12.11.2009

Creator & Critic Explore Creation & Critique (Part 1 of 4)

Please welcome back Ryan Claytor of Elephant Eater Comics. During our frequent correspondence, we’re always on the lookout for topics worthy of one of our conversational posts. This time out, we’ll be featuring a month-long series of weekly posts exploring the relationship between creators and critics, addressing the dynamic from both perspectives. Before we dive in, allow me to introduce you once again to Ryan…

Ryan Claytor is a comics artist and professor living in Lansing, Michigan. He currently teaches Comics Studio courses at both Michigan State University and the University of Michigan Flint. In 2007, he earned his Master of Fine Arts degree from San Diego State University with an emphasis in multimedia, researching autobiography in comics. Claytor’s achievements have included a Cartoonist in Residence position at the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco, California, visiting lecturerships at the Dallas Museum of Art and Michigan State University, an internship with Marvel Comics in New York City, and judging the Will Eisner Spirit of Comics Retailing Award in 2007. In 2009 the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco featured an exhibition of his work and Claytor began teaching the first “Comics and Visual Narrative” class in Michigan State University’s history.

As a creator, Claytor is most widely known for his self-published, autobiographical, comic book series And Then One Day. Although the series has undergone several format changes and incarnations since its inception in 2004, And Then One Day readers are consistently treated with Claytor’s thoughtful and entertaining personal anecdotes immaculately packaged with a designer’s eye for production detail. In the summer of 2008, he released a republication of his Master’s Thesis on autobiography in comics entitled Concatenations.

Claytor was also an artist and event organizer for the first 24 Hour Comics Day (24HCD) in 2004. Subsequently, his twenty-four hour comic about relationships with passed relatives was chosen from hundreds of worldwide submissions as one of the best stories of the day and included in the first internationally distributed 24HCD anthology, 24 Hour Comics Day Highlights 2004 . Since this time he has participated in two other 24 Hour Comics Days.

During the summer of 2007, Claytor embarked on the most ambitious tour ever organized by a self-publishing comic book artist. This North American In-Store Signing Tour took Claytor to eighteen states and two Canadian Provinces where he signed books, spoke about his work, and held art exhibitions at fifty different museums, bookstores, libraries, and comic book specialty shops. To date, he has held signings in half the states across America.

Justin: Ryan, as a creator, what is your general approach for engaging with reviewers? Do you have a list of people you send comp copies to when you debut a new work or do you let them find it more organically, focusing on retailer distribution to generate interest?

Ryan: Before I answer that question, I just want to say that I think a really interesting part of this conversation between you and me is that each of us has waded in the waters of the other's interest. That sounds really convoluted, but basically, you, as a reviewer, have worn a creator hat from time to time, and I, a comic artist, have occasionally thrown my hat in the reviewer's ring.

Anyhow, that musing aside, I do usually have a list of reviewers to whom I send comp copies. I really enjoy the feedback of an unbiased reviewer. I come from an art background and I'm used to critiques, so I find this really helpful to understand how my work is being received. Occasionally the review will happen a little more serendipitously, when a reader happens across my books in a local comic shop and is moved enough to write a review, but with the small format of my books I can't always count on someone FINDING my books. Ha-ha!

What about you? As a reviewer do you get comp copies very often? I can only guess that you don't, as you don't list your mailing address on your website. (For shame.) Is this intentional? Do you feel that comp copies sway your reviews? ...or do you just hate freedom? :)

Justin: I do receive some comp copies. Oni Press, Optimum Wound, Teenage Dinosaur, and Archaia Studios Press have been pretty generous over the years. They're usually hard copies, but a handful of individual creators also started sending PDF files, which is fun. The larger publishers just left comments asking if they could send comps without any prompting from me, but on the small press front it's been different. Typically I'll meet a creator at a signing or con, and it's a much more personal experience. Heck, I found you and your work at an LCS signing so that worked very well. Usually, I'll introduce myself as a reviewer and they're excited to hand over a free book with the promise of exposure on 13 Minutes.

The reason I don't list a mailing address is just to maintain a layer of privacy. Coming from the law enforcement and corporate security world, I perceive revealing too much personal information as an occupational hazard. Not to be a downer or go off on a tangent, but I've actually been involved in mass layoffs in which terminated employees have threatened me or my family during separation. With the volume of info available on the interwebs, I just don't want to make it any easier. I don't keep pictures of my family in the office, etc.

But yeah, please send comp copies! I welcome them and commit to reviewing every book I receive. I don't feel that they sway my reviews positively, nor do I think they're truly "free." In order to maintain objectivity, I view it as a business arrangement in which a publisher or creator is exchanging a good for a service. I can't guarantee a positive review necessarily, but I do guarantee a review.

