Critique to Creation

I never intended to be a comic book critic.  It just happened.  It wasn’t my goal.  You’ve probably heard the story of how iFanboy started somewhere along the line, but if not, it goes like this: Ron, Conor and myself were friends in college.  We were not great friends, but we knew each other and we made each other laugh, and by the end of our senior year, we were all into comics and would go to the shop on Wednesdays together.  After school was over, we dispersed throughout the country, and started emailing a great deal.  At some point, an email list started up, where we’d list the books we bought, and give capsule reviews.  More people were added to the list that we didn’t know directly, and soon everyone was doing it, and we were having a lot of fun.  In 2000, the three of us decided to start this website, and started doing the Pick of the Week every week.  It was late 2005 before any one really started to pay attention, after the audio podcast started up.  Everything that followed just kind of happened.  It turns out that we happen to be pretty good at talking about comics, and people seemed to like it.  

Over time, we learned to really think about what we were saying about comics.  It was no good to say “this books sucked” and “this book was awesome” unless there was some reason to it.  Doing the unread Pick of the Week for years had given us a critical eye both about what works and doesn’t work in comics, but also what we each personally liked in a comic book.  It’s one thing to know something is good or bad, and it’s another thing to be able to articulate why that is, and if there’s any reason why I think we do an OK job at this stuff, it’s the ability to explain our reasoning, and more often than not, even if people don’t necessarily agree, it can still make sense.  However, being able to articulate what works and what doesn’t work in comics does not, in any way, equate to create them oneself.

I never intended to be a comic writer.  Not originally anyway.  My story goes this way.  I always liked comics as a kid, and collected them pretty seriously for a couple years between 11 and 13, or so.  I got out, and started again in early 1998, because of some college roommates (tangentally due to Conor, who I didn’t really know at the time).  I was reading and enjoying, and emailing capsule reviews and so forth, never really thinking about who the people were doing these comics.  Then in the summer of 2000, I went down to the San Diego Comic-Con, because my boss at the time (I was an assistant to a television producer) wanted to make some contacts in the comic industry concerning a development project he was working on.  I was struck by the whole thing to such a degree that I decided at that time I wanted to make a career in comics.  The trouble was, I didn’t know how to do that, and as I’m not the most outgoing networker, and didn’t really have any particular skills to speak of, the plan floundered for a while.  Even starting didn’t really seem like it had anything to do with that goal.  But it passed the time, I suppose.  Little did I know that when we started doing the podcast, and over a slow build thereafter, I’d finally meet people and make contacts and be in a position to get myself noticed.  

The problem was, at some point, I said to myself, “Self, I’d like to write comics,” but never really did much about it.  I’d written some things here and there, but had the damnedest time hooking up with artists.  That really might be the hardest part for writers who don’t draw.  Now that I’m getting a chance to work with some artist, I’m really starting to learn, and believe me, there’s a lot to learn.  It’s as if all that stuff I pulled out of reviewing comics was well and good, but now the actual education begins, and it can be mighty.  As a result, I’m finding that I appreciate work that before I would have perhaps glanced over.  I used to read interviews with creators, and they would talk about such-and-such artists as being geniuses, and I didn’t see it.  But I see it a lot more now.  It’s fair to say that before, more than anything, I only noticed style, which can go a long way, but now I notice craft, which is the ability to make the comic book page say what the creator wants it to say in the best possible way, and while I think there are things I’m very good at, I have a long way to go before I get noticed by anyone looking to hire.

In the meantime, I’m doing the only thing I can do, which is to try to make comics.  I am so thankful that, after nearly a decade of “thinkin’ about it,” now I’m doing something.  But I recognize that this merely the first step of many, many steps to be taken.

There is another side to all this of course.  How does my wanting to be a professional comic book creator affect my criticism?  It would certainly be true that I don’t want to make enemies of anyone in the industry, but then, I never did.  At the same time, I feel like I have an implicit contract with our audience to be honest about the comics we’re reading.  Luckily, long ago it became the unofficial purview of iFanboy to focus most of our energy on comics we like.  And even my negative reviews have changed to the effect that I can (usually) find something worthwhile about comics I didn’t like that much.  I can easily imagine being the creator on the other side of a computer screen seeing, “This comic book is a turd,” and I’d hate to make anyone feel that way.  And while there are comics that are just bad, most of the time, comics I don’t like are just not for me, and that really is the truth.  That doesn’t mean I don’t want to analyze the things that don’t work for me when reading comics, but it does mean that I try to operate with a lot less vitriol and spite than some people want from their reviewers.  But I promise that, as long as I’m doing this, I will never, and have never, told you I liked a comic book that I didn’t.  Further, rest assured that, and this is the best part of my job, when I read something I love, you will hear about it with all the enthusiasm I can express.  The upside to my comic education is that I want others to appreciate the finer things in comics the way I do, and there is so much to enjoy it’s an embarrassment of riches.  I know it because of the emails I get every week from listeners and viewers cursing the cost of the buying the books we recommend.  

As far as my work, you’ll note that while I’m talking about producing it, I’m not announcing a damn thing until I have something to show for it.  I’ve learned that much at least.  I can say that, so far, this year is light years beyond where I’ve been in the past.  Being a critic has certainly helped, but it goes to show that, once again, no one in comics follows the same path.


  1. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    The nuance of criticism and the level of conversation has increased since you started pursuing these comic writing projects. I know it’s been a great inspiration to me. Not that readers need to write to understand what they’re reading, but it really helps to be in that mindset. When you can unveil the mechanics, it adds a level of appreciation and insight into why the story fails or succeeds.  

  2. Yup, Dale Carnegie and all that.

  3. I’m having some similar experiences, one degree removed and several years behind you. Every time I do the podcast, I think about the negative comments and realize, "Oh, the person responsible could very well hear that." Sadly, I still only think that after I’ve said it. At least it has trained me to do more than simply blurt, "That book sucks."

