Thursday, October 26, 2006

A Critical Look at the Critics, Part 3 of 3 

The final chapter.

Q: What's your hope for the comic book industry? For comic book journalism?

Me: I would wear out my keyboard before I could list all the problems with the comic book industry. The biggest and most glaring problem, to me, seems to be the distribution system. What we have right now is akin to transferring a watermelon through the eye of a needle. That eye of the needle is called “Diamond.” I understand Diamond is a business that must turn a profit to continue operating. I understand they are largely benign. I understand that the biggest publishers, in their infinite shortsighted wisdom, benefit from the current system’s calcification. Everyone thinks all comics needs is some new breakthrough title, but this is of course old thinking that has time and again proven to do nothing on its own. As my buddy Matt Maxwell puts it, comics doesn’t need a new killer app. It needs a new platform.

But comics as we know them are inbred. I won’t go dramatic and say they’re “dying”; so long as someone is willing to pay for a book with pictures and words in them, the medium will always exist. But comics is a reductive field, increasingly more insular, increasingly less interested in doing anything it hasn’t already done for the past 10-20-30 years.

Worse, the general attitude is that this is okay, and suggesting changes is akin to blasphemy or lunacy. Unfortunately, the people who are completely content with their tiny, anemic empires are the ones in charge of them.

It’s too bad. Everything about comics distribution is stark insanity, and no other medium in the world would tolerate using that system.

Comics journalism needs more Dirk Deppeys. Comics journalism needs more Tom Spurgeons. Comics journalism needs more Heidi MacDonalds. Comics journalism needs more Matt Bradys. It needs more publishers who think the comics media, such as it is, deserves some respect and interaction. Publishers like Larry Young.

Basically, we need to grow the **** up. Press release factories like Silver Bullet Comics and Comic Book Resources (good for the columns and nothing else) are a good example of what we DON’T need. We don’t need more magazines who put speculatory cast lists for comics movies on their COVER. We don’t need more sites that serve as little more than ego gratification for writers who feel like “insiders” because their domain name grants them fluff junket interviews.

We can do better.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Marie Antoinette 

Watching Marie Antoinette, I couldn’t help but think of Paris Hilton. Imagine, if you will, a pretty blonde princess whose life up till now has had little to no consequence, whose closest companion is a tiny dog she keeps with her at all times, who suddenly finds herself thrust into the limelight for unearned adoration and brutal scrutiny. The pretty blonde princess herself is hard to dislike, but close inspection only reveals someone who, until now, is basically blameless. Mildly interesting, mostly forgettable. Certainly no one you’d put in a position of consequence.

So goes Sofia Coppola’s latest. Many of the reviews and commentary (most coming out of the now-infamous screening at Cannes) on the film have questioned its historical integrity and lightness of subject matter; I can only guess those folks were looking for more head-chopping and less shoe-shopping. That anyone sat through the two hour screen time and expected historical accuracy and grim violence is a little surprising to me; I’m not sure they were watching the same movie I was.


Thursday, October 19, 2006

A Critical Look at the Critics, Part 2 of 3. 


Q: What criteria makes a "good" book? What makes something bad?

Me: This is a broad question, so I’m going to give a broad answer.

A good book is passion. The people involved need to care about what they’re doing, even if it’s paycheck work. If they don’t give a ****, it’s going to show in the material, and everyone will have wasted $3-$4 and 15 minutes of their time better spent sleeping or masturbating. There’s enough uninspired dreck out there, there really is no excuse to bring in even more of it. All dreck does is further clog an already overcrowded market with more of what it doesn’t need.

Q: Do you have any prior experience in journalism or reviewing other stuff (film, music, etc)? What's necessary to be a good critic/reviewer?

Me: Yes to both. I’ve been a writer since forever, and I’ve been doing film criticism since I was… I suppose 16 or so? And I haven’t stopped since then. I ran a comics blog for about two years, doing all the things it is bloggers do.

Short answer: Yes.

As to what makes a good critic or reviewer? Roughly the same qualities that a book should possess to be “good.” Passion, for one thing. An interesting perspective. An ironclad belief in the crazy notion that art, even pop art, is worth taking seriously. (Some of you are smirking now, saying “what a pretentious bastard,” and that is exactly why you should never be a critic.)

