Here’s the short version: I’m back, and I will be posting more reviews. The first one goes up later today. For the long version, read on…
A lot of things have happened in the world of comics since the last time I posted here: line-wide crossovers and big-budget superhero movies have come and gone, publishers and creators have seen their individual stars rise and fall, hundreds of new graphic novels and collected editions have been released (even as the shadow of “digital” looms over print as the inevitable way of the future), and overall, comic books have penetrated the mass culture to an extent never before seen. It’s an exciting time, fraught with the uncertainty that always accompanies transition.
There have been changes for me on a personal level, too. I finished my master’s degree and I’ve now been teaching college writing courses for two years. Fittingly enough, I’ve come to realize that teaching college freshmen to be better writers makes you a better writer yourself – or, at least, it makes you think more about the kind of writer you want to be. I’ve done a lot of writing in the last two years, most of which I’m extremely proud of. Some of it has had to do with comics – my first presentation at an academic conference, in 2011, was on the Vietnam War comics of Don Lomax – but most of it hasn’t. It took me a while to realize how much I missed it.
I did think about returning to this blog a few times, but something has always held me back. It’s tempting to make the excuse that I’ve simply been too busy – that may have been the case at certain times, but it wasn’t always. A large part of my staying away for so long was that, truth be told, I’ve become fairly dismayed with the direction the comic book industry has taken over the last few years. The downright Machiavellian tactics that Marvel and DC have leveraged against former writers and artists, along with the lowest-common-denominator blockbuster mentality espoused by both companies toward their comic book lines and movie franchises, has weighed heavily on my conscience, especially as someone who once patronized both companies without a second thought.
For a long time, I think I felt that to write about the books Marvel and DC published would be in a sense to condone actions that I found deplorable. I was still very much locked into the perception that a review was fundamentally either a recommendation or a non-recommendation – a mentality that simply couldn’t coexist with my belief that to financially support these companies, out of some naive desire to be “entertained,” was, for me, morally reprehensible. I still often feel this way, although I am trying to see things in less black-and-white terms and to be more understanding of those who have made choices different from my own.
The main thing that’s changed for me is the way I think about criticism. One of the main reasons I stopped posting here was that, by the time I started teaching (shortly after my last post), I was having a hard time seeing writing comic book reviews as being “my place” anymore. I enjoyed doing it, but it was awfully time-consuming and it didn’t seem like the kind of “academic” writing that leads to a tenure-track job – not because of the subject matter, but because criticism is widely perceived as a non-academic form of writing.
Then I came into contact with the work of the film critic Robin Wood, who has expanded my outlook toward many things – not the least of which is the role of criticism itself. According to Wood, the critic is “committed to self-exposure…s/he must make clear that any response to a work of art or entertainment is grounded not only in the work itself but in the critic’s psychological makeup, personal history, values, prejudices, obsessions” (Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan xiii). In this respect, the work of the critic is more personal than that of the scholar or theorist, and as such it is intrinsically braver and riskier. In the hierarchy of criticism, scholarship, and theory, Wood argues, “criticism occupies (or should occupy) the highest position, simply because the critic is the only one centrally and explicitly concerned with the question of value, which is the most important – the ultimate – question” (xiv).
True criticism, in the sense that Wood discusses it, is exceptionally rare. Most reviews of comic books – and, for that matter, of movies, television, literature, and music – do concern themselves with the question of value, but only superficially: “is this a work that’s worth your time, your money?” Far fewer reviews address the question of a work’s intellectual or ideological value: “What arguments, implicit and explicit, does the work make about our society, about how we should live? Carried to their logical extremes, do the arguments hold up?” Frequently they do not, and because so many reviews concern themselves first and foremost with superficial questions, they miss the most crucial aspects of the works they discuss.
I think I came close to writing true, un-superficial criticism a small handful of times on this blog, particularly in my reviews of 9/11 Heartbreaker and Monkey vs. Robot. Those were reviews in which I wrote very personally, with little concern for specifically “recommending” the books in question, and they are among the reviews I remain proudest of having written. By contrast, the posts I’m least proud of are the ones which, in the end, were little more than long-winded recommendations (or non-recommendations). Recommendations have their purpose – in fact, I contribute to a weekly post at the Collected Comics Library which spotlights noteworthy upcoming collected editions – but they are not criticism in the true sense.
I’m not sure whether I have the ability to consciously and consistently produce true criticism or not, but I would like to try. I think it’s what I always wanted to do with this blog, although it took a few years away for me to begin to see how I might go about it. I don’t have all the answers, but I’m looking forward to seeing what happens when I approach my writing here with such a clear objective in mind. The reviews I write going forward will be significantly different, I hope, from most that I wrote in the past – I will not give the books numerical scores, for example, and I will not presume to tell “you,” the hypothetical reader, how to spend (or not spend) your time or money. I can speak only for myself – or, more specifically, as Wood writes, from my own “beliefs and values, political position, background, [and] influences” (xiv). I hope the result will be something unique and interesting that can stand next to the work of the critics and bloggers whose writing I most admire.
I’d like to close this post by giving thanks to several individuals who have played a part in my return to this blog: to fellow bloggers Matches, dl316bh, Kris Shaw, Mark Ginocchio, Doug Glassman, and Collected Editions, for producing excellent content and entertaining my ramblings in the comment sections of their own collected editions blogs over the last two years; to the “regulars” of IGN’s Comics General Board, the community that has been my home on the web for more years than I care to count; to my fellow contributors for the Collected Comics Library’s “Six Collected Editions” column, for producing stellar recommendations each and every week; to all of the people who have left a comment or emailed me about the blog during my absence; and to the CCL’s Chris Marshall, for ultimately getting me back in the game.
See you here later today for the first of the new reviews.