Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Yes, It's A Real Job: Everybody's a Critic

When the first man to draw a picture of the hunt on the walls of the cave showed his work to his fellows, one among them bashed him in the head. And ever since, it's been hell between artists and critics.

It can be argued that the artist and the critic (and really, good criticism is an art unto itself) owe nothing to each other. The artist's job is to express himself through his art; the critic's job is to decode the message, and the twain need only meet in the work itself. But that's not entirely true. All art is a conversation, as is all criticism; it's the interplay between messenger and recipient that gives the work meaning. And that interplay goes on after the work is completed and published, as messages go back and forth, and a cultural consensus forms. If art is remembered at all, it is at least partially through the lens of the critic. It thus behooves both parties to conduct the discussion in a manner that will leave them remembered well. Or, to put it simply, critics shouldn't be dicks when judging art, and artists shouldn't be dicks when responding to critics. They should be professionals.

There is a right way and a wrong way to criticize something. I myself have been guilty of the wrong way. Ten years ago, Marvel conducted a brief experiment in rebooting Fantastic Four, Captain America, Iron Man, and the Avengers. Called Heroes Reborn, it was a year-long project that saw the characters removed from mainline continuity and re-imagined by Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld. You can imagine how well this went over. I myself was not looking forward to the event, for many reasons, and particularly thought that ditching Mark Waid for Rob Liefeld on Captain America was about the dumbest decision anyone had made ever. The preview art did nothing to dissuade this notion (I believe we've all seen the refrigerator-door chest picture of Cap?). Wizard Magazine, which I was then a reader of, bagged two promo trading cards, featuring said preview art, with one issue. One evening, I decided to express my dissatisfaction with Mssrs. Lee and Liefeld by burning these cards in effigy and mailing them to their respective artists. This was a mistake, and not just because that glossy cardstock took *way* longer to burn than I thought it would. I sent an empty message, one that no one would take seriously and no one could respond to if they did. It was only so much sound and fury. I could have done better, and so can any critic worth the name.

Let's take two hypothetical critics and use them to demonstrate the right way and the wrong way to criticize something. Call them "Brian Cronin" and "Ray Tate." Brian and Ray both read the same comic, and they don't like it. They write reviews about it.

Brian's review lays the comic out more or less in sequence, touching upon the parts he felt were most significant to his impression of it. He says things like "the art on page 17 was too muddled for me to make out what was going on" and "the over-narration stifles what would otherwise be a powerful action sequence." He focuses on what the creators could have done better, turning the review into almost a roadmap of how to better please him next time. Even when a comic is an utter disaster, he retains a respectful tone, and manages to have at least one nice thing to say about the final product. Brian's review is about the comic, and is of use to potential buyers, budding creators, and the general public.

Ray's review rambles all over the place, skipping from scene to scene in a stream-of-consciousness style that inhibits a reader's ability to get a clear view of the comic as published. He focuses on his own personal interpretations of the characters, often relying on continuity decades out of date, and points out every supposed flaw in a sneering point of manner. He says things like "the artist is a hack who has no idea what he's doing" and "the writer is all to happy to go down on her knees to service Infinite Crisis." The overall implication is that Ray himself knows what's best for the comic, and indeed all comics, and anyone whose impression differs is a raving idiot. Most egregious of all, many of his descriptions of key scenes are wrong; he has failed to even properly decode the message. Ray's review is about Ray, and is of use to no one but Ray.

I trust you can decide for yourself which is the right way and which is the wrong.

Now comes the creator's turn in the chair. How a creator responds to criticism is just as vital as the criticism itself. (A creator can always choose not to respond, of course, but the dialogue by necessity must end there, and I wish to carry the discussion further.) Again, the focus should be on professionalism, tact, and furthering the discussion.

Let's take two hypothetical creators and look at their response to a bad review (anyone can be polite and tactful when responding to a favorable review, just as anyone can be polite and tactful reviewing a comic they liked. Duress is the key to discerning behavior). This time, call them "Kurt Busiek" and "Chuck Austen." They both write comics that receive unfavorable reviews from "Brian Cronin," and they both feel motivated to respond.

Kurt's response addresses each point Brian made, answering questions rhetorical and otherwise, gently correcting him where he erred. It attempts to unveil the creative process slightly, explaining why Kurt made each choice he made, detailing the relevant conversations and decisions that crafted the story. It disagrees with Brian's conclusion, but respects his opinion, and likely concludes with an admission that hey, everyone can't like everything. While Kurt is arguing from authority, he never brings this up, only presenting himself as the bearer of an alternate viewpoint. Both Kurt and Brian enjoy the exchange, and depart from it with a sense of accomplishment and gratitude.

Chuck does not respond to Brian directly, instead addressing the review obliquely from a forum where he will not be challenged (either a personal website or an interview with a sycophantic fan carefully placed among the ranks of online comics "journalism"). He dismisses Brian (and all other critics) as out-of-touch fanboys with no ability or credibility; reviewers and fans who enjoyed his work, however, are praised for their good taste and intelligence. Groupthink, the myth of the 20,000 fans, and mothers' basements are all referenced. Chuck references his own authority throughout, holding up his version of reality as paramount; the mere fact of his writing the comic makes it good. Surprisingly, the actual points Brian brought up are rarely, if ever, touched upon; instead, the response is full of generalities and defensive "if you know so much, why aren't you writing my books?" posturing. There is no exchange of ideas. Chuck departs from the experience with a smug sense of pride and satisfaction; Brian feels somewhat like an elephant shit on by a sparrow; he knows something happened, and that it was vaguely unpleasant, but damned if he can figure out what it was or what it had to do with him.

I trust you can decide for yourself which is the right way and which is the wrong.

Criticism is communication. Art is communication. To communicate, you must talk to someone, not at them. Thus endeth the lesson.

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