What are comic books?
And please don’t, like, drop a link to Wikipedia or Dictionary.com.
Were you to ask that question to 100 different people, you might get 150 different answers. That’s the point: this medium has different values and constraints to every single one of us who create and/or consume these books. They’re a multifaceted medium that facilitates so many different aesthetic and emotional end goals, with a level of nuance and variety like few other mediums.
This something I think about a lot, but it’s felt especially relevant this week. On Monday, the artist Gleb Melnikov made some (mostly minor) waves when he pointed out several panels and pages from Venom #25, focusing on the “repetition” of faces and the clear “de-emphasis” on set pieces and/or action. His argument seemed to be that this kind of nuance and emotional development doesn’t always have a room in the especially limited confines of a “superhero” comic. Like, let’s cut the character evolution and make with the exploding moons pronto.
Accordingly, several creators and fans laid into Melnikov, albeit in a slightly fun, frivolous way. There were even folks who couldn’t understand the “backlash” against him. But through the gags and peak internet commenting, one thing was clear: people believed that this “Venom approach“ had a real value as yet another tool for comics to use in subtlety exploring emotions and expanding the core of characters. It’s an occurrence made all the more hilarious (and perhaps complicated?) as Melnikov committed the same “crime” in this week’s Jinny Hex special (see here and here).
I’d be beating a dead horse if I spent an entire article arguing why Melnikov was wrong, especially since so many other people have countered that argument so brilliantly and succinctly and with actual wit and humor. I will say this, though: I think Melnikov’s comments are wrong because I’m a real details guy. Making me look at a character’s face for an extended period, or really drawing out one painful moment, is the thing that makes me connect with characters. I like a slow and deliberate pace to get lost in, even if I think the work isn’t being nearly efficient or overly engaging. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but that’s the point: creators have to have the space to make all those different decisions to tell a story and push the craft forward. And if repeating panels somehow makes it easier for the artist, or there’s some other benefit attached, who am I to deny them of that?
Still, whether the countless throngs of comics fans and creators are right doesn’t really matter all that much. Same goes for the fact that there’s actually a sliver of validity to Melnikov’s criticism. (Superhero comics have a particular end goal — huge sales — and nuance isn’t always executed so effectively in the mad dash toward said objective.) What actually matters, then, is that these kinds of moments generally give us a chance to explore those fundamental questions, like “what are comics actually?” And even what these questions might mean in the grand scheme of fandom.
All that gets at the larger point: conversations like this can’t exist in the abstract, and they need a catalyst of sorts. There needs to be some trigger moment where we stop and ask what are the things we care about, what that means, they value they then hold, how have they changed/shifted, and what comes next.
Fandom is a thing that needs to be engaged with and investigated from time to time, so we can really grasp what we’re all spending our time in celebrating or partaking in. We tend to think of media consumption as a passive act, where we take something in (be it a comic issue, album, novel, etc.) and enjoy or dismiss it accordingly. But it has to be more active than that, and that means getting our hands dirty by playing around behind the scenes to see what value we all believe that this thing might contain. Individual opinions are just dandy, but as this event has evidenced, there’s clearly something powerful about a consensus to remind us what we think about the medium of comics. The fact that it’s one that’s so positive, reflective of a larger belief in the grander scope and scale of comics, is just an added bonus.
“We tend to think of media consumption as a passive act…”
That’s especially true because I don’t think this same consensus could have been achieved even 15-20 years ago for mainstream comics. There was this prevalent notion regarding the “juvenile” nature of superhero comics for so long, and how they were limited in their emotional impact and creative capabilities. There was a time when the counter argument I offered (about the actual capabilities of mainstream comics) may have generally rung more true. But now we recognize almost immediately that comics are a true artform, one deftly capable of profound emotional displays and meaningful character development that doesn’t focus on space or packing in as much action. However, there was no moment in which that revelation occurred, no magical light bulb popping on where it clicked for our collective consciousness. We just know what came before and what we think now, and it takes some kind of regular conversation to track the evolution.
I think back to my experience in music journalism and how for a long time electronic music was seen as a trend — until it wasn’t. As one of the biggest genres in the world, there are countless articles and books that readily explore its evolution into this global powerhouse. And comments like that from Melnikov are the same sort of thing for comics: a moment to pause and reflect how we got to a better place for the industry. Is it a natural progression? Is there going to be more growth? Is it this all a fluke and we may instead tumble back to the “dark” days of the ’90s? This is the time to understand these issues both on an individual level and collectively. It’s a perfect space in which to explore ideas that actually drive the change comics has undergone as an artform. I may think him totally wrong, but Melnikov’s efforts are a huge part of why comics means what it does today. Someone’s got to ask the questions of what we’re all mucking about with.
“A moment to pause and reflect how we got to a better place for the industry.”
