The Problems with Reviews – A Ranting Essay and a New Start.
I have now for around a year stepped away from the discipline of the written review. Instead opting to concentrate on the podcast format and books and comics and creators from our comics past. This has been immense fun, and thanks are due to those who have energetically and enthusiastically assisted me as co-hosts over at the podcast attached to this website. These will continue, albeit at a rate of two or three a month over the previous five posted episodes.
Why did I step away? Honestly, I was finding that people were unable to accept any form of criticism and were just looking for promotion. This is without question a frequent problem throughout the comics medium especially. It is also something you will see me discuss in several sections that follow.
So, what am I writing this for now? The facts that some friends and colleagues have asked me when I am getting back to written reviews may well be a factor. But the main reason is that face I have been making when I see pull quotes. The infantile assessments and programmatically compiled so-called reviews are just not doing anything other than providing an adjective laden titty wank to a deluded creator. These words on these idiotic websites are nothing more than meaningless and trite. All they show is the desperation of the cuckolded reviewer to those they consider cool, hip or pretty. Have you seen some of the utter crap out there that is described as ‘the book of a generation’ or ‘the best comic of the decade’ or even just given a five-star review when any sane person realises it is not worth two stars! This bitch-like people pleasing behavior is often also reflected in these so-called awards we are seeing in the UK and in the US in recent years. A conversation on the Awesome Comics Podcast and one with a friend prompted me to get some of these thoughts down on paper.
Admission – Yes, I have been guilty of being too complimentary and on occasion a little scathing of a comic book. But we all learn from our mistakes.
So, take a shot of a strong spirit and read on.
Credit Where Credit is Due.
I have watched a fair few reviewers on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook etc. in the last couple of years who fail to mention the team. I have even seen a few where they admit that they have not even looked to find out. Make notes if you must but these books are not made in a vacuum. I can also tell you that your audience will most certainly include the creators of the comic – yes even the ones who say that they do not read their reviews. They do.
Always add a few lines that tell the reader where you can find a copy of the comic. You can also include social media links. I have backed away from adding Twitter links etc. mostly because of the bin fire of these platforms now.
Do not go mad. As a consumer I couldn’t give a fig who the assistant editor was on the book or who is the transportation logistics manager. Unless one is your cousin your time will be better spent elsewhere. (Note – this is not a toxic take you moaning bellends!)
What is a Comic? & What is not a comic?
When reviewing a comic, it is important that you realise it is nearly always a collaboration. Unless someone is inspiring, writing, drawing, printing, and promoting their own book there is always more than one person in the mix. So, when you review a book there is a lot to consider.
Here are just a few points worth thinking about.
What is the cover like? Is it well drawn and coloured? And how is the design? Would you pick it up off a shelf or from and convention table? How does the design work for digital browsing?
How does the art convey the story? Do not forget that a comic is a delivery system for telling a story and should be approached in that way. It is not just a series of well-drawn/painted images. It must work sequentially. It also should be consistent in quality of images. How often have you read a comic and not been sure that the man on page 2 is the same man you are reading on page 15. Has the artist leaned too heavily on reference? Have they just inserted photographs of famous people into their stories? How many times do we have to see Samuel L. Jackson in a comic?
What are the character, tech, world, etc., designs like? How do you feel about how they work in this story? Are they derivative and without any significant imagination on show? Or are they adding a wow factor to the occasion?
What is good or bad about the writing? Does the dialogue work? Does the plot make sense and how is it paced? Have you seen all this before? Is the story just pandering to the lowest common denominator or have the creators pushed the boundaries of the medium? How many takes on Firefly or Lovecraft or The Boys or Vampires or Daredevil do we really need? Where do you see the originality?
Does the lettering work and is it placed correctly on the page or in the panel? What about sound effects?
How do the page turns work? A good story knows when and how to pace that turn.
What is the craft like? What makes it interesting? Is it original? Is this something beautiful, addictive, poetic, breathtaking, or wondrous? Or just plain shite? Then say.
Examination, Assessment, critique, and credit.
All Comics Are the Same.
All comics sit on a level playing field and deserve to be measured in this way. I do not mean that all capes’ comics should be compared against all horror comics but that they all sit on a sales shelf, and all ask for our money. The only difference is the size of the engine behind the publishing and promoting of said title. They are all made by people who deserve a review, not your charity. If you hear yourself saying, ‘He made this in his bedroom so I thought I would be kind and go easy on him. It’s not that good really’ then walk away now.
