Reviewing What’s Sold to Me

Valerie D’Orazio argues (link no longer available) that superhero comic stories should only be reviewed after they’re finished. Well, that might be a bit too strong. I don’t want to put words in her mouth. She asks, “Is it fair to review any story arc before it’s over?” and then lists reasons why it’s not.

While that can be the safe approach — you have to make certain assumptions otherwise, and you risk guessing wrong, but that’s part of the craft — I still stick to the basic principle: if they’re presenting it for sale, it’s fair game to talk about it without any other purchase necessary. If the publisher/ creator/ salesperson doesn’t want me to evaluate a book on its own merits, then they shouldn’t put it out by itself with a cover price.

All of her commenters make similar cases, that you can (and in some cases, should) talk about the single issue, just as you can talk about a single TV episode. After that, you start getting into “waiting for the trade collection” discussions.

I leave with a cheap shot: if you had to wait until the story ended, with some titles, you’d never be able to say anything about them, because nothing ever concludes!


  • Jer

    Barring previous experience with a group of creators, I think you need at least a few issues of most modern comics to know whether there’s going to be an interesting payoff in a series or not. In general comics are no longer a serial medium – stories are now meant to be read as a single entity and are published serially only because the Direct Market still exists with rubes gullible enough to buy 1/6th of a story every month at $3 a pop. DC, Marvel, and other companies will milk us rubes for every penny we’re worth as long as they can, but the actual market for comics is the “finished” form – the collection that shows a complete story from beginning to end.

    (Paradoxically, the more interesting the writer the more time I need to figure out whether the book is going to work or be a flop. A bad writer will telegraph his “badness” within a single issue – a good writer can often keep it hidden for 3 or more issues.)

  • Jer, I agree — often a story doesn’t come together before 4 or 6 issues. But that’s, in my opinion, a bad thing if you’re going to sell it in dribs and drabs.

    I guess I’m saying you can’t have it both ways. Publishers can’t complain about people judging comics before they have all the pieces AND complain about people waiting for the trade.

  • joecab

    Actually I go by the advice Maggie Thompson gave many years ago: I give every series at least four issues, since that’s how long it took the FF and Avengers to really get cooking. That feels just right to me.

  • 4 issues = $12 (or $16, more often). That’s dinner or a couple of lunches. Back when the Avengers started, were four issues a couple of meals? Just curious.

    In another unit of measure, that’s one CD. Did four comics equal one album back then?

    That’s a neat callback to history, though.

  • Well, since comic books are a serial format sold as finished products in installments, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense NOT to review them as such.

    It depends on the institution doing the reviewing, of course; I assume most print or mainstream media wouldn’t review any serial comic book beyond the first one anyway, so I don’t know why onew ould need tell THEM not to.

    But comic book websites and blogs should be reviewing comic books as they come out. That doesn’t mean you can’t review the trade or whatever, but if a single issue doesn’t give you enough to review, then either you probably shouldn’t be reviewing them anyway, or the book itself isn’t meeting the minium standard of something, anything at all happening (And hell, even if NOTHING happens, a review can point that out, and still discuss the art).

    And to say you shouldn’t review the story because its not over until its in a trade just opens you up to the next step; if it isn’t fair to review, say, Y The Last Man #1 because the story’s not over, then should you be able to review the first trade collection? Because it’s still not over. Should critics wait till the series wraps, and then review it?


  • Ed Sizemore

    My problem with Valerie’s suggestion is that is presupposes the ending justifies the storytelling. I don’t buy that. Just because a story arc has a good ending doesn’t give the writer license to write 4 or 5 carelessly plotted, ridiculously dialogued comics. A poorly written story with a good ending is still a poorly written story. I see no problem in calling a writer to task for not giving as much thought to the structure of the story and not practicing good storytelling techniques on the way to the conclusion.

  • John

    I just find reviews of individual issues that are in the middle of the story to be boring and pointless. It’s too much reviewing, frankly, it’s just unnecessary. I mean, there are obviously people out there who want to read and write that sort of thing and that’s fine, but I just don’t see the point. And I do think that the ending can justify the storytelling in serialized fiction — since the storytelling is done “real time,” so to speak, many things can change over the telling of that story. It employs a level of improv to the process that can come together in the end that is not seen as clearly during the process — whether for good or for bad.

    It also implies feelings of democracy towards the complete creative process — too often, fans (and this includes, say, television) act like they are collaborators or editors and should be able to actually change the course of a story mid-stream because they are currently dissatisfied with it.

    I wouldn’t review art shows one painting at a time, nor would I review a book one chapter at a time. Serialized works are still parts of a whole, they just aren’t released all at once and I think that part of the job of a critic is to actually meet the creator half-way by at the very least considering his work as a whole before passing judgment. It seems unprofessional to do otherwise.

    Anyhow, it can strike me as so much navel-gazing unless a reviewer is really exceptional — and reviewers of any medium who are a pleasure to read beyond the point of what they are reviewing aren’t the norm.

    But if we’re just talking people posting their opinion on their blog, whatever. There are no professional standards, really, it’s just conversation.

  • Ed Sizemore


    I think your trying to have your cake and eat it too. You can’t argue for the integrity of the finished product and how much improv is used in constructing it.

    If the story is evolving issue to issue, then reviews of each issue become more necessary and bring constructive feedback to the artist. Since the artist is still finalizing the story as he/she is publishing it, the reviewer can let them know if a given story direction is connecting with the audience of leaving them behind. Also, if the current plot is meant to be a misdirection, then the artist can find out if the ruse is working or if everyone is seeing through the slight of hand.

    If I remember my history of serialized fiction correctly, the audience has always been a factor in shaping the story. Didn’t Dickens make changes to his novels based on reader’s reaction in their letters to the editor? In manga, most weekly and monthly magazines carry a reader’s survey and based on those survey results an artist may be asked to change the direction of a series.

    If an artist doesn’t want their work judged on a chapter by chapter basis, then they shouldn’t publish it in that format. When you present something to the public for consumption, then you should be prepared for the public to react to what’s presented to them.

    I think it’s disingenuous to ask me to purchase a book and then say I can’t comment on my purchase because it’s still a work in progress. I have to wait for the artist to tell me when a work is ready for critique before I’m allowed to voice an opinion. A smart artist would simply claim none of their works are every really complete and so avoid criticism indefinitely.

  • I wouldn’t review art shows one painting at a time, nor would I review a book one chapter at a time

    Well books aren’t serialized a chapter at a time, but comics are (Well, in the olden days they were; Ed mentions Dickens. Most books today aren’t serialized chapter at a time, if any). A gallery art show is a little in between, isn’t it? The paintings are done one at a time over a period of (often) years, but the audience sees them all one at a time. An art critic might review the show as a whole, but the audience is generally viewing it piece by piece and as a whole simultaneously. Like, I’ve been to shows where I hated one piece and loved another, but loving the one doesn’t make me like the one I hated.

    Not every media matches up to comics for these purposes. D’Orazio mentions the Iron Man movie, for example, but audience members so it all at once. They didn’t pay for every twenty minutes of it once a month.

  • odessa steps

    I’ve always thought the answer is to review both — the issue as its own self-contained unit (is it worth the time/effort/money) and then the trade as a unified package.

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