Robot 6

Professional Critics vs. Amateurs: What difference does it make?

"So what I told you was true..."

I’m not quite done talking about comics criticism. Your comments to that post from last week were awesome and gave me even more to think about, so I want to dig into this a little deeper. Maybe for a couple or three posts. In this and the next one I’d like to offer some definitions that I’ve found helpful in thinking about criticism and role it plays in the comics industry. After that, I’m planning to talk about some rules for good criticism, pulled from a variety of sources. We may not agree on all of them, but hopefully it’ll make a good discussion.

Last week, I mentioned the idea that everyone’s a critic. To quote Obi-Wan, that’s true “from a certain point of view.” Anyone who talks about the comics she buys is participating in criticism. (And we should maybe pause for a second to clarify that “criticism” doesn’t automatically mean ragging on something. It can be positive or even praising. More on that next week.) But though everyone can join in the work of a critic, it’s still helpful to put some labels on the groups of people who do.

It’s not helpful from the standpoint of classifying who we will and won’t listen to. As I said last week, there are some great professional critics, but there are also useless ones whose primary motivation seems to be getting quoted. There’s a lot of irrelevant noise in message-board land, but there are also people who use that as their primary platform to talk eloquently about the comics they read. It doesn’t matter what the label is; useful discussion about comics can be found anywhere.

A couple of things make these labels helpful though.

What you know influences what you think.

The one I want to talk about this week is that they let us know the level of expertise someone brings to the discussion. Even when I’m sitting with a group of friends talking informally about comics, I’m going to take some of my pals more seriously than others. If all you’ve ever read are a couple of issues of the New 52, I’m not going to give your opinions the same consideration that I would someone who’s familiar with DC’s long history. And I wouldn’t take that person as seriously as someone who knows the broader history of comics in all of its genres and formats. And even if you’re extremely widely read, I’ll still weigh your opinions carefully against someone who’s made a formal study of comics. That doesn’t mean that the formal, professional, capital-C Critic’s opinion about Morrison’s Action Comics is more valid than my buddy who’s only read that one title, but it does mean that the critic’s opinion is richer and better informed. I’d be foolish not to take that into account.

Somewhere in between those extremes are what people used to call “gentleman-amateurs,” a term that I like for the image of reading comics in a smoking jacket by the fireplace in the parlour, but that we should find a gender-neutral equivalent for. The idea is that it’s a person who’s spent a lot of time (because, being a gentleman-of-leisure, he has a lot of time to spend) familiarizing himself with and thinking about his area of interest. He’s not a trained professional, but he’s not inexperienced with his subject-matter either. This describes most of the comics criticism landscape and it’s useful to make the distinction between people like me and people who’ve studied this stuff academically and draw their primary income from discussing it.

I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the value that experience brings to the discussion of comics. Do you give more authority to the opinion of someone like Douglas Wolk or to friends who generally like the same kinds of things you do? The answer to that question might depend on the reasons we talk about comics in the first place. Am I trying to learn more about the art form or simply looking for reading recommendations? Both of those are valid, but the reason I go into a discussion affects what I’ll be able to take away from it. Knowing what I want will dramatically increase my chances of getting it. That’s what we’ll talk about next week.

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25 Comments

I can’t stand the majority of reviews which are merely a summary of what happened and then a statement of whether or not the reviewer liked what he or she read. Criticism should be an argument. Show your work!

Otherwise, I don’t mind reading, “This was awesome!” What drives me bonkers is why anybody would spend 8 paragraphs that are tatamount to saying, “This was awesome!” Stop wasting your time and mine. If you don’t have anything to argue on behalf or against in your review, then don’t bother. I assume most of these type of reviews are written by the gentleman-amateur type.

It’s not about whether the critic is professional or amateur. It’s about the quality of the review. if the review gave you a honest/interesting/relevant appraisal of the material, great. If it failed to do so, it don’t matter if the guy got paid to write it or does it on the side for fun.

I don’t think that much emphasis on contexualising comics warrants giving a person with a knowledge of the form as a whole a more worthy opinion than others. It really depends on the angles we are coming in at. Going by your criteria I would consider CBR’s reviews very pedestrian as the content never really goes beyond the genre.

