I Don't Know Why You Wanna Impress Christgau: 10 of Our Favorite Comics CriticsA column article, Top Ten by: Danny Djeljosevic, Daniel Elkin, David Fairbanks, Nick Hanover, Keith Silva
It seems like every other week, we get into a conversation about what critics aren't getting right when they review comics. After debating the issue with Michael May and others on Twitter and then taking the conversation to Tumblr for some thoughts around the issue, a few of us decided to use this as an opportunity to shout out the critics who are getting it right for a change. This is by no means a definitive list of the best critics in comics, but merely a showcase of ten critics we personally appreciate, which we hope you will find useful when looking for smart writing on comics. Please do chime in and let us know who you personally enjoy because this only scratches the surface of what's out there.
- Nick Hanover
Notable piece: “The Devil You May Know”
“Horror is political precisely because the realm of the political is horrifying.” This is how Ken Chen began his May 9, 2013 column on DC Comics' announcement of Hellblazer's cancellation for The New Inquiry. As a critic, Chen used this as an opportunity to not only talk about how much of an influence the character of John Constantine had on him personally, but also the commentary Hellblazer itself made about the England of Margaret Thatcher. As he wrote in his piece, “Hellblazer represented an attempt to use genre fiction as a way to more accurately describe right-wing ascension.” Through his critical eye, Chen saw Hellblazer, specifically Jamie Delano's run on the series, as “unmistakably about forcing the reader to go from being a voyeur of genre horror comics and to become a witness of her own terrifying political conscience.”
As a critic, Chen saw the cancellation of Hellblazer as indicating a true shift in mainstream comics. While comics have become less niche and more culturally resonant, the “room for oppositional comics” becomes “restricted.” Hellblazer, in effect, had to be canceled because its true purpose was no longer possible. As well, since Thatcher left power, “no Hellblazer writer has grappled with how to imagine an oppositional space in the age of nominally left-wing conservatives like Clinton, Blair, and Obama.”
Chen is a true comics critic (as well as the Executive Director of The Asian American Writers' Workshop and a published poet). His piece on Hellblazer is not about a fan lamenting the demise of one of his favorite characters, nor is it a hack job on Dan Dido and DC Comics for being stupid poo-poo heads. Rather, Chen uses his understanding of comics as a platform to address the role the artist plays in the social and political arena. He explains WHY the cancellation of Hellblazer is significant by framing what was significant about Hellblazer.
That is what good comics criticism looks like.
- Daniel Elkin
Notable piece(s): Comics of the Weak
It's cool that a lot of critics (or, more accurately, "reviewers") make their own comics, as there's certain credibility in having and displaying an understanding of how the thing you're writing about is made by doing it yourself, but it also can come with the threat of being a sell-out stooge for the man, afraid to give anything below Five Thumbs Up because it may disrupt your future chance to pitch for Paste Pot Pete Revisited.
A comics retailer by day, Tucker Stone is a human being that doesn't have a lot of interest in working in "The Industry" as a creator, which grants him the freedom to be truly honest about mainstream comics and how monumentally shitty the culture surrounding it can be. Moreover, he's one of those critics with interests outside of sequential art -- he's read books without pictures and seen movies that aren't about Spider-Man -- so he can do more than just compare the latest crime noir comic to peak-era Frank Miller. His criticism is not only painfully accurate, but often articulated in such a way that even his positive blurbs are laugh-out-loud funny.
His Comics Journal column "Comics of the Weak" (usually accompanied by Abhay Khosla making fun of the latest controversies and a Nate Bulmer comic) is necessary reading for Stone's sharp, often hilarious skewering of the week's notably crappy comics, which he balances with honest enthusiasm for the good stuff -- "weird" alt-comics, adult manga and quite a few Garth Ennis books. Basically, he's willing to be enthusiastic about stuff and will admit when a mainstream comic works for him, so he never comes off as a snob.
- Danny Djeljosevic
Notable Piece(s): Greatest Comic of All Time
There's a lot of debate over whether critical writing should be more academic or personal. I've never felt there needs to be a divide, and the critics I enjoy the most are the ones who can straddle both worlds with ease, who can speak with you in an artfully casual manner and subtly educate you in the process. Which brings me to Matt Seneca.
