Kapow! Boom! Comics: They’re Not Just for Kids Anymore!
On the failure of comics criticism

Marc-Oliver Frisch (Saarbrücken)

CLOSURE: Sometimes (as in the above heading) the failure of comics criticism is easy to spot. At other times, its shortcomings may be more subtle, insidious, and systemic. We would like to provide space for some unabashed negativity: in your estimation, what is the most egregious failure of comics criticism as it is practised today?

Marc-Oliver Frisch: The negativity is welcome. As Theodor Adorno, a long-deceased and problematic white man I like to quote, said in 1969, »Those who talk about the positive the most are in agreement with destructive power«. So let’s not do that. In this spirit, I think it’s helpful to remember that criticism, not just of comics, has always been failing.
If we think of criticism as an ongoing conversation, an aesthetic interrogation of the culture that we produce and live in, and of ourselves as we are experiencing it, then it’s clear that an age of ›successful‹ criticism, in so far as this means the absence of failure, can’t exist. Criticism is a way of thinking, a means of coming to terms with our failures as individuals and as societies. So, given that it happens to be practiced by individuals who are part of societies, it can’t be exempt from those failures. To do our job as critics means, to an extent, to keep discovering ways in which we have been failing, and to try to communicate and analyze those failures as clearly and as effectively as we can, so we can learn from them.
That said, I see many ways in which comics criticism has been failing. In popular criticism, for instance, there seem to be many writers who have a passion for comics, but none for the criticism they ostensibly engage in. In German popular criticism, conflicts of interest are a huge issue. Sascha Hommer recently told me he saw a lack of discussion of the formal aspects of comics, and I agree. Comics reviews are lacking in craft, expertise, imagination, rigor, and wit. Not to mention the failure of comics criticism as a source of gainful employment: It’s just not viable to be a comics critic.

But you’re asking for the most egregious failure of comics criticism, and there’s one failure in particular I’ve become increasingly aware of in recent years: the failure of people such as myself—white people, and white men especially—to recognize and to accept that the world is rigged massively in our favor, and to be aware of this state of affairs, and of our own role in it, and attuned to its implications when we interrogate texts critically.
People like to pay lip service to the First Amendment or, in Germany, to Article 5 of the Basic Law, but if we are serious about wanting to practice freedom of speech and ensuring everybody has the chance to be heard, then we need to confront structural and systemic inequality. As long as people are being marginalized and discriminated against based on their race, their gender, their sexual orientation or other personal traits, there is no equality, and as long as there is no equality, there is no true freedom of speech.
This is political, all right, and the first thing any critic needs to understand is that criticism can’t not be political. Choosing to be ›apolitical‹, not to acknowledge these issues or not to address them, means to actively support and prolong the status quo. And that, in this case, is a threat to the very notion of criticism. If we allow people to be marginalized based on who they are, this will hamper our ability to recognize our own blind spots and failures. If we as critics ignore our own privileges, we are in agreement with destructive power.

Comics criticism is affected by these structural failures, as is comics itself, as a form and as an industry. The ways we talk about comics, the ways comics are made, sold, and received, are strongly affected by these failures. Both in scholarly and in journalistic contexts, white men like myself have been failing for too long to address them. I’m embarrassed to look at some of my older work, because it now seems painfully obvious to me how clueless and how lazy it is in this respect. This won’t do anymore. It does a disservice to the quality of the criticism, to the field of comics, and to culture and society at large.

We—meaning I—need to get better at this.

I also recognize there are scholarly and popular comics critics who have thought about these issues longer and harder than I have, who have done important work on them and are way more qualified to talk about this than I am. So I’m not sure what I can contribute on this particular issue beyond recognizing my own failure and my own privileges, listening to those with more expertise, and trying to catch up and do a better job.


Biographical Note

Marc-Oliver Frisch is a Ph.D. candidate in North American Literature and Culture at Saarland University in Saarbrücken, Germany, and a freelance comics critic and translator.