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Eric: The Snarkographia Webcomicka

My field of study, for those who don't know, is literature. And, within said literature, literary criticism and critical theory. I've logged a lot of hours learning the ins and outs of it. I've cut my eyeteeth on it. I've done the criticism thing.

Well, one of the foundational works in literary criticism -- required reading if you want to graduate -- is the Biographia Literaria. Published in 1817, it was an absolute landmark in the study of literature, in the study of poetry, in the study of imagery and composition. It delved deeply into critical theory, but also deeply into the study of poetry itself -- most prominently the Lyrical Ballads, which itself was an exercise by Wordsworth and Coleridge to overturn what they felt was the priggish, lackadaisical, overly formal, underly emotive state of poetry in English Literature at the time.

(In this, they succeeded. Wordsworth and Coleridge -- along with Blake and in a sense Robert Burns (and echoing the work of Milton in a previous generation) -- launched what today we see as the Romantic movement in poetry. Blake, Coleridge and Wordsworth collectively formed the first generation of Romantics, followed closely by Keats, Shelley and Byron in the "second generation." Though, ironically, all of the second generation of Romantic poets died before any of the first generation did. But I digress.)

The author of the Biographia Literaria? Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The poet himself.

To Coleridge, a true poet was also a critic of poetry. He had to be willing to delve deep, to break the surface, to tear the living guts of poetry out. He had to figure out how one took nature and reflected it in words, in a way as true to the nature as was possible, but even more importantly true to the poetry. As he said in the Biographia Literaria itself (ch.15):

No man was ever yet a great poet, without being at the same time a profound philosopher.

And the philosophy of literature and of the aesthetic is critical theory. Indeed, Coleridge believed that the critical faculty -- the philosophical outlook -- that formed the perspective necessary to produce art of any kind had to be applied to the world. One had to examine all things with a sense of the critical, before they could produce art. And that most especially applied to the works of other artists, writers, and poets. One could not glean truth or beauty from a work -- truth that could be used in one's own art -- until one had applied the full extent of their critical prowess to that work. "Until you understand a writer’s ignorance, presume yourself ignorant of his understanding," he wrote in Chapter 12, and he meant every word of it.

This was hardly a controversial position, however. At this stage in history, poets, writers and artists were presumed to also be critics and philosophers. A poet who didn't also write essays was seen as something of a lightweight at best. An artist who didn't also examine the art of others was less a genius and more a dabbler. Fair or not, proper or not, the bias existed.

Robert Heinlein, who remains one of my favorite writers, expressed similar but more extreme opinions. He held literary criticism in disdain, because so many critics weren't writers. Who but a 20th Century American Poet was qualified to critique 20th Century American Poetry. What were philosophers and pedants and critics doing interpreting and breaking down the work of writers and artists? If they were any damn good at it, why weren't they writing literature?

This is, of course, fallacious. Of course a person might be better at interpreting literature than writing it himself. Likewise, a bad critic might be a brilliant poet. But some folks are driven to both write literature and criticism, even if it's not simply a given in today's day and age.

However, in recent years we've had an interesting reversal of these positions. More and more, you hear critics of criticism (now there's a recursion for you) decrying writers who also write criticism. The charge -- one that remains almost hysterical to me -- is generally the same: a writer cannot be a critic, because a writer cannot separate his own work from his critique. He cannot be objective.

Guys, if I never, ever manage to do anything else, let me manage to do this. Let me manage to teach this one, ineffable truth of criticism:

There is no such thing as objective criticism.

All criticism reflects the opinions and interpretation of the critic. That is the innate distinction between journalism (the reporting and analysis of fact) and criticism (the rendering of interpretation and opinion). That is what criticism -- whether we're discussing the critique, the critical essay, or the review -- is. It is opinion. Thesis, in our terminology.

Good criticism is well written, and supports its thesis with example. Citation is the coin of the realm.

Bad criticism is badly written, or fails to support its thesis, or supports its thesis fallaciously (quoting out of context in such a way that a statement appears to be in support of a point, when the larger work contradicts that point, for example.)

Well. In Jon Rosenberg's latest blog entry, over at the (as always, excellent) Goats, he announces the revivification of the Fleen name. It's not the Fleen of old, but a webcomics blog. Specifically, it's a webcomics blog writ by critics who explicitly are not now, nor have ever been webcartoonists or webcomics creators. It is Rosenberg's thesis that the critic of webcomics who is also a webcartoonist is innately flawed. His writings are tainted by his hopes, his own work, his own thesis. He will advance his own works and those of his friends and like minded people. He will not be objective enough to produce either criticism or webcomics with veracity. In his own words:

The one thing that is unforgiveable is that, almost without exception, all of these sites are run by and staffed by webcomic creators. They all have agendas, they all have friends they want to promote, they all have their own approaches to the artform that they want to see vindicated. These people are biased from the get-go. In the worst cases, webcomics bloggers have used their bully pulpit to launch their own nascent webcomics initiatives. This is the worst kind of journalism, the most terrible kind of comics crticism. It is the same sort of cronyism that has corrupted larger organizations like Fox News.

If these sites hope to have any sort of journalistic integrity, we must establish a divide between the creators and the people writing about them. The new Fleen is the first webcomics blog to attempt this.

Check it out. Biased. Agenda. They all have their own approaches to the art form they want to see vindicated. It all comes down to the same thing. They will lack journalistic integrity. They're not objective.

He even makes mention how a biased critic will have his own thesis to advance. Believe it or not.

At this stage, of course, I had to pause and go outside so I could finish laughing. Because Jon Rosenberg is right. All critics -- all critics -- have their own opinions about the art form they're criticizing. All critics have examples they think extol the virtues of their art form. All critics have approaches they think work better than others. All critics have hopes for the art form they're writing about. And all critics -- all critics -- have theses they are writing about and supporting.

That's actually what an essay is. A thesis. Introduction. Thesis Statement. Support. Conclusion.

Opinion.

I've read Fleen. And you know what? It's good. The guys Rosenberg found to write on the site are good essayists. They have a clear knowledge of and love for webcomics. I'm going to keep reading it. You should read it too.

But I'm not going to give those guys any greater or lesser credence by their lack of desire to write a webcomic. And if they turned around and launched their own webcomic tomorrow, I wouldn't think any less of them. I'm going to take their posts, their essays, their theses and their opinions based on the criteria one must take these things: do they state their thesis clearly? Do they support their thesis well? Are they good enough writers to make their essay entertaining without sacrificing their essential point?

Rosenberg ends his post (which is, of course, itself criticism -- this time about webcomics criticism instead of webcomics proper) with a challenge to those critics who also produce webcomics:

Finally, I'd like to call on all of the webcomics creators who are out there moonlighting as webcomics journalists (and vice versa) to pick a side. If you want webcomics and webcomics journalism to be taken seriously, you can't be doing both. It's like how my ex-girlfriend used to put on stage shows with her friends for her other friends -- cute, but certainly not professional and ultimately pitiable. And everything you write until you pick a side will be suspect.

In other words -- if I want Websnark to be taken seriously, I'd better give up Gossamer Commons. Otherwise, I'd better give up Websnark. But I can't do both. Not without being suspect.

Ridiculous.

If you like what I write on Websnark, read it. If you agree with me? Cool. If you disagree with me? Cool. Comment if you like. Don't comment if you don't want to.

If you like the story we're telling on Gossamer Commons, fantastic. If not, hey, that's okay too.

But the idea that somehow, I have to pick and choose what kind of writing I want to do is, to be blunt, silly. You, the reader, get to pick and choose what you want to read. And if you don't like my webcomic, don't read it. If you don't like my criticism, don't read that. I won't be offended, either way.

But the idea that my essays are invalidated by my webcomic, or my webcomic invalidated by my essays? Is just plain wrong.

Am I biased? You bet. I don't even write about the comics I don't like, because I don't read them.

Are the essayists and critics on Fleen biased? You bet. Heck -- here's an excerpt from a really good post by Gary Tyrrell, over there:

This was Tex’s usual mode of creating cartoons: a wide-open, anarchic approach to story, character, and reality, but with a limitation that must be respected. Pushing up against that limitation (like a game of “I’m not touching you!”) is when things get funny. Jeff Rowland’s Wigu is in the finest tradition of Averian work.

