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Scott Kurtz vs. Webcomic Reviewers and the Democratic Response!

Scott Kurtz has been making waves lately with a recent blog post.

Here’s the key paragraph, methinks:

I’m not sure how I ended up in so many tug-of-war competitions with bloggers, where the outcome of our match determines the superior position: creator or critic. But it seems to be cropping up again. There is a strange sense of entitlement, an eerie assumption of an unspoken working relationship that I am happy to inform does not exist. Why we insulate ourselves from the notion that the external critic can EVER be right, is because their critique is moot in regards to the progression of our work.

“Critique is moot,” you say? Now, I’m a reviewer-type guy. I feel compelled to respond to this absolutely inflammatory notion put forth by the Big Man.

He’s mostly right.*

As a reviewer, this site wasn’t set up to improve or fix webcomics. I had one stunning goal in mind when I created The Webcomic Overlook: to talk about the webcomics I read and whether or not I liked them. That’s it. My target audience were readers who haven’t read webcomics, or those whose only experiences were perhaps xkcd or Order of the Stick.

Now, when Kurtz and Dave Kellett say that “critics are never right,” I take that to mean that opinions are absolutely subjective. Look outside of webcomics and into movie reviews. Roger Ebert can flat out state his opinions for why he thinks “Team America: World Police” is a terrible movie. Perhaps he’s got very legitimate concerns, but his opinion is still an opinion. Plenty of people will still go watch the movie, perhaps find it hilarious, perhaps gape at the mastery of low-tech special effects, or perhaps come away with a personal message. So, in a way, how can you be right about an opinion, which inherently is neither right nor wrong?

So if an artist or writer comes away with something valuable from some of my reviews, then great! I’m glad for you! But the truth is that it’s probably something that, deep down inside, you knew you had to improve all along. When Scott DeWitt of Fanboys, for example, decided to switch up his style based on online criticisms, I’d like to think that part of him already knew that he had to do something for his comic to stand out from those lookalike gaming comics out there.

That’s the path of an artist. Critics hated the Eiffel Tower when it was built; now, it’s a Parisian landmark. The Académie des Beaux-Arts derided the struggling artists who didn’t practice classical painting, and yet the Impressionist movement changed the way we looked at art in the century after. There are thousands of examples of artists who eschewed critical assessments and created something new and exciting. There are thousands more who didn’t take criticism to heart and failed. No one can really know what the consumer wants, but you have to try.

That’s why, in my “About This Site” page, I include this quote by Anton Ego from Ratatouille:

“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations, the new needs friends. Last night, I experienced something new, an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source. To say that both the meal and its maker have challenged my preconceptions about fine cooking is a gross understatement. They have rocked me to my core. In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau’s famous motto: Anyone can cook. But I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.”

Heads up to The Floating Lightbulb and fellow Comic Fencing blogger Delos at ArtPatient (who has his own excellent, different, and rather enlightening response from the standpoint of a creator and a critiquer) for directing me to Scott Kurtz’s blog. Also, check out Kurtz’s response at ComixTalk.

* NOTE: I said “mostly right.” The part that’s not right: his godawful analogy to the Prime Directive.

What the hell, Scott Kurtz.

Not only is that the most dorky analogy I’ve ever heard, it doesn’t even apply to making webcomics. By saying that a creator should just evolove naturally, you’re almost saying that writing courses and art classes are detriments toward the ideal. Artists and creators don’t live in a hypobaric chamber, isolated from the rest of society like the alien civilizations in Star Trek.

Otherwise, you were spot on.

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About El Santo

Somehow ended up reading and reviewing almost 300 different webcomics. Life is funny, huh? Despite owning two masks, is not actually a luchador.

Posted on August 11, 2008, in The Webcomic Overlook, webcomics and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. So if an artist or writer comes away with something valuable from some of my reviews, then great! I’m glad for you! But the truth is that it’s probably something that, deep down inside, you knew you had to improve all along.

    Exactly. But maybe that something would have stayed deep down if it hadn’t been pointed out in a review. Because sometimes that’s what it takes, and thus reviews can be an integral part of the artist’s growth. I’m not pro-critic or anything, but good advice is good advice no matter where it comes from–simple as that. And often a critic will be the only one to stand up and tell the artist he/she has no clothes, and so, potentially at least, the critics have their role because we artists need to know when we’re naked. There are universal truths regarding any art form, and the Artist is not always aware of them. Ignore the source, and delve for good advice. Ignoring all critics is just pointlessly bullish and full-on ignorant, and this is coming from someone who dislikes critics as much as anyone. The progression of one’s work should come from truth, and no man is a ready-made island of truth. When people tell me “your comics have too many words,” I know it’s subjective and I ignore it (ain’t no cap on words). When they say “the pop culture references are tired,” I know they’re right because they ARE tired (it’s been done, so I ought to stop doing it if I want to stand out). Simple. Either it’s true or it isn’t. What IS a critic? A person with opinions. Should the artist ignore people with opinions? Obviously not. Avoid a void: develop an ear for truth and you can learn from anyone. This is not to overstate the importance of critics, this is merely to say that sometimes they’re right, and when they’re right they’re right.

    Oh, and I always thought the Prime Directive was a dumbass rule.

  2. Thank you for writing this. I was starting to feel like I was the only one who was actually with Scott on this one!

  3. Great analysis of the situation. I think the important thing for creators to remember is that critics are offering their opinions, but a critic is also a representative of his own core audience. Readers stick to critics they agree with, and critics can become an imporant tool in guiding readers to good undiscovered work, or steering them away from the bad.

  4. Nice comment on the Comixtalk article (and a great avatar, too.)

    Kurtz has a right to his Peer Principle. It’s a shame that he has to be shortsighted about the wide variety of places to get good feedback. It would also be nice if he could do it without being rude.

  5. I think Scott Kurtz comes off as rude sometimes because he writes almost exactly as he talks, and the listener often gets a much more favorable impression than the reader. For example, Scott said very similar things on the Webcomic Weekly podcast a few weeks ago (this time, regarding criticism that he and his Half Pixel pals give to aspiring readers). There he comes off as more pleasant. I think it may be because his voice sounds more relaxed, more jovial. However, if those very same words were transcribed for online reading, it would come off nearly as “rude” as his controversial blog post.

    Kurtz suffers from some sort of crazy reverse-Nixon syndrome. 🙂

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