Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Critic Conundrum

There once was a time where I naively thought I would crank out one of these a month, maybe three every two months or so if I happened to find the free minutes. Sadly, almost a couple months straight of fifty hour work weeks, a month dealing with a sinus infection, and just wear and tear in general showed me the error of my ways. This happened to the point where this piece - a dissection of my time as a comic book "critic" and something I've had in mind for a long time now and figured would be a compliment to the sad, sad passing of Roger Ebert - just kind of went on the back burner for a few months. The reason why this really came to the forefront is that Mr. Ebert was really one of the very few (if not only) persons in the field of criticism that defied the usual "shooing" away by people with the "what do the critics know?" line of dismissal. It has always be my experience over the years that no one ever trusts what the critics have to say on a matter of media entertainment, until that viewpoint actually happens to coincide with their pre-and-post conceived notions of whatever piece of media they are going to or have consumed. At the end of the day, when it comes to the idea of the "critic" all that person is is a mouthpiece for an opinion, and the only opinion about something, anything, that matters in the end is that of the person who is forming that opinion. Therefore, when people get told that the generalized, disembodied voice of "The Critics" either liked the same thing they did or hated it, those same people either give faint praise to the verdict in a "of course they did, it's a good ___" manner, or further dismiss it as yet another blunder from a bunch of hypocrites who have (typically) never created anything in their lives passing judgment on something they have no business commenting about. And, honestly and truly, I completely agree with these lines of reasoning, as someone who could be labeled a critic given my experience, that what I say should not have any effect on your opinion and your experiences and that I probably am a bit of a hypocrite being someone who places commentary on pieces of art without creating it myself. Put on your shocked faces people, the ride is about to begin...

Here's my blast of honest to goodness when it comes to what I do, what I do being roughly 1,000 words a week about a new comic book I read in the previous seven days, the occasional creator interview (that I up front always admit to being terrible at) and sometimes a podcast or an article handing out imaginary awards to people ungodly levels more talented than I wish I could ever be: You should never listen to a word I say because I have no clue the amount of work, effort, technique, etc etc that goes into making one of these pieces of media as, yes, I have never made one of my own. Here's where the self-deprecating worm turns though, because maybe, just maybe, you should at least entertain my opining, even just a tad, because I absorb a metric fuckton of this material and because of this tend to believe that over the years have developed a feel for a "good" piece of work after years of doing this, and continually hold myself to a high standard of breaking down the work in (hopefully, oh god how do I hope) constructive and entertaining ways each week in order to help not form an opinion in post-consumption mode by my readers, but to help you catch a whiff of a plot that you may find intriguing, or a character type that you enjoy, or a backdrop you could use more of in your habits, and on and on. And sometimes, yes the ever present sometimes, this also precludes steering you, the reader and potential purchaser, away from an item on the shelf. I do no do this out of spite, or malice, or bias; I do this because sometimes I read a comic and feel it has flaws and that, at least at the current time, these flaws are detrimental to an experience that you will have to pay hard earned money to derive for yourself and I wish to save you the time and money, both resources I promise I will do my mediocre damnedest to find a worthier venture to spend them toward.

I guess my case, sadly, sadly, have mercy on my soul comes down to "I read/play/watch a lot of shit" and "I try really hard to tell you how good/bad all this shit I read/play/watch ends up being." The first part is irrelevant because we all consume media these days given our culture and our thirst for escapism; it's just all degrees to which we go to sate our appetites, mine being at the high end of the spectrum. The second part, though, is really what differentiates us in all our life aspects, not just in what we choose to drop our discretionary income upon. Like I stat-dropped before, I probably put 1,000 words of effort into each of my AICN column contributions and, to continue the excitement train of numbers going, probably put in, eh, call it 45 pieces a year. Keep those calculators out for a bit longer and tab that up by the, fuck, I think it's eight years now I've been at the gig and I have roughly 360,000 words dissecting my weekly habits for our readership under my belt. A quick Google search tells me that's about four, average-sized novels of me professing what I think and hoping against futility that anyone gives two tugs. Alas, I hope they do, because I like to think that despite being a filthy hypocrite who hasn't made anything for and of myself (except, apparently, enough words on the Internet to drown a digital kindergarten) that I've honed my writing and analysis skills all these years and have relevant things for everyone to read. I hope that I'm at least competent in identifying the strengths and weaknesses of these works, that I can breakdown what it is in front of me that I think makes it work, why these items are special and worthy of attention, and that I'm even a bit of a futurist in that I can see why these aspects are going to continue to develop in ways that make the work in question something to keep on the reading pile. Sadly, sometimes the opposite conclusion is the one I have to bring to the readers, but that's why I angle to be as properly analytical as I can: Constructive criticism can still be worthwhile, even if it is coming from a produce-nothing hypocrite.

