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AiPT! Roundtable: On Comic Book Criticism (Part 2)

In part 1 of the first AiPT! Roundtable, we established WHY AiPT! prides itself on having the most comic book reviews every week. Now, can we come to an agreement on how best to conduct those reviews?

Nitty-gritty time: What’s the proper way to review a comic book? How do you judge art vs. story? Intent vs. final product?

Dave I don’t know if there’s a proper way to review a comic–I’m sure there are many different ways to review anything–but I review a comic by giving the work a night to marinate.

Once I approach the writing of the review, I generally compartmentalize its good and bad features in my mind and write an introduction based on what struck me most. From there I like to think about why the book matters or is important in the grand scheme of things. From there I break down what was good, giving attention to the most important aspect of the book – be it art or writing. I think it’s important to talk about the art at least for a full paragraph if not more, but it’s understandable many reviewers don’t since most of us come from a writing background. The art is half (if not more) of what makes a comic book work.

You can’t review something for what it should be, but what [the creators] intended it to be.

Intent vs. final product is a key aspect of the reviewing process. You can’t review something for what it should be, but what they intended it to be. Is what they’re trying to do accomplished? It’s about understanding the intended audience as well as understanding your own preferences and curtailing your criticism so that doesn’t cloud your judgment.

Patrick: I don’t think there’s a proper way to review it, but I think there needs to be a more structured way of giving them a rating. I’ve seen this play out quite a bit in the gaming industry over the last 10 years, where people have been fired for giving a lackluster review (a 7! A SEVEN WAS FIREABLE) because the game in question had sponsored a ton of advertising on the site.

If your reviews are never dipping below a 5 on a 1-10 scale, you’ve either never read anything terrible (doubtful), or you’re not actually going 1-10. I look to Goodreads as a good example. 5 stars – 1 = did not like, 2 = ok, 3 = I liked it, 4 = it was great, 5 = IT WAS AMAZING AND I NOW HAVE TO TYPE IN ALL CAPS.

As for my own method – this isn’t Shakespeare. I review them based on what jumped out at me, if the art was great or a detraction, and what I liked and didn’t like. I want comics to use the medium of art and story to tell me a tale that can’t typically exist in other formats. Look at Watchmen the book vs Watchmen the movie. One has drama and intrigue and suspense, and one is [director Zack] Snyder destroying a valued property. So if your book is telling a trite story with meh art, and quite a few cliches? EHHHH. Nope. If you’re telling a great tale, with meh art and cliches? Well I can give you a chance, because in that case the art is probably just helping the story. Bad story, great art? Hello Todd McFarlane’s original run on Spider-Man. SNOOZEFEST.

Matthew: Unless I’m really pressed against a deadline or burned out from covering an absolutely meandering series with not much new insights into such – which in either case I’ll chug down an energy drink and just start writing stream of conscious – I tend not to write reviews; the headline reading “___ Review” is usually a misnomer, with a piece of criticism smuggled in instead. On occasion (such as my “review” of Trinity #3), I’ll speak little to the comic itself per se, using some facet of it to instead make a broader point about the comics medium, the superhero genre, or even just philosophy and life in general.

This is one of the reasons why I loathe numeric review scores. They contribute nothing insightful to the conversation surrounding the issue whatsoever. (Unfortunately, due to metascoring sites such as Comic Book Roundup requiring numeric scores for sites to be featured, there’s an imperative for AiPT! to utilize such.)

Moreover, every individual reviewer operates under their own internal scale. I’m constantly shocked by the frequency of 9s and 10s which some of our fellow AiPT! staffers award to fairly mediocre issues – far from the masterpieces for which I’d prefer such scores to reserved. If scores need to be used at all, I’d want them to at the least distinguish between the kind of decent issue which the Big Two put out several of each week and the once-in-a-decade work that defines the standard of excellence in the medium. For me, hearing or saying “this comic is a perfect 10” is practically equivalent to “this comic is every bit as flawless as Promethea #12 or Multiversity: Pax Americana #1.”

My own scores tend toward the center of the bell curve, with my own average at AiPT! being a 6.9 – and it’s only above 5.0 because we’re allowed to cover series we already enjoy, which makes us more predisposed to rate a comic higher than were we to blindly pick a random series off the shelf. So yes, I do think that since we’re required to use numeric scores, we ought to have some sort of internal dialogue among the AiPT! contributors about how better to explore the entire 1-10 scale.

Dog:  Numerical scores are a sticking point for me, too, although I’m not sure there’s anything that can be done about the variability brought by different reviewers. It’s a case where the reader would probably benefit by judging a critic’s score against their previous scores, to get a better relative sense of their grading. Besides, while numerical grades are a fine shorthand, for all the reasons we discussed, just looking at a number probably won’t tell you if you’ll like a comic or not.

I would like to address the issue of making “broader points” in a review, though. I can see that being a part of any given criticism, especially when comparing to a creator’s previous work on the book in question and elsewhere, but if you veer too far from the particular work, aren’t you doing both consumers and creators a disservice? If little of the actual book is mentioned, how can readers judge if it’s what they’re looking for, and how can creators know if they’ve achieved their intent? Would everyone be better served if the review acted as a jumping-off piece for a more general, additional essay?

