Continuing from part one, we now move on to discuss when it’s fair to criticize a work for depicting human rights violations such as torture and rape, writing personally, and comics culture.
6. When is It Fair to Criticize Torture, Rape, and Other Human Rights Violations in Art? (Missed Narrative Opportunites, Collective Guilt in Fiction, and the Critic’s Responsibility)
DARIUS: I want to get back to race and gender, because we got sidetracked before resolving it.
I think you said the problem wasn’t a single work but that the overall comics output looks unrealistically white and male. No argument there. But my point was about the difficulty in criticizing this in an individual work.
So for the sake of argument, let’s consider a story in which a female character — for the sake of argument a love interest — is sexually assaulted (which certainly isn’t unknown in super-hero comics).
Now, this might be a case in which the character falls in love with her rapist, in which case a critic ought to say this is a pretty dangerous meme to be putting out there, this notion that women might say they don’t want sex but will reward you and thank you for the rape later.
SMITH: Unless of course the story is showing how patriarchy can create that kind of mentality. The key to the story isn’t its contents, but the use they’re put to. There are some very fine stories to be told about abusive relationships and the way in which society as much as individuals helps to create the condition in which such terrible dependency develops. It’s not a question of what gets shown, it’s why.
Yes, if there’s non-consensual sex and love follows, then it’s a despicable story. But the same story elements could be used to tell a quite different story, one which showed other aspects of oppression. Of course, it’s got to be incredibly well-written, and I’m not for any measure of ambiguity here in terms of the depravity of the act or the dependency upon violent men which our culture often encourages.
DARIUS: Is there any allowance for culture here? I’m thinking of several works of manga, which are quite good in terms of their storytelling and craft, which feature this same rape-victim-falls-in-love-with-the-rapist motif. Now, it’s racist to shrug and just say, “Oh, those silly Japanese.” But are you uncomfortable with condemning it when there’s a cultural component or narrative tradition being referenced?
SMITH: As far as I know, the Japanese state is a signatory to a whole range of human rights legislation. I’d suggest that we’ve come to a point where there’s a fundamental international agreement on what constitutes oppression, and that we’re all bound by the same basic rules. I think it’s worst kind of relativist rot to suggest that the fundamental principles of human rights don’t apply to anyone but ourselves. I don’t care about cultural traditions which justify oppression. The issue is freedom and justice, not tolerance for the mechanisms by which those things are denied.
DARIUS: Okay, but what about cases where sexual assualt is depicted brutally, but it’s used as narrative grist?
Identity Crisis comes immediately to mind. There, the depiction is rightly brutal, but it’s arguably not necessary for the narrative, and it’s certainly exploitative, in the sense that it drives drama.
SMITH: Despicable. Simply despicable.
DARIUS: But isn’t this hard to condemn, in a single, specific work?
SMITH: I’m not going to find it hard to condemn. As you have, I’ve taught year after year of female students, numbering into their thousands, and if I didn’t understand about how society shapes and often shatters women when I started, I did by the end. I don’t have to worry about the niceties here. I’ve know so many students who’ve been abused, and often in incredibly serious terms by folks who saw it justified in terms of their cultural roles as men or members of a particular community or whatever. If I may, there isn’t a case-by-case basis. There’s just oppression. It never gets a free pass.
The issues aren’t complicated here. Everyone has the right to live their life free of oppression. Problem solved!
DARIUS: What I’m failing to articulate is that, as a critic, I don’t want to be in a position of saying, “No, you can’t depict sexual assault unless it’s in what I consider a responsible context.” I do think it’s important to point out, as you do, where a depiction isn’t true to the facts or isn’t representative of actual reality, as we know it from statistics. But I worry about being didactic, or applying complaints about a body of output to a particular work.
SMITH: Oh, I’m not saying that folks don’t have the right to show such things, at least within the limits of the law. And as we say, if the purpose of the text is to emphasise the fundamental human and legal rights of the characters involved, then all and well and good.
But the thing is, human rights supersede anything else. There isn’t a debate here. These are the basic rules by which we live. If a work of fiction wants to debate those rules using themes of sexual violence, or if it’s just created by folks who enjoy depicting sexual violence, it’s their choice. But from where I’m standing, comics or any other art form should not present rape as entertainment for any reason, nor should the idea that being raped leads to romantic love for the rapist ever be peddled. I do so understand your concerns, but we’re not talking about my imposing a personal code here. Forgive me, but our culture needs to recognise there’s something of the sacred in these fundamental rights. Yes, they’re always open to debate, but they should also carry a sense of the sacred. These are things which are so important that they shouldn’t be approached without the most serious and deliberate of intent.
DARIUS: So here’s my quandary, and perhaps you can help me solve it.
One of yours pieces I liked very much was about torture in Batman and Robin. It was very brave, and it pointed out the kind of viciousness involved and the political ramifications. All well and good.
But it occurs to me this concern for fundamental human rights would also lead us, if we applied them consistently, to object to a mugging as entertainment. Every time there was a mugging at gunpoint in Batman, we’d be compelled to point out that yes, people are traumatized by this, often for years.
My point is not to equivocate between mugging and rape, nor to endorse either. And I certainly don’t mean to offend here.
