On Criticism

There has been some discussion, recently, on the role and value of webcomics criticism, and it has me thinking about the posts I write here – both their nature and their purpose, and how they relate to the field itself.

First, a brief summation on what I percieve as the ongoing debate over webcomic discussion. On one side, there are those who are frustrated by seeing the majority of “reviews” consisting of butterflies and sunshine – endless praise that sounds nice and swell, but doesn’t actually accomplish anything, other than to make the reviewer feel good about the nice words they’ve written. Beyond that, many webcomics have enough devoted followers that offering honest criticism is an invitation to be assaulted by thousands of rabid fans, and that scares people from writing what they feel.

On the other hand, there are those who see the countless diatribes about the flaws of webcomics in general, repeating the same vague points over and over, and focusing on how terrible webcomics are – rather than what can be done to improve them. More than this, so many of these pieces fail to look at specific webcomics, and pinpoint the areas of weakness, and explain why that weakness exists.

So. Both these opinions are extremely valid ones, and while I personally agree with elements of both sides, neither side really seems open to dialogue with the other. My own posts break down into five real categories, and each one is pretty different from the rest.

I admit it – I tend to write exuberant reviews. I do so often, and without remorse – when I like a comic, why shouldn’t I talk about how good it is? The series of posts I’ve been running lately on the Best of Comic Genesis and Drunk Duck falls into this category – but it is important to realize the purpose for which they are being written. I’m not writing them to discuss the flaws of a comic, but its strengths. Yes, I will tend to mention the elements that need improvement, but that isn’t the focus of the piece.

Because the piece is being written for webcomic readers, not creators. The point of the reviews is to say: “Hey, here is a cool comic I’m reading, why don’t you read it too?” And sure, not every comic is for everyone, but there are enough good ones out there that I can easily find one or two good news ones a week. So I’m spreading the word on quality comics – usually ones that deserve a bit more exposure, for the theoretical benefit of both artist and audience. Yes, they aren’t filled with criticism, but they aren’t meant to be. So that is category one – recommendations. The goal? Simple reviews of good comics, shared with those looking for enjoyable strips to read. Who is it written for? Webcomic readers.

On the other hand, I do occasionally do proper critiques. It doesn’t occur nearly as often as basic reviews – but when I see something that merits mention, I’m going to say what I think. As long as I feel it isn’t going to simply be a waste of time.

See, when I write criticism, it is something primarily aimed at webcomic creators. Let’s take a hypothetical example – say I notice that Spamusement has an unhealthy obsession with pterodactyls. This, clearly, is a travesty. The comic would be perfect, if only it had less winged dinosaurs! I can go run and scream this to the masses – but what’s the point? It won’t accomplish anything, unless I feel that Mr. Spamusement is going to notice the clamor and take my anti-dactyl ways to heart.

I can criticize for its own sake, and point out what I might think to be the worst comic in the world – but that’s honestly just called drama. It isn’t productive. It won’t make people thoughtful, it will just make them angry. So I tend to criticize the comics I like – ones I find to be good comics with a few specific flaws. I want my criticism to make the artists think. Sure, maybe serve as an example of what not to do to other webcomickers – but the main goal, at its focus, is to try and get the creator of the comic to look at what they’ve done, and ask themselves if it could be improved. So, category two – critiques. The goal? Earnest discussion of a comic’s flaws, and what can be done to fix them. Who is it written for? Webcomic creators.

The third category is probably the one where I am most guilty of shameless flattery, and I readily admit is an indulgence on my part – when something totally awesome or intense happens in a well-read comic, and I’ve just got to sit down and comment on it. I’m sure everyone knows what it’s like – a major plot twist is revealed, or the hero defeats a bad guy in a moment of supreme badassitude, or something simple and heartbreaking is captured in a single picture. And you have to talk about it.

So I do. These are often among the most popular webcomics out there, so they don’t get anything out of me talking about the how and why of their awesome moment – but I feel the need to recognize them, nonetheless. They should get praise, and applause, and biscuits. Not because they need them, but simply because they deserve them.

