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Some Major No-No’s for Student Critics… and All Critics, Really

“The Critic” — an 1817 engraving by (Allen) Robert Branston. Note the scowl.

Today’s post is intended to serve as a much-needed self-interruption in my series of posts on “Recommended Comics for Schools.” The goal is to keep myself honest in these evaluations of graphic fiction and nonfiction and, in the process, perhaps present some ideas that you can incorporate into your work with all the young critical thinkers you’re coaching. In this sense, what follows is a natural follow-up to the notion of leading with one’s feelings in criticism (not one’s ego) and not being a slave to one’s own opinions (another form of egoism). (Oh, and of course by “criticism” I don’t mean just carefully-composed and word-processed reviews: classroom/library discussions, podcasts, tweets, and status updates all count.)

Specifically, I’m reacting to a humorous, insightful, and wonderfully written (and slightly irate, but not strident) post from a couple of days ago by the Eisner-nominated cartoonist Dylan Meconis, “How Not to Write Comics Criticism.”

I’ll leave it up to you to determine whether I’ve broken some of her caveats in my own writing about comics here or elsewhere. More importantly, let’s boil down Meconis’s points to teachable action-items and also universalize them a bit so that they apply to a range of media and art forms. Actually, I’m not sure I’m boiling down anything here: these are more like my personal take-aways from her witty and detailed post. You and your students may have others… which is all the more reason to share the original text.

1) Be somewhat aware of what others have written on your topic. Students can’t be expected to be up on all the criticism that’s been dedicated to a piece of literature (that’s what grad school is for), but if they’re responding to pop culture, it’s pretty easy to get a topline sense of recurring critical themes in, say, the blogosphere. Yet Merconis actually goes deeper than this: it’s not just a matter of what’s being said, but of how it’s saidmake sure you don’t re-use the same facile rhetorical devices that have been trotted out a million times previously. In sum, criticism has own clichés. Avoid them.

2) Learn the lingo. There’s a reason special terms are used for various formal elements in different media: they make distinctions that those creating, editing, and yes, responsibly critiquing the relevant media products rely on. So don’t call panels “frames” when talking about comics, and don’t call shots “frames” when talking about movies. And guess what? You do this not only to avoid embarrassment as a critic, but because actually appreciating such distinctions can heighten your enjoyment of the art form.

3) Admit one’s limitations. Don’t reference other texts because they’re the only ones you know: cite them if they’re really and truly relevant. And if you aren’t familiar with what might be key outside text, say so, don’t fake it. For example, I need to write a capsule review of the new Brian De Palma film Passion, and it’s based upon a French film I haven’t seen; I’m going to mention that in my review instead of tiptoeing around the issue.

4) Watch your tone. Condescension can be absolutely deadly for critics. Be sure to clarify for students, though, that condescension doesn’t necessarily appear in negative reviews. No, it’s the positive reviews where it fatally undercuts credibility and alienates readers/listeners. Example: “This animated TV show is so good it really doesn’t deserve to be called a cartoon, which we all know are silly and meaningless…”

5) Know the audienceand I don’t mean yours. For whom was the text intended? If you’re offended by the violence in a horror movie, for example, you should acknowledge that that same element is often expected by the target audience. That’s not to say you shouldn’t be offended… but it does beg the question of why you’re critiquing a genre that you might not appreciate even when it is done well.

Okay, that’s it for now. Tomorrow, more comics picks…

About Peter Gutierrez