One of the problems many critics — especially online critics — face in writing comics lies in attempting to describe or discuss the artwork. In fact, one of the constant complaints from a variety of factions that we don’t talk about the art enough, focusing instead on a book’s plot or dialogue.
That’s not what this week’s column is about though (sorry, I’m saving that topic for a future discussion). What I’d like to talk about today instead is a related matter and, for some, a method of bypassing the issue entirely: the question of whether or not to include art of the comic we’re reviewing in our critique.
The question may seem like a obvious or even minor issue depending upon where you stand. But it nevertheless seems to be an issue that divides a lot of people. A number of online pundits regard the inclusion of sample panels as an absolute necessity.
The implication, I suppose, is that a critic, no matter how good, is ultimately incapable of translating an artist’s unique visual style into prose. That’s a little insulting, and yet to an extent it’s also true. It can be exceedingly difficult to talk about someone’s skill with a pencil and brush, especially if you don’t have a familiarity with the sort of terms and language that, say, an art or film critic might. What’s more, including artwork from the comic in question can aid your review, giving a valuable reference point for your audience.
Yet there are a number of online critics and bloggers who offer little if any art in their reviews, myself included. Is this a lapse of judgement on our part? Or do we just lack the funds to purchase a decent scanner?
Interested in hearing what other people had to say on the subject, I emailed a group of notable online critics and posed the question to them. Here’s a sampling of what they had to say:
I realize that not all critics do this, but come on…it makes it look
FAR more professional. Even if it is just a cover. I know other people
have more problems with copyright and so on, but I think a small cover
is fair use.
I don’t think providing samples of interior art is necessary for a good comic review, but it always helps. I know if I read a review of something that sounds interesting, I try to track down art samples on my own, because art can either help or hinder a purchase for me. In my own reviews, I try to include scans of interior art, often because there’s something I want to discuss and it’s helpful to have the image for eveyone to refer to. I do think it’s possible to write intelligently and descriptively of the art in the book without actually showing it. Look at text-only reviews of art forms like movies, paintings, photography, etc. It’s possible to review those well without seeing a sample of the visual medium the piece was done in.
As for why more people don’t include art samples:
- It takes time to scan and edit the images for posting
- Not everyone has a scanner
- Depending on the publisher, interior art may be readily available on the book’s webpage and it’s easier to link to that
- Many (most?) online reviewers are reviewing weekly releases from Marvel or DC and there’s almost an assumption that people have already read the book or are at least familiar with the artwork via online interviews or previews.
I don’t want to tell critics that they have to have a scanner and a copy of Photoshop in order to share their opinions if they have valuable things to say. A lot of it depends on what we’re talking about, too. If you’re referring to the general weekly “what I bought from DC and Marvel”-type writeups, then the audience already knows what those books look like, or where to see the art if they need to. The subject is too ephemeral to put much work into the review. Get it done and move on; the audience already has.
Of course, I’m saying this as someone who only posts art samples in the sense of “I’ll link to preview pages if I can find them” (which I think are just as valid as included images). And until you asked the question, no one had ever mentioned the point to me. Now that I’m thinking about the gamut of critical outlets, I don’t think I’ve ever seen art posted in a print graphic novel review, either, except in the Comics Journal. Their policy of posting mostly single panels I find more annoying than enlightening, since I consider the page a more useful unit.
While I’m firmly on the side of “you must talk about the art and writing as well as the plot”, the fact is, different books lend themselves to different kinds of responses. Telling a critic that they must post pictures strikes me as similar to telling a writer that they must include a joke in an issue. It may be a good idea, but dictates like that are pointlessly restrictive. Those who need the guidance won’t listen, and those who’ll consider it are generally good enough at what they’re doing that they don’t need it.
I don’t think page samples or specific illustrations are absolutely necessary for an online review to be useful. They’re a nice bonus, if the reviewer is so inclined, and some critics make excellent use of them. (I do think it’s absolutely necessary to post them if you’re trying to market a comic or graphic novel, but that’s not the same thing as responding to it from a critical standpoint.)
For me personally, it comes down to a few factors. I’m too cheap to pay for image hosting, since reviewing comics is essentially a hobby for me. I’m also kind of lazy when it comes to scanning. (I do use cover scans and the occasional image over at Comic World News, if I think it helps make my point, but that’s on somebody else’s hosting dime.)
Another deterrent for me is that I tend to find that the most effective pages are the result of an accumulation of preceding images. There may be a page that I think is just spot-on – hilariously funny or shocking or moving. But it earned that by virtue of all of the pages that preceded it. And lastly, I always try and link to the publisher’s information about the comic, and if the publisher is smart, they’ll have posted previews on their own.
No one complains that Chuck Klosterman books don’t come with Van Halen CD’s, or Jonathan Gold books don’t come with food samples. Free samples aren’t necessary for why I’m reading a review, for what I’m looking for out of the experience, no. But I think to some extent your answer to this question depends if you think the function of a review is to sell books for other people’s economic benefit …? I might include art samples if I were in the Selling Comics business, but that’s the last business I ever want to ever be in ever EVER.
However, all that having been said: I’ve seen people do it well, do it in a smart way, and I’ve seen people do it in a dumb way where they over-rely on the art sample. Same as anything. What kind of critic is going to answer a “Should” question with anything but an overly-wordy “Maybe”?
