Reviewing comics: process and theory

Hey there! I review comics and after a long conversation on reddit I’ve decided to write about writing about comics, based on what I’ve learned over the past year and a half that I’ve been doing it with any real regularity. In a startling example of arrogance and hubris, I think there’s a few things that could be useful for non-reviewers to understand about how the review process works and if there’s anyone who writes their own reviews then hopefully this could be of some use to them or form the basis of some discussion.

Reader beware! It seems I’m quite the self regarding so-and-so because this post turned out rather long. 

Process

When it comes to writing a review, there are certain things I look for in a single issue which I try to separate from my personal tastes in art, genre and storytelling techniques:

  • Catharsis. Payoff. Whatever you call it and however the story can deliver it I bloody well want some  in my comics – it can come in the form of action, emotional resolution, plot development, shock, etc – and when there is no catharsis in a comic that costs somewhere in the region of $2 to $4 then I feel ripped off (UK prices depend on the retailer – keep in mind I write about American comics for an American site with an American audience).
  • Competent and purposeful art. Again, regardless of style, I want the art to do its job of telling the story and actually adding something to the script.
  • A sense of design. Hard to quantify but when a comic has a clearly defined aesthetic utilising colour, typography, page layouts, lettering, etc, it is so much better than something which feels as though it was churned out on a standardised production line process.
  • Pacing. Again this depends on the type of story being told and number of pages available but generally a well paced comic strikes a balance between plot events, build up and characterisation.

There are also things I always mark down a comic for:

  • Wasted pages. In an expensive hobby, with comics that usually feature somewhere between 20 and 44 story pages, to dedicate entire pages on achieving nothing of note is a cardinal sin.
  • Poor dialogue and/or captions. I’m not expecting Quentin Tarantino here, but when dialogue is poorly done it stands out like a sore thumb. Characters should have their own voices which aren’t interchangeable. As for the captions, sometimes it’s best when a script allows the art to speak for itself; in spite of the fact that (as Kieron Gillen said) “the plot is the work” some have a tendency to forget they are writing for the artist and over-write their scripts with purposeless captions in order to be more visible to the reader (and possibly to justify their job).
  • Bad art. This is something I am very careful not to condemn too harshly, given that my own ability to draw is on a par with a 12 year old and that different art styles will appeal to different people or suit different purposes. Regardless, there are times when it is clear that a comic’s artwork fails to live up to its intended purpose; there are other times when art is obviously rushed out to a deadline with errors, or the storytelling otherwise unclear, lacking in emotion, dynamism or vibrancy.

For bonus points a comic can:

  • Do something I’ve never seen before.
  • Be ambitious – even if it falls short then it will still be more worthwhile than a comic which aims low and hits the mark.
  • Be meaningful and/or make me think differently about something.
  • Be clever and/or make me feel clever (OK I’ll admit that’s a subjective judgement and/or an appeal to my vanity – but whoever said “flattery won’t get you anywhere” was a god damned liar).

In graphic novels and paperback collections of ongoing comics there are a few things I approach differently, for example when it comes to structure I am much more forgiving towards decompressed and slower paced storytelling than in a single issue. Then again, if a paperback collection fails to provide catharsis or meaning in the significantly greater space available for storytelling I will condemn it much more harshly.

I also think it’s important to factor in the quality of the print, including paper stock and bindings. Most of the comics I review come in digital formats so I’m unable to evaluate them on their merits as printed piece of art but, speaking as a firm believer in the inherent value of comics and books as preservable physical objects, the quality of a comic’s production is vitally important. Within a decade from now (probably a lot less) the proliferation of low cost tablet computers (iPad, Android, etc) and e-readers (Kindle, Nook, etc) will be the death of most low value printed things, with only high quality and high desirability boutique items being worth the effort and costs involved in the printing process (alongside the likelihood of a robust market for second-hand books). Consequently, when I buy a printed graphic novel or comic today I don’t want it to look like a scrappy piece of unreadable shit if I look at it ten years down the line. Unfortunately, when you buy a monthly comic from Marvel or DC (or in some cases the collected paperbacks too), that’s exactly what you’re going to get unless you go accept the cost and effort required to preserve the paper; meanwhile it’s been left up to small or mid-size publishers like IDW, Image, Blank Slate Books, NoBrow, Self Made Hero or self published comics like Michel Fiffe’s outrageously brilliant Copra to fly the flag for print quality.

