Home Comics Media Blogosphere On the critic’s role — UPDATE

On the critic’s role — UPDATE

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We’ve been ranting and raving about quality and so on for the last week or two, and while each reader must make his or her own decision, the role of the critic/trusted source is an important one for some. Noah Berlatsky is a critic/blogger we’ve quoted here many times, and while we don’t always agree with him, at least he argues his opinions well. And then he comes up with something that is just… well, enough to shatter your assumptions, like this review of the first volume of 100 BULLETS by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso:

I was pretty disappointed, though. In the first place, Eduardo Risso’s art is lousy. The figures are stiff, the anatomy is shaky, the layouts are cluttered and confusing, and the coloring (by Grant Goleash) is more muddy than moody. If you’re going for stylish noir, it’s really important that the art be…well, stylish. You want Alex Toth or Howard Chaykin; bold blacks and whites, dramatic page design — the art should scream sex and danger and class. Risso just doesn’t have the chops. I mean, look at that page below. [Update: Johnny B in comments notes that the cover below is not by Risso (who I still don’t like), but rather by Dave Johnson (who,apparently, I like even less.)]


Well, first off, we can understand not liking Risso’s work, but…lousy? Shaky figure work? Really?


9The above page is not from 100 BULLETS, BTW, it’s from Eduardo Risso’s TALES OF TERROR, a reprint of his Argentinian comics. Maybe he got a lot better later on.

Okay, I can understand not LIKING Risso’s art, but saying his art isn’t moody? Debatable. However, not knowing the difference between Eduardo Risso and Dave Johnson? That’s enough to shatter one’s illusions. Berlatsky, you need to spend some time in the woodshed. (We would agree that that’s not Johnson’s best cover ever, however.)
§ Speaking of Azzarello, Jog reviews the new Azzarello/Bermejo JOKER graphic novel:

I liked this book good enough. It’s a sturdy piece of trans-genre craftsmanship, getting the job done with a minimum of fuss and a few worthwhile dabs of inspiration. I suspect it’ll go over really well with a lot of superhero readers, and maybe attract a few curious bookstore browsers. It’s ‘serious’ in a comic-book-superhero-characters-are-serious-business way, ‘realistic’ via the ‘less funny costumes, more pulpy drama’ tradition, and ‘grim’ in a manner that nonetheless accommodates underworld lifers who never use the really dirty cuss words and slimy strip joints in which no nipples are visible at any time. Hey: the movie was PG-13 too.

UPDATE: Vulture now has a preview of JOKER up; we may be ignorant bloggers, but it sure looks sharp.

  1. its one persons opinion that to me doesnt understand the nature of comic book storytelling and art…but just his opinion, and this is mine.

  2. everyone’s entitled to an opinion, but noah berlatsky, you have absolutely no clue what you’re talking about. risso is a genius.

  3. But, Jimmy, aren’t there informed opinions and UNinformed opinions? It seems to me not knowing the difference between Risso and Johnson is UNinformed at its most basic.

    Of course the individual can like or not like such a thing, but are all opinions REALLY equal? Is Sarah Palin’s opinion on negotiation with Iran really the same as General Petraeus’s?

  4. “Of course the individual can like or not like such a thing, but are all opinions REALLY equal?”

    When it comes to art yes.

  5. @snoid: I would respectfully disagree. The role of the critic isn’t simply to tell you whether or not s/he personally *liked* something, but to give an evaluative judgment on how well the work in question does what it sets out to do.

    Sometimes that requires specialized knowledge; for instance, in the example above, Berlatsky shows an understanding of the noir style, sets out some of the criteria for that style as he defines it, lists some examples of those artists who he thinks have a firm grip on it, and lays out a case against Risso based on those criteria. There is some subjectivity in defining the criteria for the style, and in judging how well the art succeeds at it – and yeah, there;’s an opportunity there for the critic to stack the deck – but it’s not as simple as “I didn’t like it.” You may disagree with his conclusions, but he’s doing a critic’s job.

