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Comics Reviewers Should Try Making Comics

Those who can, do.

Those who can’t, teach.

Those loudmouths with more opinions than smarts or experience, review.

That’s how the old saying goes, right?

“…your ignorance regarding how comics are made.”

Back on August 25, 2017, Nelson Blake II tweeted his feelings about comic book reviewers who don’t talk about the art in comics. Scroll back in his feed for the whole thing, but here are a few highlights from that morning:

Now, as one who reviews comics on a fairly regular basis, let me just say this back to Nelson Blake II:

I agree.  You’re absolutely right.

Not what you were expecting?

 

Who Can We Blame?

This is the internet.  Our first goal must be to assign appropriate blame.

Blame the Market

Too many reviews are written as quick glances at the comic.  They’re mostly plot recap followed by a small paragraph of whether the author of the piece agrees with the writer’s decision to do x or y, with maybe a token sentence that the artist is good or is a bad fill-in artist.

And, to a certain degree, I get where that comes from.  It’s largely the market.  People want quick reactions.  They don’t want long-form critiques and reviews.  Nobody cares about this week’s new issue of whatever comic after two days of its release.  Trust me. I’ve seen the numbers that back that up. If it’s Friday and you’re reviewing a book that came out two days ago, your potential readership is half gone.

The market wants insta-reviews, hot takes, quick cuts, and vindication that someone agrees with them about the book they just finished reading five minutes ago.  They won’t sit around and read more than 500 words to get that. If you can do it in 300-400 words, all the better.

Yes, comics journalism is doomed, but it’s not entirely comics journalism’s fault. The market rules.  Give the market what it wants.

The market is superhero readers who want to know what their favorite characters are doing, and whether someone else agrees or disagrees with them on how right it is.

 

Blame Confusion, Too

The other thing that confuses some reviewers is that they see the art as the delivery mechanism of the story, rather than a necessary part of the storytelling, itself.

Not enough people — readers and reviewers, alike — realize that the reason a story seems so strong is because the artist told it so well.  The choices the artist made helped to clarify the point of the story.  The artist guided the reader appropriately in any number of ways, but in particular through all the timing tricks of sequential narrative and composition of panels to guide the eye.

A good artist can elevate a so-so story.  They can also sink a strong story.  A story cannot stand on its own in a comic book.  You need good art for a successful comic book to work.  It’s a necessary part of the storytelling, not a cosmetic adornment to a script.

Wait, Don’t Forget the Publishers!

Marvel and DC feeds into this, by the way, by publishing books as fast as they can write them and to hell with whoever they can slot in to draw it that week.

If the publishers don’t care about the rest of the creative team, why should the readers?  Or the reviewers?

Where To Learn Comics

How you review a comic is usually dictated by how you perceive them.

Sounds obvious, I know, but hear me out.

Some people are more art-centric.  Some are writer-centric.  Some are character fans. Some are universe fans.  Read enough of their reviews and you’ll see which way they lean.

I learned my vocabulary and my perspective on reviewing comics from spending my entire comics reading lifetime voraciously reading interviews with comics creators, to start.  You can pick up a lot of stuff in a good interview.  You can learn how things work and how creators see things and what their angle is on the work.  Read enough of these kind of reviews and you’ll get a pretty well-rounded look at the art form, believe it or not.

These days, with podcasts, there’s an overload of such information.  You can likely learn more from binge listening to one interview podcast’s history than I did spending ten years reading all the interviews I could in Wizard and Hero Illustrated and Comics Buyer’s Guide and all the rest.

You can also learn about comics from talking to creators at convention or on-line.

And, of course, there’s no shortage of books on the subject.  There have been at least three major releases in the last couple or three years of books that will teach you how a comic is made.  Brian Bendis wrote one. Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente co-wrote one. Jessica Abel and Matt Madden did another.

Read them all. You’ll learn a lot.

(And don’t forget the classics like Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics”, or “Writers on Comics Scriptwriting.“)

Step Outside of Comics

I’ve also studied animation and photography, design and typography.

Some of the best reviews I’ve read are from people who studied literature of various kinds, whether it’s classic Mark Twain texts or pulp fiction or more literary fiction.  Others have a more cinematic bent.  All of this material informs their reviews, which are all about perspective.

