Monday, 12 November 2007

Highly Critical Language

The latest “Everyone’s A Critic” column on Blog@Newsarama asks whether comics critics shy away from discussing art because of a lack of an art-critical vocabulary, and whether the language of comics criticism needs specialised terms of its own. Unfortunately, I cannot now get Blog@Newsarama to load, so here is what I had prepared for the comments section.

Is criticism of art in comics inhibited by ignorance of art-critical vocabulary? More likely, it reflects a lack of engagement with, and sensitivity to, drawing and colour. Much of the vocabulary of art criticism simply takes straightforward concepts and gives them an Italian label. If I write of Alex Toth’s chiaroscuro, or the challenge of inking Gene Colan’s sfumato pencils, I gain nothing over writing of Toth’s organisation of light and dark on the page, or of Colan’s hazily shaded pencilling. Of course, there are also many terms that have no direct use in comics criticism. There is not much call for discussions of the support or of the impasto of the paint.


Colour theory is a little harder to express in concise English, but that is not, I think, why I tend to neglect colour when I write about comics: rather, I am not very sensitive to colour, and tend to have little interesting to say about it. But if I did witter on about “complementary colour” or somesuch, at least a hypothetical confused reader could look the term up in the dictionary and find a definition that applies precisely.

Dangers emerge when we borrow terms that do not make a perfect fit with comics, and either carry misleading overtones or change their meaning as a result. This is particularly true of the language of film criticism. If we talk about “camera angles”, we imply the existence of an objective mechanism recording something that already exists, which is, generally speaking, not a good description of a comics artist. If we talk about “cutting” and “panning”, we get tangled in the different relationships that cinema and comics have with time. For example, in a film, a pan must be a movement through both time and space. In a comic, a sequence of panels showing physically adjacent parts of a scene need not have any fixed chronological pattern.

Now, there are many comic books that seem to want to be second-rate impersonations of cinema – I have even seen “it looks like a storyboard” used as praise – but I doubt we can put the blame for that onto intellectual limitations fostered by an inappropriate and limited critical vocabulary. Limited ambition for, and understanding of, the medium, and abasement before the most pervasive and financially successful means of telling stories of our age, are much more likely culprits.

Do we need a comics-specific language of criticism? As suggested already on the Blog@ thread, we already have some terms, such as panel, gutter and word balloon. But if I were to start using entirely different terms – frame, space, speech container – it wouldn’t take long for an alert reader to catch on. It might, however, suggest to that reader that I was not be familiar with what I was writing about. But a specialist vocabulary is often used to exclude outsiders as much as to aid rapid communication among insiders, which does not seem to me to be desirable for a marginal and disreputable artform like comics. Our criticism should be accessible to outsiders, on the rare occasions that they encounter it.

I have yet to read Thierry Groensteen’s The System of Comics (it is in the queue behind a couple of huge books, Jenny Uglow’s biography of Hogarth and Vic Gatrell’s more general account of eighteenth-century English satire, so it may be a while before Groensteen gets his turn), but I am instinctively dubious of the need to indulge in a sudden orgy of neologism. If terms are needed, they will no doubt emerge, but it is surely better if they do so organically.

Having said that, I do sometimes wish for a term which, like “cinematic” or “poetic” suggests a medium which is making the most of its own resources. “Comic booky” is used to insult productions in other media by suggesting that they are silly, gaudy and shallow. But, then again, “prosaic” and “theatrical” are usually used as insults, and both prose and theatre manage to stumble on somehow.

Update, later that day: Added link to the original post, now that I can load Blog@Newsarama again.

The Critics by John Fardell, Viz, 2000, reprinted in Viz: The Bag of Slugs, IFG/Fulchester Industries, 2002

“Zzutak: The Thing that Shouldn’t Exist!!”, script by Stan Lee, art by Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, originally published in Fear issue 3, reprinted in Monster Masterworks, Marvel Comics, 1989

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