Tipped off by the inestimable Gene Kannenberg, who keeps a record of this sort of thing here, I started my morning off with this truly abysmal piece in the New York Times, currently splashed across the homepage of their website. ComicCon, not that I’ve ever been, is of course something far different that what it started out being, and now seems to be largely a vehicle for major studios and corporate entities to schlock their latest wares and drum up enthusiasm among superfans. Only marginally does much of the programming seem to be about comics in the first place (which might lead to a very generous reading of the article’s category confusion around fantasy, science fiction, and comics throughout). No objections here, really: people seem to be genuinely enjoying themselves, major studios despite themselves can produce intensely interesting work (though, like in any medium, truly exceptional work is rare, but I wouldn’t say comics are any different in this way than cinema or pop music or architecture), and I like a good trailer just like the next guy. Although I probably wouldn’t be front row at the Twilight Saga panel, just seeing the Twitter feeds of Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly and Pantheon is enough to make me swoon.
So, the article. Where to begin? There’s the high-grade anti-intellectualism throughout: thinking about something is anathema to enjoying it, experts are inherently suspect, intellection is akin to gloom. In another forum, sure, but this is particularly distasteful from a culture editor at the Times—someone who is paid daily to write thoughtfully about popular culture. It countenances potentially compelling lines of inquiry and then willfully dismisses them: culture and commerce sure are intertwined; dang these comics are being considered by studio executives, lawyers, educators, and academics all under the same roof; geez, people keep talking about the rights of creators, wonder what that’s all about. And it just gets things wrong, both in the nightly-news-interviewing-the-man-on-the-street exaggerations (I’ll concentrate on the woman with the “rubber hand on the top of her beanie”/“Students, distracted by video, are no longer responding to comics as an educational tool” Wha?) and in its willful insistence on not knowing things. My supernerd credentials are thin, but, dude, even I know it’s not “Klingonese.”
So I guess this means that comics criticism has finally made it, given that this is the exact same piece that has run every year in the city paper where the MLA convention (the largest annual gathering of language and literature professors) is held. The same dismissive tone—professors care about “indigenous cultures” and dead languages, what gives?—the same clamoring for targets to ridicule, the same refusal to understand what’s being said. Charles Hatfield, newly minted Eisner Award winner, surely on the short list of the most thoughtful people to write about the medium, is name checked at the article’s end, so Michael Cieply had his chances. It’s particularly galling from the Times, which was one of the first mainstream media champions of the contemporary generation of graphic novelists/comics artists. A paper that featured groundbreaking and thought-provoking work like Chris Ware’s Building Stories and Seth’s George Sprott in its pages. That now includes a graphic novels bestseller list and regularly reviews some of the most compelling work being produced. Per usual, The Onion—actually a great place in its own right to read about comics, and to read comics-related satire—gets it right: “Comics Not Just for Kids Anymore.”
To quote Gene: “LE SIGH.”
Late Breaking: As if to make my point, the A.V. Club publishes this a few days later.