Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Comics and Criticism

This is a long time coming, but recent events have finally forced me to sit down and write it. This is likely going to jump around because I'm somewhat angry, but it should be readable enough.

Comics has a criticism problem.

Well, comics has a couple of criticism problems. I talk a lot about reviews needing to be better (i.e. actually address the art intelligently and not just recap the story), and while that is still very much an issue, that's not the one I want to talk about here. Because comics has an entirely different, possibly more sinister criticism problem.

A not small number of comic creators simply have no idea how to handle, process, or react to criticism. At all.

So what made me finally decide to write something about this? Recently, artist Randy Queen took issue with the Escher Girls Tumblr and how they treated his work on the comic Darkchylde. This isn't specifically about that, so if you'd like a good summary of the events (which included his apology), check out this post on Robot 6. But the short short version is that he sent DMCA takedown notices to Tumblr which then removed the critical posts (not just the images) and then followed up this by threatening to sue. This isn't really what I want to talk about, but it helps frame things.

So let's start this simply: It is never, ever, ever okay to threaten to sue someone over this kind of criticism. It doesn't matter how bad a place you're in or how angry it makes you. It doesn't matter if you apologize after. This is ridiculous and childish. And yes, this is the kind of overreaction that doesn't happen often, but there are people out there cheering this kind of attitude on so it has to be specifically called out. If you do this or if you think this kind of action is okay, then you need to walk away from art forever because you cannot handle it.

But this kind of thing isn't the norm. There are, however, constant things said in response to criticism that do need to be talked about.

First, style is never, ever, ever a valid defense against criticism. "It's just my style" is, quite simply, the cry of a bad artist. Style is not some stalwart defense against critique. Style is just how your work looks. "I just draw that way" doesn't alter the validity of any criticism. It's a deflection. Style doesn't mean that you get a pass on proportions being bad, perspective being off, or just generally drawing in a way that doesn't communicate well. Which is not to say one cannot draw in a stylized way and realism is the One True Path. There's a reason "draw from life" is a constant piece of advice given to all artists, regardless of style.
This is also not to say that everyone must like a certain style or dislike another. Tastes are different. That's fine and normal. But the point of criticism is for the critic to express how they feel about a work and, if done well, WHY. Because of this, "That's just how I draw" is not a valid response to a criticism that says, for example, "The human body cannot bend that way."

Now for a (hopefully) quick tangent. Comics is FULL of that last bit and this entire discussion is largely sparked by that. It is a simple fact that women in comics have been drawn in ridiculous poses wearing moronic outfits for years, all of which primarily exist for male readers to enjoy looking at. "Male heroes are drawn crazy too!" is not a valid response, either. Male heroes are drawn as a male power fantasy. Female heroes are drawn as a male sexual fantasy. Those are NOT equivalent. In the past, I've struggled with this myself. Now, though, I'm tired of it. The good news is that the majority of comics is moving away from this, but a very loud group of both fans and creators continue to pretend it isn't there and they are both WRONG and LOSING THAT FIGHT.

One last comment on this before the next point: It is okay to like drawings of sexy women. You are not a bad person for that. At the same time, liking something doesn't make it less problematic. Liking something doesn't make it GOOD. Similarly, that things are normal and have always been a certain way does not mean they should continue to be or that it's okay. And to tie it all back to this section, SEXY WOMEN IS NOT A STYLE.


Second. Putting a lot of time into something does not make it good. Working hard on something does not make it good. Neither of those reasons are valid defenses against criticism. People work long and hard on many things that end up terrible. Not everything succeeds. Things fail. We don't set out to make something and fail, but it happens. It's a normal part of creating. In fact, it's pretty much required. You will fail. You will screw up. You will make bad things. You will make things that people hate.

They might even tell you how much they hated it. Telling them how hard you worked on it and how many hours you stayed up not sleeping to do so won't change that. And it shouldn't. Because that's not the comic. YOU are not being critiqued. The comic is. So stay away from this mindset.

Third. Seniority does not make you immune to criticism. Where the previous two points are more commonly associated with newer comic creators (and also two of the biggest pieces of advice to new creators about things to never say), this one certainly isn't. It does tie into a point that's already been made. Specifically, the creator is not the work. How long a person has worked in comics, how much work they've produced over the years, and how many people they've influenced is irrelevant to the work being critiqued. This is for the same reason that saying you worked on something for a long time doesn't matter: it says NOTHING about the actual comic.

There's a theme here, that I think it's time to touch on. Mainly that most of the common defenses against criticism involve completely changing the subject. We immediately look to, instead, find fault with the critic. It's one thing for fans to do this. It's an entirely different thing to see creators do it. Why is that?
Well, try to look at it this way. You, a comic creator, are sitting behind a table at a convention and someone you've never met brings you a their portfolio of work. For every critique you give them, they use responses like the ones mentioned above. "This is just how I draw" or "I worked on this forever" or "I've been doing this for years!" or any number of others that we've all heard or even said are not acceptable. In fact, creators tend to MOCK people that use these excuses in such a scenario.

And to bring things back around, it's not as if what the people at Escher Girls do is any different than what many creators do at conventions when critiquing portfolios. Draw-overs, detailed explanations of where perspective isn't working, showing why the form doesn't work in certain panels, etc. There is no difference here.

Criticism is a vital part of making any art. Analyzing and internalizing work is important, as is understanding why things work or don't work. And if you want to be a creator of anything, criticism is a part of life. To think that all criticism is wrong is childish. To think that critics only do what they do because they're jealous or want to take people down a notch is also childish.

Being paid to make comics doesn't change any of this. Doing it for years doesn't change it. Being popular doesn't change it. Because none of those stop people from making mistakes. In fact, many of them cause the opposite.

Finally, and maybe more important of all, someone critiquing a work is not deserving of scorn because you don't agree with them.