July 26, 2013

One of My Favorite Comics Critics: Ken Chen

The Following is a short piece I contributed to an article called  I Don't Know Why You Wanna Impress Christgau: 10 of Our Favorite Comics Critics on Comics Bulletin in response to conversations we have been having about what is lacking in comics criticism in general.
Ken Chen
Ken Chen

Horror is political precisely because the realm of the political is horrifying.” This is how Ken Chen began his May 9, 2013 column on DC Comics' announcement of Hellblazer's cancellation for The New Inquiry. As a critic, Chen used this as an opportunity to not only talk about how much of an influence the character of John Constantine had on him personally, but also the commentary Hellblazer itself made about the England of Margaret Thatcher. As he wrote in his piece, “Hellblazer represented an attempt to use genre fiction as a way to more accurately describe right-wing ascension.” Through his critical eye, Chen saw Hellblazer, specifically Jamie Delano's run on the series, as “unmistakably about forcing the reader to go from being a voyeur of genre horror comics and to become a witness of her own terrifying political conscience.”
As a critic, Chen saw the cancellation of Hellblazer as indicating a true shift in mainstream comics. While comics have become less niche and more culturally resonant, the “room for oppositional comics” becomes “restricted.” Hellblazer, in effect, had to be canceled because its true purpose was no longer possible. As well, since Thatcher left power, “no Hellblazer writer has grappled with how to imagine an oppositional space in the age of nominally left-wing conservatives like Clinton, Blair, and Obama.”

Chen is a true comics critic (as well as the Executive Director of The Asian American Writers' Workshop and a published poet). His piece on Hellblazer is not about a fan lamenting the demise of one of his favorite characters, nor is it a hack job on Dan Dido and DC Comics for being stupid poo-poo heads. Rather, Chen uses his understanding of comics as a platform to address the role the artist plays in the social and political arena. He explains WHY the cancellation of Hellblazer is significant by framing what was significant about Hellblazer.
That is what good comics criticism looks like.

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