Russ: In honor of the reorganization of Comic Book Galaxy, and in particular the reorganization of editing responsibilities that has brought you, well, me, this week Big Bang co-editors Chris Allen and yours truly engage in some dark pondering, ominous gossiping, and outright slandering on the topic of what reviewing is all about.
Chris: Slandering, pandering, and Randy Landering, and maybe some gerrymandering. But first, I'll thank Russ for taking me up on my less-than-subtle self-invitation to glom onto his column.
Russ: It entertains me to get us going with something I saw on Jon Stewart's Daily Show this week. The host of Fear Factor said that critics are losers who just couldn't cut it in their field (as writers, actors, or whatever) -- that they're "dodgeball victims," which I thought was a scream. It's easy for that to be true, too, and I think perhaps particularly in comics, where the difference between a successful writer and an unsuccessful one can be whether he or she found an artist. This business is notoriously hard for writers to dive into alone, although admittedly not impossible (but probably distasteful).
Chris: I was always really good at not getting hit in dodgeball, and could often guess when someone behind me was about to throw at my head. But anyway, speaking of dodging, the Fear Factor guy you mention above is using the most ridiculous, timeworn dodge used by writers both good and bad for decades, maybe even centuries. Fact is, criticism is a valid, necessary form of writing. Where would we be if everyone just created and never commented on it? Never analyzed and dissected in print? To reduce all critics to whiny, untalented geeks like he describes does a great disservice to the field, and is likely disingenuous. I assume there were some good reviews of Fear Factor--I didn't mind the show myself--so does this guy tell those writers they're losers, too? Doubtful. And of course, while it's rare, there have been critics, such as James Agee, who've had success in creative writing endeavors, too, such as screenwriting. I won't go into Roger Ebert's Beyond the Valley of the Dolls script...
All that being said, there ARE some, perhaps many, critics just like that described, but the generalization is still unfair.
Russ: Right. Remember, we use only the best FDA-certified grade A reviewers, so you know they're fresh. (Some of them can be very fresh.) Seriously, sniping at creators is not our job. We can do it, and we can enjoy it as much as the next person, but that's an individual thing. When a reviewer takes a personal-issue bias in, that's a problem. Whether or not Todd McFarlane was a jerk to me at a con once (it's up to you to decide if this is the case) is immaterial when I'm reviewing his work. On the flipside, I may think Steve Rude is of the utmost sterling nature (and in fact I don't mind saying I do), but that doesn't get him a pass if he does something lame.
Chris: The thing a reviewer (and we hope, the readers) need to understand is that a savage review of one particular comic doesn't mean the reviewer doesn't like other things the guy's written or drawn, or that the reviewer has any particular personal feelings at all about the creator. It's simply weak writing to constantly qualify every review with, "While I liked Jones' work on Competent Girl, I just can't get behind his work here on The Scatologist." Well, that example's actually okay, if you leave it at that. But the reviewer seems timid and vacillating when he or she goes on longer than that about the many fine qualities of the creator not on display in the book in question.
Russ: This is one of the tricks of editing -- knowing how to tell a ground axe from a real review. Frankly, catching typos is sissy stuff. A program can do it for the most part. (And they do.) For that matter, I could write a filter to bounce review mail that doesn't make our wordcount minimum. The work is in making sure that the 'Galaxy principles are held, and there's no black and white rulebook for doing it.
Chris: The goal of being an editor should never be to put one's own personal stamp on a review, or to make sure every review is in our writing style and reflective of our own opinions. That would be terribly arrogant, and I'm sure our talented reviewers wouldn't stand for it. No, when we talk about "Galaxy principles," I think it comes down to some basic, and some quite specific, standards of professionalism. The specific stuff we won't bore you with, having to do with the standardized format you see in the Big Bang in regards to credits; the word count; making a plot summary ideally only a sentence or two, etc. The basic principles of a review, as I see them, are to review the specific book's qualities of writing and art, perhaps using some comparison or contrast with previous issues or other work by the creator(s), and never getting personal or going off into inappropriate tangent. An example of an appropriate tangent was in a recent review of X-Force, where Kevin Mathews not only reviewed the issue, but also wrote of how his opinion of the issue was affected by what he felt was a disastrous decision on Marvel's part to use the X-Force name to sell a concept quite different from any other mutant title. I initially had a problem with this tangent, but came to realize it was relevant. An example of a "bad tangent" was something I cut from a review of Spawn: The Dark Ages, where the writer closed the review with advice to writer Steve Niles that he should try to distance himself from Todd McFarlane in order to avoid the backlash against Todd. I guess that could work in a column, but not in a review.