Check it out -- a thesis. "Jeff Rowland's Wigu operates in the tradition of Tex Avery." That's not a fact -- we don't know that Rowland got up one morning and said "dude -- I'm going to do a pastiche on Tex Avery." For one thing, I don't think Rowland uses either the words "pastiche" or "dude" on a regular basis. However, it's a perfectly valid interpretation.

And Tyrrell goes on to support his thesis:

Wigu Tinkle lives in a world where anything can happen. The only rule is that reality conforms to the perceptions of an eight year old boy, and when you’re eight, your big sister is a serious weirdo that you know deep down sorta really loves you, parental fights are the scariest thing in the world, and your dad can beat up anything. Everything else is possible: Cartoon characters come to life? Check. Magic fridge? Check. Coolest car ever invented (complete with eleven TVs)? Check.

Et cetera. It's a good essay. It's well supported. It's good criticism. I'm looking forward to reading more of what Tyrrell has to say.

But it's no more objective than me writing about Narbonic. And me writing about Narbonic is no less valid than Tyrrell's writing because I write Gossamer Commons. It's an opinion, vindicating a storytelling technique that Tyrrell approves of, and tying it back to a broader tradition. Which is precisely what it's supposed to be.

(What it isn't, by the by, is journalism. Any more than what I'm doing is journalism.)

I have said all along that I'm hopeful that the critical discourse in webcomics will continue to grow and flourish. I think Fleen is going to be an excellent addition to that discourse. However, I think Rosenberg does it a disservice by setting it in diametric opposition to all webcomics blogs and critical outlets that have ties to webcomics. There's no good reason to create enemies here. None at all. Neither do I think Comixpedia, The Webcomics Examiner or I'm Just Saying going to vanish because Rosenberg thinks they're flawed.

Neither, of course, is Websnark.

Maybe Fleen will be better than Websnark. Maybe it won't. I'm not going to sweat it either way -- I'm going to write the stuff I want to write, and I hope you guys like it. However, it's not going to be Gossamer Commons that sets the difference between them. It's going to be those same criteria I listed before. If my theses become muddled, if I don't support my writing, if I don't write entertainingly, then people will stop reading.

Regardless, I'm going to keep writing. I invite you all -- no matter what your credentials -- to do the same.

Coleridge was wrong, in my opinion. An artist doesn't have to be a critic. Heinlein was wrong, in my opinion. A critic doesn't have to be an artist. Rosenberg was wrong, in my opinion: an artist can be a critic, and a critic can be an artist.

What matters is the art, and the criticism.

Posted by Eric Burns-White at December 22, 2005 5:18 PM

Comments

Comment from: larksilver posted at December 22, 2005 5:34 PM

Excellent essay!

I'm trying to understand here: so, basically, Rosenberg would like to see a situation where no webcomic author or artist, ever, will say "oooh I like what Shaenon did with Narbonic this week. Here's why."

But.. but.. I don't get the logic there. I've never understood the idea that someone who works in a particular arena would be too close to it to effectively critique and/or manage it. Have you ever read theater criticism written by those who are themselves failed actors/directors? Man, it can get vicious.

Personally, I think I would rather have my work evaluated by someone who knows the process, who knows what I do, and even has some understanding of why I do it. Not because they would necessarily be more kind, per se, but more because they would at least be able to know what they're talking about, on an instinctive level.

Perhaps I'm misunderstanding, of course. Still, it's.. a puzzlement.

Comment from: Sam Logan posted at December 22, 2005 5:34 PM

Burns was wrong, in my opinion. No one can be a critic! You're all fired, all of you!

Comment from: Cornan posted at December 22, 2005 5:35 PM

Objectivity has become a horrendously over-valued commodity in modern culture. While for things like science and journalism it is an ideal to be pursued it has little purpose in things like criticism. The moment one posits a thesis one stops being objective. This in no way hurts the validity of the thesis.

The idea that any writing about anything is journalism and must be "objective" is spreading. It's just silly and it drives me nuts.

Comment from: Montykins posted at December 22, 2005 5:38 PM

I don't see why it should be bad if a critic is obviously biased. If Eric Burns writes an analysis of John Stark where he purports to demonstrate that it is the most brilliant webcomic ever, I'm probably going to be skeptical going in, but if he defends his point and makes his arguments, then there you go.

Bias is dangerous in factual reporting because it makes the reader less likely to "trust" the writer. But when the writer is advancing a critical opinion and then proceeds to defend that opinion, it's not a matter of trust; it's a matter of the strength of the argument and the writing ability.

Comment from: Alexander Danner posted at December 22, 2005 5:45 PM

Dammit Eric, I've been writing a response to this all day, and you not only beat me to it, but said it ten times better than I'm saying it!

Comment from: Ardaniel posted at December 22, 2005 5:49 PM

Monty: Ah, but if Eric does write that critical essay, it won't be about *his* work-- because he'll have had to have given John Stark to someone else to work on in order to retain *any* sort of credibility.

It's all about the street cred, you know. ;)

Comment from: okaynowa posted at December 22, 2005 5:58 PM

Have you ever read Art Spiegelman's critical essays for The New Yorker about Charles Schultz and Jack Cole (the guy who drew Plastic Man)? There's an example of the artist as critic, in a very relevant field no less. Why choose sides?

Comment from: Doublemint posted at December 22, 2005 6:04 PM

Wonderful. Another webcomic blog/news site.


Webcomic coverage always seems to degenerate into ¤dramaË. Farce would be a better term. A writer may have a valid point but it may will get lost in the subsequent squabbling. People get bitter and hold personal grudges and then go out of their way to piss each other off. It's all just so petty and vindictive.

Comment from: Darth Paradox posted at December 22, 2005 6:05 PM

There appears to be a basic flaw in Rosenberg's understanding of the nature of writing about webcomics.

He equated journalism and criticism.

From this flawed equation, the rest of his invalid conclusions arise. If he thinks a critic is a journalist, of course he thinks that a critic should be removed from the field about which he or she is writing! (Which may not even be true of webcomic journalists - the field is so fluid and filled with loyalities to and antagonisms against a multitude of creators that I doubt anyone who is interested in webcomics could ever really be considered an objective reporter - but we can strive for the ideal all the same. When we're talking about journalism.)

Comment from: UrsulaV posted at December 22, 2005 6:05 PM

To abandon the philosophical for a moment and get to the purely technical, I think it really helps to know how something's done if you're gonna criticize.

Consider art. Consider photoshop.

If you do not know how filters work and lens flares and rainbow gradients, you may well be wowed by the shiny smoothness of them all. You will be impressed by the facility with which the artist has done that lens flare. Crappy linework, but oo! The lens flare! So like a real lens flare! That redeems it!

If you are actually an artist, you know that a lens flare takes maybe three clicks and you are more inclined to view it as a diabolical tool of Satan that not only ruins anything it touches but sucks the goodness out of any artwork in a five mile radius through sheer force of suck.

And then again you may not. But at least you'll know how it's done.

Likewise, I was not nearly as impressed by the beauty of Japanese tea bowls until I tried to throw pots. There's a certain degree to which knowing just how damn hard something is can make you appreciate a lot more--and if it turns out to be cheap and easy, then you at least KNOW. And can comment on it effectively.

Comment from: 32_footsteps posted at December 22, 2005 6:16 PM

"There is no such thing as objective criticism."

I've been trying to roll that damned boulder up the mountain for over 6 years now, and monkey help me if I can get anyone to agree with me on this point.

As for journalism and criticism... I think the two practices are closely related, and a background in one can make you better in the other. It's more like an ideal - criticism and journalism should go hand-in-hand, but more often than not, they don't.

Funny thing is, Eric actually inadvertently touches upon this above. It is bad criticism to take something out of context to prove a thesis. Of course, it's not always obvious what the context is, exactly. Thus, appropriate investigation and reporting of the facts is required in order to get that context.

On the flip side, too often do journalists nowadays present both sides of an opposing argument as fact. I mean, one or the other has to be wrong, especially when they declare different information to be true. A judgement call has to be made, and yes, someone (or maybe many someones) is going to have to be called wrong.

