Within the past weekend, this blog’s seen the most traffic it’s seen in any single month or year of its short existence. 1,000 plus visitors came by, which might not seem like too much until you consider that we had all of, oh, 2 unique visitors the Thursday before my (locally) infamous Zach Weiner article. Along with the attention, I also unwittingly brought the wrath of the Internet on my head; this resulted, unsurprisingly, in some pretty predictable namecalling – I’m butthurt, a joke, unqualified, and a troll, it turns out. But that’s what a blog’s for, right? It caught the attention of not only a bunch of angry fans, but of SMBC’s author, Zach Weiner, who posted it on his twitter. Wouldn’t the right course here be to continue calling out comics creators and waiting for the inevitable backlash and web traffic?
Not to spoil it, but the answer is no, of course not. Below the jump, I’ll go into my thinking about what character comics critique should take on the blog, respond to my commenters, and give a half-apologia on my critique of Zach Weiner. But first – an actual interview with Zach. Nice!
So, after realizing that Zach had taken an interest in the blog (or, more specifically, in the post critiquing his work), I figured it was in good taste to get in touch with him. To be honest, I didn’t expect Zach to catch wind of the piece (again, see site statistics above), but, like I told him, I wouldn’t have changed a word, even if I knew he would see it. I did tell him that I wasn’t intransigent in my thinking, and he was kind enough to take some time out of his schedule to answer some of my questions. Suffice it to say, the answers were pretty interesting. Below, in their entirety, are my questions and Zach’s answers (questions straight text, answers in bold; all writing, mine and his, is sic).
T. Strunk: One of the things that your commenters and I seem to disagree on is the shift in tone that occurs when you self-insert your academic interests into your comics. I think it’s a bit problematic, but I’d like to get your take on the consistently intellectualized language in your recent work. What do you feel it accomplishes? Are you ever worried that it misrepresents or over-represents your interests to your readership, or do you feel it works positively?
Zach Weiner: I'm not entirely sure what it means to "self-insert," but I believe what you mean is that in some comics, you hear my voice more than that of the characters.
The short answer is that I'm totally fine with this. In fact, I have a couple comics (like the one about Polish Hand Magic) that are pretty much journal comics. And, to be honest, I think those are some of my best. Process-wise, to me, it's ideal: I read broadly, find interesting things, come up with a unique take on them, then present them on my website.
I try to be cognizant of crossing the line between intelligence and arrogance, and I've never done a comic on the basis that I thought it made me seem intelligent. My goal is foremost to be funny.
So, basically I'm totally fine representing myself and my interests to my audience directly, and I don't see any problem with that. In fact, most of my favorite strips do just this thing.
TS: I have to admit I presume a lot in terms of your English major and your experience there. Can you give us some thoughts on the value of that education (positive or negative) both then and now? As an English guy myself, I can certainly appreciate the pros and cons.
ZW: I consider it very valuable. I mean, I write for a living, don't I :) The two major things I got are 1) A depth of reading and rudimentary knowledge of literary/philosophical history, and 2) a robust sense of the level of bullshit and sophistry that is on tap in academia. I think I acquired a healthy sense of irony working in English (like... how many professors can opine on the sublime beauty of Steinbeck, but then be miffed that a student forgot to call them "Doctor"), and I believe it shows in my work.
I could probably talk more about this, but I'm guessing your major question is "Do you think lit majors are wasting their time?" The answer is no.
TS: Another presumption of mine is that you don’t feel sciences relate to humanities at all. This might be over-stated on my part, so out of curiosity, how do you feel the sciences relate or do not relate to the humanities, and how might comics fit between the two?
ZW: Science and humanities do relate, but in a non-simple way. For some reason, the lit department and the chemistry department seem to regard each other as stupid, which is a shame. I mean, Emerson was known to be fond of Faraday. Emerson! A transcendentalist! Yet, for some reason today, we tend to think of scientists as incapable of art and artists as incapable of science.
This is another topic I could go on and on about, but suffice it to say I think science and art are really different domains of activity, but each can inform the other in an indirect manner. Gell-Mann said that looking for beauty was the best way to determine if a scientific theory was true. Sounds a lot like Keats, no?
Where comics fit in, I don't know. Probably about where any other art does.
TS: As a sort of litmus to all of this, what’s your take on webcomics? Are they a brave new world of a medium, or are they just kind of fun? Or somewhere in between?
ZW: Webcomics are potentially the same as old comics, but with a distribution system that is totally different. Since distribution is the major driver of what form content takes, webcomics have rapidly become very different (generally) from traditional comics. If it's gotten better (or at least more interesting) than traditional stuff, it's just because the boundaries are wide open in terms of subject matter, censorship, and format. But, I think the idea that comics themselves will change radically due to */The Internet/* hasn't really panned out. All the major webcomics still go into plain old paper books eventually.
TS: Finally, I’d like to know your thinking on the issue of criticism. Can webcomics be the subject of intelligent critique, or is there no place for criticism in webcomics at all, without resorting to trolling?
