Sunday, May 04, 2003

language of critique

One of the things we talked about last night, as Vin tried to get us to help him finish his too-too large banana sundae at Chili's, was criticism in comic books (the other one, which I hope someone else writes about, was the application of the Japanese studio art system to the Filipino comics context). Almost everyone at the table, except me, advocated the necessity of a language of critique devoted exclusively to the needs and modes of the comic book.

I feel that there is nothing in comic books (as an "art" form) that truly differentiates it from other existing art forms (art and literature) that it cannot be critiqued using the language and theories developed over the years for the purpose of discourse for those other art forms. I recognize that the fact that devotees of McCloud (whose work is hailed as a seminal contribution to comic criticism), in their love for the medium, have thought of the need for a critical language for comic books. But really, to me, there is no such need, even if they bring to the table the hoary argument of "sequential" art.

At its core, a comic book is a story. It is a story that is communicated through visuals (though sometimes there is no art just words, or no words, just art, or a combination of the two states, if you want to be pilosopo). The heart of the comic is the script (and yes, let us discount, for the sake of simplicity, the cases where there is no script), a set of words written down with the purpose of telling a story. Therefore all pertinent elements of literary criticism (especially from the disciplines I attempt to work in - plays and fiction) can and do come into play. Everything from the formalism, structuralism, post-modernism, marxism, every other -ism can be and are used to analyze and deconstruct the text - because the comic book is a text. Currently, what is considered "serious" comic book criticism and discourse, like the essays from The Comics Journal or Ninth Art, is couched in the discourse of lit crit - for obvious reasons.

But what about the art? Certainly, the entire history of art criticism has something to offer. I know much much less about this though, and concede that in my limited understanding of art criticism I could be mistaken. But advocates like McCloud seem to imply that words are unnecessary (his approach is almost purely visual).

But the comic book is a text. People who read it are called "readers". You read a comic book.

Name drop whatever title you like and it has been and can be analyzed in the language of literary criticism - because some of the best comic books are literature. So you have stuff like Maus, Watchmen, and (insert your pet indie vignette-slice of life, heartbreaking work of staggering genius in stark black and white). And how are these texts analyzed? As I mentioned earlier, things from the toolkit of lit crit are used. From the simple evaluation of plot, charactertization and dialogue, to application of "the author is dead", semiotics and Xanaduism, to the theories of analysis based on concepts like Erwartungshorizont (horizon of expectation), Leitmotiv (leading motif), narrative theory and pataphysics (the metaphysics of nonsense). The entire timespan of human thought devoted to the love and search of deeper understanding of literature, certainly, will suffice.

But comics are a new "art" form, you say. Photography did not come into its own as a form until many years after its invention.

True. But what is the basis of critiquing photography as art? Is it so so special, universes removed from painting that it does not share a common language? Is the critical faculty that is engaged when you look at a photograph different from the one you use to look at a painting? In comics, a lousy story is a lousy story. It will not be saved by virtue of its being in pamplet format in (ahem) "sequential" art.

Text is text. Granted, one of the unique elements of a comic book is the fact that (traditionally) it engages the reader simultaneously through words and art - like film. Which is the weak point of my argument, because film did develop its own criticism - based on the history of the dramatic (theatrical) form that stretches back to the Greeks (classically) and the script (also drama, also Greek), from the literary modes.

So what is my problem? If I can accept film, why can't I accept the comic book? And isn't it, oh, odd, that I, a self-publisher of comics, do not want to hold hands with you and help uplift the form we love? Why can't I accept the fact that comic books are unique?

Apart from the silly answer that holding hands in the time of SARS is risky, I believe in the primacy of the story, the script, in the context of a text. Yes, this means that art does not play a vital role to my enjoyment of a well-written comic book - which is why I can appreciate much of the indie output which focuses more on the content, the human observations, rather than trying to appeal to eye-candy level comic art. Which is why Image comics sucks. In the context of a text as a text, I see no need to baby the comic book medium. Let it sink or swim on its own merits, gauged by the principles of literature.

It's like my thing with genre trappings. Someone holds up a fantasy or scifi story for me to read. I read it, don't like it and explain why. The other person says, "but it's wonderful in the context of a scifi story". Um, no. It has to be a good story, period. Swim with the big boys and do not hide behind form or genre.

An interesting point in one of the essays I read (thanks Carl) presupposes the dominance of the word over the art - the writer over the artist. It is reversed in film criticism where the focus is on the director (auteur theory) - no one knows (or seems to care) about who wrote the film, it is more important to know who directed it or who starred in it.

Are we to adopt this approach to comic book critique?

On the other hand, you can just say, "but comics are just entertainment, nothing more; you're taking this too seriously."

In which case, I'm talking to wrong person.


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