The old debate: Art and writing about art in reviews, with regard to some of this past week’s comics

by  in Comic News Comment
The old debate: Art and writing about art in reviews, with regard to some of this past week’s comics

I probably don’t have anything new to say, but what the heck, right? We’re all friends here!

Earlier this week, our pals at Robot 6 hit us with their quote of the day, which was from Declan Shalvey, who thinks reviewers need to devote more time to writing about art. There was a minor Twitter surge of comics creators agreeing with him and discussing this, and there were similarly a bunch of people in the comments section agreeing with him and a bunch saying he was full of it (the post didn’t get a ton of comments, so “bunch” is relative, but still). Michael May, who posted the quote, writes that “[i]t’s a commonly recognized phenomenon that reviewers tend to focus on the writing part of comics, because they are, after all, writers and that’s what they have the vocabulary for. Criticism of visual art requires a different set of terms that frankly, not a lot of comics critics know.” I’m not totally on board with the second half of that statement – I agree that the terms are often beyond reviewers, but that doesn’t mean you can’t write about artwork, just that you don’t use the jargon. Heck, I never use the word “synecdoche,” but that doesn’t mean I don’t recognize it in writing and that I can’t review comics (yes, maybe it means I shouldn’t review them, but that’s not important right now!). But what can we poor reviewers do about our horrible writing about artwork?

I have a lot of jumbled thoughts about this, so bear with me – this might be more incoherent than my posts usually are. On the one hand, I do agree with May and Shalvey and anyone else who says reviewers don’t write about art enough. One thing I’ve really tried to do as a reviewer is write more about art and at least learn a bit of the technical jargon so I don’t sound like a complete idiot. As I’ve often mentioned over the past few years, I’ve become more interested in the art in comics because the writing has suffered recently, in my humble opinion. How often can we read the same story before it gets dull? For me, I don’t care if all the superheroes fight each other, because I’ve read that story. So something like Fear Itself is interesting to me ONLY because Stuart Immonen draws the shit out of anything he touches. Writers, and not just writers of IPs, fall into ruts far too often, and I find myself being much more interested in how the artist tells the story than the story itself. When so many stories are dull, the art can make a comic worth your money.

But I still probably don’t write about art enough. I get that. Without trying to hold myself up as a paragon, I notice that a lot of reviewers don’t really write about the writing in comics all that well, either. Shalvey points out that summarizing a comic isn’t reviewing it, and I agree with him, but we get a lot of that, and it becomes much easier to write about comics when all you’re doing is summarizing what happens. This gets back to the poor writing in a lot of comics – superhero books have become about “what happens now” and far too many writers don’t care about developing themes or delving into characters or screwing around with structure. So reviewers simply say “This is what happened, and yeah, it looks pretty nice, too.” You can blame reviewers, sure, but when you’re trying to write reviews and the comics don’t offer anything but the barest bones of a story, it becomes problematic. Reviewing comics is actually somewhat difficult if you’re even doing it half-assed (as someone who does most of reviewing half-assed, I should know!), and it becomes even more difficult if you’re writing about things you’re unfamiliar with. That’s not an excuse, of course, but it is the reality. Comics, especially but not exclusively mainstream superhero comics, have become thinner on content in general, so the writing about writing has become weaker. Why do you think Bendis et al. can write 5-8 books a month? Someone who’s writing that many comics has to be mailing some of them in. That’s just a fact.

Writing about art is a bit more difficult, too, but it’s tied into the writing part of comics, as well. It’s easy to write about the direction a book is going from the writing side because we judge the words on the page. Determining art credits is difficult, and that makes it more difficult to praise or blame specifically. First of all, look at inking. Pencil art can be very sketchy or incredibly detailed, and it’s hard to tell how much influence inkers have on the pencil art, especially if a book uses different inkers. One of the commenters in the Robot 6 piece pointed out that Wizard had different inkers working over a Greg Capullo drawing back in 1995 and the finished product looked completely different. Writing about inking is even harder than writing about pencilling, because inking is even more subtle than straight pencil work. Plus, what does the inker do and what does the penciller do? I spoke to an artist earlier this year who said that there was an inker credited on a book they worked on back in the day, but the penciller did most of the inking and the official inker just did spot blacks. It was a collaborative effort, but if someone didn’t wanted to write about the inking, what could they say? Obviously, you can still write about it without assigning names to the work, but it’s still a tough question, far harder than writing about the dialogue on page 10 or the plot twist at the end. Coloring, also, is tough to write about. Colorists have both become more important in comics and less influential, which is odd. The advent of digital coloring means that colorists can shape the art much more than they used to, with the Frank D’Armata-on-Captain America example as the vanguard of this kind of thing, but at the same time, a lot of superhero artwork is colored to look as “realistic” as possible, which means using colors to suggest moods is slowly becoming a thing of the past. So when reviewers are writing about the art, they can certainly discuss pacing and layouts, which isn’t all that hard, but looking at the more technical stuff does become more difficult. As Shalvey and some of the others who tweeted about this point out, the divide between writer and artist is never rigid, either. How does the writer present the script to the artist? Is it Marvel Method, Full Script, or Alan Moore Full Script (which lists the brand of cereal that must be on the shelf in the background and what kind of knot the random man on the street uses to tie his tie and if the artist changes anything, the writer shows up at his or her door and starts chopping off non-essential digits)? Is it a back-and-forth process? Does the writer accept any suggestions from the artist about changes in dialogue? Does the artist accept any changes from the writer about panel placement? The credits of a comic book imply that everything is very rigidly delineated, but Shalvey and others point out that this just isn’t true. That’s not the reviewers’ fault, though.