SMITH: You’re not. You’re asking me to say where the role of the creator ends in displaying the consequences of actions, and the degree to which entertainment for its own sake can be respected. I think it’s a grand point. To what degree am I suggesting that creators have to always represent the social and individual consequences of their character’s actions?
DARIUS: Right, and to what extent a single creative work can be help culpable for a body of work which is, inarguably, reprehensible.
SMITH: Everyone is responsible for the position they take on the battlefield. They’re not to blame for the war, but creators do get to choose their sides — and the way in which they fight too. If creators want to play with the toys of the Big Two, for example, they have to do so in a way that isn’t irresponsible. Or rather, they can choose to ignore their responsibilities, but they ought to be reminded of the fact they’re doing so. Not by the PC police, of course, but in the public discourse.
In the case of the Batman and Robin tale I was so worried about (which didn’t do anything for my blog’s popular standing), the text saw Dick Grayson being rewarded both in terms of the plot and in terms of how heroic he appeared for torturing a super-villain. It was made so exciting and enjoyable that the whole thing passed as a comedy. I know this makes me sound a killjoy, but I just believe that if you show torture, you deal with its consequences.
Am I aware that torture has been part of the super-hero narrative since day one? Yes. Am I aware that if every story which had a hero threatening or beating a source of information was expected to discuss the consequences, the super-hero genre might well collapse? Yes. Does the fact that it’s so often fun to show heroes behaving immorally and without context concern me? Yep, because we live in a culture where so many people believe torture works, and even believe that it somehow makes the torturer a more noble and self-sacrificing human being. But again, if we’re to be human beings, we have to care for the state and its fundamental values at least as much as we do for the business of fun. The idea of torture as entertainment is a concept that just appalls me. And in the end, I do think that using torture as cheap entertainment has to be dealt with in the comic book itself. Any book that uses torture or rape or any other violation of human rights has to immediately become about that and deal with it in the narrative. It doesn’t have to be in a huge scene. There are plenty way of depicting the context and consequences of such abuses, of showing the suffering, corruption, dehumanisation, guilt, and so on. But then that’s where the craft comes in, helping creators finding ways of discussing these things without derailing the narrative.
But if you don’t take that care, you end with the X-Men running assassination squads and private underground prisons which are effectively torture chambers. And no one really minds, which means there’s no debate going on. Instead, super-heroes get to do what they want because they’re super-heroes. That’s not a good message for anyone to be transmitting.
DARIUS: Agreed, and I think that’s a fair and well-put response. In the case of Batman and Robin, it was presented in such an entertaining and consequence-free way that you were very much right to point it out.
I’d personally come down differently on Identity Crisis, because the rape there was depicted as a horrible thing, one with deep and lasting psychological scars for all involved, including the victim’s loved ones. But I think it’s totally fair to fault Identity Crisis for killing off the victim and ignoring her suffering, in favor of the patriarchal power-figures, the super-hero protagonists.
SMITH: It’s a good point well made. I think the problem is that the story wasn’t about Sue, as you say. There are definitely aspects of the texts which display the suffering. But in the end, the crime and its consequences come second to the super-heroics. Her rape was there for a general measure of pathos, as a way of generating angst and jeopardy. Rape isn’t a way of spicing up someone else’s story. Rape and the way it affects the lives of those it touches is the story.
DARIUS: And I think it’s the critic’s responsibility to say that. I just get slightly nervous when the critic instead says, “Too many women are sexually assaulted in comics! This is one more!” Which strikes me as inarguably true, yet also blaming a particular text for a collective wrong in which it is a participant but not itself wholly responsible for. I suppose it’s parallel to arguments about collective national guilt.
I might be too cautious, personally, but at least in these marginal cases, my social conscience is always battling with this voice that says, “This is one text. You don’t want to be the guy who says ‘you can’t depict this.’” Because in my view, or my biases, that comes too close to a kind of censorship after the fact, and anything remotely like censorship just scares the hell out of me. Outside of maybe actual child pornography, or videos celebrating genocide or something.
SMITH: A fine point, but I’ve not mentioned censorship. I’ve said that I believe creators should be aware and socially responsible. And if they’re not, then there’s the law, if that’s in any way appropriate, and there’s the critical response of the community. But I’m not advocating censorship; I’m advocating being responsible. The degree to which material should be banned is another business entirely, and there I feel far less comfortable, just as you feel so. I promise you, feeling passionately about this and wanting to censor this material are two very different things. Censorship is a terrifying thing and just about always to be avoided with a passion.
SMITH: We could put it another way. If you saw someone beating someone else and they explained that it was a one-off, that it wasn’t representative of any pattern of social oppression, but just a one-off indulgence, would you nod and say “fine?”
DARIUS: (laughs) No, of course not. I suspect, based on experience, that I’d be more likely than most to intervene. But having said that, actions in the real world and actions in fiction are very different animals.
SMITH: They are. And here you’ve really helped me see my concern. My concern is that the issues of consequences, of rights and responsibilities, are simply mostly absent from the page. The super-hero comic is often an ethically empty text in which nothing is discussed beyond itself and the fun that’s associated with it.
The reason I feel so strongly about this is that I can’t avoid feeling that the super-hero book, so apparently concerned with the individual being a good citizen, just avoids discussing the business of citizenship at all. And so, violence is just fun, and torture is just funny, and so on.