Image taken from Copra #1

Theory

There’s an impressive and rapidly expanding body of academic work dedicated to the critical analysis of comics, particularly coming from groups like Sequart or Graphixia (with post-grad courses like at Dundee University or online courses like ‘Gender Through Comics’ to boot), but I could never hope to articulate the theories behind such formal analyses in the space and time available to me here.  What I can do is briefly introduce some of the various other methods of reviewing that I’ve seen used by writers elsewhere and discuss their relative merits.

  • Descriptive with an attempt at forming a relatively objective assessment of functional qualities! That’s an awfully pretentious way of summing up everything I said under “process” above and it’s the method I generally try to achieve (with varying degrees of success) for my Comic Bastards reviews.
  • Straightforward self!  A lot of reviews are written this way and it’s perhaps the most honest way of imparting your personal experience of the comic to the review reader. When it’s done well it goes further than “I liked this because… I disliked this because…” and accounts for the reviewer’s subjectivity. The main drawback is that where a reviewer’s tastes differ from the reader’s, the reviews may prove to be less useful than other methods but conversely when you find a reviewer who speaks directly to your interests it is arguably among the most practical methods of discovering new comics.
  • Hyperbolic personae! Like the ‘straightforward self’ but with the reviewer writing as an exaggerated version of themselves. These tend to be ruder, cruder, funnier but often less practical (as a method of recommendation) than other styles.
  • Soapy stakeholder! A style of review that’s most commonly applied to superhero comics from Marvel and DC, simply because the stakeholder holds no stake in comics which aren’t a part of those fictive universes and is therefore uninterested. This kind of review focuses on discussing the merits of plot developments instead of craft, generally with emphasis on the emotional impact of these events and the interplay of long-established characters; they also tend to view comics that are heavy in fan-service more favourably than I do. There’s already something of the soap-opera in the structure of many superhero comics and this kind of review (whether consciously or not) is an actively buying into that soapy ‘permanent second act’ structure. Personally I have no use for reviews like this, I don’t give a damn about the ‘shocking revelation’ of Captain Trademark’s hidden history unless it’s part of a bloody good story that’s very well illustrated, but I do appreciate that a significant proportion of the market for ‘mainstream’ comics is targeted at highly invested fans/readers and this kind of review speaks directly and purposefully to their interests.
  • Group reviews! Several reviewers contribute their opinion and it all comes together to form a stronger whole – like Captain Planet. The advantages of this form are that it’s a lot less work for everyone involved and readers are given a multiplicity of viewpoints, increasing the likelihood that their own tastes will be accounted for. The main drawback is that it generally prevents deep analysis from any one contributor. We recently started doing these at Comic Bastards.
  • Meanings and metaphysics! A review which focuses on deconstructing and analysing the meanings and implicit values of a given comic, occasionally from a consciously subjective perspective. A good example would be Mindless Ones’ Batman Inc #6 review or their retrospective of Grant Morrison’s Action Comics run. This is a fairly broad category, especially in terms of style, and it is something that is often included as one facet of a review that’s mostly written in one of the other styles I listed here – as exemplified in AV Club’s Big Issues. It’s also something I would like to do more, if only I had more time to do it.
  • Multi-review! A number of short summarised reviews grouped together to form a larger single article, generally covering a week’s most interesting releases. For this review format we can again look to the AV Club and their regular Comics Panel feature or another fine example from Mindless Ones.
  • Close reading and deep analysis! Bordering on the academic, this style of review is epitomised by the likes of Colin Smith’s ‘Too Busy Thinking About My Comics‘ blog, Sequart or Graphixia and serves a dual function of teaching readers about the comics form and advising whether or not they should buy a comic. I love reading this kind of work and I’d probably try write something like this myself if I didn’t already have a full time job.
  • Comicritical meta-comics! There’s a few of these kicking around the ‘net (e.g. Comic Critics and The Gutters) which I enjoy but generally these take the form of a commentary on the American comics industry rather than a individual comic. Given that the written word is the most effective method of reviewing prose fiction, why not review a comic through another comic? Depending on the legal technicalities of ‘Fair Use’ it might even be possible to incorporate a comic’s images directly into the panels of the review comic. Obvious drawback: the time it takes to make one.