I could compare Action Comics to Nietzsche’s original perception of the ‘Superman’ and it would be interesting but reading a review from someone reading their first comic would be just as interesting for different reasons. I don’t think this hierarchy exists and one of the best things about criticism is that it takes into account the perspectives of all involved. That includes varying educational backgrounds, nationality, gender, age etc…I could compare Action Comics to the Silver Age Superman as polar opposites of what the character can be but it will be from my perspective of a 23 year old British woman who is well read in the cape genre and has a good degree in English. I could pick up on aspects of idolitry, masculinity, social justice and political context for a start but is that what the CBR crowd are looking for? At what point does book learning become irrelevant?

T. Elliot Hackenbush

October 28, 2011 at 12:07 pm

Critics are parasites of creativity in any medium. The only way to move artforms forward is to read, listen, view, etc… and then create. Sitting around and discussing it is smart (for the most part) people doing nothing but wasting people’s time by trying to gain attention through the hard work of others.

I don’t really see where an extensive knowledge of DC history would necessarily give someone’s opinion more credence. Lord knows I’ve seen plenty of dumbass opinions from fanboys too mired in meaningless continuity lore and obsession with what a particular book or character was like when they were 12 to step back and see what they’re actually reading. In some cases, a comics virgin, without all that baggage, might be better able to judge the success of a book (especially one of DC’s new titles) as a piece of storytelling art.

I think extensive background knowledge can lend credibility and perspective to a critical opinion. However, it’s a tightrope walk between drawing on relevant knowledge and showing off. In music criticism, for example, it seems to become a game of proving hipster cred by name-dropping as many obscure artists and songs as possible.

Elliot has somewhat of a point. We prolly have too many critics and not enough artists. You need a few critics though.

@ Michael P: I don’t disagree. I was thinking more about looking at Action Comics in an historical context next to previous interpretations of the character and I’d find that discussion fascinating, but I’m with you on being tired of the conversation being just about nostalgia and how much continuity someone knows. That’s not actually a conversation about the book at all, but about the person talking. Yawn.

I don’t think it’s the credentials so much as the reviewer’s ability to think critically and engage in how and why a certain work suceeded or failed that makes a comic worth reading or not. I hate to shamelessly plug the website I edit for again in the criticism thread (oh, who am I kidding…I’m happy to!), but over at PLAYBACK:stl, one of my most prolific reviewers came into comics reviewing almost as a lark: she was a film and theatre reviewer who found a comic she was interested in, had me get her a review copy, liked what she saw, and just kept asking for stuff. Now she’s been at it a while and she offers very succinct, excellently reasoned reviews of a wide variety of comics.

Does she have the knowledge of comics minutiae that I do as a lifetime fan? Of course not. But she understands how storytelling works and how visual media works and she’s just as able to explain how and why a comic works as I am even though she’s read dozens and I’ve read thousands….just the way she does it is different.

Though I’ve been a lifelong reader, I also came into comics reviewing from a different medium (I started out as a music critic), and that affects the way I write my reviews, too. In my music reviewing, I would often say something like “this band sounds like Prince fronting an Aerosmith cover band,” so when I review comics, I often make similar comparisons, e.g. “this artist looks like the unholy lovechild of Sam Kieth and Ben Templesmith trying to draw an R-rated Archie comic” or whatever. She’s more likely to draw upon her knowledge of film and address things like how the coloring or inking style reflects the mood of scenes and what have you. They’re both perfectly reasonable ways to engage a comic, and I think (or at least hope!) that we provide a breakdown of the comic that enables the reader to suss out whether or not they’d actually be interested in reading the comic at hand.

You mentioned “people who’ve studied this stuff academically and draw their primary income from discussing it” and honestly, THAT criterion is my absolute last priority of what I look for in a reviewer. Augie de Blieck, for example, is almost the ultimate “gentleman-amateur” comics reviewer, but I got more out of his dissection of Scott Williams’ inking in this week’s Pipeline as I’ve gotten out of any stuffy “formal” review I can think of. Steven Grant’s “Permanent Damage” column (which, oh God, do I miss) often teetered back and forth between general “this is the book, these are the kind of people who might like it, and I liked/didn’t like it because of A, B, and C” reviews and more formal dissections from the perspective of a guy who has written entire bookcases worth of comics, but they were all interesting and informative reads.

