- Posted by Ed Sizemore on January 26, 2009 at 2:00 pm
- Category: Meta
by Ed Sizemore
This month I celebrate my first year as a reviewer for Comics Worth Reading. Johanna asked if I would consider doing a reflections piece about my experiences. Kind of a “What have we learned, Charlie Brown?” entry. Let me start off with my theory of reviewing and then speak specifically about some of the challenges and joys this past year have brought.
What Makes a Review?
I see reviewing as a continuum where one end is the simple review and the other end is the extended critical essay. At its most basic, a review is simply a recommendation with a reason. “This book sucks.” isn’t a review; it’s barely a recommendation. “This book sucks. The art is bad.” is a review, not a satisfying one, but one nonetheless.
A critical review, something of a midpoint on the continuum, would be like some you see in the Comics Journal or the longer pieces that can be found online. These are generally several pages in length and discuss more than just the plot and art. They usually explore some of the underlying themes found in the book.
The extended critical essays are usually chapter-length articles found in academic journals; they also include book-length critiques. Here you have detailed analysis of the themes of work and its historical context.
My Goals as a Reviewer
I have no allusions or illusions to grandeur. I’m not trying to compete with the professional critics. What I hope to do with my reviews is provide a thoughtful reaction to the books I read. That’s why I’m aiming to place myself in the middle of simple review and critical review. There’s certainly room to debate if I’m giving myself too much credit and I should be much closer to the simple review.
The truth is I became a reviewer to justify my reading habit. So it’s very important to me to preserve that love of reading. This means I begin my review process by simply reading the book. I try very hard to put all thoughts of reviewing or critical analysis aside and just enjoy the book as if I picked it up off the shelf for pleasure reading. For me, books are living beings (metaphorically speaking), and reading is like having a conversation.
I naturally interact with books I’m reading, and I do make judgments as I’m reading. If there are passages I really like, I might stop to study the art more closely. I might find something ludicrous, or I might find something thought-provoking and so set the book aside to think out what the author is saying. The heart of my reviews is my reaction to the book as a reader.
How I Write a Review
Once I’ve finished a book, I like to live with it for a few days. I love to mull over the book and let it wander around inside my head. I think about the characters I’ve met: whom do I like, who frustrates me, do I agree with their actions, do I find them sympathetic, and so on. I reflect on the book’s structure: did I like the plot, did I understand the plot, how well is the book paced, what did I think of the ending. Finally, I look at the art. (Here I’m the weakest.) I try to study the page composition, the anatomy of the figures, the backgrounds, how well the art flows so I’m not left wondering what order to read the panels in, do I find the art attractive.
Occasionally, I’ll go back and read the book a second time with a critical eye to try to break apart the mechanics of the book: what method did the author use to move the plot along, how did the author give us history about the characters, how are the characters developed, how did this scene function in the overall story, etc. I don’t have any deadlines, but I try to write a review a week. I don’t always have as much time to live with a book as I like, but I have nothing to blame but my own poor time management skills.
Those who’ve read my reviews know I have a fairly set format. I start with a summary of the plot, move on to discuss the literary elements of the book, then comment on the art, and finish with a short conclusion. This is a self-imposed format; you’ll notice Johanna has a much more open style in her reviews. I use this structure as a way to help me focus my thoughts. Actually, for me, the summary is an important part of the review process. If I can’t summarize the plot, then the odds are I don’t have a good understanding of the book. The summary also helps remind me what the central elements of the story are so I can focus my review around them.
High Points of This Year’s Reviews
Enough with the mechanics; on to some of my experiences this year.
My attitude from the start has been, “I’ll review anything.” One of the pleasures of being a reviewer is that I get exposed to books I normally wouldn’t pick up on my own. The best example of this is Tail of the Moon. A shojo book about ninja love set in the Feuding States era of Japan doesn’t sound like something I would enjoy. Johanna asked if I wanted to review volume nine, and I figured it couldn’t hurt to at least read it and see what happens. Boy, was I surprised! Ueda crafted a warm, intimate story with appealing characters that hooked me immediately. It encouraged me to continue to try manga I might normally pass by.
Other pleasant surprises this past year were Toto! The Wonderful Adventure, Yumekui Kenbun: Nightmare Inspector, Alive! The Final Evolution, and Rosario + Vampire. All are series I plan to follow and review in the coming year.
Of course, reading anything and everything is a double-edged sword, and there were a few books that disappointed me. Two that proved challenging from a review perspective were X Diary and Red Angel. X Diary was the first time I read a book, and as soon as I closed the cover, completely forgot about it. It elicited no reaction from me. I struggled for a couple of days trying to figure why I couldn’t connect to the book. Writing that review taught me as much about my expectations as a reader as it did about bad character development. The book got started as a thought experiment by the author, but she obvious hadn’t put a lot of serious consideration into constructing the characters, their history, their circumstances, and their relationships.
Red Angel taught me about the mechanics of storytelling. Here was a book that had the right parts and should have been a good read but fell flat. It took me a while to realize that the parts weren’t working together properly. It was like looking at a watch and seeing that there were no missing gears. The problem was that the gears were out of tolerance with each other, so the watch didn’t run. The book taught me a new way to look at how stories are structured to see the way plot, characterization, setting, pacing, etc. all interrelate. It made me appreciate the craftsmanship of the stories I do like and especially the stories I find most exciting.
Goals for the Future
Like I’ve said before, at heart I’m a reader, and manga constantly shows me new horizons for the potential of comics. It wasn’t until I read Planetes that I ever thought you could do hardcore sci-fi in a comic format. Ghost in the Shell is still one of the best meditations of what it means to be a sentient being. I think the best shojo art simply transcends the current vocabulary used to describe comics. Manga rewards her devotees well. I find the best critics are the ones who love their subject matter passionately and write from that perspective. I want to follow that model and try to let my love of manga fuel my writing.
Reviewing has been a wonderful learning experience for me. I’ve learned, and am still learning, a lot about myself as a reader. I’m discovering what kind of characters I connect to deeply, what stories move me, what kind of trade-offs I’m willing to make (like accepting bad art, if the story is engaging), what turns me off, etc. I’m also learning more about the crafts of storytelling and drawing. I’m beginning to see how a writer creates suspense, what devices are used to move plots forward, how to use humor as an emotional release, etc. I still have so much to learn about art and its mechanics, but I’m taking notice of things like; page composition, tone use, how to tell a story with just pictures, how to suggest, but not show, an action. All of this has made me love manga that much more.
My goals for the coming year are to improve my writing style, to try to be more penetrating in my reviews, and to be a faster writer without sacrificing quality. I would like to thank the following people who directly, or indirectly, informed my thinking and helped me put my thoughts together: The members of the SPX State of Comics Criticism panel (Gary Groth, Tim Hodler, Dan Nadel, Douglas Wolk, and Bill Kartapolous), Melinda Beasi, and of course, Johanna.