Everybody’s a Critic: Marking Your Territory

 

Imagine. In the earliest days it took unprecedented insight and gumption to take stick or sharpened bone to the soil to scrawl out an idea, to communicate by way of pictures. We’d been pointing and grunting and hooting with some success, but if we were really to map out a strategy to take down the burly mastodon in the clearing, we would need to plot the ambush visually. Somebody had to decide how to draw the thing, how to present the concept of mastodon with shapes in the dirt. 

Energized by passion and hunger, the first artist rose up, and by the flickering light of newly discovered fire, began to scratch his genitals. But with his other hand he brandished a fine stick and began to compose the first symbols upon the ground. Satisfied that he’d truly captured the savage and delicious nature of the beast, he presented it to the rest of the gang. They gathered ‘round and looked upon the scene, the image of a mastodon surrounded on all sides by stick figures they might have recognized as themselves. The artist gestured with a vigorous stabbing motion, held a flailing arm to his nose to suggest the beast’s trunk. And lo, they pursed their lips and pinched heir earlobes, at once bewildered and astonished at his work. The first battle plan. The first menu. The first art! But then could be heard the trickling of vandalism as the first critic began to piss on the artist’s work. The rendering of the mastodon was too small, too round, for his liking. He offered no suggestion but the emptying of his bladder. He chittered as the artist moved to strike at him with his stick. A small scuffle, but nothing of consequence. The gang dispersed. The mastodon was left a muddy smear. 

That night the critic gnawed on scavenged meat and slept in a comfortable nest of furs that had been prepared by somebody else. The artist sat on a hill, looking up at the sky, connecting the specks of light in the darkness, forming mastodons and bears and men and children. He began to draw anew. There was much to communicate, much to be taught, much to be said.  

For as long as there has been art and artists there has been criticism, the gnashing of teeth from the peanut gallery. Criticism refines art and purest art inspires and informs the critic. It’s a surly rivalry, but without it there would be no progress. Design must answer to two masters; form and function. And because of this, there is often disagreement and a great deal of piss being pissed. A great deal of chittering and scuffling. We pass judgment on art every day by way of our purchasing decisions, but also in our daily communications of what’s good and what’s great and what isn’t. Anyone who can read  and write can pass judgment, offering their own commentary. There is an art to criticism and a means of criticizing through art, because each is simply a way of offering up opinion, frequently in contrast to another. Let’s remember that criticism is vital and that it shapes art, serves as a filter. It’s not merely a way of squashing creativity. It also demands it. It is, by nature, a necessary evil.  

Today, I’m writing because I think the real art and craft of criticism is often forgotten. So let this be a length of twine around your finger. Around mine as well.  

We write about comics. We read and enjoy and praise and criticize. This place is a forum. It’s a gallery or a salon. And we pass our days away debating the fruits of peoples’ trade. And a lot of times, that gets kind of ugly. We lob rotten produce. We Statler and Waldorf the bejesus out of comics from the safety of the balcony. We’re downright cantankerous.  

I think it’s important to be discerning. Demand excellence from your art. But that can be suggested with your wallet. When it comes to evaluating the work, it makes sense to get a little angry when you’re disappointed. It’s your money. But what good is it to deride something without suggesting the means to improve it? It’s all become the main attraction to scourge creators at the pillar. I think we often look forward to the opportunity to go full tilt and call out every flaw. Why do we derive pleasure out of assaulting someone’s work? Fine to be frustrated, but why are we delighted to count the faults?  

I’m not suggesting that we stop evaluating comics with a measure of honesty and critical attention. And I’m not saying that we ought to lather on the praise just to balance out the piss and vinegar either. But appraise everything and strive to make a decent argument. For every bit of derision, suggest a fix. Or call for it. Identify the problems in the plotting or inking and try to figure out what it was that went wrong and how this artist or other artists might avoid it in the future. That’s what criticism ought to do. It’s not simply a report card for the artist in question, but advice to the developing artists who dearly need direction. It’s sometimes difficult to remember that criticism really isn’t about the things we’ve already done, but the things we aspire to do. Rather than wallow in mistakes, we might consider learning from them. We can go for the cheap laugh and empty our bladders, or we could suggest alternatives. We can help to tell the story better and we can even tell it ourselves. Help construct or be constructive. If you pull something apart, don’t forget to try and see how it works. Ask why. And look for ways to make it better. Share that insight or, better yet, show us that insight. 

Remember that the goal of a great artist and a great critic is really one and the same. Great art.

