Reviewing graphic novels | The view from the keyboard
Last weekend I was supposed to speak at the Kidlit Blogger conference in New York, but I had to bow out shortly beforehand because of scheduling problems. However, in preparing for the panel, I pulled together some notes on reviewing graphic novels that I thought might be of interest to writers, and maybe to readers as well. And because a good writer wastes nothing, here you go!
Types of reviews: Most of my reviews are written for the mildly interested reader, a group that could include casual readers, fans of any genre and librarians, and the aim of the review is to help that reader determine whether he or she would like that book. That’s different from me liking the book. There’s always a large measure of taste involved in any review, and if a book is solid but somehow done in a style or genre I don’t care for, that doesn’t mean someone else won’t like it. Having had the experience of totally trashing a book that other people love, and loving a book most people hated, I don’t even try to believe that my taste is universal.
So, in this type of review I give an indication of what the story is about, who the characters are, what the art is like, and how the story is told, then discuss what worked particularly well or don’t work at all. If I have a physical copy of the book, I might note the presentation, particularly if the production values are especially good (or especially bad). I seldom do an entirely positive or entirely negative review of a book, because most books have flaws and high points. I generally avoid spoilers in those types of reviews.
Occasionally a book is so bad I just pull out the sledgehammer and trash it. The book has to be spectacularly, offensively bad for me to do that—if it’s merely boring, the muse won’t come. So that doesn’t happen too often. Actually, my favorite kind of review is the one where I think a book is going go to be awful and I am pleasantly surprised when it turns out to be good.
Sometimes I’ll really want to pull a book apart and discuss the issues it raises, or compare several books that share a common theme; I don’t do a lot of these deep analyses either, mainly because of time constraints, but when I do, spoilers are hard to avoid.
Art vs. writing: A reviewer must not merely judge the art and the writing on their own but also consider how well they work together to tell the story, create an atmosphere, etc. It’s not unusual for a book to be well written but have terrible art. Sometimes a book will have beautiful art but the story will be lacking. Unfortunately, both of those are deal-killers in a graphic novel. It’s very hard to get past bad art, even if the story is good; conversely, even the most beautiful art can just get boring if the story doesn’t move along.
Generally, if both the writing and the art are good, they won’t be out of sync, because that means the creators are both pros. Where I see problems arise, oddly, is when writers illustrate their own work. I can think of a couple of examples where I wish the writer had hired an artist.
One-shot vs. series: Self-contained graphic novels are easy — I just treat them like any other book. With a series, it’s tempting to just review the first volume and leave it at that. The problem with that, particularly with manga, is that the first volume is often mostly setup, and the real story doesn’t get going until later. And sometimes, as in The Story of Saiunkoku, the story that is set up on volume 1 gets resolved in volume 2 and the series wanders off in another direction. Also, it’s common in manga to have several story arcs in a single series, as with Bunny Drop, which starts with a bachelor taking in a six-year-old relative and then, in Volume 5, ages everyone up 10 years, which drastically changes the story. Finally, it is common for the stories to get more intense (in terms of sex and violence as well as drama) as the series goes on — as in Emma, which has some striking nude scenes in Volume 5 that weren’t foreshadowed at all in the earlier volumes. So while I review a lot of first volumes, I also like to review a whole series or a chunk of a series all at once. That way, I can convey a better sense of what the story is about.
Webcomics present a special problem, and frankly, if a series has been going on for a long time, I’m not likely to review it, because flipping through the archives is tedious, even if the comic itself is good. I prefer to review webcomics that have fewer than 100 pages up, although I freely admit that’s a matter of taste; my husband loves nothing more than to find a good webcomic with a deep archive and read the whole thing in a single sitting. The risk with reviewing a shorter webcomic is that the creator may never finish it, although as webcomics become more professional it seems like that is happening less and less, at least with the more professional-quality comics.
Presentation is even more important with webcomics than with books, because the site in which the comic is embedded can have a huge effect on the reader’s experience, so I usually include discussion of the website in my webcomics reviews.
Graphic novel adaptations: There are a lot of bad graphic novel adaptations, but the trend seems to be improving. For some reason, publishers think if they have a good writer, they can cheap it out on the art. The problem is that ugly art is a deal-killer for most readers, especially the teenagers these books are often aimed at, who are a brutally picky lot. Fortunately, this trend seems to be abating, and the most recent crop of adaptations has been quite strong, with artists who really add to the work — Hope Larson’s A Wrinkle in Time is creating a lot of excitement for this reason.
There are two ways to approach the review of an adaptation. One is to read the original work, if you haven’t already, and discuss how faithfully the adaptation carries it through. The other is to evaluate the graphic novel on its own merits, and ask whether it can stand alone. I think context is important here, but not exclusively so. A Wrinkle in Time is a hugely popular book, so most of the prospective audience can be expected to have read it. It would be hard to review it without at least mentioning the original
That doesn’t mean you have to like it. When I reviewed Joann Sfar’s adaptation of The Little Prince, I admitted that I hated the book, but I thought Sfar made it much more interesting by bringing the narrator visibly into the story — it seemed less twee with Saint-Exupery himself slouching in the corner, smoking a cigarette, the whole time.
Sometimes creators don’t adapt a work directly but use it as a starting point for something new. If it’s an imaginative spin on the original, such as Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer or the manga Toto, that can be a lot of fun.
Reading is easy, reviewing is hard. My time tends to be chopped into little bits, so it’s hard to make the time to sit down and read a book, or several volumes of a series, with the focus that a review requires. I try to take notes as I read, but that interrupts the flow and can change the whole experience of the book; for that reason, I usually read a book at least twice before reviewing it. That means keeping on top of my steady stream of incoming review copies is a challenge. (This may not sound like a problem to non-reviewers, but trust me, when you balance the time it takes to write a review against what you would pay for a book that you could just enjoy, it works out to a pretty miserable hourly wage.) That’s one reason I like Robot 6’s What Are You Reading? feature — it allows me to briefly summarize a book I may not have finished yet, get my thoughts in order, and perhaps give a boost to a particularly strong work that I think deserves more readers, all without the formal constraints of a real review. I often use my comments from that column as the starting point for the final review.
Still, at the end of the day, it’s worth it. Nothing makes my day like having someone tell me that they picked up a book because of one of my reviews—and they liked it. (People even tell me that about negative reviews, and that’s fine.) And there’s some value to warning people off a book they will hate, too. In the end, though, the great thing about a review is it really is just my opinion, so there’s no right or wrong about it, which can be very liberating when I sit down at the keyboard.