Why Criticism Matters

Back in 2014 I wrote a longish blog post about race and sexual violence in the works of Alan Moore. Naturally, people hurled the old critic-silencing questions: “Do you think you can do better than Alan Moore?” and “Why don’t you spend your time making your own art instead of criticizing others?”

Well, for one thing I can’t really claim credit for the criticism of Moore’s work. All I did was aggregate and summarize the criticism I could find, which I did to help put Moore’s comments in an interview in context. But I’ve been wanting to write something about therole of criticism ever since, and I’ve just come across a column by Ta Nehisi Coates, the famed essayist who is now writing the Black Panther comic, that sums it up perfectly:

The feminist critique is in the air now. If my rendition of Black Panther wasn’t created by that critique, it breathed the same air. I can’t really kill off or depower women characters without grappling with Gail Simone. I can’t really think about how women characters are drawn anymore without thinking about the women in Bitch Planet, and how they seem drawn beyond the male gaze.

This is why criticism is important.

It’s not just Coates who was shaped by comics criticism. Moore himself was influenced early in his career by comics criticism, specifically by criticism of Steve Ditko written by novelist Stan Nicholls. In Moore’s own words:

I remember at the time — this would’ve been when I was just starting to get involved in British comics fandom — there was a British fanzine that was published over here by a gentleman called Stan Nichols (who has since gone to write a number of fantasy books). In Stan’s fanzine, Stardock, there was an article called “Propaganda, or Why the Blue Beetle Voted for George Wallace.” [laughter] This was the late-’60s, and British comics fandom had quite a strong hippie element. Despite the fact that Steve Ditko was obviously a hero to the hippies with his psychedelic “Dr. Strange” work and for the teen angst of Spider-Man, Ditko’s politics were obviously very different from those fans. His views were apparent through his portrayals of Mr. A and the protesters or beatniks that occasionally surfaced in his other work. I think this article was the first to actually point out that, yes, Steve Ditko did have a very right-wing agenda (which of course, he’s completely entitled to), but at the time, it was quite interesting, and that probably led to me portraying [Watchmen character] Rorschach as an extremely right-wing character.

In other words, criticism of other people’s work inspired Moore’s portrayal of his most famous character in his most famous work. (I can’t find a copy of the article, but there’s a summary and critique of the critique here.)

Criticism plays other roles as well. Writing criticism is also an important part of many writers’ development — Moore, Grant Morrison and countless others wrote for fanzines early in their careers as they refined their own work. Many well established writers continue to write reviews. Learning to write, or doing any other creative work, involves looking at other people’s work and figuring out what works and what doesn’t work.Critics also play a role in documenting the perceptions of the major works of their time, so that future generations can better understand the way different pieces were understood, and how the understanding of those pieces changed over time.

But mostly I think the important thing is what Coates hit on: criticism helps push the medium forward, even if the creators on the receiving end aren’t receptive (and to be honest, it’s often for the best if creators ignore what the critics say). As I wrote at the time: “I’ve learned a fair amount from reading the criticisms of his work. It’s helping me understand why a domestic violence scene in something I’m writing doesn’t work. I hope that even if Moore doesn’t care to engage in these critiques, other writers can learn from his mistakes.”

Feel free to disagree.

Adapted from my weekly e-mail newsletter.