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At Comic Foundry we encourage feedback on member portfolios, but giving criticism is a lot more than a simple thumbs up or down. Famed editor Tom Spurgeon of The Comics Reporter and former editor of The Comics Journal gave CF a hand in figuring out how craft the perfect comic review.
What’s the first thing you look at?
The first time I read a comic I just read it, and then later when I’m looking for stuff to write about I go to the pile of comics I’ve already read rather than the new ones. Sorting through my memories of first reading those comics usually provides me with a hook for at least the initial draft of what I end up writing – a first impression or something that popped out at me. The other day I wanted to write a short review for my Web site, and looking at my pile of comics I remembered reading Fermin Solis’ “One Step After Another,” and I figure I could make something out of the really severe dichotomy I recalled the artist setting up between personal liberation and stability. Considering the brevity of the review, I probably didn’t have too much more to offer than that, but that was the hook.
When I get to the formal writing process, I would say that I first pay some attention to the general look and design of the book because that’s what first presents itself to the reader. Design in comics has really changed a lot in the last 10 years.
What is your process for critiquing?
Without getting to fancy about it, I think when I write about comics I’m working in a more intuitive fashion than locked into a process. There are certainly things I like and pay attention to, although that frequently depends on the comic book. When I review superhero comics, for instance, I’m probably more interested than usual in how they deal with page design and with the amount of text on the page, simply because those are things that have really changed about superhero comics in the last 30 years. Also, when I look at superhero comics I’m really interested in how the figure is depicted and how the figure is used on the page, whether it’s another design element or the focus of the visual elements. If you look at someone like J.G. Jones, the bodies Jones draws become really important as a visual signifier, clues on where he wants your eyes to go, more than someone like John Buscema for whom the body was almost always the destination.
Other things I look for generally are any disconnect between the written word and what’s depicted on the page, the use of blacks as a design element, the comic’s pacing and how the style serves or otherwise works with or in opposition to the story’s content.
What should be the goal of every critique?
As there are many reasons to write about comics critically, naming a single goal based on various legitimate objectives becomes really difficult. Your goals are your own, you know? I would say the one thing that applies to every critique is it should be as good a piece of writing as you can manage, above and beyond any other aims.
How do you go about critiquing a comic that features a style that you have personal feelings against?
That’s an interesting question. I’m not sure I have personal feelings against a style of comics, although I certainly have preferences and they might have been strong enough preferences when I was a teenager to manifest themselves as feelings. One great thing about being around for a bunch of years is that you can go back to stuff you disliked when you were younger and you may see them in a kinder light.
In general, I think it’s perfectly acceptable to critique a comic based on its use of a style you don’t care for, as long as you have something interesting to say about why you don’t like it and why others should consider sharing your opinion.
Being a coward is good, too. There are some comics that I like and comics I dislike for reasons I haven’t yet figured out yet, so I avoid writing about those comics. I’ve never understood Lil’ Abner.
What if I’m don’t know a lot about writing or art – am I qualified to give a critique?
Sure! It might even be a great one. In the end, insight trumps everything that we can learn about writing or art or the history of a medium and all the useful examples we can accrue through doing so. Those things might let us write in more interesting ways, or give us a chance to say something insightful on a more regular basis, but the heart of the critical process is something that’s possible to reach without knowing what you’re doing. In fact, I’ve always thought most critics learn all that other stuff so that they can forget it and go back to making points based solely on their own observations.
How do the creator’s feelings play into this?
I’m afraid they don’t. If you get off subject or just plain nasty, you deserve to reap the whirlwind when it comes to hurt feelings. For an honest critique, though, you have to try your hardest not to think about those things and hope that you’ll be afforded the same generosity of spirit from the artist. If something is put out in public it can be commented upon, and creators just have to deal that someone might do so.
Where’s the line between being specific and nitpicking?
It becomes nitpicking when it can no longer be tied into a thought or an idea about the overall work.
What advice do you have for a self-critique?
1. If possible, give yourself some time away from the work.
2. Simply read before you dig into the how and why you did something that either worked or didn’t. It’s difficult to know if a joke is funny if you’re looking at your cross-hatching.
3. Be harder on yourself than you imagine anyone else will be.
4. Don’t ever let even the severest appraisal, from yourself or others, stop you from creating. Critics may give you a lot of things, but they never give you permission.
What’s the most common mistakes made when reviewing a comic, and how can they be overcome?
I think the two most common mistakes people make when they review comics are 1) to accept a depraved standard, that something “is good for a comic book,” for example, and 2) to mirror what they think a good review should sound like rather than honestly engaging the work in question, being open to really liking it or really not liking it, and then putting that on paper.
In writing a critique, how true is this twist on the old adage: If you can’t say something nicely, don’t say anything at all?
There might be something to that in peer-to-peer critiques, particularly in that part of the goal of that kind of work is to support each other and learn from another. And it’s also human nature. My football coach used to tell me that it was the rare player that could accept a criticism without hearing something complimentary first, so he would always try to start with something nice, even if it was sort of stupid. At the same time, you can’t extend “nicely” to include whitewashing the truth as you see it, and it’s really not a factor at all when you’re doing it for a readership rather than the artist one-on-one.
Scorched-earth rhetoric in a review does have a place, particularly if you feel like your piece of criticism is appearing in a critical context of a lot of reviews where you really want to make your point in as strong a manner as possible. If 32 people shoot guns in the air going “yippee,” you might be better off throwing a grenade than shooting your rifle and saying “the opposite of yippee.” Be careful not to overuse that kind of approach, though, or no one will take you seriously.
In the Internet age, it’s a lot easier for people to be combative in light of a bad review. How would you sidestep such an issue, or is it an issue at all?
You should consider it a great thing if people are combative in response to something you’re written; it’s a really high compliment, similar to the compliment you paid to the art in question by choosing to write about it. I would say that you want to get to the point where your reviews speak for themselves, and not get mired in a back-and-forth argument. That’s sort of how I feel about the Internet generally, now. There’s an assumption online that if someone says something you have to counter it or that other person wins! But they’re not filing a brief in court that demands a response; they’re just trying to get you into an argument. In most cases, life’s too short.
Why is a critique important for creators and the ones giving the review?
I think critical writing becomes important to the creator when it’s useful, when there’s a way of looking at what you just did that hadn’t occurred to you in the doing of it. A creator who reads and gets something out of a piece of critical writing frequently does just as much work going over that piece of writing as the critic did in going over the original work.
I also think it’s nice just to be talked about, whether or not the reaction is a good one or a bad one.
For the person doing the review, the reward is the pleasure that comes with the writing and in seeing a work in a different light you might not have seen going over it the first time. It’s fun to figure out why something works, whether it’s a street-corner lamp or Art Spiegelman’s Maus.
— Interview by Tim Leong