I like reading a good review. 

            Let me clarify that.  I like reading a well-written review.  A well-written review can be a positive review or a negative review.  Negative opinions can be interesting or informative.  Positive opinions can be edifying or appealing.  In either case, a well-written review can be an enjoyable experience on its own.

            But there is an art to writing a good review.  A review, whether negative or positive, should enlighten the reader.  The reader should know not only that the reviewer didn’t like the work but what they didn’t like about it.  The reviewer should also share information that will help readers to make up their own mind. 

I’ve read positive reviews that made me think I wouldn’t like a book and conversely, negative reviews that made me think I would like a movie even though the reviewer didn’t.  Additionally, opinions and information need to be shared in an engaging style otherwise the review itself isn’t interesting.

            Unfortunately, I haven’t read many well-written comic book reviews lately.  My favorite internet critics have mostly moved on to other work.  My current regular source for reviews is usually sub-standard.  Not to pick on Comic Buyer’s Guide but the most recent issue, #1682, serves as a useful illustration for what not to do. 

 

#1: The Rating and the Review shouldn’t contradict each other

 

This is a pretty common problem for CBG.  The issue in question will be given a high rating, such as 3 or 3 ½ stars.  But then the reviewer won’t say anything good about this supposedly good comic.  For example, GI Joe #1 was given 3 stars but the reviewer complained about it being a weak issue with little substance.  A little bit of negativity may be needed to explain why the issue received 3 stars instead of 4.  But if a comic gets a good rating, the review should tell us what’s good about it.

 

#2: The Reviewer shouldn’t merely summarize the story

 

I’m sympathetic to this problem because I think I do it sometimes in my own reviews.  But a reviewer isn’t writing a book report for a high school English class.  You need to convey more than what happened.  You need to tell us whether those events were depicted in an interesting manner.  The review for The Infinite #1 fails to do this.  The first two paragraphs are plot summary.  The final paragraph does provide some critique- the story is mostly set-up, Liefeld’s art is decent- but not much of it.  After reading this entry, I know what the story is about but not what I’m supposed to find out from a review: is it any good?

 

#3: The Review isn’t about what you thought before you bought the book

 

This is another common problem for CBG and it’s illustrated by the review for War of the Independents #1.  The reviewer indirectly tells us that he’s weary of annual events from the major publishers.  He directly tells us that he’s hoping some of his favorite independent characters will meet and fight.  But that information tells us why the reviewer bought the book in the first place.  It doesn’t tell us what he thought of the book after he read it.  The reviewer told us about himself, not the book he was reviewing.  There is a place for sharing expectations as part of a review, but the reviewer needs to tell us how the book confirmed or controverted them. 

 

#4: The Review shouldn’t get bogged down in extra information

 

The point of a review is the review itself.  The reviewer may want to share additional information they think is interesting.  But if the reviewer shares so much information that they forget to review the actual book, then they’ve failed as a reviewer.  The review for the Flash Gordon Archives comes close.  There’s a comparison to Han Solo, a historical timeline of appearances and an odd eulogy for artists who died a long time ago.  The actual critique received less than a third of the focus.  Honorable intentions or not, that’s not the purpose of a review. 

 

#5: The Review shouldn’t be about your personal pet peeves

 

Some reviews are so bad that it’s hard to place them in a specific category.  The review for Jack of Fables #50 fails on several levels.  This reviewer ends up counting the panels and judging the quality of the book based on the number of pictures.  You’re a reviewer, not an accountant.  There is a place to mention the length of a story, but there are movies that feel short at 3 hours and others that feel long at an hour and a half.  The crucial question for a critic isn’t the number of pages or panels, but the quality of the story and the art.  Furthermore, the reviewer betrayed a lack of knowledge about comics.  Part of the reviewer’s responsibility is to know the medium that’s being reviewed.  The reviewer should have known that there’s a tradition in comics of using all splash-pages for momentous occasions, such as Walt Simonson’s Thor #380 or the Death of Superman in Superman #75.  The final issue of Jack of Fables fits into a well-established convention.  The reviewer might tell us how well it uses that convention.  But the complaint about the panel count should be a footnote, not the heart of the review.

 

On the bright side, that last negative review at least gave me enough information to know what the book is like.  The reviewer may not have enjoyed it but, based on his review, I’m now interested in it myself. 

            Reviewing the reviewers is not about agreeing or disagreeing with them.  I haven’t read any of the five books that were covered in these critiques.   I don’t have an opinion on them.  My critique is about whether or not the reviewer did their job- giving us informed opinions that help us know whether or not the book is good. 

