Comics criticism

Drawn and Quarterly, the northern branch of so-called American comics

Literature is a dialogue, albeit often an insular one. For comics to occupy a position as a mature literary form, they need to be a part of that dialogue.

I didn’t realize until this week that there’s a crisis in comics criticism. Evidently, I’m part of the problem since I rarely read any comics-specific websites, unless someone links to a review or I’m doing research. It’s partly a lack of interest in an insular dialogue, partly that Canada and Europe, where I’ve worked, always seem like an afterthought

American comics publications sometimes refer to a “North American comics scene,” which seems to be a term used exclusively by Americans, possibly patting themselves on the back for their international outlook because they talked about a Canadian just last week, and know that Drawn & Quarterly is located in Montreal. But I feel about as included under this term as I would when reading American children’s books, with their strange language like “neighbor” and “fifth grade.”

Possibly, the problem is that Canada is too small for publications only about comics; possibly it’s that I like reading about a variety of books, both with and without pictures in them; possibly it’s that comics, at present, need to be placed alongside poems about rural Manitoba and essays on Joseph Boyden to give an air of legitimacy to the general public and those who make decisions about publishing and arts funding in Canada.

Either way, comics criticism—and in turn comics—stands to reach a wider audience when it’s not singled out. To put comics on a comparable footing with other fiction and non-fiction, we need a mature critical debate around literary comics, one that deals with all the issues regular literary criticism has to confront.

Comics criticism and coverage, particularly that published in mainstream periodicals, suffers all the same issues as regular literary criticism, disproportionately favours the white, the male, the Western. Need a cover for your graphic novel issue? Why not another Seth or Chris Ware illustration!

It’s easy to overlook what we don’t see: problems, creators, entire forms of media.

The same blindness leads to issues like the Angoulême debacle this year. There are enough issues with diversity in comics publishing to rely on a dialogue solely between creators (which is not to say mainstream media doesn’t suffer the same problem).

Whether you’re new to reading comics or exhausted by commentary from critics who just finished skimming an Intro to Graphic Novels syllabus, here’s an annotated reading list of the critics and websites I’m reading for comics criticism.

This is certainly not an exhaustive list. Other publications are starting to do a good job of integrating comics into their books coverage, and a growing number of smaller websites are publishing lots of great comics artists. And if you find yourself inspired to start reviewing graphic novels yourself, start with artist Dylan Meconis on how not to write comics criticism.

Hazlitt is one of the best places on the internet for new comics and critical writing of any kind. They’ve been publishing some of the best Canadian and other comics creators online like Jillian Tamaki, Walter Scott and Michael DeForge, as well as work in less typical formats, like Annie Mok and Sophia Foster-Dimino’s Swim Through Fire, which plays with the scrolling format of the screen in a really interesting way, or Sholem Krishtalka’s Berlin Diary (more on that later this month). Beyond the comics, Hazlitt publishes essays on writers you don’t realize you want to read yet and stuff that nobody else is even thinking about, like how video games are affecting literature.

Some sites report on gender bias, while others try to do something about it: Hire This Woman falls in in the latter category. ComicsAlliance’s column profiling female creators is an unsubtle effort to get them more work, showcasing a diverse range of women working in genres from literary comics to webcomics to mainstream titles like Adventure Time. It’s great because they don’t ask creators any stupid questions about gender. However, they haven’t published a new column since May and I’m hoping it’s not dead.

Mey Rude’s tastes run more towards superhero, action and cute webcomics than mine, but she does an amazing job every week on Drawn to Comics of investigating diversity in mainstream, literary, and webcomic titles, tracking who’s scripting queer, trans, and racially diverse characters, and how. The best thing about her column is that she considers everything on equal footing, whether it’s Batgirl, Meags Fitzgerald’s Long Red Hair (Conundrum), or Leah Haye’s Not Funny Ha-Ha (Fantagraphics) book about two women who have abortions; she’ll address the work by its merits, not whether it’s the first thing she’ll pick up at the store.

Sometimes a dialogue requires listening instead of reading. Inkstuds is an essential comics podcast. Robin McConnell has interviewed nearly everyone in comics in North America and much of Europe over the past decade, from artists who’ve made a couple of zines to bestselling authors, including creators he interviewed both when they’d made a couple of zines and after they’d become bestselling authors.

Comics Criticism

Annie Mok’s Shadow Manifesto

The LA Review of Booksgraphic reviews of graphic novels are one cool thing that’s happening in book reviewing. (Full disclosure: I’ve been fortunate enough to contribute to their review section). Every artist does something different with their review, from drawing themselves to redrawing the book’s artwork. Their regular written reviews and essays on graphic novels are also worthwhile reads.

Jeet Heer is the first name that comes to mind for Canadian comics critics, writing essays that meld cultural criticism and comics criticism in every sort of periodical since before Canadian newspapers even thought of running some variant of the “comics: not just for kids any more” headline every few months. He’s now a senior editor at the New Republic—an excellent demonstration of how people who read comics also have intelligent views on politics, race and other issues not considered “kid stuff.”

I can’t get enough of comics artist and critic Annie Mok’s writing since her comic-essays started appearing in Rookie Magazine last year. Her writing does everything great literary criticism should, interweaving themes and topics from Tove Jansson to Guy Maddin to racism in comics (this one, for example), and she even has a comic about James Joyce.

Not strictly a critic to read online, Bart Beaty is the top scholar in the country for research on international comics; I found his work through his book Unpopular Culture: Transforming the European Comic Book in the 1990s (UofT Press). He’s not only interested in Europe–his last book was on Archie comics, and you can read an excerpt from it in The Walrus and follow his ongoing research into North American comics at the University of Calgary.

Jessica Abel is a comics artist and journalist, and her blog is a collection of postings of old work in comics journalism, posts about her own work and feminism. She also discusses work and working methods on her blog and in a weekly newsletter, and though it’s informed by her work in comics, most of it is applicable to people working in any creative field.

Laura Kenins is a writer, editor, and comic artist currently based in Halifax, NS. Her comics and writing have appeared in kuš! comics, Truthout, The Coast, Quill and Quire, THIS Magazine, and elsewhere. Find Laura’s work online or follow her on tumblr. Her previous piece for The Town Crier can be found here.

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