There's also one underlying purpose that writing these pieces should be accomplishing - and this is my real fear beyond being hoping I'm insightful and descriptive enough - and that's to be 1,000 words of weekly entertainment. Yes, I want to help people decide what is and is not worthwhile of their dollars (And here's a dirty little secret kiddies, of course I want to pimp books that gear toward MY tastes and MY opinions because I want to see more comics on the shelf that I want to buy. Power of the press yo) but if I happen to fail in that mission I at least hope to make you chuckle a few times and maybe see a greater point about the medium or draw attention to a trend or any of other things a well written column of any sort should strive to accomplish. I don't want to be seen as some stuffy, snarky asshole raining his not-so-witticisms on the world (again, yes, we're called @$$holes but that's not really what we ALL do) because I've seen those columns and they're as pathetic as the people crying out for attention from behind their keyboards because they know they can capitalize on fanboy/girl schadenfreude. Does it feel good to come up with a super-sharp line about a book's deficiencies? Sure, it's always nice to insert something clever to be remembered by and referenced to in your piece. Should it be pointed out when a piece of anything is deriding or blatantly insulting their audience, especially in the world of comics and their yearly "you'll fucking buy it despite the quality and you know it" event comics to the point of raining a little vitriol on them? Yeah, then it's part of the job then, to "fight back" on the part of your audience. Overall, though, the name of the game is constructive criticism and public service and any good critic should always be honing their craft so they can help others build theirs.

A few weeks ago Ryan Davis of the Giant Bombcast crew suddenly passed. This was tragic for all the standard reasons; he was obviously a kind and caring guy, his recent newlywed status, just his younger age in general, and numerous more things he was probably a special guy to know if you happened to be in his world. But it was a loss that myself and I'm sure many more of the regular listeners of that podcast who had not met him felt because of how much his personableness came through each week through our iPods. While he was doing what he did he just carried such an enthusiasm for a mutual interest we all had and had a jovial way of letting the world in on his opinions, whichever way they may fall. For three hours a week, though, it was hard not to feel like you weren't in the room with him and guys (and not to dismiss what those other gentlemen do they have soldiered on in keeping up this same atmosphere despite their loss) just shooting the shit and debating the merits of a geek hobby we all enjoy. That, I feel, is how things are supposed to be done. I may not have always agreed with Davis' assessment of some of the games he discussed (and some of this came down to personal taste, a point I can never nod to enough when it comes to the idea of "judging" a critics verdict) but dammit he drew me in and made me see his points in a witty and entertaining matter, which is what any critic worth their salt should hope to achieve any time they put their thoughts out into the ether. Rest in peace big man.

Look, I know for the most part I'm just another voice on the Internet aka "the most opinionated place ever" and there's a bazillion people that run review sites, podcasts, etc. That does not mean that I don't take the gig seriously and try to be better at it every new thousand words I put into digital print. The "conundrum" I'm talking about in the title is how much people are willing to buy into what my peers and I are selling. As much as people want to take all these words as gospel so they can either use it as justification for their own opinion or to condemn these "no nothing, high horse critics!" on theirs any good critic doing their job is just trying to give relevant information to those who are interested in receiving some. Yeah there's a market for snark, or just plain meanness, and quite frankly those people can kind of go fuck themselves because I guarantee most of them are Rush Limbaughing it: They're in it for the hits. But I genuinely believe that if anyone is "successful" at this gig, whatever that even means in such an era where anyone can put their critical wares out there, they are so because they are the personality that the Ryan Davises are, or they have just that razor sharp insights that Roger Ebert had. And whether you agree with them or not you never feel you wasted your time listening to their three hour podcast or watching them on TV for a half hour a week or taking five minutes to read their thousand words. If I can feel like I've put forth relevant information, provoked a chuckle or two, and (this is the big one) sold someone on a product that I think is great or saved some cash on a subpar effort, then hey, that is not a terrible feeling. Now, if only I could figure out some damn way to get paid for my entertaining and enlightening you animals. A boy can dream... and then overanalyze that bastard and then ramble on and on and editorialize about it and... yeah, I'm done. Cheers...

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