You Gotta Know Your Skirt Before You Can Blow Your Skirt, SilvaA column article, Comics Bulletin Soapbox by: Taylor Lilley
You Gotta Know Your Skirt Before You Can Blow Your Skirt, Silva
“Life is too short to read comics that don't blow my skirt up.”
And a lovely skirt it is too, Silva. Not bad legs either. But before we get distracted, let me ask: Whose life isn’t too short to read comics that blow their skirt up? Does anyone volunteer time for the forgettable? Excepting those people who will read anything because “you can always learn something”, a true but somewhat obnoxious position, nobody does. Life’s too short to read stuff you don’t care about. The question is who you’re reading it for.
See, when you start writing reviews and critiques of other people’s work, when you start seeking to publicise your opinion of those works to a (hopefully) growing audience, all the while declaring your love for the medium… Well, you’ve stepped into the realm of public service. Granted, there will be no ticker tape parades, you’ll not be stopped in the street for autographs, and no winking maître-d will present you with a check that reads “For you sir, it’s on the house”. But lack of perks notwithstanding, you have assumed a duty to your readers.
To be more precise, you now have a duty to those who don’t yet know what will blow their skirts up. How many years, dollar bins, crossover events, sale shelves, or little-trafficked websites has it taken, for us to read enough to know what does it for us? I see the reviewer/critic’s duty as being to assist readers on that journey. For those readers already further along than us, that may simply mean confirming their expectations, but usually it involves shedding light, lending perspective, creating context outside the hype cycle. Sometimes, and these are the best articles to work on, it even means presenting something entirely new.
So what’s the problem with Silva just reading what blows his skirt up? None, in his specific case, for his statement that “No matter what I read from either publisher [Marvel or DC], I'm left wanting” implies that he still tries comics out despite low expectations or historic disappointment. But the more confident we become of our tastes, the more we are at risk of arrogance, of pre-judging the work (and it is Work) of genres, creators, and publishers. Although I’m not the guy who’ll vouch sight unseen for the latest event tie-in, I am the guy who’s missed more good books through pre-judging than he’d care to admit. If we sequester ourselves by past likes, we trade risk for stagnation. And how much do we like it when creators stagnate?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not of the school that says not having read a comic precludes you from conversation. We all have expectations, and with superhero comics they’re probably right north of 90% of the time. But this is the pit that yawns before all of us, both the Marvel devotee who tried that Sandman comic one time and didn’t dig it, and the reviewer who dissed that IDW T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents relaunch as just another licenced property (it isn’t, its big fun). Isn’t there a duty to take risks so we can help reduce risk for readers? Especially when they’re besieged by marketing materials that deny there is a risk?
“Taylor argued a well-written takedown can make for a compelling read or listen, the English, so warlike. He's right, a good argument (especially one that goes against popular sentiment) trumps all; however, making said argument and not coming off as pedantic, long-winded or cute makes for some tough sledding.”
Warlike indeed. Aside from the fact that sometimes it can be hugely enjoyable to watch someone give intelligent, humorous vent to the cynicism that tugs at us all, a takedown is the clearest signal that amongst all the other public servants on the take from consensus, sponsors, or “friendly” publishers, you will be true. Sure, Nick Hanover was right in the comments to differentiate between a “legitimate takedown” and “writing about something you don’t like”, and sure, a takedown that’s not “pedantic, long-winded or cute” makes for tough sledding indeed, but if all we do is praise, then we never really praise. Like Dash said in The Incredibles, saying everybody is special is “another way of saying no one is”. If everything we cover, we love, then we love nothing. There’s no benefit in hating something just because it’s not to your taste, but there is benefit in peeling back the hype.
