12.25.2009

Creator & Critic Explore Creation & Critique (Part 3 of 4)

In case you missed it, check out Part 1 and Part 2 in this series discussing the relationship between creators and critics in the comic book industry.

Justin: Ha! No, that one wasn't loaded. I really don't have any more drama to unload. I think I've been fortunate as well, that most of my experiences have been positive, or at least civil. I don't think the relationship is inherently adversarial, but it can certainly degenerate to that depending on the approach of the critic and/or stance of the creator. If the critic has a well reasoned observation and the creator is truly open to the feedback and not defensive, in other words - if everyone is an adult - then it won't collapse into something negative. I think the best examples are symbiotic. If someone like Antony Johnston (writer of Wasteland) tweets about my review of his book, well, I give his work exposure and buzz, he gives me more readers, and that just escalates back and forth. It's win-win, for us, for our readers, and hopefully for the industry in general. I love that feeling; that everyone is just rowing the boat in the same direction, advocating the industry holistically from a place of passion and appreciation.

What makes an A+ comic, you ask? Not to get all Jesse Helms (eww!), but uhh, I know it when I see it? I'm kidding, but only to emphasize that reviews really are inherently opinionated. I try to achieve a mix of my own subjective style preferences and more commonly accepted objective commentary on the craft. On the art side of things, stylistically I tend to like artists who either have a clean, realistic, almost sterile style (John Cassaday, Dave Gibbons, Terry Moore, Jamie McKelvie to name a few) or those with a very visceral, representational, more gritty style (artists like Danijel Zezelj, R.M. Guera, Ashley Wood, or Paul Pope to drop a few names). On the objective craft side, consistency is a big concern of mine. Do your characters look the same from panel to panel? I want to get the feeling that you've done character studies. I want to see consistent use of lighting, perspective, and proportion in the work. I think, rarely, you get an artist who masters the cold craft, and then begins to push the envelope and experiment with style and attain a transcendent quality. I'd cite the work of J.H. Williams III and his recent Detective Comics run starring Batwoman as an example of this convergence. That's certainly A+ work.

As for writing, of course I look for it to be technically competent. Nothing drives me more batshit crazy than typos, malapropisms, incorrect tenses, poor use of apostrophes, commas, etc. I call myself a writer, so I appreciate a clever turn of phrase, compelling or creative use of the language, and memorable characters who are identifiable by their manners of speaking. I need dialogue to sound realistic; I'll read that stuff out loud to myself to see if it passes the real world test. In terms of plotting or story, I'm looking for something unique, and it's important to note that it's all in the telling. "Undercover FBI Agent on an Indian Reservation" sounds like it's been done. "Vikings" sounds *really* boring. But if you look at the way in which Jason Aaron executes Scalped or Brian Wood lays down Northlanders, those books transcend their basic elevator pitches. They tell entertaining and engaging stories, but more importantly they cause introspection. You can apply those themes and choices to your own life and find meaning. And shouldn't all great, A+ grade, art aspire to that personal impact with the audience, causing us to learn about ourselves in the process?

Short version? Bottom line? An A+ grade book simply makes me forget that I'm reviewing. I unconsciously put the pen down. I set the notebook aside. I push the laptop back. Suddenly, without even realizing it, I've reached the end of the book and have forgotten the reviewer's notes because I've been so thoroughly convinced of this reality, so engrossed by the tale, so captivated by the execution, that I've been pulled into the world, not pushed out by an off-putting style or breakdowns in the craft. That's my ultimate litmus test.

This might be a nice segue to one of my last two questions. I've thought about this one a lot. As a creator, do you feel reviewers should meet some set of qualifications? If you could invent them what would they be?

Ryan: This sounds sort of like asking for qualifications to become a parent; we all know there should be, but we also know there (probably) never will be. BUT, if I had to lay down a wish list of reviewer characteristics, it would likely read something like this:

Dear Santa,

I would like a comics reviewer that is able to walk that delicate balance between writing intelligently and writing accessibly. By that I mean, I want this reviewer to use creative descriptors, to use words that I might have to paste into dictionary.com, to write in such a way that pushes my intellect, but at the same time it doesn’t feel overburdened, academic, or uppity.