 

 


Paul Montgomery will never piss on your mastodon. Reach him at paul@ifanboy.com. You can also find him on Twitter.

Now online: Listen to his first scripted episode of the award winning audio drama Wormwood: A Serialized Mystery, co-written with Wormwood creator David Accampo.

Paul joins the writing staff with season 2, episode 14 “Jack Nicholson’s Nose.”  All previous episodes from seasons 1 and 2 can be found for free at wormwoodshow.com or on iTunes. 

Comments

  1. Well said Paul. Nothing annoys me more than folks acting like "critics" when in fact they are just complaining for the sake of complaining. 0ne can and should critique a piece of work fairly without degenerating to "that person/artist/writer/editor sucked"

  2. Cheers, Paul. I’ve been reading a ton of aesthetic theory  for my thesis, mostly 18th century German and some Renaissance. with a dabble of the French Enlightenment for good measure The question of what makes good art good has always haunted me.

    One thing I’ve noticed about the great minds of aesthetics is that these men (women don’t fit into my focus tragically, at least in this paper, given the historical context) always choose examples carefully. They critique the best art, explain why it’s good, and then take examples of inferior work to illustrate what the masters did better, or how a contemporary critic misinterpreted something. Reasons are key, always formed with the idea that the audience/viewer should learn to appreciate great art and thereby foster the creation of more great art

    This article reminds me of BKV’s now defunct forum. The rule of the roost was to talk that were enjoyable and not to decry the ones which Filed. The name of the game was highlighting the best the industry had to offer. It was my first internet experience and it was a great one, which led me here thanks to The Escapists, POW way back when.

     

  3. I don’t like that cave drawing at all.  The torsos on those archers are too skinny and disproportionally long.  Overall, very sucky.

  4. A humbling reminder. Good job.

  5. Great article. In general, I like iFanboy a lot, and I know I’m not the only one who would say they appreciate the overall "positive" atmosphere here. I do think the mood of this place did begin to shift, however, once the community was given more reign to say how they felt. And how could it not. Obviously I’m not saying that we shouldn’t allow user reviews, or that only certain people should be allowed to review or make whatever comments they wish (even if their comments don’t go beyond very simplistic "This is good" or "This is bad" statements), but it’s impossible not to get a little annoyed at the tone of some of them. Also the aggregate 1-5 star rating system verges on pointless. The more popular a title is, the more people there are who just give it 1-star for political reasons. A few weeks ago I noticed that Ultimate X-Men had a higher rating than Batman and even Captain America. People get threatened by other people’s opinions and seek to do all they can to counteract them, whether that means giving a book a "1" out of principle, writing a cursory two-sentence "review" that amounts to "I don’t understand why people like this book", or going into a page and leaving a wonderful little comment to the tone of "I had the creative team on this book." I don’t think iFanboy has gone to the dogs (not even close), but I do notice that the general spirit of goodwill or whatever has dimmed. Maybe if users could be privately messaged then the more combative members of the community could hash things out that way. That might create more problems, though. I guess, in general, it’s just a reality that the more room you give more people to express themselves, the greater the likelihood that some people will talk loud and say nothing.

  6. @flapjaxx – I think you give way too much credence to people rating books for "political reasons". 

  7. *Dale Carnegie. Dale Carnegie. Dale Carnegie*

  8. @ultimatehoratio — you know, the cave drawings didn’t bother me as much, but I’ve always been more of story guy. And this is just confusion. Are the antelope attacking those people or vice versa? What’s their motivation? I think I get what they’re going for here… no good, no evil, just shades of gray, but… what about a berry-foraging subplot?

    I dunno. I just didn’t feel the emotional connection, ya know?

  9. Oh boy, why do I have a feeling some of this negativity should be pointed at little old me? lol

    I think in the same vein on why broadcast news play more bad news then good; it’s that more people love to see negative reviews then positive. I wont lie, some of the best reviews I’ve seen are when the title could be very very bad. Anything that makes Jeph Loeb books look like they’ve been touched with the plague, that makes me smile. Not to say that I dont like postive or more sensible reviews, I do.

    Case in point, Batman two weeks ago. I might’ve been one out of a very few who actually liked the issue. So many people were confused and gave bad reviews because of it. Now I wrote a more positive review for it (hell it was my POTW), but I enjoyed the other reviews as well whether they were on my side or not. I think considering that these are user reviews, these are some of the more thought out and more adult reviews on the internet. Guys like Neb, or Templar, or *cough*me*cough*, and just a hell of a lot more I could mention has given us some of the best reviews on anything related to comics.

