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Don’t let critical insulation become a padded room

Man I love Scott Kurtz. I’m not sure of anyone else who has that unique blend of high quality output I can’t resist – and then the occasional personal post that can just send me screaming around the bend wanting to rant and rage.

His latest blog post snarks Johanna Draper Carlson’s review of “How to Make Webcomics” (which I’ve said before is great and should be step one in any new artists plan for internet domination). Now while Johanna’s review is pretty much glowing Scott took umbrage at Johanna’s wondering why there was nothing in the book to suggest that occasionally criticism from critics or fans was deserved.

As Scott put it:

There is a strange sense of entitlement, an eerie assumption of an unspoken working relationship that I am happy to inform does not exist. Why we insulate ourselves from the notion that the external critic can EVER be right, is because their critique is moot in regards to the progression of our work.

He goes on later:

It’s not that we don’t realize we’re making mistakes. It’s not that we’re oblivious to the fact that our work is imperfect. But if we play it safe and never risk those imperfections, then we’ll never grow as artists. Ultimately, we can’t chart our course based on what our readership or critics thinks is working. We have to go with our gut.

The real disconnect here is the assumption that all feedback to any attempt at change which will be negative (which I’m sure is more common to web-centric properties) and that criticism and legitimate areas that require improvement can’t possibly be connected. While Scott has always shown a willingness to innovate, experiment, and critique his own work harshly (as many of the great creators do) this is by no means a universal trait shared by all artists everywhere. For every Scott Kurtz (whose stylistic innovations and experimentation I may not always agree with, but I certainly come to appreciate over time) there are a dozen artists who not only don’t try to grow, but also follow his lead and insulate themselves from all commentary to the point of not realizing their work is crap.

This isn’t a unique situation to the comic industry, I come across it most often with screenwriters who are genuinely unprepared to know how to respond when I tell them I didn’t like a work (playwrights, by contrast, find it harder to ignore when whole audiences don’t like their work).

I’m not saying that creators should slavishly devote themselves to currying critical (or audience) favour. But if you are getting widespread responses that, say, your dialogue is unnatural, or your grasp of anatomy is weak – those are, perhaps, areas that one might want to focus on – if one’s ultimate goal requires some semblance of commercial viability.

This doesn’t stem from a belief that critics have any particular special place in the creative process – but some of them have long histories with their respective mediums and are well versed in pinpointing areas with issues. With almost all media I have critics whose opinions I value very highly (and part of why Scott’s blast rankles is that Johanna Draper Carlson has been such a rational, well-spoken voice of comic criticism in both print and on-line since before there was a world-wide-web… I remember first encountering her intelligent writing on Usenet in the mid 90s. She now reviews comics for Publisher’s Weekly… so she’s not exactly “some blogger” or an unknown quantity).

Kurtz’s personal viewpoint isn’t wrong, for Scott. I know lots of writers who have never read a single review of their work… but all of those have very good peer feedback groups (as Scott does) or insanely self-critical viewpoints to make up the lack of using outside influences as cues for areas to work on.

To assume that a creator can self-generate that feedback consistently is to ignore a least one possible tool in the creators arsenal which is short-sighted, especially in a book instructing a variety of artists with a variety of backgrounds and skill sets.

Now trying to figure out what criticism might be worthwhile to listen to (if any, as I’m sure the signal to noise is deafening) would be a valuable skill for new artists – which I think is almost exactly what Johanna was saying.

  • http://www.pvponline.com Scott Kurtz

    In finding reactions to my blog post, 100% of the creator comments are in agreement and 100% of the critic comments are in disagreement.

    I’ve only gotten one email from a critic who agrees that his job is not about improving my work, but about reviewing my work for others.

  • corey

    Well, Scott, you basically declared that critics are bullshit. You might not have meant to, but that’s what you did. How do you think that makes them feel?

  • Brad

    But that doesn’t really speak to the point Scott, I agree that critics have no place in the creative process – provided that creators get their critical feedback somehwere (themselves, peers, their mom).

    Since the book is, ostensibly, tailored to beginning artists (and honest self-critique is a skill that has proven time and time again one of the hardest for some beginners to learn) to suggest that there’s no value from any outside input, just handicaps them.

    Wouldn’t it make more sense to teach them how to filter outside input – some of which may be from critics or audience (at least until a creator develops a stronger “internal quality compass” to navigate by)?

  • Ryan

    Scott is full of it. I write (CREATE) for a living, and as a hobby I sometimes offer critiques on the internet.