What kind of text is it, that doesn’t want to engage with these things, that doesn’t want to care? Is it the kind of text we want to spent our time and money on?
DARIUS: I agree completely, though I do want to make the small point that, besides the social conscience involved here, these consequences actually make for a better story.
In other words, someone gets sexually assaulted or tortured. Yes, depending on how it’s depicted, that’s dangerous and reprehensible. But the bigger crime, I would argue, is to follow this by solving the solution with yet another super-powered punch-‘em-up. Because that’s the real lie here: not that these horrible things happen, nor that people enjoy doing them, nor even that people find them enjoyable voyeuristicly, but that these problems can be resolved by hitting someone really, really hard.
And that’s a missed narrative opportunity, as well as a missed moral one. Because while I’ve seen girlfriends of protagonists assaulted before, I haven’t seen the three years of stories that follow, in which the protagonist goes with his girlfriend to counseling, in which the relationship is strained in a hundred weird and seemingly unpredictable ways. I haven’t seen someone dealing with the fact that they tortured someone, let alone the victim dealing with feeling like less of a man, shaken to his core at the sense of animal helplessness that he felt. That’s the real story, and it’s a unique one, and it’s a hell of a lot more interesting than going off and punching the Joker or whomever in the face yet again.
SMITH: And the irony is that I’d just come to an aspect of the same conclusion, in our earlier exchange! You’ve extended the moral point of our debate to include an absolutely key narrative one, and I can only applaud your point. And I’m as ashamed I didn’t make it as I am grateful for you doing so. Because by stripping out the human dimensions of a tale, by ignoring consequences, all that’s left is the same old, same old. Yes. Great call. I tip my hat to you. It’s definitely a case of me focusing so much on my ethical concerns that I miss the associated point that actually, I believe, helps close the case. Thanks.
DARIUS: You made the point earlier, but I might come at it slightly differently, from my own training, in which a missed narrative opportunity is even more insulting than a missed moral one, at least when it comes to art.
But here I do have to assert that literary criticism hasn’t been able to responsibly examine a text’s morals since the “art for art’s sake” movement. I feel awful towards you for not bringing this up earlier, but it was only when I paused for a moment that I realized how remiss I’d been, not to assert this emphatically for the record. And this failure on my part is indeed a moral one, an offense against art, at least as I’ve been trained to see it. Yet it’s absolutely incumbent upon me to point this out, to assert that art has no responsibility to be moral whatsoever. And any such claim is itself dangerous, since it’s inherently subjective and such a slippery slope, with such a history of such abuses.
And while this artistic freedom has been granted novels and painting for more than a century, it’s generally reserved for what’s regarded as “high” art, so failing to extend this basic consideration to comics is to suggest that it’s somehow “low.”
All of this is somewhat of a semantic point, because what we’re talking about isn’t actually morality at all. It’s addressing the social implications of a work, which is a much more objective affair. What you do isn’t really moral condemnation. Rather, you look very precisely at social implications, pointing out inaccuracies and misrepresentations, and condemning the very real dangers these entail.
SMITH: It’s an excellent point. But I think you put your finger on the issue. Art should be free to represent what it wants within the limits of the law, and those limits should be fiercely debated and democratically controlled. But then, I’m not suggesting censorship. I’m suggesting a debate that ensures that creators are consciously in control of what they’re saying, that they realise what it is they’re saying, and that there’s a wider debate about how folks think and feel about this. If someone wants to say, “A rape in a comic is not a rape, it’s an abstraction that I’m having fun with,” then they’re to me a moral imbecile. Their work ought to be engaged with, though only within the bounds of civil disagreement.
But I don’t think that most super-hero comics do represent a conscious argument about ethical issues. I don’t believe that most creators are even aware that they’re excluding massive areas of the population from their stories, that they’re undermining through the drip-drip-drip of popular culture respect for the possibilities of government, that they’re perpetrating some incredibly dangerous attitudes to torture and so on. I’m convinced that they don’t see what they’re doing, and that if they did, most would choose not to do so.
Criticism is about opening the debate, not closing it. And that goes for the content of art. To respect the right of artists to freedom of expression isn’t the same as granting them the right to act as they choose free of a response to their choices in the public arena. And when creators are so caught up in one form of hegemony or another that they don’t know they’re often breaking with principles they themselves believe in, then criticism is one way of opening a dialogue with them.
But — and I really think we’re in interesting waters here — to criticise is not to infringe freedom. To criticise is to practise one of the most fundamental freedoms, to take part in the vital business of the polis. Yet somehow we’ve come as a culture to see the very act of debating what a creator does as being synonymous with an attempt to limit the artist’s freedom. Not so. The art and the debate are quite different rights, and neither should impinge upon the other.
DARIUS: That’s incredibly well-put. And I certainly would never want to be considered in the reactionary, “don’t criticize!” camp.
Still, perhaps our different backgrounds account for my reluctance to embrace such arguments quite as fully as you, as well as some of my admiration for how fully and comfortably you seem to embrace them. Because morality is something of a the third rail of literary criticism. It can be broached, but one’s always uncomfortable doing so — and for good reason. That’s why I’m a lot more comfortable speaking of missed narrative opportunities, or how these texts lie by not depicting human truths. At least when they’re otherwise concerned with a certain level of verisimilitude — since it’s not fair to judge a highly abstract work by such standards.
