I’ve been thinking for a while I’d like to start introducing more actual blogging to this blog. I’ve got some posts planned (hopefully to be posted soon) on nitty-gritty early freelancing tips and resources, and tips for comic writers seeking artists.
Other than that, things come up now and then that I have Thoughts on (uh oh) ((I often keep these to myself because I don’t like to risk drama, so venturing this opinion is a step for me!)). One of these was a little while ago, when some friends had the unpleasant experience of a very harsh review on their small press comics anthology. I think we can all agree that that’s a crappy experience for anyone to have.
Naturally, the comics people around them expressed their dissatisfaction about this, and that makes sense – both out of friendship, and from the standpoint that tact and restraint are good qualities to expect in reviews. Before I go any further I want to make clear that that’s not what I’m talking about at all. Words in reviews should be judiciously chosen and not overly unkind. Let’s just take that as read.
But what I found myself disagreeing (with, it seems, everyone I know!) on, is the role of reviews and what approach they should take to self-published works. I’ve left this gathering dust for a while because my friends were hurt, and making a discussion of it right then felt unkind (and potentially volatile). Hopefully it’s ok to do so now. You can read a post (which takes the opposite view to this one) on the topic by Sephryn Grey here.
The feelings of the small pressers I know seemed generally to be that the approach of a review should be dependent on context. And this is what I don’t think I agree with.
Everyone starts somewhere. And the world of self-publishing is indeed where many people start…where, although there are professionals simply putting out work directly to their readers, there are also people early in their comics journey, starting to put their work out there. So the argument goes, self-published works are not all professional, and should not be reviewed in the same way as a professional work.
But the thing is, “professional” can be kind of a slippery term. Do we mean professional as in by someone who has been published by a large publisher? Are we using it in the context of “professional quality work”, or by someone who is earning their living from their work (but even here, we start getting jobs in drips and drabs, and it can take ages to grow to a living)? Another definition though, could be “for sale”. Available for people to buy, with their hard-earned cash, just as they would something from a large publisher.
And for me that’s kind of the thing. I think it would be unfair to review a free webcomic that is not for sale on the same terms, but when you put something up for sale – putting it in front of people with a lot of books to choose from, and asking them to choose it, I think you are making it professional.
I also think you’re making something with wings, in a sense. It could fly off goodness knows where. I know the UK comics scene is a community, and why we choose to buy something directly from someone at an artist table at a con does have relational and contextual elements to it. And that may be the bulk of our sales. But it’s not the only possible way a person may come to this book, once it’s out there, especially if you sell online or at various comic stores. There’s a very good chance that at some point, a reader will come to your book without any reference point of who you are, where you’re at with your comicking, etc. What they see is the book. In that sense it exists relatively autonomously, on its own merits.
And I think that’s what a review is about – telling the (potential?) reader the reviewer’s (hopefully informed and thoughtful) opinion about the comic. A book is to some extent a thing in itself, and I think it’s fine for a reviewer to address it as such. I don’t think they need to research or include any context about where you’re at, unless it’s somehow tied into the fabric of the book. For example, if the point of the book is to showcase new/young/early-career comic artists – and this is made clear in the title and/or foreword – then this is part and package of the book-as-a-thing-in-itself, and should indeed be referenced. Beyond this – while sometimes the background of a creator or work can definitely be illuminating – I don’t think it’s required. I think once you put a book out there, into the world, for sale…it will be read as a thing in itself by some people, and I think it’s important to be cool with that.
So what’s a reviewer to do about small press works, when it’s clear that some works being done early in the creator’s career and maybe are not the very best highest quality thing (as is the case for all of us at some point)?
One approach, mooted by Kenny Penman via twitter (if he doesn’t mind me mentioning!) was to only review things you like. This seems like a pretty good route to take, as a scathing review with nothing good to say isn’t really very useful. Although a purely positive-reviews-only column would to me be more a recommendations column – no bad thing, it’s great to evangelise the comics you love!
I’d perhaps extend it a bit to say just don’t review works you actively dislike, at the risk of being pointlessly negative or being biased by it not being your thing. If you don’t like, but don’t hate something, that sounds fine to me, and you’ll probably have some decent comments on what does and doesn’t work for you in it.
Another thing worth considering could be an occasional special feature. For example, while I’ve been saying “no kid gloves, comics are comics, treat them all professionally”, there’s some obvious situations where this just isn’t right. Like say the person making the comics is 13. In this case, the fact that they’ve actually finished a book, had it printed, and booked a table at a con is flipping amazing, before you’ve even looked at the book. Just taking the book on its own merits, as I’ve been advocating, would be a bit callous even if it is for sale, as a product.
So perhaps a special feature on new creators could be a good idea…a space that’s clearly set up to have different parameters and context than regular reviews, without confusing a clear, neutral approach to works in the regular reviews.
And finally, I like reviews to be fair and consistent. The review that kicked this off was harsh. I know it will have been a horrible read for the artists in question. However, what bothered me as a reader wasn’t the harsh sections… it was a phrase where the reviewer referred to some “nice little artwork”. Now compared to the rest of the review, this was a lovely compliment, but that diminutive really bugged me! If you’re assessing work as you would the work of any professional, then you are bound to treat the artist like that, so it’s worth some extra care to avoid phrases that sound patronising or belittling. Likewise, you’re just assessing that work – and who knows what they’ll produce next time! Never damn future work or careers – that’s not fair or useful in any way. Keep it focussed on that particular work. We’re all on a journey, and who knows what’s ahead!
You need to be comfortable knowing that your works are going out there into the world, and will, like everything, to some extent be judged by those who come across them. I’m not saying this in a “toughen up, wimp!” way (not least because that wouldn’t stand me in good stead when I get harsh reviews of my own!). What I’m leading to is “if there’s anything you’d like the readers to know, make sure you put it in there – in a foreword/afterword/artist’s page/whatever. They may very well come to the book with no context – in a comic shop, on a friend’s bookshelf – so anything you want them to know about you or your journey – where you’re at or where this book is coming from – get it in there! “Speak now or forever hold your peace”, as it were 🙂
Also, it will suck if you get some harsh reviews. Definitely. That sucks. But at least, the reason you’d be getting said review is because you put a comic out there for sale, and people bought it. That’s pretty cool. Yup. 🙂