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Eric: For one thing, I think Lea Hernandez could kick my ass to Sunday -- you think I want that? No thank you, Mister Man.

So I was reading through the Comixpedia goodness this morning, and I came across a link to an interview with Tom Spurgeon -- the go-too man when it comes to critiquing sequential art, and the man behind the seminal critical website The Comics Reporter. The interview has the unforunate title of "Tom Spurgeon on How to Critique Comics." I say unfortunate because that's not really what Spurgeon is doing -- there's no formula or magic pixie dust he's giving out. Instead, there's some pretty damn good philosophy of criticism.

With the increasing rise of critical blogs devoted to webcomics -- a wholly healthy rise, in my estimation -- it behooves folks to have a look at this interview. It's full of gold not only in terms of how to approach criticizing comics (or, well, criticizing anything in a productive way), but in how to approach critiques and reviews other people have written.

In particular, the following jumped out at me:

How do the creator's feelings play into this?
I'm afraid they don't. If you get off subject or just plain nasty, you deserve to reap the whirlwind when it comes to hurt feelings. For an honest critique, though, you have to try your hardest not to think about those things and hope that you'll be afforded the same generosity of spirit from the artist. If something is put out in public it can be commented upon, and creators just have to deal that someone might do so.

--and--

In the Internet age, it's a lot easier for people to be combative in light of a bad review. How would you sidestep such an issue, or is it an issue at all?
You should consider it a great thing if people are combative in response to something you're written; it's a really high compliment, similar to the compliment you paid to the art in question by choosing to write about it. I would say that you want to get to the point where your reviews speak for themselves, and not get mired in a back-and-forth argument. That's sort of how I feel about the Internet generally, now. There's an assumption online that if someone says something you have to counter it or that other person wins! But they're not filing a brief in court that demands a response; they're just trying to get you into an argument. In most cases, life's too short.

These two things tie directly into one another. A critique shouldn't be a hatchet job -- a review can be, but it's a weapon best used sparingly -- but it also has to have an internal sense of integrity. I remember when I said something critical about a webcomic I actually liked, with writers who had been tremendously supportive about Websnark, for the first time. It was daunting, because I felt like I was shafting my friends.

Only there really isn't room for that. You can have a critical essay, or a fandom essay, but it's hard to do both even if you're a fan. So I did it, and the creators in question took it in absolute stride.

The second is thornier. We all know from Internet Drama. I've been involved in some -- and the only times it's ever been a problem is when I don't simply accept it as part of the critical dialogue. The moment you take a bad reaction to a critical essay personally -- and publicly respond to it -- you endanger the chance that anyone will take your commentary personally.

The temptation is when you see people miss the point -- or seize upon something you didn't say and didn't mean and hold it up to the light and say "there! See! He's wrong! And bad! Wrong and bad!" The temptation is to correct them -- usually using language best suited to dockside bars. "You idiot!" you want to shout. "Can't you fucking read English! I didn't say that and you're stupid!"

The moment you do that, you've lost. Trust me. I've succumbed to the vice before, and it always -- always -- ends badly. Because the people who aren't emotionally involved see that, and the entirety of the discussion then becomes "Teodor vs. Snarky," with the original essay becoming irrelevant.

That way lies Internet Drama, and it can be lots of fun to watch, if you like that sort of thing. But Internet Drama serves absolutely no critical or artistic purpose whatsoever. It cannot be won if you're a critic, because it distracts from the criticism.

Something Meredith Gran said in her Comixpedia interview highlights this point, even though (I think) Gran had her tongue firmly in cheek as she said it:

I'd like to see more webcartoonists fighting with each other. Seriously. I feel like we're catching the same re-runs of PvP vs. Penny Arcade, Kurtz vs. Keenspot, Squidi vs. The Internet, and Crosby vs. Crosby. These classics are old stand-bys, but some fresh and original controversy is in order. I love watching internet drama unfold, and I feel that it really keeps the webcomics community active and thinking outside of the "panel". It's also good publicity for all involved. So I ask that everyone reading this please go out and pick a fight with other webcomics. For the community!

Do I think she's really pushing for fights? No, not really -- though if she is, c'est bien. The point I'm making is, in all of those "dramas," it's been boiled down to the sides, not to what they stand for. Kurtz v. Keenspot. Squidi v. the Internet. Crosby v. Crosby. (PvP v. Penny Arcade seems more like professional wrestling than Internet Drama to me.) We're at the point where the actual points that Kurtz, Squidi and the Crosbys have been trying to make are completely subsumed. "Oh, there goes Scott Kurtz again," the casual reader says. "Oh, there goes Chris Crosby again." "Oh, there goes... what the Hell is Bobby Crosby even saying?"

And so forth.

Can those be entertaining? Sure. But I promise you, several of the people involved honestly want to convince people of something deeply important to them -- but it becomes a brawl instead. It becomes Drama. It stops being argumentative and starts being combative.

