Outside internet billboards and message boards, it's rare - in fact, it's never happened - that I get to respond to someone's criticisms of something I've written. Well, I Google-searched myself a few days ago (admit it - you've done it too) and up popped a brief lambasting of my review of Houghton Mifflin's The Best American Comics 2006 by 'joey' at 'Graphic Novel Review'. I actually posted a reply, but the site hasn't been updated in over three months - so I'll post a reply of sorts on here, too.
I'm immediately suspicious when I see that my name is the first to pop up in an article that features a quote such as "too often, the [superhero] genre’s most passionate defenders are its greatest liability". I'm a fan of the genre insofar as I like the best that the superhero genre has to offer, but I read about one or two superhero comic books a month - a "passionate defender", I am not. (Admittedly, I'd read more if I could afford them. But I'd also read more indie/literary stuff if I could afford those, too - the last comic I bought was a Drawn & Quarterly Showcase, and even then I only picked it up because it was less than half price.)
joey goes on to complain about the way that I situate 'literary' comics historically - I claim that until they were able to make it into bookstores, indies and original graphic novels were largely dependent on the distribution, retail, and convention circuits of mainstream comics. (I should add, of course, that their creators and readers always admit to having started out reading superheroes or horror comics first.) joey writes that he doesn't see how such a history has "anything to do with whether or not this or that or the other story belongs in a 'best of' anthology". He calls it a "tangent", which is a shame because it means that he's missed the point. The history is relevant precisely because this edition chooses to mock that lineage. It doesn't just ignore the pulp comics - the superheroes, the bank-robbers, the wolfmen and zombies - that allowed for the founding of an alternative comics industry in the first place, but it actively spits on and kicks dirt all over them.
joey asks dryly: "Literary comics are supposed to drag superheroes along with them everywhere they go, for now and forever, just because … literary comics … um … owe this to superhero comics?" Certainly not. And had Pekar - the edition's editor - just left superheroes out altogether, I probably wouldn't have cared all that much. The fact is, though, that he did include two pseudo-superhero stories - each of which satirizes the form and displays a real venom on the part of the editors. It doesn't really anger me - I mean, the two strips are actually quite funny - but it saddens me just a bit. It's all too common in every field of art that the elite cement their standing, in part, by shitting all over what's popular. And granted, what's popular is often worthy of that treatment, yeah. But it's never entirely bad.
(Also: joey doesn't seem to get that reviewers write with an audience in mind, and that I wrote this particular review for comicboards.com. The place is populated almost exclusively by superhero fans, which is why the superhero discussion may also seem disproportionately long and central.)
joey does get me on a mixed metaphor that I deploy - I don't do all that much proof-reading of these things, I'll admit - but his further accusations of "reactionary posturing" strike me as wholly incorrect and just slightly ironic. (Also? I actually liked the book and said as much!) The beginning of his blog makes it clear that he has an agenda in mind - he's a taxonomist of sorts, looking to identify a particular species of rabid superhero fan who won't like this book - and has found what he's looking for in my review, whether the fuller text bears that out or not. (Note: It doesn't.) He finishes with his own mocking observation that "[neil] realizes, as he's writing" that the characters in, say, Love and Rockets are deeper than those in the X-Men. I wasted five years and two English degrees if I had never previously realized as much, but thanks for assuming the worst, joey. (And joey evidently wasted whatever education in critical reading skills that he received - it's rather clear that my point is a pedagogical one, and not some moment of epiphany.)
joey closes his discussion of my review by suggesting that mainstream superheroes are ultimately excluded from this collection because they "fall flat when read by people who aren’t immersed in the culture". This is true of most any artform, of course - but it's equally untrue of small parts of every genre, including superheroes. What joey ignores, of course, is precisely what Umberto Eco noted long ago: that the seeming shallowness of Superman or Batman isn't necessarily a weakness of the mainstream superhero. Rather, Eco argued, it's a relatively new variation on very old archetypes, a manifestation with cultural import that demands study. We're all immersed in Superman's culture, for better or worse.
Ultimately, the failing of joey's review is the same as the failing of the book that I initially reviewed - snide jokes and mockery make for a decent laugh in the moment, sure, but they don't expand our understanding of the form in any way. They even inhibit our ability to learn, as disregarding entire groups of text in this way constitutes a destructive gesture, one that's antithetical to the process of analysis and understanding to which we're all (ostensibly) oriented.
Which is all fine enough for a blog entry, I suppose - and so joey's off the hook for that part of it. (Not for the misreading part, mind you.) A blog is admittedly casual and can certainly spare the energy and time to criticize or deride to the exclusion of all else. But for a book titled 'the best...' to engage in the same games? Sorry, but I won't have any of that.