(Looking over some of the examples I linked to above has proved to be a reminder of how  my own work is amateurish in many respects – clearly there’s a lot I still have to learn.)

There are other possible theoretical approaches to reviewing comics which I hope to discuss at some point in the future, as well as examining the various approaches in more depth.

Challenges

Besides the difficulties I mentioned in the sections above, there are a few other obstacles in the path of every reviewer which are worthy of consideration:

  • Art! We’re talking about comics not prose, so it’s absolutely crucial that art is discussed on an equal footing with the way a comic is written. From my point of view, it’s often the hardest part of a review or critical piece (partly because I’m trained to assess literature) and despite the sterling work by theorists like Scott McCloud (whose Understand Comics is the essential text for understanding comics) there’s not much of a formalised lexicon to fall back on. Generally I try to describe the style and I always praise artists who make intelligent use of the comics form as opposed to simply drawing pretty but disconnected pictures. It’s all about the layout!
  • Review scores! What’s the difference between “3/5”, “7/10”, “four stars” or any other shorthand for quantifying a qualitative judgement? Can these numbers ever really mean anything? How do we define these values? There’s an argument (espoused by the likes of my favourite gaming website Rock Paper Shotgun) to suggest that if a long form review is sufficiently thorough and well written then there’s no need to assign a score – readers should have figured out whether or not they’re interested from what you write. On the other hand, a scoring system can provide an efficient abbreviation of your review and can allow the review to mark up an assessment of comic’s quality that goes beyond their subjective opinion (i.e. they enjoyed the comic in spite of its poor quality or vice versa). Destructoid, another decent gaming site, has a definition of what their review scores mean adjacent to the “whatever/10” that I think is particularly useful for both reviewer and reader. At Comic Bastards we employ the “something/5” method, which I’m happy to use (particularly since the word count of a single issue’s review can’t be as lengthy as one for a 60 hour video game) but in hindsight I have looked back on my reviews and occasionally seen inconsistencies in my use of it. C’est la critique I guess. We’ve also started using a “Buy/Borrow/Ignore” rating for our contributions to the group reviews and, though that’s an even greater simplification of the critical thought process, it immediately communicates out recommendation to the reader with great efficiency.
  • Being fair to creators! This isn’t a problem when you’re saying positive things about a comic but I find that when I start to point out aspects of it which didn’t work or were lacking it weighs on my mind. It’s even harder when it’s obvious that the creators have put their heart and soul into the work yet it still comes out with significant flaws (and to be honest I’m always slightly more forgiving of self-published or indie comics). I particularly struggled in that regard with my review of Kuzimu, a labour of love where the creator’s artwork was astonishing but the story it served was a total mess. The challenge is to address your concerns while retaining full respect for the craft at work. Equally, sometimes it’s clear when reading that the creative team and publisher have rushed their product to print or produced work that is otherwise careless or substandard and in those instances they deserve to be castigated.
  • Spoilers! The bane of my existence (“haha hashtag first world problems” I hear you say – and you’d be right). Writing about comics and being a part of geeky online communities means that it can be bloody hard work for me to avoid having major plot points of popular stories spoiled in advance of their publication. I hate spoilers. I think the culture of “BIG SCOOP! CHARACTER X IS DOING BIG THING Y IN COMIC Z! OMG!” at certain notable websites and amongst a large section of fans shows a fundamental disregard for serialised comicbook fiction as an art form and reduces it to the level of a tabloid’s celebrity gossip column (but that’s another rant for another day and I appreciate that for most sites it’s simply a case of catering to demand). Did I mention how much I hate spoilers? Consequently, I try to keep them to a bare minimum in my reviews while still discussing the structure and relevant themes of a comic as much as possible.

And we’re done

Phew! That was a giant septic tank of self-indulgent guff for you to wade through; evidently this blog is aptly named. Thank you for reading! Time is a precious commodity and I appreciate your generosity.

For further reading check out Comic Bastards and you’ll see a greater variety of review styles than most of comicbook websites out there, which is one of the reasons why I think we’re rather good. 

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One response to “Reviewing comics: process and theory

  1. Well said. I’ll keep all of this in mind when I do my next few reviews. Thanks for taking the time to write and add context to this tricky plight we’ve allied ourselves with.
    -Hunter

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