It's happened to me. The best contrast I can give is the difference between what happened when I posted about the Friendly Hostility newsbox thing, versus the Comixpedia column I wrote about Girlamatic.

Both engendered a lot of commentary. The former, however, wasn't criticism -- it was a rant, pure and simple. I posted out of emotion. I gave into the dark side, and I fought back with bitterness.

And three things resulted. First, I made some pretty crucial mistakes -- I didn't fact check enough, and I said some inflammatory things that just weren't true. So I had to retract. Secondly, I lost some of the respect I'd built up among a lot of people. And thirdly, any actual point the essay might have had -- any value it could have possessed -- was wholly lost. It was in pretty much every way a failure, from the point of view of someone who wants to write things that make people think.

The column on Girlamatic was also controversial, as it worked out -- more so than I expected it to be. And once (thankfully, only once) I succumbed to the vice of responding to a deliberate misreading of the column. For the most part, I've tried to reiterate my core points, but not debate people who disagree. I've let it be a discussion -- I've let people think I'm full of shit.

In short, like Spurgeon said, I let people be combative, without combating them. I've appreciated the fact that there has been discussion on the subject. I think good discussion.

And as a result, it's not "Websnark vs. Girlamatic" or "Eric Burns vs. Lea Hernandez." I'm not against Girlamatic in any way, shape or form, and I don't think the creators over on that site are against me. Some people agree with my thesis, some people disagree, and a lot of people put some thought into it.

That's a win. An unqualified win. It doesn't matter if I'm "right" or "wrong." What matters is the discussion, no matter where that discussion turns.

I'm not perfect. I lose sight of this more often than I'd like. Sometimes, people saying nasty things gets under your skin. It shouldn't, perhaps, but it does. But for the most part, I try to remember what Spurgeon said, even before I read it: if they care enough to be shouting about you, you've managed to inspire thought. That's a good thing.

And it's something every critic who wants to make points more than enemies should bear in mind.

Posted by Eric Burns-White at April 25, 2005 11:14 AM

Comments

Comment from: William_G posted at April 25, 2005 11:36 AM

Eric... I think the main difference between us is that while I do care enough about the "community" to get irritated with most of the of the door-stop-dumb stuff that gets pulled, I don't care nearly enough about them to feel the same regrets you do when so-called controversy comes by.

And I think that WE should fight, because let's face it, none of these guys are in our league.

I'll be Hulk, and you can be Thor.

Comment from: William_G posted at April 25, 2005 11:39 AM

Oh yeah, I did learn the hard way not to argue back with internet cultists as well. This I admit. Tom Spurgeon is a smart guy.

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at April 25, 2005 11:42 AM

Dude! That means I get to have the sacred Uru hammer! Yes!

There is nothing so rocking as having a Sacred Uru Hammer. I always wanted there to be a run in Thor when Thor starts a heavy metal band called Sacred ­r˝ Hamm˝r.

Comment from: Christopher B. Wright posted at April 25, 2005 11:43 AM

Hmmm.

Well I agree with the comment on criticism. When you put your work out there for all to see, you run the risk of people hating it, and you need to be prepared to take your lumps for it.

As to the x vs y comments, though... I don't know that I agree. It seems to me the "drama" isn't part and parcel with "making your point" -- it's a substitute for making your point, because making your point is a lot harder than simply trashing the guy (or group) you disagree with. It's very difficult to *simultaneously* attack someone *and* make a separate point at the same time.

In my comic I spend my time ridiculing the computer industry, pointing out foibles and hypocrisy, dirty deeds and general unethical behavior... so what then, is my point? I have one, but it seems to me that it often gets lost in the jab, as it were. To be truly effective the point needs to be communicated just as loudly as the attack, if not more so. And you know... that just doesn't happen in our little world, and because it doesn't happen people assume they know what your point is, and very often get it wrong. I'm as guilty of this as anyone.

And not to sound overly cynical, but I think 9 times out of 10 the "drama" does *not* coincide with any particular point... it simply reflects a general desire to tear down someone you think you're competing with. Or to shore up your own clique. Or to prove that you're better. Or what have you.

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at April 25, 2005 11:50 AM

And not to sound overly cynical, but I think 9 times out of 10 the "drama" does *not* coincide with any particular point... it simply reflects a general desire to tear down someone you think you're competing with. Or to shore up your own clique. Or to prove that you're better. Or what have you.

I don't know if that's the intent or not, but I agree wholeheartedly that's the result.

Either way, if someone wants to be a critic instead of... well, a troll, then they should bear all this in mind.

Comment from: William_G posted at April 25, 2005 12:18 PM

You may have the hammer Eric, but I got the purple pants that stay intact no matter how much my junk may grow as well.

That's the power of science.

Comment from: 32_footsteps posted at April 25, 2005 12:34 PM

This dovetails nicely into something that happened to me a couple weeks ago.

