7.2.16

Notes from S.M.A.S.H.

A comics panel event at the Barbican Library, which was excellent – over 100 people listening to some great speakers on three themes: meaning, art and diversity. I left with a cloud of ideas buzzing around my head, which were dampened with rain and alcohol afterwards (everyone went to the pub, of course). Before my terrible memory dissipates the rest, here's what stuck out at me.

MEANING

Although Crissy Williams helpfully dropped some McCloud-esque science about how the comics form creates meaning (your imagination filling the gaps between panels etc), much of the discussion went wider than comics itself. A lot of it was about where meaning happens – is it about the intentions of the creators, or is it about the response of the reader? Mike Carey was an eloquent champion of the latter view, suggesting that as comics are a collaborative medium, reconstructing a single set of intentions is futile. I'm a little sceptical of that line of argument. Comics are a part of history like everything else, and therefore you should be able to assemble evidence that can support particular interpretations of the creative team's intentions, and adjudicate between which interpretation is best supported by the available evidence (full disclosure: I did history at uni).

If Carey is right and the important stuff happens at the point where the reader responds to the work, does that mean that all interpretations are of equal worth? In some ways, yes absolutely. We're all people reading the same thing, why is your experience more accurate or valuable than mine? However, this made the presence of a critic and an academic on the panel quite interesting, as their interpretations of comics are (almost by definition) priviledged. What is the role of the critic or the scholar if all interpretations are of equal worth?

J. A. Micheline (the critic) said something interesting towards the end of the discussion that responded to this question. She said that it is actually quite exhausting to hold all sorts of interpretations of a work in your head. Eventually, you do look for a way through the maze by reaching for the threads of authorial intention. Always dangerous to do, but Micheline went on to read this development into the wider cultural conversation – postmodernism's assault on the modernist idea of the auteur is getting tired, and people have gone back to looking for some leadership and authority when it comes to the meaning of art.

ART

This was a discussion about comics art, and particularly how to distinguish between what is 'good' and 'bad' art. There was a helpful intervention from an audience member towards the end who tried to separate the question in two. Firstly and most obviously, comics art is 'good' in a functional sense – it helps rather than obstructs the narrative. Mark Stafford was particularly useful in providing some examples of this (how an artist has to draw the reader's eye to things, how they can embellish or add texture to a story).

But then beyond the question of functionality, people do still have preferences. It's all a question of a person's taste, as Hannah Chapman insisted. But should we leave it there? David Allison was interesting on this – in his introduction he talked about encouraging and becoming comfortable with a 'Tower of Babel' when it comes to the language of comics art. I think this gets at something important, which is that taste isn't innate – you're not born loving Jack Kirby. Rather, taste is something you develop, and a variety of experiences with different styles and methods might overcome some of the pigeon-holing that occurs within the form.

Speaking personally, the role of gatekeepers in clueing you into or evangelising about things you would otherwise pick up and put down again is crucial. So much of my favourite music was initially encountered as a result of criticism, but with comics a lot of it has been me fumbling around in the library on my own.

DIVERSITY

This was probably the most interesting and important panel, but being less familiar with the issue, I have less to say about it. Alison Sampson did bring up the fear among some creators of causing offence, which can inhibit their creativity. Most of the panel disparaged the idea that only certain people should be allowed to write certain characters, although Ramzee (with reference to The Danish Girl specifically) insisted that creators should be knowledgeable about the cultures and issues they are representing. Was also interesting that Kieron Gillen ruled out certain stories as not his to tell, so there is some policing and self-policing going on. I think figuring out (or being aware of and highlighting) whether a work is cynical or exploitative is a valuable role for professional critics (of all mediums) to play, but I suspect many don't see this as part of their job description.

The problem isn't so much what gets portrayed, in my view, as who gets to do the portrayal. And the comics industry still has a lot of work to do here. I think this is a rather dry process issue about the way the industry works (although some speakers preferred to go bigger and allude to the evils of capitalism). A member of the audience did introduce the idea of 'the underground' as being useful in this respect, but both Ramzee and Hannah Chapman were quite dismissive of the opportunities created by the small press scene. The general impression I got was that the most exciting stuff was happening online (tumblr, kickstarter and so on), but there wasn't time to get started on the impact of these platforms. Suspect gatekeepers upping their game and trawling these online communities is relevant here as well.



...feels like a lot of the above can be summarised as 'comics criticism is important, go critics', so I guess I'll leave it there.

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