As soon as a comic is for sale then it can be reviewed. It matters zero point zero whether the creator or publisher has offered it for a review. It is out there competing for your hard-earned cash. It’s not like a comic that you made when you were four years old to hand to your grandma. These are comics that are being sold. If it is out there in that way, it can be reviewed. In fact, I got so bored of being sent unsolicited comics and then being chased by internet people for reviews that I ended up buying most of them. That way it was down to me what I did with them.
Remember, just because a comic is about anxiety or racism or intersectional feminism or anything with a worthy agenda does not in itself make it a good comic. It needs more than that. Sure, go ahead and applaud the motives or promote the charity/cause etc. but apply yourself to the craft of reviewing as well. The readers deserve it.
This is a review. This is not a listing in ComiXology. Keep the summary of the plot brief. Nobody wants to hear some lengthy list of ‘He did this’ and ‘She did that.’ It makes for a slog of a read. And please beware of the spoiler! The revelation of a big cliffhanger story point is something that you will most definitely get mail about.
Again, this is a review. There are far too many sites out there that just regurgitate what happens in the story. Afraid to give an opinion? Don’t be.
If a comic is too expensive and you balked at paying £5 for just twenty-five pages, then say so. I pay for the printing of comics and know how much some of these offerings cost. Some people are really taking the piss! Over-pricing/underpricing is also something that a consumer will be interested in finding out.
Objective vs Subjective.
Once you have stated the facts then you can go onto the examination of the comic. Of course, this will stray from objective and empirical statements of fact to things that come from the feelings and emotions you feel from your individual reading experience. This is also important and begins to display your use of language in getting across something that is often difficult to describe. Throw yourself into this practice but do not allow yourself to stray from the path of honesty. I see many people get caught up in the moment and switch from describing what they have in front of them to something totally unrelated. This may take many forms. An attack on the comic and/or those involved. A diatribe on the politics or social commentary of their own invention. Or even just an exercise in showing how well they can write. Keep it real folks.
Know What You Are Talking About.
It’s often that I read reviews and immediately spot that these writers do not have a clue what they are talking about. Obvious knowledge gaps or transparent and butt-clenchingly inappropriate comparisons swirl constantly around the Twitter addicted imbeciles I scroll through daily. Know what you are talking about. Sounds simple, right? But there are so many people out there bragging about their four trades and two long boxes to ignore. You must be widely read and …. DO SOME FUCKING RESEARCH! Comics are a language; you need to be aware of how it works. And a reminder, not everything relates to movies and TV. Comics have a rich and long history. Go there!
Readers are interested in what you think, not your collection and swipes of other sites. Do not go elsewhere in fandom to make sure that you are in-step with the thoughts of others. Have you seen the mess of bad takes and uninformed knowledge that is out there? You may also fall foul of something incorrectly recorded like a name or twist and allow that to cloud your own judgement. There is a lot of babytalk out there, keep away!
Another tip is to never read a review as you write your own one. I have fallen victim to this several times and have read, often word for word, the review I have given on a podcast repeated back to me in written form. As is they sat there taking notes as we chatted. Bad form guys, bad form.
This Is Not a Club.
As a reviewer you have one responsibility and that is honesty. You should never be afraid of saying something that is truthful. Your masters are not the creators but instead the consumers. Never write something to impress the comic maker. Never write anything with the intention of endearing yourself to the artist or writer. That is idiotic folly.
Just believing that you are being kind and avoiding constructive criticism, I guarantee, never helps the creator. I regularly read reviews that I have to keep checking refer to the same comic I have read. One sticks in my mind that I had the cheek to ask if we were reading the same comic and the creator promptly left Twitter.
Some comics creators will not take it well. I guarantee some will not take it well in the slightest. Some will go on and on and on about it for years and blame you for something or other. But that is on them. You did not make them spell ‘You’re’ incorrectly or use an artist who just glued in crappy photographs, or wrote badly realised characters, or bad jokes, or stole plotlines and ideas. A creator looking to learn will take notice of what is said, and it is down to them if they communicate at all with you. Don’t chase a reaction.
I have heard one reviewer say – ‘I don’t review anything I don’t like.’ Then I challenge your standing as a reviewer because your first instinct should be to tell the reader if it is a well-made comic. Not whether you personally like it. I also gather from that assertion that you give only flattering and positive reviews and ignore any faults. Again, this is not a review and merely promotion for the comic. It is also predictable and sad. And it negatively affects the role of you as a reviewer/journalist. I love comics that are without a doubt pretty darn rubbish (Fem Force anyone), does not make them good in the slightest.