At the time, I was interviewing to join the newsletter staff of a convention (to keep my self-aggrandizing to a minimum, I'll let the interested research out which one). One of the biggest questions put forth to me at the interview was, "How do you know you've succeeded as a writer?"

Talk about a loaded question; ask five different writers and you'll get ten different answers (twenty if they're all getting paid by the word). And I had several come to mind immediately when I heard the question. But here's the one that rang most true to me.

A writer does what they do to make people think and to make people feel. Sometimes, it's making someone who is inclined to agree with you continue a thought process beyond where they stopped. Sometimes, it's articulating the feelings someone else has but can't get out. And yes, sometimes it's invoking a vigorous counter-argument from someone who disagrees with your point. (For the record, I personally love hate mail and relish whenever some appears in my inbox.)

A writer will, by default, upset people here and there, but should always strive to make that upset productive. So long as a writer manages that, then they are in some way a success.

Comment from: Phalanx posted at April 25, 2005 1:14 PM

On the other hand, if people involved in the debate (I kindly call it debate here) can all keep their heads, you'd be amazed how much of a ingenious brainstorming session it can be.

One thing most people don't know is that the Women in Webcomics article I wrote was a product from a rather strong (but I'm proud to say, civilised) debate about the subject matter with several individuals (See the credits at the bottom) elsewhere. Some of them didn't agree with me, but the points they brought up really made me think hard about things that I wouldn't have thought of otherwise, and without them, the article would have turned out very differently, and I dare say, less well thought out.

Unfortunately, in 9 out of 10 cases, when people debate on the net, they debate to win, not to find an answer. And seriously, if their sole aim is to win the argument and prove the opponent wrong, most people would rather put on a thick face in denial than admit they've lost the argument, even when faced with overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

So when no one ever admits to losing, no one ever really wins either. That's why arguing to win is a straight road to losing, because it's based on a very flawed principle which is: "I am never wrong".

Comment from: Merus posted at April 25, 2005 2:32 PM

I, unfortunately, have only one thing to comment on.

Has anyone asked Bobby Crosby why he thanks people for loving Pupkin when he reportedly dislikes doing Pupkin, and presumably doesn't love Pupkin himself? It's kind of bothered me, but I've been warned about asking Bobby things and so I'm hoping someone else has already done it.

Other than that, fully agree - arguing on the Internet is like competing in the Special Olympics, as the old and rather tasteless joke goes.

Comment from: quiller posted at April 25, 2005 3:52 PM

It reminds me of a friend of mine. It isn't that he can't have an intelligent argument, but he has a habit of talking over other people, and takes it personally if people don't seem to understand the point he is making. The only way to argue with him was to first demonstrate that you understood what he was saying, then give your input and argument in relation to his point. Then, usually if you made a good point he would see it and at some point afterwards would assume that that was always his opinion.

It always seems better to me to go into an argument with the goal of understanding the other person's point of view, and informing others, but never to look to win. (I think one of the problems with people who do debate is they break into debate habits in discussions. I had to work on trying to cure on ex-gf of always trying to "win" friendly discussions.)

Comment from: The Gneech posted at April 25, 2005 5:11 PM

The worst thing I've ever received from a critique or a casual fan (that I'm aware of, anyway) was that they thought SJ was mediocre.

On the other hand, a few other cartoonists have been flat out NASTY to me, and I must admit it floored me. Not just because of the nastiness involved, but because it struck me as such a strangely unprofessional way to behave -- even among an industry made up mostly of amateurs.

I wouldn't be half as bothered by an honest critique that didn't care for my work, as I am by a sucker-punch from somebody who should treat their fellow creators better.

-The Gneech

Comment from: Prodigal posted at April 25, 2005 10:58 PM

"So how are Sacred ­r˝ Hamm˝r?"

"Not bad, for a three-umlaut band."

Comment from: gwalla posted at April 28, 2005 12:58 AM

Merus: I think pretty much everything Bobby says is intended to get a rise out of people. Don't take any of it too seriously.

Comment from: Lea-Hernandez posted at May 5, 2005 1:13 AM

I could kick your ass, but to give your ass a quality kicking, I need time. I am booked solid through August. (Yes, ComicCon is July, but I need to recover. You might actually take me in a dirty fight on July 19.)

In the main, though, I ascribe to Rule Number Three of "How to be a Happy Nerd": message boards (and comment threads) are the Devil.

I'm so much happier since I started shouting, "RULE NUMBER THREE" and turning off my computer.

Better GirlAMatic be talked about than not, I say.

Comment from: Bobby Crosby posted at July 6, 2005 2:16 PM

"Has anyone asked Bobby Crosby why he thanks people for loving Pupkin when he reportedly dislikes doing Pupkin, and presumably doesn't love Pupkin himself?"

Weird. About 98 percent of the time when I thank people for loving "Pupkin" it's because they just said THEY LOVE PUPKIN. The other 2 percent is usually just said jokingly to people who say they hate "Pupkin" in a very stupid way. Where's the confusion here???

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