Around the Bend(is): Brian Michael Bendis & Comic Book Criticism…

Last month, comic author Brian Michael Bendis offered this scathing criticism of comic book critics from his twitter account:

comics as an art form is in fantastic shape. the only things missing? thoughtful longform investigative journalism and critique. all we get nowadays are knee-jerk reviews and cut and paste blogging. which I have no problem with but it’s ALL we get. on a slow news week like this one I would love to see some of our better reporters rolling up her sleeves and helping the medium thrive. even reviews of trade paperbacks and graphic novels have seemed to have fallen by the wayside even though the sales are crazy large.

you’ll forgive me but I think that a snarky pseudo-hip attitude towards mainstream comics is uninteresting. if you’re a cut-and-paste blogger or comics journalist and I just annoyed the shit out of you… prove me wrong.

I am enjoying the e-mails from professionals agreeing with me but not wanting to stir the pot Cut and paste blogging is cut and pastes from an article from another source… then adding a line of comment & signing their name to it.

I’m sorry I got on my high horse, I just do love this medium and I know a lot of you out there do as well. I miss amazing heroes and for clarification I go to almost every cut-and-paste comics blog

Not withstanding the irony of offering a criticism of the lack of “long-form criticism” from a twitter account, Bendis himself has often been a controversial and divisive figure, and has drawn a fair amount of flack on-line for his work – some of it fair and some of it not. A quick browsing of the internet will confirm that a lot of the criticism of Bendis could be considered “a snarky pseudo-hip attitude towards mainstream comics”, to quote the man himself. But is the picture he offers above a fair and accurate description of the state of comic book criticism?

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In fairness, Bendis’ comments have sparked a lot of comment and discussion, hand have got quite a few people thinking. Some, like Kevin Huxford at SCHWAPP!!! suggest that the comments are more than a little disingenuous coming from Bendis – the industry and its circle of fans is so small that the companies themselves will shut down any bloggers or writers doing what might be considered “investigative journalism”.

“Hard hitting journalism would have examined some of the accusations about the workplace environment that Valerie D’Orazio’s memoirs detail,” Huxford claimed in a post on the topic, “or even some of the stuff the DC Comics Insider said. Sure, the insider made some claims you wouldn’t want to reprint without corroboration (and some that you wouldn’t run even then). But 99% of sites that cover comic books pretended it didn’t exist, going so far as to delete message board threads that linked to the claims.”

He went on, “Hard hitting journalism would have gotten even the biggest sites shut off from DC Comics access. Quite honestly, it would probably have resulted in even Marvel shrinking away from the site, rather than feed the popularity of a site that is sure to focus the same attention on them when the time comes.” Given the nature of the medium – and the fact that any viable comic book news site relies of previews, interviews and advance reviews that flow from the publishers – it’s easy to see why this quality of journalism is often difficult to find.

Of course, there’s also the very simple argument that, to quote The Jam, “the public gets what the public wants”. Browsing the comments on the quotes over at Robot 6, it becomes apparent that perhaps there isn’t really too much interest in publishing stories that are a bit more in-depth than simply copying and pasting press releases.  “When I write a piece about the history of Icon Comics or the Marvel Savage Style Magazines or rundown the history of movies by Marvel, or any of our other Opinion/Editorial pieces,” commented Ryan K. Lindsay of Weekly Crisis on the article, “we get nowhere the amount of hits nor comments as when we do our weekly round up of Moments of the Week, or short Weekly Reviews as opposed to one issue in-depth reviews (unless the issue is something major…usually a Bendis comic, ha).” Indeed, it appears that comic book on-line fans prefer their news and reviews in bite-sized chunks, as on-line comics magazine IGN.com recently introduced an editorial policy of cutting down their issue review (which now run at an average of about two paragraphs).

