As a comic critic, at a certain point, it’s hard to keep up with the sheer volume of unjustified, shoot-from-the-hip, self-interested hot takes about the alleged piss poor quality of the average comic book review. With the amount of noise that’s been made, you would think someone would link a review or two, or at least be more specific than Declan Shalvey’s claim on Twitter that “The amount of ‘reviewers’ who lack any understanding of the medium they’re supposed to be evaluating is staggering,” a remark he made as a supportive response to this piece over at Pipeline Comics.
The most striking claim is that the amount of reviewers demonstrating ignorance of comics to a fault is actually “staggering.” In itself a staggering claim, the hyperbole hardly warrants much attention. What I find much more interesting is the premise buried underneath: that the reviewer ought to be “evaluating the medium.” What does this mean and why should we be doing it? Shalvey and others think they have thought hard about this, but everything they say suggests otherwise.
Hell, the piece itself uses a series of harsh, vague tweets from Nelson Blake II as a springboard. Blake claims that it bugs him that “comics reviewers are comfortable being ignorant/apathetic towards the art.” He claims this is “low IQ critique.” Pretty serious words.
And everybody wants us to take comics so seriously. But the most vocal proponents of Serious Comics all appear to reap professional benefits from their expressed attitudes. How many of these folks have worked or are currently working in the biz? How many of them do the kind of writing that makes it very easy to be chummy with working writers and artists, to the point that they even get added to their projects sometimes? And what kinds of reviews and “criticism” are the average comics freelancers sharing right now other than straight-shooting positive reviews of their own work? If the purpose of comics criticism is to entrench and cross-promote, surely everything in the Pipeline Comics piece is on the nose.
Notice the kind of questions that are suffering, however. The reader’s experience–the very end of the creation of all of this wonderful art–takes a complete back seat to a bunch of dudes swapping notes like they’re at a trade show. There is obviously more to engaging with art than having a technical understanding of the art itself. What follows is an exploration of what we’re losing and why it’s dumb that we even have to point out we’re losing it. I’ve selected parts of the Pipeline Comics piece that stood out to me as representative of a problematic series of attitudes that are simultaneously boring and harmful, and I’ve offered some responses.
“Not enough people — readers and reviewers, alike — realize that the reason a story seems so strong is because the artist told it so well. The choices the artist made helped to clarify the point of the story. The artist guided the reader appropriately in any number of ways, but in particular through all the timing tricks of sequential narrative and composition of panels to guide the eye.”
The entire point of artistic decisions to guide the eye is so that your eye is guided, not that you’ll stop to appreciate how your eye was guided after the fact. I saw a breakdown of a nine panel grid the other day that amounted to a really gassed up explanation of “your eye moves left to right.” Call NASA, we have a fucking unified theory of everything.
“Marvel and DC feeds into this, by the way, by publishing books as fast as they can write them and to hell with whoever they can slot in to draw it that week.”
Publishers are creating an environment of shitty working conditions and shitty comics. If the reviews suffer as a result it seems really uninteresting to me.
“You can also learn about comics from talking to creators at convention or on-line.”
“Hey Mr. Chaykin, I just had a quick question–“
“There have been at least three major releases in the last couple or three years of books that will teach you how a comic is made. Brian Bendis wrote one. Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente co-wrote one. Jessica Abel and Matt Madden did another.
Read them all. You’ll learn a lot.”
Ok, let’s go for the gold here: Bendis’s book is shit. It’s a lot of fluff dressed up as substantial advice. It’s an overpriced cross section of five mile up industry and creator info you could have gotten from a decent aggregation of half assed #writecomics Tumblr feeds. Even when I was drinking the Bendis Kool-aid I was disappointed by that book.
Moreover, the book is literally about how the medium is assembled by humans on a practical basis, specifically in order to optimize the work’s ability to communicate ideas to the reader. At times, quite explicitly, creators like Bendis are trying to wrap you in illusion and separate you from how the sausage is made. My favorite part of Wind up Bird Chronicle isn’t the hours of research Murakami did on Manchuria: it’s the result of his work. It’s weird that I have to drag that distinction out in a conversation about art, but here we are.