The goals of journalism and of criticism are much different. But the two disciplines compliment each other remarkably well.

Comment from: Justin Hemmings posted at December 22, 2005 6:35 PM

I think there's an inherent difference in what journalism wants to point out and what criticism wants to points out. The whole idea behind journalism is to give people pieces of facts and information they didn't have before. "Congress is passing a law that makes this legal" is a new fact. Journalists try to introduce new information to the general supply of knowledge.

Critics don't discover new information; they offer ways of seeing it. It's all about new perspective; good critics are looking at a cultural artifact and trying to figure out what's between the lines, and as long as they can support what they see in the artifact, it's valid and useful. "Objectivity" isn't just unattainable in critcism, it's completely destructive to the process. Good criticism makes you go "Huh, I hadn't seen that before, but it makes sense."

One useful perspective for criticism is to be an artist in the same medium as what you're criticising; you can talk about the process with some authority and describe that part of the context in which it plays. But again, it's only one perspective. Different bases of knowledge give different insights into texts, and that's the whole thing that makes it great. You want as many different subjective opinions as you can get. The better you can understand more than one perspective, the wiser you become and it only enriches people intellectually to gain that kind of knowledge.

At least, that's how I tend to see the matter.

Comment from: Tangent posted at December 22, 2005 6:41 PM

Excuse me while I snerk.

*snerk*

Why do I feel like this is almost a response to my recent comments over at Comixpedia that people with a background in webcomics (ie, having written/drawn a webcomic, even if it failed) make better critics of webcomics due to our understanding of the basics behind the construction and organization of a webcomic?

I came up with a theory... and people countered it and had some superb reasons why I was wrong. And yes, perhaps I was. I still think that experience in the webcomic field helps a critic have a greater understanding of what goes into each comic and thus more insight into the comic itself... but some people could intuitively know this without working on their own comic... or could work quite well without that knowledge.

But stating that someone can only effectively write criticism if they haven't had a webcomic in some point in their past is equally flawed. Websnark in and of itself proves this. Tangents does as well (in that I've managed to write some truly interesting tangents, such as the recent one on El Goonish Shive - which has sparked a dialog on the EGS forums about the characters I talked about). And I've seen some truly talented reviews by people who have their own comics... or did at some time.

Take care!

Robert A. Howard

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at December 22, 2005 6:46 PM

Technically, I started Websnark after I failed as a webcartoonist. For the record. ;)

Comment from: Christopher B. Wright posted at December 22, 2005 6:55 PM

Hm, so apparently since I'm a musicin... by extension I should never voice my opinion about music.

Yeah, like *that* will ever happen.

Hey! Politicians should never discuss politics. I actually kind of like that one.

Comment from: Kristofer Straub posted at December 22, 2005 6:56 PM

I think more to the point, I wish some outside force would write about webcomics without us having to legitimize ourselves. "People are writing about webcomics! That makes them important!" Well, yeah, but it doesn't make them important to the mainstream. The mainstream has to show up and start writing about it.

Also, I think the poor view of a critic being a webcartoonist is mixed up in a webcartoonist being a critic. Artists aren't necessarily writers, nor writers artists. Check out any of the vanity creator-owned projects by flashy comic book artists -- usually they're stupid as hell. It looks great, but it doesn't mean the guy can write. Being a webcartoonist may give one an insight into webcomics, but doesn't make one capable of writing about them, or reviewing and critiquing them. That's a whole other discipline. I don't think it's valid to turn in a poorly-written critique, even if it's about a poorly-written webcomic.

Also also, I think the current webcomics criticism sphere is too quick to clasp a fellow review brother to its bosom, regardless of how bad or lazily-thought-out their writing is. Just because one writes doesn't mean it has value as writing.

This and other comments from a handful of people are going to make me remove my front blog from Checkerboard Nightmare. Webcomics doesn't need another pundit making noise and trying to crawl to the front of the critique line. I'm reminded of the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword: "Ask yourself, why do you seek the Cup of Christ? Is it for His glory, or for yours?"

Sometimes I feel like so many people are full of drama over webcomics not because they can't help it, but because they want to be visible, and writing a couple paragraphs is something anyone with a keyboard can do. And I'm not above that accusation either. Are we writing because we honestly care about the discourse? Or because we want to be the Bill O'Reilly of webcomics?

Comment from: Christopher B. Wright posted at December 22, 2005 6:57 PM

Aha! On the other hand, I can talk about web comics all I want since I'm not a *real* webcartoonist. :D

Comment from: Tangent posted at December 22, 2005 7:05 PM

Kris, I think what matters is if you *enjoy* webcomics. If you do... and you want to write about them... then do. If you're just doing it for fame or to be a Websnark or to put a pin into another comic review... then you're doing it for the wrong reason.

That's why I don't write reviews in advance. I like writing about that which inspires me. Without that inspiration... then I've no impetus to write a tangent. And that can be seen with some of the poorer-quality reviews I've done.

Rob H.

Comment from: Plaid Phantom posted at December 22, 2005 7:52 PM

So, would it be fair to say that criticism is opinionated journalism? Criticism seems to be using the information found through journalism and forming opinions.

Comment from: Danalog posted at December 22, 2005 8:10 PM

Since when are you not a real webcartoonist , Christopher? =P

Comment from: Darth Paradox posted at December 22, 2005 8:10 PM

I wouldn't say that's quite true, Plaid. They're two somewhat separate realms - neither is a subset of the other. You wouldn't write a journalistic article about Shakespeare's plays (though perhaps about recent events having to do with them), and you wouldn't write a critical piece about a car accident. They cover different subjects - one is concerned with fact, and the other is concerned with opinion.

Comment from: Montykins posted at December 22, 2005 8:14 PM

Well, yeah, but it doesn't make them important to the mainstream. The mainstream has to show up and start writing about it.

I think it's unlikely that entirely independent critics are going to be attracted to the medium if it hasn't already generated its own internal criticism. And since any high-quality criticism is going to have to be written by someone familiar with the history and tropes of the form, I think the most likely path to criticism is that first there are writers like Eric, then some smartasses manage to write their senior theses on webcomics, and finally people respected in the mainstream notice webcomics.

But that's just one definition of "respectability". Considering that comic books have been around much longer and still have to put up with "Bam! Pow! Boom! Comic Books Aren't Just for Kids Anymore!" I wouldn't hold your breath.

Comment from: KingAndy posted at December 22, 2005 8:38 PM

I'm sorry, I can't possibly accept your views on webcomics review sites as unbiased. As a writer of webcomics reviews on a website, your opinion is inherently tainted by your own thoughts and opinions. In future please leave commentary on webcomic review sites to people who have never previously written, read or heard of webcomic review sites.

I have marked any thoughts or feelings generated by reading this essay as "UNCLEAN" and am undergoing hypnotherapy to ensure that it does not direct my behaviour in any way. Good day to you, sir!

Comment from: Christopher B. Wright posted at December 22, 2005 8:38 PM

Since when are you not a real webcartoonist , Christopher? =P

Since 1996, thereabouts. ;)

Comment from: Christopher B. Wright posted at December 22, 2005 8:43 PM

The people who claimin that webcartoonists who are also critics are simply advancing their own agendas are simply upset that other people are advancing agendas counter to their *own* agendas, and mask it up by being concerned about "bias." I notice they rarely complain when a webcartoonist offer a critique that they just happen to agree with.

And Kris, I'm not sure if you noticed, but Checkerboard Nightmare? It's webcomic criticism by a webcartoonist. It just happens to be drawn as well as written. Taking the blog off your comic won't make it any less a critique.

Comment from: Kristofer Straub posted at December 22, 2005 8:48 PM

"Taking the blog off your comic won't make it any less a critique."

I know, but if I can do something other than just write whenever I feel like saying "xyz sucks!" I will. I think the blog is kind of pointless for me to have.

Comment from: Denyer posted at December 22, 2005 9:25 PM

At this stage, of course, I had to pause and go outside so I could finish laughing.

Yup. Trust the people who try hardest to portray themselves as worthy of trust, and lay claim to that mystical displaced 'objectivity' stuff?

They ought try the other one. It hath got bells on it.

