The Best American Comics Criticism
Edited by Ben Schwartz
Published by Fantagraphics Books. $19.99 USD
It’s a mug’s game, editing an anthology. Inevitably, you’re going to find a great piece to include and not get permission. Or it’s just too long. Or it doesn’t fit the tone of the rest. Or it doesn’t fit some other criterion that’s been set for you (should this great 2008 piece go in The Best Whatever of 2010?). Or, despite your exhaustive search, you miss something terrific or find it too late for inclusion. And readers and critics will call you any and all of these reasons and make up some more to boot.
But with all due respect, and sympathy, editor Schwartz sure doesn’t try to avoid many of these pitfalls. The grotesques representing critics in Drew Friedman’s cover don’t help, though I’ve long loved Friedman’s work. It’s sort of waving a red flag at some people, and doesn’t give the impression that the book will be a celebration of great comics criticism. However, it does give the impression Schwartz is a ballsy guy and not afraid of pissing people off, so, fair warning.
It’s not all American criticism, or at least not all concerning American comics or American comics creators, so there’s that. It’s unclear why Schwartz and Fantagraphics would entitle the book so close to the existing “Best American” series from Houghton-Mifflin/Mariner when the American-ness of the contents isn’t entire, nor particularly important. But that’s a smaller complaint that just what Schwartz considers criticism. In his case, it could be Gary Groth’s and others’ interviews with cartoonists, or a piece of legal language, or comics history lessons, or an inscrutable series of illustrations purporting to be a review.
In the absence of a third party arbitrator of what consistutes criticism, let’s just say the book should be called The Best (Mostly) American Writing About Comics, and move on. Even giving latitude for the difficulties of rights clearances and space constraints, is this the best writing about comics? Most of it is enjoyable and smart, with pieces suitable for the relative comics neophyte, graphic novel enthusiast or fan of old strips from the heyday of newspapers. Unlike, say a Douglas Wolk or Dan Nadel, Schwartz isn’t on any crusade to win hearts and minds to work he feels is unfairly dismissed or undervalued. Everyone championed, interviewed or analyzed here have had either great commercial or creative success, or have already joined a cartoonist pantheon with the seal of approval of The Comics Journal and other respected critics and cartoonists. Herriman, Clowes, Seth, Eisner, Miller, Gloeckner, Thurber, Gray, David B, Elder, Kirby, Bechdel, Deitch, Ditko.
Schwartz seems to have made several of his choices based on name value: Howard Chaykin being critical of Will Eisner is a cartoonist two-fer, even if the anecdote about their confrontations is toothless, especially for Chaykin. Peter Bagge’s “Spider-Man Sucks!” is another two-fer, a highly amusing rant covering not only his complaints about Steve Ditko’s art and Stan Lee’s writing but also his negative experience making a Spider-Man comic for Marvel several years ago. It’s fun, but overlong and rambling, and it’s hard to believe there wasn’t a better piece about Ditko, Lee or Spidey, positive or negative. In fact, although Schwartz’ ballsiness is mentioned above, whenever he includes something negative, there’s a positive piece to counter it, like Alan Moore’s and Donald Phelps’ pieces on Ditko, and Wolk’s appreciation of Eisner and Miller.
Phelps’ name brings up another complaint, which is that Schwartz has a short list of worthy critics. This writer is not all that put off by Schwartz including his own low-yield piece on Harold Gray, as the writer recalls a high school literary journal he edited where he included three of his own short stories, placed at first, last and exactly in the middle. But as good as Phelps is, we needed three pieces? Three interviews by Gary Groth? Without much question, Groth’s interview with Yoshihiro Tatsumi was included because it’s the only piece about a manga creator, since it’s stilted and only mildly interested, sort of spoiled from the start by Groth’s admission in his Introduction that he had problems with Tatsumi’s work, problems he was too polite to address with the creator during the interview. Why does anyone need to collect Gary Groth’s softest, least informed and least engaged interview?
The use of famous names has been mentioned, and that’s a mixed bag. Jonathan Franzen’s Introduction to a volume of Fantagraphics’ Peanuts is fluff, but Sarah Boxer’s exploration of racial identity in Krazy Kat is thoughtful, while Rick Moody’s piece on David B’s Epileptic shows a knowledge of the European literary world that’s fresh for comics criticism (though I’m sure Bart Beaty’s done just as well dozens of times). Chris Ware enlivens his appreciation of proto-cartoonist Rodolphe Topffer with his understanding of printing techniques. John Hodgman is a very bright, funny guy who brings neither to a sloppy piece on comics epics. Seth brings all his power to bear to admit gagmaster John Stanley’s droll, teen trash trilogy into comics Valhalla. One of the better pieces is Dan Nadel’s teardown of the Masters of American Comics show, ultimately a fairly unimportant event, with Nadel ripping the curators for their stodgy, mostly safe selections of “masters.” Its inclusion is ironic, given how safe and stodgy many of Schwartz’ selections are.
Yes, Schwartz has leaned too heavily on selections from some writers, and not always their best work, and has also relied too much on famous names and a broad, somewhat stunt-motivated range of material. There were any number of other insightful, if less well-known, writers who could have also shared space here, especially if the gimmicks were excised along with the attempts at playing nice with alternate perspectives on the same cartoonists. Still, there is more of good to excellent work than there is poor, and that’s a decent start. The field of serious nonfiction writing on comics is still relatively new, and hopefully volumes like this reach readers who are either inspired or frustrated enough to want to add their own, better books.