Captain Nihilist is both a contrarian and a conformist


This piece isn’t going to be mainly about webcomics, but criticism in general.

I’d like to take a look at something called “The District 9 Incident.”

It started when NY Press film reviewer Armond White posted a critical review of District 6. The piece was entitled “From Mothership to Bullship,” and it contained choice quotes like the one below:

Fools will accept District 9 for fantasy, yet its use of parable and symbolism also evoke the almost total misunderstanding that surrounds the circumstance of racial confusion and frustration recently seen when Harvard University tycoon Henry Louis Gates Jr. played the race card against a white Cambridge cop. Opening so soon after that event—and adding to its unending media distortion—District 9 confirms that few media makers know how to perceive history, race and class relations.

This got the fanboys howling. Some of the criticisms were legitimate. However, quite a few were angry that that the perfect 100% Rotten Tomatoes rating was sullied. Armond White was their bogey man. There were some calls that his review be stricken from the annals of Rotten Tomatoes forever.


What followed was a spirited defense from Roger Ebert. He went through White’s article point by point and said that each and every one of them were valid. And then he retracted after someone pointed out that White had awful taste (or, in more civil terms, tastes that did not comply with Roger Ebert or the general movie critics’ standards).

On Thursday night I posted in entry in defense of Armond White’s review of “District 9.” Overnight I received reader comments causing me to rethink that entry, in particular this eye-popping link supplied by Wes Lawson. I realized I had to withdraw my overall defense of White. I was not familiar enough with his work. It is baffling to me that a critic could praise “Transformers 2” but not “Synecdoche, NY.” Or “Death Race” but not “There Will be Blood.” I am forced to conclude that White is, as charged, a troll.

Let me tell you something, it’s not every day you see Roger Ebert call a fellow reviewer a troll.

This touched off an article in Slate. Daniel Engber wrote about whether critics can be too contrarian in your reviews. (A contrarian being someone who goes against popular opinion just for the hell of it.) You see, Engber was also one of the few who did not like District 9, and he was also pilloried by fanboys everywhere.

The first lesson is that you can’t be a successful critic if no one agrees with you. (No one in the group lives on the contrarian side of the scale.) Second, you can’t be a successful critic if too many people agree with you. (The biggest conformist, Keith Phipps, tops the list at 83 percent.) I wonder if there’s a third lesson, too. It’s striking that White is so perfectly positioned at the center of the graph, while his colleagues cluster so neatly a little farther down—at what might be deemed a respectable level of dissent. Could it be that professional film critics (not amateurs like me) somehow keep track, consciously or not, of how often they rock the boat?

His article also provides a handy visual aid: a scale plotting the most contrarian critics to the most conformist critics. Engber states that White is the most contrarian, yet at only 50% he’s not as contrarian as other will lead you to believe. (The argument is somewhat flawed, however, especially when you get into discussion if 50% is a true midpoint for dissent, but whatever.)

Which prompted Keith Phipps of the AV Club to issue a rebuttal.

…If I’m conforming to something I don’t know what it is. There’s no such thing as seeing a film in a vacuum. When I see a movie with co-workers and colleagues here in Chicago we inevitably end up talking about it after the screening. By then I feel like my opinion is already in place, but who’s to say? (This is to say nothing of some fellow critics who, intentionally or not, change the temperature of a screening with audible scoffs and other unwelcome gestures.)

Looks like we got ourselves a Fatal Fourway of extraordinary magnitude in this piece! Armond White vs. Roger Ebert vs. Daniel Engber vs. Keith Phipps. Clearly, we can only solve this by sitting everyone down for some beer on the White House lawn. Or pitting them all against Shaq. Whatever.

I tend to side with Armond White, since I do think that a reviewer should be free to develop his or her own standards over whether something is good or not. Sure, I don’t agree with a lot of White’s reviews. And he does say some pretty outrageous things, but, truth be told, so does Roger Ebert.

What I do like about “The District 9 Incident” is that it raises a lot of questions. There might be no true webcomic review aggregator like Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic, or Pitchfork for webcomics, but there is an internal sense of comics that are generally regarded as good and comics that are generally regarded as terrible. Since The Webcomic Overlook has been accused of being both a contrarian and a conformist at different times, I thought I’d address a few things.

If your opinion agrees with a good percentage of other critics, are you a stinkin’ conformist?

Granted, in webcomics, there is a risk that you might just be going with the flow, mainly because, online, there’s so much feedback from readers that there’s a strong pressure to go along with them. When I was writing for Comic Fencing, one of my fellow reviewers posted a negative review of Gunnerkrigg Court. He got some terrible backlash from fans of the comic (even though the creator, Tom Liddell, mentioned that the observations were nothing new and he’d seen the same criticisms from other readers). The response almost made the reviewer want to quit.

So yes, it would’ve been A LOT easier if he’d said that Gunnerkrigg Court was a work of heart-breaking genius rather than what his real opinions were.

Still, sometimes you and all the other critics can’t help but agree that something’s fantastic. I’m not quite sold on the assertion that “if you’re 83% conformist, maybe it means you’re 83% right.” Artistic reviews are very subjective, after all. But it doesn’t mean you’re a lemming.

If your opinion disagrees with a good percentage of other critics, are you a stupid friggin’ contrarian?

