In Defence of Criticism
There’s something quite strange happening in webcomics and throughout society in general that I’ve noticed recently. I don’t know if I should tell you about it because I don’t think anyone else has noticed. I feel like the only sane man in the world which probably makes me crazy.
You know what? I’m going to tell you anyway.
I’ve noticed a culture developing of not criticising others. Criticism is considered bad. You shouldn’t do it. It’s dirty. You’ll go blind. And as I realised this development, it made me think. How do you define criticism?
If I walked into the room without any trousers on you might well say, “Hey mang, put on some pants!” Would I be justified if I responded by telling you not to be so critical? Could I say, “Oh, it’s easy to criticise, isn’t it? If you can dress yourself better then feel free to belittle me.”
The answer is no. Because I probably should be wearing trousers. So why is it that if I make comments about someone’s strip I have crossed the magical boundary separating the land of justifiable commentary from the kingdom of criticism? Here’s why – it’s all about expectation. I’m expected to wear trousers by polite society. I’m not expected to do a good job on my comic. So if I mess up, I don’t want to hear it. And that’s how most people use the word criticism – unwanted commentary on an action without previous obligation.
Well, rip up your mental dictionaries because criticism is a good thing. The Oxford English Dictionary gives four definitions of the word ‘criticism’. The last two are technical terms. Here are the other two:
1. The action of criticizing, or passing judgement upon the qualities or merits of anything; esp. the passing of unfavourable judgement; fault-finding, censure.
2. The art of estimating the qualities and character of literary or artistic work; the function or work of a critic.
Okay, I can see how the first one might be a problem for some people. The whole fault-finding thing. But what about passing judgement in general? If the verdict is a positive one, no-one would have a problem. Well, why should they have a problem if it’s a negative one?
Here’s an example. It’s a simple one, a silly one and it’s about me being an asshole. I posted a link to my strip in the Comic Genesis ‘Techniques, Tips and Tricks’ forum, looking for positive feedback. Oh, I claimed I wanted general feedback but I really wanted positive feedback. Anyone who hasn’t got something nice to say is only jealous, right? Bears are more afraid of you than you are of them, right? Right. So, I go in looking for what I called at the time constructive criticism and I got a big fistful of what I perceived as the destructive kind. In short, I received a systematic and merciless deconstruction of every tiny flaw in Life on the Fourth Floor.
Did I appreciate this candour? Hardly. I dismissed it as pedantic. Something that particularly rankled with me was someone pointing out that my navigation buttons were too big. Fuck that, I thought to myself. Who cares about buttons? I want criticism of the comic not the stupid buttons. You remember the old navigation buttons, right? The furthest right one occupied a new line. They were too big. Why was I annoyed? Well, I had worked hard on those buttons. I had carefully worked out how big they needed to be. I had made a mistake. I hated that I had made a mistake and that someone else had pointed that out. I hated that they were right. So what did I do? I sulked – then I changed the button size. Take a look at the new buttons. Notice how stylish they are? Go on – take a peek. I’ll still be here when you come back.
Okay, some of the criticism was stupid. One guy said the comic was too big because his screen was too small. Apparently, the majority of computer-users still use an 800×600 resolution. Even if this dubious assertion turned out somehow to be true and you yourself are reading this on a tiny screen then when that tiny monitor breaks and you buy a bright shiny new one, all the 800×600-sized comics are going to look tiny. I have no sympathy. I’ve got to think about the future, guys.
So, what am I saying here? I’m saying the criticism can be welcome or unwelcome, right or wrong. But it is always valuable. The fact is the person who posted the buttons comment was reading through my archives and was getting annoyed with their un-ergonomic design. If people don’t read the archives, my work is for nothing and I die alone in a ditch, my fingers eaten off by stray cats.
So, even when it was the bad kind of criticism, I still learnt a lot. Because hearing what other people have to say is always an education of sorts. When people showed me my comic’s faults, I resented them because I’d already spotted a few of my own and I’d put up my defences in preparation and these defences had been unexpectedly side-stepped, I was caught off-guard, it came way out of left-field. You get the picture. But God damn it, I corrected those faults. I made the comic better.
Shouldn’t everyone else do the same? I am sick of this idea of the author-god, for whom criticism is blasphemy. I am sick of the idea that we are all part of a ‘webcomic community’, that we’re all pals. Scott Kurtz – I am not your friend. Jerry Holkins, Mike Krahulik – I am not your friend. I respect you, I admire you, I read you religiously, I may even have a little bit of a crush on you. But we are not friends. We’ve never met, you don’t know me, you probably wouldn’t like me. We are not friends. So what’s stopping me from discussing what’s wrong with your comics? Should you take it personally? Is it a betrayal? These guys are the giants of the comic world, right? Who am I to touch the hem of their robe, let alone find fault? But what if there’s something small which, like my buttons, makes a huge difference? What if it’s something big? What if by pointing it out, I change the world?
Well, that’s too bad. Because everyone on the internet hates criticism. Oh, they criticise the things they don’t like but they don’t think of it as criticism – either that or they are consumed by self-hatred. Whenever someone else starts to dish it out, everyone calls foul. They shouldn’t.
In any creative circle, there is and should be criticism. Just look at literature. Literature is not in its infancy, literature is not an under-appreciated medium. But there exists just as much criticism and back-biting. Just read Henry James’ very scathing critique of Dickens that he wrote as a young man. Anyone who thinks there is too much drama in the world of webcomics hasn’t studied all the rivalries, grudges, snide remarks, bloated egos and broken hearts that characterise every other medium.
I think there isn’t enough drama in webcomics. It’s too safe. There isn’t enough criticism. If we cut the first kind of criticism (as defined by the OED) out of our lives, we lose the second kind. If everyone kisses your ass, you start to believe it. Compliments make us complacent. Censure makes us strive to improve. Flattery makes us flabby. What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.
I know it’s harsh but it’s the same everywhere. We should all be mean. We should all push each other to improve. We should all aim to be the best we can be and we won’t get there if everyone tells us we’re just perfect the way we are. That’s what fans are for. Creators should compete. If you want to join hands and all be friends then fine, stagnate. If you want webcomics to be taken seriously, to strive for excellence then lose the kid gloves. Don’t sugar-coat. Let’s face it – the process of drawing cartoons is a lonely one. It’s just you and the blank page. And we’re all used to being the one kid in the classroom who draws the best doodles in the back of his exercise book. There’s nothing a cartoonist hates more than another cartoonist. Let’s stop trying to be buddies and start trying to be damn good enemies. Enemies to be reckoned with.
So criticise away. Make your judgement well-informed and coherent by all means. But judge nonetheless. Nit-pick. Be pedantic. Find fault. Not because you’re entitled to better quality or because I owe you anything. Do it because whilst no-one likes being told they’ve missed a spot, no-one likes missing a spot either. Do it because criticism is good.