Are "Haters" Valuable Critics? The Debate Over Trolls and Art

What happens when cartoonists take on their critics in comic form? Recently, the webcomic Zen Pencils raged against online critics—and received a comic about the value of negative feedback in reply.

Top image from Zen Pencils' "The Artist-Troll War."

Zen Pencils is a webcomic known primarily for adapting inspirational quotes from famous people into, well, inspirational comics. We've highlighted some of artist Gavin Aung Than's comics here, including his illustration of Neil deGrasse Tyson's Most Astounding Fact and Chris Hadfield's advice to aspiring astronauts. Sure, the comics can be a bit platitudinous, but they're fun and (usually) cheerful if you don't mind a little saccharine in your comics diet. And it's clear that a lot of people don't; Than recently scored a book deal, and a Zen Pencils collection is due out in November.

In February, Zen Pencils took a different tact, telling a four-part original comic titled "The Artist-Troll War." In it, people who post their criticism online are transformed into a slimy hate monster out to destroy art—at least until the defenders of art (led by an ersatz Hayao Miyazaki) build a giant robot to take out the hate monster. It's not terribly subtle.

What sparked this takedown of so-called trolls? I suspect it may have started back in August, when Than posted his comic adapting a portion of Bill Watterson's 1990 speech to the graduates of Kenyon College. The comic, which is about creating a life for one's self and apes Watterson's visual style, was largely well received, but it also drew some strong criticism. Some people didn't like the idea of another cartoonist using Watterson's words and his style of imagery, but others felt that the comic was critical of commercial art. David Willis (who makes a living working his tail off on various webcomics) used his webcomic Shortpacked! to offer a retort to the Zen Pencils comic. "You have to leave or the money cooties will corrupt your art," Willis jokes.

On the other hand, in response to the tenor of some of the criticism aimed at Than, Kate Leth of Kate or Die! reminded readers that "The artist on the other side of the screen is a person."

In a pre-Internet age, "The Artist-Troll War" is something that probably would have sat in a notebook, a little bit of catharsis that an artist might have shown to a few friends before moving on. But just as the Internet makes it easy for people to share negative feedback (whether thoughtful or thoughtless) with creators, so too does it make it easy for artists to pull their catharsis out of those notebooks and shout a wounded howl into the wider world.

It would be easy to critique "The Artist-Troll War" for its message and the way it presents it: Than lumps all negative criticism into the category of "haters." He creates a false dichotomy between critics and artists, ignoring that some artists have felt negatively criticized by his own work. And using Hayao Miyazaki as the avatar for Than's side of the debate is nothing short of hubris. It's all a bit odd for someone who illustrated Tim Minchin's admonition to "be hard on your opinions." Personally, when I saw the first installment of "The Artist-Troll War," I decided this was something that Than simply needed to get out of his system, and decided I would just ignore Zen Pencils until the inevitable triumph of "good art" over "haters."

Are "Haters" Valuable Critics? The Debate Over Trolls and Art

But Kris Straub, the creator behind the webcomics Starslip, Broodhollow, and Chainsawsuit, as well as a number of other online projects, did something much better than ignore "The Artist-Troll War," something surprising and incredibly sweet. He drew an installment of Chainsawsuit that figuratively takes Than by the hand. "It's really self-indulgent," Straub writes, using the form of Than's hate monster. "It feels like...you were writing it from a wounded place." Go read the full comic, which gently critiques "The Artist-Troll War," and then reminds all of us who receive negative criticism online that, even when it hurts, we should look for value in negative criticism.

Straub doesn't deny that there are some critics who are cruel because it is fun or because it offers them a sense of power they can't find anywhere else. But it's incredibly lovely to see him act as the webcomic big brother, offering to guide Than through the thorny thicket of negative feedback and find the roses blooming there. As much as I appreciate Leth's reminder that the non-bot people we encounter on the Internet are real, flesh-and-blood human beings, Straub's lesson is an important one to take to heart, not just online, but in the wider world.