You might be. But if you genuinely want to back yourself up. Want to say that Girl Genius is awful? Or positing that Ctrl+Alt+Del is actually good? You need to gear all your writing skills toward the power of persuasion. And while I, as a reader, may ultimately not be convinced, you might give me something to think about.

From Li'l Formers (Matt Moylan)

From Li'l Formers (Matt Moylan)

It doesn’t hurt to explain your own opinions on why you consider something good or why you consider something bad. Sometimes, it helps to talk about yourself and your experiences beyond the field you’re reviewing. Read a good book on strategy in the Punic Wars and why it put you off on the action sequences in a certain comic? Talk about it.

For example, here’s an excerpt from Armond White’s glowing review of the critically reviled Transformers 2:

WHY WASTE SPLEEN on Michael Bay? He’s a real visionary—perhaps mindless in some ways (he’s never bothered filming a good script), but Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is more proof he has a great eye for scale and a gift for visceral amazement. Bay’s ability to shoot spectacle makes the Ridley-Tony-Jake Scott family look like cavemen.

Who else could compose a sequence where characters (albeit robots) go from the bottom of the sea to another planet in one seamless, 30-second, dreamlike flow? That transition typifies the storytelling in this sequel to 2007’s Transformers.

Does he change my mind about Transformers 2? Not at all. I think the movie is still not so good. But does he give me something to think about? You know, it’s baffled me before how Criterion could package Armageddon as a movie classic and how Cahiers du Cinema could laud Michael Bay. But you know, the above passage helps me understand just a little bit. It may look like mindless explosions for you, but to White it’s “a great eye for scale” and “one seamless, 30-second, dreamlike flow.” Again, still not sold, but it does give me something to consider the next time I’m dragged into another action flick.

In terms of webcomics, Pigs of the Industry sorta went against the grain by saying that he didn’t care much for the beach scenes in the generally liked Sin Titulo.

I was wondering what was off about this read until I read that on page 39. I don’t think Lost advances much if anything in their going off in all possible plot point directions. I also don’t think they have a clue how it’s all really going to end. No road map to the words “THE END”. I don’t ST is that bad off about direction, but all those new narratives just slow things down. We have: Alex and his beach dreams, Alex and the conspiracy, Flashbacks to Alex’s childhood, Alex and his girlfriend, the blond girl beach dreams, the blond girl in real life, blond girl as a wife, the artist who’s hung up on trees… 80 updates in, but only baby steps have been taken in most of these directions.

You know what? I don’t agree with him about the pacing of the beach scenes (or even about Lost), but it’s something to ponder.

Should you ever allow fans to make your opinion for you?



Though it’s never said, readers trust you and your opinions as a critic. Thinking of changing your mind because you’re getting bullied by some die-hard fans? The price you’re paying is trust, and as a critic that’s too high to pay.


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 19, 2009, in The Webcomic Overlook, webcomics and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. The value of a critic is completely dependent upon him agreeing with you or not.

  2. To be fair to Ebert, he did explicitly say that his defense of White’s District 9 review still stands, and he’s just retracting his overall defense of White as a fairly average critic.

    I mean, honestly, it’s hard not to at least wonder if Mr. White is just fucking with us. I think Ebert’s right that the people who call him a troll can make a legitimate case for it.

    It’s not like Ebert just dismissed White’s arguments for ad hominem reasons, which you kind of imply here.

    • True, Armond White’s selections are bizarre… and may, in fact, be a troll. Still, I have my reasons why I don’t think Ebert was right in calling him out after he defended him.

      1.) He based his assumptions after someone sent him a list of which movie White said was good and White said was bad. Ebert’s conclusion seems to have been based on that list alone. This shouldn’t be basis enough for a conclusion, since, in the past, Ebert has mentioned that a rating system is not an adequate reflection of one’s opinion, which is, instead, contained in the text of the review. The list that was posted is basically a rating system, one that only says whether something is either good or bad (similar to the Rotten Tomatoes, which avoids any nuance).

      2.) Ebert mentions how White is a troll for liking Transformers 2 but hating Synecdoche, NY. This strikes me as odd, not because I disagree, necessarily. But would it be so difficult to run into a person who had the same opinion? As awful as the Transformers movie may be (and I’m in the “TF2 is a C+ movie” camp myself), the exit polls show that movie goers had an overwhelmingly positive experience. Thus, I’m not willing to write off White’s opinion on the movie just yet. As for rating it better than “Synecdoche, NY”: perhaps it’s possible that White just wasn’t won over by the story of a neurotic theater director from Upstate New York? That description alone would drive away most movie goes from even bothering with the movie. I think it’s a bigger possibility that White has different standards on what movies he likes. I think he’s wrong in thinking that Michael Bay creates great art, but that’s not necessarily a unique opinion as other critics. The Cahiers du Cinema have basically said the same thing for decades (and do, in fact, champion Micahel Bay).

      I do agree, though, that White does go on some ridiculous tangents in his review. I find it too hard to fault him for that, though, since I’d have to call myself out. 🙂

      • “Troll”, like the word “Nazi”, has lost all meaning due to repeated improper use. Neither are a shorthand version of, “Person I strongly disagree with”.

        Being such a smart guy, I’m assuming Ebert used the term in order to show that he’s hep to the kids and their “Lull Speak”.

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