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Goblin Power!: Why good criticism always matters (even if it sucks)

Comic Books

Goblin Power!: Why good criticism always matters (even if it sucks)

Proper criticism is under attack these days, but it’s an essential service in understanding and disseminating art.

I’ve always been a critic.

First it was my mom’s pork chops (seriously, mushrooms, Christine?!), and then later music and comic books. There’s something deeply familiar and wholly comforting about the pseudo-science of critiquing art. The cold, clinical approach to something so purely emotional; the sense of control that comes with categorization; discovering that all-important value of, say, intergalactic slum tourists.

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Not everyone feels so fondly about criticism. Just a few weeks back, Lizzo, Olivia Munn, and Ariana Grande have let loose their respective attacks against lowly critics, united in a common belief that criticism is sad little trolls employed by outdated media outlets slinging negativity and unrepentant ignorance. There’s been a wellspring of thinkpieces in response, most of them coming to the defense of good and earnest critics everywhere. And while my humble essay is among that deluge, I’d like to clarify something beforehand:

The celebs are totally right.

Criticism, as a rule, sucks. I can’t play a single instrument, or draw a person to save my life, and I’ve been paid good money to critique and comment on albums and comic books that represent the very lifeblood of their creators. There’s been countless times in writing a piece where I’ve felt like some goblin, bashing a wooden stick against the pristine facade of someone else’s hard work, lashing out because this song wasn’t catchy enough or this story was weirdly paced. Even when I feel justified in my criticism, I can never fully escape the sense that I’m a saboteur, clearly on the side of (if not evil then clearly) misanthropy, throwing a wrench into the works for added web traffic and a few shiny coins. No matter how thoughtful the argument, or well-written the piece, this is an inherently destructive lot. You burn things asunder, Mr. Coplan, you are a fiendish pyro-ghoul.

And that’s mostly OK.

The prevailing argument is that good criticism is necessary, and that’s certainly true. Some writers might say because proper journalism can’t be another arm in a creator’s PR machine, and thus we provide actual balance. Or that these same creators need to toughen up a bit, and that the price of fame is absorbing potshots from people who aren’t your friend or in service of perpetuating your career. Regardless, these people seem to have a noble view of what they do, that their charge is to speak what needs spoken, and that this is indeed a job born of justness (and snark. So much snark).

But I for one am happy to lean into the perception by (some if not all) creators that critics are true cretins. This doesn’t color what I do or how I write – I always try to speak with civility and respect, even if I think something has the value of year-old cottage cheese. Rather, I understand that critics aren’t ever going to be popular with a huge swathe of artists and their respective crews, and that if looking upon me so lowly helps, then so be it.

To a degree, I think that attitude works nicely for critics. What we do seemingly has little value, and as such, we have a certain freedom to exist and behave as we see fit. If we’re goofy weirdos, writing about colorful paper or weird sounds to one another in distant rooms, then who cares what we say. I think de-emphasizing our validity or importance with creators means no reason to pull punches. To write and comment in a way that reflects the truth. There’s no winning these folks over, to persuade them of our value. So let’s write what we want and they’ll read on regardless. Because that’s the real rub: criticism has value, but not everyone can admit that.

I can see now how all that feels wildly confrontational. Sort of like when someone says “You’re crazy,” and then you reply, “I’ll show you crazy” before eating out of a recycle bin. Still, it’s not meant to be – I only lean into my “lower” status because it doesn’t matter what these folks believe. Their similarly counterintuitive approach (“this is dumb, but I clearly read your review”) proves that people need these insights, maybe doubly because they can’t fess up to assigning value. That dynamic shows that these people aren’t all ego, and there is some cracks in the armor, and that’s ultimately a good thing. The Munns and Grandes of the world still recognize they don’t have it all figured out, and they need help in understanding their value and the service in which they provide.