But this gets us into manga again, into narratives defined by their adherence or lack thereof to their own generic norms, which all narratives are. To take an extreme case, I’m quite a fan of transgressive art, in which acts of otherwise appalling violence are expected to be understood as themselves containing an aspect of social criticism. I don’t think we want to condemn Bret Easton Ellis’s Less than Zero for featuring the rape of an underage girl, despite her not being the narrative focus; it’s supposed to be disturbing and supposed to make the reader realize how disaffected the characters are, as wealthy Americans — it’s social critique in its own quite moral way. You’re supposed to be outraged and to run the social and psychological critiques, which are already calculated into the work itself.
SMITH: But the very fact that the rape isn’t central to the focus of the book does indeed reflect the askew morals of that particular America. We’re never supposed to regard that nihilism and selfishness and vileness as being anything other than unconscionable. And you’re right to imply that the moral point remains even if we don’t focus upon the victim so much as the implications of the victim’s suffering.
Yet I should say, Less Than Zero could have been an entirely oppressive, anti-social text, and I’d not oppose its production and consumption. But I’d see it, if I was writing, as a duty — ugly word these days — to engage with what was said by it, or what I thought was being said by it, vigorously.
DARIUS: If nothing else, the length of this discussion is a testament to the fact that we do take our duties seriously and wrestle with them.
I don’t want to be a presentist, but since we talked about other cultures, how much of classic literature that we both admire would stand up to such scrutiny? Since we’ve used Identity Crisis as the template here, A Clockwork Orange also features a rape where the victim isn’t the narrative focus. And as Cody Walker has pointed out, there are plenty of works in which people are gunned down — arguably a worse crime — for entertainment or narrative convenience, including Batman’s parents?
SMITH: It’s been decades since I read Clockwork Orange. I’d be a hypocrite if I tried to fit what I recall into my own argument. But classic literature doesn’t disappear or lose its pleasures when it’s seen in the light of contemporary debates. Rather, it retains its value while opening up far broader debates too. The Merchant of Venice is a play whose whole climax relies upon the audience rooting to see Shylock really punished. The structure of the play relies on the catharsis that his fall brings.
SMITH: That’s an ugly business, but it doesn’t mean we throw Merchant of Venice out. We just read it intelligently, and debate about it, and appreciate it in a whole variety of ways. Is Heart of Darkness problematic? Oliver Twist? Of course, but what isn’t? Austen’s novels always end in the most selfish manner possible, with the POV character and her nearest escaping their suffering into riches rather than changing anything much about the system. Can’t say that affects my enjoyment of the text at all.
The fact that texts can’t stand up to scrutiny isn’t a problem, it’s the point. Texts don’t close arguments, they open them. A text that couldn’t be challenged would be the least valuable text conceivable. And its notable that wherever a culture decides that there is a text that’s entirely beyond question, that culture is in many way profoundly undemocratic.
And there has to be a difference between how we engage with today’s work and that of yesterday. An Elizabethan play written in a culture that’s profoundly anti-Semitic is one thing. But creators in 2011 have got the opportunity to be far more questioning of what they’re doing.
And given that nothing can “stand up to such scrutiny,” as you say, I suppose the idea isn’t to ever try create a morally watertight and correct text. In fact, just thinking that is so disturbing! The idea is rather to not produce a text which is carelessly inhumane and uncaring, and to keep the debate going about how to make sense of whether that’s happened or not.
But perhaps we might come to a common position if we agree that key social issues such as rape in comics should preferably be presented in such a way that illuminates the whole terrible business of it. And if the issue of rape isn’t absolutely central to a particular story in which the act’s depicted, that means readers have to decide whether the degree to which it’s discussed establishes the story as a “moral” one or not.
But again, the issue is not how to nail down exactly how responsible or not the depiction of the act is, and certainly not to say an artist must not go near this subject in anything other a particular way. Instead, the whole process of responding to an artist’s choices is all about keeping alive the idea that narratives do have a part to play in the public discourse, and that they don’t exist in a perfect isolation determined by the artist’s freedoms. The concern in many ways isn’t the artistic and moral qualities of the work, although of course they’re vital, but the absence of an awareness that there are issues which folks should be concerned about in the first place.
We live in a strange niche-world with super-hero books, for example, where some, perhaps many, comics fans often don’t even seem to recognise that there actually are issues to debate beyond the line-up of the JLA and such pressing concerns. So many folks don’t even get how important even the most straight-forward of arguments about representations are. Perhaps just keeping the argument going, and continuing to juggle with all its complexities, is the first and most important thing. But just saying “it’s a super-hero book” and shrugging as if that kind of comic doesn’t matter can’t be the way forward. All fiction matters, and I don’t believe that the super-hero book is any less valid a form than any other. It touches people, it entertains them, it inspires them. It matters and it shouldn’t get regarded as being so unimportant and stupid that it doesn’t deserve respect and debate. It certainly shouldn’t be seen as so unimportant and dumb that it gets to say what it likes. That’s just insulting.
