RIO Comic Book Story Writing Contest

People who’ve wanted to try writing for a comic book, but didn’t find the opportunity to start … try this out

Come up with a cracker of a story in 10 sentences or less and post it to their FB page by the 15th of December.

The most “Like”d one will get the chance to be converted to a complete comic book. Enter soon to maximise “Like”s

Golden Age in the time of WWII

This is the first commentary on JustcomiX that is not about a comic book. It is not a non-fiction study of comics (I’ve writer about Jules Feiffer before), and it isn’t even illustrated.

What gives?!

What gives is that a few months ago I came across a novel that I originally mistook for a comic book but turned out to be a gift in a different package instead. It is called “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay”, by Michael Chabon. Now, there is a superhero – The Escapist. There are villains. And it is even part of the Golden Age of American comics – late 1930’s and 1940’s. Aye, that it all has, but in text only.

The story is a beautiful one about Sam Klayman, a Jewish boy in Brooklyn, who gets a roommate in Josef Kavalier, his cousin recently escaped from Nazi-overrun Czechoslovakia. Sam has a toe in the comics industry, Joe is a trained artist, come together they create a hugely successful comics franchise for their employers and rake in the money, all the while letting go of their intellectual property.

The other, and larger part of the novel, is Joe’s constant attempts at reestablishing contact with his family back in Czechoslovakia and especially his obsession with getting a safe passage for his younger brother to New York.

It is an enourmous work – over 600 pages of teeny print, and possibly the largest novel I will ever read. And a word of warning is that don’t go into it expecting lots of exposes on comics, or insights or even humour. The book contains all of these, but scant more than a few dozen pages. More light is shed on the tricks of the professional escape artist than on comics. Take it as a book on 2 people who happen to make comics, as much as “Kane and Abel” is about hotel management.

Yet, for those of you who are as seriously devoted to this medium as I am, a story that includes comics is a big event. This novel was even awarded the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. A reading of this book is recommended not as a tribute to comics, but as a tribute to comics creators – dogged and talented individuals, adding on the art of the deal to the art of the comics, fighting accusations of subversion while also fighting personal demons in some cases.

A comics creator is not more special than other artists. But, let it be acknowledged that they are no less special either.

Ambedkar? Never heard of him.

An Indian comic book that’s attained instant global fame.

Popular amongst the literati before it reached comic fans.

A story about the worst caste discriminations, but conducting discriminations of its own.

That’s a quick summation of the tribal art-English language biography of one of India’s most important, but least known, giants – ‘Bhimayan’, the story of Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar.

The book is undoubtedly one of the most important works for the comics industry in India. It is a well-produced project that brings together an important story and a great shot-in-the-arm for vernacular art styles. Gushing statements from leading intellectuals adds a veneer of supra-comics respectability to this book.

The reason to remember this book isn’t its subject matter but its art. It imagines narrative graphic storytelling in a hitherto inconceivable way. I am amazed that despite being an art form that is so removed from the comics world it has understood the target medium so succinctly that it does not for a moment seem like an experiment, rather an “always meant to be”. The narrative symbology is inherent, it would seem, in Gond art, and it doesn’t take any great feat for the newbie audience, like me, to understand the communication.

I would go on to add that in fact I would have been harder-pressed to understand the method of Gond art in its native form. A single image, would be naturally constrained by my unaccustomed mind which would be searching for footholds of familiarity, which it would not find. But in the milieu of the comic book I don’t hesitate for a moment.

That is a spectacular moment of universal understanding.

But the book has an underbelly that betrays this universal understanding, which is in the viciousness of the story. As an urban, non-Dalit reader I am made to identify myself with the devil himself. I am, by my non-Dalit status, completely unaware of caste, social inequality, and unable to pronounce the name Ambedkar (though I must be able to say Tendulkar). The book smacks of trying to draw a ‘them’ and ‘us’ divide, ostensibly trying to reverse which is the ‘them’ and which is the ‘us’.