“Why should I care if someone who's into comics has never read Locke & Key, never heard of Eel Mansions or are (God forbid) not familiar with Paul Pope, none of those things should qualify you as a war criminal. And yet …”
You totally should care if someone’s never read Locke & Key, heard of that thing with the eels (kidding!), or gotten familiar with the Pope. You’re a public servant, and if they have missed those things then you should let ‘em know they’re missing stuff they may reeeally dig. After all, if they never try them, how can they have their skirts blown up by them? But there’s another reason, too. Those works need recommendations. There is no movie franchise to attract new readers to Locke & Key. There is no Eel Mansions TV show. No Pope retrospective at MOMA. And apparently, though I find this hard to believe, there are people who are into comics and yet do not spend half their lives trawling this and other fine comics websites for news, announcements, previews, and suggestions. So if you, someone both impassioned by these works and creators, and committed to public service, doesn’t make the introductions, who will? Like the tough sledding of a good takedown, though, the trick is to avoid making recommendation seem like obligation. Because it’s true to say that ultimately:
“No opinion is invalid and it's all a matter of personal taste”
But taste evolves through experimentation. Which benefits from guidance. That’s the answer to “whither the critic?” Be the seeder of ideas, the suggester. Just don’t be that guy who gasps, goggles, and says “You mean you haven’t read [insert “classic” title]? You have to”. Because that guy, is a prick.
“Try as I might I will never understand why (it seems) so many dyed-in-the-wool comic book readers buy and enjoy comics regardless of the artist or for that matter the writer, colorist, or letterer (yeah, letterer, lettering counts!). I get how popular entertainment can be enjoyed and even praised on many levels (especially when it comes to genre, plot and character) without geeking out on the craft. That's not me, I work a different side of the street.”
But you had to cross the street to get there, right? Keith, and I’m using your given name because I need your sympathy for this next confession… Keith, I have bought and enjoyed a lot of crap comics. Probably still do. The gateway to comics is strewn with traced artwork, needless splash pages, weak reveals, and abuses of the grid. But back when I was picking up 80 titles a month, sometimes with multiple covers, I was doing it for the characters, not the creators and their craft. Somebody said on a podcast recently that if you’re a fan of a character, regardless of who’s writing or drawing or colouring or lettering them, then really you’re just a fan of the costume. Agreed. But readers have to figure that out for themselves. When I started getting deep into comics, I didn’t know who any of the hot writers were, or where their good work was being done. But I liked the concept of space police with green constructs of will, of a sidekick who dared to grow up, or of a man so noble, so powerful he brainwashed a planet into forgetting he existed. And I sure remembered Batman from being a 12 year old who wished he had a utility belt.
I had to read these costume stories, and learn the hard way that however good the concept, however cool the costume, it was the creative team that determined quality. The Journey Into Comics involves refocusing priorities away from concept and toward creators, which takes time. It is also discouraged by some publishers, if not overtly. The recent surge of widely-praised creator-owned comics has helped train readers to heed creator names, and the back matter often offers further reading suggestions (though sometimes of the “meet my buddies” variety), but publishers (particularly Marvel/DC) and the media sources closest to them are largely uninterested in educating readers. They’re the Henry Fords of comics, offering any kind of comic you want, as long as it’s theirs. The machinery dedicated to pushing brands on readers is huge, and brand recognition can only be challenged by informed public servants with passion to spare.
“Life is too short to read comics that don't blow my skirt up.”
It’s possible that I’m overstating the case, and the fact that I work in a comics store may tip me toward reading as much as possible for sales purposes. I whole-heartedly agree that writing about comics you don’t like isn’t in and of itself a good thing. But if we believe our taste is a variety of good taste, that we’re well-placed to make recommendations, then don’t we owe it to our readers, to comics, to ourselves to show our calculations rather than just the final answer? If we don’t occasionally approach the negative, through the lens of comics craft, then are we really ever accentuating the positive? Or are we just preaching to a choir of clones?
 “The implication inherent in "writing about something you don't like" is that you are consciously choosing to read, consume and critique a work that you knew you would have no interest in to begin with… A legitimate takedown by contrast is when you either critique a work you had no expectations of or preformed biases towards/against and it happens to fall short. We've all been surprised by media, for good or bad, and there is something of worth in that.”