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.

The Grades

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.

Grade

Conclusion


  • Thank you for the insight, Minhquan. As someone who loves reading reviews and is only a couple of years into comics this is very helpful and appreciated. Plus, your reviews are often my favorite, though that may be due to how much of my pull list you write about…

    • Minhquan Nguyen

      Thanks! Your comment is much appreciated. I’ll do my best to live up to your expectations.

  • dfstell

    Hey MQ…..very interesting. It’s funny, I usually think we give WAY too many good grades at WCBR, but I know that’s because none of us buy comics that we think are going to be crap. So, even though “C” should be “average”, most of us probably don’t think we read any average comics.

    I kinda do my grading on a normal distribution. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/68-95-99.7_rule) I think it helps to think of the 300-ish comics published every month and consider than 68% of them should be between “D” and “B”, ~14% will be B+/A- and ~2% will be “A”. That means about 6 A-level comics per month, ~40 in that B+/A- range and then 200 in the blob in the middle.

    So…..that means that even if you *think* you read nothing but the best (which we all probably do), you have to read about 60 comics per month to dip down into the “average” category. My pull list is around 60, so that means I won’t get a LOT of great glimpses into the unwashed middle ground. So, what I consider is, “Was this the weakest comic I read out of the 15 I read this week?” If it is, then it really has to be in the D-to-B range.

    A couple of other things….

    As for Big 2 versus Other, I’ve recently hit the point where I consider the Big 2 to be some seriously played-out stuff. I don’t have any problem with people who read lots of Big 2 because I’ve been there (recently, in fact). But, I also used to smoke cigarettes and I quit that. My basic thought is that the Big 2 succeed because they hire incredibly talented creators to retell the same old stories. It’s like hiring Stevie Wonder to come to your house and asking him to sing Mary Had a Little Lamb. He’ll make it fun and the vocals will be good, but eventually it’ll get boring. That’s where I am with the Big 2.

    So, when I write reviews, I’m not even remotely trying to speak to the dude who just wants to watch some exciting Spider-Man stuff. If you want that, there are 1000+ comics available to you and you can buy most of them in dollar bins or digitally. I’m trying to tell people who want new stories which of the Big 2 stories are still worth checking out.

    But….this is a fun topic.

    • Minhquan Nguyen

      Heh–I am not a math person, but from what I remember of my AP Stats and social sciences research days, your numbers sound about right.

      But I really don’t think of quotas or averages or numbers when I do reviews. Although I definitely have my favorites and preferences, I try very hard to review on an issue-by-issue basis, which is why the grade for one month’s issue can veer wildly from the one before or after.

      And as I tried to imply in my little essay, I think I tend to give higher grades not because I don’t think I read anything “average,” but because I’m making comparisons within a genre. The standard for a typical superhero comic is different than for, say, something from Image or Vertigo, so it doesn’t take quite as much to deliver a better-than-average issue.

      I also think that I might give off the illusion that I read a lot of better-than-average comics because I simply drop comics that consistently do no better than average for a certain period of time. I do that to give me an opportunity to try new comics.

      I’m not sure the analogies to smoking or Stevie Wonder singing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” quite work (although I really like the idea of Stevie singing nursery rhymes at my house), but I understand your point. However, people indulge in the Big Two because they love the characters. The characters only get boring once creators stop even trying to deliver fresh ideas. But at the same time, new readers are hopping on board all the time. So even if some ideas seem old to the old-timers, they’re new to the new guys/gals. In fact, I’d characterize myself as a kind of new reader because I really haven’t read comics in an invested sort of way until just a few years ago. I’m sure much of the stuff I’ve seen that I’ve characterized as novel, you’d say happened in some issue five years ago. I think that’s the beautiful and frustrating thing about ongoing serials.