Back when he did a column at CBR called Greatest Comic of All Time, Seneca flirted simultaneously with scholarly and personal on a weekly basis, bringing you into his world of obscure artifacts and deceptively sharp analysis. Seneca's world is one where a trip through Bay Area stores where comics left sitting “atop a pile of cat hair off in some dusty and neglected corner” can yield insane, forgotten treasures, eager for reexamination and revival. Seneca is a guy who doesn't just love a superhero like Daredevil, he loves him enough to pen a column breaking down how David Mazzuchelli's contributions to the series in the '80s are amongst the most important moments in comics art in the '80s before eventually making an entire porn comic referencing that era. Few critics have as good of a handle on comic art analysis as Seneca, who has a telepathic ability to expertly decipher artistic meaning while also handily spotlighting signature traits, even if-- as is the case in that Daredevil piece-- those signature traits hadn't quite fully manifested yet.
All this is to say that Seneca doesn't just criticize comics, he has fun with them, treating the reader like a friend who's listening to a story in an otherwise remarkable bar after work. Which makes his acute observations on comic art in particular all the more explosive-- it's the equivalent of your buddy shooting the shit with you over relationship woes, then dropping a perfect piece of advice like it was lurking there, right in front of you all along.
- Nick Hanover
You guys know who David Brothers is by now, right? If you said yes, then you know why he's on our list. If you don't know who he is, let me give you a primer.
Brothers has written for a range of publications, from his own site, 4thletter!, to the pre-revival Comics Alliance to a piece on Spider-man for The Atlantic, but no matter where he is writing or what he's writing about, his voice carries one thing that links all of his work: integrity. When you couple that with his ability to write in a manner that's incredibly conversational and informative, it makes it easy to both understand and respect what he has to say, and so often what he has to say is far more important than what you'll find in most other comics writing.
Unafraid to tackle topics some would consider controversial, Brothers has repeatedly done his own personal tribute to Black History Month in the notoriously whitewashed world of comics, started a dialog on the devaluing of the artist in mainstream comics, and wrote about his decision to drop both Marvel and DC for their abysmal reputation when it comes to creator's rights.
It's not always heavy topics, though, and seeing Brothers tear into how old school Frank Miller stories work for him or why Krazy and Ignatz was literally decades ahead of its time gives a breadth to his clearly deep passion for the medium of comics.
Brothers has made a nice rundown of all the different places you can find him and his writing. Bookmark it, then follow him on your social media of choice. You won't regret it.
- David Fairbanks
Notable Piece: Perez' Wonder Woman- The Gold Standard
Far too frequently, people view critics as gadflies, annoyingly judgmental scribes who think they're better than everyone else. That's certainly understandable in some situations, but it loses sight of the role critics can play in shedding light on an underrated work or in forcing one to reexamine their feelings around a subject. Sonia Harris has more recently come to be associated with some great visual breakdowns of comic trends and data, but I'm incredibly fond of her longer form comics writing, specifically pieces like her analysis of George Perez's Wonder Woman run.
Through the lens of her early experiences with the series, Harris looks back on how Perez's Wonder Woman has grown to be her personal gold standard for the character. Harris frankly confronts her own biases and returns to the comics fully expecting them to not hold up to her memories, only to find that the work has taken on new qualities and arguably improved with age. In the process, Harris explores why Perez's Wonder Woman work now feels denser than before, analyzing the way current superhero comics are less detail oriented while also discussing Perez's ability to make his work more easily consumable than other, more bloated works from the same period.
The piece is a handy example of Harris' ability to use her own experiences as a filter, a method of starting conversation in a way that's more immediately engaging than a more removed stance would be. By investigating why comics work for her on a personal level, and owning up to her preferences and biases, Harris is able to help all of us understand our own tastes more.