ZW: Everything is subject to intelligent critique. That said, it's a little weird going into great depth about something that's available for free online. In the time it takes to read a 2,000 word essay, your reader could already have read enough comics to have his own sense of the work. So, if you want to do webcomics critiquing, you have to be able to offer some serious insight. The only guy I know who ever did that was websnark, years ago.
Thanks again to Zach for agreeing to answer our questions. I think a lot of the answers speak for themselves, but let me touch on a few points. First, I buy his answer for what he feels he’s doing when interpreting his intellectual interests. I’ll fully admit to not quite getting (and still not appreciating) the pun that many of the commenters suggested in the homeless theory professor strip, but I think a lot of the intellectualized comics become much funnier when viewed through the lens of bureaucratic fatigue. The “academy” tends to be a pretty exhaustingly political place, considering some of the folks in it, and a one-size-fits-all shellacking of academics (see: my suggested joke in the previous post) is actually something I find very sympathetic.
And in the end, I found a lot of what Zach said pretty sympathetic; his points about the relationship between humanities and sciences seems pretty on the nose, and the whole interview gives me a new lens through which to view his work. That said, I don’t feel Weiner’s work is immune to criticism just because he is an intelligent, pleasant guy – considering his final answer to my questions, neither does he. And yet, this is the tone I picked up from a lot of the comments – that I was expending my time on something that was just meant to be fun, something that should be taken at face value or ignored. Without delving into the troubling exclusivism of “If you don’t want to read it, don’t complain…just don’t read it!” (hint: this sounds a lot like “America: If you don’t like it…get out!”), I’d like to defend briefly the whole idea of critiquing webcomics, since I get the feeling that it’s not an especially loved practice.
First off, critiquing something doesn’t always translate as tearing something down – whether or not it was misguided or too-vitriolic, my initial post wasn’t a polemic against SMBC; it was, however, a discussion of trends I’ve seen in the comic that, to my thinking, represented a troubling pattern. The practice of locating and analyzing trends and patterns to discern a larger cultural statement is not always negative. On the other hand, it doesn’t have to be wholly positive, and the suggestion that one needs to espouse positivity before they can be the slightest bit critical misses the mark; I love comics more than almost any other medium, and there’s more about comics and webcomics that I find enriching and compelling than troubling or terrible, but my praise is pretty boring reading. More compelling reading, I’d argue, is the consideration of issues in the form, and a lot of those issues tend towards the problematic. The other point that people were all-too-happy to make was that I was generally unqualified to make any assessment on SMBC as a whole. I guess I can’t blame anyone for saying that, but I am eminently qualified, at least objectively; I’m a current PhD student in English (I’m not bragging, so get off the high horse), with an MA in the bag. I’ve also published and presented critical work on comic books as literature, and I read, probably, a dozen webcomics religiously, as well as a hell of a lot of print media. I’m not a troll, and I’m not trying to get anyone mad; I’m just some guy who likes to think about comics. Really, the latter issue is all I should need to write these critiques – all the degrees in the world can’t buy a person an interest in a topic, and I really am profoundly invested in something that is ostensibly trivial – the comic (and webcomic) form.
And this is where I think I went wrong. Given how invested I am in comics and sequential lit, I tend to get a little overwhelmed when I think people are not using the form to its utmost. Zach’s answers prove to me that I was projecting onto him a persona that was colored more by my concerns than anything, and for that, I’m sorry. The issue isn’t about him – it’s about the comics, and whatever personal issues I injected into the discussion aren’t pertinent and, in fact, distract from the discussion at hand. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a discussion to be had about Zach’s comics and webcomics in general. Zach’s comment about webcomics as a distribution-defined form is absolutely correct; that comment, though, doesn’t mention the fact that any response to webcomics is necessarily mediated through the same distribution method they are – namely, the internet. As such, and thanks to commenter Andrew for distilling this a bit, issues of audience are of paramount concern. If SMBC has a homogenous audience – as I would argue most webcomics might – that’s not something that Zach has caused or can fix, per say. That’s a larger question of form, and a question that not only impacts SMBC and the webcomics form, but a question that is enriched by both Zach’s and my thoughts. Hell, it’s a question enriched by you commenters’ thoughts as well (so long as they are not simply personal attacks, obviously; if that’s the case, they’re just kinda funny). It’s a question that, with this article, interview, and hopefully others in tow, I’ll be considering.
And it’s not as if questions of audience homogeny are the only questions we might approach. Issues of progressivism in webcomics, sexism in webcomics, race in comics, and genre in webcomics are all germane. Hell, these issues in traditional comics are also germane. But because webcomics represent advances in communication and art, and because, being honest about the blog form myself, it’s easier to court controversy and bad feelings than real analysis, care needs to be taken. These issues are cultural issues that both these authors and we at KirbyDots are caught up in, and, as such, we need collaboration between these authors and ourselves to answer them. As we move on, I will be attempting to arrange further conversations with creators in an effort to make this collaborative plan viable. In the end, I think this is the only way to move forward, since, as Zach suggests, webcomic critique needs to engage with seriously compelling issues that aren’t immediately visible to webcomic readers; otherwise, why not just read the comic? I think we’re pretty damn close to splitting the difference here.