The following is an excerpt from Sequart’s book How to Analyze & Review Comics. For more information, including purchase options, click HERE.
You have a blindspot.
More literally, you likely have two, given a pair of healthy, functioning eyes. All the photoreceptors in your retina collect at one point, then the optic nerve travels from there to your brain. At that collection area, though, there are no receptors themselves, so the brain must compensate, filling in, without your even noticing, subtle colors or patterns to complete your vision. In effect, you can never see your blindspot; your mind hides it from you.
Similarly, in your comics criticism and reviews, you likely have a blindspot – only one if you’re lucky, but potentially far more. It’s not your fault, of course. The latest comic book out in shops comes after decades in the making, with the history, economics, politics, and personalities of a professional industry, not to mention a whole nation, informing it. The critic is only at fault if he or she ignores the possibility of such a blindspot or bias: one’s only sin would be that of presuming infallibility.
Therefore, context is key, both your own and that of the work you’re examining. Of course, you cannot incorporate all of world history and global thought into, say, a 500-word review, yet a critic still needs to properly anchor his or her reading of comic so that it’s neither oblivious to context nor only of the moment. A surgical approach is needed, one that both acknowledges your blindspot and unlocks the work being covered in a way your readers could not expect.
In turn, these are the questions that must be asked.
What is your own bias concerning the work or its subject matter?
Loosely speaking, heteronormativity is the assumption, conscious or otherwise, that male-female pairings are the natural basis for a culture. The word “natural” is worth emphasizing here, because many who actively support the heteronormative viewpoint point to the animal kingdom as innately supporting their case. That only works, though, if they conveniently ignore all same-sex behaviors demonstrated by animals. As with anything that claims to be “normal,” heteronormativity is a construction — just an idea or a social rule, something created by human society.
So, connected to the natural world or not, societies do not necessarily operate in cleanly heteronormative systems, nor might narratives. This is among the first element in identity politics that should be interrogated when engaging a comic. Do either you as the critic or the comic as a product favor a particularly status, creed, or political viewpoint? This can span from LGBTQI matters to racial bias to misogyny or misandry. And, of course, it can spill into the religious realm, either as obviously pernicious as anti-semitism or Islamophobia or more subtle, as in atheophobia or rampant secularism.
Stop to question your own agenda before preparing to analyze the comic’s. We all have biases, after all, and they cannot be avoided. They don’t need to be avoided, only acknowledged—they can even be usefully utilized. Though the story may be set on an alien planet or foreign land, to what degree might Americentrism or the presumption of a democratic ideal play a role? Likewise, while storytelling itself may be universal, narrative methods differ from one culture to the next: What manner of “heroism” is presented as the norm here? Moreover, what constitutes morality either in the world of the comic or that of the comic creators? Have they created a narrative structure here that their audiences would easily recognize (e.g. conflict, rising action, climax, denouement) or are they presenting a challenge in their method of storytelling?
How is this not a work from any other medium but comics?
Nearly all of the questions above could be asked of any medium, but, in terms of comics, there is the special hybridity of word and image that needs particular consideration. That is, while comics can employ a three-act structure, for instance, the same as film or epic poem, it has its own varieties of medium-based structures for narrative. Is the story more art-driven than word-driven? Do the collaborators involved seem to be, figuratively and literally speaking, on the same page? Or, might the writer be scripting for an artist who was only later selected? Having a sensitivity to any (mis)balance benefits the critic nearly as much as determining the work’s value.
Let’s say that word and image, impressively, are blending together nicely: the additional influences and expectations of genre demand attention. Just as the space ranger and his mores would be quite out of place in the environment of a Victorian novel, elements that are expected, innovative, or simply misaligned with the genre conventions of a work need to be detected by the critique. This is true several times over for the comic book critic: First, is the presumed dominant superhero genre exerting an influence on the work? Second, keep that hybridity in mind again. Do the images or layouts or even the lettering match the genre expectations? Does the text do the same and to the same degree? Before merging them back together, looking at the implementation of visual genre and textual genre separately can aid in clarifying how overall genre functions for the work. Does it, ultimately, abide by genre or does it counter audience expectations of the genre (either by deconstructing them — intentionally breaking down their rules for greater insights — or by renegotiating them)?