Honestly, I think it all comes down to if the critic (1) understands how comics work and what makes them succeed or fail and (2) is able to explain how and why a comic succeeds or fails in an entertaining and informative way. Anybody who has powerful mindgrapes and a copy of “Understanding Comics” can do that.

Heh…I would just like to point out that I hadn’t read Paul Allen’s dig that “In music criticism, for example, it seems to become a game of proving hipster cred by name-dropping as many obscure artists and songs as possible.” I guess that means he probably wouldn’t like my comics reviews then. Heh.

My own comic book critiques always explain WHY I dislike something — in vain hope that perhaps some comic creator might learn from it. (As if!)

For example, if I criticize Jim Lee’s artwork, I will say it’s because it’s too bombastic, that his range of facial expressions is severely limited, that his figure work suffers from never taking a life-drawing class, that his linework is scratchy as if he is unsure of himself and therefore flails about with a lot of extraneous lines instead of finding the ONE best line (like say, Jaime Hernandez).

I might also point out that Jim Lee’s storytelling technique is lacking: that his panels don’t always lead the eye properly, that you can’t always tell what is happening in the panel, that he fails to draw the little quiet moments that move a story along, and that reading his work makes me feel like I’m skimming a Readers’ Digest condensed version and only getting half the story.

Yet, no matter how articulate or reasoned my critique, there’s always some little punk who jumps up and calls me a “Hater” or a “Whiner”. And THAT is the extent of THEIR critical skills.

I’m more interested in biases than bona fides.

Are you a deadly serious indie comics guy who wants respect for the medium? I want to know that.

How about the guy who thinks superheroes should be taken seriously, keeps a copy of Watchmen on his nightstand, and curses the day the Batman TV show became a phenomenon? Good to know.

Born-in-the-nineties guy obsessed by the cult-of-the-new who agonizes over cutting his pull list to ONLY thirty titles a month? Lots of them around. (And publishers need more of them).

Sensitive social justice person deeply concerned with diversity and gender politics? I like that.

Old-timer with low expectations and a nostalgic love for flawed but fun comics? THAT, of course, is a philosopher king (because that’s me).

There’s room for all these voices. I really don’t care if you’ve read The Spirit, grew up on SuperFriends, think Image was keel, or rage against the injustice of The Man crushing creators. Just have a point of view, write well, and give a crap about what you’re doing. That will put you laps ahead of most.

What are you looking for when you read a comic? I seek, primarily, to be entertained. Comics can (and do) rise above that, but if I can read a comic book and be entertained with a well-written story, it’s done it’s job.

But then, I come to a book with different expectations and tastes than other readers (as do others–we should all be alike in that we are all different), so to be honest I don’t find much merit in any review. While I’m at it: most reviews are not critiques. There are no annotations or detailed essays attempting to discover what the author is trying to say about the characters in his or her story. (I feel that’s important. People try to place emphasis entirely on the work and take it completely off the author. Whether that’s to detach the person giving their opinion from the work a bit more, or out of jealousy as some people claim it to be, or whatever, I don’t think it’s a proper course of action. Because for good or ill, after you’re done critiquing the work you’re still going to claim that whatever you think the work says reflects on the author, while what the actual creator of the work thinks is irrelevant to you. To me, there’s something…not unfair, but dishonest about that line of thinking.) Most reviews are “I liked or disliked this”, then they tell you why. To me that isn’t a critique.

It’s curious the article seems to imply that a vague formalism… some full- or quasi- or semi-academic foundation… is the paramount of criticism. What about reviews and discussions from other creators? Or publishing professionals? You have actual professionals (by which I mean people who make a living through comics) talking about the medium all the time. With the hierarchy described, it’s odd that the opinions of artists, writers, editors, marketers, &c. isn’t considered.

And most creators will very readily talk critically about other books, if asked. Instead of interviewers only asking why readers should by the interviewee’s book…add a couple more questions about what OTHER books they think readers should check out.

That’s an excellent point, Brandon. I love hearing the thoughts of industry professionals, so I appreciate your mentioning them explicitly. In my head, I had them wrapped into the other groups because the level of expertise still varies from pro to pro, but I agree that they’re worth pointing out as a separate group with a uniquely valuable viewpoint.

T. Elliott Hackenbush said “Critics are parasites of creativity in any medium” and similar stuff along that line.

I once thought that. But I believe quality criticism is the way to educate readers and creators. If creators pay attention to quality criticism, they can improve their work. (Elsewise, they can simply call the critics “haters” and bury their head in the sand, ignoring even valid criticism, like Rob Liefield).