Comment from: kirabug posted at December 22, 2005 9:35 PM

Kris Straub wrote:

I think more to the point, I wish some outside force would write about webcomics without us having to legitimize ourselves. "People are writing about webcomics! That makes them important!" Well, yeah, but it doesn't make them important to the mainstream. The mainstream has to show up and start writing about it

I'm sorry, I'm laughing my tail off over here because I've recently started reading a friend's blog regarding the New York theater scene, and, well, they're having the same problems. At least, the smaller theaters and actors and artists are. And I don't think there's any art more "mainstream" or legitimate than theater, which has been around for centuries, but they're having the same problems.

Which just goes to show that it doesn't matter how legitimate your art is.... if it's small scale, someone's going to say it's not big enough to have its own criticism, and if it's large-scale you can almost guarantee that someone's going to say it sold out or appeals to the lowest common denominator and doesn't deserve "legitimate" criticism.

And Kris, from where I'm sitting, your comic *is* mainstream. Big fish in a small pond and all that. Hell of a lot bigger than mine, that's for sure. There's billions of people in the world - how many have to read webcomics to make it mainstream?

Kris also

I know, but if I can do something other than just write whenever I feel like saying "xyz sucks!" I will. I think the blog is kind of pointless for me to have.

Well, why are you writing it? If it's to express your opinion, well, I've been listening. If it's to teach, well, I've been learning. And if it's to entertain, well, I've been enjoying it. If it's just to rant, well, then it's up to you :)

Comment from: William_G posted at December 22, 2005 9:50 PM

Dammit Eric! You're suposed to roll over and do as our 100,000+ UIP Daily lords and masters want us to.

Comment from: Horus posted at December 22, 2005 10:16 PM

So do you have to be a webcomic artist or a critic to be critical of critiques written by webcomic artists? Or can you be both?

Comment from: Phil Kahn posted at December 22, 2005 11:03 PM

Isn't... isn't this what we've been saying the entire time, though? We're not journalists, we're critics? This stuff is opinion, not authority?

It's funny how you have to keep reminding people not to take us too god damned seriously.

Comment from: Wistful Dreamer posted at December 22, 2005 11:20 PM

Rosenburg seems to be making one of the most fundamental logical flaw possible: ad hominum thinking (i.e. "The value of this argument is based on the person making it, not the valid points that the argument makes.). While complaining about people becoming like Fox News, he has inadvertantly become an Ann Coutier clone. As someone who has staked his claim as being the "no one is ever immune to any form of criticism" guy, I can't express how foolish I find this. All criticisms are appropriate, be they from experts, novices, those with vested interests or those without.

(An aside, I hate that term, "objective", because it implies that it is simply some opposite state as compared to "subjective." While this is technically true, it creates the false impression that objectivity is possible. In reality, true objectivism is only possible for infinitely perfect beings (yes, "infinitely perfect" is redundant, I'm trying to make a point). People should recognize that everyone has a subjective view, from amateurs to professionals to whinny teenagers holding up copies of The Fountainhead as their new Bible and calling themselves "objectivists".)

Thank you Eric, for making this point so well.

Comment from: Wistful Dreamer posted at December 22, 2005 11:21 PM

Rosenburg seems to be making one of the most fundamental logical flaw possible: ad hominum thinking (i.e. "The value of this argument is based on the person making it, not the valid points that the argument makes.). While complaining about people becoming like Fox News, he has inadvertantly become an Ann Coutier clone. As someone who has staked his claim as being the "no one is ever immune to any form of criticism" guy, I can't express how foolish I find this. All criticisms are appropriate, be they from experts, novices, those with vested interests or those without.

(An aside, I hate that term, "objective", because it implies that it is simply some opposite state as compared to "subjective." While this is technically true, it creates the false impression that objectivity is possible. In reality, true objectivism is only possible for infinitely perfect beings (yes, "infinitely perfect" is redundant, I'm trying to make a point). People should recognize that everyone has a subjective view, from amateurs to professionals to whinny teenagers holding up copies of The Fountainhead as their new Bible and calling themselves "objectivists".)

Saying that someone has an agenda is not a valid criticism of their points, merely a statement of implicit fact. Thank you Eric, for making this point so well.

Comment from: Wistful Dreamer posted at December 22, 2005 11:23 PM

sorry about the double post.

Comment from: Remus Shepherd posted at December 22, 2005 11:33 PM

I'm guerilla-posting while out of town for the holidays, so it's likely that I won't see any responses to this coment. But that's okay. I just wanted to post a lateral opinion.

I don't have a problem with a webcomic critic also being a webcomic writer/artist. But I can't take the comic they produce seriously. I know the criticisms are subjective, I don't have a problem with that, and I assign a value to the criticisms according to their logic and how they're presented.

But the value of the webcomic is not just what I think of it -- my subjective opinion -- but also the size and nature of its audience -- the closest measure of objective opinion I can get my hands on. And if you're a critic (or a famous person in any field), the audience of your webcomic is inflated and skewed.

Kevin and Kell is a good example -- would anyone have ever noticed this comic if it wasn't done by a successful comic artist? There's some of this for Girl Genius, too (although that's a truly quality comic, by any objectie measure). And Gossamer Commons is the same way -- I don't think t would have many readers, or get much attention, if you weren't already well known, Eric. I won't even mention John Stark. :)

This is selfish and sinful of me -- it's pure envy. Turn it around a moment, and you see me wondering if my readership would get outside of double digits if only I were someone famous. :)

But it's an attitude I fall into reflexively, and it's why I can't take Gossamer Commons seriously. It doesn't affect my opinion of your criticisms at all. But your webcomics, to me, will always be riding the coattails of your other projects. Sorry, just my opinion.

The gripping hand, of course, is that you're doing your comics because you enjoy doing them. So the hell with my opinion, and with anyone else's. Do whatever keeps you sane, man. :)

Comment from: 32_footsteps posted at December 22, 2005 11:50 PM

Actually, isn't objectivity possible when you have no emotional attachment in either direction? Fairness through apathy, you know.

Comment from: kirabug posted at December 23, 2005 12:43 AM

Actually, isn't objectivity possible when you have no emotional attachment in either direction? Fairness through apathy, you know.

Depends on your definition of "objective" and the type of criticism you're using. You can't, for example, objectively talk about the effect of the comic on the webcomics community as a whole unless you've *seen* the webcomics community as a whole. And that's pretty damn near impossible these days. (See thread re: CAD readers not overlapping into other webcomics from a few weeks ago for an example).

You can, however, objectively review the impact the comic had on you, but there's little chance you'd do that with no emotional attachment.

Fairness and objectivity aren't the same thing. Anyone can write a "fair" criticism of anything - one that takes into account all possible arguments without ignoring this viewpoint or that one because it inconveniently destroys one's thesis. No one can write an "objective" criticism because a criticism by definition requires a thesis (an attempt to persuade the reader) and objective folks don't have theses.

Comment from: Plaid Phantom posted at December 23, 2005 1:12 AM

D. Paradox: Fair enough. I did overstate the relationship between the two. Even so, there seems to be something of a correlation of the two. In both, one is looking for facts from the source(s), although in criticism one tends to only focus on facts to support a certain thesis or opinion. (Which makes me want to make some cynical statement about modern journalism, but I shall attempt to avoid that discussion here.)

Comment from: Tangent posted at December 23, 2005 1:16 AM

After looking at the Fleem site... it seems more like CNN for webcomics than an actual critical review site. In fact, none of the content is any better than anything I've seen on a half dozen other review sites, and none of it was as good as the stuff Eric posts (not to brown nose or anything, just the truth as I see it).

Of course, I do have issues with some of Eric's snarks... primarily the "submitted without comment" ones though I realize he does it mostly to be amusing. Fleem had several like that though and I don't see how four one-sentence paragraphs can really be considered "critical review" of any sort.

No doubt with more time the content will get better. Heck, even Tangents has improved with age (well, sometimes). *chuckle*

Robert A. Howard

Comment from: inkbrush posted at December 23, 2005 2:11 AM

Actually, objectivity probably isn't all that possible, since you're standing over there and I'm over here. That's the whole problem with the seductive notion of a trustworthy source. It seems that a lot of this discussion is revolving around the notion of a source for criticism that can be trusted. The problem is that such a source most likely doesn't and can't exist, based on simple physics and geometry. (let alone culture, sociology, psychology, economics, politics, &c.)

