Comic Reviews: Who Are They For and What Should They Do?
“Well, shit. Now I’m going to have to watch the next season after all.” That was how my father wrapped our hour-long conversation about season one of Mad Men. He’d heard me praise the show for years and after recently taking the plunge into setting up his very own Netflix account (okay, he set it over the phone with me; we’ve all been there) he finally decided to give it a shot. And man, did it not click with him. The bleakness, the lack of any character being even remotely likeable (to him), and the aura of living behind a veneer of lies, all amounted to a “disturbing” experience for him. So we talked about. I thoroughly understood every one of his reactions, including the way Don’s behavior in some ways paralleled his own father’s (to clarify: not the extramarital affairs) and then we tried to dig into what we both thought was really going on both on the show and why it elicited those emotions in him. It was a fun conversation and one that we were both very engaged with, so much so that by the time it was over he saw the show in a new light and so did I. In our media obsessed culture, it’s basically the modern pastime to digest media and then discuss it with others. It’s not a new phenomenon mind you, that’s how it’s always worked of course via book clubs and around water coolers at work, but there are so many new ways and so many more voices to engage with now. It got me thinking about comics too because most things do if I’m being honest, but specifically about comic book reviews. I’ve written quite a few myself and I’ve read thousands more than by folks way better at it, but despite this I still don’t really have any idea who comic reviews are for or what their goals should be.
Ideally, any review (of any media, but let’s keep it comics focused) should operate much in the way that my phone call with my dad did: bring something new to a conversation about a work. That something new is essentially perspective, but even if that perspective aligns with your own, there can still be newer facets exposed that were previously unobserved by one’s own eye. But is that happening all that often? Are there comic buyers out there who after reading a book and forming their own opinions seek out a new perspective? Maybe? Or, are there comic buyers out there holding off on giving a book a try until they see what kind of reviews it gets? Again, probably some do. What’s the ratio between those two groups? Clearly, there’s plenty who delight in shouting a contrarian opinion as loud as possible simply because its being discussed somewhere else and they have a fucking right to leave the most horrible sludge of a comment on a website because first amendment censorship blah blah blah. Whether those types either read the work in question or hell, even the review in question is another matter. It’s all a bit murky to me as to what readers are hoping to get out of a review of a comic book and while that doesn’t 100% inform how I choose to write them, I’m still baffled as hell as to *Seinfeld voice* Who are these people?
Let’s address one group that absolutely reads reviews: publishers. Of course they do and they absolutely should. That’s how books get buzz and serve as a valuable marketing tool (not in a pejorative sense at all) and to gauge reception to their products. As long as the reviews are being honest, this is all well and good of course, but there’s always the potential for a review site to turn into nothing more than a promotion machine for a publisher, which obviously dilutes the waters and does nothing to help consumers. Of course, there’s also the chance that reviews could be negative and a publisher would feel slighted (for reasons both valid and silly depending) and then refuse to provide materials for review. That too doesn’t really help consumers. It’s has the potential to be a tricky situation, but one not wholly unique to comics by any means. So, sure, publishers read reviews. I get that. I don’t think any review should ever be written for a publisher because d’uh, but when that fragile symbiotic relationship is performing as it should, then it’s all good.
Another group that definitely reads reviews? Creators. Okay, this is interesting. If you’ve been on the demon abyss that is comics twitter or tumblr for any amount of time you’ve certainly seen examples of how this can end very ugly. Worst case scenario: a creator takes umbrage (rightfully or not) at something written in a review and lashes out. It’s not often, but it has happened and it is, as the French say, “not a good look, man.” There are plenty of reviews that are unfairly negative and the best thing to do in those situations is if you’re at the receiving end is to pay it no public mind and move on. However, a creator has every right to engage and offer clarifications, corrections, etc. Look, it’s obviously a great opportunity for feedback for a creator and if they choose to read reviews of their work, that’s great so long as they can assess for themselves how much weight to give them based on the review itself. A well-done negative review can be fair and provide insight that a creator may choose to consider or not. That’s potentially a good thing, yeah? But are reviews there to serve that purpose primarily? I don’t think they should, but as a by-product, sure, go nuts.
This brings up the question of whether a review is necessarily the same thing as a critique. Bear with me here, I realize it sounds like this train is slowing into the bore station (please don’t give me a bad review!). I’m going to get real with you and basically admit that I’m not smart enough to answer that question, but it’s sort of like the old “I know it when I see it” pornography smell test. Ewww, that was gross. My bad. When a review ventures deeper into the context of a work within the industry or culture as a whole or looks to examine a specific overriding aspect to a work (like race or gender issues) then I think it plants its feet more firmly in the “critique” beach which serves almost another purpose, often grander in scope than just the work at hand. Many such critiques are fantastic (and some occupy the aforementioned bore station) and make for a richer reading experience than a run of the mill review, but that’s not to say they have the exact same audience nor does it mean that more straightforward reviews are thereby mindless drivel. Not at all.
There aren’t any real strict guidelines to writing a comic review (who would set them anyway?) but recently Ron Marz wrote an interesting piece over at CBR about comic reviews that addressed an elephant in the room: most reviewers, even really good ones, don’t really know the nitty-gritty of the craft all that well. I’ll admit I sure as hell don’t. It’s a good piece with what I would consider some solid advice, but it brings us back again to that troublesome spot of who reviews are for. Likely, many people who read reviews (whoever they are) that are neither a creator or someone works for a publisher, probably don’t know much about that same nitty-gritty comics craft. So that leads to an ouroboros of craft ignorance from reviewer to review reader that isn’t really helping to educate anyone, but could still very well lead to sales regardless.
I don’t think any review should just be some random person saying “I like this” or “this sucks” without you know, actually providing some fucking reasons why. But even if a review can elaborately express reasons, if they aren’t super well versed in the finer nuances of the craft, does that make it completely invalid? Not entirely, no. Most comic book readers aren’t either and if someone walks away from a book with an opinion, there’s always some validity to those emotions being borne from the work. After all, reviews aren’t being written for creators as their primary audience. There’s something to your average fan saying “I want to know what this person thinks about a book because we have similar tastes and takeaways” that is totally fair even if neither of those participants in the discussion know how tangents work. On the other hand, it also sounds pretty beneficial to have a reviewer provide insight that feels relatable while still delivering a bit of informed analysis, right? I would think so, but if there’s no one around who wants to read that then tree-falling-in-woods-does-it-make-a-sound conundrum abounds.
Look, I don’t have any answers and if I ever truly wanted feedback on anything it’s this topic. Who are these reviews for and what is their best purpose? Can they serve multiple purposes? Is there a level of responsibility reviewers should adhere to? Or can someone with an opinion on a book just go ahead and speak it freely regardless of intended audience or advanced knowledge of the craft? For me, and I’m not claiming to be even half-way good at any of this (seriously, no one thinks I’m a bigger fraud than me) but I like to approach reviews much in the same way I talked to my dad on the phone. A review is part of a discussion. It’s that excited banter over drinks after watching a movie with friends and trying to figure out if you actually liked that thing you just saw. There’s no back and forth in any immediate terms, no, but it can serve to be one installment of that same exchange that lets the listener (reader) re-examine something with new eyes. Or sure, it could be the opening remarks of the reviewer prosecutor/defender of a book on trial prior to learning the details for yourself by reading it. In the end, reviews are all about a level of engagement and reflection that hopefully lead to further consideration. Speaking for myself only, after reading a review by me or anyone else, I just want you to ask yourself if you’re going to have to fucking watch season two of Mad Men after all.