Talking About Art in Reviews

At the Newsarama blog (link no longer available), as part of his series talking to online critics, Chris Mautner interviews Katherine Dacey, who covers manga at PopCultureShock. (Are they still run by Midtown Comics? This is apropos of nothing, just curious.)

Anyway, I was stunned to see myself mentioned in the following context:

Chris: What do you look for as far as good or bad points? This is a very generalized question, but do you have any rules of thumb?

Katherine: Well, I don’t have the art training that some people do. I haven’t spent nearly as much time thinking about how comics are put together from an art point of view, so that tends to be less of an emphasis in my reviews than it is in some people’s reviews. If you look at someone like Johanna Draper Carlson, she’s really meticulous in talking about the art. If I had to say there was a weakness to my reviews, it’s that I sometimes don’t address the art. I only do it in a couple of sentences.

Part of that grows out of the fact that there can be a sameness about a lot of the shonen and shojo manga that’s licensed by the big American publishers. My feeling is that if the artwork is distinctive, either really bad or really good, then I will spend some time talking about it. But if it reminds me of the last 15 books that I reviewed, I probably won’t spend a lot of time talking about the artwork.

Talking about art is frequently something I have to remind myself to do, so I was very surprised to see myself cited as an example in this area. It’s a nice reminder that how you see your work might differ from how others see it, so it’s good to do reality checks every so often. I actually think about it the same way she does in that second paragraph, that it’s easier to spend time talking about art if it stands out in either direction.

And I’m so with her when she recommends David Welsh as a good model to follow in reviewing!

9 Responses to “Talking About Art in Reviews”

  1. Katherine Dacey Says:

    Hi, Johanna! I mentioned your blog because I think you strike a good balance between analyzing story and analyzing art–something that’s a struggle for someone like me with no formal training as an artist or comics editor. I was also thinking of your essay “How to Review,” in which you offer some practical tips for discussing artwork in the context of a comic review.

    As for your question about PopCultureShock, we’re not run by Midtown Comics–we’re actually a separate entity. There is some overlap in personnel, which contributes to the impression that Midtown has a stake in PCS. Hope that clarifies things.

  2. Johanna Says:

    I was really touched. It’s something I struggle with as well, but I do have the advantage of an in-house tutor with lots of experience. Thanks so much for the mention! And for correcting my error about PCS.

  3. Dan Grendell Says:

    I think your essay, “How to Review”, and the quality of your reviews influences many more online reviewers than you think, Johanna. I know the essay was a big influence on me, specifically on addressing art (I have no art training either, so it’s always difficult for me as well), and others I’ve spoken to have cited it.

  4. Johanna Says:

    Wow. I put “How to Review” out there in the hopes it would be helpful, but it’s the kind of thing you never know if anyone actually does find useful. Thanks for letting me know.

  5. MangaBlog » Blog Archive » Opinionated linkblogging Says:

    […] senior manga editor Katherine Dacey, for Blog@Newsarama. Johanna Draper Carlson chimes in with her thoughts on discussing art in […]

  6. Dave White Says:

    Given that the entire essence and appeal of comics is visual, I’m always surprised by how little discussion there is of the art. I think the problem is, as you’ve noted, a lot of the people reviewing comics don’t necessarily know how to analyze or express what they’re seeing, and the people who can do so aren’t reviewing comics (usually because they’re making them).

    Then again, given the number of people I’ve encountered who think all manga looks the same, and the number of people who think Rob Liefeld and David Finch are competent aritsts, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. Even though the number of people participating in the arts seems to be up, the quality of arts education seems to be way down.

    Anyway, I always do appreciate it when people take time to talk about the art, which is one of the reasons I enjoy your reviews.

  7. Johanna Says:

    Bear in mind that many of a certain generation of critics came to it through text-based media: the net in the early days, or fanzines or other print publications. Including art was, until recently, a time-intensive effort, much more so than writing a lot. (And in the worst case, reproducing too much art gets you nasty legal letters. Talking too much just gets you badmouthed. :) )

    People who make comics *should* do more reviewing, although that quickly gets very tricky politically. And as you say, arts education frequently gets short shrift, including having school budgets cut.

    Let’s get back to your first proposition: is the appeal of comics primarily visual? Certainly, yes, for many people, but for those hooked on monthly serialized narratives about the unusual, I don’t think the quality of the art is all that important to them if it’s at least competent.

  8. Dave White Says:

    Oh believe me, I was one of those folks writing reviews back on Usenet. There are ways to talk about the art without having it in front of you (though it’s certainly a lot easier when people can see what you’re referring to).

    I suppose you’re right about the appeal of comics not being visual. Certainly, there are plenty of people out there who enjoy TV shows and movies without knowing anything about cinematography. I guess since comics are a niche medium (American ones, at least), I’ve always assumed that anyone who was into them had to have at least SOME interest in the art.

  9. Johanna Says:

    I guess, if I was going for glib summation, I’d say that there’s a difference between appreciating art and liking to look at the pictures. :)




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