…Pretty much everything.
On the Guardian‘s Art and Design blog, art critic Jonathan Jones slammed the art of “the comic-book universe” for being “banal” and “lack[ing]…ambition and verve.”
A reasonable criticism, if he’d given evidence to back it up. After all, many comics fans suffered through the epidemic of Greg Land SameFace Syndrome that swept the Marvel Universe a few years ago; for the indie graphic novel readers, the low-key but insistent ugliness of Daniel Clowes’ characters is sometimes employed as a shortcut to artistic legitimacy in place of a strong plot.
However, Jones’ issue with the current state of art in comics seems to be that it’s too comprehensible, which brings to mind those undergraduate creative writing classes where that one guy bases artistic merit on how difficult a piece is to understand. Of Chris Ware, Jones says, “his comics are easy to decode once you ‘get’ his style.” He also accuses graphic novels such as Persepolis and Black Hole for employing “variations on a reductive graphic style designed to communicate information and signify simple emotions.”
What’s wrong with communication and signifying emotion? Jones doesn’t say.
He also doesn’t acknowledge the vastly different influences, narratives, and contexts that shape Persepolis or Black Hole beyond placing them at opposite ends of an implicit continuum, which is worrying given that he is a professional art critic. One would expect a professional art critic to notice the French/continental European aesthetic at work in Persepolis (creator Marjane Satrapi lives in France), the underground comics sensibility of Black Hole, and the distinction between personal taste and artistic merit. Additionally, Black Hole‘s narrative is built around a literalization of the tangled fears and neuroses of adolescence, while Persepolis turns nebulous spiritual, emotional and cultural concepts into visuals that readers from a variety of backgrounds can understand: not exactly “reductive” in terms of content.
Jones then states that “the standard of true art in comics is surely Robert Crumb.”
Crumb is undoubtedly a gifted artist, and Jones is entitled to admire his skill. But failing to mention Crumb’s more racist work and/or his thigh fetish is — to borrow Jones’ own word — “reductive,” and not responsible criticism. Not bringing up these significant stumbling blocks in Crumb’s legacy makes Jones’ elevation of his art even worse than it could have been, as though racism and fetishism doesn’t even warrant discussion if the art is “true” enough.
Finally, let’s look at how this all began. Jones was “in a bookshop looking at shelves and shelves of grownup comics — graphic novels if you will.” He doesn’t say which bookshop, but if it was a chain store their selection would be quite limited, in scope if not necessarily in quantity. Given that the markers of variance go “from Persepolis to Black Hole,” we can assume that a) there were no graphic novels more revolutionary than those in the shop and b) if there were, he didn’t look at them. Jones makes no mention of visiting other shops or carrying out any other research into the matter. His sample size seems extremely limited, which, as anyone who took high school science can tell you, detracts from the validity of a hypothesis.
And comics criticism deserves a valid hypothesis, rather than a reactionary it-was-better-in-my-day standpoint. If a major UK news outlet’s art critic is unable to process cultural change — and, perhaps more importantly, the contexts in which such change occurs — one wonders what other ideologies are entrenched in his criticism, and in the institutions that give it a voice.