The problem with the world is everything.
“This One Summer” by Jillian and Mariko Tamaki is a graphic novel that tells the story of Rose, a young girl who spends her summer vacation in a small beach town. The graphic novel delves into the complexities of growing up and navigating relationships, and is a thought-provoking exploration of adolescent emotions and experiences.
Artificial intelligence is all the rage these days. Large technology companies have been releasing a collection of artificial intelligence (AI) tools that amalgamate art from a wide variety of sources and use it to create an artistic median for the written prompt given to it. There are a lot of these, including DALL•E 2, Midjourney, and Stable Diffusion, and, at this point, it seems hard to know which of them is most popular. Websites have popped up to coordinate and make access to these systems easier. A basic Twitter hashtag search seems to indicate that most of the people using this technology are using it to make lewd images of anime girls.
These AI systems are not just designed for visual art – they also can write, create music, and engage in all sorts of other art–adjacent activities. The composer, essayist, novelist, and poet have been put on notice. (Case in point — I made ChatGPT write the review that cohabitates with this essay). These systemic threats to artmaking come with many potential benefits for marginalized students, those who use English as a second language, and learners who need writing assistance, to name a few. They “equalize” as much as they “obliviate.” The advent of AI that can mimic human writing is as exhilarating as it is terrifying. We are riding a roller coaster without wearing a seatbelt.
One of the standout features of “This One Summer” is its beautiful illustrations by Mariko Tamaki[sic]. The artwork is evocative and atmospheric, capturing the moods of the characters and the beauty of the summer landscape. The panels are well-composed and add depth to the story, making it a truly immersive experience for readers.
But what of the art critic? I spend a certain amount of my time thinking about comics, trying to connect with them, and bringing additional perspectives to consider in their presence. I don’t consider myself a good critic, nor a professional one, but it’s a process. What does that process look like in the future?
(Let me pause here and say that I think that the fact that the AI believes that the writer is also the artist says a lot about how people write about comics on the internet.)
Another strength of This One Summer is its depiction of adolescent relationships. Rose’s relationship with her friend Windy is a central theme of the story and their interactions are a mixture of joy, frustration, and misunderstandings, much like many real-life friendships. The authors do a great job of portraying the challenges that come with family dynamics, as Rose struggles with her relationship with her parents and their issues.
Art criticism is struggling, has been struggling, for years. Venues for the publication of art criticism have declined. Newspapers, where art criticism once thrived, are shrinking, and alternatives, like SFMOMA, Astra, and Elephant have all shuttered. The professional art critic, as much as there is one, has been relegated to the realm of Academia, where they have been retreating for much of the last few decades. Those that still find work largely add to the great internet content churn, spinning their wheels doing TV show episode reviews and similar easy-to-advertise-on pieces. (And, let me be clear, art criticism has not been doing itself any favors. The formal practice is heralded by a man who is better known to the general public for his weird coffee habits than his actual writing.)
The themes explored in “This One Summer” are relevant and thought-provoking, touching on topics such as growing up, body image, sexuality, and family relationships. These themes are handled in a sensitive and nuanced way, giving readers the opportunity to reflect on their own experiences and emotions. The novel is also notable for its representation of LGBTQ+ characters, which is still a rarity in many graphic novels and adds to the book’s impact and relevance.
Comics criticism (which I would argue has always been in the realm of the hobbyist and never the professional) is a microcosm of the larger conversation about art and art criticism. Despite the launch of projects like SOLRAD and The Gutter Review, comics criticism has largely been done either as a strategic arm of a marketing department, under the auspices of a comics publishing company (The Comics Journal and at times, The Comics Beat, have fallen under this umbrella), or plainly as a hobbyist’s passion. But what does AI mean for the future of comics criticism? Where do ChatGPT and its ilk lead us when the major concern is the intrinsic value of art?