This is not to say that an actual, "objective" truth doesn't exist, but it is to say that our perception of it, at whatever time, in whatever way, is not the whole picture. Because of this, there can be no one source that is totally objective. There will always be limitations of one sort or another on the part of the critic.

To say that only those people who write/draw or only those who are "pure" critics have a legitimate voice is to miss the larger picture. The problem seems to be that there are two camps here: one that wants a source they can trust to tell them something, and another camp that wants lots of different people saying lots of different things while depending on their own good judgement to discern to whom they should be listening at any given moment.

To place a burden on critics (no matter who they are) that they should be somehow responsible for discerning the "objective", definitive view on a subject is completely unfair. A critic's opinion is there for you to look at because you aren't that critic. It's there because you cannot possibly encompass all possible interpretations of any given work, no matter how brilliant you are, or how intimately involved you were with the creation of the work. As to whether or not the critic makes a solid point should be up to the reader, not the institution of criticism.

Eh. But what do I know anyway?

Comment from: Tim Tylor posted at December 23, 2005 3:54 AM

Kevin and Kell is a good example -- would anyone have ever noticed this comic if it wasn't done by a successful comic artist?

Well, yes. I'd never heard of the man and his other work when I started reading it.

Comment from: Reinder Dijkhuis posted at December 23, 2005 6:10 AM

What is this other work by Whatsisname-of-Kevin-and-Kell you speak of?

Comment from: Christopher B. Wright posted at December 23, 2005 6:42 AM

On the Fastrack is the only one I can think of offhand, but he has two others, along with that, that are or were syndicated.

Comment from: Joe Zabel posted at December 23, 2005 7:16 AM

Kirabug wrote, "Anyone can write a "fair" criticism of anything - one that takes into account all possible arguments without ignoring this viewpoint or that one because it inconveniently destroys one's thesis."

A review is different from an editorial. It isn't necessary to consider any other possible arguments one way or the other. The reviewer may choose to do so, but only if there's a point to it, like saying, "Gosh, all these other reviewers seem to like comic X, but I don't think much of it."

The thesis of a review is always to present the reviewer's personal reaction to the work. That reaction is inherently self-contained, and need not be justified in reference to somebody else's reaction.

There is an important exception to that, which is the situation where the reviewer is presenting actual facts. If the reviewer complains that a comic doesn't update regularly, the reviewer's thesis is "destroyed" if it can be demonstrated that the comic does in fact update regularly.

Comment from: Tim Tylor posted at December 23, 2005 7:50 AM

The one other strip by Bill Holbrook I know of is Safe Havens.

Comment from: 32_footsteps posted at December 23, 2005 9:33 AM

"You can't, for example, objectively talk about the effect of the comic on the webcomics community as a whole unless you've *seen* the webcomics community as a whole."

Kira, you twisted my statement. I never said that you could reach objectivity by not dealing with the community at all. I just said that you could reach objectivity by not caring about it. How likely is it that someone who chooses to deal with the topic can be apathetic about it all? Well, overall, not very likely. However, everyone has a couple of particular parts they probably could review objectively (for me, I'd probably say Achewood - I seriously have never been able to care one way or another about it).

"A review is different from an editorial."

Um... excuse me? No, it's really not. A review is an editorial about a very specific subject. Now, I'll grant you that some people can write reviews about a particular medium but not editorialize on anything concerning the medium well. But that's not any different than a critic who can't review outside their own field.

As for Bill Holbrook... it literally drove me nuts for three months after I first started reading Kevin & Kell, because I knew I recognized his art somewhere. I would have pinpointed it much sooner, except for the fact that it had been years since I had read On The Fasttrack (it was carried in a paper I read growing up, but then moved away from).

Comment from: Ceejamon posted at December 23, 2005 10:06 AM

How is it that people are getting so riled up over WEBCOMICS? I honestly don't get it.

If somebody wants to create a webcomic, cool.
If somebody wants to write about webcomics, cool. If somebody wants to do both, I don't see a problem.
I think Mr. Spielberg is as entitled as anybody else to offer opinions on film. I don't see how actually knowing a thing or two about the industry "taints" him.

Anybody who starts talking about "journalistic integrity" and such when we're talking about webcomics takes themselves WAY too seriously. Seriously, guys. Get over yourselves.

Webcomics are a blend of art and literature at best; a blend of adobe products and acid otherwise. While I have nothing against literary criticism, all it really amounts to is a well thought out opinion. And lets be honest: opinions only matter to those that form them, and those that agree with them. I like Eric's writing, and I tend to agree with his opinions. I don't think any deeper into it than that. There's no such thing as a webcomics expert or authority, and when it comes to talking about them, everybody is biased by their own tastes and preferences.

Nobody's opinion is special. Let's just enjoy the medium, talk about it, and hope it doesn't fall apart over all the retarded drama that surrounds it.

Comment from: Joe Zabel posted at December 23, 2005 10:08 AM

32 wrote, "Um... excuse me? No, it's really not. A review is an editorial about a very specific subject. Now, I'll grant you that some people can write reviews about a particular medium but not editorialize on anything concerning the medium well. But that's not any different than a critic who can't review outside their own field."

I don't think it's useful to conflate everything into everything else. A review is different from an editorial. That's why we have different words to describe them. An editorial is engaged in the clash of opinions about some matter of public concern. A review is not part of a debate, it's a personal evaluation of a work of art.

A properly written editorial in most cases needs to take into account the opposing viewpoint; if the writer is advocating a pullout from Iraq, he should probably explain why those who favor staying are wrong.

But for a reviewer, the opinions of others about the work being evaluated are mostly irrelevant. When a reviewer is describing why he likes a webcomic, he needn't explain why the people who don't like it are wrong.

Comment from: William_G posted at December 23, 2005 10:19 AM

You know what I dont get...

It is the same sort of cronyism that has corrupted larger organizations like Fox News.

How does hand-picking writers from your own fanbase prevent this from happening?

Comment from: Stan posted at December 23, 2005 10:21 AM

I just want to echo Ursala's comment. I agree with Eric that it doesn't matter whether or not you do both or only one of creation and criticism. However, it's extremely helpful to have done both to be good at either. You don't have to be good at both, but at least dipped your toe in. I don't expect critics to be successul writers/producers/artists, but to have given it a go in one way or antoher.

How can you really understand something if you haven't tried it yourself to understand the ins and outs. For example, it's unlikely that Eric would have started the daily grind challenge if he hadn't already tried to do a comic and realized just how hard it is to get something out on a regular bases. I suspect that Gossamer Commons is also giving Eric a handle on how hard it is to advance plot and give background info yet still have concise dialogue.

On the other hand, any artist can't help but be improved by understanding the nuts and bolts of their craft and to see their work in the broader scope of the field. One of my favorite comics is Narbonic. Despite it's light atmosphere, it doesn't meander or dawdle for fun. Narbonic has themes and plots that with the groundwork laid months or even years in advance. Shaenon's comments has implied that she outlines and thumbnails the strip months or years in advance. It's probably not a coincidence that she was and English major who had to have been taught about story structure and critical theory.

We had good coffee today at work and it makes me type faster than I think.

Comment from: inkbrush posted at December 23, 2005 10:49 AM

Hey, I've got a question: is a review necessarily the same thing as criticism? Or is it a really small subset? See I was under the impression (probably mistaken) that criticism was by and large an exercise in analysis, while a review was more about giving advice.

I mean, fine arts programs don't teach the students to review each other's works, they teach them to be critical. I know (from having seen it happen to others) that if you walk into a fine arts program and into a group criticism of an assignment, just saying you like the work or not isn't very helpful, and tends to get you called out by the instructor. Because in that situation, it's not that you're trying to please someone, it's that you're trying to figure out how something works.

That's not to say that a review (alů Ebert) isn't criticism, because I'm personally not sure. It is to say that if it is criticism, then one must refer to it properly. Otherwise, it's like confusing an umbrella with its own handle, which is fine and dandy until it rains and you go out with a walking cane.

Again, as always, eh, I could be wrong.

Comment from: 32_footsteps posted at December 23, 2005 11:24 AM

"An editorial is engaged in the clash of opinions about some matter of public concern."

