Critiquing the Critics

David Hopkins (who wrote Emily Edison, among other comics) has surveyed a group of comic reviewers. He was spurred to do so by getting a terrible review from a critic who didn’t like graphic novels in general. (By “terrible”, I am thus referring to the quality of the review, not what it said about him.) As he says,

I decided to interview some comic book critics and reviewers to get their opinion. The people I chose are people I respect. I didn’t pick them because they gave me glowing reviews. Not so. In fact, Randy Lander, Ken Lowery, and especially Johanna Carlson have been rather critical of my work. I’m okay with that.

And he really does seem to be, which is great and refreshing. He also identifies a key problem many reviewers face:

The problem seems to be many of these online reviewers are pursuing quantity over quality. A lot of comics to read in a single week, do you have to review them all? A well-written review can be as entertaining as the comic itself. So I echo Terry Moore: Write something memorable. My added bit of advice would be to dig deep. Thoroughly analyze the comic before you. If your sole complaint about the art is that it’s “too cartoony,” I will track you down and kick your ass. Be specific. What’s wrong with cartoony? Is that even a word?

(Not according to my spell-check, it’s not, although I do like using it.) Aside from those already mentioned, he also includes Andrea Speed of Comixtreme and Eric Lindberg of Broken Frontier.

I don’t know that this is covering a lot of new ground, but it’s an important discussion, and one that is good to have every so often to remind people what they should be aiming for. As we know, there’s next to no barrier to entry to calling yourself a comic critic, which means that those of us who aspire to improve our craft need to think about these things.


10 Responses to “Critiquing the Critics”

  1. David Oakes Says:

    Yes, you shouldn’t aspire to be half-assed and shallow. But really, Reviews as entertaining as the comic itself? With depth and complete analysis? Even ignoring the conflation of “review” and “critique” (that everyone on the web makes anyway, in both directions), he seems to be insisting that his work deserves as much effort in understanding as he put into creation.

    But the simple fact is that he has had a month up to years to craft his opus, while the reviwer is obliged to remain current and cover a “reasonable” breadth of available material. (The critic need not be current, and can be somewhat narrower, but you don’t get to spend months examining the subtle nuances of “A Game of You” outside an MFA program.)

    Yes, it would be nice if every review were a one stop shop of critical theory, market reseach, and entertainment value. But at the end of the day it all boils down to “Thumbs up/Thumbs down”. You don’t have to know “Art”, you just have to know whether or not you like it. (Or whether or not someone whose opinion you have come to trust likes it, and therefore you should shell out cash to find out for yourself.)

  2. James Schee Says:

    I can understand the idea of wanting reviewers to give each book its due time. Though I wonder if he realizes that one book’s due time isn’t what another book’s might be.

    If something is crap, then it won’t get much time, if any. Though ignoring crap might bring on the different complaint of “I sent you might book, but you don’t cover it!”

  3. James Schee Says:

    Er, that’s I sent you MY book, but you DIDN’T cover it!”

    Sorry, home with a flu bug.

  4. Mike Chary Says:

    Gee, I remember long ago, in the distant past I was asked to write something, a guide, if you will to reviewing, and I remember being yelled at. Neener, neener, neener.

  5. Michael Denton Says:

    Well, as Steven Grant pointed out recently on Permanent Damage (a link I thought I had gotten here at CWR), there is arguably a difference between reviewing and critiquing. Reviewing is simply that particular audience member’s like or dislike -it’s completely subjective. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Being a critic involves the kind of in-depth analysis that David is asking for. I’ve tried to do both on my site, although I’ve ended up with far far far more reviewing than good critiquing.

  6. Ed Sizemore Says:

    I’m sympathetic to Dave’s position. If someone is going to take the time to post something they call ‘a review’ they should do more than just state an opinion, they should give some justification for that opinion. (I know this next statement is going to open up a can of worms for me.) My problem with Steven Grant’s piece is that he gives too broad a definition to the term ‘review’. In the common usage, a review is more than just a brute statement of opinion. Simply look at the average movie or book review in the newspaper. They do more than just say whether they like the work in question, they explain why and how they came to their judgement. I think Grant needs to distinguish between opinion, review and criticism. An opinion piece would simply be a brute statement of like or dislike with no supporting statements. A review would be a statement of like or dislike with explanation of how that opinion was formed. A criticism would be a significant study of the historical and thematic important of a work of art. So I think if you want to call your post ‘a review’ then you are committing yourself to give more than just a thumbs up or thumbs down.

    For independent comics, reviews can serve the function an editor would at a large comic company. They give the writers and artists feedback on some of the strengths and weakness of a given work. They offer a more detached look at the work than one gets from friends and relations. Now I disagree with Dave when he says, “too cartoony” isn’t a sufficient feedback. I have heard people use this word and I know what they mean. I’ll admit I can’t give a precise definition , it is more of an intuitive judgement. Generally, it means the art work is too whimsical for the subject matter. So if your doing a comic on the Battle of Bull Run and your characters look like something out of a Betty Boop cartoon, then most people are going to think the artwork inappropriate to the subject matter.

  7. Greg Morrow Says:

    I have to admit I don’t think too much of Hopkins’ credibility when he complains about not understanding “too cartoony”. It’s a pretty broad term and can encompass several different (but related) shades of meaning, but it’s hardly contentless.

  8. Lyle Says:

    Simply look at the average movie or book review in the newspaper. They do more than just say whether they like the work in question, they explain why and how they came to their judgement.

    I don’t know, I see plenty of reviewers who, seeming to lack arguments to back up their judgement, run the clock down by giving an extended synopsis of the work in question. I mostly see it with movie reviewers, where there also can be a flood of quantity that makes it harder to write thoughtful examinations of each film’s qualities.

  9. Johanna Says:

    The local movie reviewer (Ed, you know who I’m referring to) doesn’t fill with plot but with stupid jokes designed to show how clever he is. He’s such a poor reviewer that I use his columns as reminders of what NOT to do.

    And yes, plot elements (sometimes cleverly disguised as opinion, but only lightly) are a great way to fill space. It’s what you say, not how much, that should count.

    Ed, I appreciate the distinction you’re mentioning, but I draw the line somewhat differently. Someone who says “I liked it” or “I didn’t” is always a reviewer, but the person who says WHY is a GOOD reviewer.

    Most independent creators, I think, would be better off hiring an editor than depending on reviews for suggestions for improvement. At least, if they want long careers, they shouldn’t wait — by then, it’s too late.

  10. Comics Worth Reading Says:

    [...] Following up on my earlier post here, David Hopkins has completed his survey of comic reviewers. Part two asks about their definitions of a good comic and their backgrounds; Part three concludes with a challenge for more competition and professionalism. [...]

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