Comic Book Guy: catalog as critique

johnthelutheran has a wonderful rant about the people who complain whenever you (or anyone else) bothers to talk critically about a film you’ve just seen (or book you’ve read, song you’ve heard, etc.). He’s responding to a piece you can read here in its entirety. Here’s an excerpt from that response:

There can be a real joy and pleasure – excitement, interest, fun – in thinking about and discussing “a comic or a book or a movie or a TV show” to find out what else it has going on within it, beyond the immediate surface impression. Sometimes (often), that can greatly enhance your enjoyment of the original work. Sometimes, you realise there’s nothing beyond the surface, and that’s fine. Sometimes, the work falls to pieces in your hands on closer inspection. But those occasions are more than paid for by the deep, positive gains of a critical appreciation for the things you enjoy.

The whole point about Comic Book Guy is that he isn’t “critical”. He’s negative. His besetting sin is the deadly sin of acedia (“sloth”): the sin whose fruit is Marie-Antoinette Syndrome, where “nothing tastes”. But the cure for this cultural acedia isn’t just “let go and be a kid again” (though that has its place), but learning that true criticism has, as its goal, the increasing of one’s enjoyment of things worth enjoying.

I would also add that Comic Book Guy is not only simply negative, but that his criticism is often incredibly superficial. He’s the guy who watches the new Star Wars and destroys it online because: “The stripe on the Gundaar lieutenant’s uniform was pale blue, which clearly violates continuity as established in volume fourteen, issue 72 from 1986 of Star Wars Universe: The Gundaar Treaty, page 12, in which a Gundaar lieutenant’s uniform clearly is shown to have turquoise stripes. Worst. Star Wars. Ever.”

Technical problems are certainly a factor in any critical judgment. But there are deeper issues in any piece of art. David Gerrold talks a lot about story structure, which is something not immediately apparent when you watch a film. It’s there. If you know what you’re looking for, it’s “visible.” But it’s not a surface detail.

What CBG does is data cataloguing. When a piece of data doesn’t match his unusually stringent (and idiosyncratic) categories, he rejects it and everything along with it. I’d almost call his approach scientific — in that, when a data point corrupts an experiment, the experiment does not yield a consistent result — except that even scientists try to account for that anomalous data point. A corrupted experiment may still have value for long-term research. It’s not necessarily the Worst. Experiment. Ever.

This kind of “criticism” can be fun. MST3K got tons of mileage out of continuity errors and dumb technical mistakes. (My favorite: in The Girl with Gold Boots, a bad edit shazams a man into existence in a restaurant booth. “I’m back!”) But the Satellite of Love crew also took potshots at the deeper problems CBG simply doesn’t notice. When characters behave inconsistently, or the story structure is wonky, those things get shredded, too. Manos isn’t the Worst. Movie. Ever. just because of terrible acting or bad lighting; there are scenes that literally add nothing to the narrative besides length to an already interminable film.[1] That’s not surface detail; that’s the substrate where artistic decisions have gone deeply, horribly awry.

While distractingly bad surface details can distract from a good experience, they don’t usually undermine a story in themselves. Most frequently, the plague of corrupted data is indicative of much deeper issues that are the true source of the cracks we see on the surface. Comic Book Guy and his ilk catalogue the symptoms without looking at the disease, and it sometimes leads them to misdiagnose an otherwise healthy story as a terminal case.


[1] If you’re one of those who thinks that Manos: The Hands of Fate is actually a masterpiece of pre-Lynchian/post-Buñuelian pararealism, good for you. The goat-man down the hall has a shiny star for your lapel.


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