There's a couple things wrong with that. First off, an editorial is not necessarily about some matter of public concern. Plenty of editorials surround a private matter, one that might not affect the author no matter which was it goes.

Also, you can make a good argument that a piece of art in whatever form is a matter of public concern. But I'm not here to justify NEA grants, so I hopefully don't have to expound upon that.

Moreover, a review does implicitly argue against opposing opinions of the product. When people write a given opinion in a review and support it, they are implicitly arguing against any and all opposing views (quite a few reviewers will do this explicitly as well).

As for whether or not you need to "prove the other viewpoint wrong," that's hardly a given. Plenty of people have written editorials in which they don't try to discredit the opposing view. They write on the belief that the arguments in favor of their view stand well enough on their own to suffice.

There are plenty of editorials that don't conform to your definition of one, Joe. Same with reviews. To me, the only difference is that a review focuses on one specific product, while an editorial does not. And even then, there's some fudge room in both directions. All the same, though, a review is simply a subset of editorials, not a different beast entirely.

As for if a review is criticism... well, that really depends on the review. I think a good review is. However, I've certainly seen plenty of reviews that wouldn't pass muster as criticism.

Comment from: DonaldMooreII posted at December 23, 2005 11:34 AM

Wow, this essay was outstandingly written. In fact, I signed up for a TypeKey account just to tell you so. It lacks some of the "flavor" and almost-absurdist humor that I think of many of your entries as containing, but it was nonetheless extremely entertaining.

Comment from: Minivet posted at December 23, 2005 11:42 AM

Without knowing much concrete detail, I imagine that the association of "criticism" with reviews of books, plays, movies, &c. in newspapers and magazines, plus the development of "objectivity" as a standard for journalism, obscured its true meaning. Two hundred years ago, of course, even journalism made no claims to be objective. And even today, I think what we elevate as objective journalism doesn't work unless it is embedded in a moral framework -- without such postulates as "corruption is bad," all the objectivity in the world won't be very helpful.

And in the context of the review, some objectivity is called for. If you just want to know whether to see a movie, it's tiresome to be met with a meditation on its resemblance to a favorite show of the writer's youth, or to know a good review is colored by a close friendship, no matter how much it may make you think. You want to know what's done skillfully, what isn't, what category it falls into, and so forth. That can work as far as it goes. But elevating such dispassionate evaluation as the standard for critical discourse? Misses the point somewhat.

Comment from: 32_footsteps posted at December 23, 2005 12:03 PM

"...I think what we elevate as objective journalism doesn't work unless it is embedded in a moral framework -- without such postulates as "corruption is bad," all the objectivity in the world won't be very helpful."

You realize, though, when your framework has moral judgments in it, it cannot, by its very definition, be objective. After all, morality is inherently subjective.

The problem, I think, is that objectivism is equated with fairness and equality. However, given how often objectivism leads to the false being equated with the true, what is objective is not inherently what's fair. Fairness, at least to me, would be to let the truth prevail and lies be punished.

Comment from: Christopher B. Wright posted at December 23, 2005 12:16 PM

After all, morality is inherently subjective.

Depends on who you ask. ;)

Comment from: Christopher B. Wright posted at December 23, 2005 12:17 PM

Also, I don't think "objectivism" is the word you want to use to describe what you're talking about. Heh.

Comment from: Ford Dent posted at December 23, 2005 12:20 PM

Having just finished writing lengthy papers on literary criticism for school, I enjoyed reading this post immensely. Eric, you're absolutely correct. Some of the greatest critics have been writers (Oscar Wilde was well known for both his literature and his criticism (The Artist as Critic, in my opnion, is one of the better treatises on literary criticism out there, and it's set up as a play), and I see no way to possibly attain a completely objective viewpoint on anything, much less a criticism of art.

Comment from: 32_footsteps posted at December 23, 2005 12:24 PM

"After all, morality is inherently subjective."

"Depends on who you ask. ;)"

Which, of course, is my point. ;)

Also, I perhaps should have used "objectivity" as opposed to "objectivism." My previous post makes alot more sense if that switch is made.

Comment from: Joe Zabel posted at December 23, 2005 12:30 PM

32-- If you want to use the terms "review" and "editorial" interchangably, that's your choice, though I think folks will have a little trouble understanding you.

My main disagreement is with your statement, "Moreover, a review does implicitly argue against opposing opinions of the product. When people write a given opinion in a review and support it, they are implicitly arguing against any and all opposing views (quite a few reviewers will do this explicitly as well)."

The problem with this, and why it matters in the real world, is that it confers obligations upon the reviewer that are unnecessary and counterproductive, obligations that reviewers for the most part have no intention of honoring.

For example, last year the WCE published a thoroughly negative review of a very popular webcomic. The fans of that webcomic naturally didn't much like that review. But unfortunately, they felt that the reviewer somehow cheated because she didn't take their opinions into account. So, instead of just being annoyed by a differing opinion, they were incensed by what they thought was an injustice.

That kind of thinking is poisonous for an artistic community. And that's why I think it's important that webcomics people understand the rules of the road for reviews. There's the reviewer, there's the work being reviewed. Anybody outside of that can go fish; the reviewer has no obligation to take them into account.

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at December 23, 2005 12:40 PM

(Oscar Wilde was well known for both his literature and his criticism (The Artist as Critic, in my opnion, is one of the better treatises on literary criticism out there, and it's set up as a play)

Wilde also founded the Aesthetic School of Literary Criticism. ("Art for Art's Sake," as it was typified.)

His critical work was actually used as evidence of his depravity in his trial, because he held that art didn't need a higher moral purpose than itself.

Comment from: UrsulaV posted at December 23, 2005 12:50 PM

Good lord, if that's the measure of depravity, I'm a sick little monkey.

Comment from: Opie301 posted at December 23, 2005 12:56 PM

Eric,
I thoroughly enjoyed this essay. In recent months I had begun to notice many web-comic creators making comments regarding the current status of web-comic criticism. This essay seems to strike to the center of those comments.

I hope your essay here will illuminate for other writers that the credentials of the critic do not affect the validity of the criticism.

Comment from: Mark Mekkes posted at December 23, 2005 1:08 PM

This sounds so similar to some of the original complaints about the Web Cartoonists' Choice Awards. Alot of the original critics of that process stated that, because it was created within the community, we had no right to create an award process because it just amounted to us "giving ourselves awards". (Which I never understood since those of us creating the awards aren't allowed to win).

Sure, it would be nice to have more outside recognition, but I don't see any reason that we shouldn't generate more discussion from within.

Comment from: 32_footsteps posted at December 23, 2005 2:00 PM

"The problem with this, and why it matters in the real world, is that it confers obligations upon the reviewer that are unnecessary and counterproductive, obligations that reviewers for the most part have no intention of honoring."

I'm not claiming any additional obligations to a reviewer. I'm just pointing out what they do, by accident or design, already.

Seriously, the critic is like any other writer - their only real obligation is to themself and whoever is supporting them (paying them, giving them their platform, et cetera). Claiming that even the editorial writer is beholden to some ideal is placing expectations on the editorialist that is inherently unfair.

"...the reviewer has no obligation to take them into account."

And neither does any other kind of writer. I don't have to be any more "fair" when I write an editorial than when I write anything else. Given that you're claiming an obligation on the part of an editorialist, which one of us is demanding an obligation where there shouldn't be one?

Comment from: GregC posted at December 23, 2005 2:02 PM

"There is no such thing as objective criticism."

Thank you. If you are not dealing with facts you are dealing with opinions.

As for the new site? Meh. Same old stuff about the same old webcomics. I'll check back now and then to see what happens.

As for the rest of the criticism debate... oops. Sorry. Time to work on my comic.

Comment from: 32_footsteps posted at December 23, 2005 2:04 PM

As for the validity of awards and who determines them...

What do you personally find more impressive, a movie winning an Oscar, a Golden Globe, or a People's Choice award? And perhaps more importantly, what do people at large find more impressive? (Personally, the Globes are the ones I agree with the most.)

