’t think I actually told anyone that, though, so don’t stress it. It won’t be on the test.

Muchas gracias to my blogmates Gavin and Thomas. The Big Gavoktus is consistently funnier than I am, but the site is named after me technically so it’s cool. We have spent enough time on IRC talking about A) What we would do if we had gigs at Marvel or DC and B) hilarious What If?/Elseworlds ideas that I am confident that if we ever did manage to con/blackmail our way into a position at Marvel or DC, the world would be a better and funnier place for it. Thomas brings a razor sharp critical analysis to the table and lets me bug him on AIM with ridiculous comics questions. He has a Tricky Brain, did you know that? He also has a sick mind for comics trivia, particularly in the X-Men and Spider-Man arenas.

Basically, though, we all love comics. Wait, scratch that. We all love good comics. Bad ones can go hang.

In the past year, I’ve learned that the comics blogospherohedron is kind of shockingly DC-slanted. (That may be just my inner Marvel Zombie speaking, though.) Tons of people have fond memories of the Legion of Super-Heroes, which I only recently got into with the Waid/Kitson reboot, and no one likes Identity Crisis. Feminism in comics is pretty big, too. A couple comics blogs have gone mainstream and ended up attached to Newsarama and Comic Book Resources, and I think that the comics media is better for it. I learned… you know what? This is slightly less profound than I expected. Let me cut to the chase.

I learned that a lot of cool cats like comics and want to talk about the effects of comics just as much as who would win in a fight, Big Barda or Wonder Woman (Big Barda, see below).

I would like to give a special shout-out to the people who let me blab on their blogs comment lines. The crew at Comics Should Be Good and Blog@Newsarma are all good people (and I really need to add B@N to my links there on the right). Kalinara @ Pretty Fizzy Paradise, Ragnell @ Written World, Johanna @ Comics Worth Reading, and Carla (I think?) @ Snap Judgements are all cool peoples. I should probably give special notice to my livejournalin’ buddies Lynxara and JLG. Fun times! Dwayne McDuffie’s forum is also a cool place to hang out, not to mention Batman’s Shameful Secret over at Something Awful’s forums. Best comics forum out, I will tell you what.

Also, my mom apparently reads the blog, so– Top of the world, ma!

One year down, hopefully many more to go. More questionable taste, more inexplicable love for ’90s comics, more stuff you never wanted to know about comics but now you do so you can’t un-know it, sucker!

I’m hoping to get some cool articles from all three of us up to celebrate the anniversary of this blah-blah-blog. Thanks for reading. Stick around, you might learn something!

As promised, here is why Big Barda trumps Wonder Woman:
jla1mpg10.jpg jla1mpg11.jpg jla1mpg19.jpg jla1mpg20.jpg
Yes, it’s future Wonder Woman, but you can’t argue with five tons per square inch. Big Barda is the truth.

Post to Twitter Post to Facebook Post to Reddit Post to StumbleUpon