When Words Collide

Mon, June 29th, 2009 at 2:28pm PDT | Updated: June 29th, 2009 at 6:29pm

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

WHEN CRITICS ATTACK

This One's Called Dirty Sexy Monet

Sometimes mainstream superhero comics aren't very good. Sometimes they are astonishingly great. The same goes for every other kind of media product and/or narrative. Just because your beloved old uncle likes telling that one story about a bunch of people you've never met building that thing behind where the five and dime used to be, well it doesn't mean that story is worth hearing.

And although I spend most of my time writing about stories that are worth hearing (and reading) -- celebrating great comics and interesting examples of graphic narrative here in my "When Words Collide" column -- I also review four or five comics a week for this very site. Sometimes, and I know this is difficult for a few people to hear, the comics don't warrant five stars or four stars or even three stars. Sometimes the comics aren't worth reading, and it's my job to point that out. It would be kind of silly to have reviews on a website and have nothing but positive reviews. If every single comic is above average, then what's the average? It's the Lake Wobegon comic book universe, or the way that 93% of American drivers rate themselves in the top 50% in terms of driving skill.

Keep in mind a simple fact: I prefer to read good comics. I'd rather spend my 15 minutes (or, let's be honest, five minutes) reading something mind-blowingly awesome than reading something completely mediocre or worse. That's why writers like Grant Morrison and Jason Aaron and Matt Fraction and Rick Remender keep rising to the top of my superhero stack. Not everything they write is worthy of hyperbolic praise, but they tend to produce superior work, and they do so on a regular basis.

Yet, I like to read as many different writers as possible. And though most of my CBR writing seems to focus on superhero comics from the Big Two, that's mostly because CBR readers are more interested in those kinds of comics. I plug in Vertigo reviews once in a while, and every few months I sneak in a review of something like "Asterios Polyp" (like last week's column) or a Picturebox book like "Powr Mastrs." I keep abreast of everything in the comic book world, and a huge chunk of that world -- as far as CBR is concerned -- takes place inside Gotham, Metropolis, or Spider-Man's New York City. And I try to read it all, even though I can't possibly read every single issue of every single comic book.

I only review a handful of comics per week, but I read dozens. And all of this brings me to a recent (very minor) controversy surrounding my review of "X-Factor" #44 from mid-June. I'm not particularly interested in attacking that comic again, but my review seems to have sparked a vocal response, and I'm far more interested in the response than in the comic itself. The comic had a tampon "joke," a hyper-sexed up seduction scene, and a character self-consciously referring to being in a noir story. All while increasing the Claremontian X-melodrama to ridiculous extremes. Clearly, the comic -- and Peter David's writing -- has plenty of supporters, but it still wasn't a good issue at all. Out of the hundreds of comics I read over the past few months, it was one of the worst, so it was easy for me to give it just one star.

There's No Crying in Noir

Then the defense of Peter David/attacks on my review (and person) began.

Now I know it's standard internet policy not to feed the trolls, and, in fact, someone used that very term -- "don't feed the trolls" -- on a CBR message board in response to my review, as if I were merely a troll posting a negative review just to provoke. Just to get attention. That's ridiculous, of course, since I get paid by the review, whether they are negative or not, and it gives me no extra benefit to get anyone all riled up about an issue of a poorly-written comic. (Then again, it did give me material for this week's column, so there's that. But I can assure you that I had no such thing in mind.) Like every review I write and every column I post, I mean what I say, or I wouldn't bother to say it. I have much better things to do with my time than lie about the comics I read. When reviewing a comic -- no matter how big or how small -- I have one job: to write honestly about the issue and give it a score from zero to five. That's what CBR pays me to do.

Now the responses I got to my review border on the trollish, at least on first glance. But I don't think these are people just trying to get attention or trying to stir things up. I think everyone who took the time to write to me about the issue or post on the CBR message boards did so because they love Peter David's "X-Factor" and they didn't like seeing one of their favorite comics get a negative review. That's fine. Good for them for liking something enough to care.

But the preconceptions some of these people had -- preconceptions probably representative of more than a few CBR readers -- were surprising to me. They showed a fundamental misunderstanding of how comic book reviews work, well, anywhere, and at CBR in particular. Perhaps these few vocal critics of the criticism are just over-zealous "X-Factor " enthusiasts, isolated in erroneous assumptions. But I don't think so. I think they speak for a wide range of comic book readers, and because of that I'd like to take their objections at face value and address them one by one. And I'd like to tell them why they're wrong. Or why they're right, but for the wrong reasons.

Let's start with an e-mail I received, though I'll keep the correspondent anonymous since he didn't mark his missive "okay to print." This fan writes, "This book takes itself too seriously? You take comics, and your reviews too seriously. Its [sic] just a comic book. Relax. Nobody want [sic] to hang out and have a beer with a guy like you."

A Tampon Joke is Funny, Right?

