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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.