|from Al Ewing & John McCrea's splendid Mars Attacks Judge Dredd #2|
"Never read around reviews before writing if you can help it. The danger becomes you write about the reviews, even subconsciously."
Kieron Gillen, on Twitter, 19/10/013
Mr Gillen's right, of course. The more you stare into an opinion-slick, the more the opinion-slick stares right back into you. But I was dopey enough to look, and what I gawked at was a profoundly dispiriting affair. Curious about the season's superhero crossover events, and thinking of writing about the likes of Infinity and Forever Evil, I thought to catch up with the blogosphere's appraisals. If only what I'd found had been the sociopathic-sounding indignation of the clearly deranged super-book obsessive. Even the withering, I-know-structuralism-me pomposity of the cape'n'chest-insignia-loathing stiffneck would have been preferable to most of what I blundered into. Because it only takes a few seconds to see through the big, dumb and obfuscating myth that the net's comics criticism is a soul-clogging excess of vitriol and ignorance. Of course, there's a demoralising mass of witless, if not overwhelmingly repellent, opinionating going on out there. But the worst of it does tend to all clot together into particular boards and conspiratorial cells of like-minded ragers against just-about-everything. For all the constant threat of drive-by trolling, the lunatic fringe are mostly easy enough to avoid. Yet, compared to much of what passes for criticism of the action/adventure mainstream out there, the various fanaticos do at least have the energetic virtues of a laughable spleneticism. In short, and for all their heart-withering lack of insight, knowledge or basic courtesy, they do at least care enough to make waves. It may not be much, and it may often be an irredeemably pernicious business, but there is the sense that something really matters. In short, at least they aren't constantly making excuses for the various corporations and corporate employees that they're forever handing over their income to.
|Panels by Brian Michael Bendis, Stuart Immonen, Wade von Grawbadger et al, from All-New X-Men #17.|
To read through so many of the reviews of these highly expensive and determinedly hyped crossover series is to encounter a culture of both denial and exoneration. That there's an undeniable host of notable exceptions to this rule doesn't undercut the fact that so many super-book critiques appear to be written by dedicated apologists. Whether appraisals in high-circulation magazines and specialist publications, Statcounter-busting sites or little-league blogs, the keeness to gloss over the obvious failings of superhero product is remarkable and dismaying. Trawl for just a moment or two through the work of these dedicated camp-followers and the seeming resentment of a clutch of creators, editors and marketing bods towards aspects of the comics blogosphere becomes impossible to understand. Why waste time feeling suspicious and even aggrieved by this and that blip of discontent when so much of the community is as uncritically supportive as it is?
Perhaps it's the fact that they're so frequently basked in waves of positivity, of respect and adulation, that makes the pin-pricks of negative critical assessment seem so abhorrent and offensive.
|panel by John Romita Jr, Mark Millar et al, from Kick Ass 3:3|
How often do posts by big beast pontificators and little-league reviewers alike start with words to the effect that a comic's just great despite the presence of a slew of fundamental flaws? A driving obsession with the headline beats of plot seems to constantly obscure the most shoddy, sloppy and soulless of storytelling. How frequently are we told in a review's opening sentence that readers looking for the likes of sense, transparency, consistent characterisation, or even basic human emotions beyond the adolescently bleak, ought to go no further, while everyone else will love what they find? What else can possibly be left when the story plods and the players are wooden, when the plot fails to hang together even in its own terms and the dialogue's quip-heavy and hackneyed? Whatever it is, its virtues could surely only have amplified if the creative team involved had raised their game and produced a coherently constructed and competently executed comic. Even in the mainstream of publishing, high-profile reviews of some of the year's events books have begun by warning of serious deficiencies and then closed with the throwing around of four-star accolades. The message to all concerned on the supply side of the equation seems clear; a great many consumers will swallow whatever you deliver and still come back applauding and begging for more. It's a loving granting of carte-blanche that for some saturates everything to do with the cape'n'chest-insignia genre. Point out, in this age of the Hyper-Rich's callous and remorseless grab for yet more power, that a comic is perpetuating a reactionary world-view, and the response, if any response arrives, will often be that the superhero book is somehow immune to such criticism. Worse yet, there'll be the volley declaring that the super-book always was a right-wing form, and that's how it'll always have to stay.
|page by James Kochalka, from 2013's Free Comic Book Day Top Shelf Kids Club|
Did folks somehow become tired of pointing out that the very ideas underpinning many of these supposedly "multi-layered" event books are actually profoundly dumb? Do the obvious and recurrent flaws of a creator or even a company somehow become too familiar to discuss, while each new flawed achievement is somehow worthy of discussion and acclaim? Has it become the responsibility of fans to pay for work that's significantly botched and then process it for the moments which might be used to justify their investment? If editors and creators won't, for example, ensure that their work hangs together, then has it become the job of consumers to filter out the careless and the inept before enjoying whatever's left? For there's a collaboration going on here that's as perverse as it's baffling, with elements of the audience accepting both the financial burden of investing in a epic string of issues and the editorial responsibilities of making its consumption worthwhile.
|panel by David Lapham, David Aja et al, from 2011's Wolverine: Debt Of Honour|
Identifying such laudable writers and artists can be a relatively easy business, for the reviews of their work don't have to begin with the likes of, "Those expecting this comic to hang together, or reflect anything but a crabbed and limb-loping sensibility, need go no further. For the rest of us ...."
|panel by Peter Milligan, Ed Benes et al, from 2011's Red Lanterns #1.|
Of course there's nothing wrong with loving comic books. In art there can be no argument, etc etc, and that applies as much to the common-or-garden super-book as anything else. But when so many folks find themselves actively cahooting in ignoring shoddy storytelling, then there most certainly is something disturbingly askew. When such problems are obvious, they should surely be the focus of reviews, and of every review of subsequent issues until the problem is resolved. Sadly, I fear that the focus will remain upon the latest costume change from Beefsteak-Head Man, or the destruction of the satellite of the fiendish Mod Trolls, or the question of whether Terry or his clone Terry truly loves Captain Truthiness.
All interesting things, of course. But what's the point, until the storytelling itself is of the highest quality? Surely the choice isn't between the joys of being plot-teased and the satisfactions of a sturdily constructed tale, but between things well-made and slipshod money-spinners?
Or to put it another way, can there be less shouting for an encore until the performance itself has genuinely been blisteringly, uncommonly brilliant?
Let me count some of the objections to the above; it's snobbish and elitist; it ignores the fact that different people have different tastes; what's wrong with loving the kind of work that I think is badly-crafted?; are folks supposed to be horrible to creators just because you don't approve of their work?; PC attitudes should have nothing to do with comics; just because a reviewer is nice to a book doesn't mean they want to hop-nob with professionals; etc, etc, etc
But for all of that, the superhero book is getting away with murder out there .....