One of the most striking aspects of “This One Summer” is its exploration of the complexities of growing up. Rose must navigate the challenges of adolescence, including changing relationships with friends and family, and learning to deal with difficult emotions. The novel sensitively portrays the struggle of finding one’s place in the world and the conflicting feelings of joy and sadness that come with growing up.
To answer the more important question first, AI-powered language models are likely going to have a profound impact on the people who spend their time thinking about the intrinsic value of art, but likely not in the way that some would expect. AI advocates would have you believe that these deep-learning powered AI language models could lead to the generation of new insights and perspectives on art. This is, in my estimation, a complete fabrication. Deep learning helps these models predict “correct” text, based on training. The output is a synthesis of what it already has seen. To be blunt, these models, if they remain unchanged, will likely just regurgitate material that’s already been written.
However, these models don’t have to generate new ideas in order to fundamentally disrupt the lives of writers. These tools will likely be integrated into the working lives of critics, journalists, and other writers – creating templates for work, outlines, and starting points that will make the process of writing, especially in the presence of writer’s block, much easier. These tools have a great potential for abuse as well. They provide endless streams of bullshit for click farms and potentially further diminish the amount of work available to actual human writers. They further homogenize the internet and pull the standard output to the top of the bell curve.
The setting of the small beach town is also an important aspect of the novel, adding to its atmosphere and mood. The quiet, isolated atmosphere of the town creates a sense of introspection and contemplation, and allows Rose to reflect on her experiences and emotions. The town and its residents are depicted in a way that is both nostalgic and contemporary, giving readers a sense of familiarity while also presenting new and unique perspectives.
Given what we already know about current versions of AI-powered language models, the specific context of comics is somewhat secured by the fact that it is too niche to care about (on a macro scale). AI models have to be trained on enormous amounts of data to be able to predict text accurately. Current models work by predicting the following word in the sentence using a set of parameters and a fairly robust guardrail system. The more data the model has been trained on, the more specific it can be while answering questions. The average comic gets what… 0-4 reviews? That’s hardly enough data to train an AI to talk definitively about any book without sounding nondescript.
Current models are also trained on relatively old data, and aren’t connected to the internet in a way that lets them find new data. Once these models start training in real-time, and start getting connected to the internet, they will dramatically change, and any previous predictions about their potential will likely be woefully inadequate.
In terms of character development, Rose is a well-written and relatable protagonist. Her thoughts and emotions are depicted in a nuanced way, and readers can easily connect with her experiences and struggles. The supporting characters are also well-developed and add depth to the story, including Rose’s parents, who are depicted as complex and flawed individuals.
That’s part of the reason why I chose This One Summer as my example – it’s probably one of the more widely discussed comics in recent years, having won a 2014 Ignatz Award, a 2015 Eisner Award, a Printz Honor, a Caldecott Honor, and the Lynd Ward Prize. Lots of pieces have been written about it in a variety of arenas. Book bloggers and comics people all wrote about it in scads, and then it got a second boost of publicity and chatter over the controversy around being a banned book and that resulting censorship. It’s also an older title (almost a decade as of 2023), and, because of that, writing about the book would have been more likely to be included in the AI’s training dataset.
Right now, at least, this review of a comic is probably the best that AI can do.
The writing in “This One Summer” is simple and straightforward, but also lyrical and poetic. The authors use language in a way that is both evocative and understated, creating a sense of atmosphere and mood that is both nostalgic and contemporary. The dialogue is also well-written and adds to the characterization of the characters, making them feel authentic and relatable.
To be fair, I’ve seen much worse reviews. I’ve even written some of them.
It is apparent to me that something must change in the way that society considers and values the arts and its related subfields. American society (every society?) routinely believes that the abstract idea of art is a good thing, but rarely values the person who makes that art. When you ask people to think about art, they think about the completed piece or the form that the artwork takes, and not the person who makes it.
