Last Monday, The Guardian published a piece on contemporary comics that asked the question, “When did the comic-book universe become so banal?” It was written by an art critic and former comic book reader who finds the art in most contemporary comics lacking. Even though the article is short, the writer nevertheless manages to squeeze in plenty of sweeping dismissals of many of today’s leading comics creators, including Marjane Satrapi, Scott McCloud, Chris Ware, and Charles Burns.
I guess that’s one way to kick up a fuss.
Of course, kicking up a fuss is generally the goal of these types of articles. We’ve seen them before—inflammatory posts with click bait titles aiming to become the “controversy of the day” by infuriating readers into angrily sharing the piece with their friends. If done effectively, such pieces are almost guaranteed to steer lots of traffic to the original site. And while some less reputable publications use such tactics all the time, as this Guardian article reminds us, even the respectable publications aren’t above resorting to it now and then.
You’ll notice that I haven’t shared the link. Maybe that’s bad form, but my purpose here isn’t to take the specifics of the article to task. Trust me, this Guardian piece isn’t worth the effort. Despite its brevity, it’s so riddled with holes and so predicated on ignorance that it’s hard to know where to start. The author’s final conclusion—that most contemporary creators aren’t real artists because their individual panels are not drawn distinctively enough is a variation on an argument I once made myself—when I was twelve.
As I’ve said before, the first time I saw Jack Kirby’s art, I thought, “Ewwww! He can’t draw!” That same reaction was probably shared by many of you, but as we all gradually learn, the draftsmanship in a single, still image comprises only a tiny part of what makes good comics art. But this writer in The Guardian …
Ah, but look at me. I’m doing what I said I wouldn’t, spending time and space debunking a trifling article that pretty much left all of us who know anything about comics shaking our heads in disbelief. So I’m going to stop now, because critiquing that piece isn’t my point. I’m more interested in what the piece represents and how we respond to such things.
Let me also be clear—I have no problem with anyone who wants to lodge a well-reasoned critical piece on Satrapi, McCloud, and the rest. I’ve read blistering essays on the weaknesses of everyone from Picasso to Shakespeare, so I think anything is fair game. The Guardian writer may have questionable taste, but that’s never been a crime.
Likewise, I don’t mind the fact that the writer clearly doesn’t seem to possess any real expertise when it comes to analyzing comics, nor am I suggesting any kind of litmus test for someone who wants to write about them. While I feel pretty qualified to write about comics, give me 60 seconds and I’ll rattle off the names of 25 people who know far more than I do—and that’s just from my Twitter feed. “Expertise” is a relative term.
Besides, we need different voices writing about comics, including people who come at the subject from very different perspectives. Personally, I’d love to take a dozen graphic novels and hand them off to people like Toni Morrison, Phillip Glass, Tina Fey, and Neil deGrasse Tyson—thoughtful people who presumably have little or no expertise in the field—and then read their reactions. There’s more than enough room for a multitude of voices and perspectives.
The trick, of course, is that you wouldn’t expect one of them to approach comics as if they were the final word or authority on the matter. That’s part of what’s maddening about the Guardian piece. The writer presents his take on the state of the medium as if he’s writing with authority and a high level of expertise. And, considering that the piece is published in a respectable paper like The Guardian, the whole thing screams out for a response.
So what should we do when faced with something like this? Here’s my proposal.
Don’t get angry, don’t post it, don’t share it, and don’t try to rally the whole community against it. When the offending piece is such a ridiculous, half-baked argument, we should simply refuse to give it the time of day.
Here’s why. Last year, a poet friend of mine recommended a book by Pema Chödrön called Don’t Bite the Hook that examines the ways in which we often embrace anger, even when doing so damages us more than anyone else. Her metaphor of “biting the hook” really hit home with me because, when confronted by something like the Guardian piece, my tendency is not only to bite that hook, but to try to drag the fisherman down under the water, drown him, and sink his boat, too.
But that’s not smart. Because ultimately, by biting this particular hook, we in the comics community are inviting more of the same. When we get outraged, talk about it with our friends, and share it by posting links, we are creating and expanding the market for it, empowering the very thing that’s making us angry. And goodness knows, our community already has a reputation for flying off the handle as it is. Who was the most recently announced cast member of a superhero movie? I honestly don’t know, but I’m pretty sure the Internet reaction involved howls of outrage and the symbolic rending of clothes. Our passion, unfortunately, makes our reactions pretty predictable about these things, and our reactions often initiate an endless cycle.
I knew a guy in high school—he was a year younger than I—who used to get picked on almost every day. What made it difficult was that he almost always gave the bullies the kinds of emotional responses they wanted, feeding them as it were. That’s not to say that the bullies weren’t in the wrong—they were, just as the Guardian is in the wrong for publishing such a half-baked article. But by giving the bullies the emotional reaction they were looking for, the kid who got picked on guaranteed that he would get more of the same the next day. Likewise, by driving traffic to every site that publishes a silly and insulting article, we guarantee more ignorant pieces next week.
That’s the most pragmatic reason to avoid biting hooks. But as an article last year in Gawker reminds us, giving in to knee-jerk outrage can also have reverberations that we can’t anticipate. In the article, which reads almost like a confessional, Sam Biddle takes responsibility for having initiated what became a campaign against a woman who wrote a seemingly racist tweet. Granted, I have the benefit of hindsight in this case, but as soon as I read the controversial tweet, I smiled. To me, it seemed obvious that it was a joke—an ironic parody of what a dim-witted racist would’ve written. What’s more, it was a joke that actually underscored an important point about the way we, in the West, often stereotype Africa. Unfortunately, Twitter has the unique distinction of being primarily a comedy venue frequented by large masses of people with no sense of humor. That’s not a great combination, and in this case, the furor over the woman’s tweet cost her a job and did incredible damage to her life and career.
There is a place for mass social media campaigns when they are focused, justified, and have specific goals. I remember when Maurice Sendak passed away, Neil Gaiman tweeted something about remembering a great interview he had given to the New Yorker. Then Gaiman mentioned—very subtly—that it was too bad that the magazine had the interview locked behind a pay wall …
An hour later—and presumably after a barrage of demands—the New Yorker made it available to the public. That made me smile. An otherwise good magazine that is a little too precious about its archives was forced to change policy, a beloved artist was fondly remembered, and a quality article found a much larger audience. That’s the kind of collective social media action that makes the world a better place. No careers were ruined, no bullies were fed, and no hooks were bitten.
So the next time we see a publication dangling a shiny new hook in front of us, even if it snags us for a moment, let’s try not to bite down. Hooks shine best when they’re left alone, polished by the ocean sand and the monotonous silence of the water.