Don’t Ignore the Art:

Reviewing and Commenting on Comics, Part 3

Comics Journalism with Lucas Siegel (Newsarama Site Editor) and David Pepose (Newsarama Reviews Editor)

Because this article is geared in many regards to help encourage readers and reviewers to develop a more critical eye, especially with regards to the visual elements of comics, I thought it would be worth reaching out to one of the most heavily trafficked comics news sites in the business: Newsarama.

As a point of disclosure, I want to point out that I am regular contributor for Newsarama, where I conduct interviews, write the occasional article, and most often, review comics. I asked Lucas and David to share just their thoughts given the fact they’ve spent a number of years writing about reviewing comics as freelancers and in their capacities as editors for one of the leading sites. On a more practical note, I have their email addresses and they – like the previous professionals before them – were kind enough to respond to my inquiries! Most importantly, however, they are in the particularly unique positions of bringing writers onto their team to interview creators, provide panel and event coverage, and review comics.

Helvie: To provide a little context for Newsarama where you are both a part of the editorial team (Lucas as the overall site editor and David as the reviews editor), about how much traffic does Newsarama get? About how many people are reading the comic reviews coming out from the Best Shots crew?

Lucas Siegel: Newsarama currently gets over 3 million unique visitors a month. We’ve hit a new record month literally 10 times in the last 18 months, so the site continues to grow. The comic book review columns reflect the number of readers of comics pretty evenly. When it’s largely a small-publisher driven column, readership will sometimes be in the 7-10k range, reflecting the readership of those books. For a high profile title or an anticipated new creative team or event comic, we will see columns get read 100,000 times. It is really that variable, and based almost solely on the books that are headlined.

Helvie: Lucas and David, you are both responsible for overseeing the publication of numerous comic reviews each and every week from a number of contributors each and every week. What goes into writing a good comic book review?

David Pepose: Boy, I could go on and on about this. I think a good review, when you get right to it, is something that’s just as fun to read as the actual product it’s reviewing. When I look to recruit someone for Best Shots, one of the first things I look at is whether or not that writer has a voice, a perspective that really electrifies the review. That could mean a positive review or a negative review. We had one a few weeks back describing Batman as a “pop star” rather than an “icon,” explaining that while an icon is defined just by their past achievements, a pop star like Batman synthesizes his greatest hits and remains in his prime today. We had another one just today describing the new Suicide Squad book as “New Coke X when you asked for real cane sugar Dr. Pepper.” The higher and lower-scoring reviews are always the most fun for me as both a reader and an editor — I like seeing a writer have not just an opinion, but a smart opinion, and then really sell it.

I think beyond just writing well, there’s also something to be said for establishing yourself as someone of discerning taste. I’m not saying all tastes are the same — which is the main reason why I think a team structure like Best Shots is so helpful — but I can’t tell you how many reviews I read online that read as naive, factually inaccurate, or are just totally in the tank for a particular creator/character/publisher. If you give four or five stars to every book you read, I’m going to think of you less as a critic and more as someone just desperate for industry attention. (Or that you confuse hyperbole for good writing — this is also a thing.) Honestly, that also goes the other way, too — if you hate everything on the stands, the appeal for that feels limited, to me. There’s only so many ways you can say that a book sucks (and, by implication, that you suck for buying it, too) before your schtick starts to become tiresome. So I guess a roundabout way of addressing that is something I tell a lot of my writers: “Anticipate your haters.” What would an irate message board commenter say if you gave a book a universally glowing score, or panned a book that they loved? Anticipate it and incorporate it. You might hate a book, but not every book is meant for you — who’s the target audience here? Are there any redeeming qualities here, if not for you, then for that audience? And even if you adore a book, and you think it’s the best thing since sliced bread, are there any flaws that someone less forgiving than you might point out? I think addressing the minority opinion, even if it’s not your own, always makes for a more thorough and more thoughtful review.

Siegel: David covered a lot of good points (and I like to think he learned at least one or two of them from me). The biggest thing to remember with a review of anything is to approach it from both a personal standpoint and from that of the larger readership. You can like or dislike something because it doesn’t suit your personal taste, and that is valid to mention. However, it doesn’t inherently make that product good or bad. The best way to begin analysis is to look at the thing you have the personally strongest feelings for, positive or negative, and then look at that on its side. Is there something technically wrong with it you’re overlooking? Is there a plus side to the approach even though it doesn’t work for you? And that’s the fine line. You don’t want to be one of these extremist reviewers like David mentioned, nor do you want to be boring with no real opinion of your own. But a review is NOT just your personal opinion. It’s using what you know of the craft to analyze how this particular piece of Art was produced.

Helvie: When it comes to analyzing the artwork in a comic, what’s one piece of advice you would recommend to bloggers and other reviewers out there in world wide web?

Pepose: One piece of advice? I think educate yourself as much as possible — that means taking in as many artists as possible, reading as many reviews and interviews as possible, and really dig in deep when articulating what makes someone’s art stand out. The art team does not begin and end with just the penciller credit: try to learn what you can about inking, and how that affects the finished product, and pay attention to the colorist (particularly great ones like Dave Stewart, Laura Martin and Jordie Bellaire) to see if they energize the page or if they flatten out the characters. I don’t think anyone’s asking you to get an art school degree, but I think a good review gives the reader an idea of what they’re getting themselves into — and I think when it comes to comics, you should have an idea of what the visuals look like just as much as you should have an idea of what the story is about.

Siegel: My number one piece of advice would be to read what Roger Ebert wrote about reviews, and then read any and all reviews by him, a master of his craft. I’d especially focus on films you personally loved or hated, as those will offer you the most learning opportunities. And yes, you can easily apply film review techniques to comics, games, TV shows, just about anything. They are all a sum of their parts, with individual analysis applicable to both the individual efforts and the whole. 

Closing Thoughts

Again, it might be wishful thinking on my part here, but if we as comics critics and reviewers “up” the level of our discourse, then this could be one more factor in pushing and motivating the creators out there to continue upping their game as well. There is certainly a lot left uncovered from this overview. No doubt about it. However, I think it provides some helpful insights from professionals “in the know,” and hopefully, it will serve to encourage more readers, critics, and reviewers out there to look a little more carefully at the art that helps form the absolute core of this medium.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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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