This kind of stuff adds up to something unique in each writer.  I like applying what I’ve used in other disciplines to comics.  And there’s not a reviewer around that won’t apply what they’ve learned elsewhere to their comic reviews.  You just can’t help yourself.

Reviewers are, by definition, opinionated.  At best, you can only hope they are consistent so you know which ones to follow.

Learn the Visuals

Whatever you do, concentrate more on the visual side of things.

Stop reading Writer’s Digest’s books.  (Wait, are those still a thing?  They were huge in the 90s.  I imagine that’s waned a bit since…)

Study other visual arts like movies, photography, painting, even comic strips.  Even if it’s subliminal, that will help get your mind working on analyzing the visual side of things. That’s important.

 

Creators Do More Than Learn; They Create

Theoretical learning is fine.  It gives you a vocabulary.  It gives you a general outline of the process and the items on the checklist a creator needs to do to accomplish their job month after month.

Discovering principles from other disciplines that you can apply to comics brings something new to the table and fleshes out your worldview.

But that’s all external.

It doesn’t give you much of an insight into a creator’s mind. It doesn’t give you a feel for the process of creation and why choices are often made out of reality, not creative whimsy.  There’s a fine line to walk there between trying to play mind-reader and using what you know to extrapolate or even infer what might have happened.

Walking a mile in their shoes helps a lot, though.

Bottom line: I think we don’t give creators nearly enough credit.  I think we’re all too quick to assume the worst case scenario without thinking about what might really be going on.  We judge the creator for their creation without knowing the circumstances that surrounded them.

Heck, I’d submit that office politics have more to do with ruining the comics you blame “bad” creators for than the creators, themselves.

For example, Ron Zimmerman once wrote an extremely crappy issue of “The Punisher.”  You know what?  He wrote it with an impossible deadline that left no time for thought, from what I heard.  What came out was a miracle of the superhero comic production assembly line. It stunk, but it was as much a victim of the process as it was the creator who didn’t have time to think through his idea.

You start to wonder how many similar stories we never hear about along the production line of Marvel and DC every month…

 

A Thousand Choices for Every Creator

There’s a huge difference between judging a completed work and facing a blank page and creating something. It is only by practicing that craft that you can get an idea for what a creator faces.

Creating a comic involves writing a script, laying out the story, drawing the pencils, finishing the inks, coloring in all the lines, and adding word balloons above all that.

Duh, right?

But each creator along that line faces a new brick wall to break through.  (This is true even when it’s one creator doing multiple roles, though with slightly less mental overhead.)

The Blank Page

The writer has the scariest of all things: a blank page.  Nobody else on the creative team can do a thing until the writer fills that blank page with all the words.

The artist has to make a thousand more decisions, from camera angles to foreground objects to silhouettes to clothing choices to body language to architecture and car models and — it’s exhausting.

Then the inker has to separate layers of the art with line thickness, feather lines to simulate extra dimensionality or shadows, figure out what the penciler meant and translate that into something printable, add in a touch of artistic flair, and draw over every nook and cranny the penciler laid down, without destroying the art.

The colorist might work from a specific palette for a given series, but still needs to make almost as many decisions as the artist does, with clothing color, skin colors, time of day, direction of light, quality of light, reflections, etc.  They need to know anatomy to make the shadows work in believable ways.  They need to decide between bright and dark, flat and modeled, direct or reflected. etc.

Yes, even letterers then have to make their thousand choices on every page, and I talked about those in a video already:

 

What Does a Reviewer Know?

How much of that do you think about when writing a review?

I can’t claim that I think of that every time, of course.  But I can tell you from my experiments in playing with each of those disciplines that I’ve developed an overwhelming respect for what each has to do.  None of them are easy jobs. I’ve also learned a lot of the jargon for each and what the challenges are that they face.

There’s the conventional wisdom that states every comic book reviewer is angling for a job writing comics.  It’s not completely fair, but there’s also plenty of examples to back it up.  Heck, during my time as the CBR Reviews Editors, I worked with more than a couple people who are well-known comics creators now.  I also worked with many who have never written a comic in their lives and are happy comics fans/reviewers.

Both positions are equally valid.  I would submit, however, than the “wannabe creator” probably knows a little more about the process that might inform their reviews, even if subconsciously. I think that experience of actually working with the blank page and putting yourself in the shoes of a comic creator can help inform your review or — dare I use the word? — criticism.