Why take such a pitifully incomplete stand? Why return misinformation about Dalits with misinformation about non-Dalits? Either approach will be incomplete, right?

Though it can be said that such a controversy is only in my mind, and not what the creators intended, or what other readers are feeling, I will point out the striking interpretation tool that is embedded into the speech balloons. At the end of the book we are told how the manner in which the balloons are drawn is anthropomorphic – conveying the speaker’s mood by shaping the balloon like an animal that represents those feelings. One such is a scorpion’s tail that we see repeatedly used, which is explained as: “I am full of words that carry a sting. Characters who love caste, whose words contain poison, whose touch is venomous, speak through me.” Return to the picture above and see who carries the poisonous barb.

Everybody who questions reservation is such a scorpion. Why so? I don’t condone caste-based violence or inequality, but I don’t believe that reservation is taking society closer to eradicating these problems. What can any of us say for the boy whose complaint starts with, “Super-qualified. Stuck in a dead-end job.” If he has worked hard in his life, and he has not perpetuated caste discrimination, can we say he has nothing to complain about? Is his ignorance or awareness of such discrimination a reason for his dead-end job?

These, and much more needed to be considered by the writers and publishers before their cross-eyed polemic was dispersed. If you read the fine print, you will see how much this book has ridden on the approval of Western writers and news media, and the fact that its large market is the urban, English-educated youth of the world and its sponsors are Dutch and British. A picture of inclusivity painting a portrait of exclusivity.

It is unfortunate that the book left me feeling the need to defend myself as a non-Dalit reader, but that’s what its blinkered vision impressed upon me. The book begins and ends with a non-Dalit who refuses to accept caste is a present and important issue. That makes one feel mute. I am willing to concede that that is not what would have been the desired effect. So perhaps a round of editing before the next edition could rectify these, or else by all means charge forth as is.

But, I think a complete picture by the writers is what the artists deserve for their monumentally talented work on the book.

‘Bhimayana’

Durgabai Vyam and Subhash Vyam (Artists)

Srividya Natarajan and S Anand (Writers)

Navayana Publishing, 2011

Rs 395

The Eyes Have It

Would it be too diabolical a choice to words if I were to say, “The All-Star Superman cover is so great, it passes with flying colours”?

Nevertheless, I cannot stop taking a deep breath each time I see the cover of volume 1 of the collected All-Star Superman series by Frank Quitely (penciling) and Jamie Grant (colouring).

It struck me when I saw it first online, and again when I held the copy in my hand. So many reactions in mere moments:

  • The corner of the eye catches the soft sun which you know means the world is feeling benevolent today
  • Zip to Superman whose soft, heavy eyes draw you into a sense of Buddhist calm – yes, Buddha eyes
  • Clouds make you weightless, especially when you realize you are standing on them
  • And the city below, far below, means you’re soaring like an eagle, or a Kryptonian dog

So many ways to lead the reader to one single feeling – meditative bliss, I kid you not.

If I were exaggerating I would not have remembered this image for so many hours as I have. I would not have felt compelled to write about it. It is like the best snapshots you remember from a great holiday, which connect you to the feeling of freedom and being unchained.

I can try and take a more learned stand towards the image – the colours play a major role in initiating these feelings. The first thing to catch your eyes is, of course, the red of the cape. It literally explodes in your eyes, because you know your eyes and pupils grow bigger when you see it first. The next thing to catch you is the sun, as both the vanishing point of the picture and the way the title is composed lead you to this distant and diffused soft yellow sun, covered by a safety net of clouds. They are altogether reassuring, showing you that nothing looms on the horizon. All the while, not exactly foremost on your consciousness, is a beautiful blue. It’s dead centre in the picture, so you will never see any part of the whole image without a bit of beautiful blue in your sights. And yes, these are the three primary colours of printing.

But finally, there’re the eyes, the eyes that communicate safety and control. They look straight at you and hold you. You suddenly see a Superman who isn’t hurling and dashing through the sky to save mankind, but a Superman who is taking a moment to admire the heavens, just as you are.

Who invites you to sit beside him as time slows to a standstill.