It’s hard to write about art without resorting to comparisons, which doesn’t necessarily serve the interests of either the creator in question or the reader of your review. Including an art sample keeps the reader from getting lost. It potentially allows her to determine if you’re full of shit. It might even help establish the language you use to talk about art by giving readers a frame of reference.
On the other hand, I don’t think a reviewer should entrust the art to speak for itself. I frequently rail against reviews that discuss art in a perfunctory manner (or worse yet, fail to discuss it at all). For some, posting an art sample might be a crutch. I think I’ve mentioned this before, but some online critics seem to have a real phobia about criticizing art, as if they’re unqualified to do so or something. Plus I think the pendulum has swung too far towards writing among mainstream fans. It’s far worse than the pro-art period of the early 90s.
But that’s getting away from the issue at hand. I do have one last concern: there are a number of bloggers who post reviews with such frequency that I’m not sure that it’s reasonable to demand they include illustrations. I’m specifically thinking about Jog and the Savage Critics. If their schedule is anything like mine, the choice might come down to either taking the time to scan some pictures or maintaining their prolificacy. As a fan of these blogs, I know I’d prefer the latter.
I usually discuss the art in reviews, but I don’t reproduce panels because I try to keep my blog very simple: No ads, no flash, and minimal images.
People seem to like that; it loads fast and won’t crash your computer. Also, images often break the review into small sections of text, which I
don’t like. And they make the page really long.
I think it is quite possible to discuss art without actually showing it; NPR
does that all the time. But I also assume my readers have already seen at least a sample from the book, and I always link to the publisher’s site,
which usually includes a preview. So if you haven’t already seen it, the art is just a click away.
In fact, judging from the comments, many of the people who read my reviews have already read the book. Reviews can serve two purposes, after all: they can give someone an idea of whether or not they would like a particular book, or they can start a conversation about a book everyone has read. I find that many manga reviews fall into the latter category, and for them, the images are redundant.
I think if you’re writing short capsule reviews it’s not important to post art samples, but for longer or more in-depth reviews I think one should include at least a cover scan so potential readers can identify the comic in the store. I prefer scans of interior panels as well, but that’s a personal preference. Comics are a visual medium (newsflash!) and I like to see what people are talking about when they bitch about the crappy art – or great art, of course. Plus: out-of-context comic book panels are comedy gold.
There’s one really simple reason people often don’t post art samples in online reviews: it’s a hassle. It’s not as simple as typing in a sentence or two of prose–you have to scan it, edit it, and upload it (and, actually, you have to have somewhere to host it). I also don’t think it’s really necessary. If you’re reviewing a record, you don’t need to include a song from it; if you’re reviewing a movie, you don’t need to include a clip; if you’re reviewing a restaurant, you don’t need to include a snack.
That said, I never mind seeing a few panels in a review, and something like half the people who’ve looked at “Reading Comics” in front of me have said “oh, good, you’ve got pictures in there!” I’ve noticed, though, that panels reviewers reproduce tend to be less visually representative stuff than punch lines or plot points–it mostly makes sense to me to include art samples to illustrate something you’re saying about the cartooning itself.
Anyone who has read the reviews on my blog knows I regularly post art samples, and my reason for it is twofold: I like to see art examples when I read reviews, and I often feel that my descriptions of the art would be inadequate; I’m not good enough at painting a mental picture of the art in the readers’ mind, so I would rather show the art and then comment on it. I don’t think giving samples is always necessary, but it certainly helps. I know of some critics that are so verbally adept that they can describe the art in a way which makes me picture it in my mind, but they are few and far between. I’m thinking of Jog in particular here, although I should note that while he doesn’t post any pictures in his reviews, he often links to pages where art samples can be seen. And really, even the best descriptions make me want to see the art for myself anyway, so while it’s not strictly necessary, it’s a nice “feature” of any review.
As for the reason why most critics don’t include art, I think it’s not especially easy to do so. You have to have a scanner or electronic version of the comic, and scanning pages is a time-consuming process. Plus, picking out a specific image to comment on is often tricky, especially if you’re trying to point out a certain feature or tendency in the artist. I know I’ll sometimes write a general statement about the way an artist depicts facial expressions or something, and then have difficulty choosing a panel that illustrates my point (that’s probably my failing though). And then there are the copyright issues. Most works have a blurb on the copyright page that says “no portion of this publication may be reproduced, except for purposes of review”. So while it’s safe and legal to post some artwork, how much is too much? I know I’ve sometimes worried that I’m scanning and posting too much, so I try to limit the samples to particular panels or post them out of order. Of course, that could lead to discussions of how much one should “give away” in a review, which is a discussion for another day…
As for myself, I tend to align on the “you don’t need art” side of the fence. Technical limitations aside, a good critique, whether online or off, needs to stand on its own. Not that I’m against using art — posting art samples can be helpful, but it can also be a crutch to excuse lazy writing. Your samples need to be supplimental, not essential, or you run the risk of having your words regarded as trivial. Those who do use art need to use it judiciously, as folks like Brady and Jakala do. Even then, it may not be enough persuade the reader to the critic’s arguements. Only a well-written and reasoned review or critique can do that.