In the end, yes, the work is the work and that’s what should be judged. The process of getting there doesn’t matter.  That’s where a critic can excel.  They can apply their methodologies to the material and arrive at a completely valid and totally impartial conclusion.

I think, however, reviews are more interesting when they take into account a bit of the process of arriving at the work.  If you understand the process, you understand the results a little better. You not only know the nomenclature, but you also have a better idea of how things got that way — why something went bad or why something works so well when it shouldn’t.

It will help keep you from writing something vitriolic that might prove embarrassing later, also.

It broadens your horizons in a way that nothing else can. You can not only see what’s wrong, but express yourself more clearly for why you think that..

Try it.

 

Learn It For Yourself

Write a comic.  Draw a comic.  Ink a comic. Color a comic.  Letter a comic.

Don’t show it to me. I don’t want to see it, and you likely don’t want to embarrass yourself.  This isn’t about creating portfolio material, either.  It’s not about perfecting something.

I drew Ron Marz' Shinku story using Smurfs. Because why not?

I drew Ron Marz’ “Shinku” story using Smurfs. Because why not?  And, yes, I realize how incredibly bad most everything here is. I could write a whole article on the creation of this page and why it turned out the way it did.

This is about experiencing the process, learning some respect for the work, and gaining knowledge for how it’s done.

Once you’ve committed to a line, you’ll better understand the domino effect of that commitment. One thing leads to another.  And sometimes, it won’t be the best decision, but you’ll never get anything done unless you commit to something.

Deadlines are murder.  So give yourself one.  Understand how that leads to “shortcuts” and how those might be unfairly judged by others.

See a comic for the first time from the inside out.  Claw your way through the empty slate to produce something new.

The Artist’s Example

If you’re trying to layout a page and the script calls for the first panel to be an establishing shot of New York City, where do you begin?  A silhouette of the skyline, punctuated by the lit up windows at night?  A ground level view of Times Square?  A bird’s eye view inside the concrete canyons, looking down on the busy streets with the tall buildings looking hazy off in the distance?  Should you draw that in one-, two-, or three-point perspective?

Does that decision rely on the description of what’s happening in the next panel?  Should the panel spread all the way across the page?  Or be a vertical panel?

Do you draw any details in the sky?  Leave that to the colorist?  Count on the word balloons blocking that out and ignore it?

Every panel is a thousand little choices. I spent three paragraphs on the simplest set of decisions the artist might need to make in this example.  There are plenty more left, dictated by that first decision.

Decisions are made to keep away from weak spots. Decisions are made to meet deadlines.  Decisions are made because on that particular morning the artist couldn’t draw the hand right from that angle, so it wound up thrust deep into the character’s pocket!

See what creators see, and apply that to your reviews.  Notice all the little details and you’ll understand the big picture better.

 

From Personal Experience

Yes, I’ve done all of the above.  There’s even an example of it on this site.

About 10 or 15 years ago, the Digital Webbing Lettering message board was a hotbed for lettering tutorials, and the home of several future letterers.  There were challenges and ideas to practice from.  I did them all at the time.  Those files are lost on ancient hard drives somewhere.

Before that, I even took a shot at hand lettering.  I went to an art store and got an Ames Guide and an ink pen.  I ruled out the lines and letterer an entire sheet of Bristol Board.  It wasn’t easy, and I didn’t even get to the point of drawing the balloons.

Doing both of those things has helped to inform my opinions on what makes for good lettering.

I’ve done #Inktober two years in a row — the first traditionally, and the second digitally.  Traditionally, it’s an unforgiving medium.  It requires a slow and steady hand to pay close attention to every line.  What looks good at first often looks incomplete from a distance.  This is especially true digitally, where it’s so easy to zoom far in and not realize how thin your pen line really is.

I’ve also colored a lot of that art.  My sense of color is hideous, and I often borrow palettes from printed comics or from various on-line color-picking sites. I don’t have Photoshop, but Clip Studio Paint has its own set of interesting tools to work with.  Making up new special effects with a variety of filters and layers is a challenge.  Creating textures that don’t overwhelm a piece is tricky.  Making the saturation or brightness of a color match the atmosphere or mood is the product of lots more experience than I have.