Sita’s Gita

I have never bought picture postcards. They look nice, no doubt, but it’s the same packet of 6 postcards everywhere and so it doesn’t seem worth the money. But, picture postcards have value for those who don’t have a camera and have no other memories to carry with them.

Why am I talking about picture postcards? Because, the new book out by the glib name of “Sita’s Ramayana” is nothing more than picture postcards to a camera-less tourist. Buy it if you want to see pictures, and if you have never read, or heard, Ramayan before. Otherwise get your mythology elsewhere.

Just released, “Sita’s Ramayan” is a supposed new perspective to Ramayan by shifting the point of view of the epic. “A powerful meditation on women’s fate” it says. Say what? The only meditation on a woman’s fate in this book is if, like me, you wonder why the woman who painstakingly drew the whole story has been given second billing to the woman who tried to write it.

While the back cover states that Samhita Arni, the writer, “collaborates” with the folk artist Moyna Chitrakar, the afterword to the book starts with “Sita’s Ramayana was painted before it was written”. How, dear writer and publisher, do you make Bat(wo)man the sidekick and Robin the hero(ine)?

The story is exactly the same as that of the original, with just a different speaker. It does not even make the familiar story disjointed by changing the chronology of events to match Sita’s actual understanding of the entire story. Instead, one sees Sita tell the story as flashback, conveniently arranging all events chronologically. When she is abducted by Ravan, we are quickly filled in to what was happening with Ram and Lakshman by power of 20-20 hindsight. It would have been heaps better if we just followed her to Lanka and imprisonment.

One quickly realizes that Sita is just a voicebox in this book because as narrator she only recounts the brothers’ journey to Lanka, their war, Hanuman’s many episodes, Ravan and his brothers and so on and on. In numbers, 86 out of 142 pages is about Ram’s journey towards Lanka and the war, while only 18 pages go before it and 37 pages after it – 60% of “Sita’s Ramayan” is about Ram’s journey as heard by Sita. Nothing of her life before marriage is deemed as important.

The book has three publishing categorisations – Graphic Novel/Epic/Art. Please only pick it up for the last one. The illustrations are very carefree in their use of colours and quite a joy to behold at times. The interpretations of some of the characters, and the mesh of Man and Nature is original in this form. In this form, because as explained, the artist is a Patua artist from Poschim Bangal (yikes!) and must have been quite comfortable with the style that looks new to us.

To me every woman in an epic is a study in quiet indignation. She is always equal in every virtue to a man, but yet she has to willingly stand a step below. It is a choice to be less equal, not a congenital reality. Sita’s story should reside less in the war and more in the marriage and life in the forest and in her relationship with Ravan. As chauvinistic as that sounds, the fact remains that between the two her agency lies not in the war. To see Sita’s story one must see Sita in action, not in prison listening to the radio war broadcast.

A new collection of essays looks at Sita in-depth, and a recent novel tells the story of Mahabharat through Draupadi. With such predecessors can this book be forgiven for not venturing anywhere new? Mythology re-tellings have become very popular now, from Ravanayan to Ramayan 3392 AD, India Authentic to Batu Gaiden. So it is a time when the spirit of competition and discovery should bring new brilliance forward, and not complacency.

‘Sita’s Ramayana’

Moyna Chitrakar (Artist)

Samhita Arni (Writer)

Tara Books, 2011

Rs 550

ViMoh and ViGo’s Fabulous Journey

If you see Vijayendra Mohanty’s autograph, you will be disappointed by its absolute lack of flash (you can spot it on one of the images below). Instead of all the swirls and whirls that a name like his could afford, what you get is an abbreviation of form and content – “ViMoh”, and that too looking almost typeset.

I guess that is a peek into his way of writing as well.

When the project, in partnership with Vivek Goel, ‘Ravanayan’ was announced it promised a lot of insight into Indic lore. After all, it would tell the story of Lankesh! The journey of Ravan! The story of a man who was powerful like none had been before, yet doomed to defeat by destiny. A king who has been reviled by most, but deified by a few. The most powerful underdog ever imagined.

