Criticism – How it hurts so good.

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Long ago, in the beginning,  once upon a time… a nomadic prehistoric human painted a picture on a cave wall.  It depicted an event:  a great hunt.  Charging wild beasts being chased by other wild beasts with spears and axes.  The reason for the painting could have been for any number of reasons:

Maybe to record the whereabouts of a rich hunting ground.
Maybe to honor the bravery of a fellow hunter.
Or maybe it could have been just to tell a story with pictures.

Whatever the reason was, the hunter recorded something so that it could be read later.  I’d be willing to bet that no sooner had that pigment dried, a prehistoric critic was there pointing out the inaccurate size of the elk’s antlers.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines criticism as the following:

  • the act of expressing disapproval and of noting the problems or faults of a person or thing : the act of criticizing someone or something
  • a remark or comment that expresses disapproval of someone or something
  • the activity of making careful judgments about the good and bad qualities of books, movies, etc.

It has been said that everyone is a critic.

Totally true.

Social media star and recently retired Canadian astronaut Colonel Chris Hadfield has a lot to say about criticism.  After all, becoming an astronaut isn’t exactly rocket science… it’s a LOT harder.  His new book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, has given me a whole new perspective on the art of critiquing  as well as being criticized.   One wouldn’t think that an astronaut would be able to relate to an artist.  But Col. Hadfield is no ordinary, unbelievably bright, star jockey.

    He can also play a mean guitar.

Everybody, from the novice all the way up to the professional, can benefit from some form of criticism.   No one comes out of the gate perfect.  Even the nearly iconic Bill Watterson cut his teeth in the trenches before hitting it big with Calvin and Hobbes.  A lot of work and re-work goes into any line you draw.  I’ve found, especially toward the beginning of my career, for every one line I kept, there were at least three I erased.  According to Hadfield, ” Early success is a terrible teacher. You’re essentially being rewarded for a lack of preparation, so when you find yourself in a situation where you must prepare, you can’t do it. You don’t know how.”  (p. 85)

Any performance based vocation is going to be open to criticism.  Once you lend some sort of permanence to a work (art, music, movie) you are opening yourself up to criticism.  The only way you won’t is by keeping it in your head.  But hey, what fun would that be?

More from Hadfield:

Over the years, I’ve realized that in any new situation, whether it involves an elevator or a rocket ship, you will almost certainly be viewed in one of three ways. As a minus one: actively harmful, someone who creates problems. Or as a zero: your impact is neutral and doesn’t tip the balance one way or the other. Or you’ll be seen as a plus one: someone who actively adds value. Everyone wants to be a plus one, of course. But proclaiming your plus-oneness at the outset almost guarantees you’ll be perceived as a minus one, regardless of the skills you bring to the table or how you actually perform. This might seem self-evident, but it can’t be, because so many people do it. (p. 146)

I like Hadfield’s thoughts here.  To equate that with a webcomic, the casual reader of your strip would be considered a zero. I know that sounds bad, but it totally isn’t. They routinely come to your site, maybe not everyday, but they enjoy what you do.  The negative ones feel the need to bash what you do.  They may have been lying in a state of suspended animation waiting for the right moment to blast you.  The plus ones are the readers that faithfully visit your strip every day, add comments to what they like, support you by purchasing books or other merchandise. They add value to your work by supporting it.  All three can be critics.

Hadfield goes to great lengths to show that criticism can be a good thing.  In his line of work, criticism, attention to the smallest details, can save lives.  “In any field, it’s a plus if you view criticism as potentially helpful advice rather than as a personal attack. But for an astronaut, depersonalizing criticism is a basic survival skill. If you bristled every time you heard something negative—or stubbornly tuned out the feedback—you’d be toast.” (p. 66)  Notice how he says “potentially helpful”?  That word pairing is key to survival as an artist as well as astronaut.  Even bad, personally vindictive criticism can be mined for a nugget or two of truth.

Through two years of work on my Master’s degree, criticism wasn’t just expected, it was encouraged.  A routine crit would entail the artist standing before his or her work while students and faculty would talk about the work.  My first crit felt as though I was before a firing squad.  The only differences being that I didn’t have a blindfold and everybody’s gun was loaded.  When the dust of that first experience settled I learned something amazing:  it didn’t kill me. Not only that, but it actually gave me some insight on how to make me and my work better.  Dealing with criticism in this type of arena taught me how to defend myself and my work.  It gave me a filter to weed out the constructive bits of meat from the useless bits of fluffy macaroni.

I experienced this first hand about a month ago.  To read the criticism and my response to it, click here.

No one comes out of the gate perfect.  Even the nearly iconic Bill Watterson cut his teeth in the trenches before hitting it big with Calvin and Hobbes.  According to Hadfield, ” Early success is a terrible teacher. You’re essentially being rewarded for a lack of preparation, so when you find yourself in a situation where you must prepare, you can’t do it. You don’t know how.”  (p. 85)  Failing is good. It makes you humble.  It also makes you hungry.

One of these days, a neanderthal will finally decide to pound your webcomic with a barrage of negative caveman stew.  Knowing the difference between the meat and the macaroni goes a long way.

Source: Chris Hadfield (2013). An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything. New York City: Little, Brown and Company.

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frank sig shotFrank Page Frank Page is a cartoonist. Throughout his life, that is one thing that has never been disputed. In 2002, he created the comic strip Bob the Squirrel. The strip has been syndicated online through Universal Uclick/GoComics.com since 2004. Page has been staff cartoonist/graphic designer at the Rome Daily Sentinel, Rome,NY. He holds a BFA in illustration from Cazenovia College, Cazenovia, NY and a MFA in Visual Art with emphasis on Sequential Art from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, Montpelier, VT.
His work is enjoyed all over the world. can be seen daily at bobthesquirrel.com and squirrelosophy.com. He currently resides in Rome, NY where he can regularly be seen chasing his Jack Russell Terrier, Lucy, through the streets.

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2 Comments

  1. Now, don’t take this personally, but I’m just messing with you.

    Great article, it is important for artists to not see something they created as an extension of themselves. Which is hard to do when artists work so hard to create something that expresses their inner self and/or the human condition.

    A little off topic, but I have tried to use requests for criticism as a way to promote my comic in the past. I went around to those commenting on YouTube Videos related to Comic Books and asked for criticism for my work.

    My response to criticism is to thank them and interact with that person as much as possible. If they feel like they are helping my work, they become invested and part of the team.

    Doesn’t always work, but better then the alternative.

  2. I’m probably my own worst critic, but I’ve learned to tame that beast over the years and turn it into a force for improvement. Sometimes I listen to my inner critic and rework things, other times I ignore him because he’s being too critical. It takes time to know the difference. I’ve never really had too much external criticism… but maybe that’s a good thing?

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