The following is an excerpt from Sequart’s book How to Analyze & Review Comics. For more information, including purchase options, click HERE.
Students, journalists, and critics of all backgrounds can learn a great deal by understanding the process behind creating comics from the perspective of those who create them. In our Deep-Dive interviews, I spoke with editors, writers, and artists – many of whom come from a teaching background – to explore their understanding of the role of the critic in relation to the creator as well as ways to better understand the craft of creating comics so that critics and those writing about comics can further understand the medium as a whole.
Forrest C. Helvie: Let’s start with taking a look at comics press – the reviewers in particular. How many do you find actually know how to engage in the craft of writing reviews well?
Jim Zub: It’s partially this idea of what you like and don’t like. Then there is this formal codification of discussing why you like or do not like something. You can and should go into depth about this. But I want to be careful about not getting into the business of critiquing criticism. It’s like a snake eating its own tail.
Helvie: Understood. And we certainly aren’t looking to have you engage in telling the critic how to do his or her job. But do you think there is some benefit for critics to engage with the creators as a way to hone their respective craft?
Zub: If any creator tells you they don’t read reviews, they’re lying. Any creator who says they ignore the reviews, they’re lying. If they tell you that good reviews don’t make them feel good, they’re also lying. It’s just that some people are better than others at lying about the same thing. Everyone wants the compliments, but everyone wants to steer away from the criticism.
I get it. The only time I’ll engage in the criticism, however, is when there is a factual error in what the reviewer says, like a miscredit or something patently untrue. Not opinion but something they’re simply incorrect or misinformed about. Otherwise, I try to steer clear of engaging in the criticism.
Helvie: What was the harshest but the most fairly written critique you’ve received?
Zub: There were people who, when we were starting with Wayward, they mentioned the plot was racing forward too quickly and not allowing readers to get to know the characters in great enough depth. And you know? I had been feeling that way, too, in spots. In creator-owned books, you don’t have the same editorial feedback as you do in work-for-hire. If you’re not careful, you can get lost in the weeds.
Helvie: So, it’s possible for critics to provide some value to the creative community. How difficult was it to hear?
Zub: Mind you, some of these critics didn’t relay that message kindly! They were harsh on the book, and I thought “Ouch! Take it easy!” There was still another reviewer who never seemed to like the book but they kept reviewing each and every issue. I couldn’t help but wonder why they were continuing to hold on to this thing they were clearly not enjoying. That felt punishing. Why were they doing this not only to me but also themselves? Clearly, it wasn’t written for them, and even when they complimented it on occasion, it was this odd and begrudging sort of moment.
Helvie: In a sense, there’s a balance then between delivering a critical message but perhaps doing it in such a fashion that is less personal and more professional then?
Zub: Exactly. I think we sometimes see in critics that there’s a binary approach to a comic. It’s either good or it’s crap. You know, there’s no job on earth where you can tell people what they’re doing is crap and they’re going to continue hiring you. Your priority list might not be the same as mine, and it’s important to recognize that.
Helvie: I’m going to shift gears a bit here, but there’s another phenomenon that earns a good many comics press folk a bad name and that is using their current platform of writing about comics as a stepping stone to creating comics. Have you seen much of this?
Zub: There’s no nice way to put this, so I’ll just lay it out there: There’s a disproportionate number of reviewers who are would-be comic book writers. They view it through the lens of “I want to be your friend” or “I want to tell you how to do things differently because I want your job.” See, that’s another form of weird sort of egocentric interactions that takes place all too frequently. And I’m not sure where to go with that. It’s a real Pandora’s Box.
Helvie: This is always interesting to me as it pertains to comics because in traditional literature, there are many writers who both create fictional stories but also engage in critical discourse.
Zub: What do you think of that?
Helvie: Admittedly, I’m biased as I’m someone who does that! In truth, though, I think there’s real value in deeply exploring both sides. As a comics critic, I’ve learned so much more about the process by engaging in it firsthand. Likewise, I’ve become a better storyteller through being aware of the technical aspects that I’m looking for as a critic. But it’s essential to avoid those conflicts of interest and prevent your lines from crossing.
Zub: Comics, as big as they are and can be, they still feel like a weird, scrappy community. So don’t shit where you eat. Of course, I consume many comics and I’m highly critical of what I read. My wife and I sit and read before we go to bed, and we go through it extensively. It helps me learn and grow. But that’s for my own personal understanding. It’s not me going on a soapbox and telling them who is right and who is wrong. It’s a personal sort of thing. Creators whom I’m friends with and respect, we talk.
Helvie: So, you’re saying that a greater context is important for the critic to keep in mind?
Zub: When I was student and thought I knew everything once I’d gathered a little bit of knowledge, I would say “This person is crap. What an embarrassment.” Then you go and become a professional, and you learn even more. Those deadlines are looming and crushing, and sometimes, compromises happen. And yeah, people know it’s not always to the best of their ability but it’s what they’re able to deliver within those constraints. Once you’ve been on that side, you look at things with a very different countenance. There’s a different set of values you place on the work that you can’t get across to the critic. You roll with it and move on, trying to do better.
I’m not saying the work is better than what you see or the criticism isn’t valid, but that work can’t be taken in isolation.
