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Do literary critics have what it takes to review comics?

We’ve given a fair bit of space in Q&Q to conversations about literary criticism, but we’ve heard relatively little about what it means to be a critic of comics. Considering how significant graphic novels have become in Canadian literature and publishing, perhaps it’s time to address the question.

Where better to start the conversation than the comics scene itself. Michael May, writer of Kill All Monsters! Webcomic, sparked an interesting conversation about comics criticism over on the Robot 6 blog at Comic Book Resources. In his first post in a series dedicated to sketching out some basic guidelines for engaging in comics criticism, May suggests all comics are not created equally and encourages critics to take their cues from authorial intent”:

By author I don’t mean just the writer, but everyone involved in the creative process. In comics that might only be one person or it could be a huge team. The point is that the people who make the comics have something that they’re trying to accomplish and good criticism of the book should take that into account. It’s not fair for me to open Dan Clowes’ Death Ray expecting it to be like Fantastic Four¦. [T]o judge [a work] correctly, critics need to focus on what it is they think that [the authors] are trying to accomplish and whether or not it succeeds on that level.

In his second post, May tackles the issue of amateur criticism versus professional criticism, and suggests a critics’ credentials matter only insofar as they help a reader get what she needs out of the review, whether it be reading recommendations, a deeper understanding of the craft, or both.

The latest post by May offers tips to readers for evaluating a review based again on authorial intent: was the point of the review to entertain? To provide a product review? To contribute to the development of the craft? To curate a canon?

These aren’t new concepts or questions by any means, but May (unintentionally) raises another issue. Is comics criticism the same as literary criticism, and do literary critics who aren’t well-versed in the world of comics have the chops to write an informed review of a graphic novel?