Thoughts on Reviewing Comics

Every Wednesday, local comic shops and online retailers provide readers with a bevy of new comic book titles and issues.  Some superhero series take flight while others crash without rhyme or reason.  Some of us who bear witnesses to these initial successes and failures are likely to write the occasional reviews on these comics.  So how do we go about performing this task?  Is there a science to determine whether a given comic’s first issue has the right “stuff” to be the next big thing—or at the very least, continue selling for another few months?  How do we know whether or not an on-going series has slowly begun nose-diving or, instead, is moving into a brave, new world of creative storytelling?  Not surprisingly, there is no one surefire answer to how to review a comic.  I’ve written for mainstream sites, such as Newsarama, to more academic-oriented online magazines like here at Sequart (which I always consider my comics “home”), and not surprisingly, many of the writers approach their funny books from a variety of different perspectives.  However, there are certain characteristics many of us try to keep in mind when applying a critical lens to these new comics.

While we all have our opinions, they’re not necessarily going to have the same value.  After all, it’s one thing to steer readers away from poorly a conceived and created comic—it’s another thing altogether when a critic unfairly skews other readers’ opinions against a new book when it probably deserves a more even-handed review.  So these are just a few points to consider before writing up that next scathing review for a personal blog, the comments section to a message board, or even just in passing conversation with fellow fans at the local comic shop.

Comics is a visual medium, so there’s no escaping the fact the art needs to be good.  But that’s a loaded word, isn’t it?  Good.  How does one measure taste in a broad sense when aesthetic interest is so highly subjective?  Simple—we do our best to avoid overly broad terms like that.  So how do comic readers speak about the artwork?  One of the most informative and yet accessible books out there that breaks down the comics medium better than most and broke ground in providing the opening salvo to critical discussions about comics is Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics.  In comic form, McCloud goes about providing one of the earliest guides to breaking down comics to their basic parts—both artistic and narrative—and how creators piece them together to create the comic book stories we’ve grown to love… and hate.  Where I have personally found McCloud useful is in providing me with a specific set of vocabulary to use when discussing comics and how they tell the stories contained in each individual issue.  It’s helpful, then, to try and describe what the artist did on the page (or attempted to accomplish) before assessing his or her success.  Knowing how to accurately describe these elements is where McCloud is especially useful.  Of course, McCloud isn’t the only book out there.  Will Eisner has a small library of books available from Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative to Comics and Sequential Art: Principles and Practices from the Legendary Cartoonist provide a great deal of background on what goes into the creation of comics.  Denny O’Neil’s DC Guide to Writing Comics is another excellent source for exploring what goes into creating comics as well.  What all of this boils down to, however, is when analyzing a comic from a critical perspective, it’s important to be able to use precise vocabulary to address specific elements of the comic in question.  Otherwise, it’s just vague and doesn’t give any indication where the specific strengths and weaknesses lie.

When I first read The Watchmen, I did not enjoy the aesthetic of Dave Gibbons.  I preferred more stylized superhero renditions as seen in John Romita Jr., Mike Zeck, Alan Davis, and other contemporaries of that day.  Since that time, I have since grown to appreciate his mastery of panel composition and line control that help deliver the clean and controlled “flavor” that permeates this milestone mini-series.  An example of this can be seen best, arguably, in the scene on Mars when Dr. Manhattan creates a clock-like construct only to let Laurie experience its destruction.  Now, after observing how well-executed Gibbons’ work is, I have a difficult time not enjoying each panel he composed for this series.  After all, one of the grand and cruel jokes of Watchmen centers on is how the chaos these heroes encounter throughout the story is really a secretly orchestrated plan that will not only have consequences directly in opposition to their desired goals as heroes, but one in which they will implicitly participate: Chaos all under the grand control of another—both the plan of Ozymandias, but also the book’s creative team.  In this example, I mention one of the major themes of the book and provide at least one example related to the artist’s line work to support the argument.  It’s not a lot of support, but in a review, it’s important to avoid giving all of the details away and spoiling the experience for new readers.

Opposite to someone like Dave Gibbons, from an aesthetic standpoint, would be an artist such as Sam Keith.  His wild and animalistic depictions of superheroes such as Wolverine, The Incredible Hulk, and The Maxx tapped into the uncontrollable, bestial elements of these dangerous beings.  He made use of sprawling, tattered clothes that barely covered their robust, hairy bodies.  His superhero renditions served as a visual reminder to my young eyes that not all heroes were “safe.”  His artwork is well-known for its heavy inks with torn and tattered costumed heroes often set against a wilderness that threatened to engulf them.  Readers were brought down a hole not so dissimilar from the one Alice took when she entered into the acid trip-inspired Wonderland.  Unlike Gibbons, Keith’s style eschews the clean and controlled line of the real world for a rough-edge and hyper-real representation of the persons inhabiting his world with pages that often broke with traditional panels with characters dropping from heights on the top of the page plummeting to the bottom panel in a sort of splash with some panels laid on top.  The artistic elements in his comics lend themselves to a world that was bigger, darker, other-worldly, and more dangerous than the one in which I sat safely reading my comic book.  Certainly, one cannot escape the ways an artist’s inks and use of panel and page composition affect the tone and mood of the comics as I’ve tried to touch upon here.

