AiPT! Roundtable: On Comic Book Criticism (Part 1)



People have opinions. Have you noticed? The people here at AiPT! have opinions, too. Often contrary ones. That’s why we’ve created the new, regular AiPT! Roundtable column for us to smash our heads together, sound off and maybe even argue about whatever’s on our minds on a monthly basis.

Something else you might have noticed — AiPT! has more comic book reviews every Wednesday than any other website! Anywhere! We’re pretty proud of that, but it brings up the inevitable question of why we do it. And once you’ve decided to do it, what’s the right way to go about it? We posed those queries and more to some of our illustrious reviewers, and here’s what they had to say, tangents and all!

Why is comic book criticism important? Is it?

Matthew: All art – sequential art included – is seemingly superfluous in that it lacks any obvious utility towards our survival. But while art does not extend life, it does enrich life. The creation and enjoyment of art are in that select category of things which make life worth living. To fully and truly appreciate and enjoy a work of art, one must mine all the meaning it inheres, whether by the artist’s intention or by happy accident. One must understand the context in which it was created, the references and allusions it contains, the artistic devices it employs, and the message it conveys. That search for the meaning in all art is the work of criticism.

Instead of telling our readers how to spend their hard-earned money, we can instead simply talk about the comics as works of art.

Every man ever to live who’s witnessed a work of art – whether the cave paintings sketched by our remote hominid ancestors or the digital doodles in a game of Drawful – is already an art critic. What we at AiPT! strive to accomplish through our reviews is to aid our readers in becoming better critics for themselves. We read the comics alongside them, pointing out the writers’ similar works, the context of the continuity, the thesis reached in each issue, and the philosophical underpinnings of such, and in doing all this teach them how better to read comics (or watch movies, or play video games) for themselves. At least that’s how I approach the matter.

Dave: People may think criticism is simply recommending something so they know what to buy. I think good criticism goes beyond that. The best informs the reader by sharing the critic’s knowledge–combined with their taste–to analyze its story and art, interpret its meaning, and make their opinion mean something, too. If the critic is effective, they recreate the experience they had reading the comic book and give the reader the background necessary to appreciate (or dislike) the comic book as they described it. Criticism is important because it helps people learn and it allows them to share in the experience via what is written on the page.

Dog:  I wouldn’t discount the monetary aspect. People have limited budgets and now more than ever, with so many entertainment options, consumers want to be discerning and get their money’s worth. I agree that providing background and “recreating the experience” are important, and I’ll take it a step further. Not every comic is for everyone. Punisher readers might not be up for Squirrel Girl, or vice versa. That doesn’t mean either book is bad, but if we can communicate the feel of a book, it can help folks avoid something that isn’t for them. Or to find something new that does suit their tastes!

Criticism can actually help creators find things they can improve on. It’s popular to think there’s an adversarial relationship between creator and critic, but I’ve been thanked more than once for my frank honesty. “I’m gonna knock his socks off next time,” an artist once challenged herself after reading a review of mine. Good criticism can build up as much as it tears down.

More personally, I’m a scientist, so I just think too much about everything.

Patrick H: Might be the odd man out for a guy who writes these, but I don’t think they’re that important, because a great deal of this media is pulp, for the masses, and doesn’t stand up to criticism the way a literary work would. Yet, the way it is important, I think, is outside of the book itself. This is how humans connect. We share our ideas, our thoughts, etc. – and comics is another medium to “cheer for laundry,” as some have described sports. For the majority of the books, it’s a creator trying to write something they like, or know, or want to share with the world. Sometimes that merits a deep dive into the underpinnings and meanings behind it all, but not every book is Grant Morrison/Neil Gaiman-esque, and quite a bit of the things all critics across all industries focus on are happy accidents that give something more depth than the author/artist intended. A critic pointing out flaws can shape someone else’s opinion for a book, either by agreeing or coming to its defense – which is the most classic form of human entertainment. The argument.

Overall – the sheer amount of media we consume means that critical investigation of a lot of it is probably not possible, but where a critic can stand up and point to something and say THAT. THAT IS WORTHY OF GETTING PISSED OFF OVER, that’s where we can have some impact.

Matthew Patrick, I couldn’t disagree more that comics are equivalent to spectator sports as a medium in which the audience “cheers for laundry.” Firstly, while sports do have an emergent narrative, this is entirely post hoc and bereft of meaning or intent. Comics, conversely, possess consciously constructed narratives that possess clear character arcs, resolve the central conflicts and communicate a thesis.

Secondly, sports are almost entirely amoral. Teams aren’t divided based on their ideological divisions or the content of their characters; there are no genuine heroes or villains. Both teams share the same motivation, victory, with the only real distinction being which city their home stadium is located in. Most sports fans favor a certain team due to geography, not any inherent moral superiority of their home team over all others. Similarly, athletes are judged on the basis of their performance – how often they get a hit when they step up to the plate, or how many yards they run while carrying the ball. Contra comics, in which superheroes fight for specific moral goods and against genuine evils. Superman fights for “truth, justice, and the American way,” not a trophy to take home to Metropolis. And when Iron Man fought Captain America in Marvel’s Civil War or [Jonathan] Hickman’s Avengers run, the real question which the comics explored was not which would win in a fight, but rather which was in the right on the issue dividing them.