One additional wrinkle to the comic book is its frequent use of seriality. Of course, comics are not the only medium to employ this system of connected, episodic stories; soap operas, movie serials, and even Dickensian novels frequently operate in the same fashion. Moreover, the rise of the so-called graphic novel has disrupted assumptions about seriality for the medium. Therefore, a critic needs to put in context whether the work in question is “one and done,” is reliant on other installments to inform its narrative, or is operating in an even more complicated system of intertextuality – what, for the main superhero publishers, is frequently called continuity. This relationship with seriality (not to be confused with sequence, the building block of comics’ panel associations) will, likewise, impact how genre is deployed: Does the comic book move from one genre to the next, does it borrow from other genres via continuity, or does it dissociate from other texts (perhaps by the same publisher, but not necessarily) by engaging in distinct genre conventions?
What is the work’s message?
In theory, all works—comics or otherwise—have a message…even if that message is, paradoxically, “This has no message.” Outside of absolute mercenary employment (for which the message could still be, “This was done for money”), all art has a raison d’etre: a reason for being. That reason could be as basic as providing entertainment and perhaps escapism; these are not, despite the pejorative use of the word “escapist” in some context, unworthy goals by themselves. A comic can be made—in fact, some comics need to be made—purely for an audience’s enjoyment and as a brief reprieve from their everyday lives.
However, a critic cannot make the a priori assumption that the work in question must be motivated either by money or for entertainment value without investigating further. Certainly, in addition to the work’s narrative, the tone of both its art and its text will provide the most salient clues for any potential agenda being pursued. Could the comic be read in a satirical fashion? Could it be understood in a political framework? Could it be taken as some form of evangelical? Might it have a personal impetus by its creator(s)? Does it make, overtly or furtively, any industrial claims, taking issue with the business apparatus to which it is tied?
A work’s message need not be negative necessarily, but, most often, the more jarring and disruptive the message, the more covert it needs to be. In fact, it is those messages most contrary to the real-life status quo of the reader and the comics industry that will commonly require the most decoding by a critic. How are the story’s tone, environment, characters, and narrative intended to affect real-life hegemony, the power structures that largely control the audience’s world?
And, add to this both a market-dependent lens. That is, for whom is such a message intended, in what time period, and across what geographies? A message targeting one particular space and time can take on new meaning and new significance at a later date or to an outside community. When reviewing manga translated for an American, English-speaking market, for example, you need some cognizance of a shift in the messaging—all the moreso if it’s decades-old reprint!
Against what backdrop is this work being produced?
All of the aforementioned questions operate against two distinct backdrops. The first is the context of the producer. That is, what has gone into the production of this comic? Beyond the paper, the ink, the shipping, and the distribution, what corporate aspects should inform your critique? The publisher in question might be a new and rising force or it might be teetering on the edge of bankruptcy; if it’s a small press or self-published, the story behind their enterprise may be more informative than the comic itself. Recalling the warnings of Americentrism, the critic has to consider whether this is a domestic, foreign, or collaboratively international work—with all the cultural baggage any one of those might carry (e.g. religiosity, politics, trade, etc.). Even the season in which a work is produced and then released, the current events operating in the background, may have a salient effect on the comic at hand.