            Actually, the best-written review in this issue of CBG was one with which I disagreed.  Martin Gray (who is also a member of the Captain Comics message board) wrote a positive review of Alpha Flight #1.  He gave it 4 stars.  I’ve read the comic.  I thought it was adequate, average, mediocre.  However, Martin wrote a good review- by which I mean written well, as well as positive.  He summarized the story quickly and spent more time on reaction than recounting.  He told us what he liked about the comic and why he thought it was good.  He commented on the art and the colors as well as the story.  As far as reviews go, it was exemplary.  I may disagree with him on the quality of the comic, but he did his job as a reviewer.  And I admire that.  After all, I like reading good reviews.  

Views: 171

Comment by The Baron on August 26, 2011 at 12:03pm

Meh.

 

 

;)

Comment by Chris Fluit on August 26, 2011 at 12:28pm
The Baron Bizarre: succinct, yet informative.
Comment by George on August 28, 2011 at 5:21pm
One problem is that so many comics "critics" (or "reviewers") are really fans who want to break into the industry. There has never been any real "critical establishment" for comics, as there are for movies, plays, books and so on. So I'm not surprised by the low standards of so many comics reviews I read.
Comment by Chris Fluit on August 29, 2011 at 10:14am

That's an interesting point, George.  However, I'm not convinced that the one problem necessarily leads to the other.  One of my favorite comic book critics was Brandon Thomas who was also a fan trying to break into comics.  He would alternate between review columns and stories about trying to make it as a comic book writer.  He had a knack for recognizing what worked- and what didn't- about someone else's work.  And, even though you knew he wished he had their job, he had a way of critiquing their work that didn't sound petty or jealous (a problem I've noticed in a few former pros-turned-reviewers).  

 

I think the bigger issue is the other one you mentioned.  Comics are a niche industry and so there's no establishment or training for reviewers as there is for other media.  You can take courses and even get degrees in movie, theatre or book criticism.  (I speak from experience.  I attended seminars on theatre criticism in college and applied to graduate school in that field before changing directions and going to seminary instead.)  Yet most comic reviews are written by whichever fan is willing to do them.  Some of those fans will have natural aptitude for writing reviews.  But many will lack the basic competence we've come to expect in other fields.

 

I think that one of the other factors is the exaggerated high art/low art divide in comics.  You said that there's no critical establishment in comics and I agreed with you.  But there are those who claim to be the critical establishment- Gary Groth, Tom Spurgeon, etc.  However, those critics restrict themselves to the independent, arty comics that are Eisner-darlings.  They don't usually bother with blockbuster, superhero comics except to turn their noses up at them.  That's different than other media.  A television reviewer may give the highest rating to independent fare like Breaking Bad, but they'll still review network shows and may praise the occasional sitcom like Modern Family.  A movie reviewer may prefer independent cinema, but they'll still review the latest summer blockbuster.  Some of those summer blockbusters may even get good reviews- at least enough to help us determine that we're more likely to enjoy Rise of the Planet of the Apes than Conan the Barbarian.  But that doesn't happen in comics.  The supposed establishment critics pay attention to a niche within a niche.  When it comes to the comics that most of us read, we're left reading primarily the opinions of other fans.   

 

That's one of the reasons I love Captain Comics.  He writes well, he knows what he's talking about and he talks about the stuff we actually read- stuff like Spider-Man and Superman. 

Comment by David N on August 29, 2011 at 12:30pm
Besides the Captain, I enjoy Tony Isabella's reviews in CBG. He's a very entertaining writer and reviews the full spectrum of the industry, from Archie to Zenescope. I hear what you're saying about Groth. He used to have a magazine devoted to superhero reviews and such, Amazing Heroes. Sigh...
Comment by George on August 29, 2011 at 4:02pm
I'm not sure "comics journalism" really exists. A friend of mine attended Comic Con a few years ago, and said a huge number off people had media credentials. But most of them weren't actual journalists. They were fans with blogs.
Comment by George on August 29, 2011 at 4:04pm
Granted, Comic Con isn't "just" about comics anymore. It's attended by thousands of people who have no interest in comic books. They attend because they're fans of certain TV shows or movies.
Comment by Martin Gray on September 3, 2011 at 9:10am

Phew, fascinating piece Chris. When I saw what you were doing I got rather scared.

So thanks very much indeed for the kind words. It's a lot of fun, trying to meet the requirements of a review within the CBG 175-word limit. I can be self-indulgent on my own blog, but over there I try to be disciplined.

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