The following is an email we received from a reader named Joaquin de la Puente:
A question for Paul Constant: I just read your review of Josh Bayer's Atlas #1 and found it uninformed and irresponsible. You didn't seem to research this book or the line that it is a part of. The entire All Time Comics universe is written by Josh Bayer who is a lauded and prolific figure in underground comics. His work has been mostly self-published and this series on Fantagraphics represents his most high-profile release to date.
Josh's work is steeped in reverence for the "paid by the page" writers of the early comics industry. Usually he does his writing, art, including pencils, ink and color and publishes himself. But with this universe he wanted to create a homage to the Marvel-style Bullpens of a different era. This with the goal of employing some senior and upcoming artists that collaborate to make a finished title. Each All Time Comics release, all set within a universe and continuity in which there are so far four superheroes and dozens of auxiliary characters, has at least two alternate covers by different artists, a different artist who does pencils, another that does inks, another lettering, another that does colors with Josh as writer/editor and Fantagraphics as publisher.
This collaborative effort is a tribute to the sometimes amazing and sometimes grotesque work that came out of the comics industry in its early days. So when you write this review and call it "useless", "none of it matters", "there is no point", "the first out and out failure in a decade" etc... you are doing so at the expense and in apparent ignorance of the intent of the comics line which is to honor the collaborative, working-class, sometimes assembly-line approach to the classic comic tradition that made "underground comics" and graphic novels possible.
So my question is: "Why do you hate comics?" This and the whole All Time Comics line is a labor of love by people who have lived and breathed comics for their entire lives. In fact, Crime Destroyer, Part of the ATC series, was the final work of comic veteran Herb Trimpe who loved the work being done and said he felt honored to be working with All Time Comics. All Time Comics could be the beginnings of a line that has some longevity and ability to create some more great work and employ artists and writers for some time to come.
For you to outright condemn ATC without context harms that possibility but perhaps more importantly to you, it comes across like you didn't do your homework and need to take a comics history and appreciation course. The review reminds me of music reviews by writers that couldn't wrap their heads around Bob Dylan going electric, The Clash doing reggae, Devo, Elvis, Stravinsky, Shostakovich or any tradition-bucking work. The review ultimately comments more on you and your lack of historical context for this type of work...and I would say feels like it is dripping with the type of contempt you accuse Atlas #1 of having.
I guess the real question is: What is the intent of this type of review? To express your contempt for the artists and writers or the type of people that would read this kind of "ugly" work? It feels like both of those things which is why I said the review felt irresponsible. You insult a hypothetical audience you don't understand when you "can’t imagine the circumstances that would allow someone to enjoy this kind of thing." But really, I'm honestly curious, what is the intent of this type of review?
First of all, thanks for writing! I’m always happy to read thoughtful feedback from readers. Your email brings up a lot of important questions about my responsibility as a critic — something it’s really important to investigate on a regular basis.
So let’s start with context. I am aware of the backstory of the All Time Comics line. (I said it looked like “a lot of fun” when it was announced seven months ago). I know who Josh Bayer is, and I’ve been reading Herb Trimpe’s comics since I was a little kid in the early 1980s. Though I have no doubt he was a nice guy and a consummate professional, Trimpe’s work has never done anything for me, particularly his Liefeldian reinvention in the 1990s, which I found to be spectacularly ugly.
So the question your email raises for me is: is it my responsibility to provide background and context for everything I review? I don’t think so. Reviewers aren’t doing PR for publishers and authors. It’s not our job to explain the intent behind the book. It’s our responsibility to share our opinion about what’s on the page.
When I write my comics column, the question I often have in my mind is: if someone picks up this comic with no prior knowledge, what will they think of it? Because frankly, if someone needs to understand three paragraphs of backstory before they can enjoy the first issue of a comic series, that comic series isn’t doing its job. Serialized comics — the sort that Atlas is supposed to be mimicking — need to be as accessible as possible to new readers; if all that information you gave me was essential to enjoying the comic, it should’ve been included in the comic.
I’ve been reading comics my entire life, and I was a teenager in the late 80s/early 90s, which is the era that All Time Comics seems to be emulating. Even at the time, I wasn’t much of a fan of the assembly line style of comics production. (I gave up on Lee/Liefeld comics when I accidentally bought the same issue of the X-Tinction Agenda crossover twice in two weeks because the cover was so bland and forgettable.) So admittedly, I’m probably not the target audience for All Time Comics. (But I’m not alone in disliking mainstream comics from the 1990s; it’s more than a little weird that Fantagraphics is trafficking in nostalgia for comics that they openly mocked as garbage the first time around.)
The most compelling argument you make for All Time Comics is that it provides money and opportunity for comics veterans who have been forgotten by Marvel and DC Comics. But why did that money and opportunity have to come in the form of a rehash of their earlier work? Why ceremoniously load them back onto the corporate comics hamster-wheel? Why not ask them to do something new? I would’ve loved to see what comics Herb Trimpe might have made if he was offered carte blanche by a comics publisher; instead, he just rehashed some of the worst work of his career.
As to your argument that I’m the equivalent of a critic missing out on Dylan going electric: I mean, that risk comes with the job. (I am not a Bob Dylan fan, so I expect I wouldn’t have had an opinion one way or the other about him going electric.) It’s not a critic’s job to be “right” 100 percent of the time. Hell, here’s a little secret: when it comes to art, there is no right or wrong. Your opinion, Joaquin, is just as valid as mine. Isn’t that awesome? I think it’s pretty awesome.
But there is a line from the column that I regret, and I want to thank you for giving me the opportunity to address it. I could even tell that I wasn’t happy with the line when I was writing it, but the deadline was breathing down my neck and I let it slide. Here it is: “I can’t imagine the circumstances that would allow someone to enjoy this kind of thing.”
To me, that sentence crosses a critical line. It’s not my job to worry about whether you like the book or not, or how you like the book, or why you like the book. It's not my job to speak for you, or any other fan. In that sentence I was expanding my agency beyond myself and putting it into an imagined readership for the book. I was giving myself more power than I have, and that was an unfair thing to do in a review. I wish I hadn’t included that line.
But as to everything else? Yeah, I stand by it. I think Atlas was an ugly, poorly written book. I do think it’s the worst thing Fantagraphics has published in years. I would not recommend it to anyone.
At the same time, Joaquin, I’m happy that you like the book, and that you cared enough about it to start a conversation with me on its behalf. I’m especially thrilled that you decided to stand up for the art that you believe in. This back-and-forth is exactly what criticism should be about. Thank you for that reminder.