Finally, there’s finality. Sports are utterly lacking in such. The athletes themselves know that even if they win their World Series or Super Bowl, everything gets reset at the start of next season. Even for superheroes with serialized adventures fighting a “never-ending battle,” within the fiction, they believe themselves to be effecting lasting change. Batman locks away his rogues gallery in Arkham or Blackgate each time with the hopes that they’ll stay locked up. Better still are the limited series and independent titles in which “The End” actually means exactly that. There’ll be another Olympics come 2020; there’ll never be another issue of Promethea – the actual apocalypse occurred in that imprint; there’s nowhere left for the story to go, no greater resolution to be had.

Patrick While I appreciate that position, I think you’re missing my point. All I need to point to is the ongoing argument of who would win in a fight – Superman Vs. Batman (Batman, obviously – Superman is a punk ass) or the people who self-identify as “DC readers” or “Marvel readers.” In a lot of these cases, they’re reading a book because that is THEIR hero. A great deal of the pushback against retcons and New 52 type events is that it’s a change to the character that people have “cheered for” over weeks, months, decades, etc. There’s an ownership of a character that becomes internalized. All one needs to do to see this in action is look at every single casting announcement, and the inevitable loud cries of dismay that come on the heels. People were not thrilled with Jared Leto as the Joker because he did not fit their internalized image of that character – before they saw a single second of film. The narrative was not constructed yet – but people already had opinions.

I’m guilty of it as well. Batman is my “home team” just like the New England Patriots are. The individual stories in Batman’s canon are important, but I’m going to cheer for that Bat symbol, just like I cheer for laundry.

Do comic book reviews influence people’s tastes or sales figures? Should they?

Matthew: Cracked recently ran an article by the A.V. Club’s Nathan Rabin in which he disclosed that even famous film critics like himself have virtually no impact on how much a movie grosses. Audiences are apparently indifferent to the recommendations of reviewers for films, and I don’t imagine there’s all too much difference when it comes to comic books. This is extremely liberating. It frees reviewers like ourselves from the burden of consumer advocacy. Instead of telling our readers how to spend their hard-earned money, we can instead simply talk about the comics as works of art. Instead of asking, “Is it worth reading?” we can instead answer the question, “What does this mean?” And of those two inquiries, the latter is by far the more interesting for us to write and our readers to read.

Dave: I’m really not sure if they influence sales, though simply posting a review and having it show up in a feed does act as free advertising. That much has to be certain. I do know it allows readers to gauge and understand their own opinions. I read reviews and I tend to use their opinion to reflect my own. Did I miss anything? Did they notice something I missed completely? If I read a review and can appreciate a comic book (or movie or TV show) a little bit more I come away satisfied.

We might be entering a time when criticism steers sales figures more than ever before.

Patrick: Same page as David, with a slight edit. If we’re talking about a new property or a brand new series? I think reviews are used in those cases for two reasons – yes, free advertising, but also as a gauge to quality. Comics ain’t a quarter at the drugstore anymore, folks. This is a big business and 20 some odd pages for 3.99 isn’t a great deal if the story is trite and the art is bad.

The weird wrinkle here? I think because we’re talking sequential art, many people are collecting to collect, and THEN read. That ever increasing quest for full runs means you don’t know where to jump off the train of purchasing sometimes. Movie reviews see this same issue when they savage the atrocious Star Wars prequels. Yes – they were utter shit, but I still went to see them.

Taking those two thoughts together, I think reviews can influence the overall sale numbers, but far more for untested properties. X-Men is going to sell because it’s X-Men, and the impact of a review will probably have little effect. New indie series from Image, with no famous creator, and no big launch campaign? Hello reviewers, please give me a yay/nay.

Dog:  Yeah, I think that makes a lot of sense. In that “collecting to collect” DOES happen, even if I don’t understand why. It’s changing, though. Younger readers don’t seem to have that mentality, which is probably both good and bad for the industry. Good because experimental projects are more likely to be given a chance if not everyone has to buy Spider-Man first, but bad because maybe you can’t count on those Spider-Man sales like you used to.

So we might be entering a time when criticism steers sales figures more than ever before, but like Matthew said, it doesn’t look like we’re there yet. Criticism doesn’t appear to drive tastes, either, as Top Cow president and comic writer Matt Hawkins has said that his top-selling books are consistently reviewed less favorably than his lower-selling ones. It’s a little sad we can’t seem to signal boost for those good books better, but hey, maybe they’d be even worse off without reviews.

In part two of our criticism Roundtable, when we get down to the real nitty-gritty — what exactly do we look for when reviewing a comic? 

Read Part 2 ➡