Though it’s convenient to lay the entirety of a work at one primary creator’s feet, that impulse needs to be checked much of the time. Discussing, to offer one case, “Alan Moore’s Watchmen” entirely overlooks the contributions of Dave Gibbons, of John Higgins, of their editors, and of the wider DC Comics production, marketing, and distribution teams. Even in the case of ‘auteur’ works (e.g. Art Spiegelman’s MAUS or Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant), critics who center on the intent or personality of an author run counter to the arguments of literary theorists like Roland Barthes or Michel Foucault; they suggest that the work itself is the primary concern, not some disconnected, distant, absent author. Talking about a comic in terms of what its author thinks or intended is, at best, speculation and, at worst, fantasy.
Of course, as noted earlier, one cannot know everything: geopolitics changes by the day, and the history of the comics medium stretches back at least to Richard Occault (d. 1928) if not Rudolphe Töpffer (d. 1846) or even further, to ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics! The key here isn’t in knowing everything. The key is in knowing what might be relevant and, more importantly, knowing what you do not know. Putting your review or analysis in a defined context not only safeguards you from unforeseen, undermining trivia (e.g. “But doesn’t that panel refer to the 1940 trade unions?”), but it also gives your readers a solid frame. An acknowledgment of your parameters as a critique relieves undue burden on you and helps direct your readers. Therefore, in terms of the producer’s context, you must ask: what geographical, historical, and cultural timeframe should be placed within the parameters of the review?
Who is invested in this work?
The second major backdrop against which to consider a comic is the context of the consumer. And, of course, similar questions apply: Is this meant for a domestic audience, a foreign audience, or a global audience? How wide a distribution net does it have? Is it affordable to readers or does it require an atypical financial investment? What level of education is presumed for the audience?
However, the consumer’s context has some additional layers that too often go overlooked. First, there is the figurative echo-chamber between the context of the publisher and the context of the consumer. For instance, what is considered expert work by one publisher in the eyes of readers might be considered trash in terms of the reader’s expectations for other publishers. The stark and stylized approach of Marjane Satrapi in producing Persepolis might be misperceived as unskilled or childish if it was found in between the covers of a Marvel comic. Likewise, the superhero style of someone like Jim Lee could be mistaken as juvenile or cartoonish to an art house comics publisher like Drawn & Quarterly. Overall, though a comic might make demands of an audience to which it was not accustomed: more violence, greater nuance, more elaborate art, etc. The consumer and the producer’s expectations of each other shift and blur with every week, even if one is considering an individual consumer and a self-published mini-comic producer. Large or small, there is a feedback loop in the comics field that is far tighter than might be found for other, mass-produced media, and it cannot go overlooked.
More generally, though, comics endures the same double-edged sword as most other consumer media, namely the potential gap between the intended/target audience and the buying readership. Could the Vertigo imprint in its early days have possibly suspected that Sandman would pick up a following in the LGBTQ community? And the publisher Houghton Mifflin likely didn’t think of Broadway enthusiasts in its original demographic plan for Fun Home’s first release. In some cases, the gap is minimal or even inclusive, with, for instance, a comic being aimed at teenage boys and, instead, it is bought by both boys and girls from their teens into their college years. The trouble lies with a work presumed for a target it does not hit or, perhaps worse, finding an unwelcome demographic. For years, the working (mis)assumption was that superhero comics were for teen males; hard data, though, does not support that—both the age-group and, in many cases, the sex of the readership was in conflict with the ‘conventional wisdom.’ (And, look out here for that heteronormativity and any gender binary that might be underlying either the data or the target!) An interpretation of a work might change radically when, instead of the comic being purchased for tween girls with messages about emotional intelligence and compassion, it is ravenously consumed by adult-aged men with murky sexual overtones. Does the publisher cater to their mistargeted-yet-successful demo? Do creators approach the work the same way? Do they adhere to the original message?
What’s your blindspot?
By asking the essential questions provided in this chapter, critics may be able to unlock deeper readings of the work and, in turn, guide readers to its greater importance. Informing the reader is only half the job of a critic, regardless of medium: challenging the reader to see larger patterns is the aim – and the responsibility – of a seasoned reviewer, whatever the medium.
For more information on How to Analyze & Review Comics click HERE.