      Anyway, I can’t say that I’m trying to reach any specific audience in my reviews. I try to be specific enough so that potential readers can figure out if they want to try the comic or not, but I guess, if I may be so bold to say it, what I’m really trying to do is establish a clear point of view about how to read comics so that we can all discuss them, no matter the genre, no matter high-brow or low-brow, in an intelligent, open-minded manner.

  • What a great post, MQ. When I review, it’s a much more seat-of-my-pants kind of thing; I give a lot of weight to my gut instinct when I read, and only later go back and analyze why I reacted the way I did (and sometimes only figure it out while I’m actively working to put thoughts to paper.) The meticulousness of your process is certainly reflected in the quality of your reviews however, regardless of any agreements or disagreements I may have on any given opinion.

    Early resolution for me: if/when I end up coming back to WCBR, first post will be one like this, in which I attempt to hash out my process more thoroughly, and give readers an idea of where I’m coming from. I think that really does make a difference.

    • Minhquan Nguyen

      I look forward to that post, Brit–and I’m going out on a limb and assuming it’s a “when.”

    • On: “and sometimes only figure it out while I’m actively working to put thoughts to paper.”

      At Drexel, we teach an entire class on that process! Writing as exploration!

  • Excellent points. Feels like something we should all do. Like for me, “EPIC” is something that, like you say, is big in scope, but is also something I feel will stick with me for a long time. For instance, I gave the combined effort of Messiah Complex/Messiah War/Second Coming an Epic. Of course the scope is huge there, but also because these three stories probably had the biggest impact on me as someone who teaches, reads, and writes comics. I gave God of Thunder EPIC for similar reasons. That one issue changed something about the way I view comics as a whole.

    What’s funny is I can see how we differ as teachers in our own profession. I teach a lot of Freshman Composition and I believe that if the student is writing well, they deserve an A. It’s a freshman writing class–we aren’t there to make them the next Hemmingways. But I have colleagues who refuse to give more than 3 A’s a class. To me, that is just cruel and places expectations on the students that aren’t there. Applying this to reviews, my “A” might fall somewhere between your B and A. I think if we read X-Men Legacy the same way, but used our own “rubrics,” you would have given it a B. But for me, seeing a fresher take on a stale character was enough to give it an A-.

    Also: “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.” YESSSS!!! I wish I could yell this to most every reviewer of any medium. I hate when people complain about something like Transformers because it didn’t have wonderfully developed characters. It’s a Michael Bay movie about toys, just enjoy the assess and explosions. But I’ve seen too many reviews saying “I got this, but what I really wanted was that.” Well, sorry, the author didn’t have time to call every single potential reader and ask them what they specifically wanted. I just finished reading a book by one of my favorite authors and it was entirely different from what I expected and not in a good way. But he wasn’t writing a book for me. He wanted to try something completely different with Noir, and I respect that. And to that degree, he accomplishes a lot.

    Again, good stuff. Nice to define how horribly subjective we are about these things, right?!

    • Minhquan Nguyen

      I don’t have a quota of A’s–that would just be cruel–and I definitely never make an A grade dependent on something subjective. I’m pretty sure I would’ve had a full-scale rebellion on my hands if I tried something like that on my former students.

      I’ll be honest; I’ve never seen any of the Transformers movies, but if I did, I expect they’d get a lower standard of review from me. For those kinds of movies, all I expect is just for a story that makes a minimum of sense and dialogue/acting that doesn’t make me cringe–and a lot of good special effects and action. That seems appropriate, right? (Although personally, I probably wouldn’t have much interest in watching such a movie in the first place, even if I did end up thinking it was good for what it was.)

      And yes–trying to put objective standards on an inherently subjective process is quite entertaining, if nothing else.

      • On the same note is the the people who will watch something like the Social Network or Schindler’s List and complain that they weren’t fun.

  • Thanks for the mention. This does make things more clear for me, and I’ll attempt to adjust my comments accordingly.

    • Minhquan Nguyen

      Hey, your comments keep me on my toes. Who reviews the reviewers?