Well, thanks for writing, fan-who-is-not-to-be-named! I know that my reviews sometimes contain typos, but you have two of them in the span of only four sentences, so you might want to proofread your angry e-mails before you send them out. That probably makes me a guy you don't want to have a beer with, I know, and that's just too bad. Because, yeah, I do take comics in general, and my reviews in particular, pretty seriously. I love Giffen's "Ambush Bug" and Aaron's "Ghost Rider" and even Loeb's "Hulk." They are fun and ridiculous, and I love them. Seriously. Would you prefer that I didn't take my reviews seriously, by the way? Would you prefer that I slap out reviews filled with clichés like "it left me cold," and "it jumped the shark," "meh," and "just…no," and whatever trite phrases fill the hallowed halls of internet comic book criticism? I doubt it. Thanks for trying to help me become more like a guy you might like to have a beer with one day. I'll choose to ignore your advice. But thanks.

Another fan wrote, "I think you have officially the worst taste in comics [sic] books ever." I don't know that you can quantify that, but maybe it's true. It's possible. I do think this e-mail is interesting on another level, though, in that it assumes that my reviews (and presumably all reviews) are based on "taste." I don't agree that reviews -- good reviews -- are written based on the taste of the reviewer. Otherwise, every review would boil down to "I like it because it's the kind of thing I like" or "I hate it because it's the kind of thing I hate," which is ultimately useless. It's as useless as writing a review filled with phrases like "I think that…" or "In my opinion, blah blah blah." We know it's what you think, and we know it's your opinion, because you're the one credited with the review. But it has more to do with just opinion or taste or predisposition. There are things about comic books that can be objectively assessed. That's what a review should do.

Because writing is a skill, no? As is drawing? And writing and drawing comic books are particularly refined subskills of those larger skill sets? Surely everyone would agree with these statements. Like any skill, some people may develop these skills more quickly -- more deeply -- than others, just like some 8-year-olds are better at baseball than other children. Like Major League Baseball players are clearly better at the skills of hitting and pitching than I am. (And, by the way, even if you are absolutely terrible at baseball, you can still criticize another player who strikes out 99% of the time, right? You don't have to have the skill to know whether or not someone is good at it.)

So if writing and drawing comics are skills, and when you're dealing with mainstream American comics, you're talking about skills that have a pretty specific application. Comparing "Batman: Battle for the Cowl" and "Marvel Zombies 4" isn't like comparing apples and oranges. It's like comparing a beat up, bruised old apple with a half-eaten golden delicious. (I'll let you figure out which is which.)

A critic looks at a comic in terms of story, art, dialogue, and aesthetic unity (which may be within the comic itself or within a larger framework like a crossover event). Some comics have stories that are more quantifiably good (well-structured narrative, effective pacing, innovation, suprises), while others have art that is markedly better (is there any doubt that J. H. Williams III is a better artist than Mark Bagley? This isn't about opinion or taste, it's a matter of which has the objectively superior skill at drawing comics). Dialogue is a bit trickier, as it depends more on cultural context -- Bendis's Mamet-inspired dialogue worked better when it was freshly injected into the Marvel Universe, but now it can seem like self-parody -- and aesthetic unity is dependent on what the critic is looking for (a satisfying single issue or a incomplete fragment that works as a larger whole), but even if those last two qualities rely a bit on personal taste, half of the criteria for evaluating a comic is based on objective standards. And I would argue that it's very possible -- and I try my best on this -- to be objective about criticizing dialogue and aesthetic unity. Dialogue is often an important aspect of the aesthetic unity of a comic, and if the aesthetic unity is simply the larger context of the story and art, then it should all be looked at as objectively as possible.

X-Factor Fans Apparently Don't Like This Comic

It's not about taste any more than it's about taste to say that LeBron James is a better basketball player than Stephon Marbury.

Another reader asks, "maybe you liked Rob Liefeld?" Not really, because he is objectively bad at the skill of drawing comic book stories. It's pretty simple how this works.

A different reader wrote in to ask, "how much is Marvel paying you? This cannot be the same comic we're reading," in reference not to "X-Factor," but in response to a slightly positive review of "Uncanny X-Men." I think it was the 3 ½ star review of issue #510 that set him off. I don't know if Marvel gives bribes to critics who write barely positive 3 ½ star reviews of their comics, but they certainly haven't offered me anything yet. Since my policy is to be honest about the comics I'm reviewing, though, I'd have to decline anything they sent my way. Even a fruit basket. You'll note that in the "Uncanny" review I focus objectively on the story, art, and the aesthetic unity of the issue (especially in the larger context of Fraction's run), so it's neither a bribe at play nor my supposedly bad taste that led to such a borderline positive review.

The real venom toward my review, and the reviews on this site in general, appeared in the CBR X-Men forum, in a thread devoted to X-Factor" #44. Message board regular coconutphone wrote, "Wow that was a ridiculous review. FFS Ultimatum has gotten better reviews. ULTIMATUM! There really needs to be some kind of standard here. Ridiculous." There is a standard, of course, with the five-star point system. A five-star book is supposed to be some kind of "instant classic" on the level of "All-Star Superman" #10 or "Casanova" #14 (the only two comics, other than "Seaguy: Slaves of Mickey Eye" #3, that I have given the perfect score to), and an average comic is a 2 ½ star rating, while a bad comic gets one star or less. I didn't review "Ultimatum," but if I had, I would have given it one star at most. James Hunt is the only reviewer to write about "Ultimatum" on CBR as far as I can tell, and he gave the fourth issue just a single star. I assume he was a bit more generous on the first issue because it hadn't yet established it's aesthetic context, and the first issue of anything tends to get a slightly higher score because of that (and because its usually original in some way, at least enough to warrant a fresh start, though it may grow stale as soon as the second issue rolls into shops). Honestly, though, "X-Factor" #44 was no better than any random issue of "Ultimatum." So I don't see that supposed inconsistency.

