Heroes Never Rust #81 by Sean Ironman
Personal Taste, or Bad Craft?
If it has been unclear in my last two posts, I’ll come right out and say it here—I dislike Nemesis. I think it represents everything wrong with comics in the last ten years. It’s a comic consisting of shock after shock. So many shocks that nothing is shocking. Or important. Or cool. Or dangerous. Or interesting.
Every scene fights to be the scene that is memorable. Nothing has lasting effect. Nemesis reads quickly because there is no depth beyond the death and explosions and violence. There is some talk of the personal life of the good guy and, at the end, apparently there has been a mystery as to the identity of Nemesis that seems like it comes from nowhere. To me, this is terrible. I would not suggest this comic to anyone. But, does that make it a bad comic?
The more I read and write, the more I come to believe that work should be judged by authorial intent. Though the literary community likes to make fun of books like Twilight, that book cannot be judged under the same criteria as The Scarlet Letter or The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I tell my students Dumb and Dumber cannot be judged under similar rules as Schindler’s List. While that is an extreme example, I think the reasoning is sound. Even an author’s own new work cannot be judged against the old work. I enjoy Frederick Barthelme’s work, but I feel it would be wrong to judge Bob the Gambler with the same rules as Tracer. The novels are trying to do different things. In a way, I am trying to play fair in an unfair world.
If we should judge storytelling by authorial intent, then what makes a bad novel, essay, poem, or in this case, comic? How can we judge what the author intended with the piece, without reading an interview? Leo Tolstoy wrote, “The presence in various degrees of these three conditions — individuality, clearness, and sincerity — decides the merit of a work of art as art, apart from subject matter. All works of art take rank of merit according to the degree in which they fulfill the first, the second, and the third of these conditions.” So, a work of art could be clear and sincere, but in terms of individuality, be lacking. But, a great work of art would have all three. Of course, this is only Tolstoy’s view, but I agree with him.
People tend to create rules for how or what a piece of writing is supposed to be. For example, many people seem to think that a character has to be likeable for a story to be good. Some people think foul language makes a story bad. But, there are always exceptions to these rules.
For example, I have been told a few times that I should not begin a piece of creative nonfiction with something shocking. Yet, Darin Strauss’ Half a Life begins this way: “Half my life ago, I killed a girl.” That’s pretty shocking, and it works well for that memoir.
The critic Robert McCrum wrote, “You’ll rarely get a better first line.” Were the people who told me I should not begin with something shocking wrong? Many people tend to take the attitude that there are exceptions that prove the rule, but I always take that as someone who has been proven wrong and no longer wants to take part in the argument. To me, there are no rules for good or bad, and writers (and readers) would do well to remember that. One of my favorite things to do with students in a beginner’s class is to discuss a story or essay, come up with why it works well, and then assign a reading that does something completely different and contradicts what we just discussed.
Nemesis is a comic. It follows the rules of comics, or sequential art. It features a series of images with text to tell a story. The sequences are easy to follow. The art is well drawn. The panels are laid out to not cause confusion for the reader. Characters are distinct. A lot happens and characters have to deal with real conflict. I could not care less about any of the characters, or the mystery of Nemesis’ plan, or the good guy’s family issues presented in the third issue, or even who wins or who dies.
But, I believe that is what the creators are going for here. Maybe they want the reader to be a bit more invested than I am, but I believe the story is meant for a different audience than myself. At no point is there a scene that slows the story down to get the reader to care for the characters or to explore the mystery of Nemesis. Characters move from action scene to action scene. From violent encounter to violent encounter. The comic is meant for an audience that prefers those summer blockbusters that require no thought. It is meant for an audience that wants realistic, detailed drawings and incredibly drawn fight scenes. It is not a thinking man’s comic.
Should it be? Does that make Nemesis bad? I think not. It is not for me, and I can understand that. More readers should understand the difference between bad craftsmanship and their personal taste. I feel art is held back by people who have egocentric, rigid aesthetics. Perhaps if more people could say, “This isn’t meant for me,” instead of, “This sucks,” artists would be freer to explore. Perhaps artists would not be so afraid of their work being judged.
Maybe. Maybe not. But, I find myself unable to judge work based on anything other than authorial intent and the execution geared toward that intent. I cannot judge a steak poorly because it does not taste like swordfish.
Sean Ironman (Episode 102) earned his MFA at the University of Central Florida. Currently, he teaches creative nonfiction and digital media at the University of Central Arkansas as a visiting professor. His work can be read in The Writer’s Chronicle, Redivider, and Breakers: A Comics Anthology, among others.