Why we insulate

I just followed a link back to a review of our book, How to Make Webcomics. Overall the review was really positive and I appreciate the kind words. But there was one passage of the review that really bothered me. It was this passage:

Oddly, the promotion chapter doesn’t mention either press releases or getting reviews, but sources of free coverage; instead, dealing with critics is covered in the audience chapter. The author of this section, Dave Kellett, breaks them into four categories and says, “each one can be diffused or made impotent by kindness and politeness.” So the goal here is not to listen, but to deflect. And that’s reflected in his categories; not one covers someone pointing out a legitimate flaw or place for improvement in the work. In other words, he doesn’t think critics are ever right. (The categories are the person who’s mean without meaning to be and really loves the comic; nitpickers correcting “useless details”; the hater; and the troll. This section, by the way, was the first piece of the book I read — it’s where the copy I was browsing fell open when I first picked it up. Fate!)

There is one line in this passage that is very disappointing to me. It’s a notion I’m seeing pop up more and more in the blogosphere. The concept that the critic, or reviewer, plays as important a part in the creation of the work he’s critiquing as the artist himself. I’m asked to believe that the chapter on criticism was, by chance of fate, the first chapter this particular reviewer happened onto. I’m having a hard time swallowing that pill.  Johanna, as her bi-line informs us of her identity, seems almost put-off that we do not take into account the possibility that critics are ever right.

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.

Think about Star Trek and the Prime Directive. Sometimes, civilizations take a left turn in their natural progression and things go tits up. Sometimes there is a dictatorship or a famine or a plague that is going to steer this civilization into trouble, but the crew of the Enterprise CAN NOT ACT. They can NOT interfere. To interfere with those hardships would be to damage the natural progression of that civilization.

All of the progress I’ve made in my work, be it writing or art, was accomplished through getting it wrong the first time. My father always told me that the first brush stroke will never be perfect. There’s only so much you can learn from reading books on writing or art theory. You have to create and get your hands dirty and see what works. You have to take risks and you have to fail.

Of course for those of us who’s work is public on a daily basis, we have do that experimenting in the public eye. We grow as we go. It’s not something we test out privately in our studios, offer to control groups and then make public. You can either play it safe, and never change, or you can make bold strokes and insulate yourself from those who might react poorly to it.

It’s not that we don’t realize we’re making mistakes. It’s not that we’re oblivious to the fact that our work is imperfect. But if we play it safe and never risk those imperfections, then we’ll never grow as artists. Ultimately, we can’t chart our course based on what our readership or critics thinks is working. We have to go with our gut.

Recently, I called Mike Krahulik to compliment him on a new coloring technique he had used on a recent Penny-Arcade strip. I opened my phone conversation with the following statement: “Mike, Ignore all emails about the new coloring. It’s awesome. Pursue it.” But it was too late. He had already read all the mail and had been sufficiently discouraged enough to just drop the matter. “That’s what I get for trying to innovate.” he said to me.

He was joking, but there was some truth to his statement.

And that’s why there is no chapter in our book on when to accept that, sometimes, the critic is right.