DARIUS: I agree completely about the need to keep this dialogue going. And the very fact that we’re having this discussion means that we’re not in the “it’s just a super-hero comic” crowd. Which — and this might again be my elitism — tends to be something I presume. I know these people are out there, in the same way I know a majority of people can’t find various nations on the map. It’s in the back of my mind as an abstract fact, but my conscious brain can’t take it into account. It’s a coping mechanism to prevent madness. Which is to say that, whatever our important and fine points of disagreement or elucidation, you’ve made a fine point about the bigger picture that I was ignoring and perhaps even chronically ignore.
What you’ve said about censorship and vigorous debate also illuminates different models of how the critic operates, relative to the creator. There’s a presumption in a lot of circles, even sophisticated ones, that the perfect critic and the perfect creator should necessarily be in harmony. That the perfect critic illuminates how a text works, including its social implications, but that a perfect work of art would be comparatively immune to responsible criticism. I do love vigorous criticism that, even when I might not agree with it overall, illuminates an implication of the text. But because I’m a creative writer as well as a literary analyst, I sometimes fall into paradigm, in which creator and critic are separate but essentially in harmony, such that the criticism should tend to help the creator produce better work, and vice versa. Hence, strong criticism can be perceived as “harsh” or even as having a kind of censoring-like effect.
But I think you’re getting at a very different paradigm. One of the most insightful things you said was that the goal for a creator isn’t to produce a watertight text. And of course, you’re right. That would be quite boring and very totalitarian itself, which is not at all your intent. I think you’re sketching out a relationship between creator and critic in which their functions are much more separate.
And I think this also informs the different kind of criticism we do, because while I’m concerned with social implications and applaud your work, I’ll always defend a work of art that’s vital and new and consistently so. Which is why I’ll go softer on the social critique of Identity Crisis or Sin City or transgressive fiction than you might. Although, to do a better job of representing the big picture than I have been, we’d probably agree on 99% of comics.
SMITH: I tend not to swear when I’m impressed, but rather fall back into the slang of my far distant youth. So, gosh, that’s well put. I’m so pleased that you managed to wrestle my points into the shape I intended them to be in the first place.
DARIUS: It’s really the reverse.
SMITH: And your words illuminate the fact that we are approaching this from different perspectives, the social scientist and the boffin of literature, and that working towards each other actually works productively. For I have been more worried about ethics than freedom, because I’ve taken it for granted that that’s implicit in my argument. Well, it obviously wasn’t explicit! So now I can emphasise that. Thank you.
I find it fascinating that I seemed to be arguing for watertight texts rather than a vigorous process of debate before and after a work’s completion. That just shows how I’ve been letting my taken for granted assumptions inform my arguments.
DARIUS: And me with mine.
SMITH: Yes, there’s a whole string of reasons why the Big Two should aspire to being ethical in the way I’ve been defining it: commercial self-interest, social responsibility, self-protection, story opportunities, and narrative depth. But all the attempts to do so won’t and shouldn’t produce a perfect ethical argument. The very idea makes me shudder. But at least a great degree of control of craft and awareness produces a text which is an argument rather than a confused and often unintended expression of some very dubious ideas.
We need more debate and less babble, and I know you’re absolutely wedded to that idea. I can barely think of an Alan Moore Swamp Thing where, for example, I can’t find aspects at least some of his politics to be questionable. I think V For Vendetta is in places appalling! Doesn’t matter — he’s precise and passionate and he makes me think and feel and if I want to debate his work, I can. What more could I ask for?
DARIUS: I think that puts it perfectly.
SMITH: And as you say, since no text is closed and since none should be, the debate isn’t about right and wrong, but degree and disputation. So was I worried about Flashpoint #3’s representations? Yep. Did I think it was actually a rather good romp of a crossover issue? Yep. Well, there’s enough contradictions to fuel a debate or two! How wonderful.
I think all this dovetails nicely with the matter of craft. There is a point at which the creator’s skill and control and purpose constitutes to a large degree the morality of their work. How a story is expressed determines, of course, how it’s to be read. The first and most important business is to encourage a degree of political literacy and craft, so that folks say what they mean to. If they have a opinion or three that I don’t agree with, so what? I’ll throw my twopennies into the debate, if I feel I ought to. But if they don’t know what they’re saying and / or they can’t control their meaning, then the issue is a broader one, including the craft in a moral context.
I realise it’s a terribly unfashionable thing to say, but speaking in public brings responsibilities, and one of them is to try to control a text within reason so that it at least in part says what a creator intends it to. That’s not political correctness, that’s good manners. If you don’t believe in patriarchy, don’t constantly present a world in which patriarchy is nearly always associated with virtue. If you do, well, that’s your choice, and folks can choose to agree, disagree, or just not care. But in all these cases, my critical position shouldn’t ever infringe upon anyone else’s freedom to say what they want to. Simply challenging the worth of a text doesn’t do that, unless entitlement means that there’s a new freedom, namely the right not to be challenged.
