The current format of comic book reviews is all wrong. It’s a little clearer when I refer to comics as graphic novels: reviews concentrate on the novel part and largely ignore the graphic portion.
I took art history in university and we had to spend thousands of words describing paintings, even though looking at the painting and using a few dozen words would have the same impact on the reader. And so our tradition of reviewing books carried forward to reviewing comic books: the reviewer shows the cover of the book and spends a whole lot of words breaking down the plot, characters, actions and overall content. This works for books but most of us are reading comics for the pictures and the words. Since covers are rarely done by the book’s artist we only have the text to determine if we’d enjoy the item reviewed.
Generally, and I am going to be generalizing a bit here, we pick up new comics because we like the character, writer, artist or a combination of these. A fourth factor comes into play when we step outside of our own selection: recommendations. Either through a friend, store employee or review something new is suggested to us and we act on it based on how well they sell it to us or if their previous recommendations were spot on.
Yet even based on this criteria there is one big step we take as comic readers before we buy something new: what I like to call “thumbing”. We’re at the store, title in hand and we flip through the comic to get a sense of how it looks. We may read a few panels but we’re taking a visual inventory of the work and determining if it satisfies the “graphic” portion of graphic novel. This action above all others quantifies everything wrong with current comic reviews: more visuals required.
The internet is full of wonderful sites giving us comic news in a constant barrage, and in recent years it gets one thing right: the preview. Publishers offer a few pages of an upcoming comic to sell it to the readers, so we’ll be anxiously awaiting it’s arrival. They get the visual aspect of the medium and focus on it, along with perhaps a paragraph of text.
This all came to me in a Jerry Maguire moment when I was putting together Humanoids Week here at CBD. I was writing a lot of reviews that week and the publisher didn’t have preview pages readily available so I was posting the cover and a lot of text. I realized there just wasn’t a good way to convey the story without showing off some pages; I could babble on about the story and characters but when it came to the art I could maybe compare the artist with another artist so the reader could get some sense of the style, but it was weak at best.
Taking a step back we then need to ask if comic reviews are even necessary if a good preview is available. Reviews are written for three reasons: money, enjoyment or free stuff. If we’re getting paid we’ll write a review of a good or bad book. If we’re a fan and enjoyed the work we’ll write a glowing review. If we get a free copy of the book we’ll write a review, good or bad. Unfortunately I’ve never received a free comic from a publisher for reviewing; all my reviews are because I read the book and wanted to share my thoughts, so I guess the fourth reason is ego. Or site content.
What then is the purpose of a review? Plot, characters, outcome, development, and more we can get from the publisher’s blurb or reading the back of the book. A reviewer brings their opinion to the material: putting forward compelling arguments why the material is inspiring or flotsam.
This week I’ve been working on a review formula for myself that gives comic pages the spotlight and just enough text to convey why I’m writing it. Here are some pages, here’s the outline, here’s why I liked or hated it. Take from it what you will.
Yes, I realize this is a lot of text with no pictures talking about how comic reviews need lots of pictures and very little text…