And because, hey, I like talking about the exciting moments. Sure, you can call it rampant fanboyism – but if a scene resonates with me, I’m going to discuss it. If something really makes me think, I’m going to talk about why. Category three – reactions. The goal? To recognize moments of true quality, and analyze my own response to such scenes. Who is it written for? Myself.

The fourth type of post is what you see before you – discussion of webcomics in a more general sense. Thoughts and ramblings on more abstract topics such as criticism, website design, crossovers, etc. Basically – a look at the bigger picture. These tend to be few and far between, if only because it is difficult to compare the many diverse elements of webcomics – but at the same time, I tend to think of these as the important posts. Noticing trends, talking about what elements work and what doesn’t – this is useful information I am trying to share.

I’m not always right about these ideas, either – but they are topics worth discussing, and if I can get other people discussing them as well, that’s success right there. Category four – discussion. The goal? To try and analyze and understand more general aspects of webcomics. Who is it written for? Everyone involved in webcomics.

And the final category isn’t really of much relevance to this topic – news posts. These are often about strips starting, ending, restarting, returning from hiatus, going on hiatus, or simply hitting important landmarks – not always vital information, but worth sharing. After all, if I always find out a comic has returned six months late, I have to imagine everyone else is out of the loop of one thing or another, and anything I can do to fix that is worth it. Sometimes I might mention something of real consequence, though those are far from common. Category five – news. The goal? To share information that is worth sharing. Who is it written for? Anyone that needs to hear the news.

The above covers pretty much every post on this site related to webcomics (which is most of them.) Why did I write it? Largely because I wanted to help people understand what is going on in my mind when working on different kinds of reviews – and more than that, to try and deal with the fact that there are different types of reviews. Some lend themselves towards flattery, others towards criticism. There are different goals for different posts, and there is a place for all of them.

Yes, there is a place for praise, for the comics that deserve it. Yes, there is a time when one should point out the things that need fixing. And people need to accept both those types of reviews, as well as accept that they are both out there – and that both those voices need to be heard.

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2 responses

  1. So I’m spreading the word on quality comics – usually ones that deserve a bit more exposure, for the theoretical benefit of both artist and audience

    Funny thing about that. The Webcomics Examiner did the same thing and got raked over the coals for it. Pretty much to the point that everyone gave up and moved on.

    There is room for both, as you say, but those with the “influence” only want the sunshine and flowers reviews (Of their own comics or the comics they like), and their audience will happily help them shout down anyone who thinks differently.

    It goes a lot deeper than the roles of critics.

    Like most fan-centric mediums, the problem with comics/ webcomics are the hardcore fans. They enable the creators to behave badly without consequence, give their fellow fans a way to see their obsessions championed without having to do any of the heavy work themselves, and they force any reviewers or critics to play along with the band or suffer the consequences of their ire. These things get really muddy in comics because it’s a medium by fans for fans.

    And it doesn’t have to be sunshine and butterflies. Negativity works just as well. It just has to be negativity approved by the group.

    I’ll go to my grave saying this: It’s the fanbois that turn the good things into the bad things. And as long as there are people who know that they can benefit from this, you will never see that dialog between all the differing ideologies take place.

  2. I don’t disagree with you on a lot of points – though I think much of the problem arises with the fact that the larger a comic’s audience, the larger the portion of that audience are psychotic internet trolls. While there are definitely times when even webcomic creators I respect act out of line, often it is those fans acting on their own that is half the problem – or moves a simple disagreement into an all-out flame war. Though to be fair – letting fans run rampant on one’s behalf without saying anything is only a step down from actively encouraging them.

    And I think even some of the bigger names are open to criticism, when it is presented right. Josh Leshnick’s recent review of many comic’s artistic styles is a good example of how the debate should work – largely demonstrated through the response it got. We have discussion on general themes he brings up, more than one big-name webcomicker taking the advice to heart – and a discussion turning the critique around, and presenting reasonable disagreement with some of his points and how he can improve his own comic… though I see now that Josh’s response to that criticism was to completely blow it off, so I guess your point stands.

    Nonetheless, out of 134 responses, I saw one troll, compared to a fair amount of agreement, disagreement and all-around discussion.

    Now, I’m not going to say the problems you mention aren’t there, because they are. I just don’t think they are insurmountable.

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