But the debate is everything, if I may. And there’s a great deal to be said for getting involved in these debates to one degree or another. Not to have a slugging match, but a reasoned debate. And where the debate about morality and super-hero books is concerned, I think there are these three areas to engage with: social responsibility, deficiencies of craft, and political ignorance. To my mind, the critic who ignores the social dimension of art in the name of art is pretending not to understand how art is made and how it works in establishing and furthering debates. But the critic who howls for censorship and a blanket ban on particular content without reference to context is a monster just waiting for a heap of books to burn. And where they burn books, they usually burn people, as we’ve long been assured.
DARIUS: Can you touch upon some of the backlash you’ve gotten, in response to having elevated the social debate?
SMITH: Well, the old ‘elevating the social debate’ bit is of course just a matter of getting in line behind the folks who are doing that already and hoping not to harm the value of the general debate with ham-fisted pieces. I appreciate your kindness, and I am absolutely committed to trying to find ways to discuss these issues. But I think at the moment my good intentions are far outrunning my skills. For example, I’ve written nothing that’s a fraction as clear and welcoming and well-informed as Chris Sims’s “The Racial Politics of Regressive Storytelling,” and I know there’s hundreds of other good and committed pieces out there too.
DARIUS: I liked that too.
SMITH: But just writing about these things does stir up a little hornet’s nest at times. And that’s all to the good of the debate, but I do get so nervous of saying something that’s so profoundly stupid and offensive that I end up obliterating the debate itself. How arrogant is that, to think that a debate has anything to do with me, that I could hurt it, and yet I do worry.
I’ll always be so grateful to the quite brilliant British comic book writer Al Ewing, and I use that “B” word with all precision and sincerity, for engaging me in a conversation following a piece I wrote a year ago on sexism in 2000AD. There’s the bloke who wrote what was for me the best thing of the year — a chilling and moving Judge Dredd story — and he was gracious and kind enough to treat the debate with respect and me with kindness. In that, he showed me, a bloke new to the net and blogging, what the debate was, what it was for, how it could work.
And all the hate mail since at various times doesn’t really affect me, because I can think of times such as the one I’ve just mentioned when folks in and out of the industry have cared about the debate itself while kindly ignored the daft oik who’s trying to contribute to it. Doesn’t mean I don’t take seriously even the mad Nazi rants, of course. It all gets processed.
But there always is a process of monitoring the response to the piece so that I can hopefully catch myself if and when I’ve written something profoundly stupid. What I can tell you, for example, is that as we speak I’m starting to get what feels like a considerably poor press for my piece on Fear Itself and Flashpoint and race and gender on Twitter, and in the comments. 120 folks into the blog in an hour following a CBR link, which is very much appreciated. There are folks who are not happy, and if they’d only express that in a friendly tone, I wouldn’t be deleting their comments to the blog.
But it’s a good reminder that I’m speaking for nobody but myself and that my way of seeing these things isn’t anything more important than, well, my way of saying things. The net’s always a quick corrective where an unintended self-importance is concerned. I’ve already got in the neck this afternoon from a feminist, a black American, and two blokes who believe that white men are the last truly oppressed minority in America. By which I mean, I may be making these arguments, but I don’t believe that I’m speaking for anybody but myself, and the evidence bears that out.
But then there is no “the People,” is there? Only tyrants get applauded all the time. Certainly little league bloggers shouldn’t.
DARIUS: If you’re pissing everyone off like that, you must be doing something right. And I’m reading. I care. I wanted to do this interview to talk about all of this, and it’s because what you’re doing is so unique. And if I’m out there, if you’re out there, then others are out there. They might not be as vocal. They might be taking time to think.
But while we want an audience, we’re ultimately writing for ourselves. Because these things need saying. “Because we are compelled.”
SMITH: Yeah, you are right. It’s a profoundly selfish activity in that. I’d hate to give the impression that I think I’m changing the world through comics criticism. That’s not possible, and actually we should all be glad that it isn’t! As you say, I write about this stuff because it matters to me. That’s the beginning and end of it. And if it makes tiny little waves, well, I hope at least the debate won’t be in any way harmed. And of course there’s so many folks out there on the net writing about this stuff day in and day out and really committed to the causes they’re involved with, meaning that I’m only absorbing a fraction of the blowback they endure when I write in their areas. And I should say that just checking my comments box at this very moment, the positives are outrunning the negatives by about 9 to 1, so that’s really heartening.
In fact, if I look back at the stats for the blog and that piece, I clearly shouldn’t let the negative responses dominate how I think of things. There’s maybe 20 positive comments and mentions elsewhere, CBR have posted a generous link, there’s already maybe 500 people in today. Most won’t stay, but a few might spend a few moments and in one way or another get something from the visit.
I sometimes get very worried by the fear that I’ve not only gotten it wrong but been incredibly unfair, and so some negative responses shake me. In my heart, I usually believe they must be right! (There’s a comment here from a bloke who has a go at my turgid style. He’s also saying some terrible things politically, but he’s right about the style.)
And — here’s my point — if the whole point of criticism is to open up and not close a debate, then why am I in the slightest but phased by the fact I’ve disappointed other people with my argument. I’m sorry they came and I didn’t reward their coming, but I did do my bit. I did my best to open up a dispute and leave space for people to respond. That’s what I’m supposed to do, meaning that I need to add a few more layers of skin quickly, because I’m cowering from the very responses I’m supposed to be encouraging.