    Is it more fun to read negative reviews? Sure thing, but there will always be room for positive reviews as well.

  10. @TNC – It’s completely possible to write a negative review and it’s really important that they exist.  It’s not a question of negative versus positive.  It’s a question of the worth of those comments as well as their aim.  We need to say why something doesn’t work and, if possible, pose suggestions as to how things could be made better.  Otherwise we’re just complaining.  Criticism should be a contribution to the creative mission and not a salvo against it.  Point out the flaws, but then follow through.  If something sucks, recommend improvements.  Don’t waste people’s time.  Be thoughtful and constructive.  

  11. @Paul: I like to think I’m constructive…..

    *goes back under bridge*

  12. I agree with everything in this article…although I have a sneaking suspicion that the higher the cover price goes the more negative snarking we’ll see…

  13. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    If you think this article is about you specifically, it’s not.  But if you still think it is, watch this

  14. ‘If you think this article is about you specifically, it’s not’

    That’s impossible! 🙂

  15. The 7 degrees of TNC strikes. In the end, I knew it would all come back to him.

     

    I love the "Bendis sucks, this story sucks reviews." Seperates the haters. The truly thoughtful reviews are crap. Who do they think they are? I for one am appauled. Shocked and appaule. I demand trite reviews as much as I demand more cowbell!

  16. Shouldn’t people just be allowed to say what they think of a book, regardless of "merit" as long as they’re not being abusive?  If you don’t like what people are saying then ignore them.

    @daccampo – I’d like to know what the guy on top is thinking.  The deer are bearing down on him as well, and the one with the particularly nasty-looking horns is coming right for him, yet he has yet to raise his bow.  Why?  Is he conflicted?  Frozen by fear?  A conscientious objector?  Overconfident?  The creator of the cave drawing has failed to communicate the thoughts of his characters to the audience.

    Cave drawing = fail

  17. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    I think you’re overestimating the effort needed to offer a worthwhile review.  I think there are people who don’t fully appreciate the amount of work that goes into the media they’re consuming.  And maybe it’s not within my rights to say what a review of merit really is, but I think we could each level a little more thought into our own discourse.  That’s a self evaluation, self editing. This started as an open letter to myself.  I want to offer better criticism, and I doubt I’m alone.

    I just want everybody to be master debaters.  😀

  18. Nice work here Paul.  I know when I sit down to write reviews I try to be constructive and point what worked and what didn’t and what would have make it work for me.  I think that’s important when critiquing something. 

    As someone who’s created something for masses (for those not on the forums, I made a game with some friends for XNA), it’s immensely frustrating when you don’t get good feedback on something.  I don’t really care if people think the game sucks, but I want to know WHY it sucked and what we can do to make it better.

    I take this same approach with my comic reviews.

  19. I don’t see it as a question of what people are "allowed" to say; that concept plays to the lowest common denominator — how troll-y does somebody have to get before they get banned?  In interpret this more as a call to think about why we’re saying what we’re saying, and to try to make our contributions to the critical conversation as good as they can be.  I think anybody with any discernment at all will just want to rail on a book once in a while.  But if you’re doing that more than you’re talking about what you enjoy, it may be time to evaluate your focus. 

    That’s what I took from it anyway. . .

    Thanks, Paul.  Very well said.

  20. Ah "History of the World" one of my favorite Mel Brooks movies!  And yes, I know, many hated it.  Personally, I’d be honored to have Sid Ceasar piss on one of my paintings…

    I guess I’m overly sensitive and touchy, but it really bothers me when I read negative reviews of books – especially ones that I happen to like.  And when they come across as mean-spirited, that’s even worse.  Sure I get frustrated when I spend money on books that I don’t enjoy, but I also would never consider myself proficient enough or knowledgeable enough to judge on anything but a purely personal basis.  It all gets back to Josh’s argument about the word "overrated."   I suppose that’s why I don’t write more reviews.

  21. @ultimatehoratio — and would it kill him to draw some backgrounds?

    @Paul — And thank you for providing us with excellent master debating material each and every week.

  22. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    Oh my god, did I seriously transcribe a scene from History of the World Part I without knowing it?  I haven’t seen that in a very, very long time.  That’s funny.  

  23. Paul, you have opened my brain, and I’m saying that in all seriousness.

  24. That wasn’t intentional?!  Hahahahaha…

  25. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    I worked so hard on that story!  I’m so fucking embarrassed now!  