Mohanty has been familiar to me as a comics writer and a Indology crusader, in parallel. He has a ticklish sense of humour when you meet him, often self-effacive. But a different nature is present in his writings, which are incisive and well-researched, and defends his beliefs heartily. Polar oppositions in the same person. Knowing him one feels assured of storytelling that is well-researched and expects to uncover new facets of the characters as the story progresses. And that is what Mohanty does.

The story of Ravanayan (2 out of 10 issues down) is an exploration of destiny and choice. Ravan duels with dichotomies in his personage. He is soft and hard. The story attempts to gently etch out his character as one who is trying to create a choice in his life and the manifestations which lead him towards this choice.

The pace of the narrative is a trifle slow, but the blame for this is to the nature of independent publishing and not to the writer. Bringing out more frequent issues, for obvious practicalities, is a no go. But Mohanty promises a change in pace soon, not as a correction, but as a ripening.

While the story might promise more in the future than the present, the art certainly delivers full body blows right from the start, literally. The covers done by Goel are fantastic. They capture the flux and fury of the demon king on the first issue, and the endless play of worlds on the second one. The second cover particularly embeds itself into my memory, with its peaceful shades of blue and white, and the yin-yang layout of the full page itself. A stunning achievement, and no exaggeration to say that this single cover is worth the price of the entire subscription. Well maybe I exaggerate a little.

But despite, or because of, having two creators who are well-assured of their strengths, the story does suffer the lack of cohesion. The flow seems divided between pages that are the writer’s field and pages that are the artist’s field. One is unable to see this as a unified story since the entire mood gets flipped around in jerks from panel to panel. What is required, one feels, is a more meticulous edit of the text at the final stage when the drawings and words have come together. They do not always complement each other, and this may be because of separate departments working independently. For instance, the scenes of violence go on longer than they should at the start of both issues while at the same time the dislogues seem very out of place for the vivid battlefield. It will also avoid some of the errors one finds in the images, such as on the centerfold of the second issue.

Ravanayan certainly packs its punches, but also falls to a few in turn. It is an explorative start which will be adapting as it goes along. The comics series is attempting an ethic that hasn’t been done too frequently in India before – a fixed issue run, publicized hugely, real-time feedback and interaction, subaltern mythology. Many firsts. The time-honoured system of blessings are due to such an enterprise, so don’t be surprised if you see ViMoh and ViGo on one leg each, praying to the heavens.

‘Ravanayan’

Vivek Goel (Artist)

Vijayendra Mohanty (Writer)

Published by Holy Cow Entertainment, 2011

Rs 50 (Vol. 1) and Rs 40 (Vol. 2)

Follow the Lutanist of Berlin

Synopsis ‘Berlin – City of Smoke’ is the collected first 8 issues of Jason Lutes’ Berlin series (1996- 2000). It is set in 1928-29, in Berlin, at a time when the currents of global politics were clashing – Communism, Nazism, conservatism. Against this backdrop we follow characters who are all trying to find their place in the City, but cannot define the world in monochrome like many others do.

Three categories of good books – deserve to be re-read, need to be re-read, deserve and need to be re-read. The last one is where “Berlin – City of Stones” belongs. It is a book with breathtaking expanse, delightful details, and a story that is excavated upon events of such significance that we would be naïve to feel we’ve understood it in one go. Or I would be, at least.

A return to this book made such joyous reading, tasting all that I had missed while gulping it down earlier. Jason Lutes, writer and illustrator, has told such a touching story, alighting on so many characters, all the while maintaining a narrative unity.

Am I gushing, or is it just that good?

It is very rare that I encounter a lengthy work of art and feel that nothing was overdone, nothing could have been cut, nothing could have be elaborated. It feels like the baby bear’s bed. Just right.

Lutes’ is the story of two protagonists – Marthe Muller and Kurt Severing. They are worlds apart, coming together by a chance encounter. Muller comes to Berlin to change the way she has been living – to learn and experience everything that life in a big city offers. Severing is an old hand here, and as a journalist he is an observer, not a doer, and records change instead of living it.

