The Year in Reviews (Part 1)
This is an effort to collate and acknowledge the good work that has been done (mostly to little notice) by online comics critics over the course of 2009. These writers have helped make comics a slightly more interesting place to inhabit for readers like myself, ensuring that the conversation doesn’t end the moment a comic is consumed or half-digested by the reader
At the risk of stating the obvious, the articles here aren’t really the “best” pieces of comics criticism of 2009. They are merely the pieces which have been arrived at through the votes of 5 people (namely Noah Berlatsky, Frank Santoro, Tucker Stone, Matthias Wivel and myself). Such a process is prone to exclude worthy articles of a more esoteric nature. A more accurate reflection of the best pieces of writing on comics available online in 2009 may be found in the long list of articles which received votes in the final stage of this process.
While there will be some overlap in critical concerns, it should be clear that the needs and preferences of people who write about comics often dictate what we like and thus vote for in such situations. When you read a piece of comics criticism by Noah Berlatsky, what you’ll find apart from the engaging tone are opinions which address the merits of a work in the context of wider social and political issues, an approach which is clearly different from that of Frank Santoro who is more interested in the history, inner workings and craft underlying individual works. Tucker Stone wears his knowledge lightly and brings a broad interest in comics across all genres as well as a specific interest in criticism directed at entertainment and performance. Matthias Wivel brings a European and more academic perspective.
Such exercises sometimes bring to light changes in perspective not so evident in a critic’s writings from earlier in his career. Tucker for example wrote to me with the following comments concerning the entire process:
It’s funny to think back when this started, which seemed to be around that back and forth on Hooded–if anything, I can see how much my own mind has changed on the subject– I’ve tossed out the lion’s share of what I was reading, and the past few weeks especially have been incredibly insular, with people fighting back and forth to post the most accurate rendition of what they think this other blogger said about this blog subject–like spaghetti, except horribly dull. I love criticism, I really like reading it. But you might be right to say there isn’t that much of it going around. These ten [i.e. his own personal choices for the best articles of 2009] –they made me think differently about stuff, they resonated, they were educational and intelligent. I’m glad you asked me to do this. It was a good experience. I hope some of them make the final list.
The situation described by Tucker here would be even more in evidence if he cares to share his original voting list on his own blog.
If there is a reason why certain pieces have made it to my own personal list (which I will share at some point in the future), it would be because they have some how improved my understanding and appreciation of the work being discussed. A piece may be beautifully written or even well researched but in the end it is this factor which holds sway in my final judgment – whether a review or essay allows me see a work in a new and different light.
Some rules: Jurors were not allowed to nominate any articles attached to their own blogs but were allowed to vote on them if they were nominated by another juror. Articles by the 5 jurors were disqualified from the entire process. I made it a point not to ask a number of prominent online critics to participate in the process because of this last point.
The following 3 articles received 4 votes each from the jurors making them the top choices:
(1) Robert Alter on Robert Crumb’s The Book of Genesis (“Scripture Picture”)
Robert Alter‘s review of Crumb’s Genesis comes from a deep knowledge of the book at hand. His was the primary translation that Crumb chose to adapt from. Alter does not bring the knowledge of comics Jeet Heer brings to bear in his own review of Genesis but this comes very close to being the definitive article on Crumb’s Genesis adaptation. [For comparison, see Robert Stanley Martin's dissenting opinion on Genesis here.]
(2) Joe McCulloch on Batwoman in Detective Comics (“A Review of Batwoman in Detective Comics Focusing Mostly on the Art”)
Joe McCulloch (“Jog”) is a true believer in the future of online comics criticism and despite his “tender” years, one of its most prominent voices. Long before the demise of The Comics Journal he was putting long, carefully thought out pieces of criticism (which in times past would have only found a place in that magazine) quite consciously online. Joe continues to search for new ways to talk about drawing and cartooning as it pertains to comics. A related post by Joe on Detective Comics #854 and be found here and Charles Hatfield has more to say on the same subject here.
(3) Tom Spurgeon on Return Reading (“On The Subject of Return Reading”)
As the primer mover of one of the most prominent blog/blog aggregators online, Tom Spurgeon is more or less a staple in online comics criticism. Tom writes good reviews but his real forte are his essays and editorials of which we’ve seen too few of late. I want to use this opportunity to highlight one in particular which exceeds even the piece here in terms of quality: his essay on Fort Thunder (“Fort Thunder Forever”) which is easily the best and most informative article I have read both online and in print about Fort Thunder and its adherents.
The following articles garnered 3 votes each after a short period of wrangling:
(4) Eddie Campbell on Will Eisner’s PS: The Preventive Maintenance Monthly (all posts related to Will Eisner and PS can be found here)
As the artist behind Alec and From Hell, Eddie Campbell needs no introduction. Beloved among the critical community because of his occasional rants on the term “graphic novel”, he has been writing about comics for longer than most people realize. Both Tucker and I preferred his article on Exit Wounds but I diverted one of my votes to this piece so that at least some of his writing on comics could be acknowledged. Campbell appears to have stopped blogging since November 2009 which ordinarily would lead to encouragement from his readers to continue. In this case though, it might be taken as a sign that’s he’s working harder than ever on his comics.
(6) Dirk Deppey on Paul Levitz (“The Man Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight”)
Tom Crippen is probably best known for his articles pertaining to the superhero genre though in recent times, he’s produced two detailed pieces on the works of Alison Bechdel (one of which can be found online here). Dirk Deppey is a former editor of The Comics Journal and the person behind Journalista! To say any more would probably be too incestuous since they are both tied indirectly to this blog. So I’ll leave that business to Noah…
(7) Andrew Rilestone on Watchmen (“Who Sent the Sentinels”)
Andrew Rilestone‘s long and circuitous piece may not be everyone cup’s of tea but it is one of the most in-depth studies of Alan Moore and Watchmen to be found online. Watchmen continues to hold a fascination for many comics critics and this was especially the case in the year of its movie adaptation. It has fueled Tom Crippen’s own piece as well another article by Tom Spurgeon at The Comics Reporter. Eddie Campbell has called Rilsestone’s essay “the finest analysis of Watchmen” he has read so far and Matthias Wivel was the main advocate for its inclusion in the final list.
Noah will be chiming in soon with some commentary on the choices above as well as his nominations which didn’t quite make the cut in the final vote (as will I). For the moment though, let’s give the writers above their due.