Monday, October 27, 2008

Responding about "Good" Comics

I'm just gonna put this right out there: I was the "friend" Ben was talking with in his post yesterday. Boom. Your universe just shifted, I'm sure.

And like Ben, once I left the conversation, some of my ideas came into clearer view, so I'm gonna post on them here.

Basically, I think Ben and I were talking about different things when we were talking about the idea of what people find to be a "good" comic.

The idea of what makes a comic book (and art in general) "good" has been a concept I've wrestled with since a college course I took on literary criticism. I'd get pissed at my professor at pretty much every turn because I was caught up on the same broad ideals as Ben brought up - specifically, that no one should tell someone else what is "good." But my grasp of criticism vs the "good" started coming into focus when she brought up those cheap Harlequin romance novels.

She pointed out that, yes, many readers obviously love the Harlequin books, but we can all agree they don't have as much artistic merit as, say, a Zadie Smith novel. And that's where the seperation exists. Just cause something has artistic merit, doesn't mean it's personally good for a reader, and vice versa.

I think ultimately, the "good" is a personal reality. What Ben thinks is good is his opinion and his opinion isn't universally right or wrong. But I do believe you CAN apply a certain level of criticism (i.e. tools to measure an art's effectiveness) to figure out if a project has artistic merit. From there, though, it depends on your own concepts of good or bad whether that artistic merit plays into whether you think that book is good or bad. But, generally, a book being "good or bad" doesn't play into the discovery of its artistic merits except in the very broadest sense. It's MUCH more involved than just reading something and saying, "yeah, this is crap" or "nope, this is amazing."

When it comes to critics, I'd generally not had much room for them in my life until about a year ago. And even then, I only pay attention to a SMALL number of comics critics and only for very focused projects. But my main reason for reading their reviews is because, like movies and novels and all other art, I feel like I don't always get all the meaning in a work on my own all the time and a deeper understanding of the work can be gotten at by hearing what others think. Sure I compose my own opinions of things, but I like hearing what others have to say and am VERY open to their opinions changing my opinion of a work.

One example is when a friend and I saw The Happening this past summer at the theater. The two of us walked out confused and generally unready to say if we liked the film or not. The following weeks, I dove into whatever reviews of the film I could find online to find out if there'd been something I missed or to find some greater meaning. I was using the reviews like a college student using Wikipedia, mostly searching for understanding in their critique of the work. There were plenty of critics focusing on broad ideas of "good or bad" but only a few attempted to use their critical tools to find a deeper meaning and intention from the production. To this day, I still don't like that film, but if I were to find an article about how the movie is, I dunno, a scene-for-scene remake of a lost Finnish film about the environment from 1935 then, yeah, my opinion of the film would change. I guess I'm saying I use a mosaic of things including critics, my own opinion, discussions of works with my friends,a nd other things to help me understand a work wholly before figuring my "good or bad" opinion of it and almost never close the case fully on my opinion. It's always like Play-doh and I like that.

But, getting back to the bigger idea here, and I told Ben this, I wonder if there's a problem with the quality of comics coming out today that's not as easy to answer as each individual saying "Let me like what I like." Maybe we aren't always getting the grand art that we deserve because the general public doesn't realize that they deserve better and so the companies give us what the companies want instead of the best they can give.

I genuinely believe every comic fan (and any fan of art, period) owes it to themselves to be their own critic and make a conscious decision to figure out why they like what they say is good. What is it that makes it good in your eyes? If it stands up to your test, then great! If it doesn't, then it's possible your passion has diluted your taste. Either way, as an intelligent fan, you deserve the best.

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