I’ll hope this reviewer will also be open-minded with regards to his taste in comics and constructive in his/her criticism. First off, I do not care to limit my genres when choosing comics, and neither should my reviewer. I think a comic should succeed or fail based on the quality of the writing and artwork (in that order), not based on whether it falls in the category of Superheroes, Manga, Alternative Comics, or any other, and my reviewer will feel the same way. In addition to that, when this reviewer dubs a book to be good or bad, he/she will cite examples to back up these claims.

If I’ve been an especially good boy this year, perhaps this reviewer could also include a quick, one-glance approach to reviews, such as a thumbs-up/down rating, an out-of-five-stars rating, or even a letter grade scale. Because, quite honestly, Santa, as an artist I’m pretty visually-geared, and really don’t feel like wading through a bunch of text every day.

Finally, I’d like this idealized reviewer of mine to have an incredibly kick-anus work ethic. I want to visit a website that has frequently updated content and introduces me to material I might otherwise have overlooked during hibernation in my artist-cave.

Thanks, Santa!
Ryan Claytor

Sooo? Is that too much to ask? Maybe a tad on the needy side, but a guy can dream. Actually, at the risk of sounding like a total creeper, I think you totally fit the bill, Justin. Keep up the fantabulous site, my man. Anyhow, speaking of not always wanting to wade through a mountain of text, maybe you can fire that last question my way. :)

Justin: Ryan... I love that description. And it's not just because of your compliment, which BTW, is very humbling and appreciated because I really aspire to be all of that. You just very eloquently captured the "space" I like as a fan myself, and where I want to be as a reviewer, so thank you. As a total aside, it's why I miss Comic Foundry Magazine. For me, it captured that space in between the lowtarded-brow humor of Wizard Magazine and the sometimes haughty erudition of The Comics Journal. Sigh.

As for reviewer qualifications, I ran through some options. Should a reviewer have some type of formal writing training? Should they have read a depth and breadth of comics? While I think you should know how to construct a basic sentence, some of the best writers have no formal training. While reading lots of comics can make you knowledgeable - about comics, if that's all you consume of pop culture, literature, or art, you won't be as well rounded or be able to offer any fresh perspective.

One suggestion that will probably not be very popular would be for reviewers to be required to create a mini-comic, or even just complete an actual script. Perhaps if they walk that mile, experiencing the blood, sweat, and tears involved in the creative endeavor, it would help temper their criticism. It might also yield a better understanding of the actual process. For example, sometimes I see everything non-writing getting lumped together, the “art” gets criticized, but what the reviewer is picking up on is actually an issue with inking or coloring. It's all idealized speculation, like the parent qualifications, but wouldn't it be interesting to have a professional reviewer certification from some third party entity? The homogenization would risk suppressing all of the vibrant styles and backgrounds, and it would have to be subscriptive, you could never enforce it, but I'm fascinated by stuff like this. "Justin Giampaoli - Board Certified, National Academy of Comic Arts Critique." Oh right, just call us "NACAC." Haha!

I also think sometimes critics need to recognize the fact they're discussing a person’s livelihood. If you’re a pro artist or writer and that's your sole source of income, my comments may have some (even extremely slight) bearing on that. These people have families. Not to keep invoking Brian Wood, but our daughters are the same age; that actually pops into my head from time to time. How would I feel if some random person I didn’t know started a blog and started commenting on the way I was handling my profession, for my employer, with my work product, in a very public forum? Not to get all Peter Parker or sound egotistical, but “with great power…”

Alright Mr. Claytor, my final question is simply, what is the role of a critic? You've described the style and approach you'd prefer them to take, but what is their basic function? Why do we need them? ...do we need them? (Yikes!) I have a couple of definitions I've found that we can chew on, but let me get your un-influenced thoughts first.

PLEASE JOIN US HERE IN ONE WEEK FOR PART 4 IN OUR SERIES!

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