  26. "Oh boy, why do I have a feeling some of this negativity should be pointed at little old me? lol" -TNC

    You’re so full of yourself.  In all actuallity, I have learned to skip over almost everything you say.  It’s actually quite effective for saving my from headaches 😛

    Great article Paul.  Reminders like these are always appreciated

  27. @drake: Obviously not working since you just quoted me there

    Yes, I am very shallow….I am sorry, it is just the way I am. Am I that bad when it comes to reviews? I’ve tried to be less trollish every since the Trinity and Powers debacle when I first joined here.

    If anyone has watched a ‘Zero Punctuation’ review, that’s where I kinda get my attitude from. Yahtzee can get away from being such a crass guy, and nitpicks on every little thing when it comes to video games. I think reviews have gone a bit soft lately, not on here you guys are right on when it comes to reviews, I just mean about mainstream reviews.

    Sites like ign or newsarama are so laid back and unless it’s something truely god awful (Hulk anyone?) then they are very forgiving with their scores. You need to wow the public, otherwise your on the chopping block.

  28. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    I swear to Mel Brooks this article wasn’t about anyone specifically.  I swear.  Again, nothing wrong with negative reviews.  As long as you explain yourself, you’re fine by me.  I only hope that our intention is to enjoy and celebrate good stories and to help each other to write even more good stories.  Yeah?  

  29. @Paul: Wow you swore on the grave of someone who isnt dead yet…..just wow 🙂

    I know it wasnt all about me, how foolish to think….Still….

  30. hahaha, I love iFanboy

    @TNC-See, thats why I said I skip over "almost" everything, so I couldn’t get trapped like that.  I plan ahead!!  You won’t catch me friend! 🙂

    @Paul-We’re just messing with you.  We all know that if you had a problem with TNC you would just come out and say it. 🙂

    Negative reviews don’t bother me at all.  I like reading different perspectives.  If you get 10 reviews that dis something, then one review that liked it, I’m more likely to check that one out because I want to see why a certain person thought differently than the others.

  31. He didn’t swear on anyone’s grave.

  32. While I, as an artist myself, agree with you on many of your points, there are certain things that don’t exactly apply to all comic books. Traditional works of art are almost always done by one artist, and one artist only. Comic books are a collaboration of talent. Sometimes, even though we may want to read something about one of our favorite characters and written by one of our favorite writers, we might not pick it up because the art is so distasteful to us.

    For example – I loved Marvel’s Annihilation epic from day one, and saw the emerging talent of Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning as something I enjoy reading, but I dislike Sean Chen’s art so much, that I couldn’t bring myself to put money down for those early issues of Nova that spun out of Annihilation. Now, I keep hearing about how great the book is, and I find myself hesitating to get into it since I haven’t been reading it; even though I read Guardians of the Galaxy every month and love every issue. I’ve since resolved to pick up trades of what I’ve missed and start picking up single issues since Chen is no longer the artist, but it was a decision that took me a while to make.

    I guess my point is, that if you really don’t like someone’s art (or writing, as the case may be) and you don’t have the eloquence to make an acceptable criticism, simply not buying the book may not be an option if you really love the other artists working on it. Here I am putting down that money for Sean Chen art that I find bland and stiff, and very homogeneous. Someone else in the same situation may not have those adjectives in their verbal arsenal, and the only way to express their dissatisfaction is to say that the art "sucks". Should we deny that person their voice? Should that person deny themselves their voice for the sake of being less basic and venomous?

    I say no.

    Great and thoughtful article Paul, really got me thinking…

  33. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    @GenuineHiney – I see what you’re saying, but to paraphrase the great, fictional president Jed Bartlet, "Our job isn’t to cater to the lowest common denominator.  It’s to raise it."  If you don’t know the word you’re looking for, try.  Maybe it takes seven words to make up that one specialized term someone’s after.  But that scramble to articulate an argument would be an impassioned effort.  And that’s the intent I’m talking about.  One of the best things to come out of evaluating something is to, however inadvertently, learn something.  

  34. Yesterday I read the comments from the Punisher film forum and ended up dissapointed. Almost everything said was negatively charged and warranted. The film was bad. But what’s the point in the negativity? We all knew it wouldn’t be any good. Sometimes people just seek reassurance for their malice and thrive on slanderous gang-bangs.

    @Horatio – powdered wigs and pinkies. It’s all I see.