    First of all he is inferring that critics CANNOT be creators, which is just utterly untrue. (Check a flap of a novel sometime, notice many OTHER authors acting as critics on said novel)

    As a creator, I could not agree with him less. The more you insulate yourself, the less interesting you become. Critique is freely given, and the creator is free to accept it or disregard it at their whim.

    The real issue here is that Kurtz is UNABLE to disregard critique. He is unsatisfied producing a successful web-comic…he wants to be friends with all of his readers…which is why he is always talking about the ‘relationship’ between fans and creators. (A relationship which doesn’t really exist) So hearing that even one critic dislikes his work, or an aspect of it, forces him to jam his fingers into his ears in such a way that he can only hear his halfpixel lackeys talking.

    It wouldn’t even be that sad, except he actually writes and draws a pretty good webcomic.

  • http://www.starslip.com Kris Straub

    “halfpixel lackeys”

    There’s no way for me to enter any conversation Scott is involved in without automatically being painted as his lapdog, so thanks. I’m going to attempt to put forward my own original opinion nonetheless, because I would like to think Brad made this a blog to encourage discourse.

    Trying to figure out what criticism might be worthwhile to listen to is a valuable project for all kinds of artists. I have the same problem with critics that Scott does, except I used to wear it on my sleeve, and now I bury it. But here it is.

    The problem with criticism is that the motive for it, especially in a semi-amateur arena like webcomics, is 100% questionable. It can come from a few cardinal directions:

    The Real Critic. This guy is doing critique and review because he believes in the work, he believes in criticism and he understands the mechanics of it. He knows how to phrase an argument, he knows how to focus on the problem areas without getting personal, and he knows how his crit is going to be interpreted. This is CRUCIAL.

    The Amateur Critic. This guy wants to do critique, but what he’s writing is a series of opinion pieces and rants tarted up like review and criticism. He nitpicks the bejesus out of everything. Every single line stroke is scrutinized. “Brent’s arm should have been raised slightly higher in panel 2 because he was saying something dramatic.” The internet is always going to have people like this, which is fine, but now we start to enter a gray area. Is this critique for the sake of critique? Is it because they like nitpicking something they love? Hate? Wish could be better? Do they enjoy the traffic they receive in fights with the author? Then we slide down the scale to

    The Drama Queen. Everything is said to stir something up. Now it’s really just opinion; there’s nothing constructive being said, and everything is fighting words. He is addicted to conflict.

    I am not opposed to criticism — on the contrary, I think critique is so, so important for the art world. We need to be able to analyze work, pick it apart, even line by line.

    The problem is, 80% of the critics online aren’t framing things properly, aren’t using the right language, aren’t targeting what needs focusing on. It becomes glorified nitpicking, and is of little or no function to the artist.

    This is when, yes, it IS necessary for the artist to have a self-critical eye. I find that real artists always hate their work a week after they’ve completed it. They want to do better, and they examine what other artists have done right. And it just isn’t generally possible to get that same conduit to improving from someone who is saying your font size is about 0.2em too big.

    Broad critique is easy. The artist whose anatomy is off, whose panel borders are way too narrow, who misspells words, who doesn’t have a good grasp of his characters’ personalities. But beyond that is a much trickier arena, and unfortunately I’ve run into a lot of bloggers who — I believe — were critiquing as a means to get traffic.

    “he is inferring that critics CANNOT be creators”

    I don’t think that’s inferred. On the contrary, I think once you approach that level, it’s more valuable to get your critiques done by other, better creators, and not by random bloggers who may or may not have even taken a critique class in college.

    You can’t insulate yourself from the act of the critique. What you should insulate yourself from is the act of bad critique, of false critique. How do I tell good crit from bad? The bad critic doesn’t like to have his critique critiqued! He immediately says “well, it’s my opinion.” I really think there is a core to good critique that is unshakable — objective, even. But it’s hard to come by.

  • Ryan

    Before I began this wall of text, I should apologize for the Kurtz’ lackeys comment. I guess what I meant was that I feel your group tends to be a bit insular and self-reinforcing…not that the rest of you are mouth-pieces for Scott, or vica-versa. I am sure there is a benefit to that, but I think there is a serious downside as well.

    Anyway:

    I did take a critique class in college! Two! Some of it was useful, some less so. What it did teach me was that a critique is simply somebody else’s opinion…and yes, sometimes it will be worthwhile, and sometimes it won’t…but you have to understand that everybody will have one, and pick and choose how you react to them accordingly.