Marvel and DC also contribute to this, unfortunately. We’re in the middle of a second “Cult of the Writer” Era – I would argue that the first one was in the mid- to late 1980s, when the British Invasion occurred and writers began pushing the boundaries of superhero books. The Image revolution reversed that for a time, when artists were in the ascendancy, but in the new millennium, the Big Two have really pushed the writers again, to the detriment of the artists. The so-called Marvel Architects are all writers. Jonathan Hickman is a design guy, but it would be interesting if Marvel had chosen some of their artists as “architects,” helping design the look of the Marvel Universe as the writers build the plot. DC is in creator chaos right now, but their mainstays tend to be writers – Johns, Morrison, Snyder, Lemire, Kindt (and yes, I’ll contradict myself almost right away, but bear with me). Yes, Lemire and Kindt draw their own books as well, but not the mainstream superhero ones. DC rotates creative teams like crazy, but it’s probably not a coincidence that the most critically-acclaimed books they publish right now have consistent artists as well as writers – Capullo, Chiang (and Akins), Mahnke, Gleason, Reis, Manapul, Norman, Janin, Williams III (sort of). But DC switches creators so often it’s hard to keep up, and they’re betting on people caring more about the characters than the creative teams. That’s usually a good bet. Marvel seems to allow their creative teams a bit more leeway in terms of content, but their double-shipping policy means that artists can’t keep up. It’s easier to review comics based on what the story is doing when the art switches so quickly and randomly. Sure, reviewers should write about the art in single issues, but if you’re reviewing a trade paperback, the art is often so inconsistent that it’s easier to ignore it. It’s not the best way to do it, but DC and Marvel don’t seem to care about artists, so why should reviewers?

What does this have to do with the comics I bought this week? As I noted, I’ve tried to get better at writing about art. I don’t know if I have, but I do notice things a bit more, and I try to write about those things. Let’s check out the books I read, with some regard to the the issues of writing about art.

Astro City #2 features Brent Anderson on “art,” meaning pencils and inks and Alex Sinclair on colors. I don’t know how Kurt Busiek writes his scripts, so I’m not sure how much leeway Anderson has on the book. What can I write about the art? Astro City is a book where a lot of stuff happens, so I tend to lean toward writing about Busiek’s plots more. Plus, Anderson is a good artist, but he’s a bit meat-and-potatoes – I’m sure the people who work with him will take umbrage at that, but I don’t mean it as an insult, I mean that he’s not terribly flashy, which is an asset on a book like Astro City, which needs someone who can make the fantastical look a bit mundane. Anderson gets to draw two splash pages and another double-page pseudo-splash, and while he does a very nice job with them, they’re fairly standard superhero tussles – well blocked, that’s true, because we can see everything clearly, but still fairly standard. Anderson is an artist who has been around a long time without really changing his style too much, so if you’re writing a review for a comic book blog (as opposed to a review for a place that doesn’t have a lot of comic book readers), you can write “It looks like Brent Anderson art” and you can be pretty sure that people will know what you’re talking about. Is that lazy? Probably, but that’s the way it is. You can write “It reads like a Busiek comic,” because it does, but at the very least, you can write a bit about what actually happens, and that’s writing about the words on the page. Anderson uses fairly basic page layouts, until he gets to the double-page spread in Cairns, where he uses tilted panels to suggest a sweeping motion from left to right, moving our eye nicely across the superheroes to the people in the stands. It’s a clever layout, but did Anderson come up with it, or did Busiek? I don’t know. In much the same way, Sinclair’s coloring is perfectly serviceable, but beyond using his computer to make some things glow, it doesn’t really appear that he’s molding the tone in any way. I certainly could be wrong.

Rob Guillory’s work on Chew is always good, but again, it’s tough as a reviewer to know how much to credit him. I know that Layman’s scripts are somewhat specific, so I imagine that Page 2, in which Colby experiences his horror-filled (in the funniest way possible) morning is probably Layman’s idea, even though Guillory does his usual wonderful job with the facial expressions. Guillory, as usual, litters the book with humorous asides on the labels and pamphlets and such that are all over the book, and he added Gary Cole in one panel, but would a reviewer mention that or know it? One thing a reviewer can discuss is the way Guillory’s art changes to show how Tony “reads” food – it’s always been impressive, as he colors it differently so that everything is “softer,” which ties in with the fact that Tony is “seeing” this and it’s not exactly “real.” Guillory adds a lot to Chew, more than a lot of mainstream superhero artists add to their books, so it’s a bit easier to write about the art on this comic than it might be on others. Layman’s writing is so strong, too, so the temptation might be there to ignore the artwork, but that would be a mistake.

