Friday, March 25, 2005

Taste vs. Quality vs. Batman*

I used to believe that there was no such thing as Good Taste, only Your Taste and My Taste. Then I met someone who thought Warren Ellis' Authority was a better comic than Watchmen and that idea was effectively killed. But it still gets my back up when I see people act like someone's stupid because they like, say, Authority more than Watchmen. Even if they kind of are. Because taste is subjective. It's filtered through experience, so everyone's is going to be different.

So, now that I've made the stunning insight that there's no accounting for taste, where does quality come in to things? Surely that isn't subjective? Well, you're right, it isn't. As long as we all agree with what quality is. What are your standards when judging if a comic's good or not?

Think about the writing alone, like you would when evaluate any kind of written story. Do you value plot over character? If the former, is it whether a plot moves quickly or not? If it's the latter, do the characters have to be likable? Do both the plot and character work have to be equally good? Do you need new ideas, or are you okay with someone doing their own take on a pre-existing concept? Or, in other words, are you okay with cliches if they're done well? What about the dialogue? Does it have to be terse or verbose? Realistic or stylized? Why is one better than the other? Are they?

With a comic, you're dealing with visuals, and often collaboration. You have to factor in the art and whether it tells the story well. And whether it looks good. And whether you're okay with stylization or want something more realistic. And if it's a division of labor job, you've got an inker. And a colorist. And a letterer. And then there's the fact that you have to weigh serials vs. completed stories, whether you care about continuity in corporate owned superhero comics, whether you think corporate owned superhero comics can even be good...

There's a lot of ways to judge a comic's quality, in other words, and unless everyone's going by the same definition of Good Comics, the judgement of a comic's quality is at least partially subjective. I don't think it's enough to say you know a good comic when you see one and expect it to be taken as fact. Because you might as well say you like Authority is better than Watchmen. (That really fucked me up.)

(*I'll be honest. I just put Batman's name in the title to get you to read the article. It was a cynical marketing move on my part that completely took advantage of you, dear readers, and your trust in my to supply the Caped Crusader when I promise him. You should be ashamed if you fell for it.)

10 Comments:

Blogger Chad said...

I think quality is completely subjective.

The standards we judge the quality of any form of art are usually standards set by a smallish group of people who spend much of their time thinking about said form of art.

I liked Authority better than Watchmen. I'm not afraid to say it. Authority was very good at being what it was- a fun action-y story. Watchmen was also good at being what it was- an attempt to make superheroes into literature.

I admire Watchmen. I appreciate it for its innovations and its complexity and the thought that went into it.

But I like Authority better.

I think comparing the two is a mistake. Moore and Gibbons were trying to hit a much different note than Ellis and Hitch were. Moore was trying to break out of the superhero tradition. Ellis was trying to tella fun movie serial kind of story. Gibbons was working within a very strict page structure. Hitch was just trying to keep up with Ellis' ideas.

Both stories have their strengths and weaknesses. Both have their detractors and admirers.

Now it's my turn to be rambling. I don't know where I'm going with this. I have a tendency to take the opposite stance of whatever the popular opinion tends to be in situations like this. And I think it's important for people to do that because I think it's important for people to examine what it is they admire and sometimes the best way to do that is to see why someone else doesn't admire it. I'm a born Devil's Advocate.

I'd love to toss the word "quality" out the window. It has come to mean so many different things......

Maybe what I'm getting at is that "quality" is just the "taste" of a group of people you respect more than you respect yourself.

I don't know.

3/25/2005 06:16:00 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

Amen to that! I got smacked around (figuratively) by Alex on this blog a while back for suggesting that the Pixies, well, suck (he says, ducking for cover). You can always find someone who thinks the classics suck. I hate Emerson (he says, hoping Dave Fiore doesn't bitch-slap him). Is it because I have read enough Emerson and therefore don't appreciate his genius, or because the little Emerson I read sucked and I have no desire to appreciate his genius? That's why it's difficult to define what comics are good. Is it like obscenity or irony (you know it when you see it - yes, I'm referencing Winona Ryder, sue me)? That's why we, as comic book readers, should tell people what we like and let them decide. Because, let's face it, there's always going to be tools who like The Authority more than Watchmen. Oh, are you still reading, Chad? Whoops.

3/25/2005 06:30:00 PM  
Blogger Brad Curran said...

"The standards we judge the quality of any form of art are usually standards set by a smallish group of people who spend much of their time thinking about said form of art."

Yeah, I'm familiar with that idea. I was introduced to it in response to literature (the collegiate "dead white guys" kind), but it can be applied to any medium.

"I liked Authority better than Watchmen. I'm not afraid to say it."

Nor should you. Even if I disagree violently. That said, I think you can also empirically say Watchmen's a better story. I also disagree that quality's completely subjective. I just think that it is subjective enough that it mixes with taste when any criticism is made, and that it isn't so self evident that "I know it when I see it" is a good way of judging it. That said:

"you know it when you see it - yes, I'm referencing Winona Ryder, sue me"

I loved that movie (and Winona, the clepto man eater), so... good on you, Greg.

3/25/2005 06:43:00 PM  
Blogger Brad Curran said...

Also, it's worth noting that no matter how well made something is, if it doesn't work for you on an individual level, then there's nothing to make up for it. Watchmen bores some people I know, and no amount of me telling them how great the craftsmanship is will make them suddenly find it as exciting as watching kick splode action.

