Of Critics and Comics
On Christmas day, I finally opened my very favorite Chanukah present (aside from the "#1 Mom" keychain, of course): a copy of the 2009 Best American Comics, edited this year by Charles Burns. It's an annual tradition in our house, this presentation of the comic collection; in return my husband gets the "Dog-a-Day" calendar, which he actually requests. And though all year long he brings home pictures of English Bulldogs in sunglasses or Basset Hounds on sofas, I think my gift is truly the one that keeps on giving.
I haven't read very much in this year's anthology, but so far I've already learned two things: 1.) Evergreen State College is more than a punchline (It was considered freaky even by Bennington College standards), in fact, during Burns' scholarship it might have been ground zero for the mainstream explosion of American comics and 2.) some time in 2007, Dan Clowes wrote a strip about a fictional film critic named Justin Damiano.
The first item is probably news only to me, but just in case you didn't know it either, in one of those amazing feats of cosmic coalescence that end up altering the course of science, philosophy, and here, art, in the late 1970s Burns attended Evergreen with Lynda Barry and Matt Groening. By the way, Barry edited the 2008 collection, which was, in my opinion, far superior to that of her predecessor, Chris Ware, but on a par with that of his predecessor and the series' inaugural editor, Harvey Pekar.
However, it's the second item that's most interesting to me, and not just because Clowes is the artist whose graphic novel Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron (warning: it's not exactly his most "accessible" work) made me a davening comics convert. "Justin M. Damiano" was originally included in a short-story collection called The Book of Other People, edited by Zadie Smith to benefit 826NYC (founded by Dave Eggers).
While the strip itself, a four-page foray into the life and lost love of an online movie reviewer/blogger, possesses plenty of Clowes-style alienation and self-delusion, its choice of critic as subject reveals even more about public perception of this monastic profession.
Kidding. But not really. Clowes specializes in creating characters on the fringes whose disastrous attempts to press their noses against the windows of civil society always result in affirmation of their self-loathing and justification for their misanthropy. Sound like any critics you know? Of course not.
Still, it's pretty fascinating to check out reaction to Mr. Clowes' portrait of Mr. Damiano. The Guardian's film critic, Peter Bradshaw, calls him "flawed, vulnerable, human, committed to his craft," while just about every other blogger says things like the story is a "savage parody of self-important film bloggers," or the character is "self-absorbed," or he's "driven by a combination of loneliness and narcissism," or the strip is "a satirical look at internet geeks who think that anyone cares what they post on their review blogs." Ouch.
If anyone cares what I post on my blog, I also think "Justin M. Damiano" goes deeper than the non-film-critic critics would have you believe. Critics rest so uneasily on the periphery of art that making them its subject usually results in some kind of vicious, long-suppressed catharsis (click the link to Bradshaw's blog entry for proof). However, Clowes is a master of the peripheral, and that's why I can't believe Damiano is just another dart aimed to deflate critical puffery.
But then, as a theater critic/blogger, maybe, like Bradshaw, I've got too much in common with Damiano himself to clearly read Clowes' intentions. Or maybe I got that window all fogged up again. Either way, and for whatever it reveals about the critical temperament, I'll say this much: once again, Dan Clowes has proven himself a first-rate portraitist.