Not that they don’t understand their craft. But that art as it exists in the echo chamber of one’s personal bubble is far different when said art moves into big, scary world. As critics, the best writers contextualize those pieces, showing them as not merely constructs but real-world items that hold value and weight. A truly important critic can take all these threads (an artist’s past, the current culture, the artifact itself, etc.), tie them all together, and provide some understanding that wasn’t there before. Oh, and they’re sometimes funny or especially witty, too.

Because there’s a simple truth that so many non-critics don’t understand: we (critics) are in no way experts. We haven’t divined hidden truths about the nature of art, or figured out the best way to stir the soul of mankind. At most, critics are obsessive types, who spend hours and hours thoughtfully consuming. (Though many have an unnatural knowledge of, say, Blur’s B-sides or Green Lantern storylines.) Because the best critics aren’t necessarily telling you The Gospel, but instead they’re making you think.

So often people react with blind adoration or burning hatred, both of which leave little room for proper introspection. It’s the critic’s job, then, to present an argument to break through those barriers, to foster and encourage thought about why we like a thing, what that means, and why any of that matters. It’s not enough to say a thing is good, because even then there’s layers of context that color that and help us all come to a better understanding. The same with those things deemed “sucky,” because there’s always insights to be found within in shiny turds. Don’t listen when a critic says to this buy or not – listen because maybe you missed something.

By embracing that sense of “goblin-ness” mentioned earlier, critics can maintain a place in the long and arduous convo about actually understanding and appreciating art. That it takes an unflinching hand to properly tear something apart and find the golden flakes within its innards (ew), and that’s better done when you’re not concerned with the role of the critic or their perception among the creators. It’s an isolating experience, and that’s the way it should be: there needs to be a disconnect between everything but the reviewer and the material itself. Not because this person has the best taste in art/culture (again, most critics don’t), or because they know a lot (that helps, but a keen understanding of one’s self and sensibilities is arguably more vital).

Rather, because this person has the stamina and determination to consider a piece of art with all their inner strength, to give it the kind of thoughtful analysis it deserves. Sure, anyone can be a critic – it’s about mass consumption and sharing thoughts, which we’re all mostly inclined toward. Not everyone criticizes professionally it because it takes an effort that most either can’t or unable to muster. In short, being both punching bag and sparring partner for the artists of the world takes chutzpah.

I recognize now my musings may appear 1) self-congratulatory and 2) supremely defensive. But I’ve been reviewing comics for almost two years now, and it’s made me think more and more about this specific industry and my approach within it. There’s some pretty obvious parallels between music and comics, in that it takes similar skills and techniques to review just about anything (except maybe trucks or, like, BBQ grills). I’ve also noticed some discrepancies, and thus have had to acquire new skills/understandings during the transition.

For one, there’s a certain desire to be cool among music critics, to be accepted by the rock gods, and that translates to a sense of detachment with tackling the music (echoing some of my earlier points). That’s generally good – again, distance makes for stronger observations – but it also means a level of preening that often obfuscates the process. Comics, meanwhile, seems to be populated by more hardcore fans, people who are obsessive about continuities and other silly minutiae. That creates a solid reader who can move alongside these vast, amorphous fictional worlds, but sometimes there’s zero distance between critic and subject, and that’s legit scary.

While it may seem super obvious, there’s something far different involved in reviewing art/visuals versus sound. That’s been especially challenging, to consider far more elements than ever before, but it’s also been a way to sharpen these new skills. Lastly, there’s slightly less guess work attached in reviewing comics, with more definitive and accessible narratives over your average LP. All of these insights don’t necessarily make the critic’s job easier, but the more knowledge culled, the stronger people feel in tackling proper critical writing.

I’m still very much learning about what kind of comic writer/critic I am, and I hope that’s always the case. There’s never a point where you’re done learning in this field, and if you stop shapeshifting along with the medium, your critiques are utterly asinine. The criticisms of Munn and Grande will never stop coming, and that’s just another part of the job. Good criticism will succeed not because it simply blows through the ranting of A-list celebs. Instead, it’ll provide an opportunity for people who do this with gusto and commitment to analyze their efforts and either double down or grow accordingly. It ain’t pretty, but then I would have just become a teacher like my mother wanted.

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