3/25/2005 06:47:00 PM  
Anonymous Brad Curran said...

Also, to further qualify things, I like Ellis and Hitch's Authority on a blockbuster action movie level considerably. But I think Chad nailed it when says comparing it with Watchmen is a bad idea. They're both well made, but two completely different kinds of stories.

3/25/2005 06:53:00 PM  
Anonymous Brad Curran said...

Also, to further qualify things, I like Ellis and Hitch's Authority on a blockbuster action movie level considerably. But I think Chad nailed it when says comparing it with Watchmen is a bad idea. They're both well made, but two completely different kinds of stories.

3/25/2005 06:54:00 PM  
Blogger Chad said...

Greg Said:
"Because, let's face it, there's always going to be tools who like The Authority more than Watchmen. Oh, are you still reading, Chad? Whoops."

Never said I wasn't a tool, man. Never once said it. You elitist bastard. :)

And then Brad said:
"That said, I think you can also empirically say Watchmen's a better story."
Watchmen, for all that it was groundbreaking, had some flaws. Moore, while a wonderful comic book writer- perhaps the best comic book writer to date- is a rather tepid prose writer. The pirate story was rather...dull. Certainly it tied into the overall theme, but it also bogged down the story unneccesarily. Moore was aspiring to do more with the medium. In some things he succeeded brilliantly. In some things he fell short.

Ellis' Authority was stroytelling stripped to its bare bones. It's smooth, sleek and fast. it never takes itself overly seriously and always keeps its eye on the goal. it succeeds as a story because everything in it fits and clicks into the story.

You can argue it any way you like. What ic omes down to is numbers. I like Authority better than Watchmen. You two don't. I don't hesitate to presume that most everyone who reads this blog will think I'm out of my mind for liking Authority better than Watchmen. And thus quality is defined.

I'll be the tool. My skin is thick enough to take it. And it's a no-lose situation for me because I like both stories. I think both are excellent comic shtuff.

I just like Ellis' Authority run better.

And besides which- From Hell smokes 'em both.

3/25/2005 07:28:00 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

The biggest problem I had with The Authority is that Ellis spent three issues in each story setting up a brilliant villain, and then The Authority spent one issue simply killing them. The threats seemed pretty impressive, but in the end, they weren't. Excellent comics, but ultimately not what he was going for, I think. Ironically, StormWatch worked better for me for comics with an actual threat to the good guys.

I haven't read Moore's novel, but it sounds ... dense (to put it midly). I doubt I would like it, so maybe there's something to your contention that he's not a good prose writer.

From Hell does kick all sorts of ass.

3/25/2005 09:22:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, everybody, watch me compare things that are different! Beethoven's Ninth is better than Three's Company! Casablanca is better than Family Circus! Picasso is better than Oasis! Go ahead, try it, it's easy and fun and TRUE. Although I guess if you're looking for sophomoric innuendo you'd be better off not listening to Beethoven, right? Jesus.

Taste may be subjective, but quality is not, and you can like things that are shitty just as well as you can dislike things that aren't. Does the fact that your tastes may change over time mean that what constitutes quality is always changing with them? Bullshit. Spare me. This myth that a bunch of self-absorbed tastemakers get together to fascistically dictate what the man on the street should and shouldn't like is just a pretty common EXCUSE for liking things that aren't that good (which is something that no one needs an excuse for at all, so why bother with it), and as far as I can tell it isn't even true, because if these tastemakers are out there I have never heard of them, I am unaware of them trying to beat me down with their snotty notions of so-called quality. So you like The Authority better than Watchmen. Fine. I happen to think that's kind of retarded, but your taste is your business. However, don't ask ME to accept that quality is utterly subjective just because YOU prefer the worse to the better! I prefer worse things to better things all the time, but that doesn't mean my guilty pleasures aren't guilty. Hey, stop trying to unguiltify my guilty pleasures, dammit!

And in the interest of fair reporting: I have my trusty TPB of Watchmen right here in my hand, so would you be so kind as to point out the portions of it where reside the "some things" that Moore "succeeded with brilliantly" when he was "aspiring to do more with the medium" and where are the other things in which he "fell short" of that aspiration? No offence intended, you know, I just thought that since you said that, you might like to also demonstrate that it is a factual remark, and not just so much blowing of smoke about "everything's good and bad in its own way I guess". Also, it might be nice of you to give an example of Moore's prose being tepid in comparison to Ellis'. You know, give the man's prose a chance to defend itself. Personally, I've read his novel, and it's great, not dense or tepid or anything, so I wonder what's being talked about here, or is it all just wishing to be thought controversial? The mere idea of telling us you admire Watchmen for its innovations and complexities seems kinda crazy when you're simulataneously arguing that quality is utterly subjective, nothing more or less than taste...why would it matter if Moore and Gibbons were innovative or complex at all, then, if taste is all it comes down to? Do you not as much as admit here that innovation and complexity are features of some objective worth in qualitative terms?

That would certainly explain why you preferred From Hell. But if it doesn't, then I guess you just preferred it in a vacuum or something. Just happened to prefer it, as it were. And who knows, in a week or two you might think it's a piece of shit! Me, I blame Mercury. I hear it's retrograde. That always makes me change my mind about things, too...but then what can we do, I guess our fates are in the stars!

3/29/2005 09:04:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Talking to Chad, there, obviously. Also I said "simulataneously" which is clearly wrong.

3/30/2005 06:25:00 PM  

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