Comment from: Joe Zabel posted at December 23, 2005 2:20 PM

32-- I think our disagreement is rooted in your tendency to deny all distinctions between different kinds of writing. To you, apparently, everything is the equivalent of a blog entry or a message board comment-- no standards whatsoever. To me, the terms "review" and "editorial" have distinct meanings, regardless of variances in the forms. They also have distinct and differing standards.

Comment from: 32_footsteps posted at December 23, 2005 2:41 PM

Joe, you've extrapolated way too much. I see plenty of distinctions in writing. I think the disagreement comes from two things. One, I see reviews as subsets of editorials, and you don't. Two, you have been consistently misrepresenting my position.

Comment from: Joe Zabel posted at December 23, 2005 2:55 PM

32-- I apologize; I didn't intend to misrepresent your opinion.

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at December 23, 2005 3:21 PM

Right! I'm throwing my hat into this:

Editorials and reviews have a core common principle: they are both essays. They make a thesis and support it.

However, an editorial is, innately, an argumentative essay. A review, on the other hand, is a form of report. The editorial is entering into a debate with (when well done) a strong point of view. The intent of the editorialist is to change minds, to bring others to their way of thinking, and to effect (or resist) change.

Jon Rosenberg's original blog post was essentially an editorial. The post we're commenting on here is my editorial response.

A review, on the other hand, is at its core a statement of opinion. It's not saying "you should feel the way I do, and here's why," the way an editorial does. It's saying "this is why I feel the way I do." Convincing others is actually less important, in a review, than providing a good foundation for your opinions, so that they can decide for themselves if they would agree or not.

Both forms fall under the heading of criticism and critical writing (as do many other kinds of essay). However, I think there's a certain divide between them.

Comment from: miyaa posted at December 23, 2005 3:49 PM

Just one question. Eric, you wouldn't happen to be related to this Robert Burns, would you?

Ever notice how artists who cry out "art for art sake" tend not to have internationally known art(and thus considered valuable artwork, both critically and financially) until they're dead?

Comment from: Paul Gadzikowski posted at December 23, 2005 3:53 PM

Ever notice how artists who cry out "art for art sake" tend not to have internationally known art(and thus considered valuable artwork, both critically and financially) until they're dead?

Wull, better late than never!!

Art for art's sake!

Comment from: Joe Zabel posted at December 23, 2005 3:56 PM

Some excellent points, Eric!

My own view is that both reviews and editorials fall under the heading of journalism; but I guess that depends on how you define journalism. To me, newspaper and magazine culture uphold certain traditions and practices that I have high regard for when executed well.

As for criticism, I think that's an academic form much more than a journalistic form. As reviewers, a lot of us try to invest our work with some critical content; but true criticism is a rigorous discipline that's hard to live up to.

As for Rosenberg's blog entry, well, I don't think it's an editorial, but maybe that's because I'm convinced it's a crock.

Comment from: Christopher B. Wright posted at December 23, 2005 4:57 PM

Ever notice how artists who cry out "art for art sake" tend not to have internationally known art(and thus considered valuable artwork, both critically and financially) until they're dead?

Beethoven? (Considered his art more important than the patrons who comissioned them, and frequently snubbed his patrons work-for-hire projects in order to write whatever the hell he wanted)

Oscar Wilde? (As mentioned above, founded the "Aesthetic School")

And, as counter, I'll make the following observation: have you ever noticed how people who are truly successful get pissed whenever people who aren't as successful go off and do whatever the heck they want -- especially when it doesn't emulate them?

Comment from: larksilver posted at December 23, 2005 6:36 PM

Johann Sebastian Bach, on the other hand, churned out massive quantities of work for his church/patron, generating new music month after month, year after year. From what I understand, it was not uncommon for him to write new music for an entire church service every Sunday for extended periods of time. He would have thought that "Art for Art's sake" was incredibly naive, and didn't pay the bills, I'll wager.

The man was a fiend, a massively productive fiend. It's no wonder there's so very much of his stuff around today.

Tchaikovsky was actually punished as a child for playing the piano too much, and even had the piano taken away when that didn't stop him. He did not re-discover a path to his music until he was grown, and had finished his tour of duty in the armed service. He, from all I gather, would have cut off his own right arm if it meant he would be able to just make music, forever.

Takes all kinds, doesn't it? Neither one was any more right or wrong than the other; each took the approach that worked for him.

It is worth noting, however, that the adherence to Art without paying attention to things like Rent is part of what drove Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to an early grave...

Comment from: 32_footsteps posted at December 23, 2005 8:20 PM

Okay, this could be because my formative work was all critical essay, but I believe that a review is also argumentative. It's not just reporting what you've observed; it's convincing people that your observations are valuable and correct.

On the other hand, as I've said before, editorials and reviews are not inherently journalism. Yes, journalism skills can greatly help an editorial or review. Just as I believe that critical skills can help a journalist. But they are seperate disciplines, and it's quite conceivable to be good at one and not the other.

Comment from: Mark Mekkes posted at December 23, 2005 8:21 PM

Actually I think 32's comparison to film awards is interesting.

I think we can all agree that it would be incredible to have the foreign press show enough interest in webcomics to create an award (like the Golden Globes). But when you listen to actors and directors brag and list their accomplishments, they usually start their r╗sum╗╠s by listing their Oscars (which are awarded by a body within their own industry).

This certainly seems to set a precedent of accepting and valuing the opinions of your peers.

Comment from: Joe Zabel posted at December 23, 2005 9:22 PM

32 wrote, "Okay, this could be because my formative work was all critical essay, but I believe that a review is also argumentative. It's not just reporting what you've observed; it's convincing people that your observations are valuable and correct."

Ironically, now I find myself agreeing with 32 more than with Eric. A review is trying to influence people, and may very well be a combative polemic.

I guess what I object to is any assumption that a review is somehow supposed to reflect the general consensus of the community. That consensus is only relevant if the reviewer chooses to make it relevant.

Comment from: Ray Radlein posted at December 23, 2005 10:43 PM

I'm just glad that, thanks to Jon Rosenberg, I can now safely ignore all of Roger Ebert's opinions about motion pictures.

Comment from: 32_footsteps posted at December 23, 2005 11:38 PM

So, how far away are we from having an unofficial roundtable about criticism? Heck, how far away are we from having an official one?

Comment from: Tangent posted at December 23, 2005 11:42 PM

Don't we all, Ray? Ignore Roger Ebert's opinions, that is. ;)

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at December 23, 2005 11:42 PM

Well, it would have to be unofficial, wouldn't it? ;)

Comment from: 32_footsteps posted at December 24, 2005 12:17 AM

Hmm... good point. Who would have the authority to declare it official? And every critic not invited would nitpick on whether or not it would be official either way. ;)

Still, might be interesting to pick the minds of other critics and get a fuller idea of where we all come from. Between Joe, Eric, and myself, that's three disparate approaches to criticism. It's interesting to see how that affects the end product.

Comment from: Phil Kahn posted at December 24, 2005 12:24 AM

I think a roundtable about criticism would explode my head.

But count me in if it comes to it.

Comment from: William_G posted at December 24, 2005 1:19 AM

If you guys do do a roundtable, be sure to use small words and keep it under two pages.

People hate that long-winded stuff, you know...

Comment from: Robert Hutchinson posted at December 24, 2005 1:30 AM

The roundtable format is getting old. It should totally be an IM conversation.

Comment from: cyco posted at December 24, 2005 2:14 AM

Re: the debate over review/editorial:

I think that there are two kinds of reviews which are being discussed here. Let's call one an editorial review. In this kind, the reviewer likes/dislikes a work of art and sets out to prove it; it actively persuades or dissuades the reader from partaking in the object of the review. An editorial review is like a newspaper editorial in that it presents what is "correct" in a definite and conclusive manner, leaving no room for opposing views. I.E., "King Kong is hands down the best film of the year."

The other type of review (I can't think of a succinct name for it) merely highlights the pros and cons of the work of art. Of course, it is still very subjective because what constitutes a pro and a con is left to the reviewer. However, it differs from an editorial review in that the decision of seeing, reading, listening, etc. is left to the reader's judgement. I.E., "Band X evolves in their new album while still keeping traces of their solid debut." This points out some pros of the new album, which the reader is free to disagree with, for example say the reader didn't like the first album that much. In an editorial review, the quality of the new album would not be up for debate.