    Almost everything I have done has benefited from the scrutiny of other individuals. As web-comic artists, both you and Kurtz are in a somewhat unique position of not having your professional work put into the hands of both an editor and publisher before having it put before the public. Perhaps not having that experience, as well as knowing your fans have access to more direct outlets for expressing their feelings (blogs, message boards, and so forth) has created this reactionary feeling towards them.

    Your search for the truly valuable critique is honest, but I think it misses the point. Yes, that objective peer-driven entirely constructive review may be out there somewhere…but it’s so rare, and you miss so much by having tunnel vision and ignoring everything else. Even poor reviews can have a shred of truth in them, and if you just push them all in the same heap and ignore them, then you will be missing something, inconsequential though it may seem.

    Finally, although I agree it can be helpful to get your criticism from peers who you feel are working at a higher level in your field; again you are adopting a really exclusionary view if they are the only people you will listen to. Some of your peers may be great creators, but poor critics…whereas that guy who missed the college critique class whom you are dismissing out of hand might have something profound to say.

    I think it NEVER hurts to consider every source of input, at least to some degree. What hurts you as when you start to take it all personally.

  • http://www.bradfox.com/blog/2008/08/dont-let-critical-insulation-become-a-padded-room/#comments Ben

    I think there are two issues here that kind of need to be addressed.

    1) Everyone seems to be using “critique” as a blanket term to mean any remark that can be seen as disparaging, or at the very least not complimentary. “You suck” isn’t a critique and neither is, “Your font is 0.2em too big.” These are just insults or truly subjective opinions pretending to be useful. A real critique is as Kris says, a well reasoned comment about a choice the artist has made placed in a proper context and delivered without vitriol. The problem is that is too much work for 90% of those on the internet.

    2) A proper critique, and this is where I think the bulk of creators will disagree with me, can be delivered by anyone with equal worth. The value of a critique begins and ends with the commentary itself. The implication I think from some of the rhetoric being thrown around is this that an artist would get a very well reasoned, useful comment and think, “Wow, this is very insightful. I agree with them, but I wonder who sent this? What? It’s just some guy on the internet! I’m throwing this away, if it had been sent by another artist then I could pay attention to it.” In this case I feel that the “fraternity of artists” is dangerous. You can’t, as someone who really cares about honing their craft say, “I’m just listening to other creators.”

  • http://www.starslip.com Kris Straub

    All right — let’s agree at least that if a comment is insightful and well-phrased, it doesn’t matter who it comes from. I think pro artists would have a better eye for what does and doesn’t work, but that doesn’t mean they’d be able to phrase it right or come up with an argument.

    And yes, the signal-to-noise ratio is very poor.

  • Brad

    Thanks for the dialogue from all fronts (and for everyone toning down the vitriol unasked).

    The key, as always, is figuring out how to interpret the data – which is a universal media problem. Kris’ “categories of critics” could easily be applied to most film reviews – and unless one is writing for “cahier du cinema”, there’s very few of the purely “real critic” even in the mainstream media (media, like bloggers have to stay visible to justify their jobs, and “journalistic trolling” is an easy way to do that).

    I might write a post along those lines later today, because it reminds me of an issue RAMP had recently with a legion of break.com commenters braying for our heads on a pike.

  • Pingback: Panning for gold in the sewer: Fun with internet critique

  • Brad

    [A couple of comments above deleted ]

    I don’t censor comment threads – but if you’re going to call someone names and make statements about their character I think a minimum standard of decorum would be to back your words up with a legitimate name / URL / or e-mail.

    There’s no shortage of places to anonymously bash, flame, and troll. This isn’t one of them.

  • ButtPlugg668899

    Whatever, Brad. I could easily post something as John Smith, Angus Thermopole, or Suzanne Buttersmythe. It’s still just anonymous.

    I simply don’t feel the need to play your silly name game and play into your false sense of security. Identity does not equal validity. You can keep my comments moderated out-of-sight, but it doesn’t make them any less true.

  • Shen

    It would seem to me that a lot of the benefits of a critique comes from the trust between the two parties involved.

    * does the creator think the reviewer is being honest
    * does the creator respect the reviewers opinion
    * does the creator think the reviewer is trying to guide them rather than tell them what to do

    With critiques that are anonymous, unsolicited or not face to face, I think it would be difficult for the creator to get a feeling for the first two points.

    I would argue that there would be a strong case for ignoring all unsolicited critiques from the internet simply because it would be a massive time sink trying to weed out the critiques that meet those 3 points from the ones that don’t.

    It seems like a much better system would be for the creator to seek critiques from a peer or coach. This would allow the creator to insure the first two points are met straight off the bat.