Helvie: You also mentioned those critics who are looking to “help” you rewrite the story and “coach” the creative team. As a teacher, do you use peer review in your classroom and how do you help students avoid falling into this trap?
Zub: We break the animation program down into three years, and it’s in the first year we teach them all of the technical knowledge they need to know about how things work. Then in the second year, we start pulling back a bit more from the instructor-led critique model and get the students to engage in more peer review. They now have some of the tools for analysis and they can see them better and clearer. By the third year, they not only have the ability create the work but also present it. It’s really valuable. One of the important aspects of what we teach them is not only to produce but to lead and put their ideas forward.
Helvie: We focus on critiquing the work not the person in my writing classes. How do you guide your students to engage in those discussions about what did or did not work for them in their peers’ art?
Zub: One of the things we talk about very early on is that when you begin to create work, you also need to develop an opinion. That opinion has to be more than just “I like it” or “I don’t like it.” You need to be able to point to those specific elements of the work felt well-executed or maybe disingenuous. That’s really valuable and it comes top down. When we talk film or art, we always try to build that case for or against, treating both ends of the spectrum with respect. I can truly dislike something without being dismissive.
Helvie: That seems to underscore your previous point about how the criticism is delivered.
Zub: Right. There’s this weird thought with some fans that people want to create garbage. Not true. It seems obvious, but no one goes into a project with the intent to make a bad story. It might have come out badly, but that wasn’t the intent. There’s a human behind that story.
And on a similar note, it’s important to avoid overly prescribing intent. Too often I’ll see critics asserting that I meant to do X, Y, or Z; the truth is nowhere near that. You know, the good thing about fandom is the sheer amount of passion. The downside is there are assumptions about the intent behind the work. That can be difficult as well.
Helvie: People in comics rarely work in single issue format though. You have to “hang on” a bit to ensure you’re bringing a sort of context to the review, don’t you?
Zub: Yeah, for sure. You do want to understand the purpose of the work. A 10/10 doesn’t mean life-changing; it simply means it succeeded in every aspect of what it set out to accomplish and was thoroughly entertaining. The flaws were so minor they weren’t even worth bringing up.
Helvie: When we look at the context, how do we attribute credit to the right members of the creative team?
Zub: There’s a real lack of public understanding of how much or how little a given member of the team contributes to the comic. One time I had a fill-in artist on a title, and there were fans who were (incorrectly) giving me credit for the changes the artist made just because I was the one constant. They seemed to think I had all of this control, when that’s not how it worked. And each creative team operates differently. I may have much greater control over a story on a creator-owned book but that could change when we look at work-for-hire and there’s editorial input that gets factored into the story.
Helvie: This raises the issue then of whether or not the critic should even try to engage in attribution of elements of the story.
Zub: On one hand, when someone’s not getting paid on a review, it’s hard to come down and force them to pick out every last little thing. On the other hand, there’s a part of me that also says if you’re going to put something out there with your name on it, you need to put forward the best possible product. I waffle back and forth on this issue.
Obviously, the least a critic can do is identify the captions and dialogue as being the work of the writer and the visual elements as being associated with the art team. Similarly, there’s absolutely no reason the art should be ignored. People often view the story as the thing they understand, so that’s what they’re most keen to discuss. This goes doubly so for those would-be-comic writers who want to showcase what they know. But many critics who are not artists, they can often feel out of their depths discussing.
Helvie: How much technical knowledge does the critic need to have about the art – whether they are an amateur blogger, a professional comics critic, or even a professor who’s seeking to publish in more academic journals? Is Understanding Comics enough?
Zub: Terminology needs to be correct. There are few things worse than reading feedback where the writer has no idea about what he or she is talking about. The letterer does not create the dialogue. They’re word balloons – not “floaty things.” If you want to be taken seriously, take some time and be serious.
Helvie: What are the two to three most important things people need to consider when they’re reviewing comics, regardless of format?
Zub: I think it’s important they cover the full spectrum of story production. Let’s talk about plot progression and character development. Let’s dig into the art. The colors. The lettering. That’s a field people know so little about. Industry pros often say that the best lettering is the kind that you never notice. It just fades into the background. When the lettering works in tandem with the art, it directs the eye and the reader moves fluidly through the story. That’s the sort of observation from a critic that makes people stand up a notice that they’re paying attention to the details.
Anyone can come in and tell you whether or not they liked something. It’s easy to give a hot take. That’s valid, but if you want to be a critic and do this with the intent to be taken seriously, it behooves you to know the form and how it works. Understand the production pipeline, but don’t get caught up in prescribing blame. Speak openly about the comic as a series of pieces coming together.
Helvie: As a concluding thought, what do you think about the value of comics criticism – academic or journalistic?
Zub: People make a lot of broad assumptions about how projects get into production and the decisions made by editorial. I want to educate, and yeah, sometimes I get tired and let it lie. You can’t save everyone, and people have to want to learn. If someone just wants to rant, then this isn’t going to change that.
Criticism, when done well, can be valuable though. Every so often, someone throws me a curveball. It can generate ideas – or you can set it aside and decide not to address that concern. But at least you’re more aware of that point of view.
For more information on How to Analyze & Review Comics click HERE.