Criticism does not need great art to be great. Susan Sontag once wrote that Roland Barthes’ mind was so fertile one simply needed to put Barthes in front of a cigar box and he could produce an interesting essay. But Ben Schwartz, editor of The Best American Comics Criticism, seems to believe that great comics criticism should address great comics. In his introduction, Schwartz declares, “If some of the great works of cartooning done in the last few years aren’t represented here [. . .] it’s because this editor couldn’t find a great piece about them, not because they and others lack merit” (14). Unless Schwartz assumes that great criticism depends on the quality of the art it discusses, it shouldn’t matter that his book doesn’t include essays about comics by the likes of Charles Burns, Gary Panter, or Ivan Brunetti.
That doesn’t mean Schwartz believes that criticism about great comics will necessarily be great. Rather, he falls prey to the common fallacy about criticism outlined by H. L. Mencken that perceives criticism’s function as being predominantly pedagogical, to teach readers what makes great art and art great. Mencken counters this misperception by declaring that the real function of criticism is “to give outward and objective form to ideas that bubble inwardly and have a fascinating lure in them, to get rid of them dramatically and make an articulate noise in the world.” In other words, Mencken considers criticism itself an art, a conclusion with which I wholeheartedly concur. Based on his editorial choices, though, I would guess that Schwartz doesn’t, leading to an uneven collection of essays that isn’t without interest but is ultimately disappointing..
That Schwartz’s standards aren’t necessarily grounded in the artfulness of criticism is made clear by the inclusion of too many weak pieces—the less that’s said about the Amazon.com customer reviews of Joe Matt’s graphic novel Spent, the better. And, by far the longest essay, the centerpiece of the book, most emphatically revealing Schwartz’s conflation of the quality of criticism with that of its subject, is “What’s This One About” by Ken Parille. A dissection of Daniel Clowes’s graphic novel David Boring, Parille’s essay falls prey to the traps of close reading by imposing meanings on the puzzles and mysteries of Clowes’s graphic novel, resolving the uneasiness they might provoke by explaining them away. Parille strikes me as an interesting critic, and he has written some fine analyses of comics which can be found at his website Blog Flume, but the insights in “What’s This One About,” seem strained and lack urgency. The essay’s inclusion seems motivated, at least in part, by Schwartz’s impression that the arrival of David Boring—along with Jimmy Corrigan: Smartest Kid on Earth, both published on September 12, 2000—ushered in the dawn of a new age in comics. In fact, Schwartz limits his selection of critical essays to those that appeared after the publication of the two graphic novels. In doing so, however, he excludes serious contenders for “best comics criticism,” including: Gilbert Seldes’ well-known celebration of Krazy Kat, “The Krazy Kat That Walks by Himself”; Will Eisner’s landmark Sequential Art and Comics; and Scott McCloud’s influential Understanding Comics.
Still, if The Best American Comics Criticism doesn’t seem particularly interested in presenting truly great criticism, its best essays suggest that there is a growing number of mature critical essays being written about comics. Perhaps my favorite in the anthology is Dan Nadel’s impassioned critique of the “Masters of American Comics” art exhibit that addresses comics, art, and how canons are formed while offering a sharply critical review of the show. However, I’m not convinced that currently there is enough material being published to justify a “Best of” anthology. Undoubtedly this dearth is due in part to the lack of outlets for good comics criticism. As the selections in Schwartz’s book indicate, The Comics Journal remains practically the only publication regularly devoted to printing serious criticism about comics. Still, as more mainstream publications devote space to comics, comics criticism promises to have a healthy future. And while I don’t believe that great comics criticism need address great comics, I am confident that the last decade’s proliferation of excellent comics is sure to inspire greater numbers of writers to make an articulate noise in the world, and the world might just be a better place because of it.