Just like the creators themselves, there are good critiques and bad critiques. And criticism does not have to be negative. Whether I say that Brian Bendis’s writing reminds me of a bloated Taco Bell fart (a negative) or that Jack Kirby’s imagination was boundless (a positive) it is still criticism.

Hmmm, maybe I’ll be a comic critic as a side job. I could even be the Jay Sherman of comics! Come on, seriously, in the sixth episode of “The Critic”, his essay was the best piece of advice that could apply to multiple art forms: “If the ___ stinks, just don’t go.”

How I Learned To Enjoy Comics Again!

I stopped reading reviews.

Personally, I value literary criticism and/or writing background in a comics critic more than anything, especially more than a knowledge of the superhero genre or even the comics medium. You don’t always know a reviewer’s background but the ones I like usually turn out to have that expertise. Someone with a working knowledge of story structure and good writing (like Chris Braak, Tucker Stone, Chris Sims, and Abhay Kosla) who is also a good writer will always come up with the most rewarding criticism.

I personally give MUCH more credence to the opinions of friends who generally like the same kinds of things I do.

Douglas, if you’re going to make your purchases based on the opinions of others, it’s definitely wise to make sure those others have the same values as you.

I’ve read reviews where the the reviewer trashed something I really loved, and I’ve read reviews where the reviewer praised comics I thought stunk like cat urine. But my purchases aren’t based on what somebody else says.

I tend to find creators I admire, and follow them, even when they play musical chairs with the titles they’re writing or drawing. But I like reading reviews and seeing what others think, whether I agree or disagree. Sometimes I learn something. Sometimes a reviewer turns me on to a new talent. Sometimes a reviewer really knows how to write, and entertains me, despite whether I agree with him or not.

What I see a lot of people above supporting is the idea that a “gut feeling” or emotional reaction has the same value as a researched and knowledgeable critical read of media. Which is fairly consistent with the current trend of becoming furious with academics and scholars who spend a lifetime researching and building an informed viewpoint from which to draw conclusions if they give us information inconsistent with our “gut feelings” or emotional reactions.

Its an absurd stance.

Reviews are just that – reviews of material that any person can give. Criticism requires a solid knowledge base, be it in comics history, superhero history or in storytelling method (coming at criticism from a different viewpoint does not make the criticism less valid). But its the job of the critic to discuss the item in context, and to have a working knowledge or ability to research the object of criticism enough so that their critique is informed and holds up because its been developed with supporting evidence.

All reviewers and critics, of course, start off without the experience and knowledge they’ll eventually obtain.

And I suspect that a lot of the comments above are driven by the fact that we’re all critics online, but many of us know we could always know more before we open our mouths or put finger to keyboard.

Take a media studies class, kids. There’s a junior college out there waiting to enroll you.

I read reviews of reviewers I like. The equivalent of asking a friend what they thought of a movie/comic/song but here i dno’t have to ask, the opinion is just there waiting for me.

Sometimes, if it’s a reviewer I know I click well with, I’ll take their reviews on board to pick a book up — but rarely to drop a book.

Sometimes I read reviews of reviewers I know I don’t align with just because it’s amusing.

In the end, reviews need not be definitive, it is just one person’s view. That’s how I treat the reviews I write for CBR — and I wonder how many people hate those reviews, ha.

“Quality criticism” comes best almost exclusively from two sources: teachers and other artists. A critic can make a broad statement that an artist has poor skills with anatomy, but there are very few who could sit that artist down and teach him something about anatomy. So what they’re doing is of very limited value. Ignoring critics does not equal “burying one’s head in the sand. ” An artist would do that by having no teachers, and not listening to the advice of other artists.

Jef UK (is that Brooklyn Jef UK?!?) took the words out of my mouth with his post.

I see dozens of reviews -print, podcast, and YouTube- of my book every time a new issue drops. Most of them are just some guy explaining the plot. You could just cut-n-paste the solicitation from Previews and be done with it.

I certainly appreciate the fact that someone is taking the time to write about my work. So I’m always grateful regardless.

However, there’s a world of difference between summation and analysis. The former I can find on the comic publisher’s or creator’s website. The later is what I want out of a review.

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