I barely have time to read over my own finished posts, rather yet those of my fellow reviewers, but I do scan through most of our site’s posts on a daily basis. Something about Dean’s review of Amazing Spider-Man #697 struck me, though. “It is very nicely done and profession [sic],” he describes the issue, but in the end he grades it a C. This seemed a strange contrast to me, so out of curiosity, I checked out the issue myself.
I’ll spare you the details, but what I read felt like a better-than-average issue to me, more like a B- or even a B—and I don’t even read ASM.
Of course, the difference in our reviews has everything to do with the fact that Dean and I are extremely different people who come at comics from very different angles. But since we both claim to represent WCBR’s views and to follow its official grading system, I feel I should explain where I come from in terms of my own reviews.
The Hat(s) I Wear
I love stories and I love the art of writing. I’ve been a writer, an editor, and a teacher. So when I read any story, and especially when I review a story, all three of those roles come into play.
As an editor, I experienced pretty much every kind of story under the sun and then some. I examine a story not only for its craftsmanship, but also to see how it can be improved. This helps me see a story’s big picture and to examine it closely for missteps, loose ends, and structural defects. If my review has unsolicited advice to the writers, you’ll know my editor’s cap was on pretty tightly that day.
As someone who once had ambitions for fiction writing, I have a lot of empathy for writers. I won’t go so far as to say I always know what they’re doing, but sometimes I can understand why they do certain things, both good and bad. Being an editor helps me spot a problem; being a writer helps me figure out how it happened.
I learned as a teacher that to make a grade meaningful to my students, I had to be very strict in how I handed them out and very clear as to why I gave them. I make an attempt to do the same here. I try not to play favorites. I’ve been harsh with creators I admire and I’ve praised creators I don’t really care for. Most importantly, perhaps, the teacher in me makes it almost well-nigh impossible for me to hand out anything less than a C- if I receive at least a good-faith effort.
A Method to the Madness
I usually give every issue two reads: one to just absorb the material, the other to look closer at certain points that stand out to me. I take notes and quotations. I’ll put the notes into some kind of outline format. And then I write. That’s what physically happens during one of my reviews. The mental stuff is a bit more complicated.
What I’m about to describe to you may sound like a very organized, meticulous process, but in reality, it’s all jumbled up in my head like for anyone else. That said, I do have a lot of specific criteria I try to keep in mind to help me deliver as comprehensive a review as possible.
The first question I always try to answer is: what is the writer’s intention? It seems unfair to evaluate a story according to how I think it should be. If a writer wants to tell a fun, light, entertaining romp, it’d be a little unreasonable to expect a heavy, gripping, intellectual drama. Figuring out the genre is critical in this part. I wouldn’t review a sci-fi story the same way I would a romance, a western, a comedy, a teen soap, etc.
And this is maybe the biggest difference between Dean and me: I don’t actually see a story from the Big Two as being inherently inferior to a creator-owned story. This is me as editor speaking, but I’ve read junk from both and wonderful things from both, in largely the same proportions. A Big Two story demands different expectations from a creator-owned story, and they should be evaluated as such.
That leads to my second question: how original is it? Not “Is it original?” but “How original?” Almost nothing really feels brand-new anymore, but I’ve discovered that doesn’t actually put a cap on good stories. Big Two stories don’t really have to do any more than remain faithful to their characters—because that’s usually why you write or read them—but in some ways, the more ambitious stories and the creator-owned stories get a much higher standard of review from me. I compare it to the difference between my AP students and my CP students. I wouldn’t give the same grade to my AP student who delivers the same level of work as my CP student; right or wrong, I have higher expectations of that AP student.
The third question I ask about a story, and the one which often leads to the bulk of my review, is: how well is it executed? That covers all the technical stuff—dialogue, narration, character work, plotting, pacing, meaningfulness, style. Again, how I evaluate any of these things depends on the type of story I’m reading, but I’m very quick to point out inconsistencies and poor/awkward choices, things that don’t make sense in the context of what the writer’s trying to do.
The last question, and usually the last part of my review: how’s the art? I am not an artist. I appreciate art, but I definitely do not hold myself out as an art critic. And, as you guys know, for me, the writing comes first. So all I really expect from the art, regardless of genre, is: 1) to not be downright unpleasant to look at; and 2) to not get in the way of a story. If it enhances a story or gives the story weight where the script has none, that’s when art takes on a lot more value for me.
Frequent commenter Matches Malone occasionally points out that my grades don’t always seem to match my review, and perhaps he’s right. But here is my personal take on WCBR’s grading system:
F – D: Thoroughly forgettable, almost not worth writing. Lazy, hackish, sloppy, and thoughtless are frequent characteristics of these stories. Grade-F stories are usually offensive (either socially or intellectually) on top of their other failings.
C: A reasonably good-faith effort to offer an adequate story. Assembled almost completely from formula and tradition. Often fails to deliver what it promises, or riddled with too many technical problems to redeem its ideas. Never once tries to step beyond the genre boundaries.
B: What should be the publishing standard. “Solid” is the word I use the most in describing these stories. Shows some ambition that actually gets respectable execution. Infrequent, but occasional flaws diminish an otherwise admirable piece.
A: The standard for classics. The very exemplar of a genre or even genre-busting. These are stories everyone should experience to appreciate the medium, even if they’re not to your taste. The difference between an A- and an A? A higher degree of originality and meaningfulness. A story that gets an A+ is a story that nears perfection in technical virtuosity and substantial complexity and deserves the very highest recommendation.
EPIC: A completely meaningless and ridiculous term that I will never append to any story, ever. An epic, in my mind, refers to the scope of a story, not to its quality.
A side-note: almost always I give a story a grade based on its writing and tweak it depending on the art. Mostly competent art will not change a grade. Terrible art will lower a grade and terrific art will raise it, but rarely by more than half a letter grade, though exceptions can and do pop up.
An Early Resolution
Now that you know how I think a little better, I hope my reviews become more useful to you. Because that’s my only goal as a reviewer: to be of use, either in making your decision as to what stories to try or in better understanding the stories you’ve read. And though New Year’s is some time away, I promise I’ll always strive to improve the value of my reviews as long as I’m writing here. Because one of the only things I love as much as stories are the people who read them.