    It also doesn’t hurt, when you do write about the Mighty Avengers’ wasted potential, to be required to say at least 1,000 words about it. Forces the brain to switch on a little bit more.

    If anything, I think creating a comic yourself can only improve the living hell out of any criticism you produce. With each project, you know a little more of whence you speak. Just that one week I decided to draw a comic about lateness in comics, while fun, was also a punishing education that changed my perspective on the issue irrevocably. 

  4. If you come out with a new comic on the week that’s your pick of the week, will you be tempted to pick it because you already know it’s super awesome?

  5. Great piece, Josh. That was an honest peak-behind-the-curtain. Thanks!

  6. Good article. Best of luck to you in getting your stories drawn and published. For whatever it’s worth, I’ve found that the more critical someone is as a critic (heh) the better an artist (or in your case "writer") s/he could potentially become. You’re sometimes known as the sourpuss or the "guy who doesn’t like fun", Josh, but I think that just means you have an aptitude for seeing things from an artist’s point of view, and if you’re looking at a less-than-stellar comic on some level you take a bit more offense than others would, maybe because you know how hard it is to create something great. You’re probably not a slacker in your own writing, and you don’t rush through the writing process–you’re evidently taking your time with it–so when you see other writers slacking off, tossing off or "mailing in" their stories, it might strike more of a negative chord with you. Psychoanalyzation over, but everything I just said I’d probably say about myself too. I don’t like fun eiter. 😉 (l Not that the best artists are also critics and vice-versa, but you get my general point.)

  7. The stuff you have shown us josh has been really good. It doesnt read like a first time writer, I think that you’ve read comics for so long….and analyzed them to death on this site. Your the perfect canidate to be a comic writer.

    Just dont look away if an interviewer is trying to talk to you. *cough*Robinson*cough*

  8. This is a really nice insight into two interconnected but very different processes.  Thanks!

  9. I’m really excited for you, Josh. Also, I want to say that after years of kicking around various ideas, I got serious last year about getting these ideas down or paper. Partly I was inspired by the work that my kids started doing. (They love making their own comics.) But I was also inspired by the level of critique and insight into the craft of creating that you’ve developed here in the ifanboy community.

    I think I’m still very much in the embyonic stage, but I’m trying to learn to not wait until everything is perfect. To get ideas down and work them out. It’s hard because I do tend to be overly critical, to the point where I knock down my own ideas before they get moving. I’m trying to learn to say yes, yes, yes during the creative process, and let the no, no, no be a part of the editing process.  

  10. Good article, Josh. I’m constantly impressed by both your and the Around Comics guys’ ability to articulate why you/they did or didn’t like a given comic. It’s an ability that I find extremely hard to duplicate, despite the fact that I consider myself a pretty decent writer when it comes to my work (i.e., writing technical reports related to wildlife biology). In general I’ve always considered myself pretty bad at articulating why I like or dislike anything related to the creative arts, whether it be music, movies, comics, books, etc. Reading and listening to your reviews has given me something to aim for as I try to improve my critical reviewing skills.

  11. I felt the same way after my buddies and I released our Xbox Live Community Game. When you take the perspective of a creator, you can often understand different sacrifices or pathways you take to make something, and it helps you understand how a product turns out.  What sucks the worst is when people give you negative feedback about something you’ve put a lot into.  I know our development team was not so bummed at the negative stuff as we were at not really get any constructive criticism that could help us improve our product and our craft.  

    In being a reviewer or someone with a critical eye, you can often appreciate the constructive criticism that is given, and usually, you only want to hear from people that will offer that perspective.  Someone saying that something is "a piece of shit" doesn’t really do much to further an art form. 

  12. So I’m curious; is there a writer or artist that you didn’t think much previously of that you’ve gained a new respect or appreciation since you’ve starting working on your own comics?

  13. I appreciate the storytelling skills of a lot more artists now than I used to.  Whichever Tan is on New Avengers, I don’t really like his style very much, and the characters look a bit strange to me, but I have to admit he does a good job with all the stuff Bendis gives him, which is a lot of standing around talking.

    A better example might be Dave Gibbons.  I wasn’t stunned by Gibbons’ art when I first saw it, but every time I go back, it becomes more and more clear how much he was accomplishing with his art in Watchmen.  He’s not a flashy artist, but he’s doing a clinic on storytelling in that book.  Pretty much literally.

    As far as writers go, I’d go so far as to say I wasn’t a huge Geoff Johns fan early on, but the better he gets (and he is getting better) the smoother he is at what he does.  He is without flash (heh) or flair, but it amazes me how easily he accomplishes what he does in his stories.

  14. This piece made me become a member. Really well written Josh.

  15. Interesting insight.  

  16. It would be weird to read a critics comic.  I’ll just leave it at that.

  17. You *may* have watched a critic’s movie in the past.;)


  18. Man, Josh!

    That’s pretty exciting, and how wonderful for you that you are on your way to realizing your goals.  I’ve been in the same boat for the last couple of years.  I’m an artist, and I have all these crazy ideas, but, when it came to actually writing them into a coherent story?, that was hard!

    I, like you, am on the cusp of getting a book out there, that I’m really proud of, and I completely appreciate my comic education in noticing people who get it right, and are consistent, even if they aren’t flashy, or the hot flavor of the day. 

    And you guys at Ifanboy do a huge service for us who can’t go out and buy all these books, or only have so much money to buy, and it’s nice to know which ones we can go to and get the most for that money.  The genuine conversation, and the insightful critiques are what keep me coming back week after week.

    So, good luck to you, man, and keep up all the great work you’re doing on this site!!!