Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Comics Criticism: Art or Science

Back in the '90's while working for Defiant, I recall going to the Chicago Con, before Wizard bought it, and manning the booth to sign some comics and talk up the company. I also volunteered to look at portfolios with the editors at the time, and I know that many of you are thinking, "God help those poor people", but no, I was nice. And more importantly, I wanted to actually do something to help.

The state of portfolio reviews in comics is poor, horribly subjective and downright bizarre to most people who have never done professional work. Yes, lets get the obvious out of the way first: art itself is subjective and yes, there are clearly different styles for many different types of comic work, so we'll confine ourselves to the narrow band of Marvel/DC /Image /WildStorm etc superhero styles that exist. We're not talking about Fantagraphics, Last Gasp, and the like, which clearly have different styles, different aims.

As much as you might pity the poor beginner who signs up to sit through a number of different portfolio sessions at San Diego, Wonder Con or Wizard Con, and basically is given so much conflicting advice that they leave with no idea of essentially where to star, the person in the worst position is the moderately talented artist. Yes, this person has digested much of the beginners mistakes and eliminated them from his or her work, so they've advanced into the shadowy netherworld of almost employable but not quite. The mistakes are more subtle, harder to pick up on in a quick review, more detailed in the subtle terms of what needs fixing. This person is not in a great position.

While reviewing those portfolios in Chicago, I tried to concentrate on saying, "Here is a clear objective: spatial separation, black spotting, helping the penciller's composition. And here is why this doesn't work." Or better, "Here is why this does work," since its many times easier to make the positive example stick that hitting the person over the head with WHAT (whack) THEY'RE (whack) DOING (whack) WRONG.

The older editors that I worked with usually had the best vocabulary to describe what it was they liked about a page, but also what wasn't working and WHY it wasn't working. That was key for me at least. Younger editors would have, sometimes the eye to pick up on what wasn't working, but couldn't, for their life, tell you why it didn't work. And the freelancer was left to go puzzle out what the hell to do, while all the time worrying about their next assignment.

I think that this is why people responded so well to the Scott McCloud books: we were desperate for a shared verbal vocabulary by which to discuss our visual vocabulary. To many miles separated the terms by which the arcane art of combining words and pictures could be discussed. McCloud hits on many of the themes: we use language stolen from the film industry or the novel world and oft times it just doesn't hit all the things that it needs to. Try translating Yiddish into English: one yiddish word invariably needs a whole phrase or two of english to get its point across. Comics are like yiddish: one simple panel could convey what might take a whole paragraph of words to get across. Are comics easy to critique? To that I answer: Oy Vey.

By the way: for any of those people that I talked to in Chicago all those years ago, I dearly hope that I made some sense, and that maybe I helped out just a little bit. If I didn't, I'm sorry. Know that the criticism was at least well meant by someone who actually cared.

1 comment:

plok said...

I'm glad you mention this, Charles. Being stuck on the level of basic competency (I'm speaking here about writing, because it's what I know) is frustrating for the teacher and the student alike. Me, I'm happy I've at last gained the ability to understand my own mistakes enough to learn what I did wrong...but I remember being in the predicament of knowing I was making mistakes, even sometimes knowing WHAT they were, but not knowing the WHY of it all enough to self-correct efficiently.

That's when you really need the right teacher, I think: by which I mean not a person who teaches professionally (as I've done), but someone who's a professional artist themselves, who has something to pass on. I'm always amazed by the number of professionals, in any field, who wait and wait for someone to come along they feel they can tell something to that they've learned by hard sweat...and then nobody comes. A friend of mine had a drawing teacher in art school once, and she told him: "but I really don't care about this class, I only want to know how to draw! Can you teach me that?" And he said: "oh crap, why YES! Sure! Come on, let's go get some supplies...!"

I always remember that one.

So you can put me down for "art".