    For what it’s worth, I don’t think Berlatsky is entirely wrong. I found Risso’s work on the first issues of 100 BULLETS to be show-offy and hard to follow. It’s not uncommon, at the beginning of a long run, for the art to flail around before settling into a solid storytelling groove.

  6. Wow. I’ve never read anything by this Berlatsky guy before, but that entire review just seemed stunningly ill-informed, and I say that as somebody who has never even read 100 Bullets. I find it even more ridiculous that in regards to misidentifying the artist, he tries to defend it by saying…

    “Fair enough, I guess…though the funny thing is that I did see the difference — I knew the cover was an especially poor effort, even though I didn’t instantly identify it as by a different artist. So is it really a failure of connoisseurship? Or is it a failure of geek knowledge? You make the call….”

    I’d say it’s…well, stupidity may be too strong a word, but c’mon! The “Johnson” signature is a large enough element that it’s readable even in that even from that tiny scan, let alone holding the book in hour hand.

    Let alone that Dave Johnson is one of the best cover artists working today, and he seems happy to damn his entire output ont he basis of one cover. Ridiculous!

  7. Jack, fair enough, but that’s your opinion on critics. Which you have ever right to have and hold. For me I have never needed a critic to tell me if something I liked was good or bad or did what it set out to do. I have never once read anything by a critic that has changed my mind on something I liked or didn’t like. Example, the films of Ingmar Bergman are highly thought of by almost every film critic out there, after seeing one of his films I’d rather watch paint dry then have to sit thru another. Maybe I should have wrote to me all critics are useless. My point is people get their panties all in a bunch because of what some “critic” wrote about their favorite comic/movie/art/music when really what someone else thinks is meaningless. Or at least it should be.

  8. Nick Cave said the role of the critic should be to flatter and encourage, I like that.

    I got depressed the other day reading 100 bullets #93, realizing there are only 7 more issues to do before the series is over. I think it is THEE best thing DC is doing now and one of the best comics being done today, period. My only complaint with Risso’s art has long since expired– I thought in places his earlier work betrayed his strong F Miller influences. He’s since lost all that and has emerged as a true titan of the field. I marvel at his ability to constantly invent new character types and suggest personality with so much subtle nuance. His women are sexy and he constantly comes up with staggering and original page compositions. Plus he is a hell of a nice guy, so there.

  9. The critic’s only aim should be to encourage a discourse about the quality and/or merit of the artistic object. Some critics bring forth well-considered discourse and some don’t, but the specific opinions are usually strongly informed by taste and so are less important than the discourse.

    It’s not a matter of him force-feeding his opinions to everyone as if he were delivering a critical Sermon on the Mount, and the reader who just says, “No critic can make up my mind for me” is just indulging in tautology. Of COURSE he can’t make up your mind for you (unless he has Professor X powers, that is); you do that whether you agree, disagree, or refuse to listen.

  10. Wow. Every once in a while I’m completely surprised.

    Eduardo Risso is bar-none one of the best artists we have working in comics right now. Stunned to think someone hates his art, but I guess I shouldn’t be in the internet.

    But that’s a fair reason why not to read any more reviews from Noah. Hahaha.

    JR

  11. I think critics should, at the very least, have a working knowledge of what it is they’re criticizing. In this case, it’s obviously apparent that Berlatsky does not.

    When I read a critic of any sort who displays this brand of ignorance, I simply don’t read him again. It rankles me that other people will read him and think he knows what he’s talking about, but that’s the way the system works, for better or worse. Eventually bad critics get bad reputations. Or, in some cases (Leonard Maltin), bad TV shows.

  12. Wow. Just left a reply on the guy’s blog because, as a friend of Dave’s, I was pissed–but I realize now that was a waste of time. He’s just another yutz with a keyboard. But I hope he enjoys the little moment in the sun we’ve given him!

