Comics reviewers need to talk more about art

Though I can appreciate that a lot of reviewers don’t have the artistic vocabulary to really review art, they always have lots to say about the story. An analysis of the storytelling would be interesting.

-- Marvel artist Declan Shalvey, on how comics reviewers can better discuss visual art in criticism.

It'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. Shalvey pokes holes in that excuse, however, by offering for critique an aspect of comics art that writers should already be equipped to discuss: the effectiveness of visual storytelling.

There are levels to that discussion, too, of course. Not every reviewer knows or understands the 180-degree rule or how it applies to comics (although they probably all should, if they're serious about the craft of reviewing comics), but even the most amateur reviewer should be able to talk about whether the story made sense from a visual standpoint: how the art contributed to or detracted from the reader's ability to understand and think about the story. That's basic stuff, and I'm as guilty as anyone else of ignoring it in my reviews. Shalvey is right in encouraging critics to do better.

We talk all the time about how comics is a visual medium, but when it comes time to discuss the comics we're reading, the trend is to thoroughly dissect the writing, while dismissing the actual, visual part with subjective remarks about whether we like the style. That's a shame, because script and visual art are way more intertwined than that.

When Shalvey shared his advice on Twitter, it struck a chord with a variety of comics professionals, including writers/artists like Gabriel Hardman and Jeff Parker. "The writing and art are both telling the story equally," observed Hardman. "It's baffling to me when people don't get that." Parker describes the artist's job as "the second half of storytelling," which he goes on to clarify as meaning that so much of the storytelling is determined in that part of the process, after the script is done.

That doesn't mean that it's easy to know who did what. Shalvey adds that "it's practically impossible to tell what contributions the artist makes, but credit often goes to the writer." And Reilly Brown offers a reminder that artists often have behind-the-scenes input in plot development. The lesson then isn't for reviewers to always credit the appropriate person for the right contribution, but to acknowledge that writer and artist are working together to create the comic and to comment on the storytelling as a whole, not just parts of it. That's not easy, but it's one of the things that separates good comics criticism from bad.

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