These are generalizations, and hopefully I illustrated my point clearly enough. I'm looking forward to the responses.

And in regards to a topic mentioned way back, this post took WAY too long and went through a near-masochistic number of rewrites and tweaks :p

Comment from: Abby L. posted at December 24, 2005 2:43 AM

I think Eric's right. That's pretty much all I have to say on the matter, except that this is something that plagues me. I do feel like I'm not entitled to criticize errors in the art of folks more talented than me. It took me quite a long time to feel comfortable giving ANYONE criticism, due to the crippling self-doubt and all.

Comment from: Connor Moran posted at December 24, 2005 3:18 AM

I find the Fox News analogy somewhat amusing, both for the reason William_G pointed out (handpicked readers being at least as biased as doing the writing itself) and because I don't think the problem with Fox News is that it's not objective. After all, the concept of objective journalism is mostly an Anglo-American affectation, and a pretty recent one at that. When the founders of the US talked about freedom of the press they were talking about bitter, partisan newspapers that made no pretensions of "objectivity." There's nothing wrong with Fox News being the mouthpiece of the Republican party. What's a problem is that it pretends to be objective when it is transparently not.

If we must make an analogy to journalism, Websnark is something like a socialist newspaper from France. It isn't objective, but it doesn't pretend. Fleen is more like Fox News. Not objective either, of course, but pretending to be.

Not that Fleen is evil the way Fox News is, because none of this really matters enough to raise to the level of evil. But I'm just rolling with the analogy.

Comment from: Joe Zabel posted at December 24, 2005 8:45 AM

Regarding an official or unofficial Roundtable; I gather that you're talking about either a Webcomics Examiner roundtable or a Comixpedia roundtable. Does anybody else do roundtables?

I can't speak for 'Pedia, of course. I'm a little wary of publishing something in WCE that's so self-referential, but it potentially could yield a lot of insights into the webcomics field. It would be especially interesting if we could get participation from a number of the major players, such as Joey Manley, Xerexes, and the Fleen gang (assuming they're persistent enough to become major players.) Should we invite Eric B? Hmmm...

The Examiner's got one huge (sorry, William G!) roundtable already in the pipeline, and another one on the way, so any new WCE roundtables will have to wait a while. But some other publication might be able to fit it in their schedule more promptly, and in other regards be a better fit. In any case, I'm always willing to share my own ill-informed opinions on criticism, journalism and other anathemas.

Comment from: Joe Zabel posted at December 24, 2005 9:14 AM

Regarding cyco's ideas about types of reviews--

I think there are basically two types of reviews:

1. "Thumbs up/thumbs down" reviews are kind of like a Consumer's Reports for the arts. They evaluate a work to determine if it's worthwhile for the reader. The presumption with this kind of review is that it might be quite negative about the work. This kind of review is especially valuable for motion pictures, because going to movies is expensive, there are only so many films to pick from, most of them are bad, and most aren't in the theaters long enough for word of mouth to do it's job.

2. Critical reviews are more interested in evaluating the work, determining what it means and how it produces its aesthetic effects. The presumption with this kind of review is usually that the work has substantial positive qualities. This kind of review is written for people who have a deeper interest in artistic ideas and techniques.

There's no hard and fast distinction between these two types. Both can be used by the consumer to make a choice of what to read or watch. Both kinds engage in delving beneath the surface to look for meaning and technique. Both kinds of reviews are usually advocating something. And both are about as welcome by the arts community as a 10-day flu!

Comment from: 32_footsteps posted at December 24, 2005 10:00 AM

Now, now, let's be fair. The second you give a positive review, you become the artist's best friend. Well, not literally, but for a recent example, take how the Comic Genesis people react towards Eric right now.

Of course, the temptation to stay in such good graces has ruined more than one critic. I'm sure every critic has their own story about angering a friend within their community with a review.

Keep in mind this point is more of a straw man; I'm not singling anyone out.

As for where to do a roundtable... I suppose it depends on what reach you want to have. Given that I don't really do webcomics criticism, I wouldn't really fit in a WCE or Comixpedia roundtable. I'm similarly reticent about putting it on Netjak for the same reasons Joe is reticent... a bit too self-referential.

There's always the prospect of starting a new site for such frivolities, though.

Comment from: Adrean posted at December 24, 2005 10:08 AM

(Jumping in late, meh...)

I don't get how Eric's webcomics are "riding the coattails" of his other projects??

The whole point of doing webcomics is because one enjoys them. I don't imagine a creator who wants to do it solely for money spending the ten hours or more per week on doing the work for long.

Often people forget that it's EASY to criticize, and HARD to do the actual work itself. I wouldn't take at face value someone's criticism if they're not a webcartoonist themselves, because they don't know how hard it is to turn out x number of (strip, pages, infinite canvas) per week, on schedule!

If readers want to comment about the general subject of the comic and how it fits in with the general scope of the community, fine, or even how the story points are weak, or art needs improving at some point, fine -- but they can't disqualify the work entirely because 1) no one has the right to disqualify the creator of the work, and 2) they're not intimately aware of the work put in creating it.

And no one has the right to disqualify the critics themselves either.


Anyhow, if the critic knows the craft, they'll be better able to pinpoint where the comic went wrong/right and make better, constructive suggestions.

This kind of thing drives me crazy because I face a version of it often in Deaf education -- people think that Deaf students who have gone through the educational system somehow disqualify themselves from trying to improve the system because they didn't go to college and get a degree in Deaf Education. I think every niche has some form of it. :)

Kristofer -- what webcomics criticism drama? Maybe it looks like there's a lot of it going on because you're often in the thick of it, but overall there's not a lot. I for one enjoy reading your blog, so I hope you don't take it down. :)

Comment from: Joe Zabel posted at December 24, 2005 11:26 AM

32 wrote, "Given that I don't really do webcomics criticism, I wouldn't really fit in a WCE or Comixpedia roundtable."

Actually, as a non-critic, you would be well-qualified to act as the moderator of such a roundtable. The moderator has the ability to play the role of outsider, asking questions and quasi-interviewing the other participants, while still being able to comment freely on the subject at hand.

Warning, though-- moderating a roundtable is a lot of work!

Adrean wrote, "Often people forget that it's EASY to criticize, and HARD to do the actual work itself."

I agree that criticism is more sensible when the critic understands the effort involved in creating the art. But critical writing is also hard work, and I don't think people appreciate the difficulty of doing it properly. You don't just casually read a work you're reviewing, you have to study it. You're also obliged to read it in its entirety, and webcomics can be quite lengthy. And somehow, the kind of assessment that rolls off of the keyboard in a message board post is much more difficult to put into words in an essay format intended for formal publication.

Comment from: Adrean posted at December 24, 2005 11:31 AM

Joe -- very few people can pull off a good critical essay. I just think those who have experience in the field in one way or other have an advantage -- and asking potential creator/critics to stop writing just because they made comics is wrong.

Comment from: 32_footsteps posted at December 24, 2005 12:40 PM

"Actually, as a non-critic, you would be well-qualified to act as the moderator of such a roundtable."

Joe, I take it from this comment that you have never clicked the link on my name. I am a critic, one who reviews video games and writes a weekly editorial column. My views on criticism, reviews, editorials, and journalism are not my theories on how I think someone should approach those various practices. My views are how I actually practice those in my own milieu.

In fact, it's mostly for writing that I come to Websnark. I pick at Eric alot for his observations and his discussions, but I do it because I appreciate the opportunity to discuss writing an analysis and because I think it makes me a stronger writer. That it gave me fodder for at least two different columns is a bonus. the fact that I really like several webcomics is another bonus.

Still, I'm hardly the unbiased source you'd want to moderate such a discussion on criticism. I'd be a willing participant, of course.

Comment from: Montykins posted at December 24, 2005 1:35 PM

Often people forget that it's EASY to criticize, and HARD to do the actual work itself.

Well, it's easy to criticize poorly, but it's surprisingly difficult to do well (which is why it takes years of higher education to learn how to do it properly). For that matter, it's easy to do a webcomic poorly, too.

Comment from: 32_footsteps posted at December 24, 2005 1:44 PM

Well, nothing worth doing well is ever easy.

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