I wrote an entire thesis about Understanding Comics to get my Masters Degree. I drew on that kind of approach for reviewing roughly one time before realizing it was a huge mistake that weighed down both my writing and my ability to process the impact comics were having on me. At best, these kinds of instructive tomes are means of evaluating particular aspects of a work that may not have felicitously impacted your reading.
Felicitously. Authentically. For realsies.
I only want to hear about the eyeline of a page if while you were reading that comic you were like, “wow, sick eyeline bro!” Otherwise, you aren’t reviewing.
You’re reverse engineering.
“I’ve also studied animation and photography, design and typography.”
I studied metaethical normativity, the roots of political obligation, Jesuits, and jazz, honey.
“Some of the best reviews I’ve read are from people who studied literature of various kinds, whether it’s classic Mark Twain texts or pulp fiction or more literary fiction. Others have a more cinematic bent. All of this material informs their reviews, which are all about perspective.”
You get one dap for this paragraph AND ONE DAP ONLY.
“Reviewers are, by definition, opinionated. At best, you can only hope they are consistent so you know which ones to follow.”
Confession: I’m inconsistent and I love it. Half of what I wrote for Comic Bastards was trash and the other half was full of really good insights. Most of my Loser City writing is tight, but at least one piece is a complete fucking bore. Even on my current site, I never know what I’m going to focus on or if I’m even fully comfortable trying to suss out exactly why I feel the way I do.
But that’s the art in what I do, in what we do, and it demands a honing of process internal to itself. No amount of lettering lessons are going to help me unearth why I felt so underwhelmed by The Tar Pit. Taking formal classes on composition would not have helped me articulate exactly why the obviously bad composition of Red Sprite landed it on the chopping block so fast.
To put it in terms the journeyman comic scholars can understand, comic panels come together to have an emergent meaning: the reviewer’s job is to take their feelings, mash them up with perceived reasons for feelings, and lend them enough structure to allow someone else to see from behind your eyes.
“Whatever you do, concentrate more on the visual side of things.”
Stamps feet no I don’t wanna!
“Stop reading Writer’s Digest’s books.”
Nuh uh! I love Writer’s Digest!
“There’s a huge difference between judging a completed work and facing a blank page and creating something.”
Precisely! Now we’re on the same page.
“It is only by practicing that craft that you can get an idea for what a creator faces.”
This… this is true, but it’s still unclear to me why I need to do this. What’s valuable about this perspective as a blanket rule?
“The writer has the scariest of all things: a blank page…
The artist has to make a thousand more decisions…
Then the inker has to separate layers of the art with line thickness…
The colorist might work from a specific palette for a given series, but still needs to make almost as many decisions as the artist does….
Yes, even letterers then have to make their thousand choices…”
This is the biggest garbage take for me, and I’ll tell you why: everybody, including the author earlier on, is always always saying “don’t judge things based on what will happen, you have to judge what’s in front of you.” I have also said this because it is true.
If I shouldn’t care about what Superman does next, I sure as shit shouldn’t care about how a certain silhouette could have had more ink or something. Comics are not a blank slate. In fact, if you want to get technical, let’s get technical:
Comics are never a blank slate.
Not what you were expecting?
A comic is not some performance contiguous with its own act of creation. A comic is the book that gets put in front of you and… That’s it. The script belongs to the creative team: those panels, that shitty gloss paper, those fucking Old Spice ads, they belong to the reader. They are the language of the medium. What is in front of the reader is not a series of decisions: it is a cumulative result of many decisions. Yes the decisions birthed the work but, they are ethereal. They are intentions that may or may not land with a reader. They are not a source of artistic pleasure or pain.
After it comes off the assembly line, you very much might not like a car with a very ugly bumper. That one decisions really impacted your perception of the car! But for the average car, we all just care about the ride, or whether after being put together it is safe and rides efficiently. Only someone obsessed with how cars were made as a hobby would fixate on, say, the way the steering wheel is aligned on a 2005 Honda Civic. Surely he is the most informed about how a car is put together, but that doesn’t make him the best guy to talk to about cars: it just means he’d have a good time at the plant.
“I can tell you from my experiments in playing with each of those disciplines that I’ve developed an overwhelming respect for what each has to do. None of them are easy jobs. I’ve also learned a lot of the jargon for each and what the challenges are that they face.”