  35. Taking Muppet names and making them into verbs? Priceless.

  36. This article coming from the guy whose review of Titans #1 consisted of three words…

    AND I QUOTE:  "Well, that sucked"

    I kid because I love Paul. 😉

  37. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    Ha!  I was waiting for someone to bring that up!  

    As I said, if this one’s addressed to anybody, it’s me.   

  38. @FACE – at times, the product is so bad that the level of negative response is almost uncontrollable.  Punisher was so bad that I was personally offended at the idea of paying them money for that.  I was nearly insulted that they tried to pass that off as something people would like. 

    And while it might not be the most reasoned and sophisticated thing in the world, sometimes SOMETIMES there is an incredible art to negative criticisms.  Roger Ebert is a master.   Check out some of his better quotes.

    I also have an easier time dismissing the work of a committee when it’s bad, rather than when it’s the work of just a couple wayward artists who tried their best and missed the mark.

  39. @Paul– No shame in unintentionally developing the same joke as a comedy genius.

    I personally try to not review a lot of bad comics mostly because reviewing bad comics means reading bad comics and I don’t want waste money on bad comics.  The exception tends to be stuff like Secret Invasion where I can either make a joke of things MST3K style or just try to piece together what happened like a CSI episode.

  40. Great article.  Two points:

    1) How much you wanna bet that none of the other cavemen who looked at that wall painting ever paid for the privilege?  They probably all just broke a piece of the rock off and took it home to their own caves.  Creator rights! 

    2) No one has called me a master debater since that time my mom found the magazines under my mattress.  Sorry to dissapoint.

  41. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    In MY version, it’s a drawing in the dirt.  Easier to erase, more tragic a loss, more poignant.  

    Suck it, Mel Brooks!  

    Had a teacher in high school who called everyone either ‘doctor’ or ‘professor’ or ‘master’ before their surname.  He made the horrible mistake of calling Kyle Bates the third one.  He realized it as he was saying it.  His eyes almost popped out of their sockets.     

  42. @Paul – well, now you’re just ripping off Richard Pryor movies.

  43. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    That’s a true story!

  44. Sure, sure… just like that time my Uncle Navin invented the Opti-Grab. Until people started going cross-eyed and filed a class-action lawsuit…

  45. In the words of a New York movie-goer: that’s not possible!

  46. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    Dave is allowed to live because he’s referenced one of my favorite movies.  

  47. See? Now when they ask me, "what good is all this useless pop trivia? What does it get you?", I can answer truthfully, "It saved my life."

  48. But Titans #1 really did suck.

    @FACE – I was getting tired of getting left out so I’m being fitted for my powdered wig tomorrow and trying out teacups that perfectly fit my index finger.  I’m also getting a thesaurus.  Prepare thyself!*

    "Slanderous gangbangs."  I have to find a way to use that in a sentence sometime this week.

    *see Hawkeye’s review of Batman 682 for details.

  49. @daccamp.  The Jerk, right?

  50. Dave is a jerk, yes.  😉

  51. @josh – all i’m saying is that, because we knew the Punisher film wouldn’t be very good, the well of snarkiness was a tad shallow and most commenters came off as sticks in the mud. I would question why you wasted your money on it, except that it’s your job.

    @Horatio – Looking forward to it.

  52. @FACE – I actually disagree, or I think I do.  If you’re saying that the Punisher podcast was just a wad of snark, I disagree.  I thought it was a really balanced review, considering.  I really commend Josh especially for the way he’s been covering things he’s expecting not to like lately.  Of this film and Secret Invasion 8, he’s stressed that he went in with the hopes of finding something redeeming, something to enjoy about it all.  With the Punisher film, they didn’t simply rail on it.  They explained exactly why it was a poor film and even gave some suggestions as to why it happened and how it could have been improved.  It’s not their fault it was a terrible movie.  And with as much effort as they put into the analysis, I don’t think it’s unreasonable that they get to have some fun with it as well.  

  53. In the long run, you attract more flies with honey than vinegar. Well actually, dead squirrels work best for attracting flies. And who wants to attract flies anyway!?

    I’ll go now.

  54. @MontyPaulthon – I haven’t listened to the Punisher podcast. My initial comment referred to the ‘Punisher film forum’ and it’s what I continue to reference in my second post. I suspect that the podcast is a good romp on the movie and well deserved.

  55. @FACE – Good deal.  

  56. I just read Final Crisis and I’m eager for the reviews to start pouring in.  Hoo boy…