- Nick Hanover
Notable Piece: X-Men #1 Review
Blame Kelly Thompson for this very sentence. In fact, blame Kelly Thompson for every sentence I write as regards comic book criticism. For without Ms. Thompson's gracious response to a 'fan email' I wrote to her a February or so ago, I would only be a reader of comics and not a writer about the comics I read.
''Start a blog,'' was Ms. Thompson's response to a review I sent her of Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan's Conan #1. So, as everyone who cares about comic book criticism should I did as Thompson suggested. I chose an obscure sentence from and obscure novel and Interested in Sophisticated Fun? became a thing on the internet. I've taken on other work since, but I treasure the kindness Ms. Thompson first gave me.
I've no doubt if everyone who read Thompson's work then began blogging the world would be a better and more well informed place; however, Ms. Thompson is a hell of a critic and a writer. Her work under the banner 'She Has No Head' for Comic Book Resources: Comics Should Be Good is appointment reading, ditto her personal blog, 1979 Semi-Finalist.
What I admire most about Thompson is how she makes her personal experiences germane to the topic at hand. As an essayist she possesses an uncanny knack to present her viewpoint in a well thought-out argument without reading as preachy or solipsistic. Yes, all essays are personal, and yet, few writers can marry the passion of the personal with real smarts like Thompson. On her podcast Three Chicks Review Comics, you can hear that passion, along with her frustrations and her intellect. Her recent interview with Brian Wood was journalistic and joyful. She's the real deal.
In an essay for 'She Has No Head' Thompson writes (further) about her love for Wood and Copiel's X-Men. She says how she often wants superhero comics 'to be better.' As a reader, critic and a woman she is often disappointed by the lack of inspiration she finds in today's un-heroic interpretation of most superheroes. The piece tracks in nostalgia as Thompson recalls how she first became obsessed with the X-Men. She looks over her rose-colored glasses to question why it took Marvel so long to come up with this oddly novel concept that has been hiding in plain sight since Storm showed Cyclopes whose boss.
I look forward to the day some thirty-something comic book recidivist writes to me and asks for advice about writing about 'this thing of ours.' I know what I'll say: blame Kelly Thompson and bless her X-Men loving soul.
Notable Piece: Is Hawkeye's Pizza Dog Issue the Future of Superhero Comics?
Not too long ago, the AV Club's comics coverage was in danger. An odd controversy involving a writer fabricating a review of a book that wasn't even complete let alone released yet forced editorial to restructure their Comics Panel feature, which had been a round-up of notable releases that had arguably enabled the controversy to get past the editors due to the bite-sized nature of the reviews. But the AV Club didn't just persevere, it improved, with its comics coverage transforming from brief glimpses at what was on the shelves to more in-depth, insightful coverage that also served as evangelism for the form. And a large portion of the credit for that goes to Oliver Sava.
While his frequent comics partner in crime Noel Murray focuses on art comics, Sava has used his post to not just highlight the best of pop comics, but to also explore why superhero stories work and have such longevity. This was perhaps clearest in his essay on Hawkeye #11 for the regular Big Issues feature, in which Sava and company examine noteworthy new issues. Sava's clear passion for the medium is obvious in everything he writes on comics, but Hawkeye #11 provided him ample material to dissect the form of superhero comics and how smart creators can turn their cliches and tropes into assets rather than obstacles. Breaking down the dynamic partnership of Matt Fraction and David Aja, Sava illustrates why their chemistry has enabled Hawkeye to become quite possibly the best superhero comic in years through its clever deconstruction of comics structures and layouts, which serve to make its blue collar heroic tone feel all the more real.
Hawkeye #11, which is told through the perspective of fan favorite character “Pizza Dog,” could have easily been too gimmicky, but Sava analyzes the choices that Fraction, Aja and colorist Matt Hollingsworth make that transform the comic into something better. Honing in on Aja's sharp design sense and brilliant use of minimalist iconography and grid layouts, Sava in the process provides a reason for readers to not just pick the comic up, but to go back to the comic and reexamine its many layers. Sava is the type of critic who gets that criticism isn't just about judging art, but of also exploring why it does or does not work, and more importantly, helping others learn how to do so themselves. It's rare to find someone writing about superheroes with that much insight and passion, and Sava's unapologetic love of the genre helps make that intelligent passion infectious.