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However, it seems a little cheeky to blame the readers for the state of criticism, as Bendis himself would subsequently comment, suggesting that the lack of money in coherent and structured comic book criticism was not a justification for low standards:

and quite a few writers complained to me today that they would write better but they aren’t getting paid to do it.

having lived the first 10 years of my career making no money and having lived with artists and writers who have done the same… I don’t care about that.

you either work really hard and really try to make something worthwhile or you don’t. money has nothing to do with it. if you find a way to make money doing it fantastic. that I lived for many years under the impression that I was never ever ever going to make a dime. and so did a great many of my peers. money and the quality of your work should have nothing to do with each other. it just an excuse to fail.

To be honest, while he makes a valid point that money should not treated as a definitive excuse not to produce thoughtful and insightful criticism, Bendis’ response does discount one major fact. Despite the fact that there is no money out there in it, there are writers who are attempting to deliver a higher quality of commentary and criticism. They might not necessarily compromise the majority of authors producing content on the medium, but it is always the case that only the truly exceptional commentators rise above the pack.

I think we all have read some deeply fascinating stuff somewhere on-line. I can point to any number of authors who have produced all manner of thoughtful criticism of various works. I don’t pretend to be one, but there are plenty of great writers out there. Sure, they are occasionally difficult to find and can be lost amid everything else (particularly when it appears that nobody is looking for them). I also write extensively about film and television and I can assure you that similar thought-provoking writers on those subjects are no easier to come by (they are helped by the fact that, in those mediums, they are typically better lauded than if they were writing on comic books).

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However, without wishing to seem to attack Bendis himself, or without wanting to seem to shift the blame or anything so insincere, I do think that the creators have a role to play in opening up this discussion. To quote Abhay (who writes over that the Savage Critic), who drafted a fairly powerful response to the accusations by Bendis, perhaps these authors have “outsourced” enthusiasm to the fans.

“Martin Scorcese didn’t leave the job of film appreciation up to the people who bought tickets to Bringing Out the Dead,” he pointed out, “And at a really historic high-point for comics, that so few comic creators are interested in celebrating that– for me, it makes it seem like their investment in this medium is no deeper than what they can plunder from it, and… I find that sad. I really, truly want there to be a Comics with a capital c to be a fan of more than being a fan of a handful of unaffiliated artists working in a vacuum, and so I consider the disinterest that comic creators exhibit in the rest of the medium and the lack of leadership that inherently shows to be something that prevents that from happening.”

Reading back, all of this sounds quite defensive, as if I am looking for excuses or blame for the fact that every commentator on the web isn’t producing gold-standard coverage of the world of comic books, but I don’t believe I am. I think I’m just outlining the circumstances which perhaps explain why the mode of comic book criticism isn’t as successful as it might be. I do think that there are a lot of very talented writers out there, and perhaps the best thing that can be said about Bendis’ claims is that they might encourage us to try a little harder.

I asked the author over at collected editions to comment on what Bendis said, and he offered his own perspective. “In Brian Michael Bendis’s comments (what I was able to find online), he expressed a desire for more detailed comics journalism and in-depth critiques,” he began, “As a general goal, I don’t think anyone would really disagree with that, including current journalists and reviewers.

“Of course I feel that my site and any number of others offer the kind of material that Bendis believes is missing, but I don’t expect him to name every site out there nor begrudge him the ones he’s not familiar with; the Internet is a big place.  Any good writer is always pushing themselves to be more descriptive, more nuanced, and more insightful; I simply take Bendis’s comments as another impetus to continue along that ongoing path of improvement.”

Perhaps that’s the best angle that can be put on this, lest we be accused of being too defensive – there are great writers out there, and there are plenty of good writers on the way to being great. While sometimes the path can be obstructed by any number of factors – and it’s undoubtedly an uphill struggle – I don’t doubt that there will be more of those superior commentators emerging over the next few years, and more in years after those. There are blocks on the progress, and ones that could and should be addressd (and, if addressed, would undoubtedly help the development of criticism), but I think there’s a solid base already there.

Then again, perhaps I’m not being critical enough.

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About Darren

Darren is a pop culture commentator and lover of movie and comics. He won the Best Pop Culture Award at the Irish Blog Awards in 2011, and is now officially a member of the Online Film Critics Society. He can also be caught idly humming John Williams' Superman theme to himself.