(With thanks to Tom Spurgeon and Milo George for unwittingly inspiring this essay)
What critical standards do we hold ourselves to?
What are our obligations to maintain a consistent critical standard?
These are incredibly difficult questions to ask, and even harder questions to answer.
To my way of reckoning, a work of art must be judged by how well it successfully communicates an idea. A work of art - even a deeply flawed work of art - which successfully engages the cultural dialectic must be engaged on its own terms and by its own merits, or the critic has failed.
I did not like Eightball #23, but I do not believe that the book was a total failure. No – I simply believe that the ideas it communicated were redundant and thematically repetitive. But there obviously were ideas there. There was an attempt to engage in a dialogue. Therefore, even though I think Eightball #23 was deeply flawed, it was still superior to most comics, in that it at least tried. There was a great deal on the plate – even if I thought it was woefully undercooked.
Most comics, in all honesty, just don’t make the attempt. Most corporately owned comics are neutered by design. The few that do manage to buck the odds and define an ideation are precious indeed. Many independent comics are simply retreads of previous ideas that contribute nothing new. Even an old idea can be interesting, if it is examined in the proper light, but to successfully revisit a previous idea is perhaps the most difficult discipline of them all.
I review many comics of varying degrees of quality on this site, and I like to think that I have maintained a consistent critical focus throughout. I do not believe that a book like Blue Monday, which I enjoyed, should be penalized for having different aims and ideas than Louis Riel. Obviously, I regard Louis Riel as the vastly superior work, but that does not mean that I have no time for Blue Monday.
Is this a consistent critical standard or not?
It is a cop-out to say that a book is good merely in the context of its own genre. Ultimately, the context of a genre is meaningless, because all work must be judged on its own accord. Your teacher always used to tell you not to cheat on tests because she wanted your answers, and not your neighbor’s answers. By that same token, I want to know if a book is honestly good, not whether it is better or worse than its nearest neighbor on the bookshelf.
But at the same time, critical standards are overly harsh if there is not some acceptance of the relativistic nature of aesthetic endeavor. There’s a paradox here.
I believe that there are orders of aesthetic magnitude. This is how, for instance, From Hell can be regarded as a superior work to The Filth, even though The Filth is still a successful and enjoyable work. From Hell is the superior work based on its own merits, and not because of any failure on the part of The Filth.
Art must be judged according to its own standards. A work can succeed brilliantly at its own modest goals, and still be inferior to an unsuccessful work of greater ambition. I believe that Planet of the Capes is a superb and witty polemic, and succeeds magnificently as allegorical satire. But as good as it is, the scope of its artistic intentions are modest, so its overall success must be judged relative to its ambition. Even though I regard Eightball #23 as a relative failure, I think it is still superior to most of everything published today. Although it fails to engage its own ideas in a sufficiently vigorous fashion, it does possess ideas, and even if they are not sufficiently developed they are still sufficient to spark intensive debate.
The most important aspect of modern comics criticism which remains woefully underdeveloped is the acknowledgement and understanding of art-as-story. Comics are neither literature or art, and although the critical language of both disciplines can and has been appropriated by comics critics, ultimately these languages are woefully insufficient to engage the texts on the intimate critical level they deserve. I will not say that we need to develop a “new” critical language, because that would a silly and self-defeating act, and I’ve no desire to hamstring this conversation by going down the traditional critical cul-de-sac of unspecified semantics. No, it is enough merely to state that a new critical language will naturally follow if enough critics begin to engage the medium with sufficient rigor and enthusiasm.
I have attempted to do just this with my recurring examination of Chester Brown’s Louis Riel. I will not presume that I have been successful to date in my desire to fully elucidate the many virtues of this singular work. I will say, however, that trying to pinpoint the exquisite and singular merits of this extraordinary book has served, more than anything else, to expose the striking limitations of our shared critical vocabulary. The work itself is superlative, but in trying to find an explanation for this phenomena I have merely exposed my own shortcomings as a critic.