A firm grounding in the basics.
So, I took a little break from webcomics. Not from reading my daily trawl, of course. The daily trawl is to me the equivalent of picking up the newspaper and reading the headlines, it's just something I do every day. But I took a break from reading new stuff and from writing commentary, because I felt I was lacking some necessary grounding.
See, I read webcomics. In fact, I read a lot of webcomics. Not as many as some people, but still, a lot. I've been reading webcomics for three or four years now, and I've gotten to know the community fairly well in that time, even feel like I might be on first name basis with a few creators. But here's the thing: I've never read print comics.
As a kid I was actually pretty much banned from reading comics (a result of a very conservative upbringing), except the comic strips in the newspapers. And I was a big fan of those. I had over 100 Peanuts books. I had every collection of Garfield and Calvin and Hobbes. At the library, I checked out all the Far Side books, and also stuff like Hi and Lois, Dagwood, Fox Trot, Dilbert, and Close to Home. But as for comic books, alternative comics and graphic novels, no sirree.
Then came college, and all those comic strips got left at home. I didn't get a newspaper anymore so I couldn't keep up with them. And there was no way I was going to get "into" comic books at this late of an age. My new obsession was the internet, and the vast possibilities that the college broadband connection had opened to me. I wasted all my time playing online games, talking in chat rooms and posting in forums.
One semester I took an art class to fill some hours in my schedule. The class was actually on bookmaking, which was pretty fun. And one day in class my teacher mentioned that some guy named Scott McCloud was coming to visit campus and give a lecture on comics on the internet. Being the internet junkie that I was, I thought this sounded interesting. So I went to his lecture, was intrigued by what he had to say, and checked out some of the websites he had mentioned (including Penny Arcade).
And it was all downhill from there.
But the important thing to glean from this entire story is that I came to webcomics basically from nowhere. Sure I had my knowledge of newspaper strips, but really, who doesn't? And that didn't give me a very broad background at all - I'd only seen one very specific type of comic, and a really narrow subset of that type even. When I started The Webcomicker it was because I felt I had something to say about webcomics. I'd read quite a few (although the list has grown substantially since I started this site), and even made some haphazard attempts at creating my own. I thought I had some idea of what webcomics were good, and even what made them good, and in any case I had an opinion and some writing skill and that's all that really matters, right?
Well, I found that I always felt like I lacked some of the necessary perspective to be a proper critic. I read essays by Eric Burns and Gary Tyrrell and realized that they knew a lot more about comics than I did. I know a lot about webcomics, and I read most of what are widely considered the best, but webcomics are still considered somewhat of a fringe, or at least a subset of comicdom. I'd never read what general society considers to be the greatest comics of our time. The comics which won Pulitzers, Hugos, and Eisners. The comics which were considered groundbreaking and influential. The comics which had great respect even amongst the greater artistic community. And I felt that as a result I was seriously lacking in perspective.
So I decided to change that. I decided that it was time to build myself a firm grounding in the basics. And so I took a break from webcomics and read a bunch of graphic novels. I borrowed them all from a couple of friends and voraciously tore through them, consuming them in a way I usually consume webcomic archives. Some of the novels on the list I read in a single sitting, sometimes a sitting of upwards of eight hours.
Here's the list. I don't consider it to be the "end all list of every great comic ever printed" but I do consider it to be a strong representative sample:
-Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth
-To the Heart of the Storm (by Will Eisner)
And then I read Making Comics (I already read Understanding Comics, after Scott McCloud's lecture). More on that in another post.
I really enjoyed reading these books, and I could definitely see when reading them what makes people think they are so great. I was also very happy to see all of the books referenced repeatedly in Making Comics, which validated the choices in my mind. I know there's about a hundred more books that I could read to expand my vision even more, but I'm happy with these for now.
And so I return to you a more informed critic with a wider perspective. Will it make me any better of a critic? We'll have to wait and see. Am I happy I did it? HECK YEAH.