“If you’re not taking advantage of the uniqueness of comics as a storytelling medium, you’re doing it wrong.”

And just to piggyback on what Patrick said, yes, I think if you’re not taking advantage of the uniqueness of comics as a storytelling medium, you’re doing it wrong. So much so that a good story with subpar art just won’t cut it for me. But here’s the thing — the art can be beautifully realized, poster-worthy masterpieces and still NOT be good comic art. Yes, it’s a sequential medium, so the art needs to “move” and advance the story as much as words do. Pretty pictures alone won’t do that.

Alyssa: Ugh, scoring. It’s a minefield. And yeah, it’s always going to be subjective to the reviewer. I may be a more liberal dispenser of high scores, but if an issue is well-drawn, well-written, and keeps me entertained and excited for the next issue, to me that earns a 9+. Since we are putting those scores on individual issues of on-going stories, I’m not sure how you can do otherwise, since any one issue standing out in terms of groundbreaking art doesn’t make sense in the medium. I think there can be outstanding/groundbreaking in terms of story, but it still has to fit into the overall arc the book is telling.

Changing subjects, one of the things I think reviewers can bring to the table for comics, but also any piece of art or pop culture, is a diversity of opinion. As a white, cisgendered, lady comic book reader and reviewer, I’m bringing that perspective to my reviews and I try not only to own that perspective as to my biases but also speak to the messaging that I’m getting from the story. I’m not shy about calling out things I see as problematic, and I earned my “Getting Called a Feminazi” badge on an AiPT! piece last year for it! Basically, I’m winning at life.

Patrick: I agree with Matthew on the self-selection bias inherent in our scoring. I’m not picking books I wouldn’t read just to review them, so a generally bland issue of X-Men is still going to score higher than a property I’m not familiar with.

I still think that because we’re talking about a media property, in many cases tied in with multiple other revenue streams, these books are first and foremost pulpy storytelling, and second, advertising. These books are designed to splash with big format storylines, shocking reveals, etc. I.e. comic books are soap operas, and they are designed to make people go “OH SNAP.”

If we were truly reviewing these issues on a 1-10 scale, I’d imagine a great deal of them would be scored very low, 3’s or 4’s, because sometimes you just have to push the plot forward. It’s why I keep coming back to a 1-5. Limit the range and ability to compartmentalize – and let’s lay out what a certain score means. 5 = Great read. 1 = Do not read. 3 = Did not give me eye cancer, also didn’t give me 20/10 vision. The 2 and 4 scores become the true squishy reviews. 2 = it was terrible, but there’s a few panels I found awesome for instance. 4 = Great read, but you’ll think it’s stupid in 10 years.

Also, Alyssa – huge congrats on the Feminazi badge! It’s always valuable to have a diverse opinion on why some of the presentations in a teenage boy-aimed industry are just fucking stupid, and insulting. Hello Spider-Woman by Milo Manara and Frank Cho.

Greg: Alyssa, as far as I’m concerned, if we’re not pissing of misogynists and/or the alt-right white supremacists, we’re doing something wrong.

Anyway, my first actual review for the site was that of Zenescope’s Oz #4. Writing such a snarky, scathing piece of criticism was fun, but, as was brought up before, I wasn’t considering the importance of intent. I like sexy ladies as much as the next guy, but this comic wasn’t meant for me. Say what you will about Zenescope, but they know exactly what they’re doing, and they’re providing a specific product to a specific type of person.

I learned that I no longer wanted to review things that I knew I would hate just for the sake of tearing them down, but later, I made a conscious decision to only review things that I think I’m going to like. By all means, if I don’t like something that initially seemed to be right up my alley, I’ll write a review that reflects that, but I do so knowing that I’m more in line with the book’s intended audience.

I think I speak for all the AiPT! contributors when I say that we do this because we love it. I have a full-time day job as a writer, so it can be draining to come back home and write more, especially if I’m not passionate about what I’m writing. I may take some heat for saying this, but that’s why I tend to be more positive with my reviews: I review things that I think I’m going to like, because it’s both a more enjoyable experience for me, and because I feel more qualified to review them.

As for how I score, I don’t have a rubric, but  it tends to be based around what I consider a 10. If it’s not on par with Maus or any of the other “Greatest Comics Ever,” the best a comic can hope for is a 9.5. I should note that a 10, for me, does not mean “perfect.” I’ve read a great many comics that didn’t have any major flaws that simply failed to move me like the Scott Pilgrim series did, and as such have received an 8 or 9. Similarly, one of my favorite comic series, Grant Morrison’s Animal Man run, has a few notable flaws, but the good outweighs the bad so heavily that I’d still give it a 10.

Similarly, I can’t imagine that I would ever give something a 1 unless it was as vile, offensive, and/or unreadable as Holy Terror.

Sorry, Frank Miller, but there you have it! Join us again on Friday, March 17 for another round of critic combat at the AiPT! Roundtable!

  • LarryGinkmoPrivateEye

    Why does that Matthew guy talk like a generic version of the Architect from the Matrix?