“But, are they the protagonists?” I ask myself. Are we more moved by them or by Gudrun, the communist mother? Or even by many of the lesser characters? Interestingly, Lutes has offered us many people with independent life-stories, instead of minor characters whose only role is to bolster the protagonist’s story. So, in as many ways there are as many protagonists in this comic book.

An epic story, such as this, is served by turning the smallest of people into the most important presence on the page/frame, at that time. “There is no greatness, where there is no simplicity, goodness and truth” said one who knew epic scale very well. This is why Lutes manages to make “Berlin” stay with the reader for long, and makes the reader stay long as well. We are not just reading about Muller and Severing, but are seeing the whole city speak, through its people, though its streets. It isn’t mere whimsy when suddenly we hear (or see) the thoughts of random walk-through characters such as a ticket-checker, or a traffic constable. We are being shown a glimpse of the gigantic buzz of the hive that is the modern metropolis. We are suddenly empowered with ears that hear thoughts.

Lutes himself indicates that the central nerve of the story is that of the city – Berlin. Berlin is changing and changes her people. Berlin is where people are coming for opportunity. Berlin is what is being chronicled. And Berlin is where people are fighting and dying on the streets. The million-window-eyed city is what is always heaving and breathing in almost every frame.

And Lutes is not being easy with his readers by providing a history lesson. He chooses to let the events unfold dramatically and with full fury, which to a sensitive reader is a signal to go and take a fresher course in relevant German history. We read that this is Weimar Germany, but are not told not what the Weimar Republic is. We see the Nationalist Socialists, but not their more famous avatar, and thus we are not allowed the more obvious familiarity. And most hauntingly we are introduced, posthumously, to Rosa Luxemburg, an alluring and mysterious character, who is a revolution’s figurehead, and also a lonely boy’s refuge. Luxemburg brings masses of hundreds into the streets, and inhabits the dreams of anonymous people, and yet we don’t know enough about her to be part of these masses. We are outsiders in this world, we are not cosy friends. This is not “Maus”.

One matter of consternation, however, is the way in which the faces of characters are quite indistinct from each other. It is disorienting when one cannot always distinguish between Marthe and Gudrun, or a policeman and a communist. One tries to grasp little nuances of the hair, or clothing, to anchor the characters, but to no great avail. So I found myself unable to be certain how someone’s story began or ended. Alas.

Some of the best moments of “Berlin” are not actually part of the currents of the story, but as asides. Here the characters, stories and faces stop mattering. Severing, as journalist-observer, holds up an interesting mirror to society:

“Berlin” is intended to be a trilogy, but only 2 have been released. When I re-read the second one I will discuss it here. As a parting shot I can say this about “Berlin” (meaning it complimentarily), that if ever the term “graphic novel” was to be used aptly, it would be for this book.

‘Berlin – The City of Stones’

Jason Lutes (writer-artist)

Published by Drawn & Quarterly, 2001

USD 22.95

Paradise Lost

It’s a mixed blessing to be reading a new Amar Chitra Katha title. I hold ACK in very high regard, freely propounding that they are the best Indian comics, a school within itself, so new titles from them is a positive thing. Their company profile proudly states that they have over 400 titles in print, of which I’m sure 200 are excellent ones, and 200 are good.

Unfortunately this one is awful.

ACK has been releasing new titles since a slew of modernization took place in their organization. A fresh coat of paint is always a future-friendly move. So it is laudable that they are releasing new titles, and not just undertaking umpteen more reprints.

But what they haven’t capitalized upon is their experience in story-telling that has been honed over decades of focused efforts by the veteran creative team. In all possibility this is because the gap between their decline in the early 90’s and their revival now an entire generation has walked through their doors. So the venerable artists and writers have mostly taken their last bows, and now the house is almost starting from scratch. Or, so I feel.

