Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Everybody’s Wrong Redux

Over at Robot 6, Chris Mautner offers his take on critical approaches towards North American pop comics and comes to the conclusion that – contrary to my assessment that they’re all horribly wrong – everybody’s right, after all.

I can get behind a lot of what Mautner says. A lot of my initial strong rejection of Tucker Stone’s argument stemmed from his comments here and here, for instance, which I read exactly the way Mautner suggests they weren’t meant: that pop entertainment, e.g. blockbuster movies or big-event comics, necessarily needs to be “dumbed down” to be accessible to a “mass audience.” Stone himself has since clarified that this is not what he means, and I’ll take his word on that; but, at the same time, I have to say that I’m still not sure what exactly he is saying then, given his comments.

That said, I still rather vehemently disagree with Mautner on one particular point.

Sure, there are problems in attempting to form hypothesis about whatever the mythical “mass audience” wants, but I think it’s perfectly valid to criticize a work in the larger context of whether or not it succeeded at its own modest goals, even its economic ones.

I’m with this all the way, right until the part at the end where the term “economic” pops up. Of course, any critic is free to acknowledge whether a given work succeeded or failed economically. And they might even speculate and analyze why that may be the case; I fully agree, after all, with Mautner’s point that no work exists in a vacuum. But that, I maintain, is as far as it goes. Once you find fault with a work for no other reason than because it didn’t succeed commercially, you’re leaving the realm of criticism. I agree that it can be part of the context, but I strongly disagree that it is, by any stretch of the imagination, a valid standard of critical evaluation.

Mautner goes on:

In the end, I think it’s extremely valuable to read an assessment like Stone’s on whether or not [Final Crisis] or what have you succeeds as product. Because let’s face it, DC regards it ultimately as a product (hopefully an entertaining product, sure, but product nonetheless). It’s just as valid to castigate a comic for failing to meet its demands for its intended audience as it is to praise it for its own particular set of aesthetic qualities.

And again, I strongly reject the notion that it’s a critic’s job to worry about any of this, unless, as I said above, their concern is to analyze why a given work was a failure in its given cultural context. That would be a perfectly valid approach. But considering that Mautner says it’s valid to “castigate” a work on the basis that it’s a commercial failure, he’s clearly talking about something else. To which I say: no.

As far as misunderstandings of what criticism means are concerned, this one is as fundamental and catastrophic as it gets. To “castigate” a work on the sole basis that it failed commercially is the work of bean-counters and hucksters, but certainly not of any critic worth their salt. If commercial performance were to be accepted as a valid critical standard, then lord help us all.

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