A good critic has an agenda. He or she wants to shape his or her audience, to help them understand what makes good art, so that they can make better, more informed decisions. This doesn’t and won’t have a direct impact on sales, but everyone benefits when everyone appreciates the art on a deeper level.

And anyone who says a reviewer just “tells you if something is good or bad,” well, they shouldn’t be revewers either.

(More next week. Did it needed to be divided into three parts? Probably not, but there you go.)

Thursday, October 12, 2006

A Critical Look at the Critics, Part 1 of 3 

David Hopkins, always an interesting person to read, has decided to talk to some comics critics he respects for his column on Pop Syndicate. Possibly because he's high, I qualify as one of those critics.

Here you go.

The abbreviated version follows, with the first two questions and my responses... since this is my LJ and I'll be as vain as I want to be.

(I hope people really pay attention to the answer for the second one, because it addresses a major problem I have with what passes for comics criticism. If all you're going to do every month is explain the plot twists of an ongoing monthly well into its 8th year, then news flash: You aren't a critic. You're cataloguing for the already-converted. It bores me to tears.. and pisses me off when you think it's actually bringing in any new readers. We really need to shape up and act like big people already.)

Are you a critic or a reviewer? Is there a difference?

KEN LOWERY: A little from Column A, a little from Column B.

The Semantics Police would probably argue that a reviewer gives first impressions and a general good-bad judgment on a product. A critic isn’t so much concerned with an immediate good-bad judgment as with exploring and analyzing work on as many levels as it offers. It’s about understanding the craft and the underpinnings of a story; it’s like telling someone about how an engine powers a car, rather than just telling you how smoothly that car drives.

To me, an ideal review involves some level of criticism—some deeper thought and analysis, a chance to pull away more from the material than a casual read/view/listen will yield. This is what I strive for. If you read a review I’ve written and come away having learned something about the material, the creators, or just how a story works—even if it’s a new perspective, rather than a new level of understanding—then I’ve done my job. Whether or not you agree with me is completely beside the point.

How do you approach reviewing a comic book?

KEN: I give it a day. I read the material along with the glut of comics I pick up every Wednesday, then I sit on it for a day and let it stew. 24 hours later I come back and flip through, and see what sticks out to me. I come from a writing background, so I’m much better at talking about dialogue, pacing, and story construction than I am artwork. This is unfortunately pretty common with most comics reviewers.

Monthlies provide a unique challenge. Anyone even remotely interested in what someone has to say about Part 4 of 6 in an arc, in series that’s 80 issues in, already knows all the groundwork, so you can assume some level of familiarity with the material. This frees up space. And as most individual issues in an arc are (quite frankly) loaded with filler and padding, there’s really only so much you can say about the average monthly comic.

So I try to bring in larger context. The arc itself, and how well that issue serves a function in it. What the general direction of the title seems to be, from arc to arc, both thematically and artistically. How well does this individual issue represent those trends? That is the final question. Talking about particular plot points gets old fast.

(More next Thursday.)

Friday, October 06, 2006

The Departed 

The first thing you notice about The Departed is what a departure it is for Martin Scorsese. Perhaps the best living American filmmaker, Scorsese often tells his tales like a biographer. We approach the main character through a stretch of his life, sometimes most of it (Goodfellas), sometimes just a piece (The Aviator). “Story” isn’t the point so much as stories; call them a string of anecdotes from fascinating people, talking about their fascinating lives. Even Gangs of New York, with its nominal revenge arc, was more about the time and place and the movements of its titular proto-governments than it was about a conventional story. The Departed is different. It’s a narrative, almost conventional in its arrangement of people and the arcs of their lives and entanglements with one another.

The second thing you notice about The Departed is that it’s funny. Savagely funny. But then, it may be hard to avoid that when you cast Jack Nicholson as the primary villain, Frank Costello. That kind of corrupt humor — or is that humorous corruption? — is Nicholson’s forté, and it’s never been put to better use than here. It is a surprise nonetheless. Scorsese’s films have become increasingly serious, to the point of being dour and almost off-putting. Not so here. In keeping with the tone, The Departed’s humor is sharp, jagged, cutting; it’s more Bill Hicks than Robin Williams.


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