Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Why You Must Read Colin Smith

If I'm forced to name a single comics blog I recommend everyone read (in addition to the non-blog website Sequart, and of course all its books and movies), it's Colin Smith's "Too Busy Thing About My Comics."

Why? For one, he's an excellent writer.

One of the things that makes writing about comics difficult is that we barely have a vocabulary that allows us to talk about panel construction. Sure, we all know what a "gutter" is, and we can all describe how a panel has angled borders. But describing that panel's shape can be difficult, and describing the composition within that panel can be even more so.

As a result, those writing about comics often simply avoid discussing artwork at all, except in the most generic of terms. This is compounded by the fact that most comics critics come, as I do, from a mostly literary background, with maybe a bit of cinema thrown in, rather than, say, an art historical background. The result is that talking about narrative or character is a lot easier than talking about panel composition.

Yet Colin does talk about panels, and he does so both brilliantly and precisely. He'll isolate a panel and dissect it expertly, in the process showing (or at the very least, reminding) the rest of us how it's done. In the process, he shows us all that he sees more in a panel than most comics critics see in entire issues.

While we're on the topic of writing more generally, Colin also tends toward long and thorough analysis. (Did I mention he does analysis? That alone separates him from most of the crowd.) If any of you are familiar with my writing (and damn you if you aren't!), you know that I also favor longer essays, more in the 3000-4000 words range, than what seems like the 1000-word average. And in those 3000-4000 words, you can expect a lot of analysis, with a sense of completion, that there aren't huge subjects pertaining to the topic at hand that haven't been at least mentioned, if not fully discussed. Well, Colin does that too.

That's quite unique in the blogosphere, where terse blog entries seem commonplace (as they are here). That's part of why Sequart is quite clear that it publishes articles and not posts or blogs. Yet Colin raises the blog to new levels, treating it as a serious matter.

This leads nicely into another virtue of Colin's writing: he takes his job as comics critic seriously. He's not idly throwing stones, nor offering unexamined praise. Indeed, he's setting the tone for comics criticism, intending to lead by example. Think that's going too far? Well, I did a 20,000-word interview with him on the subject here.

Finally, Colin has a social conscience. That sounds vague, I know, but I use the term specifically. Because I don't mean that he practices social criticism -- which has gotten such a bad name, especially in some literary circles, dividing some English departments. Social criticism can be a stodgy practice, and Colin's anything but stodgy.

Also, while Colin's critics -- especially those who don't care for his point of view on a particular comic that they happen to like -- may call him politically correct. What they really mean is that he's criticizing the politics of something of which they're a fan, and it's easy to dismiss him by calling him by this term. And indeed, political correctness has left a bad taste in many of our collective mouths. But Colin is hardly politically correct. He's human. He's thoughtful. He's passionate. Sure, he might be concerned with issues like sexism and racism and homophobia, but he doesn't come at these issues in a politically correct way. Underneath his criticism -- which is often quite humorous -- is clearly a humanist, one who's justifiably concerned with these issues but is anything but the I'm-always-right, humorless, follow-the-rigid-rules tone of the truly politically correct.

Indeed, one has only to look at the way he's incredibly giving in the comments section of any of his posts to realize that he's keen to consider other points of view, however much his humanism compels him to passionately address such matters. To confuse this with political correctness is merely to devalue any and all social criticism.

That's why I use the term "social conscience." Because while Colin argues a point of view, he doesn't refuse to listen to disagreement. In fact, he couldn't be more respectful. And that's what separates him from the politically correct. He's not out to end these debates, nor to censor comics -- which he's opposed quite strongly. He's out to get people to think about the social implications of these stories and their presentations. He's not out to end debate; he's out to start it.

Of course, this isn't all that Colin does -- he's anything but a one-trick pony. But he's not afraid to address social matters, whether it's the sexism of Flashpoint, in which women are made the genocidal sexual mutilators, or the sexism of the new Ultimates, in which women hardly have any place outside of -- literally -- serving Nick Fury coffee. Neither are issues I'd even caught, really, and they don't radically change my evaluation of these two comics. But they're legitimate and important points of view that I hadn't considered, on any serious level. And to offer that to me, who also is usually "too busy thinking about my comics," means a hell of a lot. It's invaluable, to be more precise.

It also sets him apart. The very fact that he's willing to address these issues, in a comics culture in which such topics have long seemed so verboten, is commendable. That he does so with such precision and care is all the more so.

In fact, it's contributed, I personally know, to the recent debate over sexism in the DC relaunch. That's not to say this debate wouldn't have happened without him. I don't know that. But I do know that his work has informed mine, as well as several people I know. He's actually making a difference, helping to steer the conversation.

It's clear that this is rooted in a deep love of comics. And this same passion comes through in other ways as well. Particularly, in his holding poorly-constructed comics to task.

It's a subject on which, to my shame, I haven't always done. My response, to what I see as declining standards of craftsmanship in the last five years or so, has largely been to write about comics before this period. If I don't have anything good to say, I figured, I'd say nothing. Yet the result of so many apparently following this strategy is that there simply aren't many critics of comics who are willing to say any particular comic is shoddy, shoddy work that's an embarrassment to the creators involved, as well as to the publisher, nor that it's hard to imagine how such work went through an editorial process.

That's something that desperately needs to be said. And there's Colin Smith, unafraid to say that the emperor has no clothes. And he'll explain why deliberately and precisely, looking at specific panels and how they fail to communicate basic events, and generally proceeding in such a careful manner that his conclusions are, frankly, inarguable.

I used to point people to his review of Flashpoint: Hal Jordan as an example of this, as mandatory reading for anyone who wants to see just how much their eyes have grown accustomed to ineptitude. That piece expressed so much of what I already felt and thought, yet hadn't bothered or dared to find the words to say. (It's available in one big page on, but the original appeared on his own blog in three devastating installments.)

But you don't have to go that far back. Take his most recent post (as I write this), on the new Aquaman. It begins: "It seems that Geoff Johns isn't writing scripts anymore so much as lists." And he proceeds to explain exactly how this is so. It's sadly hilarious, but it's also precise. And behind it all is a man who quite clearly loves the medium and wishes it lived up to half of its potential. And sees this, not so-called "events," as the medium's best chance of expanding its audience.

I could go on, but I didn't intend to run nearly this long. I thought this would be a short, little piece linking to Colin's blog. Instead, it's become a bit of a manifesto.

That's because I've come to know Colin, and I've thought about his work. And because it has been an inspiration, both to me and to Sequart more generally (which is something, as an arrogant prick who dedicated himself at the age of about twelve to accepting nothing less than being the best writer the world has ever known, that I don't say lightly). He's also been an inspiration, I believe, to the entire industry, truly elevating the discussion of comics, in terms of both their craft and their social implications.

What else can you say about someone who's analyzed the presentation of Aquaman as a king? Or the laws which seem to govern Thor's Asgaard?

Or offered a loving, brilliant defense of Warren Ellis's The Authority as not dark but actually pretty sweet -- an essay that not only showed me something about one of my favorite series, which I'd thought about a ridiculously amount -- but an essay which subsequently got cited back to me, by a very smart outside (pre-press) reader I didn't even know, as evidence against a position I'd staked out in my essay in Sequart's book Keeping the World Strange: A Planetary Guide?

Yeah, I know I'm making this about me (the world is my hallucination, and self-evidently so). But seriously, that does not happen.

Clearly, this a man making waves, and you're doing yourself a disservice not to read him.

You can read his blog here. (You can also see all of Colin's posts on Sequart -- which consists entirely of reprints or adapted content, which he's graciously permitted us to do.)

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