When you value the abstract idea of art, but not the person who makes the art, I believe it generates a deep-seated mental tension. Art as a social good, divorced from the person who makes it, turns difficult labor into “content,” a thing that Americans have been trained to view and like on social media, and then continue scrolling. Having something, and having a copious amount of it, naturally devalues it. I think in some ways scrolling culture has led to a direct conflict between the “consumer” and the artist. We’ve developed a society that gives people ready access to art, but doesn’t want to pay the individuals to make it, and when artists point this issue out, it’s more often than not going to lead to “you should just do it for free because it’s your passion!” You see this a lot in fan spaces and the comics industry. All that said, devaluing the labor of artmaking isn’t new; artists have been dealing with this for years. Even if we admit and concede all of the concerns about the legal and ethical complications of deep learning systems, the internet doesn’t seem to care. Perhaps, more importantly, these systems take the negative American perspective on artists to a new zenith — now, not only can the art worker be ignored, but they can also be removed from the picture entirely.
Of course, if there are questions about the role of the artist in modern society and a host of external pressures on the artist that makes their work difficult and chosen profession hard to achieve, the critic is likewise affected. If art is devalued, then critical thinking about art is even more so.
It is clear to me that art criticism (and comics criticism as a subset of that field) needs to do some soul searching. People have been declaring the death of art criticism for at least 20 years now, but there is only so much pressure that a system can take before it is overwhelmed. The “background clutter of ephemeral cultural criticism” that James Elkins worried about in 2003 has now become the foreground of criticism. Culture writing has taken the place of art criticism, emphasizing the mass consumable and focusing on the management of views rather than the facilitation or mediation of experience. The downward force that connects all of these disparate observations is an interconnected mess of lines that leads back to exploitation capitalism. The pressures of the systems in which we exist have, in some ways, reduced the power of criticism to evoke new sensations and understanding in the presence of art.
In conclusion, “This One Summer” is a powerful and thought-provoking graphic novel that explores the complexities of growing up and navigating relationships. The beautiful illustrations, relatable characters, and well-written story make it a must-read for anyone interested in coming-of-age stories. The novel’s representation of LGBTQ+ characters, sensitive handling of themes, and exploration of the joys and sorrows of adolescence make it a timeless and timelessly relevant work.
It would be a fallacy to say that the average person doesn’t appreciate art – they appreciate it every day, on the radio, on the television, on their phones, in their earbuds, and in the myriad of other ways that they live on a day-to-day basis. But how do we remind people of the essential humanity of others, the people behind the work, especially when those people are not visible?
Is the problem of art the problem of the internet? People spend all day strapped to the World Wide Web. We willingly subject ourselves to a veritable firehose of information blasting us from when we wake up to when we fall asleep, all of which is mostly in order to sell advertisements. Perhaps the way that we’re doing things on SOLRAD isn’t the right way. Running a digital platform that does comics criticism on a nonprofit basis has been mentally and physically taxing. Swimming against the current only gets you so far before you wash up on shore.
Perhaps an answer for the form is a retreat into its core reflection; publishers like Domino Books and Fantagraphics, alongside zine makers like Bryan Banes, have soldiered on making printed comics criticism that has been met with some amount of acclaim. I doubt that anyone would accuse us of trying to professionalize comics criticism, but perhaps trying to build a house inside of a burning city is, no matter how you look at it, a fool’s errand. And the counterpoint – perhaps the way we’re doing things here is the only way to do them. Moving forward in a way that is open and accessible, conscious of the stresses on the system, and refusing to engage with those stresses as much as possible, is the only way to dig ourselves out of the hole we’ve been digging.
Despite all of the questions and my sincerely frustrating lack of answers, damn it, I’m compelled by comics. Getting to spend a weekend hanging out with Bryan Banes at Cartoon Crossroads Columbus in 2022 showed me how many people are out there willing and excited to read enthusiastic comics journalism and criticism. What we’re doing isn’t dead, at least not with the current technologies at play. ChatGPT, the program that’s taking the internet by storm in 2023, will never be able to replace the art critic. But “not dead” doesn’t mean “not dying.” If art criticism (and comics criticism) is to survive in a meaningful way, it seems that it needs changing.