Coloring and Inking are those things that too many people think is easy.  You’re just going over the stuff the artist already did.  The hard part is done, right?  Just fill in the rest.

Black and white line art by Geoff Darrow

Coloring is easy. Just fill in the lines. Here, start with this page by Geoff Darrow. Describe your process.

::sigh::

Oh, and all of that stuff I inked for Inktober?  I had to draw it first.  Not even getting to storytelling, getting the anatomy and perspective and consistency in your art right is a bear.  When I see an artist on a con flow doing some drawing with two characters in it, I marvel at how they get the sizes right so quickly.  They don’t ever need to draw some marching ants around one person and transform the selection to be large to match the other person.

Digital tools present a whole new layer on top of all of this.  Have I mentioned my other site, LearnCSP.com?

I’ve tried it all.  I haven’t even mentioned the fan fiction I used to send to Erik Larsen in the 1990s for Freak Force.  I still have those scripts somewhere around here.

Having the experience of plodding around in the dark, trying to learn the process and apply myself to it, has taught me a lot about the kinds of decisions creators make professionally for every comic.  It’s an overwhelming amount of work, and the ones who do it well are all that much more impressive.

And when I see something I recognize from my relatively brief struggles with the creative process showing up in a final comic, it excites me.  I know it.  I can explain it. That’s the power of reviewing from a position of some experience.

 

In Defense of Reviewers

That all said…

We can’t review everything.  And, often, there’s nothing much of interest to say about a particular part of the book. I’ve written 2000 word reviews without mentioning the colorist and will no doubt be asked for my #ArtCred card back for that foul.

Sometimes, a review skews one way or the other.  I’ve written reviews that were 90% about the story, but also plenty of reviews that were 90% about the art.  It happens.  Don’t pick on a isolated example to shame a reviewer.  (Not that Blake was doing that at all here, by the way. But I’ve seen others jump like that.  This is the internet.  Everyone’s so damned jumpy to destroy people over a singular perceived slight…)

As I said a few hundred words back, there’s also the issue with giving the people what they want.  Writing short reviews under tight deadlines is a sure fire way to see creators get overlooked, but also the only way to capture the eyeballs.

There’s no excuse for systematically ignoring an artist’s contributions, but you have to take a higher vantage point when considering a particular review.  Look a bit wider.  Not every review will be perfect, just as every review won’t be.

 

Don’t Forget the Artist

Let us get back to what Nelson Blake II tweeted about last week.  Reviewers don’t talk about art often enough, but that should be part of their job.

I think there’s a lack of appreciation for it, sometimes, that stems from not knowing what to talk about.  Writers can talk about writing, because they’re writing stuff.  But art?  They’re only drawing Tic Tac Toe boards with their kids.

Spending just a little bit of time in that role will help then appreciate the art side of things.  And the coloring.  And the lettering.

Come up with some simple exercises, spend an hour or two on each, and see what you learn and what you grow to appreciate more than ever.

The best way to learn something is by doing it, right?

 

TL;DR

If you’re a reviewer, try to walk through the processes of comic book creation.  Try your hand, however briefly, at each discipline.  You’ll learn a lot about what comic book creators fight through to make a comic.  That knowledge can inform your reviews, even if indirectly, which will help set you apart from the cacophony of the internet.

Here is the video version:

5 Comments

  • JC LEBOURDAIS September 8, 2017 at 11:02 am

    Hehe this is what happens when you have the misconception that tweets are meant to convey intelligent thought, instead of mindless rants. Nice post though.

    Reply
    • Augie September 10, 2017 at 10:14 pm

      I enjoy and often participate in a good mindless tweet rant from time to time. Never underestimate their power. 😉

      Reply
      • dancondonjones September 11, 2017 at 6:31 pm

        I’m very much a writer person, but it is surprising how much difference the art makes. When a run in a comic flips between a lesser artist and a better one, it really feels like the writing is better – though I know in my head that’s probably not actually the case.

        It wouldn’t surprise me if that’s a big part of why Riot at Xavier’s is often seen as the high point of Morrison’s New X-Men – and why the final issue of Giffen!s JLA which Kevin Maguire returned for stands high above the couple of years which preceded it.

        Reply
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