  13. I’m very confused by how Risso’s anatomy is shaky. (I don’t really get talking about anatomy in comic reviews in general). Plus, his insistence that there’s something wrong with Risso’s page layouts– I don’t really know what he’s talking about as I’ve always had the 100% opposite opinion.

    But besides that: he has an opinion I disagree with, and reasons he has that opinion? Great. For me, that’s part of the “role of the critic”, or why I read criticism. Because I get to sit here and say, “Well, no he’s wrong because….” As as a fan of 100 Bullets, he’s added a way of me enjoy the book because I get to spend my Wednesday morning thinking about it now, because I get to spend time thinking about how he’s wrong. I get to sit here and go “he only thinks the art isn’t moody because he hasn’t seen the part where …”, or what have you. Disagreeing is fun.

    I’m not looking for someone to tell me if something’s good or bad from some ivory tower of Informed Opinion. I’m looking for another opportunity to think about something I enjoy thinking about. I’m looking for reactions from other human beings, not college professors with PhD’s in being right. I’d rather disagree with opinions I understood better, or that were better explained, but… This is the world. He had an off day? Oh well.

    Writing about art is difficult. I think Risso’s page layouts are absolutely great, but I don’t have the verbal ability to explain why. I wouldn’t use the right words to explain it. Explaining how I feel his pages flow, how I feel the page as a whole has been designed, and how he uses sharp contrast to accomplish various things? I would do an absolutely horrible job; I wouldn’t even be foolish enough to attempt it. But anyone who wants to write about comics has to praise art sometimes, or hate on it sometimes; anyone who writes about comics is going to end up at out at sea every once in a while.

    Some namby-pamby “this isn’t my cup of tea” apology is usually the smart, easy way to go, but sometimes you get the irresponsible urge to be honest about what you think and risk looking foolish.

    Also: it’s worth noting that 100 Bullets’s colors really did become exponentially better with the arrival of Patricia Mulvihill in the second year. No offense to Mr. Goleash, but she’s been a totally pivotal part of that team and my enjoyment of the book until now. It’s hard to consider what he’s saying dispassionately having the benefit of seeing what better work that team did after that first trade.

  14. I’ve got no problem with a guy not liking something and voicing his opinion. Hell, from all outward appearances, that’s basically what the internet’s for (that, and porn). But when an opinion is presented as informed criticism, which this definitely is not, we all have a problem. Noah Berlatsky is entitled to his viewpoint, regardless of how misdirected or misinformed it may be, but this is not a valid critique of Eduardo Risso or Dave Johnson, who are both superb artists. You want your opinion to carry weight, you at least have to get the names right. As for the rest of it, I agree with Jimmy P. — Noah’s comments seem to come from someone who knows very little about comics and comic book storytelling. But hey… that’s just my opinion.

  15. As has been stated 1,498 times, everyone is entitled to their own opinions. But from my days as a critic I think learned there’s a value in having the research and knowledge on a subject before you write up your personal point-of-view. Otherwise you run the risk or invalidating your entire piece with a mistake like this. If nothing else, let this be a lesson to you all (I always wanted to say that).

  16. Risso “lousy” and lacking “chops?” Johnson’s work “dumb?” Sorry, but that’s just objectively wrong. I bet if you polled the artists working in the business– the people who know what goes into doing this job well– you’d have a very, VERY hard time finding anyone who doesn’t admire the hell out of both these guys’ talent and skill.

    I don’t think this guy really knows the meaning of “chops.” To paraphrase the Ricky Roma character in GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS: “If he ever spent a day in his life, he’d know.”

  17. Amazing, as both of the noir artists Noah cite are/were fans of Dave Johnson.

    I don’t as much take issue with Noah’s opinion of Dave’s work — I think he’s dead wrong, but entitled to his opinion — as I do that if Noah’s going to conduct critical analysis of someone’s work and post it to an audience, he ought to be familiar with what kind of profile they have professionally.