Russ: And it talks to the wrong person. I'm sure many, if not most, creators are interested in how their work is reviewed, and read reviews. That's good. If good (not necessarily positive, but well-thought) reviews help them, so much the better. I feel, though, that the real "customer" is the reader or potential reader, and advice to Steve Niles or anyone else does the reader no good. I also doubt that Mr. Niles is sitting around waiting for a reviewer to give him tips on his business dealings, but that's neither here nor there, I guess.
The question at hand, when I write reviews, is "should the reader buy this?" If my answer is "yes," I explain why. If my answer is "no," I explain why not. And (arguably the most reasonable possibility) if the answer is "it depends," I explain how. Now, this is not a fool-proof formula. If I say "You shouldn't buy this because the inker's a bum," that's not reasonable. (At best, it fits under "it depends." But we don't ask or desire our reviewers to review the personalities of the creators.) But it gets you on the right road. Like Chris says, the trick then is to stick to the merits -- or lack of merits -- of the work itself, and you'll arrive at something useful for the reader.
Chris: And it's of utmost importance to be entertaining in the review, not to just assume that your scientific formula of why this month's Nightwing was better than last month's (three more punches thrown!) is of interest to a reader. Grab them with a witty summary at the start. Zip into a confident and intriguing thesis sentence. Keep it lively.
Myself, I find I gravitate towards reviews that let more of the personality of the reviewer shine through. After all, won't a reader naturally give your opinion a little more weight if he finds you interesting or likeable, or somehow different than the dozens of review robots he can read elsewhere? (Bzz-clik! Comic-in-question-is...terrific...but-marred-by...murky coloring...zzz-beep-clik-clik). I read a hefty book a couple years back, 1001 Nights at the Movies (I think that was it) by Pauline Kael, a celebrated film critic of the 70s and 80s. While I hadn't seen half the movies reviewed in the book, I read every review, because they were wonderfully written. At heart, the Big Bang, and reviews at other sites, are a sort of service. As you say, we're telling you, as quasi-experts (ha!), what's worth reading or not. A couple weeks pass, and the expiration date on most reviews has passed. But even if it's a futile gesture, I do think it's worthwhile trying to make each review a little better than just a service. It should be a good read.
Russ: Before we wrap up, I want to use some space to say that the comic industry can be an exciting place if you let it. You hear diversity bandied about a lot, but a lot of the people doing so then throw rocks at those who aren't like them for not being diverse in the way they want to me. What makes the industry exciting is the real potential for everyone to play, and in a time where everyone cringes at "the shrinking industry," there's plenty of room for everyone's game. Harvey Pekar has been quoted saying, "Comics are just words and pictures. You can do anything with words and pictures."
Chris: It's a beautiful medium in that way, in that the barriers to getting one's ideas out to someone else are very low. You can self-publish a cheap minicomic, or publish online for a few bucks worth of bandwidth. The biggest internal problem (as opposed to the external problem of not being able to get new readers) is the snobbery of the various subcultures of fandom. I have a friend who's produced an issue of a wonderful sort of "funny animal" book, structured like a sitcom. He's frowned on by others in this "underground" sort of self-publishing community, simply because his work is tightly plotted humor rather than abstract or self-indulgent. Well, that's his side of it, anyway! I know one of our hopes for the Galaxy, and the Big Bang in particular, is to better represent some of the smaller publishers--some of this diversity of which you speak. It's not a crusade, and I think it would be unfair to force reviewers to read things they don't want to, but I do think that readers will see an increasingly broader scope to what we cover. It's good for the industry (in its small way), and it will hopefully just make for a better Bang for the buck.
Jeez, I really took over, didn't I? Russ, feel free to write next week's Breakdowns and I'll just be in the corner, sitting on my thumb.
Russ: Good cue to wrap it up. Thanks to Chris for coming out to play for this week (it's entirely my fault how long it took to get this done) and best wishes on his futile attempt to get me to do his work on Breakdowns. As for the rest of you, hope you got a kick out of it. Come back again and I'll bring you new pain.
Reviews This Week: Incal #1-2, Last Shot: First Draw #1, Last Shot #1, Nightwing #60, Defenders #8, The Tick Color #1-3, An Accidental Death, Lady Death/Medieval Witchblade #1, Shi GI Preview, Desperate Times #3, Daredevil #21, Detective Comics #761, X-treme X-Men #4, Operation Bollock #1, Transmetropolitan #48, Boneyard #3, Ultimate X-Men #8, Amazing Spider-Man #34, all brought to you by Hilliard, Jizdeortega, Lawler, Mathews, Meadow, Terl, Weissburg, and the Princess. Check 'em out.
Forum Topic: What's the real purpose of reviews? Are Chris and I crazy?
- R. Francis Smith