- Nick Hanover
Notable Piece(s): Grant Morrison Annotations
I started reading Uzumeri's stuff religiously somewhere in his pre-Final Crisis Batman annotations on Funnybook Babylon, when speculation as to the identity of the Black Glove was rampant. I am not quite sure where I want to draw the line between criticism and analysis, however, and I don't want you to think that the tens, perhaps even hundreds, of thousands of words that he authored about Grant Morrison's superhero comics are all he has to say. That's not that this would be a poor legacy, considering that Uzumeri's analyses helped give a greater depth, as well as a greater level of understanding, to some pretty dense cape comics.
His criticism is sophisticated and pointed but comes across with a conversational tone that gives it a level of honesty that is incredibly important for ensnaring readers and convincing them that there is more to comics than the Sunday funnies. Uzumeri writes with the voice of an educator, someone who is passionate and eager to show his readers just why these comics he loves are worthy of such adoration while also hopefully instilling those same feelings in people who read his work. You know how the old tagline for Richard Donner's Superman was “You'll believe a man can fly?” Uzumeri's writing is the kind of stuff that makes me believe in the potential for incredible depth in superhero comics.
I like any critic I can respect. I don't read criticism to hear just any old opinion -- sure, I want to read the opinion of a critic whose interests and sensibilities are similar enough of mine to identify with and understand, but even above that I want to read the work of a good writer with actual insight, and Timothy Callahan is one of those writers, and an underrated one in the comics criticism game.
An educator and former Comic Book Resources reviewer who has branched out into more ambitious writing -- a column, When Words Collide, for CBR, a series on Tor.com where he reads through every Major Alan Moore work, books about the Legion of Superheroes and the early work of Grant Morrison -- Callahan will still tackle the latest releases, offering insight you won't find in most reviews. For example, in his latest column, he uses an obscure moment from the film Mystery Men to frame the recent Catalyst Comix #1, which is a really clever, engrossing way to introduce a short review of a comic book. Most of his peers would just give some background information about the project ("it's a thing by one writer and three artists, based on some old junk") and get down to business. This, however, is the work of somebody who's trying.
Mostly, though, I like Tim Callahan's work because he's into Grant Morrison and Joe Casey comics and so am I.
- Danny Djeljosevic
Notable Piece: Dead of Winter: Snowy Graves in Contemporary Horror Comics
I'm old enough that I can still remember a time when not everything was a click away. I used to scan through “thank yous” in liner notes to figure out what bands and artists to check out next, I read battered books about weird films I never thought I'd get to see, asterisked “See Issue #” boxes in comics were like ambitious checklists and I had no idea that as an adult I could acquire all that info and content without any effort thanks to a cable connection. You'd think that this would mean that the idea of the critic as a cultural navigator is dead, but the funny thing is that all this over access has made the critic more important than ever, even if not all of us realize or admit that. If you want proof, then start reading Dominic Umile.
While Umile and I have similar taste and cover similar ground, he has a way of drawing cultural maps in his reviews that I'm not so secretly complete jealous of. In a group review of a new wave of horror comics, Umile traces a trend of snow and terror straight from modern horror's genesis in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein to Kubrick's masterful adaptation of The Shining to the current comics rack, where series like Revival turn snow red on a monthly basis. It seems obvious once Umile has outlined it for you, but that's what makes his writing so interesting and worthwhile-- the connections he draws are forever visible after and like any great navigator, he ensures that you feel comfortable enough once you've seen them that you can now go your own way. Honing in on subtle details and capable of bringing comic art to incredible life through his writing, Umile's understanding of how and why comics work allows him to go deep in his analysis without losing personality or verve, and that's not an easy trick to pull off.
Umile doesn't restrict his approach to comics, but his comics writing is so engaging and provocative that I selfishly wish he'd go monogamous with our medium. There aren't enough comics critics out there guiding readers down the right paths in as friendly and brilliant a manner as Umile, and we're lucky to have him.
- Nick Hanover