    “Whoever this Rothko guy is, he sucks!”

    Dave has won Emmy Awards. He’s won Eisner Awards. He’s been in the business for 15 years. He designed BEN 10, which was a huge merchandising and ratings hit for the Cartoon Network worldwide.

    You can think his stuff sucks. But I think it’s just inexcusable to not do a simple Google search (the terms “Dave Johnson comic book” give you everything you need to know) for an artist you are about to label as “lousy” and “dumb.”

    It undermines credibility as someone with an informed opinion worth listening to.

    Respectfully,
    -R

  18. In the comments Noah proudly refers to his writing as “sneering” at creators. Which, right there, tells me all I need to know.

  19. I see in an update, Berlatsky has also typed NEWSARAMA when he is clearly referring to The Beat. Deliberate jibe or can he really not tell the difference?

  20. There are good critics and bad critics, just as with anything else. So I guess even when you’re looking to someone else to help form your opinion, you still have to investigate for yourself whether or not that person is worth listening to.

    If only we had a set of critics *for* the critics…

  21. Mr. Berlatsky specifically states that he writes “ill-tempered criticism.” And it appears from a couple of replies to comments at his blog that he’s not very polite. No Roger Ebert of comics criticism is he!

  22. I actually thought Berlatsky’s criticisms of David Heatley, which I also linked to, were quite well thought out and in-depth. Yes, I like Risso more than Heatley, but the difference between the two pieces is striking.

    In my opinion.

  23. Leave it to Abhay, one of the most opinionated, incisive, obnoxious critics out there (in my mind at least, and don’t think for a second that that’s not a compliment), to be the voice of reason. Just because somebody disagrees with you doesn’t mean you have to take it personally. Instead, it should give you something to think about, and discuss (hopefully civilly). It’s exactly what I’ve seen discussed lately by people like Dick Hyacinth and Tucker Stone, except this isn’t superhero comics, where any criticism of say, Nightwing, makes fans scream in anger as if a random pedestrian suddenly started trying to stab them with a screwdriver. I guess Vertigo isn’t all that far removed from that sort of thing, but I would have hoped that an (intended) adult audience could respond to this sort of thing in a more adult fashion.

  24. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but if their opinion is that “Risso is a lousy artist” then everything else he has to say not worth my time. In my opinion. 100 Bullets is consistently one of my favorites for art these days. Even if Lono doesn’t look Hawaiian.

  25. Suddenly I feel a lot perkier, heading into the night shift and working on #97. A little creative caffeine, thanks.

    And yeah, I’m going to cry my eyes out when it’s over. For real. I know how lucky I am to work with Risso. The best.

  26. Oh…and my apologies, Heidi, for misidentifying the Beat. You and Newsarama both linked to me and I had a brain fart. My bad.

  27. “Hey all. I’ve got a follow up post here:”

    Or, to put it another way, “HEY!!!! LOOK AT ME, EVERYBODY!!!!!!”

    I repeat: I hope this halfwit is enjoying his moment in the sun, since it’s probably the only one he’ll ever get. C’mon, everybody…let the baby have his bottle. Move along. Nothin’ to see here.

  28. Well, I agree that was a pretty dumb review. I even dug out my old issues to see if Risso’s older work was worse than I’d remembered. It wasn’t. I mean, sure, art is subjective, but saying that Risso’s figures are stiff, his anatomy off, his composition and storytelling poor, his work lacking in sexiness and mood, and that he doesn’t have “the chops”, is like saying, “If you want to rock, you gotta work that guitar, man, and this Eric Clapton guy just ain’t doin’ it.” And making that comment about Eric Clapton when you’re actually listening to Stevie Ray Vaughn. No one can actually stop you from having that opinion, but …

    The real question for me is: who gives a shit what Noah Berlatsky says? Why is there this gnashing of teeth over this “critic/trusted source”? I do, in fact, gnash my teeth when my trusted sources say and write stupid things. But what makes Noah Berlatsky a critic/trusted source? Why is it that in the world of comics, the title “critic” is bestowed upon anyone with a blog? Or rather, why does the comics world accept anyone who self-appoints themselves a critic, as a critic?