As I read “Tirupati – The Lord of Tirumala” I was appalled by the incoherent story, which I had a hard time following, leave alone a member of their real target age group understanding. The unnecessary peg – trying to centre the story around Tirupati Temple (cashing in on its popularity) is something they hadn’t tried before this, and shouldn’t have either. The temple is just there for its name, while the story is about Lord Vishnu and his avataars, relationship, promises, yada yada – actually I really am not sure what it is about.

The fountainhead of ACK is now gone. Many of the old artists are gone. The sharp writers are gone. And with them the reputation of the house might well be on its way out. If that happens, then my faith in Indian comics will suffer a huge blow. Comics in India are exactly that right now – comics in India. They are not Indian Comics. ACK used to be that for me, an indigenous series, relying on everything original (even if questionable on the facts). But now they are a pale impression of their former self.

Here is my list of suggestions for ACK:

  • Since you aren’t breaking out new titles at warp speed, take time to get the stories right. Train writers, and editors. If you are doing so, then take it up several notches yet.

  • Try and get rid of the glossy colour feel to the art. The classic art was classic for a reason.

  • Expand beyond mythology and heroes to history and non-Hindu culture.
  • And while you are at all this – do something about Tinkle magazine. It is pitifully bad. Get back the folktales, get back the classic art sense, and create interesting, new characters (better than that fly and spider).

Well, all these are just what a devoted reader feels. They might not be the answer to ACK’s problems. But at least the right questions on where they are going so wrong should help. I realize I am asking for the past in the future, but that’s what ACK needs to project. Making it iPad friendly is all well and good, but making it reader-unfriendly is sudden death.

Then they’re just better off reprinting.

Scritches and Hitches

If you ask me, there are too many details about my life that I find fascinating, right on the verge of wanting to write thinly-guised autobiographical stories. I don’t however, either because of self-loathing (PhD level), or the realization that I wouldn’t want to read a story about everyone who thinks they are special. Anything autobiographical needs to be handled with supreme caution and delicacy.

I did get attracted to a recent autobiographical comic-book in the market. The lion’s share of the credit for that must go to its whimsical title, “The Itch You Can’t Scratch”. But, alas, the title was the first, best and last really good thing about the book.

Author Sumit Kumar was one of the core team that organized the ComicCon recently at Delhi, and his greatest claim-to-fame is that he has served as a writer for the Savita Bhabhi series. This gold nugget was cashed in on at the workshop he conducted leading up to the ComicCon, as well as on the back cover for this book. For something so tantalizing, this episode of his life is glaringly absent from the actual contents of this autobiographical book. What gives?

But, this was confirmed only after I finished the book, while during it I also learnt something about Sumit Kumar. He has indeed had a colourful life so far (he’s 23, I think). He has struggled in the classic “birth vs destiny”, “nature vs essence” manner. And through it all he has displayed a will to overcome, and to change the present. That’s Sumit Kumar the person.

Sumit Kumar the comics creator is a different set of realisations. He has definitely gone autobiographical too early. He hasn’t been able to make his character relatable or likable. And his drawing, which appeared personalized at first, quickly became stilted and very limited.

According to me, autobiographies, in any form, should only be written for one of the following reasons:

  • You are famous and people want to know your life
  • You are not famous, but you have participated in something famous
  • Your life carries an important message for everyone

If these are missing from an autobiography/biography, then chances are that the story is too personal to be a published book. Kumar even includes an entire appendix devoted to his uncle, who was a sociopath. Please don’t take this as a personal dig, it isn’t. This is exactly what is presented. It goes to illustrate the risk one runs when the story presents no guidance. Personal life becomes fair game when you put it out there, and you must be a very strong individual to present an interesting character, and to take the reception it gets. When we talk about ourselves to strangers it must serve a purpose, or else it can even become doleful for the listener.

The great experiment that Kumar undertook, and which I think is a brave one, is of using a mix of Hindi and English. He said somewhere that he wanted to use spoken language, which in India is almost always a mix of two or more. Unfortunately, the result was unexpected. This approach fails because of the difference between spoken and textual – we may speak in two languages, but we usually never write or read in two, not in a sustained manner. So while the conversation might sound perfectly natural in a play or a movie, in a book it is difficult to get used to. And moreover, it was visibly difficult for Kumar at places to choose when to switch between languages and it inhibited his flow of thoughts.

