If someone recognizes my work at a convention, two questions never fail to be asked. The first of which is how I get my hair to style like this. This is the easier of the two: it takes very special hair product purchased in specialty stores, a wonderful stylist that I have to book a month and a half in advance, and the blood sacrifice of false nerd-pretenders. In all honesty, the hardest criterion out of these three would be finding the hair product; usually, it’s the quick trip to a Yugioh tournament or the local LAN cafe that satisfies the need for the latter.
The second question I’ll hear is more of a surprise, and less of a blasphemy to natural human decency. People always want to know how I can objectively critique a piece of work, especially in the realm of sequential art (read: comic books) and video games. With all of the blogs, podcasts, and news sources out there, how can a reader trust my judgement in geek matters?
I appreciate that people want to be critical of a work; it’s what will eventually catapult our culture to a recognizable medium of art. This is why I made the choice to personally define the criteria for critiquing a work in the most objective way I can. I have to warn you, though: this is a very precarious balance of science and magic, and even with the extensive research I've placed into this, this list may still be incomplete or unusable to others. I will be using these criteria for both comic books and video games in my new section “Panel Three To Channel Three”, but for sake of simplicity and expertise I will be using comic books as the examples.
Level of Artwork and Craft
This is definitely a great starting point for a visual medium. For comic books, how detailed and clean stationary and movement lines appear is a good indicator of an artist’s understanding, but anatomy and realism should be taken into account as well. I understand that “realism” isn’t something that most readers are looking for when they’re reading comics, but think of it this way: are the physics, bodies, and movement involved portrayed in a believable way? Take, for example, the way that a punch is thrown in a panel. As someone who is a hand-to-hand combat enthusiast, I pay attention to feet and center-of-gravity placement, the arc and form for the intended hit, and where a body would naturally fall or be damaged from said strike. This amount of detail can highlight how serious an artist takes his craft.
Story Pacing, Movement, and Cohesion
The sad fact about story editing is the same fact that plagues referees or umpires: if editors are doing their job correctly and to the best of their ability, no one will ever notice, but the second a mistake is made, pitchforks and torches are brandished. On the surface level this is grammar, punctuation, syntax; all of the concepts that you’ve tried to bury from high school, alongside the inability to get prom dates and the fact that you know how much duct tape it takes to mount a tiny Filipino child onto a Varsity locker room wall. If anyone’s wondering, it’s two rolls. Just. Two. Rolls.
Delving a little bit deeper into the concept, there’s also panel placement, dialogue amount and rate, and the combination of narrative and pictures to tell a cohesive story. It’s not the fact that the words and pictures merely exist on the page, it’s the idea that this is all woven together in a way that is enjoyable and thoughtful. The standard in the industry now is that the “writing side” and the “art side” never really get to meet or collaborate, often working remotely in two different sections of the world. It’s the editor’s job to piece together a story from two people who may have never met.
This idea is extremely important in comic books, especially since the majority of our beloved characters have established ideologies that may reach as far back as the Depression-era. What this boils down to is if actions are appropriate for the character involved: would Judge Dredd ever waver in his sense of justice, or would he still beat the lawlessness out of an orphan who stole a loaf of bread? This isn’t just actions being taken into account as well, but if the actions involved appropriately fit the character in the context given.
In order to explain this, I use the example of the Pre-New 52 Superman with this question: what is a time where it’s appropriate for Superman to release his secret identity? There have been a few instances, including but not limited to terminal illness, Justice League induction, and dire situations, but it all makes sense in the context of the character’s values. Yes, many if not all of the people officially in the Justice League knows who Superman is in real life, but it’s in the context of implicit trust and familial bonding. It wouldn’t make sense to say, show a jewel thief his secret identity to turn him away from a life of crime.
Depth of Theme and Thematic Reach
Does the theme that has been crafted in the story connect to readers in a deep and relatable way? This idea is extremely fickle because readers enjoy both ends of the spectrum of theme so much, but I propose that a good comic book (or any story, for that matter) must include both ends of the spectrum. In essence, a good story both surpasses our idea of theme in a thought-out and meaningful direction, while themes that are relatable to everyday life need to be present to highlight the depth.
Inception is a movie that I usually use to illustrate this idea. A theme that is uncommon and feels out of our normal human reach is the nature of dreams: what manifests and what is felt from something a person is passively experiencing can only make some more introspective than before, but this may be a theme that escapes the occasional movie-goer. A theme that keeps us grounded in reality though, is the acceptance of family members. In this movie alone, the relationship between father and children, uncle and nephew, and husband and wife are present, while the idea of building an extended family to fill a void or enrich a life is addressed as well. A familiar theme and a theme the readers weren’t aware of are what makes stories worthwhile.
Utilization of the Medium
Last, but definitely not least, uses the idea of the medium itself to tell the story. Why did it need to be in comic book/video game/movie form? How does the story benefit from the medium involved? Was there a more effective medium to tell this story? These are all questions that any critic should be aware of when they are working with their source material.
Watchmen is a prime example of the effective use of the sequential art medium. It’s use of mirrored panels and omniscient thought was utilized in a profound way, on top of it being cost-effective and stunning at a time that special effects could not demonstrate. When we received the movie years later though, the sights were visually pleasing, but the combination of the soundtrack and the plot changes made the endeavor more of a mess than it should have been. It worked well in the original medium because readers were never forced to set a tone by music, while not having to deal with underwhelming fight choreography for the sake of having something visually stunning. Readers were led to use their imagination to fill the minute spaces in between panels, and that minute space spoke volumes for the text.
I hope that this is a good starting point for understanding how most critics think in their respective fields. Having to judge someone’s hard work is an extremely daunting and impersonal task, but something that becomes much easier with a well-defined foundations. Please do not hesitate to ask this question during our events or conventions; one of the main reasons I love being a critic of pop culture is that everyone is a critic of pop culture in some way, and I love to hear all of your ideas in brief. Just make sure that they’re sound, well thought-out ideas on the subject matter: I already have a full supply of nerd-pretenders for the month, and I wouldn’t want any blood to go to waste.