Sunday, June 29, 2008

"John Solomon" is Intellectually Incompetent

"John Solomon's" blog header.
© "John Solomon"

So John Solomon has declared all web comics worthless, and says he isn't going to do his notorious blog anymore.

Solomon, a pseudonym, writes Your Webcomic is Bad and You Should Feel Bad, a blog for which all kinds of excuses are made. Some say it dismantles bad comics, others that it punctures inflated creator egos. Solomon himself takes the position that he is a critic working in defense of aesthetic standards, and that acquiescence to low standards is a contemptible failing. We don't know what's good, and he's going to whack that fact into our brains by ripping apart a comic and the person who made it.

There are several problems with this contention. First is that you, me, and most everyone else is quite clear on the fact that the majority of web comics are deficient, some appallingly so. The mutterings I hear are not terribly concerned that there are lots of amateur efforts and some plain old scribbling. The greater consternation is that fandom has brought popularity to a mix of comics that includes deserving material and some blatantly shoddy work, and we wonder why that is. If we are busting our tails to do a strip that we think is better than the shoddy ones, then we might catch ourselves feeling downright bitter now and then.

The answer as to why shoddy strips become popular is complex, and includes such reasons as the charisma of the creator, astute promotion, appeal to a loyal niche, capturing the pop culture zeitgeist just right, logrolling by other popular comics, ease of reading, advertising, lucky exposure in major media, and many other reasons, including -- yes -- there are a lot of undiscerning readers out there. Last I checked, undiscerning people were allowed to read and enjoy humdrum comics.

Another problem with Solomon's critical theory is that he is mistaking a lowbrow art form for a highbrow one, and applying highbrow standards to it. By this critical framework, every comic is artless and therefore dismissible. Similar arguments have been advanced to justify attacks on ethnic groups, imprisonment of dissidents and other repressions. Comics are a vernacular, not fine, art form.

The typical Solomon piece, which can be lengthy, starts out with a roar, including lots of personal attacks on whichever comic creator has fallen into his cross hairs. People are taken to task on their physical shortcomings, their motives are questioned, and obscene epithets are minted and fired off like poison darts.

While I acknowledge that blogs are pretty freeform, Solomon implies adherence to but fails to follow fundamental journalistic standards, launching attacks without possession of all the facts, yet presenting himself as a peer of the traditional journalist critic. Aaron Diaz of Dresden Codak, a frequent target, is assaulted for alleged weak storytelling in recent work -- a legitimate topic for commentary -- as well as long update delays, without having first been queried as to the circumstances of his life right now. What if he is suffering a crisis of some magnitude? Does that let him off the hook? Is it mandatory that he disclose this to his fans?

In my opinion, it's his comic and he can do as he pleases. The internet is not running low on pixels. If it comes out that he has been cavalier with his fans, they will go elsewhere and his reputation will be damaged. It doesn't take a barrage of obscenity-encrusted neutron bombs from an anonymous writer to save the day.

People mostly read comics because they like them. When I review a comic, I try to bring in insights that will inform prospective readers and provide a richer experience for existing ones. They don't need me to tell them what to read.

Some of my friends like Solomon's blog, and their opinion has softened my own reaction to it, which at first was dismissive. There is intelligence at work (of one person, not four, as he previously claimed), and that person is afflicted with an emotional range of great breadth. You see it come on full force after each hiatus, then soften slightly as writing a post vents some of the energy. I am reminded of a friend with a mental affliction who occasionally becomes grandiose and hostile when his medication falls short. I raise the possibility of inherent erratic behavior not to defame Solomon, but as one possible explanation out of many, and certainly a forgivable one.

The world is full of critics. Movie critics are especially savage, I've long thought, but my wife points out that movies are a team effort and blame can be spread around. Where the critic-artist engagement is one on one, as with books, there is no one I know who behaves like John Solomon, and if they did, they would be unemployable.

In the end, Solomon is guilty of the sin of the easy mark. By holding web comics to unattainable standards (even R. Crumb was placed with the lowbrows in the famous MoMA "High and Low" exhibition), Solomon can't find satisfaction and he can't enjoy the simple pleasures of good web comics. When he barks, "Stop linking to me!" it's not a clever ploy to encourage linking, it's a subtle acknowledgment that he knows what he is doing is wrong, only he can't stop himself, especially with the attention he draws. It gives him a fix. Despite the clever phrasings, despite the moments of truth in his critical point of view, despite the sensationalistic draw of the writing style, Solomon is not going to change a single thing except lower the level of discourse and undermine the hard work and dedication that many creators bring to their comics. He may even deeply wound someone fragile enough to be vulnerable to his onslaught. His work is uncomfortably close to the internet baiting by the woman who recently drove her teenage victim to suicide.

The Solomon character is too emotional to be a good prospect for rehabilitation into a sophisticated critic. He's in too much pain to resist taking others down with him. Solomon the ranter and Solomon the card-carrying intellectual are incompatible, and while he may be a bright and lively writer, the ranter cancels out scholarly pretensions. Only a few of his points survive filtration: e.g., that Scott Kurtz does not write a truly hilarious comic, even though he and his work are enjoyed by many. That's not the kind of insight most of us need to be told.

John Solomon says he's no friend of web comics. On that point, he's right. I'm not even sure he's a friend of humanity.