    I suppose the beauty of the internet is that it is democratizing, and every schmoe can put their two cents out there. But I don’t see why I should regard someone as a “critic/trusted source” just because they have a blogger account, or write reviews on Amazon. I’ve been wondering for awhile about the role of critics in the arts. In short, exactly why should I care about Frank Rich or Ben Brantley or Michiko Kakutani’s opinions over anyone elses’? I don’t quite understand how or why their criticism is legitimized over others’, but it somehow is, for better or for worse. Whereas Noah Berlatsky is just some dude with a blog. There are literally thousands of dudes with blogs saying all sorts of crap about all sorts of subjects, so why is everyone so pissed off about this one post?

  29. Extraordinarily thin skin, apparently.

    Seriously, people, do you get this worked up EVERY time somebody expresses a hard-to-defend opinion on the internet?

    When do you find time to sleep?

  30. I just thought the ‘Risso’s no Howard Chaykin’ comparison was funny considering Chaykin wrote an intro to 100 BULLETS vol. 3, ‘Hang Up On The Hang Low’, praising Risso.

  31. Hey Mark! I’m on my tenth or eleventh Internet brouhaha at this point, actually. But, yes, I’m enjoying the moment, as I hope you’ve enjoyed your run of sub-Claremont hackery. Really, seeing you pop up and offer aesthetic opinions is like that old Dr. Johnson joke about the dog walking on hind legs…you don’t do it especially well, but it’s surprising to see you do it at all.

    Cbrown, I’m a critic because….I write for the Comics Journal! I have a column on Comixology! I’m really important! So, there, now that I’ve shown you my resume, you can put me in the “trusted source” box and get all exercised.

    Oh, and Eric Clapton sucks, too. Stevie Ray Vaughn isn’t so good either.

    I’m not a huge, huge Howard Chaykin fan necessarily, though I do like his art better than Risso’s.

  32. Just to rag on something new, I’ll say that I don’t see anything “ugly” about the inserts in the Johnson piece. They’re pretty much routine visual noir tropes– guys with guns, a hand with a weird sigil– and I’ve certainly seen covers that organized such inserts, or comparable background montages, much more adroitly.

    But I don’t see “ugly.”

  33. I was going to post an opinion about Noah Berlatsky’s opinion when I suddenly realized I know nothing about Noah Berlatsky, not a single blessed thing. Panicked, I rushed about the web, searching for something to know about Noah Berlatsky (hasn’t this fucker won ONE single award?), but I came up with nothing (of note) . I was about to give up and live with the sad reality that expressing my opinions about Noah Berlatsky’s opinions would be forbidden by the Comics In-Crowd Prime Directive when suddenly Noah Berlatsky himself posted “I hope you’ve enjoyed your run of sub-Claremont hackery.” Ohhhh, I breathed with relief, motherfucker writes for the Comics Journal!!

    Dude, your opinions SUCK.

  34. Hope this isn’t a double post…

    Gene; yes, but some of us are more attention-starved than others.

    John, I know nothing about you…but you know how to write a funny blog comment. Kudos.

    Jim — you are not exactly driving me away here by *linking to my piece*. But thanks.

    In truth, I’d just as soon have people read my positive reviews. Here are links to one about mainstream writer Jeff Parker and little-known mini-comic creator and artist Edie Fake. Will anyone click on these and *not* on the Spiegelman review I wonder…?

    http://hoodedutilitarian.blogspot.com/2008/01/identity-art.html

    http://hoodedutilitarian.blogspot.com/2008/10/man-who-will-save-comics.html

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