A third example of how one might review the artistic form of a comic can be seen in Charles Burns with his use of a wood-cut style to his artwork as exemplified in Black Hole, which was originally published at first in the traditional, single-issue form. He works strictly with solid black ink and white fill in this off-beat coming of age story dealing with sex and mutation.  It’s a smart choice because—as most people discover—when sex enters the discussion, it’s rarely a black and white issue.  In this regard, there is a sort of irony over the use of such stark contrast in color when there are a host of issues discussed where people would find themselves more “gray” than either black or white in relation to the challenges facing the characters in the story.  So while Burns art might lack the visual excitement of a Sam Keith, or cinematic-like composition of Gibbons, his own approach through presenting this somewhat realistic story—not without a significant number of surreal twists and turns—provides yet another instance of how the artistic elements can still be employed with deliberate intention in smart, thought-provoking ways to convey certain ideas to or evoke specific emotional responses from their readers regardless of whether the reader “likes” how it looks.  It’s a classic example of where form fits the purpose.

Those are just a few examples of the different elements comics critics and reviewers often pay attention to when reading a comic for more than entertainment purposes—though being able to better appreciate the artistic craft can and will no doubt enhance many readers’ appreciation and enjoyment of a well-crafted story.  Speaking of story… Let’s face it: it might look nice, but if it’s not saying much, readers’ are going to treat that comic like a bad date and drop it after the first outing.

All stories have to be about something.  Characters need to be involved and they need to be involved in some sort of conflict—whether internal, external, or both.  Moreover, if readers are to spend any period of time with these characters, the people they read about will need a certain amount of character development to provide a more three-dimensional representation of these people.  This means we learn a little backstory: What brought the main character to the place where we, the readers, are now meeting them?  What motivates him or her to risk (or avoid!) conflict?  The writer creates points in the character’s development that allow us to relate to this fictional being and therefore invest in his or her well-being.  Flat characters are stereotypes, and most readers are all-too-familiar with who these characters are, what motivates them, and recognize what growth—if any—will occur with them by the end of the story.  As a result, there’s little reason to be all that interested in these sorts of protagonists and even antagonists.  An example of a character that readers quickly recognized as engaging from the first issue was Rick Grimes, local sheriff and recently introduced to the world of the undead in Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore’s The Walking Dead.  While Rick clearly holds on to elements of the law enforcement officer role he held prior to the zombie outbreak, he is also able to break from this mold and adapt to his new setting as seen in his leniency over fellow citizens’ acts of “borrowing” to survive.  Moreover, his story raises questions in the minds of reader, which can only be answered by continuing to follow the series—those tricky, tricky writers.

The last element that is really important for a good story is consistency.  It’s the stuff that helps bind both characters and conflicts in a narrative.  No, I’m not talking about the “foolish” sort that Emerson compared to being akin to a “hobgoblin of the mind.”  In fact, most people erroneously believe the preeminent American Romantic believing him to be a stalwart against consistency, which is actually quite incorrect.  It was a mindset of unthinking persistence in the same course of behaviors he thought wrong-minded.  And this has a great deal to do with smartly constructed world building—the very stuff of stories.  In his work “On Fairy Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien discussed the absolute necessity that a writer not only establishes a set of rules for the world he or she was crafting, but that these rules are consistently followed within the realm of that story.  To break these rules, a writer would effectively jar readers out of the world of imagination from which they were immersed, make them aware of the fiction they were reading, and fall short of delivering a surrealistic reading experience.  A writer who can inject fresh perspectives on old characters or stories while still maintaining a consistent spirit is one who can be viewed as having achieved at least some measure of success in his or her storytelling.

Characters and conflict.  There is a lot more to a good story, I know, but for my part, these are perhaps the two most important ingredients to a compelling narrative.  The “where” and “when” can change from the antiquities of the past to the far reaches of a galaxy, far, far away.  When we talk about developing character, hearing from them through smartly chosen dialogue or interior monologues through captions can go a long way to helping drive the story.  And the purposes a writer might choose to embed within the story are too many to count.  But a story cannot be told without characters and conflict.  The other need only ensure they are discussed in a consistent way that adds to the reader’s experience, and does not shake them out of the fictional world they seek to enter.  As a reviewer, these are some of the main elements I look for when analyzing a comic and determining its weaknesses and strengths.

Ultimately, reviewers should attempt to provide an analysis of the different elements of the comic being reviewed from the narrative to the visual aspects.  At the end of the day, however, it is still an opinion even if it does appear to be a valid one.  The difference between a well-written review and the stereotypical internet troll  is where one writer tries to take pains to show what elements of the writer and artist’s work were especially enjoyable (or unsatisfactory) and why the elicited the type of response that they did.  For my part, I generally adhere to the rule that if you can’t say anything nice about a comic, then don’t review it.  While I realize there is value to making readers aware of “lemons” on the newsstand, I’m equally aware that making comics is an excruciatingly difficult business.  Regardless of whether I connect with a particular comic, it’s important to recognize the efforts that went into its creation. The approach outlined above is one I use to try and focus on critiquing the work, and not the creator.  Even if people disagree with my analysis, which is going to happen, at least it treats the comic with respect.  And that’s something that matters a good deal.  After all, you never know if the words you write will get back to the person who helped write or draw that comic.

Of course, this is a just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what goes into attempting a critical review of a comic.  There are many writers far more skilled and articulate in their analyses, and I regularly look to them for pointers on how I might better communicate my thoughts and treatment of the comic books I continue to read day in and out.  It’s easy to simply assign a numerical rating to a comic, but sitting down and writing as fair and as balanced a review as possible is a far more valuable thing.  I hope this helps.

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Dr. Forrest C. Helvie lives in Bristol, CT with his wife and two sons. He is an assistant professor of developmental English at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut. He received his Ph.D. in English Literature & Criticism from Indiana University of Pennsylvania where he wrote his dissertation on the influence of canonical American literature on the development of the comic book superhero. His literary interests are broad-ranging from medieval Arthurian to 19th-century American, and most importantly, pedagogy, comics studies, and super-heroes. He regularly writes for Sequart and reviews comics for Newsarama. Forrest can also be found on Twitter (@fhelvie) discussing all things comics related.

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