“While you tried to be effective at art criticism I studied the nib. And now AV Club and Comics Alliance are super ugly and defunct, respectively, and you have the audacity to come to me for help?”
“I would submit, however, that the ‘wannabe creator’ probably knows a little more about the process that might inform their reviews, even if subconsciously. I think that experience of actually working with the blank page and putting yourself in the shoes of a comic creator can help inform your review or — dare I use the word? — criticism.”
Ahhhh now we’re getting to the bottom of it. As I mentioned earlier, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the perspective of the person with professional ambitions is centered in these conversations.
“In the end, yes, the work is the work and that’s what should be judged.The process of getting there doesn’t matter. That’s where a critic can excel. They can apply their methodologies to the material and arrive at a completely valid and totally impartial conclusion.”
Except it’s not about “validity” or “impartiality” at all. The framing of this whole thing reveals a misunderstanding of the critical mission from the start. Not everything is a review, but even the things that are reviews don’t purport to be objective analyses. The most boneheaded reviewers don’t think their 2/5 for the 6th #1 issue of whatever Periscope shit they’re reviewing is an absolute label belonging to the quality of that work in Platonic heaven.
And it’s not about being “impartial”: omitting specific aspects of the creative process isn’t some weird ascetic process of shunning the work’s context. Comics literacy can absolutely enhance any given critique or review. But how we talk about this augmentation is really important. On one end, I would claim that in appropriate circumstances, wholly dependent on the reviewer’s interaction with the thing they were reviewing, knowledge of the medium can be a boon. On the other end, this post is built on a series of some of the most condescending tweets to grace this discourse in which it is claimed that reviewers reveal ignorance when they don’t engage with specific aspects of the medium.
If I had to lend a measurement to how unreasonable this argument is, I’d score it at 3 Shalveys, minimum.
“If you understand the process, you understand the results a little better.”
So I’ll ask again, how exactly does Chaykin’s choice of pencil help me understand the results of hanging a dude and calling him a slur? How does knowing Waid’s choice of plotting technique aid in processing how tone deaf and weird his latest few comics have been at unpacking social issues? And generally in the case of many cape comics now, why should I care about repetitive art that does nothing particularly interesting, and is constantly helmed by blase middle-aged white dudes with nothing interesting to say? Less snarky, far more effective takedowns than my previous sentence have been carried out by a slew of talented women in the last few years, and yet vague tweet storms from comic industry wannabes who are trying to hobnob with professionals 100% focus on this article’s argument and say nary a thing about some of the most comprehensive, diverse crit across mediums.
This article is, in my opinion, far and away the most cogent, reasonable, and least condescending way to frame this discussion, and yet it is fully undermined by that same fact: it is nothing but a distillation of shitty, weird, sort of comically hyper-masculine undercurrent of dudes with too much time on their hands who want to justify their lack of drawing skill by learning how to letter and *do things the comics way* and then shitting on the people across the aisle who learned how to write.
“It will help keep you from writing something vitriolic that might prove embarrassing later, also.”
“It broadens your horizons in a way that nothing else can. You can not only see what’s wrong, but express yourself more clearly for why you think that..
How did learning these things aid in effectively expressing myself? That is its own talent in any discipline. Knowledge is just a pile of facts and habits. Sharing knowledge is a separate skill that requires separate bundles of knowledge.
“Coloring and Inking are those things that too many people think is easy. You’re just going over the stuff the artist already did. The hard part is done, right? Just fill in the rest.”
Who is saying this??
“And when I see something I recognize from my relatively brief struggles with the creative process showing up in a final comic, it excites me. I know it. I can explain it. That’s the power of reviewing from a position of some experience.”
What you struggled with is part of the act of creating. It is not part of the work. It is the cause of the work. You are excited because you are doing a post-mortem of the living act of creating art. The rest of us are excited by the living act of experiencing the work itself and the feelings it stirs and we sort of just don’t care at all about the dead corpse of its labor that passed on so we could just fucking enjoy it.
“The best way to learn something is by doing it, right?”
People should learn to be artists in order to talk about the art? It seems a much more genuine take is just, simply, try. Give it a try! Just try to talk about the art. See, not such a bad suggestion! That sounds less condescending and doesn’t as obviously betray the fact you all are just trying to break into the industry.