East of West presents an interesting challenge, because Hickman, as I noted, does a lot of design work and has illustrated some superb comics of his own in the past, so while Nick Dragotta’s work on the book is amazing, how much does he do on the design of the page? The page with 18 (!!!) panels is excellent, but did Dragotta lay that page out or is he working off Hickman’s designs? Obviously, you don’t need to know in order to appreciate the way the page telescopes the action and helps create the sense of horrific grandeur for the battle in the palace (even with the small panels, that’s what the page does), but it would be nice to make sure you’re giving credit where it’s due. The book is astonishingly beautiful, thanks to Dragotta’s soft pencils and Frank Martin’s amazing coloring job, and I can’t imagine anyone writing about the book without mentioning the stunning visuals. I mean, just the page with the execution is gripping, especially with the bloody hand slowly dropping down the wall. That’s a wonderful detail.

One reason modern coloring annoys me a bit is because when coloring is done well, it’s integral to the look of the book, and too often colorists don’t bring much to the table. I’ve been raving about Francesco Francavilla’s coloring for years, and it’s partly because he thinks about color choices and how they can convey meaning. The last time he drew Hawkguy, I mentioned this and someone in the comments sections wondered if I was imprinting my beliefs about the tone of the coloring onto something that Francavilla didn’t intend. It’s certainly possible that writers, artists, and colorists don’t think about their choices as much as readers think they do, but I don’t believe it. There’s a reason Francavilla uses a lot of primary colors on his comics, and why he chooses to color the bad guys red and Barney Barton purple in issue #12. There’s a reason he changes to more earth tones when Clint and Barney embrace at the end, and there’s a reason he colors the shards of glass from the car accident blood red when in “real life” they wouldn’t be that color. A lot of colorists in mainstream comics don’t choose these kinds of colors – if they do stray outside of “real-life” colors, they usually default to red, because they show violence that way. Francavilla does too, but because he uses other primaries in other situations, the red doesn’t look too silly – it fits nicely into the tone of the book. Look at how he subtly shifts from a nostalgic (but still red-based) tone when Barney and Clint are practicing in their yard to an angry red as Clint attacks their abusive father. That has to be deliberate, or I’ll eat my hat.

Finally, we get to Young Avengers, where Jamie McKelvie is killing it, and if any reviewer writes about that book without mentioning the art, they’re falling into the trap that Shalvey notes, because McKelvie and Kieron Gillen are one of the best teams in comics and probably the best team in mainstream superhero comics (Aja and Fraction might be close right now, but I’d give the edge to McKelvie and Gillen). McKelvie’s clean lines makes the book look cheery, which ties in with Gillen’s scripts, which while they deal with some heavy subjects aren’t bogged down in doom ‘n’ gloom. McKelvie’s strength has always been the way he poses the characters and uses their facial expressions, so Gillen doesn’t need to clutter up the page with words because McKelvie’s characters say so much without speaking. There’s a heartbreaking panel of Teddy as he contemplates what Loki said about Billy “making” Teddy love him, and Miss America’s wonderfully cocksure face when she shows that she has some hidden abilities is priceless. McKelvie has gotten so much better at action, too, which is why the art on this book might be the peak of his career so far. But a reviewer shouldn’t mention the stunning page toward the end of the book, because much like the other panel from issue #4, it’s much better if you experience it. Like spoilers in writing, it’s no fun to spoil great innovations in art, either, and McKelvie is doing a marvelous job doing different things with superhero art, which is something I’ve ranted about for years. So while there’s stuff to say about the art, there are a few things in the book that I don’t want to write about, because they’re so cool you have to see them for yourself. Am I doing something wrong? Wait, don’t answer that.

Ultimately, I’m not sure if Shalvey really has too much of a beef. I mean, yes, there are a lot of reviews out there that ignore the art, and that’s a problem. But writers who I consider the top tier of comics reviewers (maybe you don’t, but they seem to be the ones people talk about) certainly do, and they’re pretty darned good at writing about art. Perhaps when the Internet and blogs first exploded 10-15 years ago, the people writing on-line were rawer and much more inclined to write about the writing in comics, but I think those people who have been doing it for a while come to appreciate the art and get better at it. I went to the Mothership’s front page and quickly checked out every single review on the front page at this time. There were 14 reviews on the front page by people like Jennifer Cheng, Greg McElhatton, Kelly Thompson, Meagan Damore, Doug Zawisza, and Jim Johnson, and every single review mentions the art and the reviewers do a good job explaining some of the things about what the artist does. Maybe artists don’t think they do a good job, but to a dumb-ass like me, they seem to do a good job. Yes, writing about the writing is dominant, and the reviews seem to adhere to about a 2-to-1 ratio in terms of “writing about writing” versus “writing about art,” but they’re still writing about the art.

So, yeah. Maybe I don’t have a point. Yes, reviewers ought to write about every aspect of comics, but I can’t see too much evidence that they’re ignoring the artwork. Maybe some bigger sites where the writers don’t often review comics are not focusing on the art, but people who read a lot of comics know that the art is important. And there’s some great art out there, isn’t there?