Back in May of 2017, I started writing for Multiversity Comics, with a micro review of “Spider-Gwen” #20. While the first draft was anything but micro (I sent in about a full review’s worth of material I had to chop down), writing was a surprising struggle. The more I looked at the book, the more I thought about it, the more I noticed I had never paid much attention to the comics I was reading.
Now, that may seem like an extreme statement but I want to make the distinction here between paying attention to the story aspects of a comic (i.e. the plot, the narrative, the characters) and the craft that built and conveyed the story to the readers (i.e. the techniques employed). For example, for one of the my favorite DC comics, “52,” I could tell you pretty closely, beat for beat what happens in the comic and what I love about the comic but if you were to ask me to pointing to the creative decisions that made me love it, I would have had trouble.
Let me take a step back and set the stage a little more concretely.
At the onset of 2017, I’d been reading comics in their non-trade format for a little over two years. While, as with most people, my actual relationship with comics is significantly more complex, with years of drought and multiple returns, this is the instance which has defined my current comics reading habits.
I was actively reading a large number of comics via a variety of sources. Although my pull-list was fairly small (only about 15-20 titles a month, maybe less), I read in trade via my library or through ComiXology. I was consuming a lot of comics, at least a volume/four-five issues a day, which, when combined with my busy schedule, only served to make my engagement with each issue/volume smaller.
Beyond questions such as “what just happened” and “did it make sense,” I didn’t give the comics I read much thought above “did I like it or not?” If a book came along that was either excellent (“The Vision”) or atrocious (“Age of Ultron”), I’d have plenty of thoughts but for the books that weren’t on either extreme, they all fell into this amorphous mess of comics that I categorized as “good,” with the implication that this was a fairly non-committal “good.” A “this is good enough to read and take up a few minutes of my day but nothing more.” These were comics I’d read and then not give a second thought to, relegating them to the back of my library.
Obviously, this is an oversimplification. There was a hierarchy within my mind of which books were better than others. I would rather read an issue of “Spider-Gwen” than the newest issue of “Constantine: The Hellblazer,” even though I enjoyed both series. This didn’t matter so much for the first few months of the year as I had no reason to engage further. Almost none of my friends actively kept up with comics and the ones that did weren’t reading the same series. However, once I started reviewing for the site, I had to start taking a deeper look at the comics I was reading – starting with “Spider-Gwen.”
When I completed my first micro, as I mentioned earlier, I had to look at the comic not through the glazed over-eyes of someone who is consuming too many comics in one day but through the eyes of a critic. So, I sat down at my computer, pulled up the issue on my tablet, and…I sat there for an hour, staring at the pages. At first, it was just to give myself time to think but the more I thought, the more I couldn’t come to any conclusion. Was the comic bad? Was it good? I didn’t know where to put it or how to grade it. It was just another one of those comics that I didn’t think about.
So, I put that on the backburner and turned my attention to what I knew best, dissecting the story via close reading. What in the text was working, what wasn’t and how had the narrative shifted and morphed since the time that I unequivocally loved it. By my wording, I may have made it seem like I was unequipped to talk about comics in a critical way, this wasn’t true. I knew how to dissect a story and to find it’s thematic and structural flaws and strengths but my problem was that I did not have the proper tools to articulate what made good art good.Continued below
I had never consciously considered what made great comics such as “Hellboy” good. I couldn’t tell you what technique turned a simple nine panel grid into something more, what coloring choice enhanced a scene’s tone and thematic relevance, or how backgrounds are used or not used to set the scene or highlight the action. I could tell you, in great detail, what made the comics I loathed bad but I had trouble doing the inverse. Even what I saw as bad was surface level at best. It was all story related, which, while important, doesn’t get to the core of comics, the interplay between story, art, and audience.
This was especially true for comics that were just middling. If I couldn’t tell you what parts of a comic were good, how could I identify when it was just okay? The why of the critique was missing and that is the most important part of any analysis.
That first micro was an eye-opener and, thankfully, I was given an article by Brian, my editor, on how to talk about art. That, combined with Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics” helped me to find the tools I needed to begin chipping away at why I found that second issue of “Spider-Gwen’s” Predators storyline lacking and also why it continued to keep my interest.
While that micro was still fairly rough (I still focused too much on the overall plotting issues instead of the craft of the issue), the more reviews I read, the more comic analysis I paid attention to, and the more I wrote, the better I got at judging the comics I was reviewing. However, this didn’t translate to the comics I was actively following on my own.
This was, in my eyes at least, bad.
I’m sure that most people don’t have existential crises about the way they approach their interaction with media but I did.
For context, I’m very critical of the movies and TV shows I watch and am constantly evaluating whether or not I’m enjoying them and whether or not they are still worth my time. As the year went on, I realized that this was not how I was thinking of comics and I wanted to change that. I wanted to look at this medium I love and really understand what techniques the comics I loved employed and why the ones I disliked failed to capture my attention but most importantly, I wanted to re-evaluate how I engaged with those comics that were not obviously fantastic or abysmal.
So I did.
I started questioning the long-standing series I followed and taking a critical eye to them, to find what the creative teams did well and what they did not do so well. What risks they took, if they panned out and which decisions were played too safe. Series that I previously loved fell and others that I didn’t give enough attention to were elevated. Some stayed exactly where they were, on both ends of the spectrum, and, going forwards, I have begun to see comics I would have found middling not more than a year ago became more enriching, even if they weren’t the most spectacular comics.
I can now look at a page and break down the paneling decisions, seeing how they affect the overall tone of the comics. How, as Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou does in his Strip Panel Naked show, an artistic decision visually conveys hidden themes and plays with tension in a scene (although that is a tool I still need to hone).
I can now place my finger in the places that each comic failed and succeeded and, more or less, get at why I felt that the comics didn’t work for me. I never have to share my thoughts on these comics. Hell, for most of them, I probably never will but being able to appreciate the craft across the board, instead of just in some stand-out cases, has made my reading experiences that much greater.
One final note: I’ve been thinking about the saying, “those who can, do and those who can’t, criticize.” While you can make the argument that this only applies to negative, hateful, empty critiques, I have seen it applied to any critique of any media, especially in relationship to DC movies. It usually comes in the form of “well, until you make a movie you can’t say anything.” I disagree, as this implies that critique is somehow inherently deconstructive and, while this is not the place for that discussion, I feel that it merits addressing in light of what I just wrote.
I have only been formally critiquing comics (or anything really) for under a year now but that experience, and the thought processes that accompany it, have only given me a greater appreciation for the work that comic creators do. It is not my job to tear down a piece of work, it is not enjoyable to do so nor it is useful. However, it is useful to know why something didn’t work, for both yourself and others, and to take that knowledge and reconsider the media you encounter.
By thinking critically about the comics I read, I have enhanced my own experiences with them. I can see more flaws now, true, but flaws just show that a creator has places to improve, something that everyone, including myself, can take a lesson from.