DARIUS: You’re doing something different. People aren’t used to it. The people who have been craving it will be die-hard readers. The people who aren’t will either come around or not. And if not, well, sometimes their comments can offer a footnote, by which I mean a little perspective that, while you might not agree with it, at least lets you know that this perspective is out there, to rail against a little stronger or be a little kinder to, next time around. Meanwhile, you keep those die-hard readers, and you have to believe they’ll tell friends, and things will grow. At least in the long-term.
Plus, you know, it’s important to have a little faith, in quality if nothing else. That over time, quality attracts readership. Your job as critic isn’t to please everyone. It’s to do the best damn work you can, and let the chips fall where they may. Always thinking, in the back of your mind, that yeah, in the long run, you’ll create your own readership, as it were.
SMITH: And it really does sharpen the regard for folks such as Carol at DC Women Kicking Ass and everyone at Racialicious, amongst others, who aren’t just occasionally touching on this stuff, but constantly doing so. That I had the slightest concern about a public dusting down is rather shameful, isn’t it? It’s good to have fine examples to learn from. After all, tomorrow I’ll be writing a piece in how easy it is to cry at Dr. Who and super-pets and their owners. Gosh, cutting edge stuff.
7. Getting Personal
DARIUS: Let’s start wrapping up by getting back to your three criteria for a good critic, because I find them useful to spur debate and hone what it is that we mean by good criticism.
Your third point was that good criticism should involve “what the critic thinks and feels, in terms of how that’s relevant to their argument.”
Can we clarify this a bit? Because I’m often repulsed by critics being too personal. I know that’s not what you meant, because that’s not how you write. What I mean isn’t a critic’s personal thoughts or what’s bugging them or fascinating them, because that’s often the source of the best criticism, the best essays. What I mean is the personal digression or intrusion, which sometimes works but often doesn’t.
We’ve already touched upon this, but the West, especially America, is filled with people who think their point of view is as valid as everyone else’s, no matter how ill-informed. And as a teacher and as an editor, I often have had to tell people “No one cares about what you think or your personal experience. Just make the argument. What you think is there implicitly.”
SMITH: What a “critic” — and I dislike the word itself — thinks or feels isn’t important at all to anyone beyond themselves. If folks want to express themselves, might I suggest 12-bar blues or abstract art?
I just don’t see criticism as a form of individual expression. If I feel that I’ve got a bias which is informing my opinion, or a personal experience which might thrown a light on my argument, then I’ll use it. I think, for example, that it’s on occasion legitimate to mention my teaching experiences, but I know I have to be careful not to be seen to be playing the caring public servant card. On the whole, I want to know the critic is there and learn something of them, but I don’t want to be involved in a discussion about the critic at all. It’s not the critic that counts, as I know you believe very strongly.
What criticism should do is lay out the terms of a debate. The critic shouldn’t be trying to win anyone over, or to express any kind of contempt for a different stance to theirs, or to vent their own feelings for their own sake. Everything should serve the debate.
What the critic should do should do is lay out the terms of their argument, while always accepting that what they’re writing is a chain in a debate which in one way or another goes back to Eve. The critic keeps a chat about stuff alive, they don’t close it. An expression of entitlement is the opposite of good critical writing, and the expression of a point of view simply because someone holds it and feels they must express themselves isn’t criticism, it’s tub-thumping.
Now, when a critic explains how their personal influence, their own thoughts and feelings, has played a part in shaping their argument, and when they express their thoughts and feelings, well, then that’s fantastic. The piece by Ms. Pantozzi mentioned before does that exceptionally well. Critical writing isn’t just a business of logic and it never should be. But every critical piece is the start of the next round of argument. The debate’s the only thing, in the end, that counts. And it worries me greatly that so much of our culture’s discourse is about absolutes, about “you’re wrong and you’ll always be so.”
DARIUS: Right, and there are exceptions to every rule, especially in writing. The Pantozzi piece is a perfect example where, yes, the author’s personal experience is quite relevant and adds to the weight of the essay. It gives it an entirely new dimension, in which a reader suddenly realizes he or she is dealing with a point of view other than his or her own, and that’s part of what criticism can achieve.
Your own discussion earlier, about growing up with Marvel’s New York City, is another example of how this can work well.
So yes, there are times where the personal adds to a critical work. And yet I see entirely too many pieces of comics criticism that start with “I’ve loved Super-Hero X since I bought his figurine when I was eight.” Well, that’s great for you, but unless you pull a reversal and end up saying how you’re glad Super-Hero X has been updated, you’ve just announced to the world why you’re about to gripe about Super-Hero X these days. Or conversely, why you’re going to rate the work under discussion (I won’t say examination) so absurdly highly.
SMITH: Of course, if personal experience was the key aspect of criticism, then there’d be no point to anything other than ladelling on the anecdotes and the declarations of personal suffering.
You know, I’m even more sure I know nothing about this topic than when we started! And by the criteria we were using, I think that’s really useful. I’ll go back to the remaining 6,000 hours knowing that it’s time to start again, and more sensibly this time.
8. So, Who Would Win in a Fight? Hulk or Thor?
DARIUS: I feel like we’ve talked about criticism quite a bit, but we haven’t talked all that much about comics criticism and how it’s particular.