A reviewer should be outside the party looking in through the window. Never part of the gang. It is a hard discipline to practice, and I readily admit to having fallen at many of these fences. This is the reason that I have stopped reviewing the comics of my friends. There must be a level of impartiality when you open the pages and start typing. Of course, you can assist in the promotion of a comic. Just do not call it a review. Again, we circle back to the principle of honesty.
If someone spends a not insubstantial amount of cash on a comic, then they deserve the truth and are not coerced into buying something that they will not like or is just not that good. This is a big part of your responsibility so pay attention.
Comics making as a hobby is full of very many diverse types of people from all over the world. Many of them are cool individuals and many are not. Many sit alone in their bedrooms or studios fashioning what we then go on to consume. That one single sentence you wrote may fester and grow in their solitary, self-obsessed brains until they cannot stand it any longer and then go onto social media to complain, bleat and moan. This happens a lot and you may have to live with it. Many of these people are extreme narcissists. Many have been made that way because of our overly complimentary reviews – I am as much to blame as others. They just cannot take it. But do not worry, they rarely ever confront you in real life.
Don’t Review Your Own Comic.
This seems obvious to the socially adequate amongst us, right? I can tell you now that it goes on. I have at least five examples that have been proven by a back door look at the IP addresses that a certain UK Small Press comics creator is reviewing his own comics and unsurprisingly giving them five stars. I spotted it after there was a similar use of phrases, usernames and comparisons on a certain site that will remain nameless. Beware of these people – as my mother used to say ‘They ain’t right in the ‘ead!’
I am not sure if it progressed anywhere but pre COVID there was a news item stating that posting reviews of your own product for financial gain would become a criminal offence. I wonder what is happening with that? Even the Dark Giant Amazon has banned two reviews that come from the same IP address. Isn’t financial gain, along with the usual attention seeking, the end game of these posts? Monetary gain whether through direct sales or that they attract enough attention to gain unwarranted employment elsewhere in the industry.
Not everything links in with a movie or a tv series. There is a rich and deep history of art in this world that means that not everything has to remind you of Buffy or THE AVENGERS MOVIE!!!! Likewise, not every horror comic has to be compared to Junji Ito, not every indie superhero comic has to be compared to Invincible, not every fantasy comic has to be compared to Game of Thrones …. The list goes on and on.
There is a certain pro writer who when launching a new series always makes a comparison between two obvious movie/TV franchises. ‘This is Life on Mars meets Buffy,’ ‘This is Hitchhiker’s meets Doctor Who.’ Always with the ‘meets’ and always, every single time, not a similarity in any of it. Just transparent attempts at bagging an audience.
Try and capture both truth and insight when describing something. Every time you manage that you will feel that it is a tiny triumph.
Nothing Is Perfect.
I recently watched the Cartoonists Kayfabe video of Dave Gibbons talking about issue #12 of Watchmen and he mentioned a couple of small things that he was not happy with and would have changed. Now, if Watchmen is not perfect and bears some, albeit small, criticism can you claim to have produced something clear of criticism with your comic?
Try telling a deluded comic maker who has had one or two ‘amazing’ reviews that their comic ‘isn’t perfect’ and watch their face.
I sometimes wonder what beasts we have sired!
So, what are the consequences of bad reviews and especially those that are just flowery, circle-jerk, cuck love-letters? Quality will spiral as those crappy comics are seen as a high-water mark by the next generation coming up. If all you have to do is scribble a crap panel about how sad you are for a review site to herald you as the second coming, then we will see less effort put into many new comics who believe that nonsense. When comics by Barry Windsor-Smith or Dave McKean are left off the Best Of lists of 2021- I am beginning to doubt not only the credibility of the sites but also the sanity of some so-called comics journalists. Face some reality please!
But remember that constructive criticism is never ‘toxic’ or ‘cruel.’ The biggest crime you can commit in this game is dishonesty. Never write a review to impress a creator. That is a road that is hard to come back from.
Nobody said it would be easy.
So. For those that were wondering what I wrote this for.
I’m back in the game. As long as we are neither collaborators nor friends and I have the time I will review your comic. But if you can’t take the heat then stay out of the Never Iron Anything kitchen. (This is a binding agreement).
Many thanks for reading.