On Comic Book Reviews
I’ve been writing comic book reviews professionally — meaning somebody is paying me to write them — for about 5 years now. I have, as you can probably imagined, improved throughout the years and learned a thing or two over that time. I believe, or I hope at least, that I understand what goes into a good review and what makes reviewing comic books so difficult for some. I certainly don’t claim to be an expert, but I’ve done enough review and stumbled enough times that I consider myself a professional, assuming that there is such a thing as a “professional comic book reviewer” and trust me, I’m not 100% sure there is.
For now, let’s assume there is and that I fit that bill. Maybe I don’t, maybe you hate me, but for the sake of this exercise I’m going say I know what I’m doing. I have a degree in English and spent years writing critical theory pieces on douchebags like James Joyce and expounding on the works of the brilliant (and also douchebag) Ernest Hemingway. For my capstone project, I wrote a massive research paper on the superhero costume and how it is represented in comics and film. My shit goes deep, in other words.
Over the years I’ve noticed a fair share of creators, editors, colorists, artists, inkers, letterers, and publishers complaining about comic book reviews. In my opinion, most, if not all, of these complaints are completely valid because most comic book reviewers are often comic book fans and nothing more. Many have no formal training, no critical writing history, and no experience. You don’t have to look very hard to find a comic reviewer who is just a fan who is willing to write about the books they love (or hate) for little or no money. They’re writing about comics because they are passionate about them, which is not a bad reason. Hell, that’s probably the perfect reason to get started. It’s where you go from there that seems to be a problem for a lot of reviewers.
So, assuming I know what I’m talking about, I’ve complied a few tips and rules for the writing of comic book reviews. I’ve numbered them, but they are not organized by importance because I’d say they are all important. Every one of these are mistakes I’ve made and stuff I learned the hard way.
Okay, here it goes.
Don’t Just Summarize The Story. If you want to just do a beat by beat, panel by panel description of what happened in the new issue of Captain America, that’s fine but don’t call it a review. That’s a recap. A review offers insight and analysis. Your job is to add to the conversation of the comic. If all you are doing is relaying the events of the book, you are not reviewing. Captain America did not contribute to the production of his current issue, so don’t spend a lot time reviewing the things he does. Also, spoilers, dude.
Don’t Ignore The Creators. Imagine reading a movie review that doesn’t mention the actors or director or music or effects. It seems obvious, but I cannot tell you how many times I’ve read a review of a comic book and there is no mention of the artist or writer. That’s the bare minimum, people. Artist and writer. You simply have to discuss them or else you are not doing your job. Really, you should discussing the work of colorists and letterers whenever possible, as well. That is not always a possibility, I understand. There are word limits and space constraints, but if you can’t write a review without discussing the artist and writer then you shouldn’t be writing reviews. Period.
Don’t Assume You Know The Division of Labor. This is a big one. Too often I read reviews that say a writer told an artist to draw this or that or that an artist is going off script or what have you. You don’t know any of that. Some writer’s scripts are insanely detailed, some are nothing more than a loose outline. You don’t know and should never assume that a writer is leading an artist. The only thing it is safe to assume is that they are both storytellers and that they both contributing to the final product. Just because a writer’s name is usually listed first doesn’t make them the captain of the ship.
Be Objective. This is tough, I get it. We all bring something of ourselves to any piece of art we consume. We have attachment to the characters and their stories and it’s often hard to separate that from your review, but you have to try. Just because you prefer the Mark Waid era of Captain America doesn’t mean there is something wrong with the Rick Remender era. Your job as a reviewer is to look at the product and say “what works about this and what doesn’t?” If you can’t do that at least somewhat objectively, then maybe you should not be reviewing comics professionally.
Don’t Ignore The Art. Seriously, Don’t. Comic books are a visual medium, that’s obvious, right? A good review should spend at least as much time discussing the art as it does the writing. A great review will spend more. Artists are a life blood of the industry and leaving them out is insulting and ignorant. Don’t do it. Ever.
Put Everything You Want To Say Into The Review. This is a scenario I often see: somebody posts a review and then somebody else writes a comment arguing with a point made in the review. As a reviewer, if you feel a need to “defend” your review, it probably was not written very well. If you make a comment about the storytelling in the review, back said comment up, IN THE REVIEW. Too many times I see reviews peppered with off hand remarks and criticisms, but never any supporting documentation. Think of it this way, if you read a music review and it said “some tracks are good but one is bad” would that sell you on that record? Or would you say, “which track is bad? And why is it bad compared to the others?” Putting everything you want to say into a review means putting that why.
Think About Who You Are Writing Your Review For. This one depends on who you write for and why you are writing a review of the comics you choose to review, but tailor said reviews to your readers. You still need to follow all the rules above, but your review can grow, shrink, and form differently from there. I’ve done serious, critical pieces on comics and I’ve done reviews where I said I loved a book so much I wanted to wrap it up in a burrito and consume its essence so that I could get closer to some sort of spiritual nirvana. Sometimes, depending on the site, you’ve got all the words you want to dig into, analyze, and dissect a book. Sometimes you’ve got 200 words and a tiny space on a page crammed with reviews. Know the audience of your site and know what people want to read and adjust accordingly.