As an extension of that, I think we’re in the best place as a fanbase to have these conversations in a really meaningful sense. Social media has empowered people to comment with ease and to be able to have their voices heard in a really dynamic way. And, as I mentioned above, people came with a certain level of “force” to counter Melnikov’s argument with both thoughtful opinions and a mix of humor. I think some people may think that this “mob mentality” is too stringent, or that it leaned too heavily and fostered the “meme-ification“ of Melnikov’s comments. And to an extent I can see that: there’s maybe some truth that people tend to snuff out bad arguments without giving them much merit. But to those people I’d say this: what’s wrong with obliterating bad ideas? Part of this whole thing is that it’s clear the majority of comics fans and creators believe in the much larger and more diverse functions of comics as a whole.
It’s not about destroying free speech or something dumb like that. Nor is it about stifling debate, because it’s clear that this kind of thing still happens. Rather, it’s about people uniting around shared ideas with lightning speed and in a preferred format (often jokey memes). People like Melnikov are free to have their comments, just as we’re free to tear them apart in seconds. No one’s opinion is being denied, but rather we’re building a collective understanding about what comics are and the extent to which we think they can achieve a set goal or just tug at someone’s heart strings. That’s such a huge part of this ongoing discussion/dissection off comics, and these mass opinions reflect the kind of understanding we’ve accumulated in continually breaking down the value of comics. Progress can’t be made until people gather around ideas and build the world that perpetuates the meaning we’ve attached.
“We’re building a collective understanding about what comics are…”
But there’s something deeper here, too. I’d also be remiss without mentioning that Melnikov’s comment aren’t just about fostering conversations about what we thinks comics are or will be. I think it’s also a chance to examine how criticism actually functions in comics in general. As someone who came to comics from music journalism, there’s a huge amount of change that I still continue to grapple with. It’s more than the two mediums speak a different language; it’s also that there’s different sets of structures in place. There’s a whole library of books about proper music journalism and criticism, and writers like Greil Marcus and Jessica Hopper (and so many others) have helped elevate talking about music into its own artform.
I don’t think that’s nearly true for comics, and comments from Melnikov feel pretty par for the course for a lot of comics criticism. Which is to say, a little shallow and not at all reflective of what is actually being done in so many works. They may have some validity, but they feel a little half-hollow, ignorant of some of the larger context. There’s a kind of derivative focus on the action and not enough about the forms of the tools being utilized or even how to connect some of these larger pillars like narrative and structure. Even as someone like Melnikov focuses more on the specific form, it doesn’t seem to connect back in any substantial way, or in a manner emphasizing nuance and genuinely considering what’s on the page.
I don’t want to throw my fellow comics reporters/critics under the bus; there’s tons of great work being done across so many sites. But I can’t help but see that comics journalism is where music journalism was before, say, in the late ‘60s: still unsure of itself and what it’s doing to engage and relate with the media at hand. Some of that has to do with the continued evolution of comics as a relevant artform. Still, a lot of it has to do with comments like those from Melnikov: even the creators can’t always agree about the art itself, so how could everyone else? It just goes to show how important it is we not only converse but do so in a way that includes all voices, no matter what they may have to say. Criticism can be a great stand-in for exploring how everyone engages with art in public settings.
“Even the creators can’t always agree about the art itself, so how could everyone else?”
That’s not to say I think there will be some grand change overnight, but I hope that we as the chroniclers of what happens in comics can take the time to see what is happening and how we need to go about either changing up that conversation or better enforcing it based on our own values and goals. Some of the best music writing has gone totally counter to the “hits” of the day because there was a legitimate effort to engage the material and present new ideas and understandings. That’s what we need more of for the media sphere surrounding comics: earnest conversations that pave the way to something resembling a “consensus.”
People may or may not come around regardless, but they always appreciate the effort to provide great art with some accompanying great criticism. We can all do more to be aware of moments to pull back the curtains and explore things for what they could be and not just what they are. If Melnikov’s comments had any upside, it’s that they didn’t just start a conversation but expose what’s actually happening in the spaces between these discussions. This feels especially pertinent given that Melnikov apparently deleted some comments defending his own position (and his original post). Nothing gets accomplished if we’re not speaking loudly and proudly at all times.
Here’s where I’d probably provide some final lesson or insight. However, a lot of this essay has felt like that already, so let me spare you any further examination and/or musing. Instead, I want to end by thanking Melnikov for his comments. It takes a lot of chutzpah to speak freely these days, especially if your comments fly in the face of so many others. But this isn’t any about a kind of trolling or even outright hating; it’s about making noise so we all pay a little more attention to our beloved realm of comics.
Even if we don’t each a consensus, or some kind of new understanding, what we have done is keep ourselves from falling prey to needless entropy and bland ambivalence. Good, bad, or otherwise, moments like these make comics what they actually should be all about: a celebration of life, art, emotions, stories, and so much more. That, and an excuse to watch Batman fight a giant crocodile man.
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