SMITH: There’s almost a sense of critical ghettos existing at the moment where writing about comics is concerned. There’s certainly a vocal know-nothing, just-the-facts-and-feel-my-invective tendency, just as there’s an entirely unpretentious and unself-conscious community of folks summarizing what they’ve experienced before closing with how they feel about it. There’s also a prosaic journalistic tradition that often seems to operate without wit or style or any kind of worldly context, talking politely and saying nothing, but there are also bloggers and entire sites which are passionately engaged in particular with single-issue subjects and which really illuminate those areas. Rather despicably, there’s the folks who, proving that a little education is indeed a bad thing, pump their work full of terms and concepts designed to point-score with their pseudy acquaintances while keeping the proles from turning up and asking about whether the Hulk really is stronger than Thor. And then, bless them, there’s the characters who really don’t want to be producing high or low art, who’re willfully pursuing their own personal takes on what writing about comics involves. In fact, everywhere you click there’s a great mass of individuals and communities organizing their work around particular styles and content.
But what there’s not, as far as I can work out, are any particular standards of excellence where comics criticism is concerned. We’re a group of folks who share a common interest, but we don’t often seem to want to talk to each other beyond the boundaries of our little niches, and it’s hard to see how we’d do so if we wanted to, let alone communicate with Un-Fans.
In the end, that’s what it often feels like we’re missing. The will and ambition to talk to each other in something of the same terms, and a sense of what excellence in such a conversation would look like. It’s so easy to miss great work in all the hullabaloo, and it’s certainly difficult to get a sense of what might constitute excellence where writing about comics is concerned.
DARIUS: It does feel like comics criticism is especially polarized between fans and academics, with little middle ground. Do you find this ironic, when we’re all supposed to be advocating for comics as a legitimate art form? Isn’t part of that having a body of accessible but seriously analytic critical voices, doing their job well?
SMITH: Discussing this whole topic as we have been, I’ve found, as always, my feelings changing. The more I’ve been talking about criticism, the more I’ve been thinking of a host of pieces and writers and sites I enjoy. Few if any of us may be in the canon, but it’s hard to miss the sense of a great babbling, rich conversation.
Yet I do feel as you do, that there’s not yet the critical conversations going on that there might be. In the Seventies and Eighties, magazines such as the Comics Journal and Amazing Heroes produced month after month of excellent work, and it’s hard to believe that we’re matching the quality of that work now, for all that there are fine pieces to be found all over the place. There is a sense that all these folks producing all these words ought to have begun to produce something more substantial as a common body of work.
It’s not that I’m suggesting that only the most serious of serious pieces would belong in any such body. Great criticism comes in all forms. But overall, we surely should be doing better, and I really don’t excuse myself from that in any way.
DARIUS: There’s a lot of hope. But it sometimes feels like everyone wants comics to be a legitimate art form, but no one wants to change their own modus operandi. Like there’s the guy who really wants to talk about who’d win, Hulk versus Thor, as you mentioned, and he thinks it’s great that comics are respected, just as long as he doesn’t have to think too deeply as a result. And there’s a guy writing academic deconstructions of Eightball, and he thinks it’s great if comics are respected, which might actually get him a job (in this horrible academic market), just as long as he doesn’t have to deign to consider super-heroes as vital and worthwhile art.
SMITH: You’re right in that there’s no single comics community, is there? There’s so many strata criss-crossing each other, all serving different audiences with different product, attending to different needs. And that’s a brilliant thing, and an undreamed-of resource. If the net had existed when I was 12, I wonder if I’d ever have let it alone, and I’m only talking of legitimate interests there!
Perhaps one thing to do is to celebrate excellence a touch more. It may be that in part we don’t notice all that’s going on because we’re all in our different niches. That doesn’t change the fact, however, that there’s that canon to aspire to earn the membership to, and that to do so, the form itself needs better service, more respect, from its critics. The creators and consumers of super-hero books do have a tendency to cut themselves off from both outside influences and critical debates in a way that can be distinctly unhealthy. Better criticism, and more of it please, can’t be anything other than a very good thing.
Strangely, all I want to do now is find the time to make a list of 100 really great pieces of critical writing on the sub-genre, all sparky and unpretentious and mood-enhancing. Not to establish a canon, of course, but just to enjoy and feel inspired by.
DARIUS: Thanks for such a thoughtful interview. It’s been a joy and a privilege.
If nothing else, I think we’ve demonstrated our commitment to thinking seriously about comics criticism. Though it is my fervent hope that this will spur new discussions and debates, based on the various eddies and shoals we’ve touched upon along the way.
Ironically, we’ve also demonstrated that we write what we want to write, audience be damned, because surely, this level of depth on this particular subject can’t interest most people. But — and here I return to my absurd egotism and sense of faith — for the one person out of ten or twenty it does interest and who finds it half as fascinating and insightful as I do, it’s going to be like finding the Holy Grail.
So my final question is: do you think anyone’s going to read down this far?
SMITH: Well, I don’t think so. But it would be good to imagine someone being entertained by some of it. (laughs)
And I’ve read through it. I have such a clearer idea of what I’m doing now. I thought I knew a little more of what I was up to than I did. I wasn’t nearly as clear as I thought I was. I’m in your debt. Thank you. It’s been the strangest kind of fun.