Grunty weighed in by saying, "I have long given up in actualy [sic] taking the reviews here on CBR serious [sic], there have already been so many really bad reviews." Since he never mentions any other bad review (besides, I presume, mine), I don't have much to say about this particular comment. I'd like to know what reviews have been "bad" and how they've been bad. I'm curious. As you know, I take this reviewing thing seriously. So seriously that it has cost me the ability to have a beer with a stranger who doesn't seem to like me.

Even Magneto Doesn't Like This Comic

JohnSD is the one who accused me of being a "troll" and added, "this is clearly nothing more than an editorially mandated whinge." So let me get this straight: Jonah Weiland, who has a great relationship with Marvel and hosts Joe Quesada's column/mini-site actually mandated that I give "X-Factor" a negative review? Wouldn't he benefit by giving Marvel books positive reviews? Indeed he would. But it's to his credit that he has never once asked me to hold back on a negative review or to be more forgiving in my next review of any comic ever. And of course he hasn't told me -- or anyone else -- to give some random comic a negative review. He has integrity, you see. And he probably takes the reviews seriously as well.

coconutphone came back to the thread to add: "Yeah [Callahan] probably got his knickers in a twist over PAD's anti-spoiler rants." Objective reviewing means that personal feelings about a creator don't play a role in the review. It's pretty simple. And if they did play a role -- which is ridiculous to assume -- then I have to admit that I have only positive feelings toward David's past work, particularly his "Incredible Hulk" run, which was my favorite comic for many years. I'm aware of David's anti-spoiler requests, and I have chosen to ignore them, but I'm not in the habit of spoiling comics anyway. If there are any major surprises in the second half of an issue, I leave them for the readers to find. (This has gotten me some criticism from a noted comic book writer recently, one who accused me of basing my review on a seven-page preview instead of a full comic because my pre-release review was so spoiler free. I'm less spoiler-free if I review something after the release date, but I still wouldn't want to spoil a shocking reveal.)

Peter David himself joined the fray with a measured comment: "Look, he doesn't read the book regularly, he made a point of saying that what he had read, he didn't like, and he came in and read the middle chapter of a year long storyline. There's simply no way the book gets a good write-up under those circumstances. Y'know...whatever. You can't please everybody and it's a waste to try or get upset when you're unable to do so."

I'm not sure what to make of David's comment here, because while it's true that I did say I dipped into this series and often found it problematic, I think it's absolutely false to assume that the book couldn't get a good write-up from me. Had issue #44 had effective dialogue and a great story to go along with its serviceable art, then it would have received a positive review. And David seems dangerously close to implying that I couldn't possibly like it because it's in the middle of a year-long storyline. So unless you happened to jump in at the beginning, don't bother reading, he seems to say. Maybe he's just saying that since I didn't like it before, I wouldn't like it now, and while that may be true, it's not necessarily true. I've liked plenty of Paul Dini's "Detective Comics" issues, but I didn't like all of them. And I actively disliked some of the early "Green Lantern Corps" issues, but even before Tomasi started writing it, I found some of the issues to be quite good. I am certainly capable of evaluating a single issue of a comic book, Mr. David, and I didn't intend to write a negative review when I started reading the issue.

I've gone on far too long talking about my critical approach and the various replies of the "X-Factor" faithful, but I can't help but add two more little slivers of information.

My Fondness for Peter David's Hulk Begins

A few days after CBR board member pariah-1972 helpfully threatened to "take the reviewer out and give him a swift kick in the gonads," Marvel issued a press release for the following issue of "X-Factor" talking about how the series is so "red hot with fans and critics alike." If you read the press release, you'll see my name -- the fourth "red hot" critic on the list -- seeming to rave about "X-Factor" #44. The pull quote was taken, of course, completely out of context from the very review that made people not want to drink beer with me and/or kick me in the balls.

Is that justice, or is it irony?

And as a final epilogue, I'll note that the press release on the Marvel site is not the original version. The original version featured a much longer quote from Jesse Schedeen of IGN. “A treat to read," he writes (and I emphasize), "The story itself never fails to disappoint on a monthly basis, and for that the series will remain one of my favorites.”

Your bizarre reviewing style baffles me, Jesse Schedeen, but you're right. "X-Factor" never fails to disappoint. Objectively speaking.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

Follow Tim on Twitter: gbfiremelon

Want to talk about this week's column with other readers? Post your thoughts over on the CBR message boards.

TAGS:  when words collide, review, x-factor, ultimatum, peter david

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