Kumar has enough opinions and sentiments to make a compelling character, but his story will be worth visiting only much later. A big question to think over is what would I like to tell a stranger about myself that would hold his interest? And the answer to this has to be reader-opiented, because he/she is the one paying to read about your life. That’s an honour and privilege that shouldn’t be taken lightly. 178 pages need to be much better utilized, or cut short.

‘The Itch You Can’t Scratch’

Sumit Kumar (writer-artist)

Published by Pop Culture Publishing, 2011

Rs 350

In Defence of Criticism

JustcomiX has been around for just over a year now, and it feels like a good time to give some thought to the raison d’etre of a site devoted to comics criticism.

“Critics are waiting like vultures to tear you apart for mistakes” said someone to me recently. My first reaction was of mild outrage since it vilifies the role of the critic, turning it into something that is mindless and bloodthirsty. I find the simile very potent here, as a vulture indeed scavenges and eats on others’ kills, but is also a silent guardian to a community’s health. But its ill-repute has pushed it to the margins of society, and indeed maybe to extinction.

Yet, one cannot defend the fact that many critics do pass unfair judgment, often basing their verdict on tertiaries, instead of the primary text. I think it is a critic’s duty to assess a text in its entirety, without disregarding effort and hard work. Many, I am sure, fall asunder of these moral obligations and are predatory and opportunistic.

But to disregard the function of criticism is too much a sleight of hand. One should not confuse a part for the whole, or in more poetic terms, borrowed, one should not miss the woods for the trees.

To me the duty of the critic is three-fold:

  1. A critic is a defender of the rights of the audience. He/she must think of what is best for the audience (in this case, reader), and this includes voicing expectations, calling to attention poor craftsmanship in content or production, and encouraging creators who in the longer run will be safe bets to entertain readers. By corollary, a critic is not the creator’s friend, unless the creator is good for the audience.
  2. A critic has to be an aggregated audience. He/she cannot be a layperson and just project his/her expectations as the general opinion. It has to be nuanced by serious study and a multi-dimensional approach to the text. One has to be able to be elected to the role of a critic if such is called for. Again, by corollary, a tempered approach can at times mean the critic’s opinion is at odds with general opinion. So be it.
  3. By dint of the above, a critic should attempt to contribute a body of studies of the chosen art. He/she should try and catalogue processes, and/or record history, and/or point to future directions the art might take. A critic should have an interest in catalysing the growth of the medium, not just  passively observing and exuding opinions.

I can speak for myself and say I have come down harshly on texts, and create strong opinions against books that might even have withstood initial tests of reception. I am impatient with words and patient with intentions. But, by this I also put myself in the dock, open to the same cross-questioning as I have subjected upon others. But that’s the risk of criticism. An opinion for an opinion is fair, as long as it isn’t an eye for an eye. One can always critique a critic, if it is in defence of ideology, and not just of ego.

I honestly feel that arguments and defences are like vitamins and anti-bodies for the cultural corpus, it builds inner strength. It is absolutely valid to express doubts over the relevance to criticism to a reader, because often puerile and sophistic statements can be miles removed from a reader’s likes. And yet I would hold that criticism is not always directly assessable. We may not see its effects, but shouldn’t condemn it to ignominy either. Criticism has a greater probability of educating the creators, and this in turn benefits the audience. Like admonishments from teachers and elders in days of our youth, criticism can often return to us years later a gentle guidance to our actions. A right time and place for everything.

Criticism is almost a foul word to us now, because critics have often been foul. We become resistant to opinion when it is offensive or unjust, and a critic must avoid both deathly. A spirit of questioning, a repartee, disagreement and defence, these are what keep the fire at the heart of the arts alive.

‘The Critic’ by Tihanyi Lajos (1916)