Where/when have you dipped your toe into the waters of reviewing? I wasn't aware of that.

You mentioned being accustomed to critical feedback. What do you think makes a particular piece of criticism truly constructive?

Ryan: Wows. Guess I didn’t take into account the level of privacy you’d have to uphold when working in law enforcement. Is a P.O. Box out of the question? I purposefully have a P.O. Box so I don’t have to give out my home addy. Just curious if that is something you’ve considered.

To get to your questions, the reviews I’ve done have been short excerpted blurbs for pull quotes to be printed on books. Your recent, Blood Orange, was one of them. If I read something that really inspires me, I’ll occasionally write about it online, but the reviewer hat is not one I wear often.

With regards to constructive feedback, it certainly doesn’t have to be a glowing review. If something bothered the reader/reviewer about my book that they mention in their review, that’s useful information to have as an artist. I want to know which narrative elements are working and which are falling flat. I try really hard to look at that information in an objective light and see if there’s something I can do to improve as an author/artist. Sometimes a reviewer will suggest an additional element that might make my work more powerful, or even mention a related book/artist that I was not aware of before. All this information is useful in the lifelong pursuit of art.

So, do you ask this constructive criticism question in an interest to better understand what artists take from your reviews, or are you interested in my thoughts in comparison to your own (as a creator who has recently received some reviews on your new book)?

Justin: Getting a P.O. Box is a good solution, something I'll probably consider if I start to get a deluge of comps being offered up.

I asked that question from curiosity on both perspectives. I'm always interested in ways to make my reviews more valuable to the creators involved. And that begs the question: do you think most reviews are aimed at the audience or at the creators? I've seen a lot of debate about that online, what the value or role of a critic is. Myself, I try to offer both. I want regular readers to know if a particular book or series is worth their time and money, I think I owe them that. They visit the site because they either a) trust my opinion, or b) are just entertained by the writing. Hopefully you capture both, but sometimes it's weighted one direction. There are some reviewers I actually disagree with most of the time, but the writing is so entertaining that I read anyway.

For creators, if there's an approach that's working particularly well I want to encourage it and provide positive feedback. Conversely, if something is flawed in execution, in my humble opinion of course, I try to relay that in the most constructive and non-adversarial way possible. Unless it's just awful, like beyond repair, then I tend to get snarky. If I feel you've been a careless creator, then I feel more latitude with throwing my opinions around. You get what you put into it.

As a reviewer who has dipped his toe into creating, I have a huge appreciation for what makes feedback constructive. I think providing examples and explanation is really critical. Supporting your statements makes feedback meaningful. It's not enough to just say "the story goes awry" or "the art is amateurish." That doesn't help anyone. You have to explain how, use specifics, or offer alternatives.

So, it sounds like you take into account certain feedback and are conscious of it when you create? Have you knowingly altered your style or approach based on feedback? Is there any particular piece of criticism, positive or negative, that's stuck with you?

Ryan: You mentioned giving examples during critique. That’s something I really emphasize in the university art classes I teach, both comics and otherwise. It’s not enough to simply say, “It’s (insert adjective),” or “I like it.” That doesn’t do anyone any good: you or the person to whom you’re delivering feedback. Practice articulating your viewpoint more specifically and your comments will become more intelligible. Not to mention, the artist receiving the feedback will have some concrete examples to consider.

I do take feedback into account when I create. There was an early quote from the review site, Optical Sloth, that made me think a little harder about the excerpts of my life I decided to share. It was something to the effect of, “Nothing seems to go wrong in Ryan’s life.” I actually wrote a comic response to this and included it in my next book. It was sort of a tongue-in-cheek western tune about how my life was falling apart. But behind that farcical rebuttal I really started to consider being more revealing about uncomfortable aspects of my life in hopes that people could better relate to my work. It was a difficult, more objective, examination of self, but I think in the end it served the work well and made me develop as an artist. So, thanks, Kevin. :)

But some of my harshest criticism is my own. As I read more and more books and comics and watch more films and television shows, my interests slowly shift and I become more critical of my own work. I try to deconstruct narrative art that I enjoy and compare it to my own work in comics. I’m constantly making efforts to improve my work in terms of production, illustration quality, and narrative content. While I think each of my books have been an improvement on the last, I still have a lot to learn.

Back to your side of the coin, as a reviewer, do you ever receive feedback, positive or negative, that stays with you or influences future reviews?

PLEASE JOIN US HERE IN ONE WEEK FOR PART 2 IN OUR SERIES!

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